UN vote: From ‘occupation’ to border dispute

If Israel was what it is often made out to be – a brutal occupier imposing its rule on others – how is it that the Palestinians managed to establish all the institutions of a state?

December 10, 2012 22:07
3 minute read.
PA President Abbas, UN Secretary-General Ban

PA President Abbas and UN Secretary-General Ban in New York . (photo credit: reuters)


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The recent vote in the United Nations General Assembly to give non-member observer state status to the Palestinian Authority contains no new legal or diplomatic information – except that claims about Israel’s subjugation and denial of Palestinian self-determination are no longer tenable. Unwittingly, the UN recognition negates claims of Israeli apartheid, disarms Palestinian threats of insisting on a one-state solution, and makes clear that all that remains is a rather standard conflict between two states over borders.

First, it bears noting what the vote doesn’t do. The GA vote does little to increase the recognition of the Palestinians as a state because the vast majority of nations already recognize Palestine through full, formal diplomatic relations. Indeed, the Palestinians’ level of recognition rivals Israel’s.

Compared to that, changing the degree of its non-membership in the GA is fairly trivial. The apparent diplomatic victory is itself a consolation prize for the collapse of Abbas’s bid last year for actual UN membership for Palestine, which was rejected at the Security Council.

The truly historic aspect of the acknowledgement of PA statehood is that it contradicts the repeated tropes about Israeli oppression, occupation and apartheid. Statehood is a precondition of UN membership, not a result. There are no “peoples under occupation” with GA “state” status.

Indeed, the resolution acknowledges that the Palestinians have established all the trappings of a state. Abbas’s application to the Security Council last year made clear that they already had an independent, functioning state. It has a central bank and security forces, its own (virulently anti-Semitic) media, tax system and penal system. Palestine even an Internet suffix and international telephone exchange.

It has long been functioning as a state, conducting foreign relations, making deals and acting entirely independently of, indeed contrary to, the will of Israel. This is not a Bantustan overseen by Israel, as all its recent actions prove. In the wake of the UN vote, Palestine opened a defense ministry and began discussing issuing passports. No people under occupation have all these trappings of self-determination and statehood.

The Palestinians managed to create a functioning and independent government because the Israeli military control over most of the territories was phased out through the Oslo Accords. Today, well over 95% of Palestinians live in territory administered by the Palestinian government.

SO WHAT is the UN bid about? Certainly not statehood. Israel supports Palestinian statehood more than any other nation, having offered it in negotiations repeatedly.

Rather it is over borders. This is evident from the resolution’s specifically describing the borders of the new non-member: typically, membership determinations are entirely distinct from border delineations.

The PA does not just want statehood and self-determination for the Palestinians. They insist that their state include what in the Oslo Process was dubbed Area C – regions that are overwhelmingly Jewish.

Roughly four percent of Palestinians live in Area C, while 100% of Jews in the West Bank live there.

Yes, Israel still on occasion conducts security operations in the Palestinian areas in the West Bank, and can affect life in the Palestinian territories. But this does not negate the reality of their self-determination, just as the fact that Hamas decides when school is open in the South does not negates Israel’s independence.

Forget occupation and apartheid.

Now Palestine is a state in the eyes of the UN. It happens to have territorial dispute with its neighbors.

Such controversies are commonplace, and do not undermine international legitimacy. India, China, Russia, Japan and many other nations have longstanding controversies over frontiers.

But if Israel was what it is often made out to be – a brutal occupier imposing its rule on others – how is it that the Palestinians managed to establish all the institutions of a state?

Eugene Kontorovich is a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, and an expert on international law.

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