"Palestine" as a Source of International Dysfunction by Malcolm Lowe

January 28, 2013
The world heritage program of UNESCO, which was a mechanism for driving governments to preserve valuable sites, has become a mechanism for their neglect. There is no plan for the Church of the Nativity, and the Palestinian Authority is relieved of the obligation to formulate one. The state of the church will deteriorate precisely because it has been registered as a world heritage site.

The phenomenon of "Palestine" is becoming a misfortune for any international institution in which it crops up. This is because those institutions are governed by councils whose members are states. Whenever "Palestine" is on the agenda, these states vote according to the policies of their respective governments, regardless of any principles that are supposed to guide the institution in question.

The oldest example is of course UNWRA. Whereas all other refugee problems in the world are dealt with by UNHCR, which seeks to reduce the numbers of refugees, Palestinian refugees are in the hands of UNWRA, whose function is to multiply their numbers.

The most recent example is the recognition of "Palestine" as a non-member state by the General Assembly of the United Nations. In reality, there is an independent state of Hamasistan in Gaza and a semi-independent fiefdom of Abbasistan (aka the Palestinian Authority, PA) in the West Bank. For years they have had nothing in common, apart from the distant aspiration of destroying Israel.

According to Palestinian reports, the latest attempted reconciliation between the respective leaders was also ineffective: "Each side… is happy with the status quo." To call Gaza and the West Bank collectively "Palestine" is an anachronism. This is why "Palestine" will be written here in inverted commas.

Yes, both Gaza and the West Bank contain people who call themselves "Palestinians," but by "Palestine" they mean the whole area, including Israel. So the continuing babble about a "two-state solution," Israel and Palestine, when the three-state solution has already arrived, is simply befuddling minds worldwide.

Leaving those examples aside for a moment, let us examine a case that reveals how "Palestine"-driven confusion is ruining one of the better-run UN institutions. It is the recent decision of the governing council of UNESCO to recognize the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a world heritage site.

Unfortunately, the nature of the issue was obscured by the behavior of the governments of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Both of them treated such recognition as a trophy to be hung on the wall and gazed at with admiration. In fact, it is nothing of the kind. On the contrary, it consists of a severe obligation imposed upon the government responsible for the site.

As to which government that would mean, the answer is unambiguous: it could only be the government in Ramallah, since Bethlehem lies in Area A of the West Bank, the administration of which Israel relinquished to the PA rule long ago. UNESCO's rules oblige it to register a site under an entity that controls the site.

For instance, UNESCO agreed to Jordan's request to register the Old City of Jerusalem in 1981, although only one state in the world, Pakistan, had ever recognized Jordanian sovereignty in Jerusalem. What counted for UNESCO was not international recognition but rather that in 1981 the Jordanian Waqf was still permitted by Israel to run affairs on the Temple Mount; thus Jordan was a relevant party. In adopting the proposal, however, UNESCO insisted that "nothing in the present decision, which is aimed at the safeguarding of the cultural heritage of the Old City of Jerusalem, shall in any way affect the relevant United Nations resolutions and decisions, in particular the relevant Security Council resolutions on the legal status of Jerusalem."

The issue, then, was whether the Ramallah government could fulfill the obligation demanded by UNESCO's rules. Specifically, it had to convince the secretariat of UNESCO that it had a comprehensive plan for the maintenance of the church, for ensuring its accessibility to visitors, etc.

The UNESCO Secretariat does not take those decisions on its own; it commissions other expert bodies to evaluate such plans. In this instance, the body chosen was the International Commission on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which was well-acquainted with the West Bank, since it was already involved in the preservation of other sites there. In its comprehensive report, ICOMOS urged refusal to recognize the Church of the Nativity as a world heritage site because the PA had totally failed to fulfill the necessary requirements.

UNESCO provides for two paths to recognition as a world heritage site: the normal path and the emergency path. The normal path, as mentioned, requires the government controlling the site to submit a comprehensive plan satisfying all kinds of criteria. ICOMOS ruled that the PA had made no serious attempt whatsoever to formulate such a plan; it had not even supplied an adequate description of the site. ("No detailed plans of these complexes have been provided.")

