In his second attempt to obtain United Nations recognition of Palestine as a state, on 29 November 2012 Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas requested the General Assembly to accept the bid for non-member observer state status. An overwhelming majority of countries—138 of them—voted yes. The vote’s implications are largely symbolic for the time being, but it does mean that “Palestine” signifies the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967.
Now, rather than “Palestine” signifying a nation, it can be considered an official state within the parameters of international law. The aftermath of the vote will demonstrate that even decades after most states attained independence and recognition, the differences and tensions between nation and state remain crucial.
Symbolic Implications of the UN Vote
The symbolism of the UN vote is clear. The status of the PA was upgraded to that of a non-member state. However, in as far as the Palestinians’ ultimate goal is independence and sovereignty, the new status means very little. The state of Palestine is nothing close to historic Palestine, which Abbas tossed aside recently when he disavowed the Palestinians’ right of return. Statehood in this case may just be little more than a slight change in wording to the non-member observer status that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) held since November 1975. A majority of UN members previously recognized Palestine as a state, and many did so after Yasser Arafat’s unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood in 1988.
The symbolism is also embedded in the status of President Abbas and the PA itself: PA authority is only accepted in the West Bank since the split between Fatah and Hamas in 2007. Moreover, Abbas’s term of office expired in 2009, but because of the split (among other factors) there have been no Palestinian elections since 2006. The PA’s provisional mandate as the “self-governing authority” in the territories expired in 2000. In fact, Abbas had no popular mandate even to ask the UN to recognize a state.
Another symbolic implication of the vote is that it precludes the PA from considering a one-state solution. Even further, since Israel does not have internationally-recognized borders, it is hard to envision how to draw the borders of a Palestinian state.
Practical Implications of Statehood
A major implication of statehood is that the Palestinian Arabs themselves must be transformed from members of a non-sovereign nation into the actual citizenry of a state. While an implication such as this is indeed real, historic and practical, it needs to be fleshed out in the coming months and years. A good place to start on this transformation, along with other practical implications of statehood, can be found within a number of discussions that have taken place since the prior UN bid in September 2011 before the Security Council—promptly vetoed by the US—for full membership. For instance, in April a conference took place at Hebron University in the West Bank that brought together a number of academics and policy-makers from the West Bank, Gaza (via video link), Jerusalem and Israel, the US, and Europe to discuss the political and legal implications of Palestinian statehood.
Several recent discussions make clear the need to understand Palestinian citizenship now that a state has been recognized. Citizenship deserves analysis in terms of its legal and internationally-recognized status as well as the relation of citizenship to nationality and documentary identity. The issue at hand, then, is the meaning of the Palestinian national vis-à-vis the Palestinian citizen and how each fits into the state of Palestine.
Demands and proposals for an independent Palestinian state that incorporated the Arab nationality of the majority of its inhabitants have been presented by Palestinian Arab leaders to various governments and international organizations since 1918, the year Great Britain started to administer the territory it defined as Palestine. Not since the end of the British Palestine Mandate in 1948 has “Palestine” had a status close to that of a state with recognized borders and citizenship legislation, and thus not since the mandate have the inhabitants themselves been Palestinian citizens (albeit colonial citizens).
The Semantics of Palestinian Nationality and Citizenship, Post-1948
After 1948, the Palestinian citizen ceased to exist and the Palestinian national, both in the diaspora and within the Occupied Territories, took its place as the internationally-recognized identity status of all Palestinians. The existence of only Palestinian nationality, and not citizenship, has implications for the creation of Palestinian citizenship for a second time in history, after the UN recognition of the Palestinian Authority as a state. Indeed, recognition of the PA as a state is not the same as recognition of the nation of Palestine as a state. The state, not simply the PA’s reach within the West Bank, must become the sole grantor of rights and duties to all citizens. It remains the responsibility of the state to enact legislation of citizenship and to regulate nationality through jus sanguinis (by descent), jus soli (by birth in a territory), or naturalization provisions. Currently of course, Israel regulates the documentary identity of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
In 1947, UN Resolution 181 proposed that Palestinian Arabs and Jews would become citizens of the state of their residence upon a future partition of Palestine. Obviously, the events of 1948 did not happen in accordance with the UN partition resolution. From 1948 until the promulgation of the 1952 Nationality Law of Israel, Palestinian Arabs in Israeli territory were deprived of nationality and citizenship in contravention of the international laws of state succession.
Following Israel’s occupation of the remainder of historic Palestine, in 1968, Article 4 of the Palestinian National Charter affirmed that Palestinian identity passed by blood, jus sanguinis, and refugee status did not negate this. Article 5 defined the Palestinians as “those Arab nationals who, until 1947, normally resided in Palestine regardless of whether they were evicted from it or have stayed there. Anyone born after that date, of a Palestinian father—whether inside Palestine or outside it—is also a Palestinian.”
Currently, Israel issues identity cards to Palestinians living under occupation—in the territory meant to be under administration of the state of Palestine. The PA issues passports after Israeli approval, but passports are not equated with citizenship status. Neither documents identify their holders as citizens or nationals; rather they are identified as residents of a certain territory.
Practical Questions of Citizenship in the State of Palestine
Fast-forwarding to 1995, the PA drafted a citizenship law but had no authority to regulate citizenship since it operated under Israeli occupation. Following that, the third Draft Palestine Constitution gave citizenship to any Palestinian resident of Palestine before 1948, by both paternal and maternal descent. The most recent official mention of Palestinian citizenship and nationality is in the PA’s 2003 Basic Law: Article 7 states that “Palestinian citizenship shall be regulated by law” and nationals who are not citizens will be given representation within “Palestine.”
Statehood, however, presents problems. Guy Goodwin-Gill’s legal opinion on Palestinian statehood highlights questions of citizenship for Palestinian nationals in the diaspora. He notes that refugees and emigrants will lose representation with the coming of statehood as the Palestinian National Council, their official representative, could be dissolved. This means Palestinian nationals will not have the right to participate in matters of government as citizens.
The UN vote brings to light elementary issues such as whether statehood for Palestine can bring a Palestinian citizen into being. In the case of an independent Palestinian state, the criteria for citizenship must be delineated in order to give Palestinian nationals clear terms of membership. But what of the territorial fragmentation of Palestine and the fragmentation and dispersal of those who are nationals? Victor Kattan has argued that all Palestinians were denationalized following the end of 1948, and remain without nationality due to the need for a Palestinian state to provide such nationality.
If nationality is the criteria for Palestinian citizenship, it is essential to also recognize that the Palestinian national and the Palestinian citizen are two different statuses. The right of return is the means for extending citizenship to nationals living abroad; under international law, all Palestinian nationals have the right to return, and those who return to the state of Palestine would be deemed citizens.
Finally, the question remains whether citizenship and the electorate in the Palestinian state must be officially and internationally made clear first, or whether prospective citizens (i.e., nationals abroad) would be provided a means of participating in the formulation of a new basic law. The more likely alternative, given Abbas’s abandonment of the right of return, is that citizenship qualifications will be imposed by the executive or determined by the PA electorate.
The expiration of the PA’s mandate will play a significant role in decisions on citizenship if the symbolically-recognized state of Palestine is to be transformed into a practical, meaningful state.