The Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange a couple weeks ago was a very emotional moment for thousands of Palestinians who were reunited with family members they had not seen for years. But it came at a diplomatic price.
Some of the Palestinian public perceive the prisoner exchange deal (in which Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit) as an achievement for Hamas’s militant approach. They see it as a success story that Palestinian diplomatic efforts and negotiations with Israel have not yet been able to deliver.
The prisoners swap came only a few weeks after all eyes were on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as he stood before the United Nations General Assembly and submitted a request to recognize Palestine as a full and permanent member of the international organization.
One of the reasons that Mr. Abbas had decided to go to the UN was his belief that appealing to the international community through diplomatic channels would bring better results to the Palestinian people than armed resistance. Abbas and other leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are convinced that renewed violence would bring disastrous results for the Palestinian cause. Whether or not their peaceful political approach will trump Hamas’s militant route now depends to a large extent on the international community’s response to the Palestinian bid at the UN.
For now, it looks pretty certain that the bid at the Security Council will be met with a veto by the United States. Despite this, the Palestinian leadership continues to pursue efforts to enter Palestine as a nonmember state in the United Nations through the UN General Assembly.
It is also working to enter Palestine into other international organizations – with some success. On Monday, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) admitted Palestine as a member, prompting the US and Israel to cut vital funding to the organization. The PA is now aiming to obtain membership in 16 other UN agencies, the World Trade Organization, and to gain recognition by the European Parliament.
These latter efforts are aimed at arriving at the UN General Assembly vote with the largest number of recognitions by international organizations possible, which will in turn put pressure on the countries that do not presently recognize Palestine.
Many political leaders around the world criticize the new Palestinian policy, calling it unilateral. Yet they have not suggested any alternatives to the Palestinians to secure their rights apart from a return to negotiations, which, in over 18 years, have achieved nothing for the Palestinian people.
The UN bid represents a loss of faith in the negotiation process at this stage, and a decision by the PA leadership to transfer the struggle from Ramallah and Jerusalem to international forums, thereby placing a greater responsibility on the international community. Now the international community must show the Palestinians that there are concrete outcomes and real rewards for their diplomatic efforts.
The day Abbas made his speech at the UN, thousands of Palestinians filled the streets calling for a two-state solution in which a Palestinian state exists next to Israel along the 1967 borders. This is considered a great compromise in the eyes of the Palestinian people for whom recognizing a state of Israel within the 1967 borders means giving up on 78 percent of historical Palestine. Will the international community understand how important it is to build on this momentum?
Whether it will be the Security Council, the General Assembly, or any other international organization, support for Palestinian diplomatic efforts from any of these actors will empower those who are working toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict and encourage the Palestinian street to support the two-state solution.
This could be a critical crossroads. The prisoner swap has shown people that Hamas’s tactics can yield results. If the Palestinians feel that both the path of negotiations and international diplomatic routes fail to achieve results in the near future, they could easily lose faith in the nonviolent approach.
The international community must show the Palestinian people that they support their quest for a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders and, by doing so, demonstrate that they support those who believe in diplomacy, not violence, as a way to solve the conflict and achieve peace.
Dawoud Abu Lebdeh is a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem. He is Project Manager at the Center for Democracy and Non-Violence and one of the founders of the Watan student movement at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This article was originally written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).