The Palestinian flag will join those of 195 member states and of the Vatican at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York on Wednesday. Lucas Jackson / Reuters
The Palestinian flag will join those of 195 member states and of the Vatican at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York on Wednesday. Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Colours of Palestine fly at the UN

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A new flag will fly outside the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Wednesday evening.

In fact it is rather an old flag, one born nearly a century ago in the flames of the Arab Revolt and which has struggled for legitimacy ever since.

It is the flag of the Palestinian State, currently embodied in the territories of Gaza and the West Bank and the dream of millions outside these lands, from the refugee cities of Jordan and southern Lebanon to the worldwide diaspora of Palestinians.

Denied full membership, the Palestinian territories acquired observer status at the UN in November 2012. On September 10, the General Assembly gave its approval for all UN observer states to join the 195 nations whose flags fly in front the UN headquarters on Manhattan’s 1st Avenue.

There are only two such states. One is the Vatican, the Papal enclave in the heart of Rome. The other is what is officially known as the Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine.

And so, on Wednesday – on the last day of September, 2015 – the Palestine Mission ambassador, Dr Riyad Mansour, the child of a refugee family from Ramallah educated in America, will watch his flag be unfolded and raised, along with his staff and a likely large and enthusiastic crowd of similarly-exiled fellow compatriots.

Inside, the president of the Palestinian authority, Mahmoud Abbas, will deliver a speech to other heads of state at the 70th annual UN assembly.

It will be simple moment, attaching the flag eyelet to the rope halyard and a series of downwards tugs, but the process of getting the Palestine flag to the top of the UN flagpole has been anything but simple.

Most significantly, the new flag will not join those of the rest of the UN member states, arranged in English alphabetical order from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, from north to south.

Instead, a special club of two has been set up for observer status nations, a little apart at the end of the line. The Vatican flag was the first to be raised, without ceremony on Friday, to mark the visit of Pope Francis to the world body.

Despite supporting the creation of a Palestinian state, the Vatican has been decidedly lukewarm about the idea of its flag flying outside the UN, originally refusing to co-sponsor the resolution that made it possible. It is unclear if the Vatican flag will continue to fly outside the UN after the Holy Father’s visit to the United States.

Only a handful of nations voted against giving flag status to observer states. They were led by the US, Canada and Israel, but also included a cluster of tiny Pacific Ocean nations who depend on US financial support.

Among them is Palau, whose flag will ironically be the next door neighbour of Palestine if full member status is ever granted. At least the more sympathetic Pakistan will be on the other side.

The Palestinian flag itself is as complex as the politics that lie behind it. The design is almost identical to that of the Arab Revolt, raised for the first time against the Ottoman Empire in June 1916, but with the white and green panels reversed.

There are those who say it was inspired by Sharif Hussein bin Ali, who initiated the revolt against the Turks with British support. Most accounts, though, say the design was created by an English diplomat, Sir Mark Sykes, to foster Arab unity.

Sykes, with the French diplomat François Georges-Picot, is also the author of the infamous Skyes-Picot Agreement that carved up the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, creating many of the problems that still plague the region, including the continuing failure to agree on a Palestinian state.

If the design of the Palestine flag seems another cruel irony, its colours are indisputably Arab. Each represents a historic Arab dynasty. Red for the Khawarji of 7th century CE, green for the Fatimids, white for the Umayyads and black for the banner of the Prophet Mohammed.

It is a design and colour combination echoed in an number of Arab flags, including that of the UAE, but also Kuwait and the Sahrawi Republic, better known as Western Sahara and Jordan, which also uses the Palestinian design but with a white star in the red triangle.

At least the shape of the flag is uncomplicated. UN protocol requires the flags outside its headquarters to be four feet by six feet and have a ratio of two to three. The only exemptions are for Switzerland, whose flag is square, and Nepal, whose flag ends in two large triangular points.

Despite its current semi-detached tier status, the Palestine flag will also follow UN protocol for member states. Except in severe weather, all the flags are raised at 8am by a team of security officers and are lowered again at 4pm, in ceremonies that last about half-an-hour. This is only during Monday to Friday. On US weekends, only the UN flag is raised unless the UN is in session.

The national flags are stored in locked boxes at the foot of each flagpoles and are generally replaced every six to 12 months, depending on their condition. The old flags are cut into pieces and incinerated. to avoid any accusations of disrespect.

For ambassador Mansour, the raising of the Palestinian flag outside the UN is more than a question of protocol, more than a gesture, but “the small light of a candle to keep hope alive”.

Speaking after last month’s vote in favour of raising the observer flags, he called the resolution “a beacon of hope and to keep our people believing in the United Nations and believing in peaceful efforts to put an end to the occupation”.

“It will be a very proud day for the Palestinian people,” he said, “when we see our flag joining the flags of the rest of the nations, and a significant step in the direction of our right, our natural and legal right to become a full member at the United Nations.”

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