Identifying the Primary Obstacles to Palestinian Statehood

By James Le Grice

On friday 23rd September, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, will make his bid for Palestinian statehood to the United Nations Security Council, a move Mr. Abbas had threatened should the most recent round of negotiations with Israel fail. The UN bid is a sharp departure from the format of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks practised over the past two decades, and has drawn condemnation from the United States, which plans to use its veto. The bid also ignores the primary obstacles preventing Palestinian statehood.

It is all too easy to dismiss the past eighteen years of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as a failure, but a great mistake to do so. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, direct talks have taken place working towards a two state solution. The basis upon which this work has been able to progress is mutual recognition of each negotiating party’s right of existence, itself a tremendous achievement and the most progressive development in the turbulent history of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The on-off talks have never agreed upon a final settlement. However, the negotiations have put into motion the necessary nation building for a Palestinian state to function. Negotiations created the Palestinian Authority (PA), a democratically elected body to represent the Palestinian Territories.

Negotiations have gradually increased the PA’s authority over the areas it administers, with legislative and security powers, effectively creating a self-governing Palestinian republic. The negotiation process has won international financial support for the development of Palestine, top of the list is the United States Government, which gives the PA roughly $500 million per year in aid. The nation building efforts and the PA itself are by no means perfect, but the fact that they have occurred at all is down to the negotiation process.

What then is the obstacle blocking the path to statehood? Disagreement over borders, self defence, the status of East Jerusalem, the status of Palestinian refuges, and Israeli settlement building in the West Bank are most frequently cited. They are all genuine obstacles and there are enough fingers of blame to point in all directions.

Likewise one can blame the leadership, both the political bodies and their individual leaders themselves, making claims of insincerity or obstinance. But these obstacles are all secondary, because they either involve issues under discussion at the negotiating table or the people and parties discussing them.

Surely the primary obstacles come from those who are not at the negotiating table, who do not wish to be at the table, who do not believe there should even be a table, and who actively threaten those who sit at it. Such persons and parties can be found from both Israeli and Palestinian origin, but the chief amongst them is Hamas.

It is worth a reminder of the folly of referring to “The Palestinians” as a singular entity or “The Palestinian Cause” as a united objective. There are many Palestinian factions, all with profound differences in ideology and objectives, each claiming their cause to be the definitive “Palestinian Cause”. For Mahmoud Abbas, and the Fatah controlled Palestinian Authority, the “Palestinian Cause” is to have a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in East Jerusalem, and Israel retreating to its 1967 borders.

For Hamas, according to its founding charter, the “Palestinian Cause” is the destruction of Israel and the establishment by violent jihad of an Islamic theocracy from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. Hamas repeatedly vows to never recognise Israel, and according to Human Rights Watch, regularly engages in the torture and summary executions of Palestinians whom it labels as Israeli collaborators.

At every opportunity, Hamas has used terrorism and sabotage to derail negotiations between Israel and the PA, and weaken the young and fragile Palestinian Authority. In 2003 for example, it launched a series of attacks to thwart implementation of the Bush-sponsored Roadmap to Peace. The most notorious example, however, occurred in 2006, four months after Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan evicted all Israeli settlers from Gaza and from four West Bank settlements.

Hamas won a majority in that year’s Parliamentary elections, bolstered by the public disillusionment with the peace process it had fought to create, which caused the PA to disintegrate into infighting. The result was suspension of US aid to the PA, a Hamas military coup of Gaza, the PA’s control limited to the West Bank, warfare between Hamas and Israel, the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza, Hamas’ self acknowledged use of the Gazan civilians as a human shield, and the resultant humanitarian crisis.

Despite the bitter fighting that has taken place between Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah, including a Hamas attempt to assassinate Abbas, the PA leader perceives Israel to be a greater obstacle to Palestinian statehood. Thus he reached a unity agreement with Hamas this year, and is pursuing a UN bid that will alienate and rouse enmity against Israel and risk losing the much-needed financial aid from the US.

The skewed perception is not limited to the PA president. Read the blogs on Al Jazeera or of major Palestinian activist groups such as Viva PalestinaThe Free Gaza Movement, or the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and you will not find acknowledgement of Hamas’ role as the greatest threat towards Palestinian statehood, and the future security, peace, and freedom of Palestinians and Israelis alike.

The problem stems from the ethnic nature of this conflict. It is easy to view the conflict through the lens of ethnic tribalism, maximising the divisions between the ethnic groups in questions and minimising the more severe divisions within each group. The cause of Palestinian statehood should be centred around unity of principles, methodology, ideology, and not around notions of ethnic unity where none exists. Such a change in mentality would produce greater clarity over the degrees in obstacles halting progress, and place the agents of diplomacy in a better position to overcome them.

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