The Complex Problematics of Palestinian Representation

By Richard Falk

While serving as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, especially in my early years between 2008 and 2010, I fully expected to encounter defamatory opposition from Israel and ultra-Zionist, but what surprised me at the time were various efforts of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to undermine my role at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Its representatives exerted various pressures to encourage my resignation, and made unexpected moves to challenge my reports, especially if they described the actuality of Hamas exercising governing authority in Gaza. At the time I had the impression that the PA was far more concerned with this struggle internal to the Palestinian movement than mounting serious criticism of the abusive features of the occupation. As I was trying my best on behalf of the UN to report honestly on Israeli violations of Palestinian rights under international humanitarian law and human rights treaties, I was puzzled at first, and then began to wonder whether the Palestinian people were being adequately represented on the global stage.

This issue of representation has been rendered acute partly due to Israeli policies of fragmenting the Palestinian people, and then complaining that they have no partner with whom to make peace. Fragmentation indirectly subverts the right of self-determination by rendering ambiguous or unsatisfactory the nature of the self, that is, the people that is entitled to benefit from the right. The emphasis on this interplay between ‘self’ and ‘peoples’ arises from the authoritative language of Article I of the two human rights covenants that both make ‘self-determination’ the most fundamental of rights, which encompasses the others, and confers that right on ‘peoples’ rather than ‘states’ or ‘governments.’

The Palestinians are far from being the only people that is subjugated in ways that deny the ‘self’ the benefit of adequate representation. Consider the plight of the Kurdish people, or should it by now be ‘peoples,’ that can be traced back to the fragmentation imposed on Kurds by the manner in which colonial ambition reconfigured the political communities that has formerly been part of the Ottoman Empire in the ‘peace diplomacy’ that followed World War I. It is the notorious Sykes-Picot framework that was imposed on the region, and significantly responsible for the present turmoil that can be understood as a series of interrelated struggles by subjugated minorities to establish more natural political communities that protect their identities and their rights.

Jurists and politicians can spend endless hours debating whether the claimant of rights is indeed a people from the perspective of international human rights law. Many remember Golda Meir’s famous taunt, ‘Who are the Palestinians?’ There are many unrepresented peoples in the world that are marginalized in various settings, and none more regrettably than the 350 million so-called ‘indigenous peoples,’ victims of brutal dispossession, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and a variety of oppressive forms of subjugation. A truly humane world order would find ways to address historic grievances, while acknowledging that the past cannot be recreated or the present undone. There needs to be some good faith effort to reconcile the pastness of the past with overcoming the suffering being endured in the present. It is this process of reconciliation that Edward Said others articulated as the path to a sustainable peace for Jews and Palestinians.

Whatever the historic narrative that questions the emergence of Israel, as of the 21st century both practical and normative considerations converge on the quest for the dual realization of self-determination for Jews and Palestinians. Note that Zionism is a political project that was embraced by the Jewish people but it is not necessarily a reflection of self-determination for Jews if it encroaches on an equivalent Palestinian right. There is room for compromise, but only on the basis of accepting claims of equality, and refusing to treat the ‘settlements’ as part of the pastness of the past or to regard Palestinian refugees living in camps within and outside of Palestine as enjoying an inferior right of return or repatriation to that conferred on the Jewish people. Reasoning along this line makes it seem diversionary to continue the pursuit of a two-state solution, but this is a matter for the two peoples to decide by themselves if the right of self-determination is to be respected. And this prescribed course of action returns us to the issues surrounding the legitimacy and authenticity of representation. Until this issue is resolved a peace process is problematic if the goal is a sustainable and just peace.

Representation at the UN

Among the many obstacles facing the Palestinian people is the absence of any clear line of representation or even widely respected political leadership, at least since the death of Yasir Arafat in 2004. From the perspective of the United Nations, as well as inter-governmental diplomacy, this issue of Palestinian representation is treated as a non-problem. The UN accepts the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, although the reality of Palestinian governance to the PA since the Oslo diplomacy was initiated in 1993. A similar split between legal formalism and effective authority exists in international diplomacy although most of the 130 governments have extended diplomatic recognition to the PLO, rather than Palestine, despite its increasingly marginal role in the formation of national and international Palestinian policy in recent years. Ever since the General Assembly accorded recognition to Palestinian statehood in 2012 the question of representation has been settled in favor of the UN within the framework of the UN (UNGA Res. 67/19, 29 Nov. 2012).