It is worth reading the whole ICOMOS report in order to grasp the abysmal incompetence of the PA officials. Paragraph after paragraph ends with a statement that essential information was missing.

Indeed, the PA had barely pretended to have such a plan. Rather, it had bet upon the emergency path, according to which a site can be recognized even without a plan if it is in serious danger. The PA claimed that "the Israeli occupation" (which ended in Bethlehem in 1995) was imperiling the site. ICOMOS dismissed all that; it noted that there had been a problem of a leak in the roof of the church, but the roof had been repaired adequately by Israel before it handed over Bethlehem to Palestinian control.

So the agenda of the Council of UNESCO contained a recommendation, based on the ICOMOS report, that recognition of the Church of the Nativity be deferred until the PA came up with an adequate comprehensive plan. Nevertheless, the member states voted for recognition by a majority of 13-6. That is, there is no plan for the site and the PA is relieved of the obligation to formulate one.

ICOMOS had concluded: "ICOMOS considers that the main threats to the property are lack of conservation of the Church of the Nativity and possibly lack of maintenance and repair of the wider complex. Largely unregulated tourism and development pressures are combining to destroy key elements of the urban fabric that provides the context for the Church and monasteries and to impact on its spiritual qualities." The decision of the Council of UNESCO means that nothing will be done about these problems, since the PA has no further interest in the matter. The state of the church will deteriorate precisely because it has been registered as a world heritage site.

But the damage does not stop here. The ICOMOS report notes that the PA has further schemes in mind: "The nomination dossier states that a second nomination will include the Historic Town of Bethlehem, which forms the Buffer Zone for the current nomination, and that further nominations could include the Historic Town of Beit Sahour, the Shepherds' Field, Beit Sahour, and Mar Saba Monastery in the Desert to the east. The link between these sites will be their association with the story of the birth and life of Jesus."

This, too, was rejected out of hand by ICOMOS. "The World Heritage Committee has indicated on several occasions that the link between component sites of a serial nomination should not be one person." We may assume, however, that when the time comes round the Council of UNESCO will accept any further requests in the name of "Palestine."

Thus the UNESCO Council has driven a horse and carriage through the whole process of approving world heritage sites. Other states can now use this precedent for demanding recognition of sites without any plan. The world heritage program of UNESCO, which was a mechanism for driving governments to preserve valuable sites, has become a mechanism for their neglect.

Non-member states recognized by the UN General Assembly can apply to enter other UN bodies. So "Palestine" can be expected to wreak similar havoc in them too. It is enough to recall how the UN mechanisms for investigating human rights violations have been clogged up by repetitive debates about "Palestine," while all the world's major systematic violators of human rights rarely reach the agenda, let alone incur condemnation.

As for UNWRA, its follies have been exposed afresh by a series of articles in the Fall 2012 issue of the Middle East Quarterly. But there is one looming folly that nobody has noticed. According to UNWRA rules, refugee status is bequeathed in the male line to all descendants, even if none of the mothers had that status. Sooner or later, it will be urged that restricting this status to patrilineal descent violates the rights of women. Then not just one but any of your eight great-grandparents will be able to make you a Palestinian refugee. Those rules, by the way, allow various sorts of persons who have some connection to a Palestinian refugee to register for UNWRA services even without being refugees themselves. Moreover, women's rights is an area where much commendable activity is currently going on among the Palestinians; the pages of Al-Quds constantly feature such initiatives. So there is great potential here for UNWRA to expand even further.

An elaborate "Palestine" folly (71 pages) in another field was the advisory opinion on Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, issued by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in July 2004. The court insisted (section 69) that it could call Israel's security barrier a "wall" throughout this document, despite acknowledging (section 82) that: "The approximately 180 kilometres of the complex completed or under construction... included some 8.5 kilometres of concrete wall. These are generally found where Palestinian population centres are close to or abut Israel (such as near Qalqiliya and Tulkarm or in parts of Jerusalem)."

