31 October 2011

Palestine joins UNESCO; US Pulls Funding

Congratulations to (the perhaps-one-day State of) Palestine for joining UNESCO. Members voted 107-14 (with 52 abstentions) to grant the Palestinian Authority membership. This is the first time it has gained full admission to a UN body.

This latest step in the Palestine Authority's UN gambit has been a ringing success, though at a cost to UNESCO. Unlike much that the body does, this move was not without real financial and political risk. Apparently the United States is prohibited by law from funding UN bodies that accept Palestinians as members (what the hell?!), and the US supplies 22% of UNESCO's funding. Yet the announcement by Director-General Bokova was couched in the classic language of UN idealism:
we are living in a historical moment, and we all feel at this time the historical weight and importance of this decision, for the Palestinian people and for UNESCO. This is the result of the aspiration of a people to join fully the world family of nations...
She goes on to say that UNESCO continues its commitment to Palestine's cultural heritage, including the development of management plans for Tel Balata in Nablus, the archaeological park of Qasr Hisham, and the Church of the Nativity and Riwaya Museum in Bethlehem. (See the official statement here).

Retaliation from Washington and Tel Aviv followed with predictable speed, per the Guardian:
Within hours, the US announced it would withhold its huge contribution to Unesco's budget as a result of the vote. State department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US had no choice due to a 21-year-old law prohibiting the payment of funds to any UN body accepting the Palestinians as full members. A $60m (£38m) transfer that was due later this month would be halted in a move that will have serious consequences for Unesco activities. The US contributes 22% of the agency's annual budget.
Unesco's decision was "regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal to a comprehensive, just and lasting peace [between Israelis and Palestinians]", said Nuland.
Israel also hinted at punitive measures. A statement from the foreign ministry said it would "consider its further steps and ongoing co-operation" with Unesco following the decision. The move was a "unilateral Palestinian manoeuvre which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement", it added.
As an American, it's depressing to see how the hard-core Israeli nationalists have engineered their ideology into our laws, even if it makes no sense for anyone: even Israel, which would benefit from a partner to cooperate with on heritage issues. Assuming that the government is actually serious about a two-state solution, as opposed to the current system of walled enclaves filled with increasingly desperate people who have no freedoms, no rights, and no passports. (It is citizenship in a state, after all, that gives you rights under international law. Palestinians, as stateless people, have no rights - largely due to Israeli military occupation for the last 44 years).

Israel's adamant opposition to the Palestine Authority doing anything that a normal country would do undermines its claims to be in favor of a two-state solution. If you wanted a two-state solution you would want to help your negotiating partner develop the apparatus of statehood, right? So maybe they have some expertise and institutions when they're ready to cut loose on their own?  The far right/military cabal that has hijacked Israel has no desire, however, for Palestine to become a state and will do anything it can to keep it from happening, including historical revisionism such as denying that Rachel's Tomb/Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem was ever a mosque - and reinforcing the point by walling it off from the rest of Bethlehem with the 'separation wall'.

Unlike most of Israel's people, who are fine with a two-state solution on more or less the 1967 boundaries, the Israeli far right is still in denial that Palestinians even exist, or could have a heritage of their own. They do exist, however, and unless people like Avigdor Liebermann realize their fantasies of genocide or mass expulsion, there will be either a two-state solution or a one state solution at some point in the future. The latter, of course, could mean the end of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state. 

More coverage at BBC News and Al Jazeera English.

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