The decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to go to the UN to seek statehood recognition has become a defining element in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After nearly 20 years of time wasted in useless negotiations, the Palestinian leader has finally decided, in a measured way, to buck the system and carry out an important, unilateral, act.
The Oslo accords do state that neither Palestinians nor Israelis are supposed to take unilateral action that can prejudge the final outcome of negotiations. But while Palestinians obediently respected this clause, the Israelis were busy expanding Jewish colonies, confiscating Palestinian land for Jewish settlements and barring Palestinians from developing outside their restricted city limits.
More than 60 per cent of West Bank Palestinian land declared in the Oslo accords as areas C were closed to any Palestinian expansion. Even travelling on roads in these areas is restricted to Palestinians, while Israelis and Jewish settlers can use them freely. Palestinian president Yasser Arafat reluctantly agreed in 1993 to the gradual process stipulated in the Oslo accords, in the hope that at the end of the five-year transitional period, Palestine would come to exist as an independent, contiguous and viable state.
All international parties to the conflict supported the two-state solution. As late as 2010, US President Barack Obama told a pro-Israel lobby group that America supports a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with some agreed-upon land swaps. When Israel continued to swallow Palestinian land, while negotiating ownership, the Palestinian leadership decided that enough was enough and took the most non-violent route possible: the UN.
Going to the UN both violated the Oslo accords and made it outdated. The Palestinian leadership no longer felt straitjacketed by the restrictions of an accord that failed to deliver what it was intended to: a peaceful end to the Israeli occupation. The Palestinians felt that Israeli greed for Palestinian land far outweighed its interest in peace with them.
Having taken that courageous step at the UN, the Palestinian president now feels free to make some changes that reflect that symbolic move. An important presidential decree was issued on January 6, allowing for the change of name on all Palestinian documentation, including passports, ID cards, stamps and driver licences. Signed by the president of the state of Palestine and based on both the Palestinian Basic Law of 2003 and the UN declaration of 2012, Abbas widened the reach of his efforts. The 308-word two-clause resolution issued in the temporary Palestinian capital, Ramallah, gives Palestinian government officials the right to represent all Palestinians and not simply the residents of the West Bank.
The Central Palestinian Bureau of Statistics declared at the turn of the year that the Palestinian population worldwide numbers 11.6 million. Among those, the majority, 5.1 million, live in Arab countries, 655,000 in other countries and 1.4 million in Israel. West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza residents number 4.4 million.
Abbas' decree also initiates an important international efforts for Palestinians, namely to provide all Palestinians with an identification number. The Palestinian president, however, was careful to note in his decree that this action does not diminish any of the rights and privileges that Palestinians are enjoying at present. While Abbas' state of Palestine decree begins changing the rules of the game, it is unlikely to effect change where it counts most. Israeli occupation forces still control all exits and entries of the occupied state of Palestine and made it clear that it will not recognise the state of Palestine or any document that bears its name.
Palestinian spokesmen stated that the Palestinian president does not intend to add any further burden on Palestinians suffering under the cruelty of the 45-year-old occupation. In other words, the passports and ID cards that Palestinians use in the West Bank will unlikely be changed, but Palestinians everywhere else will have the option of having passports issued by the "State of Palestine", which hopefully all world powers will respect. Palestinians are still far from reaching the goal of living in freedom in a democratic and pluralistic state.
The courage shown by the Palestinian president at the UN on November 29, 2012, and in Ramallah on January 6, 2013, will help a process that has been long awaiting a resolution.
The author is a veteran Palestinian journalist and the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.