Palestinians take to the streets ahead of UN statehood bid

RAMALLAH – Thousands of Palestinian protesters participated in West Bank marches on Wednesday to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's efforts to achieve recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN.

Rallies took places in Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus, and other Palestinian cities, as the US made last-minute efforts to dissuade Abbas from going through with the membership bid later this week. President Barack Obama was expected to meet with Abbas later on Wednesday.

Although most protesters, many of whom were Fatah supporters, seemed cautiously optimistic, few seemed wholly enthusiastic about the membership bid. Even fewer named any practical benefits of an upgraded status at the UN, other than that it would further a sense of Palestinian dignity.

Tahar Okba, 38, a principal at a secondary school in Beit Reim who was leading his school’s students and teachers in the march, emphasized the significance of the protests.

“The existence of 100,000 protesters is a success because it shows the Palestinian Authority (PA) is capable of mobilizing the people at any second. It’s not true that the PA does not represent the people, as some claim,” he said.

Kamel, 40, a protester who hails from Ramallah, described himself as only “half-enthusiastic” about Abbas’s maneuver.

“There’s no better option,” he said.

A taxi driver who gave his name as Zahar, 44, said he would join Ramallah’s rally later in the day, even though he doubted the Security Council bid, which US officials said America will veto, would accomplish much.

“It won’t lead to anything,” he said. “But I want to see the rally.”

Despite the high hopes they once had for Obama, many Palestinians shrugged off the near certainty of a US veto as a continuation of the country’s decades-long unwavering support for the Jewish state.

Some Palestinians, however, have been skeptical about the UN bid on the basis that the PA doesn't represent the Palestinian population in exile and that Abbas' proposition jeopardizes the right of refugees to return. Cynics also say the move disregards the legitimacy of the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the umbrella entity representing all Palestinians, while the political pressure the bid represents is deemed to be weak.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, is deeply worried that vetoing the bid will anger Arab governments that are more vulnerable to popular pressure amid the Arab Spring. Israel fears that even enhanced Palestinian status falling short of full-fledged membership would increase Israel's international isolation and allow Palestinian officials to freely pursue international suits against Israel for alleged war crimes.

In Ramallah, the rally hosted numerous Palestinian speakers who praised Palestinian martyrs and lambasted international pressure against Abbas going to the UN. A gigantic blue-and-white chair was set up in Manara Square to symbolize full Palestinian membership in the UN. Large posters extolling Abbas' perseverence and depicting him next to former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat could been seen dotting the city.

Before the rally began at 11 am, the government and municipalities bussed in hundreds of schoolchildren from refugee camps and villages neighboring Ramallah to participate in the march, which began from the Muqataa, a fortified complex of administrative buildings in the center of Ramallah that serves as the PA headquarters. The march began at 9 am and ended in Dawar al-Sa'a. It was composed mostly of drumming children carrying Palestinian flags and others representing their schools.

A keynote speaker, Tayyib Abdel Rahim, the secretary to the Palestinian presidency, lashed out at the US Congress, which he accused of implementing colonialism by threatening punitive measures, including the cancellation of half a billion dollars in annual US aid, if Abbas follows through with the membership bid. He accused Israel of having committed “worse crimes than apartheid South Africa” and dismissed the option of negotiations with Israel, which he said had led to nothing since their resumption a few years ago.

Negotiations between the two sides last stalled on 20 October 2010 when Abbas left the negotiating table in response to Israel’s refusal to renew a moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank. Notably, Abdel Rahim took time to caution against a return to violence, which he said would play into the hands of Israeli settlers looking to delegitimize the Palestinian national project and further expand settlement construction.

The message of nonviolence that dominated Wednesday’s rallies seems to have been internalized by many Palestinian youth.

“We want to take our country in peace, not violence,” said one 15-year-old protester from Beit Reim.

The teenager even noted security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to prevent friction between protesters and settlers during Wednesday’s demonstrations. Palestinian and Israeli officials were reported as having coordinated beforehand to thwart the possibility of violence between protesters and settlers, many of whom live between Ramallah and nearby villages in defiance of the international consensus which declares West Bank Israeli settlements illegal.

Nevertheless, some Palestinian youth said that they still expected violent confrontations with settlers and soldiers to take place near settlements and checkpoints, in particular the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, and a location where Israeli soldiers using tear gas and rubber bullets have battled Palestinian rock throwers many times before.

There has been relative calm in the past few years, including a loosening up of Israeli checkpoints, and there is a widespread conviction that demonstrations must be kept peaceful. However, some fear that any violence could lead to an escalation that might destroy the West Bank’s newfound economic prosperity, the benefits of which have not only been restricted to Ramallah, the economic and political center of the West Bank. In the village of Qarawat Beni Zeit, about half an hour from Ramallah, roads that consisted of dirt and potholes two years ago could now be seen paved evenly.

Fady, 22, who hails from a Palestinian village near Ramallah and studies physical therapy in Jerusalem, pointed out the visible signs of prosperity in Ramallah: new railings, pavement, and lamp-posts. Economic growth in the West Bank has averaged around 10 percent in recent years, despite the continuing global economic crises that has roiled economies in the US and Europe. He feared that if violence breaks out, the economic situation could return to what it was eight years ago, during the second intifada, when Israeli raids and restrictions on Palestinian movement led to widespread economic hardship, in addition to arrests and Palestinian casualties.

And Fady failed to see any benefits of the UN bid, despite having decided to attend the rally in Ramallah with his friends. “What's the use?” he said. “With the announcement of ‘Palestine,’ the Jews won’t stop expanding settlements.”

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