Jewel in the crown of the Arab Spring


by Sami Moubayed


The Arab Spring has given an interesting twist to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Young Arabs on the streets of major capitals have realised that the real problem is not only Israel but the Arab environment that has surrounded the Palestinians, using and abusing them, since 1948.

For far too long, Arabs have paid a heavy price, all in the name of a “raped Palestine.” Their governments militarised entire societies and spent billions on armaments, legitimising crackdowns on thought and conduct, all because of their “commitment” to the “first Arab Cause.” At the end of the day, they produced backward societies, poor in education, science and technology, weak and defeated from within — unable to advance the Palestinian Cause an inch.

Had the Palestinians been surrounded by democracies, we would have had a very different Middle East, ordinary Arabs are now saying. Arab states would have muscled Israel with the will of their people, as was the recent case with Egypt when it withdrew its ambassador to Israel after Israeli soldiers killed three Egyptian troops on the border — forcing the Israelis to apologise. Early Saturday morning, young Egyptians even stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, sending a strong message to Tel Aviv. The new Egyptian government, after all, is sensitive to the wishes of its people.

As a result of the Arab wake-up call, young Arabs are now focused on democratising their countries, one by one, which will play out in favour of the Palestinians. Arab leaders, however, are too busy with their own streets to intervene in the Palestinian cause. That has given Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas room to manoeuvre, building up international support for an upcoming resolution at the United Nations aimed at creating the State of Palestine this month.

Abbas plans to submit an application for international recognition of statehood at the 66th annual session of the UN General Assembly on September 14, for a state that will include the West Bank, Gaza and Occupied East Jerusalem. That, of course, is only 22 per cent of historical Palestine. The last time the question of Palestine was raised at the General Assembly was in November 1947, when the UN proposed a two-state solution, known as the UN Partition Plan. Back then, the Arabs famously thundered: “Either all of Palestine, or nothing!”

They went to war against the Israelis, and for 63 years ended up with nothing. Reportedly, 120 states have already backed the Palestinian bid for statehood on the 1967 borders. This includes the European Union and hardline countries such as Syria, which had previously refused to accept anything less than 1948 Palestine.

As a first step towards achieving the new state, Fatah and Hamas set aside their differences earlier this year to reunite the West Bank and Gaza, which have been divided since the 2007 Hamas takeover of the Strip. UN recognition of the Palestinian State would enable the Palestinians to now tap into official channels, taking their cases to human rights bodies and the International Court of Justice.

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the EU have all declared that Palestinian institutions, regardless of how weak, are ready for statehood. President Abbas explained the upcoming move, saying, “When recognition of our state on the 1967 borders happens, we will become a state under occupation, and then we would be able to go to the UN [with demands].” Once it happens, Israel would effectively be occupying lands belonging to a UN member state and building illegal colonies within them.

The international community, in theory, would not be able to sit back and watch as aggression takes place against a member state of the UN. The Israelis are well aware of the dangers posed to their international standing by the upcoming Palestinian move, with Israel’s defence minister Ehud Barak saying: “We are facing a diplomatic-political tsunami that the majority of the [Israeli] public is unaware of and that will peak in September. It is a very dangerous situation. Paralysis, rhetoric, inaction will deepen the isolation of Israel.”

Despite support from US President Barack Obama, the US executive and legislative branches have been opposed to the new Palestinian State, threatening cut-offs in aid while realising how damaging such a move would be to the reputation of Israel in the international community.

Many are questioning how effective the Palestinian State will be, if colonies continue to mushroom, if the issue of refugees is not dealt with, and while Palestine’s navy, ground and airports remain firmly controlled by the Israelis. Palestinian lawmakers are arguing that it is a step in the right direction, which would give them their overdue seat at the UN, enabling them to advance their cause through legal channels in the international community, rather than through street warfare of the intifada, which 11 years down the road, failed to achieve statehood, end the occupation and defeat the Israeli army.

Many would have expected Hamas to oppose a state on the 1967 borders but the fervour of the Arab Spring and the assurances it got from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have moderated the group’s positions. Hamas has said it will accept a state on the 1967 borders and has pledged to refrain from opposing the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. It has now backed the upcoming move at the UN.

Probably the most important lesson to be learnt from the Arab Spring is that legitimate aspirations cannot be ignored forever — be they Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian, or Palestinian. Angry Arabs have taken their demands to the streets since January, effectively copying what the Palestinians have been doing for more than 60 years, with much more successful results. Popular and armed resistance didn’t work for the Palestinians, however, forcing them to take the matter to the UN in a new kind of intifada — a diplomatic one — that will achieve for them what 60 years of armed resistance failed to bring about. Is the Palestinian State part of the democratic awakening of the Arab world?

For all practical purposes, it certainly is the jewel of the crown of the Arab Spring.

Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian, and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. This article first appeared in mideastviews, on Sept. 10, 2011.

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