The death of President Yasser Arafat, while he was walking a tightrope of simultaneously managing peaceful and military approaches towards accruing statehood for Palestine, brought a new phase in the struggle. The Palestinian-Israeli security coordination mechanism was revived. Though it brought tranquillity, there was no substantial change in the political domain. The Israelis responded to the military and political narratives with different arguments, yet with identical outcome: the arrogant refusal to end the occupation.

Ever since the creation of Israel, these two narratives have been competing for the hearts and minds of Palestinians, posing dilemmas about the best way to end the Israeli occupation. This month witnessed manifestation of both narratives in parallel. The Palestinian Authority (PA) sought statehood through the UN, while Hamas tried to convince the Israelis to quit their occupation through the use of rockets. The latest war, which saw rockets from Gaza reaching Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem, brought back the international players, who had long abandoned the Palestinian cause.

The Palestinian leadership presented a request for a vote at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to acquire a “non-member observer state” status, asking the world community to address the unfair decision it took in 1947, when it agreed to divide Palestine. At that time, the UN had supported a plan to create a Jewish state on 54 percent of the territory of the British Mandate of Palestine, or simply the Palestine Mandate, for 31 percent of the population that owned less than 6 percent of the land. Earlier, President Mahmoud Abbas had tabled his bid for the Palestinian statehood during the 66th session of the UNGA. Then he made his bid to the Security Council. The initial acceptance of application required the consensus of nine UNSC members. Unfortunately, the bid fell short of one vote. A year later, 138 countries have voted to upgrade Palestine to a non-member state of the UN.

The vote profile - 138 countries in favour, nine against and 41 abstentions - indicates an impressive backing for the Palestinian viewpoint. The vote won backing from a number of European countries, and was a rebuff to intense American and Israeli diplomacy. France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland all voted ‘yes’. Britain and Germany abstained. Apart from Canada, no major country joined the US and Israel in voting ‘no’. According to reports, Britain was prepared to back the vote, if Mahmoud Abbas pledged not to pursue Israel for war crimes. Other opponents included Palau, Panama and Micronesia.

The voting also has a symbolic value, since it was held on the 65th anniversary of the vote to divide the former British Mandate of Palestine into two states - one Jewish and one Arab; Israel considers that vote as legal instrument for its birth.

The new status will give the Palestinians more tools to challenge Israel in international legal forums for its occupation-related activities in the West Bank, including the construction of settlements. Saeb Erekat, the former Chief Palestinian Negotiator, said: “Life will not be the same.......(because) Palestine will become a country under occupation.......The terms of reference for any negotiations become withdrawal.” Earlier, he had said: “After the voting at the General Assembly is completed, [Abbas] will submit three letters to the UN Secretary General, at the same hour. The first would be a request for membership to become a state member of the Fourth Geneva Convention, so as to show Israel that there is ‘a high price to pay’ for occupation. The second letter would call on the UNSC to reactivate the UN Anti-Apartheid Committee to address the situation in the West Bank, which is ‘worse than it was in South Africa [and] Rhodesia’. The third letter would be a request for membership in the Forum Against Racism and Discrimination.”

President Abbas, speaking to the UNGA, said: “The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine.” Hamas also backed the bid. Salah al-Bardaweel, a Spokesman for Hamas in Gaza, commented: “We do not recognise Israel, nor the partition of Palestine, and Israel has no right in Palestine.......Getting our membership in the UN bodies is our natural right, but without giving up any inch of Palestine’s soil.”

The Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, spoke after President Abbas and said that he was concerned that the PA failed to recognise Israel for what it is. He said: “Three months ago, Israel’s Prime Minister stood in this very hall and extended his hand in peace to President Abbas.......He reiterated that his goal was to create a solution of two states for two peoples where a demilitarised Palestinian state will recognise Israel as a Jewish state.”

President Abbas has said that he will not negotiate as long as Israel keeps expanding settlements. Half a million Israelis now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, blurring the 1967 lines. PM Netanyahu has consistently refused to freeze the construction of settlements. “They can get pieces of paper from the UN, but they are not going to move peace forward; they are not going to make a Palestinian statehood more real,” an Israeli Spokesperson said. Susan E. Rice, the American Ambassador to the UN, commented: “Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade.......And the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded.”

In response to the Palestinian bid, a bipartisan group of American Senators intends introducing a legislation that could cut off foreign aid to the Authority, if it tried to use the International Criminal Court against Israel; and close the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s office in Washington if the Palestinians refused to negotiate with the Israelis. Calling the Palestinian bid “an unhealthy step that could undermine the peace process,” Senator Lindsey Graham said that he and the other Senators “would be closely monitoring the situation.”

The UNGA vote came shortly after an eight-day Israeli military assault on Gaza, which Tel Aviv described as a response to stepped-up rocket fire into Israel. The operation killed scores of Palestinians. The PA was politically weakened by the Gaza fighting with its rivals in Hamas seen by many Palestinians as more willing to stand up to Israel and fight back. That shift in sentiment is one reason why some Western countries backed the UN resolution; to strengthen Mr Abbas and his more moderate colleagues in their contest with Hamas.

The Middle East has gone through a historic transformation; there is no likelihood of enduring peace unless the issue of Palestinian independence is resolved. The fragile ceasefire in Gaza is only a brief pause that needs to be seized to revive the dormant peace process.

Understandably, the Arab-Israel dispute is not destined for an easy or pain-free resolution. Ironically, the struggle for the liberation of Palestine has wrongly been equated with terrorism. The Israelis de-legitimised the Palestinians as radicals, extremists and terrorists whose aim is the destruction of Israel and hence, not qualified to be partners for peace. Their response to the Palestinians striving for a political settlement was even more nuanced. These Palestinians were required to prove that they unequivocally recognised Israel and were obliged to teach their kids to love Israelis, and that everything was to be resolved only through negotiations.

For Palestinians, it is a long way to go; the struggle has just begun!

The writer is a retired Air Commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.