What exactly is Palestine?

Even as Mahmoud Abbas says Palestine is now a state, his countrymen point out that their day-to-day lives are still controlled by Israel.

Palestinians in Ramallah cheer near a placard depicting Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas after the UN General Assembly upgraded their status from ‘observer entity’ to ‘non-member state’.
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RAMALLAH // Mahmoud Abbas declared that Palestine had a state on his triumphant return from the United Nations, but many Palestinians are asking: what do we have and what do we call it?

The Palestinian Authority (PA) president on Sunday lauded Palestine's "historic achievement" of being recognised as a non-member state at the UN.

"Now we have a state," he told thousands gathered at his presidential compound in Ramallah.

For many Palestinians, the overwhelming support last week by the world body's General Assembly to upgrade their status from observer entity was indeed historic. But it is far from clear how the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the desired capital, East Jerusalem, make up a viable state.

Nor is Palestine a formal UN member but, rather, an observer whose delegation to New York must still sit behind member states in the assembly hall. That distinction is lost on billboards in the West Bank that proclaim: "The State of Palestine is here".

"It's a fake state," said Linah Alsaafin, a Ramallah-based blogger for the Electronic Intifada website.

Others were more forgiving. George Khouri, 50, an owner of a supermarket in Ramallah, said Palestinians were "happy with the UN decision". But he was unsure what to call it, given Israeli restrictions.

"Can every Palestinian here travel to Jerusalem, our capital? Of course not," Mr Khouri said, referring to Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement, adding: "Israel controls us. It's our state by force."

Still, Palestine would seem to meet some of the requirements for statehood set out by the Montevideo Convention of 1933, which are a steady population, defined territory, a government and the ability for diplomacy.

There is indeed a permanent population of Palestinians in Palestine, and its leaders are certainly no strangers to globetrotting diplomacy. Its territory and a unified control over it, however, are another matter.

Perhaps the most crucial element to state sovereignty - monopoly on the use of force within a defined geographic area - is still elusive for Palestinians. As it has for nearly 50 years, Israel occupies the lands of Palestine: it controls its borders, its trade, the identity cards of its residents and much of its resources, such as water. It has also flooded Palestine with half a million Jewish settlers who live in communities under Israeli jurisdiction.

Nor does a single Palestinian leader stake claim over all of Palestine. Fatah runs the PA in the West Bank and its Islamist rival, Hamas, controls Gaza. Israel has formally annexed East Jerusalem.

Even what to call the newly recognised state has created confusion. On its UN website, the Palestinian mission to the world body now says its name has been changed to this mouthful: "Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine to the United Nations".

In a tweet this week, Xavier Abu Eid, spokesman for the Palestinian team that negotiates with Israel, wrote: "Dear journalists: Kindly stop using PA or 'Palestinian Territories' when you refer to Palestine, a state recognised by the UNGA."

Nour Odeh, the PA spokeswoman, said it was acceptable to "call it occupied Palestine or the occupied State of Palestine".

More important about the effect of the Palestinian UN bid, however, is the international legitimacy the move has accorded to Palestinian statehood aspirations, she said.

Israel looked more isolated than ever when only nine countries opposed it, while 138 backed it.

While Palestinians cannot participate in General Assembly votes, the observer status allows them to accede to international treaties and join global institutions. That puts them on par with the Vatican, the only other observer state in the UN that engages in near full diplomatic relations with the world.

Palestinian leaders theoretically can bring claims against Israeli officials to the International Criminal Court, which classifies illegal settlements as a war crime.

Still, the "exaggerations" of what Mr Abbas and his leadership delivered for Palestinians could backfire if concrete steps are not taken to end Israel's occupuation, said Ghassan Khatib, vice president of the West Bank's Birzeit University.

But, he added, refering to the impact of palestine's recogntion: "It's a step in the right direction on a long road ahead."


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