Ramallah–Despite its power and reach, the Palestinian Authority (PA) have made little effort to explain their controversial statehood bid in the United Nations to the rank and file living in the occupied West Bank. The plethora of opinion pieces, news articles and speeches by the Palestinian leadership on the statehood attempt have mostly ignored Palestinians and many have not even appeared in Arabic. Conversations in Ramallah cafes over the past months have invariably drifted to the statehood discussion and the vacuum of factual information surrounding it. The PA’s lack of transparency has compounded an already mistrusted institution after Al Jazeera revealed, in the Palestine Papers, that the PA was negotiating away core rights, including as the right of return, in secret negotiations with Israel from 2007 to 2009.
Addressing a packed amphitheatre just steps away from Ramallah’s Manara Square on a quiet Wednesday evening two week ago, former Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) negotiator Hanan Ashrawi spoke about the statehood attempt in an open lecture attended by mostly young Palestinian intellectuals.
The audience listened attentively to Ashrawi as she explained the statehood bid with every bit of casuistry and emollience at her disposal. Ashrawi claimed that the Oslo accords had failed due to Israeli intransigence and the statehood bid would be a ‘corrective measure.’ She noted in passing that the Palestinian leadership was at fault for allowing Israel to create ‘facts on the ground’ which have rendered the gap between negotiations and the reality of Israel’s control over the West Bank far too profound to reconcile without dramatic moves like the statehood bid.
Ultimately, Ashrawi eloquently claimed, it was the sacrosanct right of the Palestinian people to declare a state. In the pursuit of this right, the Palestinians would not harm the security of Israeli borders and the move could have a ‘psychological’ benefit for the Palestinian people.
Ashrawi’s lecture began just hours after the Bethlehem based Ma’an news agency leaked a document by British professor Guy Goodwin, which questioned the legitimacy of the PA seeking a state in which it was the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Goodwin, who is best known for his part in having the International Criminal Court of Justice declare Israel’s separation barrier illegal, noted that the rights of Palestinians living in refugee camps would be limited if the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah was able to achieve statehood and become the sole representative of the Palestinian people.
Ashrawi’s noble language and brilliant oration was not enough to assuage the anger visible among the audience members. Naturally, many of the audience questions focused on Goodwin’s piece regarding the rights of Palestinians everywhere in the world. However, most of the questions dealt with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) as well as the popular resistance. Given that the crowd was largely made up of March 15th activists, a grassroots activist movement which began after the Egyptian revolution in cities in Gaza and the West Bank, Ashrawi noted that the Palestinian political establishment was listening to the demands of young Palestinians, giving the example of the Hamas/Fatah reconciliation agreement. The audience could not help but laugh at this comment because of the current status of those reconciliation talks.
Many in the audience displayed regret after the discussion due to Ashrawi’s relative dismissal of the BDS movement. Ashrawi noted that BDS is “an important peoples movement which does not enter the realm of politics.” She argued that the political realm was crucial to the liberation of Palestine and BDS as well as the popular resistance were about people connecting with people and little more. During the lecture, one activist noted that the government of Israel is getting involved in damage control related to BDS with campaigns such as ‘Brand Israel.’ She asked, “if Israel is involved, why can’t you [the PA] be involved instead of focusing on a state which no one knows anything about?”
A Palestinian political activist in attendance, who wished to remain anonymous, noted after the lecture that her concern was not about the statehood bid but about what comes after. “What concerns me is what comes next,” she told me, “Do we have concrete strategies? Are our leaders even thinking about strategies?”
Her skepticism was fluid inside the amphitheatre as most of the those in attendance had the simple desire to see drafts of the perspective state and not been even fed small crumbs of information about how the PA was attempting to change the landscape with Israel. Ramzi Jaber, director of TedXRamallah, noted “I have immense respect for Dr. Ashrawi’s abilities yet I was disappointed that she had no answers for what was going to happen in September.” He paused and noted something about Ashrawi which could easily be applied to the greater feeling regarding the PA among many in the West Bank, “she seemed increasingly out of touch with the Palestinians.”
Recently, senior Fatah official Nabil Shaath rejected claims that the PA had no direction in case the statehood bid was rejected or blocked in the United Nations. Shaath noted that even if the Palestinians are rejected a state at the UN, they will seek an upgrade to their status from observer to non-member state like the Vatican. If this initiative passes, a number of possibilities will open for Palestinians especially regarding the prosecution of Israeli war crimes in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The tension during Ashrawi’s speech highlighted a crucial weakness in the Palestinian plan for statehood. While ostensibly working in the interests of the Palestinian people, inside the occupied territories and beyond, they have struggled to gather support among their actual constituents. The PA is, according to the sentiments expressed by many Palestinians, not interested in the support of the people living in the West Bank. Rather, many feel that they are interested in maintaining their own political power and the constant flow of international aid money from the United States and Europe which, along with close cooperation with the Israeli government, allows their regime to maintain itself.
With the United Nations vote set to take place at the end of the month and PA president Mahmoud Abbas set to deliver a clear speech on statehood this week, the time for transparency about the nature of the statehood bid is upon the Palestinian leadership. Due to the lack of transparency of the PA statehood bid, further divisions are bound to take place inside the Palestinian body politic. In their quest to maintain power in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian leadership will likely keep Palestinians, in the West Bank and in refugee camps throughout the region, away from the details of their statehood bid despite the fact that these people will directly deal with its ramifications.