by Mina Al-Oraibi
The Arab world is aflame with war, and most Arab countries struggle with sectarianism and authoritarianism. As a result, the Israeli occupation of Palestine often gets lost against the backdrop of these pressing issues. Arab officials themselves often sidestep the issue of the occupation to promote their individual countries’ interests. And Western officials will use these competing concerns as an excuse to ignore the continued occupation. In some countries, Yet the Palestinian question remains at the heart of any effort to resolve many of the Middle East’s challenges. Unless the international community resolves the question of Palestinian statehood, many of the other problems for states in the region will continue to fester.
Many of the problems in the Middle East today either originated with the occupation of Palestine or have existed in paralleled with it such as a lack of respect for international laws, the violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, the rise of extremist non-state actors, and the failure to tackle refugee issues and demographic changes.
Multiple UN resolutions on Palestine, from various bodies of the international organization, remain unfulfilled. The most significant, UN Security Council Resolution 242, calls on Israel to withdraw from the territories it seized in the 1967 war and lays down the principles for a peaceful settlement. The failure to uphold UN resolutions concerning Palestine over the last five decades established a precedent in the Middle East that has weakened the effectiveness of the UN and international governance and that contributed to the 2003 war on Iraq and, more recently, the inability to stem the violence in Syria.
On the other hand, without an officially recognized state to represent them, Palestinians have had to contend with non-state actors as their only organized representation. For decades, the international community rejected the Palestinian Liberation Organization and only later gradually accepted other groups, including Hamas, as real actors on the ground. The Palestinian Authority (PA), recognizing the significance of being accepted as a legitimate state actor, has spent years working on diplomatic recognition. It took one step closer with a UN General Assembly vote in 2012, after the United States threatened to use its veto in the Security Council. Still, the PA has only achieved “non-member observer status” at the UN. Palestine is an internationally recognized state that continues to live under occupation even as PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, is received all over the world with similar protocol as that of a head of state.
Regionally, the occupation of Palestine continues to give space for actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force. Their leaders claim that they have a credible role to play to fight for Palestine, even though their main exploits are now in Syria. So long as there is an occupation, it can be used as a raison d’etre of various armed groups.
The treatment of elections in Palestine has also cast a long shadow over the region. Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council in elections generally accepted as free and fair a decade ago. Instead of helping to draw Hamas into a positive political role in Palestine after it won 76 out of 132 seats, the United States rejected the results. The message was clear to the Arab world that the United States supports elections only when it approves of the result, thus undermining the political process.
More recently, the issue of refugees and the legal status of those displaced by conflicts in Iraq and Syria has led to criticism, in many cases warranted, of Arab countries not giving legal status to refugees. However, Arab countries, especially Jordan and Lebanon, have accepted generations of Palestinians, displaced in waves from 1948 to the present day, who await a political solution that can resolve their status. Refugee rights for Syrians and Iraqis would first have to be accorded to Palestinians.
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), one third of Palestinian refugees, over 1.5 million people, are registered as refugees and still live in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza.When UNRWA began operations in 1950, it was meant to be a temporary agency meeting the needs of 750,000 Palestinians. Seven decades later, the refugees and their descendants under the remit of UNRWA number five million.
Handhala has become a symbol for Arab refugees around the world. The much-loved child refugee, created by assassinated Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali, has his back to the world and his eyes on his Palestinian village. In all the depictions of Handhala, he always looks back at that Palestinian village to which he must return, to end the suffering of his refugee brethren.
In addition to the rational and strategic reasons for ending the occupation of Palestine, an ever-more compelling one is self-determination. In a region embroiled in struggles over identity and nationhood, Palestinian self-determination remains a popular goal. According to the 2015 Arab Opinion Index, carried out by the Doha Institute and polling over 18,000 Arabs across 12 countries, three-quarters of respondents believe that the Palestinian cause concerns “all of the Arab peoples and not just the Palestinians alone.”
Photo: Internally displaced Palestinian-Iraqi family near the Jordanian border.
Mina Al-Oraibi is an Iraqi-British journalist and former assistant editor-in-chief of Asharq Alawsat. She can be reached on @AlOraibi