On January 3, Mahmoud Abbas, acting in his capacities as the President of State of Palestine and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, signed “Decree No. 1 for the year 2013”. While he did so with minimal ceremony or fanfare, and while the change formalised by this decree should surprise no one after the UN General Assembly’s overwhelming vote on November 29 to upgrade Palestine’s status at the United Nations to “observer state”, this change is potentially historic.
By this decree, the “Palestinian Authority”, created for a five-year “interim” period pursuant to the “Oslo” Declaration of Principles signed on the White House lawn in September 1993, has been absorbed and replaced by the “State of Palestine”, proclaimed in November 1988, recognised diplomatically by 131 of the 193 UN member states and supported in the recent General Assembly vote by an additional 28 states which have not yet formally recognised it diplomatically.
After citing the November 29 General Assembly Resolution, Article 1 of the decree states: “Official documents, seals, signs and letterheads of the Palestinian National Authority official and national institutions shall be amended by replacing the name ‘Palestinian National Authority’ whenever it appears by the name ‘State of Palestine’ and by adopting the emblem of the State of Palestine.” Concluding, Article 4 states: “All competent authorities, each in their respective area, shall implement this Decree starting from its date.”
In his correspondence, Yasser Arafat used to list all three of his titles under his signature - President of the State of Palestine, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and President of the Palestinian Authority (in that order of precedence). It is both legally and politically noteworthy that, in signing this decree, Mahmoud Abbas has listed only the first two titles. The Trojan horse called the “Palestinian Authority” in accordance with the “Oslo” interim agreements and the “Palestinian National Authority” by Palestinians, having served its purpose by introducing the institutions of the State of Palestine on the soil of Palestine, has now ceased to exist.
There is no further need for a Palestinian leader to be three-headed or three-hatted. While the Palestine Liberation Organisation will continue to represent all Palestinians everywhere, those Palestinians who live in the State of Palestine (whose territory is defined by the November 29 General Assembly Resolution as “the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967”) or who, living elsewhere, will be the proud holders of new State of Palestine passports will now also be represented by the State of Palestine.
Perhaps due, at least in part, to the low-key manner in which this change has been effected, it has attracted remarkably little attention from the international media or reaction from other governments, even the Israeli and American governments. This is not necessarily disappointing, since passive acceptance is clearly preferable to furious rejection.
The relatively few and brief media reports of the change have tended to characterise it as “symbolic”. It could - and should - be much more than that. If the Palestinian leadership plays its cards wisely, it could - and should - represent a turning point toward a better future.
The State of Palestine now exists on the soil of Palestine - albeit still, in varying degrees and circumstances, under belligerent occupation by the State of Israel.
In its November 29 Resolution, the General Assembly “Affirms its determination to contribute to the achievement of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people and the attainment of a peaceful settlement in the Middle East that ends the occupation that began in 1967 and fulfills the vision of two States, an independent, sovereign, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security with Israel, on the basis of the pre-1967 borders”.
The members of the international community must now show their determination not simply in words, but also in deeds and actions. In a world which professes to take human rights and international law, including the UN Charter, seriously, the perpetual belligerent occupation of one state by another state is inconceivable. The fact that the Israeli occupation of Palestine has been permitted to endure, expand and entrench itself for more than 45 years represents an appalling black mark against mankind. This occupation must now end.
John V Whitbeck is an international lawyer who has served as a legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel.