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Sun 11 Sep 2011 10:22 AM

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Palestine’s moment of truth

As Palestine fights for full UN state recognition, politician Hanan Ashrawi is once again taking centre stage

Palestine’s moment of truth
Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi says Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has an integrated approach to solving Palestine’s problems
Palestine’s moment of truth

Hanan Ashrawi is laughing heartily. With rockets shooting over the Gaza Strip and the conflict escalating, the job of a Palestinian politician is usually a pretty serious task. Therefore, it is a welcome sign that she can enjoy some light relief from time to time.

So what is the source of her amusement? I have just asked her what she thinks of former British prime minister Tony Blair’s leadership since he was appointed the official envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East, the entity set up to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and made up of the foursome of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia.

“I don’t think it is Tony Blair’s leadership… I think the Quartet is run exclusively by Washington; it is unfortunately and we are right now in discussions with the members of the Quartet in order for them to take their own policies seriously, the EU and the UN,” she says, once she regains her composure.

“The Quartet has been, in many ways, sidelined by the US, diverted by the US and we believe that they must step up and they must decide to take their own policies seriously and their own commitments and we are working on this with them.”

Palestine and the US are indeed moving towards some fraught diplomatic times. It was announced on 13 August that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas will submit an application for full UN membership at the General Assembly of the global body this month. “At this stage, there is a lot of preparation and we have several options, not that it is a one-step thing or a one-shot thing,” says Ashrawi.

“We are not just going to apply and then go home. It is a question of keeping all options open and looking into and coordinating the position of the Arab world, of the Europeans, of the UN and taking into account legal advice, as well as political advice and so on, to maximise our gains and minimise our losses.”

While no exact date has been set for the application to be submitted, it is expected to occur during Abbas’ visit to New York in mid-September. This year’s 66th General Assembly meetings are set to open officially on 13 September with high-level meetings of world leaders expected to start on 20 September. With peace talks with Israel deadlocked for months, Abbas hopes to win UN endorsement for the Palestinian claim to statehood in all the Israeli-occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. But the US, which has veto power in the UN Security Council, is expected to oppose Abbas’ bid to seek a unilateral UN mandate for statehood in the absence of peace talks with Israel.

In a separate move, the Palestinians have signalled they will seek an upgrading of their status from observer entity to non-member state. This option is expected to pass as it does not require Security Council approval.

“We have also started the process, we have drafted things, whether requests or letters, we are working also internally and internationally to get support,” says Ashrawi. “There will be a popular movement in support of our move to go to the UN and a solidarity movement as well within the Arab world and we are hoping that we will accumulate even more recognition from individual states.”

The Arab League has already held an emergency meeting to discuss the ongoing conflict in Gaza and as early as mid-July it offered its support to the Palestinian push for full UN membership, according to a draft statement from a League meeting in Qatar.

“It was decided to go to the United Nations to request the recognition of the state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital and to move ahead and request a full membership,” said a draft Arab League communiqué, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.

Palestinian analyst Talal Okal says the Arab League and Palestinians are aware of the obstacles they face, including a US veto, but have chosen to push forward because, with peace talks frozen, they see no other diplomatic solution.

“The Arab consensus means that there is disappointment over the American position, that the negotiations have reached a dead end and that we have entered a stage of political battle,” Okal adds.

Ashrawi, currently in the midst of busy diplomatic lobbying, is optimistic but realistic as to the chances of success. “It depends on what we do, whether we go to the UN first… So far the US to the Security Council has said it will veto. We are trying to tell the US that it is not in its own interest or the interests of peace to veto that type of request.

“It is a right that is enshrined in international law because we have the right to self determination under the UN charter after all. [A veto] will weaken its standing in the Arab world, particularly as they want to be welcomed by the Arab Spring. But the American standing has been severely affected by, I don’t want to say the subservience, but the collaboration with the Israeli occupation.”

So what will change if Palestine is successful? “It depends whether we get full membership or not… It is a process of internal empowerment as well as external support and solidarity. It will mean we will have access to international organisations and agencies.

“Also it means that all the territories that Israel occupied in 1967 are designated as Palestinian territories, not disputed territories as Israel claims, and East Jerusalem is our capital. This means that every single act of moving its residence settlers into the West Bank will be seen as an act of aggression and a war crime.”

