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Palestinians Cheer New Status at the United Nations


43rd plenary meeting of the General Assembly67th session: Question of Palestine
The General Assembly voted on Nov. 29, 2012, to grant the Palestinian territories nonmember observer state status at the UN. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, center (with glasses). RICK BAJORNAS/UN PHOTO

The General Assembly voted to elevate the Palestinian territories‘ status at the United Nations to nonmember observer state from nonmember observer entity, which it has held since 1974.

The vote, occurring late afternoon on Nov. 29 in a packed Assembly Hall, was preceded by several speeches, including one by Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestine Authority, and Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UN. The voting took place on the 65th anniversary of the UN’s recommendation to partition Palestine into two independent states, one for Arabs and one for Jews.

The global consensus for the Palestinian territories is considered a vital step in the direction of declaring it a full member in the future. In the resolution enabling the vote, the General Assembly voiced the hope that the Security Council would “consider favourably” the application submitted in September 2011 by Palestine for full UN membership.

Among the 193 General Assembly members who cast ballots, the Palestinian territories received 138 votes for; 9 votes against; and 41 abstentions, meeting the simple majority rule for passage. Denmark, France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland were among the Europeans voting yes. The nine no votes came from Canada, Czech Republic, Israel, Panama, the United States and smaller nations. Australia, Britain, Bulgaria and Germany were among the abstainers. Britain said in its speech afterward that it was “gravely concerned” about the assembly’s action and that the Palestinians should return to the negotiating table without preconditions.

The US and Israel announced their renunciation of the vote from the campaign’s start months ago, saying passing it would hurt peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Most of the member states in the hall, as well as others in the balconies, erupted in huge applause as the votes were displayed digitally at the front of the room against two walls.

The vote was in some ways a symbolic, as there is virtually no change in the rights and privileges awarded to a Palestinian nonmember observer state, as opposed to an observer entity. Permanent observers, both states and entities, at the UN share the same rights as member states, with the exception of voting on resolutions and nominated candidates for posts.  Along with the Holy See and the Palestinian territories, various intergovernmental organizations also have permanent observer status at the UN.

Despite these restrictions, Abbas outlined the significance of the vote in an emotional speech that was also met with widespread applause. Abbas likened the “Israeli colonial occupation” to apartheid and said that the moment had arrived  “for the world to say clearly, enough of aggression, settlements and occupations. This is why we are here now.”

Prosor, whose oratorical skills also revealed strong emotions behind his speech, said, “There is only one route to Palestinian statehood and that route does not run through this chamber in New York. That route runs through direct negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah that will lead to a secure and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

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He repeatedly bemoaned the lack of recognition of Israeli statehood in the resolution and that Abbas never iterated in his speech the necessity for “two states for two peoples” existing side by side.

After the vote, many other countries read speeches to the hall explaining their votes. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said that the resolution did not recognize Palestine as a state and that it prejudged the very points to be  determined through negotiations. “Will it bring the parties closer to peace or push them further apart?” she asked.

Indeed, the US State Department said earlier in the week that the vote would complicate chances for a “negotiated solution,” especially in light of the eight-day war this month between Israel and Gaza, a Palestinian territory ruled by Hamas, the faction that competes for dominance with Fatah, Abbas’s party.

The US and Israel say that negotiations for a two-state solution must take place outside the UN.

The two countries have consistently opposed diplomatic gains by the Palestinians at the UN, most recently in November 2011 when the US threatened to veto the Palestinian bid for full membership through the Security Council. When Unesco granted full membership to the Palestine territories in October 2011, the US was legally required to cut its $60 million financing  to the organization.

The Nov. 29 vote can potentially result in other American aid cuts to the Palestinian Authority. Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said on Nov. 26 that the step is going to “complicate the way the Congress looks at the Palestinians and it’s going to make all of that harder as well.”

For Khalad Safi, a Gazan journalist who was attending the vote at the UN, he saw the move as a path “to allow Palestinians to go to the Security Council to gain full statehood and end the occupation.”

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Alice Volkov has a master’s degree from the Graduate School of International Affairs at Australian National University in Canberra. She wrote her thesis on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the intervention in Libya in 2011. Recently, she was an intern with the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center in New Delhi. Her areas of interest also include strategies for preventing mass atrocity crimes; international development practices relating to the governance sector; and criminal justice reform. Volkov received a bachelor’s degree, with honors, in history from the University of Melbourne.

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