Demonstrators back PLO's UN bid

Peaceful gathering gives way to rock-throwing by youths at Qalandiya checkpoint, as PLO bids for full UN membership.

    The PLO will approach the UN Security Council requesting full member status later this month [GALLO/GETTY]

    A small demonstration held in the West Bank in support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation's bid for full membership in the United Nations at the UN Security Council has ended with about a dozen young men throwing rocks at an Israeli checkpoint.

    The initial protest was organised by Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician, and was attended by about 200 people at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem on Saturday afternoon.

    Israeli authorities had deployed a small number of soldiers to maintain security at the rally, where demonstrators waved Palestinian flags and chanted slogans in favour of the UN bid and of Palestine.

    The Israeli military did not retaliate against the rock-pelters and the men soon dispersed.

    "This really gives you an idea of what we're going to see over the next two weeks ... non-violent protests that border on violence," Al Jazeera's Cal Perry reported from Qalandiya.

    Demonstrators also burned tires at the protest in Qalandiya on Saturday [Gregg Carlstrom/Al Jazeera]

    "The Israelis, for their part, have said they are prepared for this kind of activity to take place across the West Bank. They've stockpiled as they've put it 'non-lethal weaponry' in the form of flashbang grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas."

    Captain Barak Raz, a spokesperson for the Israeli army, tweeted that as long as the demonstration remained non-violent, it was the "type of protest we can live with".

    He said that one soldier had been "lightly injured" in the rock throwing.

    Earlier in the day, Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian negotiator, dismissed the possibility of Israel annulling the Oslo peace accords, from which the Palestinian Authority (PA) derives its legitimacy, in response to the UN bid by saying that the country had "already undermined" that agreement by not respecting the boundaries set up under it.

    At a press conference, he said that Palestinians did not see the UN bid "as an endgame. We believe in the ability of Israel to remake itself and return to negotiations". 

    Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, criticised the Palestinian bid on Friday, calling it a violation of the Oslo Accords, the 1993 agreement between Israel and the PLO.

    "The Palestinians made a commitment, to us and the world, to resolve all outstanding issues through negotiations," Regev said. "The Palestinians are violating their signed commitments."

    Regev also threatened the PA, saying that if it proceeds with the bid, "Israel reserves the right to respond in kind". Various Israeli politicians have suggested responding by annulling the accords or by annexing all or part of the entire West Bank.

    'We need a state'

    Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and chairman of the PLO, confirmed on Friday that he would request full membership at the UN when its General Assembly convenes next week.

    "We are going to the Security Council," he said during a speech in Ramallah. "We need to have full membership in the United Nations ... we need a state, and we need a seat at the UN."

    Abbas said he would submit the formal request for recognition after his General Assembly speech on September 23.

    He said that more than 120 countries have already promised to support the Palestinian bid. Abbas also mentioned US President Barack Obama's 2010 speech at the General Assembly, when he expressed hope that a Palestinian state would join the UN within the next year.

    Full recognition requires a two-thirds vote at the General Assembly. But it also requires approval at the Security Council, where the US has said it will veto the request.

    Abbas said nothing during his speech about the expected US veto. He framed the UN bid as a necessary step brought on by the impasse in negotiations with Israel, which collapsed last September over Israel's refusal to halt the construction of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.

    "We have been willing to take part in serious negotiations," Abbas said. "But we received nothing from the Israeli government except wasting time and imposing facts on the ground."

    Abbas tried to portray himself as a representative of the entire Palestinian people, not just those living in the West Bank, though his speech said almost nothing about Gaza, or about Palestinians in the diaspora.

    He acknowledged some of the criticism of the bid, which even many Palestinian officials admit will not change day-to-day life in the occupied territories.

    "Let's be practical here. We're not going there [to the United Nations] to become independent," Abbas said. "We will come back to negotiate the other issues," referring to borders, the status of refugees and other points of contention.

    Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, meanwhile, said that the Palestinians were "systematically" avoiding direct talks with Israel, in a statement released after Abbas' speech.

    'No answers'

    The PLO had already announced its plan to approach the Security Council: senior officials, including Mohammed Shtayyeh and Riad al-Malki, the foreign minister, discussed the strategy at news conferences earlier this week.

    But local media have continued to speculate about an 11th-hour deal to avert the bid, or at least to convince the PLO not to demand full recognition.

    Abbas' speech seems certain to cement the PLO's strategy; it would be politically disastrous to back down after publicly outlining his plans.

    Ghazi Hamad, Hamas' deputy minister of foreign affairs, told Al Jazeera that Abbas' speech was "full of expectations and promises and dreams of having a membership state".

    "No one in Hamas is against the right of the state; we are all fighting to achieve a state within the 1967 borders. But the question now is whether we can be sure that after the declaration [of statehood], will the occuption be over?

    "Will the Palestinians have their independence and dignity? Now we have no answers."

    Hamad said that the most important issue at the moment was to focus on reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, "because otherwise any state would be very weak".

    US efforts 'useless'

    The PLO is going forward with the bid in spite of deep opposition from the US and Israel. A spokesman for the US state department called the PLO's plan "unhelpful" and "counterproductive" on Friday.

    Two senior US envoys, David Hale and Dennis Ross, returned to the region on Wednesday for their second visit in as many weeks, in a last-ditch effort to convince Abbas to abandon his plans.

    They met Abbas, Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres and several other senior officials.

    Activists are planning rallies in cities across the West Bank next week [EPA]

    A spokesman for the US embassy in Tel Aviv declined to comment on their meetings.

    "Our approach is to get the sides back to the negotiating table," Mark Toner, a state department spokesman, said on Thursday.

    "As I said, we're engaged very intensively on the ground."

    But Shaath, the senior Palestinian negotiator, described the meetings as "useless," and said Hale and Ross did not offer any new proposals to the Palestinians.

    "They presented nothing, really, that was different [from] what the Americans presented to the Quartet two months ago," Shaath told Al Jazeera.

    "There was not a word said about stopping settlements. All of their efforts were useless."

    US politicians, meanwhile, are talking about reducing the $470m in annual foreign aid that Washington sends to the PA.

    Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, is also in the region to meet Israeli and Palestinian officials.

    A spokeswoman for Ashton said on Saturday the EU was calling for a "constructive solution" to the issue of statehood and restarting negotiations.

    "We continue to believe that a constructive solution that can gather as much support as possible and allows for the resumption of negotiations is the best and only way to deliver the peace and two state solution the Palestinian people want," said Jaja Cocijanic.

    Raanan Gissin, an adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, told Al Jazeera that a UN vote would leave the PA with nothing more than a "virtual state", a position echoed by many Israeli officials.

    "The one course of action Abbas thought would serve him is to go to the UN and ask for a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state," Gissin said.

    "What I would suggest to him is that now is exactly the time not for public statements, but for quiet negotiations to try and revive the direct negotiations with Israel."

    Israeli 'trap'

    A few elements of the PLO's strategy are still unclear.

    Officials have not decided, for example, how to respond to the expected US veto - they could approach the General Assembly for an upgrade to "non-member observer state" status, or they could return to the Security Council and force another US veto.

    Shtayyeh of the PLO said that both options are being considered.

    The PLO is planning a series of marches and rallies, in the West Bank and internationally, to coincide with the vote. Abbas is expected to address the General Assembly on September 23.

    In his speech on Friday, Abbas urged Palestinians to keep the protests peaceful, warning that violent demonstrations would allow Israel to "trap" the Palestinians.

    Tensions are already high in the West Bank. On Friday, a Palestinian was shot and an Israeli settler was stabbed in a confrontation near the village of Qusra, south of Nablus.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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