The mood on the streets of Ramallah can best be described as tempered excitement as the Palestinian leadership begins its bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations. Flags attached to car windows proudly feature the words U.N.-Palestine State. Massive billboards advertise the statehood bid with colorful depictions of the Palestinian flag flying at the U.N. Fatah-backed rallies are scheduled throughout this featuring dancing and singing.
But while people do seem genuinely jubilant, it is not reminiscent of the vintage film footage from celebrations that took place in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem after the State of Israel came into existence. Hardly anyone believes that life is going to change after the United Nations’ vote.
Just under the surface, seemingly lurking behind every conversation, growing discontent can be found all over Ramallah. In the middle of a straight razor shave, my barber, Abdallah, stopped and said, “Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s sobriquet] works for Israel, not for Palestinians.” Abdallah’s sentiments are echoed inside the Ramallah Café, a local leftist hangout popular among older Palestinians and younger intellectuals alike. “The problem is that no one really trusts Abu Mazen anymore,” Ahmed Nidal, a freelance Palestinian photographer based in Ramallah, said between sips of sugary tea peppered with mint leaves. “Since no one trusts the man, no one really trusts the statehood bid.”
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Not all in Palestinian West Bank society believe that the U.N. strategy is a horrible idea, but most agree that it is going to fail. The Palestinian Authority has done a poor job of explaining the contours and strategy of the statehood bid to its constituents. Many throughout the West Bank barely have any idea what the Palestinian leadership is planning to do before and after the vote in the U.N. For some, especially younger Palestinian intellectuals, the lack of transparency from the P.A. confirms that the statehood bid is more about guaranteeing their own survival as the governing body in the West Bank.
For an exhausted population faced with the daily burden of occupation, the statehood bid is understood by some as an effort to restart the failed peace process with Israel. At a recent public discussion in Ramallah, Hanan Ashrawi, formerly a negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, referred to the attempt to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders as a “corrective measure” aimed at getting peace negotiations back on track. She also offered disparaging remarks for grassroots Palestinian initiatives against Israeli occupation, such as the popular unarmed resistance taking place weekly in towns and villages, and the global boycotts, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.
Sitting in a bustling hummus restaurant just outside Ramallah’s main market, Palestinian journalist Omar Rahman enumerated the cautious and pragmatic arguments in favor of the statehood bid among many keen political observers. “I support the [statehood] bid insofar as it moves the Palestinians beyond the status quo of a failed peace process,” he said in between mouthfuls of hummus. “However, the bid requires careful crafting and deliberation to reach the Palestinian consensus, which it has not done so far.”
Given that many Palestinians feel left out of the process, the question on the minds of everyone from Tel Aviv to Ramallah is, “What comes next?” The United States will veto the resolution in the U.N. Security Council, and the Palestinians will not get statehood. Many on the ground expect an outbreak of violence as frustrated Palestinians take to the streets of the West Bank.
The P.A. said last week that it will contain any protests and ensure that demonstrators will not get close to Israeli checkpoints and settlements. Israel, on the other hand, is calling up reserve soldiers in order to reinforce its military presence in the West Bank. Additionally, Israeli settlers are planning provocative ”sovereignty” marches to Palestinian cities and villages.
Palestinian moves at the U.N., impolitic as they might be, reflect frustration with the status quo of continued Israeli expansion in the West Bank and a negotiation process in which Israeli intransigence goes unpunished. It is difficult to conceive of a renewed peace process if the bid fails to elevate the status of Palestine in the international community or at least punish Israel for what are perceived to be its repeated violations of international law in the West Bank.
With the Arab Spring expanding across the region, and the prospect of a failed statehood bid, Palestinians will increasingly embrace a version of resistance based on values of the first Palestinian intifada. Mass civil disobedience will likely challenge Israel’s control over Palestinian life. Though, unlike the first intifada, Palestinians might turn on their own leadership, namely the P.A., before focusing on Israel.
The Palestinian leadership is trying to save a peace process based on the two-state solution by implementing the “corrective measure” of seeking a state within the 1967 borders. On the surface, this seems to be a bold move. But it is really the P.A.’s attempt at self-preservation in a system designed to prolong the status quo. Success or failure at the United Nations, the occupation will remain.
Joseph Dana is an American Israeli journalist based in Ramallah.