This distinction between the PA and PLO is obscure for almost all commentators on the Israel/Palestine struggle, yet it has important implications for diplomacy and the scope and scale of Palestinian representation. The PA, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, is basically preoccupied with the West Bank and its own political relevance, and has seemed perversely aligned with Israel with respect to the fate of Gaza and even the 5-7 million Palestinian refugees worldwide. In contrast, the PLO, at least in conception and until the Oslo diplomacy took over, also in practice, conceived of its role to be the representation of Palestinians of a variety of political persuasions, as well as whether living under occupation or as refugees and exiles, that is, as a people dispossessed rather that a territory oppressively occupied.

The Oslo Diplomatic Fiasco

Among the flaws of Oslo was its affirmation of the delusion that a sustainable peace could be achieved simply by negotiating an end to the occupation of the West Bank, and maybe Gaza and East Jerusalem. The territorial remnant that was left after the Israeli withdrawal would then be viewed Palestine as a semi-sovereign state within these arbitrary borders. This ‘two-state’ international consensus even after its PLO endorsement in 1988 and regional incentives provided to Israel by the Arab Initiative of 2002 was, despite this, effectively killed by a combination of Israeli diplomatic rejectionism and its relentless.

The Israeli rejection of the two state option, which from a Palestinian perspective was at most a minimalist version of peace, was made manifest over the last 25 years by increasing the inhabitants of the settlement gulag, establishing at great expense an infrastructure of settler only roads, and through the construction of an unlawful separation wall deep in occupied Palestine. Yet the 20+ years of negotiation within this framework served Israel well as does the lingering illusion that the only viable settlement is still a rendering of the two-state solution. Sustaining this illusion also helps the United States, and Europe, and perhaps most of all the PA by keeping its international status credible. It allowed Israel the protective cover it needed to continue annexing, building, and cleansing until a point of practical irreversibility was reached some years ago. These defiant actions on the ground undermined effectively the two state mantra without suffering the slightest adverse consequence. This enabled the United States, especially, but also Europe, to sustain the international illusion of ‘a peace process’ while the realities on the ground were making ‘peace’ a dirty word of deceit. It has become a ‘zombie solution,’ where the proposal outlives its viability, and serves purposes other than what it claims.

Most of all, this Oslo charade made the PA seem like it was a genuine interim state-building stage preceding existential statehood. In a situation without modern precedent, the PA achieved a weak form of de jure statehood via diplomatic maneuvers and General Assembly partial recognition under circumstances that lacked the most essential attributes of de facto statehood. Usually the situation is reversed, with the realities of statehood serving as a precondition to its diplomatic and legal acknowledgement. Israel played along with this Palestinian game by denouncing such PA moves as outside the agreed Oslo plan of statehood to be achieved only through negotiations between the parties. Of course, Israel had its own reasons for opposing even the establishment of such a ghost Palestinian state as the Likud and rightest leadership were inalterably opposed to any formal acceptance of Palestinian statehood even if not interfering with Israel’s actual behavior and ambitions.

Interrogating the Palestinian Authority

Yet there are additional reasons to question PA representation of the Palestinian people in the present situation. Perhaps, the most fundamental of all is the degree to which the PA has accepted the role of providing security in accord with Israeli policy within those parts of the West Bank under its authority, which includes the main cities. It is thus hardly surprising that Ramallah suppresses many nonviolent resistance activities of the Palestinians, including demonstrations in support of the beleaguered people of Gaza. As well, the PA zealously apprehends those militant Palestinians alleged to be supporting Hamas or Islamic Jihad, and is accused of torturing many of those detained in its prisons often without charges. The PA has also consistently leaned toward the Israeli side whenever issues involving Gaza have arisen since the Hamas takeover of administrative governance from Fatah in 2007. Perhaps, the high point of this collaborationist behavior was the PA effort to defer consideration of the Goldstone Report detailing evidence of Israeli criminality in the course of its 2008-09 attack (Operation Cast Lead) on Gaza; such a move was widely and accurately perceived as helping Israel and the United States to bury these extremely damaging international findings that confirmed the widespread belief, already substantiated by a series of NGO reports, that Israel was guilty of serious war crimes.

