An upgrade for the Palestinian Authority at the UN: What does it mean?

President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas won observer status for the Palestinian territories at the United Nations on Thursday. It’s a victory for Abbas and a boost for the embattled Palestinian Authority, but at the heart of the problem in the Middle East still lies the statelessness of Palestinian people. By KHADIJA PATEL.

Alongside the continued military occupation and the rapid expansion of Israeli colonies usurping Palestinian land and rights, one of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the statelessness of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and the related diaspora. By definition, stateless people belong to no country at all: they have no citizenship rights, and are often unable to claim the things that states can provide, like travel documents and education. 

Palestinians are said to be the largest stateless community in the world. Statelessness has dominated and shaped the lives of four generations of Palestinian refugees since 1948.

Abbas Shalik, writing in the Forced Migration Review, says: “More than half of the eight million or so Palestinians are considered to be de jure stateless persons.” He explains stateless Palestinians fall broadly into three categories: “Holders of the ‘Refugee Travel Document’ (RTD) issued by Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and some other Arab countries; holders of nationalities of convenience – mainly temporary Jordanian passports; and holders of the Palestinian passport issued by the Palestinian Authority (PA) which is considered as a travel document pending formation of a fully fledged Palestinian state.”

The most obvious solution to the problem of statelessness of the Palestinian people is a globally recognised Palestinian state. The statehood campaign that Mahmoud Abbas has embarked upon at the United Nations, however, does not immediately solve the problem of Palestinian statelessness. 

The Palestinian Authority was upgraded to “observer state” at the United Nations on Thursday; the Palestinian Liberation Organisation previously held an “entity” status at the UN. As well as the fancy new title, the primary significance of the upgraded status will allow the Palestinian Authority to join UN bodies and sign treaties. Most significantly, the Palestinian Authority may be able to use its stronger position in the UN to launch protests against alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity practised by Israel against the Palestinians.

Dr Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian activist and politician who visited South Africa on a speaking tour with the Afro-Middle East Centre last year, told Daily Maverick that the symbolism of a victory in the General Assembly would bolster the Palestinian cause. “Even if we win in the General Assembly, it will not mean the state is there. It will mean better support for a state is there,” he said. 

The statehood bid was originally referred to the United Nations Security Council last November. But when it became clear that the US would not allow the bid to progress, Abbas then moved to bypass the Security Council to seek an upgrade from the General Assembly. Bypassing the Security Council, however, has come at a cost: a more diluted upgrade than what was originally applied for. 

The ostensible thrust of the success of Mahmoud Abbas’ statehood campaign is to alert the world to the continued plight of the Palestinian people. It is being hailed as a symbolic victory for them. 

Others feel the Palestinian Authority’s new status at the UN actually exacerbates the problem of Palestinian statelessness. A successful bid will see UN representation of the Palestinian people shift from the global Palestinian Liberation Organisation – currently recognised as the “sole and legitimate representative” of all Palestinians around the world – to the Palestinian Authority, with a state based in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians warning against the pitfalls of the upgraded membership at the UN point out that three weeks ago, Mahmoud Abbas appeared to renege on the right of return for Palestinian refugees. They believe the PA’s new membership at the UN only serves to alienate Palestinians in the diaspora. 

Proponents of the two-state solution believe a sovereign Palestinian state within 1967 borders would act as a catalyst to resolve the refugee issue and put an end to Palestinian statelessness. 

As one such proponent, South Africa issued its support for the observer status ahead of the vote on Thursday.

“The South African government is of the view that a vote by the General Assembly today to grant Palestine observer state status in the United Nations will assist in bringing about this long-delayed outcome, seen by most of the international community as essential to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people,” Deputy Director General of the Department of International Relations and Co-Operation said in a statement.  

Welcome as the Palestinian Authority’s efforts are to at least do something to challenge the status quo, the United Nations campaign falls short of what is needed to put into practice the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which lays down that every human being is entitled to a nationality. A stateless person ultimately has no rights, since it is states that guarantee rights. 

Despite the success at the United Nations, Palestinians will continue to fall between the cracks. What remains urgent and overdue for Palestinians is beyond a new title at the United Nations. It is the recognition and realisation of basic rights. DM

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Photo: Palestinians shout slogans as they hold a placard depicting President Mahmoud Abbas during a rally in the West Bank city of Nablus, supporting the resolution that would change the Palestinian Authority’s United Nations observer status from “entity” to “non-member state” November 29, 2012.  REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini


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