Keeping the Keys: The Rise of the Palestinian Diplomatic Intifada

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Following the murder of Palestinian Authority Minister Ziad Abu Ein last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threatened that “all options are open.” Additionally, Abbas reportedly asked German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to inform Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he intends to hand over the “keys” to the Palestinian territories to Israel. In other words, Abbas would force Israel, as the occupier of the Palestinian territories, to bear the burden of its obligations to the Palestinians as laid out in international law, including the provision of food, education, healthcare, and security.

This is not the first time that Abbas has spoken of dissolving the Palestinian Authority (PA), of course, and it is unclear when or even if he would implement this threat. Regardless, Netanyahu does not seem too much bothered by the idea. Abbas would be far better off pursuing a comprehensive strategy aimed at ending the occupation rather than submitting to it. Abbas has other options, including what could be called a “diplomatic intifada.” Bringing peace to the holy land will require Netanyahu surrendering the keys to the Palestinians , not the other way around.

We define the diplomatic intifada as the phenomenon of an occupied people steadily and confidently pursuing the realization of their right to self-determination, using the countless legal and political means available to them under international law, to end their occupation. For such an intifada to succeed, the Palestinian leadership will need to engage with three primary parties: its own people, the United States, and Europe.

Domestically, Abbas needs to take action to reassure the Palestinians that he is doing enough to address their plight. Palestinians in Jerusalem are suffering from systematic discrimination–what Johan Galtung has termed “structural violence” — in residency rights, housing, taxes, healthcare, education, and water, as documented by Israeli, Palestinian, and international NGOs. As a result, Jerusalem’s Palestinians have been building towards their own intifada for months now; they will not be placated by their leader’s calls for calm.

Abbas should not be expected to magically relieve the suffering of the Palestinian, but to preserve his credibility and his standing among the Palestinian people he needs to take action, not just make statements. Abbas has repeatedly threatened to dissolve the PA and join the International Criminal Court (ICC), but at the end of the day, he has not done either. For years now, Palestinians have staged weekly non-violent protests against the separation wall that encroaches on their lands and disrupts their daily lives, and they are tired of Abbas failing to support them in doing so.

Palestinians cannot trust their leadership when they see Europeans boycotting Israeli settlement products while the PA is unable to enforce such measures in its own backyard. For a diplomatic intifada to succeed, Abbas needs to strengthen his internal front and lead from within by sharing in what his people experience daily. Instead of surrendering the keys, the PA needs to do away with all privileges associated with the occupation, starting with VIP cards. The PA has the tremendous potential at its disposal, in the form of universally recognized means of non-violent resistance, but it has not employed civil disobedience or other tactics collectively to this point.

When it comes to the peace process, Abbas needs to be truthful both to his own people and to the United States as well. He must acknowledge that direct negotiations have not worked–and will never work–because they are structurally fatally flawed. Abbas continuing to entertain Washington-sponsored direct negotiations serves only to delude his own people and allow the United States to avoid making tough decisions about pressuring the Netanyahu government or protecting Israel at the Security Council. An effective diplomatic intifada will require Abbas to tell Washington, unequivocally, that the old negotiation paradigm is over once and for all and a new program is emerging that focuses wholly on ending the continued occupation of Palestine.

A diplomatic intifada should, however, aim to isolate and neutralize the United States rather than clashing with it. One of the very few places where a direct confrontation between the United States and the PA could happen is in the Security Council, though for the time being Abbas could avoid this by turning to other venues in the international arena. Washington cannot prevent the PA from joining international organizations, boycotting Israeli products, or practicing civil disobedience. Forms of internationally recognized non-violent resistance may in fact help Washington manage its relationship better with what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called its “ungrateful ally.” At the end of the day, Washington will find it particularly difficult to go after Abbas when his declared strategy is to seek liberation in ways that conform to international norms. Washington will struggle to explain why such behavior should be considered threatening.

While avoiding U.S. opposition will be important for a diplomatic intifada to succeed, engaging Europe is where such a campaign could yield breakthroughs. Historically, Europe has played the role of a “taboo breaker” on Palestinian issues, paving the way for later, substantial changes in American positions. Historically, Europe has proven to be five to ten years ahead of the United States on such issues. For example, Margret Thatcher met with Yasser Arafat five years before the first Bush Administration began its dialogue with the P.L.O. in 1989. Now, Europe is taking the lead on recognizing Palestine as a state with a string of parliamentary votes and state declarations over the past few months. It started with Sweden officially recognizing the State of Palestine and France alluding that a similar recognition is only a matter of time. Meanwhile, parliaments of the UK, Ireland, Portugal, France, and Spain have overwhelmingly recommended that their countries also recognize Palestine. These waves of diplomatic recognitions are sidelining American and Israeli officials and sending an unwavering message to the global community that the status quo is unacceptable.

The difference between the European and American positions on the issue of Palestine is understandable. Europeans are more sensitive and vulnerable to a potential third intifada, the Arab Spring, or any other fundamental changes or upheaval in the Middle East. Europe’s vulnerability is, among other reasons, due to its continued reliance upon the region for its energy needs. Equally important for Europe is that Palestinians have already started to emigrate from the shores of Gaza to the shores of Italy, and additional instability in Palestine will only increase the number of migrants. This sensitivity makes Europe more willing to entertain a diplomatic intifada, rather than the risks of a third–and possibly violent — popular intifada.

The European votes are a clear statement that the Palestinians do not have a reasonable or reliable partner on the Israeli side, and thus Europe is rejecting the American position of investing in the status quo. Europe is instead taking serious steps towards establishing a partnership with the Palestinians. Boycotting Israeli settlement products, recognizing the state of Palestine, and considering sanctions against Israel (as reported by Haaretz last week) are all indicators of a new European position that could give hope to peace in the holy land and eventually push the United States to take a more balanced approach to the conflict.

While Abbas does not have a partner for peace in Israel, he seems to have found one in Europe. A solid and consistent diplomatic intifada that is supported by the Palestinian people and conforms to principles of international law could very well present an alternative to the futility of 20 years of U.S.-led negotiations. International law gives Abbas a huge margin to resist the Israeli occupation and lead the Palestinians towards liberation, one that he has never capitalized on. For a diplomatic intifada to succeed, the Palestinian leadership needs to immediately take a number of measures, including: adopting a comprehensive civil disobedience strategy, boycotting Israeli products, immediately joining the ICC and all United Nations affiliate organizations, ejecting privileges stemming from the occupation such as VIP cards, aligning with the Palestinian people’s aspirations and sharing in their hardships, officially adopting the growing and influential BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, and stopping all types of collaboration with the authorities of the Israeli occupation. This includes the long overdue revision of security collaboration with Israel; Abbas’s security apparatuses must function in a way to protect the Palestinian people rather than working as “subcontractors of repression” as this New York Times article argues.

Closely cooperating with Europe on the grounds of reaching a just solution to the conflict is an issue of mutual interest and should form a pillar of this strategy. A credible diplomatic intifada of this kind, especially with more European support, would force Netanyahu to surrender Israel’s hold over occupied Palestine, rather than Abbas giving up the keys.

This piece was originally published by
The Huffington Post