JERUSALEM — Palestinian Christians and Church officials have welcomed the United Nations’ Nov. 29 resolution to upgrade Palestine’s status to that of a non-member state.
The vote occurred exactly 65 years after the United Nations voted to establish one Jewish and one Palestinian state in what was then called Palestine. While Israel accepted U.N. Resolution 181, Arab nations rejected it and tried to destroy Israel. During the war, hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians became refugees.
The Holy See, which also has non-member state status with the United Nations, said the vote "should be placed within the context of the efforts of giving a definitive solution, with the support of the international community," to the 1947 U.N. two-state resolution.
One of those states, Palestine, "has not been constituted in the successive 65 years," while Israel, "the other, has already seen the light," the Vatican said.
The Vatican called on Israelis and Palestinians to seek "an effective commitment to building peace and stability, in justice and in respect for legitimate aspirations, both of the Israelis and the Palestinians."
Both sides, it said, should enter into negotiations "in good faith" and to "avoid actions, or the placing of conditions, which would contradict the declarations of good will and the sincere search for solutions which could become secure foundations for a lasting peace."
Archbishop Fouad Twal, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, also expressed hope that Palestine’s upgraded status will enable the two sides to negotiate a lasting peace treaty.
In an interview with the Vatican’s Fides news service, Archbishop Twal said Israel now has the "possibility of returning to deal with a moderate and legitimized government. There is no person more reasonable than [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] to return to the path of a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict."
Happy though they are about their upgraded status, Palestinian Christians have no expectations that it will transform their lives in the foreseeable future.
No Sovereign State
Despite the resolution’s passage in the international body, the vote did not create a sovereign state with all the rights and responsibilities that accompany it.
Palestinians will still be subject to Israeli checkpoints and stuck behind Israel’s security barrier, which has prevented the infiltration of terrorists at the expense of Palestinian mobility.
But the heightened international status might enable Palestine to advance its agenda via various U.N. processes.
Israel, which insists that the Palestinians’ bid for statehood violates the Oslo Peace Agreement because it bypassed a negotiated peace settlement, took what appeared to be punitive measures soon after the vote.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel intends to build 3,000 housing units in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in a war in 1967, and in a separate area (known as E1) in the West Bank that adjoins Jerusalem as well as Palestinian villages.
Many analysts say Israeli construction in E1 would make it difficult for the Palestinians to create a contiguous state. Israel has vowed on more than one occasion to build in E1, but refrained at the request of the American administration.
Israel, which says the Palestinian leadership does everything in its power to smear Israel’s image and to undermine Jewish claims to land, has also threatened to withhold the tax revenue it pays to the Abbas government in the West Bank.
The Israeli Embassy to the Vatican said in a statement that the resolution "does not and cannot establish a Palestinian state or even grant it recognition."
"Israel," it said, "is prepared to live in peace with a Palestinian state," but only if Israel’s security is guaranteed.
"The Palestinians must recognize the Jewish state, and they must be prepared to end the conflict with Israel," the embassy said.
The U.S. reaction echoed concerns about any lasting effects of the U.N. vote. In a Nov. 29 statement delivered after the U.S. voted against the resolution, Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called the move "unfortunate and counterproductive" and "an obstacle in the path to peace."
Said Rice, "Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade. And the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded."
Some U.S. political leaders also share Israel’s concerns about the possible utilization of U.N. processes against Israel’s interests as a result of Palestine’s new U.N. status. This might include Palestine seeking to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) in order to initiate an investigation of Israel’s conduct in occupied territories in hopes of obtaining a court ruling that Israel is guilty of serious violations of international law.
Any such U.N. actions could have serious ramifications for continued American funding of individual U.N. agencies and of the Palestinian Authority itself. Congress halted U.S. funding of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization last year after it accepted Palestine as a member.
And in the wake of the U.N. vote granting non-member U.N. status to Palestine, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators warned they would introduce legislation to cut off foreign aid for the Palestinian Authority if it tries to use the ICC against Israel, The New York Times reported Nov. 29.
The U.S. has argued that direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians are the only way to secure a peaceful two-state resolution.
Bernard Sabella, a Catholic sociologist and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said he and other Palestinian Christians "are more hopeful in principle" thanks to the vote, "but realize that, on the ground, nothing will change. And maybe things will get worse. Israel just announced it will not pass about $110 million in taxes to the Palestinian government."
Sabella, an expert in the emigration patterns of Holy Land Christians, said it is too early to tell whether Palestine’s upgraded status will encourage local Christians not to emigrate.
Since 1948, when partition occurred, the population of Arab Christians in the Holy Land has dwindled from somewhere around 25% to less than 2%.
"Emigration is always tied to political stability and economic prosperity," Sabella said, "so if we have some stability, and pilgrims keep coming to the Holy Land, and countries support the Palestinians economically, then I don’t see why our young people will leave."
Whether the upgraded status will embolden Palestinian Christians who have left — either to other countries in the region or farther away — to return to the Holy Land "depends on what kind of vision we all have," Sabella said.
"If it’s a vision where we can share this land in peace and good neighborliness, with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side, accepting, understanding and forgiving each other, then, yes, the Palestinian Diaspora will start thinking about coming back," he predicted. "But it will take time."
Bishops: Don’t Punish
In the United States, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace responded to reports that Congress may consider legislation that seeks to "punish" Palestinians for achieving the higher U.N. status.
Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, said in a Dec. 3 letter, "Such legislation would not be consistent with U.S. efforts to seek a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land; it would distract and detract from this goal."
The bishop said the Vatican welcomed the U.N. decision and noted that Pope Benedict XVI called for an end to fighting, terrorism and bloodshed during his historic 2009 visit to Israel and Palestine. Bishop Pates also reiterated the support of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for a two-state solution to peace between Israel and Palestine.
"Assistance to Palestinians, already heavily conditioned, is essential for humanitarian purposes and for building capacity for a future Palestinian state," Bishop Pates said. "Cutting aid will only harm the peace process. This is not in the interests of either Israelis or Palestinians who long for peace."
writes from Jerusalem.