The US judge on the court, Thomas Buergenthal, argued cogently in his minority report that the court should have declined to consider the case and that the parts of Israel's security barrier that ran inside the West Bank were not ipso facto illegal. The other fourteen judges declared that that those parts were illegal, claimed that Israel's right to self-defense could in no way justify them, and called for their quick demolition. With the exception of Judge Pieter Kooijmans of the Netherlands, they also called upon "all states" to "ensure compliance by Israel."

Fortunately, the view of the court was generally ignored. But let us note what the distinguished judges were trying to prevent. The security barrier became a major factor in ending the plague of Palestinian suicide bombers, doubtless saving hundreds of lives and thousands more from severe injuries. Tourists started to flow back not just to Israel but also to the Palestinian areas. In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Arab-owned hotels reopened and Arab merchants were back in business. Many thousands of Arabs employed in the Israeli tourist industry also returned to work. The restoration of security enabled Israel to dismantle gradually most of the network of checkpoints in the West Bank, facilitating the recent rapid growth of the Palestinian economy All this and more because the court's zeal for "justice" and "Palestine" was disregarded.

The economic revival in the West Bank, alas, is another example of how "Palestine" is exempt from normal rules. It is fueled largely by foreign donors. An employee of one of them has assured me that eighty percent of the economic activity there is donor-dependent.

That the percentage is large is confirmed by a comparison between Israel and "Palestine" in respect of trade with the EU. The European Commission's figures for Israel show that in 2011 bilateral trade in goods amounted to €29.4 billion and that in 2010 (the latest figures available) bilateral trade in services was some €7 billion, with a balance in Europe's favor of €4.2 billion and about €1 billion respectively. Also in 2010, EU firms had invested €5.3 billion in Israel but Israeli ones had invested a whopping €22.3 in the EU. The figures for the "Occupied Palestinian Territory" are merely €0.1 billion imported from the EU and next to nothing exported to it. For that matter, UN data record that in 2009 the total imports and exports of the "Occupied Palestinian Territory" amounted to about $3.5 billion (77.6% from Israel) and $0.5 billion (89.4% to Israel) respectively.

On the other hand, according to EU data: "From 1994 to the end of 2011, the European Union committed approximately €5 billion in assistance to the Palestinians through various geographical and thematic instruments." As for last year: "Early in 2012, the European Union frontloaded €156 million for the Palestinian Authority's recurrent expenditures. Further allocations in 2012 included €11 million for the private sector reconstruction, €25 million for infrastructure development in Gaza and Area C, €27.5 million for institution-building projects in support of the Palestinian Authority and a further €8 million for projects in East Jerusalem."

To all that, add money from individual European governments, money supplied via NGOs, European support for UNWRA and who knows what else. With so much money flowing in as gifts, "Palestine" can survive without export industries. It is not that individual Palestinian workers are lazy. The Jewish settlements in the West Bank pay thousands of Palestinian workers good wages for work in their industries. The latest gripe of 22 pro-Palestinian NGOs, including Christian Aid and the British Methodist Church, is that those industries in the settlements export far more to the EU than Palestinian-owned ones.

Nor is the problem that Palestinians have no initiative. In other countries – including Arab ones and also Israel – there are Palestinian millionaires. Quite a number came back to the country after the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, but they gradually left on account of the incompetence and corruption of the PA. Take "Bethlehem 2000" as an example. This was an ambitious plan, funded by many countries, to upgrade the town in time for the millennium. Streets were dug up everywhere to lay down new infrastructure. Palestinians from abroad invested in new tourist facilities. The scheme was completed in the middle of 2000. That same October, the PA under Arafat embarked on the second intifada and tourism collapsed. End of story.

Despite the flow of foreign money, the PA budget is now once again on the verge of collapse. It should surprise nobody. On the one hand, the PA pays salaries to Fatah members living under the government of Hamasistan and to Palestinian murderers in Israeli prisons. On the other hand, it has failed to induce Palestinians to accept normal modes of taxation.