She is, of course, talking about ongoing settlements in the West Bank and recent announcements by Israel that it plans to build another 294 homes in two Jewish West Bank settlements. Already relations between Israel and Palestine have soured over the move for full UN membership, with hawkish Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman calling for Israel to sever contacts with the PA. This move is simply the latest step in the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict, which has dominated much of Ashrawi’s life.

She was born to a wealthy Palestinian family in 1946, just two years before Israel came into existence, in what Palestinians call ‘Al Nakba’ or ‘The Catastrophe.’ Brought up in the West Bank town of Ramallah, outside Jerusalem, she was studying at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon when the Six Day War broke out in 1967.

At the time, Palestinians outside the country were labelled as ‘absentees’ and unable to return to their families.

While in exile for six years, Ashrawi continued her education in the US and her political career began. After a successful 1988 US TV appearance to promote the Palestinian cause, she joined the Palestinian Diplomatic Committee and in 1991 Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appointed her as official spokesperson of the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East Peace Process.

She made history as the first woman to hold a seat in the highest executive body in Palestine and from 1996 to 1998 she served as the Minister of Higher Education and Research. While she is a strong advocate of the Palestinian cause, she is not afraid to criticise if she believes it is not going in the right direction. This was evident when she resigned her ministerial post in 1998 in protest over political corruption and after disagreements over Arafat’s handling of peace talks.

At present, she believes “there is no peace process” worth mentioning. “There was a process for its own sake, all form and no content… No applicability on the ground. Israel used it to prolong and stall and buy time… it destroyed the very foundations of peace.”

Her communication skills soon saw her appointed Media Commissioner of the Arab League, but, true to form, she is not afraid to call on the Arab states to honour their pledges to Palestine as it struggles both politically and economically.

“The Arab [states] need to stand by Palestine, not just in moral and political terms, but also in material terms… It is no secret we have a disastrous economic situation, even though we have managed to build institutions to empower ourselves but all the pledges did not materialise unfortunately.

“They need to honour their pledges and if they step up, especially given that Israel is threatening to withhold our tax money and our customs funds and the US Congress is threatening to cut off all aid and we are being blackmailed left, right and centre.

“I think it is a moral imperative and responsibility to free us from such pressures and blackmail,” she says.

President Abbas said in August that the PA was facing a financial crisis which forced it to cut government workers’ wages by half. Policymakers identified a shortfall in Arab aid as the main cause. The authority has received just $330m of the $971m in aid pledged for 2011, Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad said in July.

Saudi Arabia in July sent $30.8m to the PA to help bridge a budget gap but so far Oman, Algeria and the UAE are the only Arab countries that have fully pledged what they had promised in aid for 2011, Fayyad said on 3 July.

“Saudi Arabia recently paid $30m in delayed payments but we hope there will be a move to pay the rest and step up and send a message to Israel and the US that Palestine is not alone,” Ashrawi says.

A UN report has estimated the Israeli blockade of Gaza will cost the Palestinian Authority $2.6bn in economic terms this year. According to an annual report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the 2008-2009 war on Gaza drained a further $1.3bn from the territory’s economy, adding up to a $3.1bn loss. The report added that per capita gross domestic product is still 30 percent lower than it was ten years ago and more than 80 percent of Gazan households and 45 percent of West Bank residents live below the breadline.

Looking to the future, Ashrawi says the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has an “integrated approach” to solving Palestine’s problems. “We still need to empower ourselves to build our institutions, to build our state. Nation building is an ongoing process, of course, to maintain Palestinians to stay on the land, to stand up to Israeli measures and pressures. Particularly to stop the settlement activities, this has reached alarming proportions because Israel is expanding rapidly and transforming the city of Jerusalem and carrying out an ethnic cleansing policy in Jerusalem.

“Now there is an expansion of settlement everywhere, so it is destroying the two-state solution. This we have to resist by non-violent peaceful means but also massive popular movements and we need to get greater solidarity from, of course, the Arab world and internationally and the solidarity movements,” she says. If anyone can inspire support, it’s Ashrawi, who has proven time and time again to be one of Palestine’s most valuable assets.