Tel Aviv — In less than three weeks, Palestinians plan to bring their case for formal statehood recognition to a vote in the United Nations, stoking Israeli fears of international isolation and a new intifada. But as the moment of truth approaches, it appears that Palestinians are just as anxious about the uncertain fallout on the day after.
Palestinian Authority officials worry that demonstrations they called could get out of control and weaken their hold on power. Legal experts and Palestinian refugees warn that recognition of a state within the 1967 West Bank and Gaza borders could actually disenfranchise millions of refugees in the Palestinian diaspora who have claims on property inside Israel proper.
And Palestinians employed by the government worry that financial sanctions potentially levied by the U.S. and other countries as punishment for its statehood effort will prevent the PA from paying salaries.
Hoping to channel the spirit of activism of the Arab Spring, the Palestinian Authority has called for mass rallies in Palestinian cities around the West Bank on the eve of the vote.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas this week insisted that his government opposes another armed uprising, but the Israeli army is worried that the demonstrations could become violent. It seems that some Palestinian officials share that concern.
Government spokesman Ghassan Khatib warned that the dissonance between a symbolic UN resolution on Palestinian independence and the status quo on the ground, in which nothing would change, could stoke frustration on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza.
“Gaps between expectations for achievements and reality can always materialize in anger, and in forms that can’t be anticipated,” he said. “That will undermine the moderate Palestinian leadership and play into the hands of the other side. The Palestinian leadership has been promising to deliver in September, and when it fails it will undermine its public standing and strengthen the standing of [Hamas]. … This is the feeling of everyone.”
Israel has been lobbying European countries to reject the statehood proposal as a unilateral move that seeks to circumvent direct negotiations with Israel. The U.S. and several key Western countries support Israel’s position that the UN vote is not helpful to the Palestinian cause. It is widely believed that the U.S. would veto the Palestinian bid if it came to the Security Council.
The Israeli army has been training for three months to face down mass protests on multiple fronts like the May 15 demonstrations that were held simultaneously in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Syria border and the Lebanon border.
When asked if the army had been tipped off about specific preparations for mass protests linked to the UN vote, Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad said that the military is more worried about an incendiary atmosphere that could make spontaneous protest more dangerous.
“Let’s assume there’s a big demonstration. They can’t control every protester. It’s enough that one demonstrator opens fire and there’s a response. The entire field will go up in flames,” said Gilad in an interview with Army Radio.
“There’s a contradiction: on the one hand there’s a commitment to nonviolence, but on the other the atmosphere could ignite everything.”
Some Israeli analysts already see the fallout in the terrorist attack on a Tel Aviv nightclub early Monday morning that injured eight Israelis. After car-jacking a taxi, a Palestinian from Nablus ran down a border policeman and then stabbed club-goers and police officers outside the Ha’oman dance hall.
Though the attack is believed to be the act of one individual, “this must be viewed against the backdrop of the general atmosphere in the territories — a mix between the approaching end of the month of Ramadan and the steadily rising tension ahead of the diplomatic moves of the Palestinian Authority in September,” wrote Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff in Haaretz earlier this week. “The attack proves how limited Abbas’ ability is to completely control what is liable to occur in September. Independent actions like [Monday’s] attack are liable to become more common head of the September vote.”
Ramadan ended on Tuesday.
To be sure, there is widespread fatigue among West Bank Palestinians from the hardship resulting from the intifada that broke out 11 years ago. Many believe that uprising was hijacked by politicians from Fatah and Hamas.
Only a few hundred protesters showed up at last Friday’s pro-Palestinian demonstrations at Israeli checkpoints surrounding Jerusalem.
“I’m not so sure an uprising is going to happen,” said one Western diplomat. “Most people in Palestine are fed up with demonstrating and having a clear political stance.”
Though the UN vote would mark a diplomatic milestone, Palestinians see the international community as incapable of intervening on their behalf. They see UN statements as unfulfilled promises.
What’s more, a growing number Palestinians are questioning the legal implications of the appeal to the United Nations: if the PA gets even symbolic recognition of a state in the West Bank and Gaza, many see this as preemptively conceding the right of return for refugees.
“If a state happens in the West Bank and Gaza, I don’t see how that deals with my rights,” said Ma’ath Musleh, a 25-year-old activist who helped organize demonstrations favoring reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. “This doesn’t have anything to do with me and the 70 percent of Palestinians who are not from the West Bank and Gaza. My rights are in Jerusalem and Jaffa, not Ramallah.”
This could undermine the status of millions of Palestinians in neighboring countries who have enjoyed support from UN refugee agencies for decades.
“A Palestinian refugee in Lebanon will start carrying citizenship, even if is a virtual citizenship,’’ said Ofer Salzburg, a Jerusalem- based analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Being a refugee means statelessness. Given this status of ‘stateless’ means a refugee has certain rights. Once the status of stateless is ended, arguably the refugee loses his rights. The right of return is out. He is no longer a refugee. So if you look at [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees], what is the justification for their existence?
The possibility of a UN vote has also raised the specter of a financial crisis in the West Bank and Gaza. A shortfall of money promised from donor countries has left the Palestinian Authority scrambling to meet its fiscal commitments. In July, it was unable to pay the salaries of public employees. Though the salaries were eventually paid in full in time for Ramadan, concern about a new salary crisis has not subsided.
That’s because the U.S. Congress is threatening to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to the Palestinian Authority if it goes through with the UN statehood effort. At the same time there are some in Israel’s government who believe that Israel should retaliate against what is perceived as a unilateral appeal to the UN with unilateral sanction of freezing the transfer of tax revenue that Israel collects for the PA.
If there is a new salary-payment crisis, the PA could find itself facing its own anti-government protests, say Palestinians. “People are angry,” said Kamleh Ali, a 63-year-old resident of the Amari refugee camp near Ramallah. “They are upset with the PA, and with their economic situation. Whether this will manifest itself in September, it’s too early to tell.”