The PA hardly has any tax income except for duties on imports collected by Israel on its behalf. Just lately, the Israeli government decided to deduct from those payments the money owed by the PA for electricity that it buys from Israel and resells to individual Palestinians. One would have expected the PA to react by trying to collect the vast sums outstanding in unpaid Palestinian electricity bills. Instead, the PA thereupon announced that all of those debts to itself would be canceled!

With that sort of behavior it is no wonder that that the PA is chronically bankrupt. Instead of making the effort to run its own financial affairs properly, it calls on donors to bail it out again and again. And not without reason. Last September, for instance, the EU promised to double its aid package to the PA.

Now, the World Bank is wont to issue periodic statements ascribing the precarious nature of the Palestinian economy to Israeli checkpoints and the like. In fact, the World Bank should rather be rebuking itself and all the donors for turning the Palestinians into a nation of international beggars by pouring funds upon them irrespective of their collective behavior. A cardinal rule of all international aid is to avoid donor-dependence, but the Palestinians have been given an unlimited waiver.

"Palestine"-inspired dysfunction is also to be found in the secretive European financing of pro-Palestinian NGOs, as NGO Monitor has conclusively demonstrated, and it is becoming rampant in those churches which have foolishly decided to import the Arab-Israeli conflict into their structures. Church assemblies fight over "Palestine" year by year, parishes are split and members leave in despair. Here the biggest culprits are the World Council of Churches and charities such as Christian Aid. The systematic mendacity of their propagandistic activities was recently exposed in a penetrating analysis by Denis MacEoin. But the point need not be pursued further here. See what I have written elsewhere (and about the pernicious Kairos Palestine Document) and especially the excellent studies of Dexter van Zile in CAMERA and in the New English Review. The Protestant Consultation on Israel and the Middle East was recently founded with the aim of restoring sanity in this area.

Finally, let us look at the source of all that dysfunction: the nature of the PA itself. In light of recognition by the UN General Assembly, Mahmoud Abbas has proclaimed that the PA will henceforth go under the name "State of Palestine." The appropriate name is rather "Abbasistan."

Abbas was President of the PA for exactly four years: from January 2005 to January 2009. For an additional four years, as no elections were held, he has continued to style himself president. That is, even if elections had been held and he had been reelected, his second term would now be over. The PA parliament stopped meeting years ago; new elections for it are also long overdue. In 2012, local elections were held in the West Bank; the winners were in many cases opponents of Abbas within Fatah.

Thus Abbasistan is indeed ruled by one self-appointed boss, Abbas, assisted by his two sons, various personal appointees and a multiplicity of security services. But the scope of his rule is limited: the foreign governments who finance the Palestinians have set up, wherever possible, their own mechanisms of operation so as not to lose money by giving it to the PA directly. Abbas does make numerous speeches, take trips abroad and receive pro-Palestinian delegations.

Whether Abbas wants to negotiate with Israel is moot. More likely, as I have explained elsewhere, he wants recognition as a state on the pre-1967 armistice lines without making any commitment to Israel, in order then to pursue the next item on the Palestinian agenda: the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees. But negotiations with him are pointless in any case, since his word is not seen as binding by those other factions in the West Bank, not to speak of Gaza.

Abbasistan is by far the biggest employer in the Palestinian areas. At least its schoolteachers, one might hope, are doing something useful in this ever-spreading bureaucracy. But Palestinian education is also dysfunctional. Whether they are studying Arabic, history or geography, children hear the same false messages: the Palestinians are Arabs who have lived here since time immemorial; the Jews have no connection with the land and there was never a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount; Jesus was a Palestinian; the Palestinian Christians and Muslims have always lived together in joyous harmony; there was no Muslim conquest but rather the Christians welcomed the Muslims as liberators, and so on and so on.

Above all, children learn that the ultimate mission of Palestinians, to which all else must be subordinated, is the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees, the removal of the Jews to other countries and the expansion of Palestinian rule to the whole land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. To pass the Palestinian matriculation examination, the Tawjihi, youngsters are required to learn their textbooks by heart and reproduce sections of them verbatim on demand.

Here is where the dysfunction begins. It has already spread to various international institutions, and more are on the agenda.