In West Bank, modest expectations from Palestinian statehood bid

September 18, 2011

Flags are starting to sprout from cars, and a billboard at the city entrance touts international support for Palestinian statehood. But at the square that is the venue for demonstrations here, the biggest gathering on a recent afternoon was a line of government employees at a bank, waiting to collect their delayed paychecks.

The Palestinian Authority is facing a financial crunch after a decline in foreign donations, mainly from Arab countries, and the chief worry these days for many people in Ramallah — the seat of Palestinian government in the West Bank — is not international recognition, but making ends meet.

Weary after two uprisings and years of failed negotiations, Palestinians are taking a sober view of the bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations this week, even as an international push began Sunday to try to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Palestinians express hope that the statehood move could bring them more leverage in international diplomacy and legal forums, but acknowledge that it will do nothing to change their daily lives.

“Will this give us free borders, an airport, a currency? I don’t think so. The next morning it will still be the same story,” said Khalil Abddullah, heading home from the local market. “There will still be occupation, still checkpoints, still the wall,” he added, referring to Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank.

Arranging produce at a nearby stand, Shaher Kanaan said that the U.N. bid is a “morale booster,” but no more than a symbolic step that could bring more “restrictions by the occupation,” a reference to possible Israeli retaliatory measures on the ground.

The initiative to seek full membership for a Palestinian state in the United Nations is being promoted here with a campaign backed by the Palestinian Authority, titled Palestine 194, a reference to the aim of becoming the 194th U.N. member state.

The Palestinian Authority’s television station broadcasts nonstop interviews with commentators and officials on the U.N. effort.

Organizers say they want to bring out the masses to rallies this week in city squares, taking a page from the Arab Spring. The gatherings are planned for Wednesday, when the U.N. General Assembly debate begins in New York, and on Friday, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to address the forum.

Yet while the U.N. initiative has broad public support, it does not appear to be generating the kind of energy that would fuel sustained protests against Israeli occupation — portrayed in Israel as a nightmare scenario in which thousands of Palestinians could march on checkpoints and Jewish settlements.

The Palestinian Authority’s gains in building the elements of a state — improving security, building government institutions and creating conditions for economic development — appear to be working against the likelihood of renewed unrest.

“People here have been through many social, economic and political crises, and they want things to improve, not to go back 10 years,” said Muhanad Khalili, a shop manager. “They’re focused on their homes, their work, their financial situation. They don't want to get arrested or wounded.”

There are memories here of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s declaration of independence in 1988 in Algiers, a move that led to recognition by scores of countries of a Palestinian state, but no change on the ground.

This time, some people said, statehood recognition by the U.N. would bring greater international legitimacy, enabling a Palestinian state to join international treaties and courts and press legal cases against Israeli settlements in the West Bank, on grounds that they violate international law. Still, the results remain uncertain.

Awaiting Israeli response

As for the days ahead, Khalili said that much depended on Israel’s response to the Palestinian demonstrations, which Abbas has insisted should remain peaceful. “The Israeli reaction will play a big role,” he said. “If anyone is killed, it could stir things up.”

The Israeli army says it has stocked up on an array of ­non-lethal crowd-control gear, including water cannons, stun grenades and tear gas. It has trained for a range of possibilities, including mass marches toward checkpoints and Jewish settlements, and has stepped up training for settler security teams.

In a speech Friday announcing the statehood bid, Abbas repeated the Arabic word “silmiya,” or peaceful, a motto of the Egyptian revolution earlier this year, and warned that violence would “highlight the negative and distract attention from the positive.”

No confrontations

The planned rallies are to be held inside Palestinian cities, and Abbas told reporters last week that he had ordered his security forces to prevent confrontations with the Israelis, a message he said was repeated to Palestinian political factions.

“Our instructions,” he said, “were very strict: Don’t go to the roadblocks; don’t make friction with the Israelis; don’t run to the Israelis. If they come to the cities, don’t react.”

At his car-rental shop, Salameh Ali said there was little appetite for such clashes. “The time of violence has passed,” he said.

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