Palestinians launch PR blitz for UN recognition

September 8, 2011 - 1:20 PM
Mideast Israel Palestinians

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pauses during a meeting with Palestinian doctors at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011. A delegation of 40 Palestinian medics met with Abbas on Tuesday before leaving on an aid mission to Libya. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinians launched a campaign on Thursday to rally support for U.N. recognition as an independent state, planning demonstrations in the Palestinian territories and worldwide before asking the world body to accept them as a full member state later this month.

The public relations blitz helps set up a diplomatic showdown at the U.N., where Israel and the U.S. are leading opposition to the bid, and adds to concerns in Israel that mass demonstrations could turn violent.

With peace talks deadlocked for nearly three years, the Palestinians plan to ask the United Nations to recognize their independence in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

Although the vote will not change the situation on the ground, the Palestinians believe a strong international endorsement will isolate Israel and boost their position in future negotiations. Israel opposes a full withdrawal to its 1967 lines that mark the West Bank's boundaries.

At Thursday's ceremony, some 100 Palestinian officials and activists gathered at the U.N. offices in Ramallah for a short ceremony, where they spelled out their plans in an informal letter addressed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"We urge you to add your moral voice in support of the Palestinian people enjoying a life of freedom and dignity, like the rest of the people of the world," the letter says.

The letter was delivered by Latifa Abu Hmeid, a 70-year-old woman who lost one son in fighting with Israel and has seven other sons in Israeli prisons because of alleged militant activities. Officials said Abu Hmeid was selected to deliver the document because her personal story reflects the plight of the Palestinians.

Thursday's event was organized by the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group that is dominated by President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement.

Campaign organizer Ahmed Assaf, a Fatah spokesman, said that Palestinians would begin staging small protests in the West Bank on Friday.

The program will be capped by mass demonstrations throughout the area on Sept. 21, when the U.N. General Assembly opens, and Sept. 23, when Abbas delivers his speech seeking recognition as the 194th member of the world body.

"Today is the official launch of our campaign: Palestine State 194," Assaf said. "We picked the U.N. because the U.N. represents political legitimacy for the Palestinians."

Despite the high-profile campaign, key questions remain. The Palestinians have been vague on whether they will seek membership from the Security Council or the General Assembly.

The 15-member council is the most powerful body at the U.N. Its decisions are legally binding and its backing is necessary for full membership. The U.S., however, as one of five permanent members of the council, has signaled it will veto any Palestinian request.

Instead, the Palestinians could turn to the larger General Assembly, which is dominated by pro-Palestinian developing nations, for admission as a "nonmember state." Approval is guaranteed, but the victory would be largely symbolic, though the Palestinians could gain admission to certain U.N. bodies, including the International Criminal Court, that they could potentially use as a launching pad for action against Israel.

The U.S. and Israel have vociferously urged the Palestinians to drop their bid and resume negotiations, which broke down a year ago over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

The Palestinians say they will not resume talks until Israel halts settlement construction and endorses the 1967 lines as the basis of a peace settlement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel must retain parts of the West Bank, and he opposes any pullout from east Jerusalem, home to sensitive religious sites.

The White House sent two senior envoys to the region this week in hopes of persuading the Palestinians to change their minds, but Palestinian officials say the talks made no headway.

The officials said international Mideast envoy Tony Blair was now trying to find an acceptable formula to get peace talks going again. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a sensitive diplomatic matter.

Although the Palestinians say their campaign will be peaceful, Israeli military officials warn that mass demonstrations in the West Bank could turn violent.

In comments published Thursday, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, said he was lobbying his counterparts to oppose the Palestinian bid.

"This is a diplomatic endeavor against all odds. I am trying, literally down to the last moment, to persuade the ambassadors of U.N. member countries that this unilateral course of action by the Palestinians won't lead to peace and won't lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, but only to violence and bloodshed," he told the Maariv daily.

Israeli security forces have been preparing for the possibility of violence, conducting exercises and stockpiling what they say is "non-lethal" riot-control equipment like tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades.