A pivotal event in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took place when Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority and the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), requested full membership of the United Nations on the 23rd of September, 2011. Although the outcome of this process is still unknown, Israeli peace advocate Chassia Chomsky and her Palestinian counterpart Maysoun Qawasmi both hope that change is about to come.
When entering the UN General Assembly in New York, Abbas received a standing ovation from several world leaders. But many important hurdles remain. Currently, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has submitted the Palestinian application to the Security Council, which consists of five permanent seats belonging to China, Russia, France, England and USA, and ten rotating seats. The application first has to pass through the Security Council with nine votes of approval and no vetoes. Should this be the case, the application then must be voted through with a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. This would provide Palestine with the recognition of statehood that Israel was granted in 1948.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a long history and the situation on the ground is still very harsh. Peace advocates Chassia Chomsky and Maysoun Qawasmi visited Lund on October 3, where they both participated in a seminar on the role of women in peace processes. When asked about their work as peace advocates, they discussed the precariousness of the situation. Qawasmi, a Palestinian journalist in Hebron, a city located in the Palestinian West Bank, spoke about violence. According to her, attacks from the minority of Jewish settlers living in an area which contains holy sites both for the Jewish and the Muslim population are common. Qawasmi works on reports about the violence, but is also trying to empower women by educating them in international law; she is “trying to build a civil society”. Chomsky, a Jew living in Israel, is trying to raise awareness within the Jewish community. Chomsky described how “the Palestinians are officially equal to the Jews, but in practice they are discriminated by the government”. She works on publishing yearly reports about the situation on the ground, attempting to provide the government with feasible solutions, while at the same time trying to promote dialogue between neighbouring Jewish and Palestinian communities. In doing so, Chomsky wants to make change happen both top-down and bottom-up.
When asked about the Palestinian application to the UN, Qawasmi hopes that the Palestinian state as of 1967 will be recognised. Qawasmi refers to Palestine as “the only country in the world which is under constant occupation”. The borders of 1967 came about after the Six-Day War between Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, in which Israel gained control over the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Abbas is striving for the acceptance of the pre-1967 borders, but these are not uncontested within the Palestinian community. Hamas, the far from uncontroversial winner of the 2006 Palestinian elections, does not support Abbas’ approach, but rather wants the whole of Palestine back. The political division within the Palestinian community is likely to complicate the formation of a Palestinian state.
While meeting a lot of support and applause, the Palestinian application to the UN has for instance been criticised for not giving a solution on the issue of the settlers. A few weeks ago Israel announced that it would continue expanding its settlements and as recently as in October of 2011, it announced the building of an enormous housing area in Jerusalem. A request from the “Middle East quartet” – composed of the UN, EU, United States and Russia – that Israeli prime minister Netanyahu and Abbas should negotiate openly and without preconditions was rejected by Abbas, who insisted that Israel must stop building settlements immediately. Chomsky also stresses the importance of Israel abandoning the building of new settlements, questioning how a Jewish state can justify such actions considering its own history of persecution. She calls it a misuse of the memory of the Holocaust and says that Israel is getting to become “a racist, fascist state”.
Although the content of the UN application is criticised by some, the biggest obstacle for the formation of a Palestinian state is the process of membership itself. It is highly probable that the request for full membership will not be approved by the Security Council, as the United States has already threatened to use its veto, should the requirement of nine out of fifteen supporters be met. Both Qawasmi and Chomsky are genuinely disappointed in President Obama; Qawasmi says that the Palestinians have had high hopes for Obama, since he officially called earlier this year for a return to the 1967 borders. Chomsky goes so far as to name Obama when asked about the biggest obstacle to finding a viable solution.
Qawasmi and Chomsky both hope that a two-state solution will be possible, and will keep promoting dialogue and empowering women. According to Qawasmi, an important task for women is to support husbands actively in the conflict to negotiate; Chomsky adds, with support from Qawasmi, that in her view women are paying the highest price as they suffer most from the conflict in their daily lives. To illustrate the role women can play in conflicts, Chomsky refers to the Greek play Lysistrata in which women held a “sex strike” to force the men to negotiate peace in the Peloponnesian War. For Qawasmi it is also very vital that women and men work together to reach peace.
The coming weeks will be decisive, as the Security Council will probably vote soon.