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Israel’s Response to the Palestinian UNESCO Bid

Responding to a legal and non-aggressive action by stepping up settlement construction displays how uninterested in the peace process Israel has become.

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In response to Palestine’s successful UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation) membership bid, Israel’s increasingly-marginalised leadership has stepped up the building of 2000 homes in illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Additionally, Israel is withholding taxes collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (funds necessary for the payment of civil servants), and is strongly suspected to have orchestrated an attack on the internet services of the West Bank and Gaza in reprisal, using the clandestine cyber-warfare capabilities first deployed against Iranian nuclear capability.

The Palestinian victory on the voting floor is the first significant step in its upcoming diplomatic campaign for independent statehood. Unlike the forthcoming UN Security Council vote, the USA does not have power of veto in UNESCO votes. The successful bid may indicate that the USA will be forced to use its veto power in the Security Council vote, a step that it would likely rather not take. The PA also intends to bid for membership of 16 further agencies, including the World Bank and the World Health Organisation.

Israel’s response to Palestine’s bid for recognition beggars belief. Responding to a legal and non-aggressive action (both qualities rather difficult to come by in this conflict) with settlement building – that is, further naked land-grabs, recognised as illegal by the international community and entirely, in my view and that of many others, unjustifiable – displays just how out of ideas, and how uninterested in the peace process, the current Israeli leadership has become. Like a child beating up its little brother for daring to tell, this action has no discernible basis in reason – unlike the military actions in Gaza 2008/2009, which had at least a tenuous justification although it led to the deaths of around 1400 Palestinians, and led to supported accusations of war crimes including the use of white phosphorous rounds and deliberate use of disproportionate force against a civilian population for purposes of collective punishment (see the report of the UN fact finding mission on the Gaza conflict) – and represents a continuation of one of the greatest obstacles to peace in the area.

This, and the withholding of funds from the PA necessary to maintain civil order in the Palestinian territories, may well spark unrest and violence, which will undoubtedly then be used to justify further occupation by the Israeli military.

The USA and Canada have removed funding for UNESCO, cutting the body’s total available resources by a quarter. If Palestine’s security council bid is successful (it likely won’t be) the US will probably pull out of the organisation, citing legal decisions concerning funding organisations which support the PLO (although President Obama would be justified in claiming that the facts have moved past the law and its intent, and that the PLO are not the main movers for this bid) and support for any organisation claiming statehood without the internationally recognised attributes thereof (kind of a catch-22 situation for Palestine then). However, on the latter point, the USA has been directly funding the Palestinians for some time, which would make it laughably hypocritical for them to pull out of the UN for that reason. Ultimately the USA gives the reason that any progress towards peace must come from negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians for pulling out of UNESCO and for failing to support their Security Council bid. But with Tony Blair as Middle East envoy, and with the negotiating table stacked so heavily in Israel’s favour, it’s really very little wonder that direct negotiation has produced little but disillusionment for the Palestinians.

Although UNESCO membership will do little to change the physical situation in the West Bank and Gaza – where unemployment stands at 40%, the wall built by Israel severs ties between Palestinian communities, and between farmers and their land to the point where 70% of the indigenous population is unable to feed itself without outside help, and military occupation or the threat thereof is a constant fact of daily life (as documented in this paper by Palestinian students living under the occupation) – the potency of the symbolic victory, achieving international recognition by bypassing the political, financial and military clout of Israel’s staunchest supporter, the United States, is spelled out by the Israeli leadership’s unbalanced response to it. Israel’s diplomatic corps, meanwhile, characterises their actions as ‘restrained’. This is true, up to a point – but, as pointed out above, the Israeli leadership’s definition of ‘restraint’ can sometimes resemble something out of 1984’s Newspeak dictionary.