The stage and big screen are ready and waiting in Ramallah’s Clock Square on September 23. Workers unload plastic chairs from a truck. Banners bearing the slogan “Palestine 194” hang from nearby buildings.
Preparations are almost set for the public viewing of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the United Nations, which will begin at noon New York time, 7 P.M. here in Ramallah. The address—broadcast live on big screens in cities throughout the West Bank—will follow the submission of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s request for UN membership for a Palestinian state, with the 1967 lines as its borders and East Jerusalem as its capital. If successful, Palestine will become the United Nation’s 194th member state. One hundred and ninety-four also happens to be the number of the UN resolution that enshrines the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
Reporting on the event from rooftops overlooking the square, the Western media will count everyone who attends the rally as a supporter. It makes for straightforward news: flag-waving Palestinians cheer as their president takes on Israel and America. On the ground, however, the story is much more complicated.
Confusion is common among ordinary Palestinians because no one is sure what the request for statehood will lead to. Will it be successful? If so, what difference will recognition make, if any? And if it’s unsuccessful, will the PA collapse? Will Israel reoccupy the West Bank?
Some Palestinians say that the move is meaningless—“ink on paper,” as one Palestinian puts it. Others reject the statehood bid outright, because it doesn’t address Palestinian refugees or equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Many deny that the PA represents them at all.
The presence of Palestinian legislator and activist Mustafa Barghouti at the festivities is surprising. Barghouti is an advocate for the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which calls for an end to the occupation, respect for Palestinian refugees’ right of return, and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Many BDS supporters oppose the PA’s statehood request, but Barghouti sees benefits.
“[UN recognition] will not change facts on the ground, but it will help facilitate the process of change,” Barghouti says, in English. “Even if a state is not created, it changes the thinking.”
No matter the outcome, the move has once again put Palestine and its plight front and center on the world stage. President Obama showed his hand—and the influence of the Israel lobby—when he announced that the United States would veto the resolution. While Palestinians were frustrated and angered by this, Barghouti says, they were not surprised. Obama just confirmed, yet again, what many Palestinians have felt for a long time: this is an American-Israeli occupation.
The UN bid holds the potential for “something bigger,” Barghouti says. “The creation of a popular, non-violent resistance—a strong international campaign to sanction Israel.”
What Palestinians are looking for in the meantime, Barghouti adds, is for Abbas to be “steadfast,” to hold his ground in the face of American and Israeli pressure.
“My hope is that the people will come out of this fight with bigger hope. What we need more than anything is hope and confidence in ourselves.”
Abdul Raziq Jaboura, 79, sits on a plastic chair outside a Ramallah café, leaning on a wooden cane. Next to him sits Kabir Aman Jabar Sheikh. At 86, the freshly shaven Sheikh is 23 years older than the state of Israel. Both men wear white keffiyeh.
Sheikh has dressed up in robe cut from grey, pinstriped wool and come to Ramallah from a nearby village to watch the speech, but only out of personal obligation. His father was killed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, he explains. Because Sheikh was the eldest son, he provides for his younger siblings. He sent his brothers to school, and one became a lawyer and assistant to Abbas.
When asked about the statehood bid, Sheikh has little to say, and Jaboura would rather talk about other matters. “We’re not getting any of our rights,” Jaboura says. “And I don’t think we’ll get our rights soon. We want the refugees to come back, we want Jerusalem, we want the political prisoners to get out of Israeli jails.” He ticks off the demands on his fingers.
Our conversation attracts the occasional passerby. He drops into an empty seat, offers his thoughts, and moves on with a “salaam alaikum” before I’ve had a chance to get his name.
One such man is short and muscular with curly black hair. He lights a cigarette and starts talking in a loud, hoarse voice and doesn’t bother to pause for my translator.
He says he’s a refugee from Lydda, south of Tel Aviv. Under the UN Partition Plan—which was passed in November of 1947 and split Palestine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab—Lydda would have been part of an Arab state. But during the Arab-Israeli War, Jewish forces bombed the area, massacred hundreds, and expelled tens of thousands from their homes, forcing them to walk to the West Bank. This man’s family was among them.
“Ben Gurion International Airport is built on our land,” he says. “We wish we could go back, but I don’t see it coming. We will stay here, inside of 1967 borders, and that’s it.”
When asked if the PA’s move reflects his opinion, he says it does. But he doesn’t think it will be successful. Bid or no, he feels that there won’t be any solution to the conflict.
“This isn’t the first time we give our opinions to journalists and other people,” he concludes. “Our opinion will make no difference.”
With that, he stands, drops his cigarette onto the sidewalk, crushes it with his heel, and departs.
Jaboura sighs. “Inshallah, I hope we will get at least something [from the UN],” he says. “There is an old Arabic saying that when you are hungry, a small bite will be enough for you.”
Mohamed Jaradat, my translator, and I stop in a small store to buy water. I ask the fifteen-year-old boy behind the counter what he thinks about the bid.
“I hope we will get our independence,” he says, smiling.
As we leave the store, Jaradat, 32, shakes his head.
“The young generation—they see things in a different way,” he says. “They didn’t see what happened in the past. They just heard about it; they didn’t live through it.” Jaradat himself doesn’t think UN recognition will have any effect.
“The only way things will change is if we change the leadership on both sides,” he says.
“What would it take to change the leadership here?” I ask. “A revolution, like in Egypt?”
“Here?” Jaradat asks.
We walk in silence as he considers the idea.
He nods. “It’s building, it’s building, it’s building.”