Wednesday

4th May 2016

Interview

Palestine's UN upgrade coming back on EU agenda

  • Palestinian girl walks by poster of late PLO leader Yasser Arafat in the Mar Elias camp, Beirut (Photo: EUobserver)

The EU should get ready for Palestine's renewed push to upgrade its UN status and stop calling for "illusory" peace talks with Israel, a senior Palestinian politician has said.

Palestine grabbed world attention in New York last September when it asked the UN for full membership and in November when the UN's cultural agency, Unesco, let it join.

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The UN campaign then vanished from sight. But Souheil Natour - a legal scholar and a senior politician in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) - told EUobserver in an interview that it will come back on the agenda after Palestinian elections, expected in May or June.

"[PLO chairman] Abu Mazen was initially scared off by US and Israeli threats to withhold funds. But now he is coming back to this," Natour said.

He noted that the elections will count votes from Palestinians in Israeli-occupied Gaza and the West Bank, as well as mass numbers of Palestinian refugees in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria - an act of defiance against Israel, which says the exiles can never come back because it would destroy the idea of Israel as a homeland for Jewish people.

Natour added that after elections Palestine will seek a vote in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to upgrade its status from "non-voting organisation" to "non-voting state."

"The EU shouldn't pressure us to go on with the illusory process of so-called peace talks with Israel ... We do not have two states because of Israel. They have no interest in a Palestinian state because they already have their own country," he said.

Natour was born in 1947 in what Arabs call Akka, a city in what is today northern Israel and which appears on most maps under its Hebrew name, Acre. Jewish forces expelled his family in 1948 and he has not been allowed back, even to visit, in 64 years. He now lives in the squalid refugee camp of Mar Elias in Beirut. Like the other 280,000-or-so Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, he has permanent residency but no right to vote or work.

In an insight into the psychology of the conflict, he said refugees will not give up their right of return.

"When the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982 and surrounded West Beirut, it took 80 days of siege, of bombardment by the mightiest army in the Middle East and we did not kneel. If we were afraid of them, we could not have resisted."

He said Palestinians are prepared to live side by side with Jews in a two-state solution. But he rejected the idea of a Jewish homeland which forbids refugees from coming home.

"It's bullshit ... You can't create a modern country based on religious principles - this is not the Middle Ages. A modern country, like all European countries, must have equal status for all its citizens," he said.

Natour urged the EU to support Palestine by voting in favour of the UNGA upgrade, making good on promises to rebuild Gaza and boycotting Israeli exports from illegal settlements. He said it would be in the Union's interest in terms of relations with Arab countries and promoting peace in its southern "hinterland."

Submarine diplomacy

The PLO is sceptical on whether the Union can or will make a change, however.

"Without an American decision the Europeans cannot do much ... The Germans delivered their fourth submarine [to Israel] last week. So, if you are selling such weapons, submarines capable of firing an atomic bomb, when we ask for pressure on the Israeli economy or on the settlement problem, we don't trust the Europeans," Natour said.

He was equally sceptical on whether Arab powers such as US-allied Saudi Arabia, or the Saudi-linked Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, will confront Israel for Palestine's sake.

He added that Palestinians have their own Arab Spring, however.

He pointed to popular protests last year for Palestinian political parties Fatah and Hamas to join forces and to last May, when Palestinian youths from Lebanon, Jordan and Syria marched to the border "to see their land, to see their Palestine," in what ended with Israeli soldiers killing over 10 people.

"We have to work for our Spring also, to join the club, and the path is through the re-unification of all the Palestinian forces, all the factions," Natour said.

Pro-Palestinian NGOs have called for another mass walk to the border on 30 March.

Meanwhile, a recent Israeli intelligence report seen by the Haaretz newspaper says there is increasing risk of unrest. "At this point, neither the Palestinian leadership nor public opinion seems to want a violent escalation with Israel ... Still, the continuing freeze of the diplomatic process, combined with any drastic Israeli moves in the military and/or economic realm and the continuing stormy situation in the Middle East, could bring about a change in this approach," the report notes.

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