Last week, the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that he had accepted the application of Palestinians to join 13 international UN conventions. Significantly, these include the Geneva Conventions, which govern the rules of war and military occupation.
Ban informed all 193 UN member states that the application, by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, was made “in due and proper order” and that it would be processed within a month. Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, said that Palestine was ready with more applications to join UN agencies, conventions, and treaties, depending on Israel’s actions.
The question of Palestine’s UN status is a charged one. In November 2012, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to grant Palestine “non-member observer status”. This allowed the Palestinians to participate in General Assembly debates, as well as improving its chances of joining UN agencies and conventions, and the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The decision to seek international recognition and support for an independent Palestinian state along pre-1967 borders reflected intense frustration with the US-led peace process. While some dismissed it as a symbolic and grandstanding move that would have no impact for people on the ground in Palestine, it still caused alarm in Israel, which was concerned that the Palestinians’ ultimate aim was to seek to bring international human rights charges against Israel.
Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that as a prerequisite for the latest round of talks, spearheaded by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Abbas agreed to stop seeking further UN recognition. That agreement held for the prearranged nine-month period of talks. However, that process is currently floundering, after Israel refused to carry out the last of four prisoner releases that had been agreed at the beginning of the process. Israel wanted a guarantee that the Palestinians would continue to talk after the end of April deadline passed and decided not to release the prisoners. In response, Abbas went back to the UN.
The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not pleased, to say the least. The day before Ban announced that the UN would accept the Palestinian application, Israel said that it would impose sanctions against the Palestinian Authority. This was in retaliation for the request to join international conventions. Netanyahu ordered all government ministries to halt cooperation with Palestinian entities. He placed a particular emphasis on meetings between Israeli ministers and their Palestinian counterparts.
In the past, Israel has hit out at this “unilateral” action by the Palestinians at the UN, arguing that it will hinder the peace process and complicate matters because there is no universally recognized Palestinian state.
But clearly, the anxiety in Israel stems from the fact that many of its actions – not least, settlement building – are illegal under international law. One area of particular concern is the Geneva Convention’s prohibition of colonizing occupied land. Israel has argued that this should not apply to settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza because the sovereignty of the two territories is unclear: they were ruled by Jordan and Egypt before 1967, and Palestine has never had its own full state. Israel also argues that east Jerusalem should not be considered occupied land because the state has extended citizenship rights to Arab citizens (only a few thousand of the city’s quarter of a million Arab residents have taken it up). Allowing Palestine to be party to this convention is a significant development that has been a long time coming: the Palestinian Liberation Organisation first tried to join the Geneva Conventions in 1989 but was rebuffed by the Swiss Foreign Ministry “due to the uncertainty within the international community as to the existence or non-existence of a State of Palestine.”
This has not happened yet, but if Palestine is allowed to sign up to the Rome Statute, the founding document of the ICC, it could ask prosecutors to investigate Israel for crimes against humanity, for instance in the 2008 assault on Gaza. Ultimately, the more recognition the Palestinian Authority obtains, the more conventions and organisations it becomes party to, the greater recourse to international justice it has. Speaking to Middle East Monitor last year, the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim said that the initial accession to non-member observer status was significant: “It means the Palestinians are cutting their losses with Netanyahu and Obama,” he said. “On 99 per cent of the permanent status issues, international legality supports the Palestinian position.”
Writing in the Haaretz newspaper last week, journalist Zvi Ba’arel argued that Netanyahu’s sanctions – which could potentially include the withholding of tax that Israel collects on behalf of the PA, as well as resurrecting dismantled checkpoints and restricting business travel – are counter-productive. “The actual goal of the sanctions is unclear. If Netanyahu pressures Abbas to retract Palestine’s signatures from the UN treaties, he is likely to see Abbas sign the Rome Statute as well,” he wrote. “If Netanyahu is trying to prove how strong Israel is, the sanctions actually show Israel’s weakness, as the Palestinians have already shown they are not scared of a more brutal occupation.”
As with the original bid for UN membership, this move by Abbas demonstrates frustration with the peace process and a lack of hope that it is heading anywhere. Whether it will provide relief for people in the West Bank or Gaza remains a point of debate, but it certainly represents an attempt to up the pressure on Israel and the US.