There have been several failed efforts by the PA and Hamas to form a unity government, which would improve the quality of Palestinian representation, but would not overcome all of its shortcomings. These efforts have faltered both because of the distrust and disagreement between these two dominant political tendencies in occupied Palestine, but also because of intense hostile reactions by Washington and Tel Aviv, responding punitively and tightening still further their grip on the PA, relying on its classification of Hamas as ‘a terrorist organization’ that thus making it categorically ineligible to represent the Palestinian people. Everyone on the Palestinian side agrees verbally that unity is indispensable to advance Palestinian prospects, but when it comes to action and implementation there is a disabling show of ambivalence on both sides. The PA, and its leadership, seems reluctant to give up its international status as sole legitimate representative and Hamas is hesitant to join forces with the PA given the difference in its outlook and identity. Since 2009 there have been no elections that would lend grassroots legitimacy, at least in the West Bank, to the PA claims relating to representation.d

What Should be Done

In the end, there is reason to question whether PA status as representing the Palestinian people in all international venues deserve the respect that they now enjoy. It is a rather complex and difficult situation that should be contextualize in relation to the Israeli strategy of fragmentation, one purpose of which is a deliberate effort at keeping the Palestinian people from having coherent and credible representation, and then contending disingenuously that Israel has ‘no partner’ for peace negotiations when in fact it is the Palestinian people that have no genuine partner in Tel Aviv as the Israeli leadership has made abundantly clear that it will never allow a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state to be established.

Among diaspora Palestinians I believe there is an increasing appreciation that neither the PA nor Hamas are capable of such representation, and that greater legitimacy attaches either to the demands of Palestinian civil society that underlie the BDS Campaign or are associated with the person of imprisoned Marwan Barghouti or to Mustafa Barghouti who is the moderate, secular, and democratic leader of the Palestinian National Initiative situated in the West Bank. What these less familiar forms of representation offer, in addition to uncompromised leaders, is a program to achieve a sustainable peace that is faithful to the aspirations of the whole of the Palestinian people and is not compromised by donor funding, Israeli controls, collaborationist postures, and geopolitical priorities. It takes seriously the responsibility to represent the Palestininian people in ways that extend to the Palestinian refugees and to the Palestinian minority of 1.6 million living in Israel as well as to those living under occupation since 1967.

Overall, the picture is not black and white. The PA, partly realizing that they had been duped by the Oslo process and that Israel will never allow a viable state of Palestine to emerge, have resorted to a more assertive diplomatic positions in the last few years, including an effort, bitterly resisted by Israel to make allegations of criminality following from their controversial decision to become a party to the International Criminal Court. Also, it is important that the Palestinian chair at the UN not be empty, and there is no present internationally acceptable alternative to PA representation. Perhaps, an eyes wide open acceptance of the present situation is the best present Palestinian option, although the approach taken to representation is in the end up to the Palestinians. It is an aspect of the right of self-determination, which as earlier argued is the foundation for all other human rights. At the very least, given the dismal record of diplomacy over the course of the last several decades, the adequacy of present representation of the Palestinian people deserves critical scrutiny, especially by Palestinians themselves.

Two final observations are in order. First, it may be useful to distinguish what might be called ‘Westphalian representation’ from ‘populist representation.’ Westphalian representation is the outcome of intergovernmental diplomacy and controls access to international venues, including the UN. Populist representation may or may not reinforce Westphalian representation, and is based on the outlook of civil society if taking the form of a consensus. At present, there is some tension between these two ways of conceiving of representation. There is also the issue raised by the exclusion of Hamas from the operation of Westphalian representation despite its exercise of governmental control over a significant portion of the Palestinian territorial reality.

Secondly, it is relevant to appreciate that the PA seems to be pursuing a ‘two state’ solution by unilateral initiative rather through negotiations and the consent of Israel. Its state-building initiatives in the West Bank combined with its diplomatic statehood initiatives seem designed to generate a sort of ‘state’ that enjoys a certain international status even though the reality of subjugation under apartheid administrative structures remains the experience of the Palestinian people who continue to live with the ordeal of a quasi-permanent occupation.

– Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies. He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. Visit his blog

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