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President Mahmoud Abbas Address to the United Nations General Assembly: Legal and Political Aspects

Birzeit - Tuesday, 20 October 2015: In the context of Birzeit Legal Encounters, the Institute of Law (IoL) organised a legal encounter on President Mahmoud Abbas’ Address to the United Nations General Assembly: Legal and Political Aspects. The encounter was held with support from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

Having welcomed the audience, Dr. Mustafa Mar’i highlighted significance of the topic in light of recent developments on the ground since the beginning of this month. Dr. Mar’i then gave the floor to the speakers. Dr. Camille Mansour and Mr. Shawan Jabarin reviewed and elaborated on political and legal dimensions of President Abbas’ address to the UN General Assembly. The legal encounter brought together a select number of university professors and students of various majors, legal scholars, academics, and representatives of civil society groups, international organisations and diplomatic missions.

With a particular focus on key features of the current political stage, Dr. Mansour provided an overview of the general context, in which President Abbas’ address to the UN General Assembly was delivered. According to Dr. Mansour, the address was embedded with a number of “warnings” sent by President Abbas to the international community. These are, in fact, political and legal “options” available to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Dr. Mansour summed up six key scenarios, of which the PNA can implement one or several options:

1. Calling to provide international protection to the Palestinian people in line with International Humanitarian Law.
2. Declaring that a commitment to agreements signed with Israeli could no longer be maintained.
3. Israel has to shoulder its responsibilities in its capacity as the occupying power.
4. Announcing Palestine as a state under occupation. The Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation would be considered as the government of the temporary Palestinian state and the Palestinian National Council as the Palestinian parliament.
5. Continuing efforts to accede to international conventions and organisations.
6. Resorting to the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court.

In a detailed presentation, Dr. Mansour explained implications of each option, form(s) by which it can translated on the ground, potential consequences if the PNA implemented it, and how feasible implementation would be on the medium and long runs. To this effect, Dr. Mansour arrived a simple, but clear, conclusion: the PNA would have recourse to the options 5 and 6, which it had already initiated. The PNA would find it difficult to resort to option 1 as it entails the application for a “trusteeship” regime to the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967. As it has ceased to be applicable, this option requires a special UN Security Council resolution to be in place. It is highly unlikely that the PNA implement the other three options because these exert adverse consequences which the PNA cannot handle. Should it wish to change the balance of powers, Dr. Mansour emphasised that the PNA has to concentrate strongly on settlement activity and racial segregation. The PNA also has to scale up serious efforts to restore national reconciliation. Otherwise, it is feared that the Palestinian role turn from an actor in the Palestinian-Zionist conflict into a mere “reaction” to Israeli measures.

Mr. Jabarin highlighted an untenable separation between political and legal dimensions. Political decisions and positions give meaning to legal texts. Mr. Jabarin emphasised that the UN Partition Plan for Palestine should be upheld and relied on as a primary reference of any future claims. Most often, the Partition Plan is addressed in a transient fashion. On the other hand, the Green Line is highlighted. As an armistice line, the Green Line does not represent a border in a legal sense. According to Mr. Jabarin, history provides several forms of protection. If it wants to achieve the desired outcome, the most ideal technique available to the PNA is to present this file in the form of an application to the UN, forcing the UN Secretary General into a critical position. Then, and only then, the Secretary General will be obliged to examine this application and submit relevant recommendations and proposals.

Mr. Jabarin investigated the other important aspect of President Abbas’ address to the UN General Assembly, namely “the occupying power must bear its responsibilities”. This does not change the current reality, however. The occupying power is in full control of all aspects of Palestinian life in the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967. Accordingly, this argument implies more political than legal dimensions. From a purely legal perspective, and even with conclusion of the Oslo Agreements, Israel has never lost its designation as the occupying power. Israel continues to be bound under International Law to bear its responsibilities towards the occupied territory. Change resides in politics. In order for this announcement to materialise, the PNA role and function need to be changed and redefined. As it was the case before 1994, the Israeli occupying power should be brought into a direct tension with citizens. In conclusion, Mr. Jabarin stressed that consequences of President Abbas’ address would be determined by how it would be translated on the ground both daily and politically.

The ensuing debate was particularly lively. The audience mainly elaborated on strategies of political and legal action in the current phase.