RAMALLAH, West Bank— As Israel continues to pound Gaza with air attacks and contemplates a ground invasion, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is preparing his bid for Palestinian non-state membership at the UN General Assembly. The question is: With Gaza on their minds, Abbas’ plummeting popularity and negotiations with Israel at a standstill, are Palestinians paying attention?
In stark contrast to the euphoric atmosphere of last year’s Palestinian bid for recognition of statehood at the United Nations, Palestinians today are ambivalent, skeptical, even downright angry at the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) upcoming request for non-state membership later this month.
In an event commemorating the eighth anniversary of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death, Abbas said the new UN bid was “the only way to address the assault of settlement activity and to save the two-state solution.”
But Palestinians this year fear that their leadership’s latest foray to the UN is being used by the PA to shore up legitimacy after years marked by a defunct parliament and a presidency that has outlived its mandate.
“Last year I disagreed with the UN move, but I couldn’t deny that it was a new, bold one,” Nour Joudah, a 25-year-old teacher from Ramallah, told Al-Monitor. “This year I see no difference between [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu bombing Gaza to win an election and Abbas and the PA going to the UN to distract people from their absolute lack of legitimacy or any real authority.”
Many Palestinians are dubbing the move a publicity stunt to hash out public support after a string of demonstrations calling for the PA’s dissolution. The past few months have seen intense street protests erupt as a result of skyrocketing prices of goods and fuel, and mass disillusionment at a moribund political situation.
The PA, the largest employer in the West Bank, has been floating on a lifeboat of international aid for years, but lately, with many donors not fulfilling their financial pledges, it was forced to issue pay delays and cuts to most of its employees.
Dire economic straits are being buttressed by a political stalemate marked by almost no direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders for more than two years. Whatever happens at the UN, Palestinians said they are not holding their breath at seeing true independence achieved in the aftermath.
“Going to the UN is a good move, but it does not come within a strategy to achieve statehood,” said Murad Jadallah, a legal researcher from Beit Safafa, near Jerusalem. “After 20 years, the PA has proved incapable of reaching the goal it promised millions. After the UN, there will be more of the same: useless negotiations.”
Despite urging by recently re-elected US President Barack Obama, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) special envoy for the UN bid Muhammad Shtayyeh said Palestinians will submit the resolution to the General Assembly, seeking observer state status before Nov. 29. On that day in 1947, the UNGA adopted the resolution on the partition of Palestine. It's also the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
Last year, the PA tried to secure full UN membership as a “state” through the Security Council, but was met with US opposition. This year, the Palestinians are seeking observer status at the UNGA, where they expect to win enough support and there is no threat of a veto.
Despite American and Israeli opposition and risks of financial penalties, Shtayyeh said the “UN train had left the station” and that there would be no turning back. The PLO, which represents Palestinians in international fora, only has “permanent observer” status at the international body.
Last week, Christian leaders signed a letter endorsing the PA’s UN bid, calling it a “positive, collective and moral step that will get us closer to freedom. This is a step in the right direction for the cause of a just peace in the region.”
But Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, geographically cut off and politically disassociated from the West Bank, questioned the benefits of such a move.
“The Ramallah government is completely detached from Gaza and there is very little in common,” said Najla Ahmed, an aid worker from Gaza City. “Whatever happens in the UN will not be affecting us — that’s the general feeling here.”
Other Palestinians said they were skeptical that the UN move would yield much politically or that it will narrow the division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
“Going to the UN shows that Fatah is fearful of losing to Hamas, which is gaining ground not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank. This step will definitely not help end the feud between these two rivals,” said Jadallah.
Basem Zubeidi, professor of political science at Birzeit University, called Abbas’ UN move an “act of political desperation” and stressed that the latest upheaval in Gaza had annihilated whatever interest Palestinians had in the upcoming UN bid.
“No one cares about it,” Zubeidi said. “Abbas thought his UN move would take world center stage. The Gaza attacks have ensured that the bid will be a side show, especially with other pressing issues such as the global recession and the Syrian file.”
“There’s a chasm between Hamas and Fatah and divisions within Fatah itself,” Zubeidi added. “He didn’t even seek his people’s prior approval. With all this internal discord, a Palestinian strategy should have been hashed out to prepare for the aftermath.”
Israel has already rolled out a series of sticks and carrots in response to the renewed UN bid, including nullifying the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 or recognizing the PA as a state in temporary borders if Abbas drops the bid.
But Jadallah said it’s the Palestinians that will pay for the adverse repercussions of this move. “People are not concerned with the UN. They are concerned with the consequences, which are embedded in their fears of losing their daily bread.”