Abdullah Abdullah, the Palestinian Authority’s newly-promoted ambassador to Lebanon, dropped a bombshell to the Daily Star on Thursday. His little-noticed interview by the Lebanese newspaper highlighted one of the most pressing questions about the PA’s bid for UN membership:
The ambassador unequivocally says that Palestinian refugees would not become citizens of the sought for U.N.-recognized Palestinian state, an issue that has been much discussed. “They are Palestinians, that’s their identity,” he says. “But … they are not automatically citizens.”
This would not only apply to refugees in countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Jordan or the other 132 countries where Abdullah says Palestinians reside. Abdullah said that “even Palestinian refugees who are living in [refugee camps] inside the [Palestinian] state, they are still refugees. They will not be considered citizens.”
This flatly contradicts claims by Francis A. Boyle, former legal advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organization:
… the Declaration of Independence also provides that all Palestinians living around the world automatically become citizens of the State of Palestine—pursuant to my advice. So the Executive Committee of the PLO in its capacity as the Provisional Government for the State of Palestine will continue to represent the interests of all Palestinians around the world when Palestine becomes a UN Member State.
Hence all rights will be preserved: for all Palestinians and for the PLO. No one will be disenfranchised.
But the closest the Palestinian Declaration of Independence ever came to defining citizenship – a word it never used – was the poetic invocation of Palestinian identity, in diasporic terms reminiscent of the Zionist formulation of Israel as “the state of the Jewish people”:
The State of Palestine is the state of Palestinians wherever they may be. The state is for them to enjoy in it their collective national and cultural identity, theirs to pursue in it a complete equality of rights.
Thus we face two conflicting claims, Abdullah’s and Boyle’s. One comes from a current, high-level PA representative, while the other relies on a textual reference that is, at best, highly ambiguous. Considering these factors, the warning of Guy S. Goodwin-Gill, whose legal opinion Boyle intended to rebut, appears even timelier:
The significant link between the Palestinian National Council and the diaspora has been noted above … They constitute more than half of the people of Palestine, and if they are ‘disenfranchised’ and lose their representation in the UN, it will not only prejudice their entitlement to equal representation, contrary to the will of the General Assembly, but also their ability to vocalise their views, to participate in matters of national governance, including the formation and political identity of the State, and to exercise the right of return.
But the state Abdullah foresees would deny equal participation, and hence fair representation at the United Nations and other international bodies, not only to the 5.3 million refugees living outside historic Palestine, as Goodwin-Gill warned, but also to nearly two million inside the 1967 territories. These comprise 45% of the West Bank’s Palestinian population and a whopping 67% of the Gaza Strip’s, excluding a total of 56% of the proposed state’s residents from citizenship. And this does not count 1.6 million Palestinians inside Israel, including hundreds of thousands of internally-displaced refugees.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas has tweeted, “First we seek recognition of the #StateOfPalestine to receive international backing to build and reform the PLO.” Given that his proposed state would replace a body representative of all Palestinians with one answerable to a fraction of them, it is not unreasonable for those of us who support the rights of all Palestinians to ask whom he imagines participating in this building and reformation process. Barring satisfactory answers, we should support Palestinians opposing this initiative as another effort to divide them and their struggle.