Flying in the face of decency: sanctioning Palestine for seeking statehood

    Palestinians rally outside the UN building in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 8, 2011 as they kick off a campaign of support for their bid to become the 194th state to join the United Nations. (Getty Images)

    Enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as fundamental human prerogatives are “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition… for a redress of grievances.” The amendment expressly banned Congress from abridging that right. A century and a half after the young nation guaranteed its people those rights, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that all people were entitled to the same freedoms.

    Since then, those rights—“peaceably to assemble… [and] petition for a redress of grievances”—have come to be held as virtually sacred. Often, when they have been publicly abridged in any part of the world, public opinion has been quick to condemn the responsible governmental entity, sometimes with powerful effect.

    In the United States alone, two such event chains substantially changed the nation’s political complexion in the 1950s and ’60s. The U.S. left lost strength in 1956, when a large proportion of the Communist Party USA left the party in disillusion after the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of Hungary’s anti-communist movement. On the other hand, a few years later, the dogs-and-fire hose police responses to civil rights demonstrations in Southern communities—and the international shock as those responses were broadcast on television around the globe—were a major factor in the passage of the Civil Rights law of 1964.

    Worldwide, it was the “banning” and imprisonment of South Africans for challenging apartheid as well as the ugliness of apartheid itself that galvanized world opinion against the South African state from the 1980s through the arrival of nonracial-based democracy there in the early ’90s. And the Communist world was never the same after the global revulsion at the deaths of protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

    Now, this year, the Arab Spring and its children are sweeping the globe, from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to New York City’s Wall Street. Around the world, people are exercising their right to assemble, demanding participatory democracy and people-centered economic priorities. As I write this, the protests are arriving in Washington DC.

    Two weeks ago, in New York City, Palestine exercised the other half of that right: the right to petition peaceably for redress of grievances—in this case, a grievance going back to 1947 and the U.N. partition of Britain’s former Palestine Mandate into a future Jewish state, a future Palestinian state, and a shared Jerusalem. The State of Israel was formed in 1948, but Palestine to this day has only “observer” status at the United Nations (despite recognition of its sovereignty by 65 percent of U.N. member nations).

    On September 24, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, stood before the U.N. General Assembly to petition it to redress that grievance by recognizing the State of Palestine. “The time has come,” he declared, “for my courageous and proud people, after decades of displacement and colonial occupation and ceaseless suffering, to live like other peoples of the earth, free in a sovereign and independent homeland.”

    There are several possible outcomes. If the General Assembly recognizes Palestine statehood, the Security Council would then approve or disapprove the decision; the United States will then veto statehood on behalf of its ally, Israel. The General Assembly could then vote to give Palestine an intermediate status, that of “observer state.” That decision would also face U.S. and Israeli opposition but would not be subject to veto.

    Most of the General Assembly rose for a long ovation when Abbas finished speaking. A few delegates kept their seats, most noticeably, those of Israel and the United States. That was their right, of course—to express their opinions, or those of their countries. Indeed, it is their right as U.N. members to vote against Palestinian statehood, though whether one approves of such votes is a different matter.

    But in fact the United States and Israel are doing more than opposing statehood for Palestine. Israel, while claiming long and deep commitment to democracy, is working actively and furiously to punish the Palestine government and the Palestinian people for asking for statehood. And elected representatives in the U.S. Congress—which also asserts such commitment in its very nature—are working equally actively, equally furiously, to effect that punishment.

    No, you didn’t misread this. There are bills before the U.S. Congress that attempt to punish Palestine for seeking recognition.

    Leave Israel aside, for the moment. A U.S. citizen, I write this for a U.S. audience, about what our representatives are doing. Members of Congress have suspended payment of unspent monies allocated for Palestine in the just-ended fiscal year 2011; and bills presently before Congress regarding fiscal year 2012 provide draconian penalties for Abbas’ and the Palestinian Authority’s daring.

    A clause in a Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill provides that none “of the funds appropriated under this heading may be made available for the Palestinian Authority unless the Secretary of State certifies to the Committees on Appropriations that the Palestinian Authority is not attempting to establish or seek recognition at the United Nations of a Palestinian state outside of an agreement negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.” A bill introduced by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the “Solidarity with Israel Act,” goes radically further, proposing to “prohibit funding for the United Nations in the event the United Nations grants Palestine a change in status from a permanent observer entity before a comprehensive peace agreement has been reached with Israel.”

    Punishing individuals or an entire people for seeking freedom, autonomy, or justice was an offense against decency—a crime against humanity, if you prefer—in Hungary. It was an offense against decency in South Africa. It was an offense against decency in the U.S. South and in Tiananmen Square.

    It is an offense against decency and a crime against humanity today. That Israel is doing it, that the U.S. Congress is considering it, shames them in the eyes of the world. To let it pass unchallenged would shame all of us.

    For one of the many attempts to stop this, see the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation.

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