Writing by Patrick Keddie
“I haven’t heard anyone express any interest, no one much cares about the damn thing” replied one person here when I asked about the Gazan interest in Mahmoud Abbas’s bid for ‘non-member observer state’ status at the UN.
So I was surprised to find several thousand protesters, filling the streets of Gaza City yesterday, marching to the UNSCO building in support of the bid. Demonstrators carrying Fatah and PFLP flags greatly outnumbered those carrying Palestinian ones. There were no obvious Hamas supporters in attendance.
The protesters formed large, slightly hesitant groups that made their way through the streets in staggered procession, rather than in a confident, continuous flow of people. However, the mood was raucous and jubilant. Several people approached to welcome me, posing for photos whilst amiably informing me that Britain was historically responsible for the whole bloody mess.
Away from maelstrom, cooler heads at the edges of the demonstration suggested that the visible joy was more a release of pent-up political pressure for Fatah and PFLP supporters, than passion for the UN bid. Opposition supporters have not normally been permitted large partisan displays of allegiance to their party since Hamas took power in the Gaza Strip in 2006.
Jawdat, a Fatah supporter, told me that “The people here are thirsty for this. They [Fatah] have not been allowed a demonstration like this in many years.” As for the UN bid itself, Jawdat was underwhelmed. “It might not change much” he admitted, “but Palestine has the right to its own state.”
In the evening I sat in a pro-Fatah café with Osama Wahidi – a Fatah supporter and member of Hussam, a Palestinian prisoners association. The café had set up a huge screen to show Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the UN and Osama had expected a large, noisy crowd. Yet, although the café would ordinarily be packed on a Thursday evening, fifteen minutes before the speech began it was half-empty.
It was not clear whether the lacklustre turnout revealed a lack of interest in the bid or worries about Hamas’s reaction. Hamas have officially given lukewarm support for the UN bid but many of their members oppose it on the grounds that it would only create a state on the pre-1967 borders. “Maybe people are not here because they are afraid” suggested Osama, “it is very sad.” Osama lamented the Palestinian political divide. “Each faction is only looking after its own interests and its own pockets – not the whole Palestinian people.”
Osama explained his support for the UN bid by saying that important principles were at stake; “Our own state is every Palestinian’s dream. We don’t have a country, we are lost. We hope that this state will give us hope for the future.” He thought that international perceptions might be altered by the bid. “The nature of the conflict will change”, he said, adding that the world would have to fully acknowledge that “one state is occupied by another.”
By the time Abbas took to the UN stage, the café was scarcely busier. Most people listened quietly, clapping sporadically as Abbas spoke. He referred to the Israeli offensive on Gaza, saying that while his delegation was at the UN, Gaza was still burying its victims. He said that Israel had “assassinated the Palestinian attempts to live in dignity”. He called for “peaceful popular resistance” and an end to the division between Palestinian factions. Finally he said “enough of aggression, settlements and occupation” and that “the general assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine.”
The speech ended, applause broke out, and people returned to quietly chatting, drinking coffee and smoking nargileh.
As he sat in the café with his friends, Hani Joha, 23, said he was relatively happy with the speech and the bid. “As a beginning this is good” he told me, “we need a Palestinian state to have our rights, the same as other people.” He said his final ambition would not be to have a state on 1967 borders, but one that included all of historic Palestine.
His friends Mazen Ghanin, 20, and Ahmed Abu Kuwaik,22, felt that Israel would “hesitate” in future aggression against the Palestinian people because they would be scared of further alienating international public opinion. They accepted little would change in the near future on the ground and expressed some concerns with Abbas’s speech; “he should have mentioned the right of return” said Mazen, steadily puffing his nargileh, “this is a key demand of all Palestinians.”
Despite Abbas’s rhetoric, the reality on the ground is making a two-state solution ever more unlikely. Israel currently has direct military control over 82% of the West Bank; including the Jordan Valley, a precious water source they are unlikely to relinquish control over. There are over 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the occupied Palestinian territory and the Israeli government is fiercely committed to building more settlements.
In Beyond Zionism, Jeff Halper argues that Israel has “moved beyond occupation, which is defined as a temporary military situation, and past Apartheid as well, to warehousing, the permanent if de-facto imprisonment of the Palestinian people in tiny, disconnected and impoverished enclaves.” The proposed expansion of Ma’ale Adumin settlement could sever the West Bank in half, according to Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem. Israel’s blockade of Gaza is enforced by land, air and sea.
Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority is officially pushing for a Palestinian state and calling for “peaceful popular resistance”, whilst at the same time collaborating with Israel on security and economic matters and standing-by helplessly as more Palestinian land is taken. Journalist Amira Haas has written of “the transformation of the PA into the subcontractor of the IDF, the Civil Administration and Shin Bet security service”. In contrast, Hamas has further bolstered its support recently, through its widely perceived defiance in resisting the Israeli offensive on Gaza.
In New York, the UN vote swiftly followed the speeches. Out of the 193-member UN assembly, 138 countries voted in favour of the Palestinian initiative, with 41 abstaining (including Britain). Nine countries voted against – Israel, the USA and Canada were joined by less formidable powers, such as Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands.
Palestine had joined the Vatican City in the ranks of ‘non-member observer state’, and a Palestinian flag was unfurled on the floor of the UN. Perhaps it is a move towards legitimacy for a future full, sovereign Palestinian state. Certainly it enables Palestine to challenge alleged Israeli war crimes through bodies such the International Criminal Court. After the vote, in the cafés and streets of Gaza City, the mood was muted.