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To act or not to act like a state

Scrolling through pictures on the Internet the other day in the middle of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, two struck me as incongruous. One photograph was of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon saluting the honor guard of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, with the red carpet and all the pomp and circumstance of state protocols.  The other was of the Council of Ministers of the Palestinian Authority meeting behind three long tables arranged in a horse-shoe shape. The numerous ministers all wore business suits and ties, with the scene made more imposing by the beautiful Persian rugs in the space between the tables.

At first I thought, “Wow, how people can believe their own propaganda.” The honor guard and the suited meetings were inaugurated by the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, the wizard of symbolic gestures. The whole thing disappeared into thin air during the uprising in 2000, and Arafat himself became a prisoner of the site known in Arabic as the Muqataa, a former prison complex built by the British when they were the colonial power in Palestine. Mahmoud Abbas revived the ceremonial scene, which survives because he and the Palestinian Authority over which he presides have been doing Israel’s bidding.

Then I began to think “positively”:  Okay, what if the Palestinians actually act as a state? After all, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution granting Palestine a non-Member Observer State (yes, with a capital S) status in October, 2012. The resolution nominally shifted the Palestinian movement from the “informal” to the “formal” sector of world politics.  And it had widespread support, garnering 138 in favor, with 41 abstentions and 9 against including, unsurprisingly, the two usual suspects, Israel and the United States.

The resolution is hailed by members of the Palestinian Authority as a milestone achievement in the Palestinian struggle. In reality, the only advantage they seem to refer to is that a Palestinian State would be able to join intergovernmental organizations, especially the International Criminal Court (ICC). Becoming a member of the ICC, it has been claimed, might enable the Palestinians to put Israeli army officers and officials on trial for committing crimes against humanity. Could this be what is meant by a milestone achievement?

To deserve such acclaim, the move must offer other advantages in managing the conflict with Israel – whatever form it takes – in re-defining its terms, in pushing demands, and in shaping the associated discourse. That is to say, it must make available to the Palestinian national movement instruments that it has lacked as an informal body or bodies and that could markedly advance the making of an actual Palestinian state.

Let us take the latest assault on Gaza as an example, and try to find out whether acting like a state does in fact confer such advantages.

Western officials have repeated ad nauseam the refrain that Israel had the right to defend itself, and so abetted the massive death and destruction meted out by the Israeli military in Gaza. The right to self-defense is usually accorded to states. Occupied people, according to the UN, also have the right to resist.  Unfortunately, the language of resistance seems to have lost much of the purchase it had on the world stage during the decolonization period, and is not readily understood as self-defense in the popular imagination.

If the Palestinians speak as a state, they could declare that their state is being invaded, that its sovereignty, which the resolution implicitly recognizes, violated, and that its borders, which the resolution also delimits, breached. Like any other state, Palestine would have the right to defend itself. It is the same thing as resistance, of course; the how of presenting it is different, however. Does, or how much does, the “how” matter?  

The US media now dubs the Palestinian fighters “militants,” which carries the connotation of “aggressive,” when in fact those able to get to Israel through tunnels have wisely eschewed attacks on civilians. The term militant also conjures images of informal gangs and other shadowy entities. The formal fighter, the “soldier,” has an air of legitimacy and normalcy, not because soldiers are not aggressive; they are so indeed, trained to kill.

Their legitimacy stems from the foundational structure of the international order in which states have arrogated to themselves the monopoly on the means of violence.

Would such legitimacy rub off on the Palestinian fighters if they were referred to as soldiers? Likewise, would we be told that Palestinian soldiers “capture,” instead of “kidnap,” Israeli counterparts, and would they be treated in international law as POWs when they themselves get captured?

By remaining in the informal sector, the Palestinians have been vulnerable to dehumanization. Witness the relentless singling out of the name “Hamas” as the enemy – the dark terrorist figure, hiding behind “human shields,” never mind that the organization had won parliamentary elections in the full light of day, which the venerable democrats of Europe and the United States refused to recognize. Before Hamas, it was the Palestinian Liberation Organization that was the terrorist organization, that is, until it was tamed and its head, Yasser Arafat, was received at the White House and shook hands with Israel’s prime minister in 1993.

In his appearances on American TV channels, Israeli prime minister Benjamin  Netanyahu does not speak of the Palestinians. The same goes for the media militias of the Israel lobby. They all harp on an already demonized Hamas. Yet the Israeli army killed and wounded hundreds of Palestinian, not Hamas, children.  Could speaking in the name of a Palestinian state undermine the Israeli PR machine’s use of sinister rhetoric to dehumanize all Palestinians?

Finally, could Gaza’s demand to lift the siege – which the UN resolution’s background describes as a hurdle to state-building – including the construction of a sea port and an airport and the extension of fishing rights in the Mediterranean Sea to 12 nautical miles, be presented as state entitlement or at least as indispensable for state-building, instead of just as a humanitarian appeal?

The foregoing are but examples that apply equally to the West Bank and to all the key issues that pertain to the establishment of an actual Palestinian state. The point is whether a shift in the status from Palestinian Authority or resistance movements to a state, even one truncated as only an observer, opens the way for the Palestinians to a totality of concepts and language that are legitimate, efficient, and readily understandable? And does such retooling tangibly improve the chances of the Palestinian national movement to establish a viable, independent state? The answer must be supplied by those who claim the mantle of leadership of the Palestinian people. 

If the answer is in the negative, why does the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah then persist in the comic self-deception of wearing its uniforms and subjecting the Palestinians to its repressive rules? If, on the other hand, the response is in the affirmative, it becomes the historic responsibility of all the Palestinian organization – Fatah and Hamas and others – to speedily take the necessary steps to act as a state. 

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Sharif S Elmusa