As PALESTINIAN president Mahmoud Abbas prepares to seek non-member state status at the UN General Assembly tomorrow, residents of the West Bank are divided over whether anything good can come from the move – or, for that matter, from their moderate leader.
Although planned months ago, Mr Abbas’s UN appearance is now partly overshadowed by the fall-out of the mini-war between Israel and Gaza-governing Hamas, the militant Islamic movement that, in sharp contrast to Mr Abbas’s espousal of negotiations towards a two-state compromise solution, champions armed struggle as the way to deal with Israel.
The Palestinians have been lobbying hard for support from European countries for their bid at watered-down statehood at the UN and are set for victory in the 193-member body made up mostly of developing countries long sympathetic to their cause.
France said it would vote in favour of Palestinian non-member state status, the first major European country to do so.
The UK is understood to be considering backing the bid in order to give Mr Abbas a political boost. Britain’s support would be conditional on the Palestinians not using the UN resolution to join the International Criminal Court or other UN agencies, not using it as a springboard to seek full membership through the Security Council, and returning to peace talks without preconditions.
Yet the ceasefire that took hold a week ago between Israel and Gaza has, for some in the West Bank, underscored the salience of Hamas’s approach – and reinforced questions about Mr Abbas’s strategy.
“How does a symbolic state help us?” asked Ra’ed al-Khmor, 42, in his shop on a street adorned with wall art of local heros, including the assassinated leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Abu Ali Mustafa. “The [Israeli] checkpoints will continue, the occupation continues, the army will continue to enter every day.”
For Mr Khmor, as with other descendants of refugees here, the brief Gaza war was seen as the latest instalment in Israeli aggressions against Palestinians dating back to 1948, when he says his family was forced from Zakaria village, now the Israeli town of Zecharia.
Mr Khmor recalled that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) under Yasser Arafat declared an independent Palestinian state from Tunis in 1988. “What happened? Did the occupation stop killing our children? Nothing changed,” he said.
“The real state is in Gaza. They prevented Israel from invading. Force is what makes a state. The ceasefire was because of the strength of Hamas.”
Another shop owner said the upgrade would be beneficial if it enables the Palestinians to pursue war crimes cases against the Israeli army at the International Criminal Court. But he said on the whole the move was unlikely to make a big difference: “The resistance is what will make the occupation go, like in Gaza, where the resistance won.”
However, grocer Omar Obeid Allah, 42, said: “This is a step towards peace and there is no other choice to get the rights of the Palestinian people. If the Palestinians get their rights, there will definitely be peace.”
Khalil Shikaki, head of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, agreed that because of the war, Hamas’s approach has now gained more support over Mr Abbas’s.
But he added: “This could be changed or get modified if Abbas’s UN bid gains significant international, particularly European support, and leads to changes in Israeli behaviour towards the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.”
Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, termed the Palestinian move as a “violation of the fundamental principle of the process” that began with the 1993 Oslo agreement on Palestinian self-rule. The accord says all issues are to be resolved through negotiation.
But PLO executive committee member Ghassan Shaka said Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank had long since undermined the Oslo Agreement. He added: “This step will help not only the Palestinians but also the peace process. We will go back to the negotiations with agreement that we are a state under occupation.”