Last Friday, September 23, people crammed into Ramallah’s Clock Square to listen live to Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), speak at the United Nations. Abbas presented his case for Palestine’s admission to the UN as the world’s 194th country. Throughout the speech, the crowd erupted in applause numerous times and long after Clock Square had emptied, I could still hear cars honking and people cheering late into the night.
As I sat in a cafe high above the square watching the speech, most of the people around me cheered with the crowd below. From what I can gather, the majority of Ramallah and the West Bank is supportive of the PA’s statehood bid. People see it is a way to step up pressure against Israel and the US (and expose the US’s hypocrisy) after over 20 years of failed negotiations. They believe it will establish the June 4, 1967 borders as the basis for any future negotiations. While they understand it is not close to true independence or the end of their struggle, they see it as a strategic step to reaching their end goal.
Yet, some of my friends that night were not celebrating. They are among a strong minority of people, many of whom are politically active youth, who are against the UN move. The core of their reasoning comes down to their opposition to a two-state solution, for ideological reasons and/or feasibility reasons (both of which are connected). Living on the ground in Palestine, it is not hard to see why more and more people, including Western journalists and academics, are arguing that the two-state solution is no longer possible. Seeing firsthand the fragmentation of the West Bank by Israeli settlements, settler (Jewish) only roads, and the wall, it is hard to imagine how a viable Palestinian state could be established.
With this in mind, and even if some sort of a more viable two-state solution were possible, my friends who oppose the UN bid feel that a fragmented state on 22% of historical Palestine is not true freedom or equality for everyone. They argue, instead, for a one-state solution, where all citizens between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean live as equals. They believe that a state which defines itself by a single religion cannot be a true democracy and cannot bring equality to all its citizens (such as the 1.5 million of their fellow Palestinians living in Israel, making up 20% of its population). They argue that one state will be the most just resolution, allowing refugees (who choose to) to move back to the land they were forced to flee from over 60 years ago (unlike the current state of Israel which has a Law of Return, but for Jews only, making it almost impossible for a non-Jew, let alone an Arab, to move to Israel). One of my friends explained that to her, the UN bid is in effect calling for a borderless, fragmented, colonized quasi-state, which leaves the majority of Palestinians (those in Israel, in Gaza, and in the diaspora) out of the picture.
Last Friday, however, in the cafe above Clock Square, I saw some of my friends who are against the UN bid struggling to decide whether or not to clap, as they found themselves supporting some of what Abbas was saying. Abbas’ speech here was widely seen as an overwhelming success and he impressed even those who had very low expectations. Palestinians saw his speech as bold and courageous. He touched on a range of issues which are important to people here, such as making it clear that he was not forgetting about refugees. He spoke strongly in front of Israel, the US, and the rest of the international community.
While some found themselves surprised by his words, I do not think Abbas’ speech, rooted in the idea of a two-state solution, changed the minds of any of my friends who oppose the UN bid. There is no question, however, that Abbas has returned from New York more popular than ever. In this sense, his speech and the whole UN move can be seen as a strategic PR move, although through different lenses by those who support the UN bid and those who are against it.
For those who oppose it, the UN statehood flags which the government has handed out to drivers to put on their cars, the banners all over Ramallah, the giant replica UN chair in the center of the city, and the posters of Abbas’ face are a PR stunt to increase the PA’s popularity. To them, these actions are especially relevant at a time when they question Abbas’ legitimacy and no longer feel represented by the Palestinian National Council (PNC), as elections for both are long overdue (this is another reason why some of my friends oppose the UN move, as they do not feel the PA and PNC represents them or Palestinians outside of the West Bank). For those who support the UN bid, Abbas has come back a hero, the PA’s popularity has risen, and the government’s efforts, thus far, have been met with positive reactions from much of the international community.
As I have thought about the pros and cons to the UN statehood bid myself, I realized that the differences between the two schools of thought come down to contrasting ideological views on how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can or should come to an end. One group’s rhetoric still includes vocabulary such as “two-state solution” and “1967 borders.” For the other group, the facts on the ground have reached a point of no return and the two-state solution is no longer possible or preferable.
Regardless of which ideology one believes in, the peace-process (as we know it in its mainstream sense) is seemingly dead for good. The UN recognition of a Palestinian state, therefore, may not remain a key issue for long, both for Palestinians and for the international community. Instead, the more important question we are left with is what comes next if and when the world comes to the conclusion that the two-state solution is in fact dead and realizes that it is time to bury the rhetoric of the past 20 years, including the debate on Palestine’s UN statehood bid?
The views expressed in this article do not necessary represent my beliefs about the UN statehood bid. Instead, they are meant to give a sense of the political climate, as I have experienced it, on the ground in Ramallah.