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More symbolism at the UN, but is it enough for Palestine?

On Wednesday, 30 September, the Palestinian flag was raised for the first time at the United Nations headquarters in New York after the General Assembly voted overwhelming in favour of the move earlier in the month. “This is a day of pride for Palestinians around the world,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “It is a day of hope. It’s a reminder that symbols are important.” He added his wish that the raising of this flag might give rise to the hope among the Palestinians and the international community that Palestinian statehood is achievable.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reflected a similar sentiment, proclaiming that the flag-raising was an omen: “The day of raising the flag over the state of Palestine is coming soon. Over Jerusalem, the capital of our state of Palestine.” According to Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour, it was a significant step because it provided Palestinians with a “beacon of hope” in an otherwise bleak Middle Eastern landscape.

Raising the flag was indeed a meaningful step, albeit purely symbolic. The flag itself is a symbol of the Palestinian people’s struggle and the significance of having it flying at the UN – the very same institution that voted to partition mandate Palestine 68 years ago – cannot be overlooked. Israel was one of only eight countries to vote against the flag-flying measure, calling it a “blatant attempt to hijack the UN”.

For the Israeli government, this was another example of UN bias; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has highlighted repeatedly the supposed “singling” out of Israeli violations by the international body. He responded to the UN report on last year’s Israeli war against the people of Gaza by pointing out that the UN Human Rights Council had passed more resolutions against Israel than against North Korea, Syria and Iran combined. Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, commented that, “The Palestinians have moved the battlefield to the United Nations.”

In a sense, Prosor is correct; Palestine’s battle for statehood is taking place in the UN. In 2011, Palestine joined the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as a full member. A successful bid gave de facto recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly in 2012. This made Palestinians eligible to join the International Criminal Court, stoking fears that Israel could find itself in The Hague facing war crimes charges.

In recent years symbolic gestures of support for a Palestinian state have been coming in thick and fast from countries all over the world. Today, 136 of the 193 member states of the UN and two non-member states recognise the State of Palestine.

While such gestures are important and demonstrate how far the Palestinian cause has come, the situation on the ground remains the same as before, if not worse. The West Bank is fragmented by settlements, checkpoints and a concrete wall which has cut off East Jerusalem, the envisioned capital of an independent Palestinian state, from its West Bank hinterland. Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip continues to be strangled by a blockade that prevents it being rebuilt after suffering three major Israeli military offensives since 2008/9 as well as almost daily incursions. The moves within the UN and elsewhere – whether condemnations, resolutions, recognition or flag raising – have not stopped Israel building ever more and bigger settlements in the occupied West Bank and did not stop last year’s war against the Palestinians in Gaza.

“The Palestinian Authority [PA] gained non-member observer status at the UN in November 2012, but nothing of substance on Palestine has happened at this forum since then,” said Nur Masalha, a Palestinian writer and academic. “For this impotent international organisation the question of Palestinian statehood remains virtual.” Crucially, he added, the PA, which pinned its hope on this UN ceremony, remains deeply wedded to security cooperation with the occupying power. “This reality which makes it impossible for the PA leadership to mobilise any effective international support for Palestine.”

For Azzam Tamimi, a Palestinian-British academic and author, the flag-raising gesture was meaningless. “What the Palestinians need from the UN is an acknowledgement of its historic role in dispossessing us,” he insisted. “Our quest is not for another failing Arab state with a meaningless flag and useless institutions, but for the return of a homeland that was stripped from us.”

In Ramallah, hundreds of Palestinians watched the ceremony on television. I was there for the 2012 UN vote as it was broadcast live in the main square to a jubilant crowd, but 3 years on and symbolic recognition of a Palestinian state, one which has none of the components which actually make-up a state (control over borders, land and airspace, for example), seems like a farce. Palestine may well be a state on paper but concrete measures such as sanctions on the occupier and the severing of trade ties, including arms exports, are needed before a genuinely sovereign and independent Palestinian state can come into existence.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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