THE VATICAN AND THE LONG ROAD TOWARDS A PALESTINIAN STATE
are two prevailing souls in the Palestinian world at present: one
incline to dialogue represented by the National Palestinian Authority
(ANP) based in Ramallah, and its extremist counterpart embodied by
Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. The future of the Palestinians
will be determined by the outcome of the struggle between such
alternative visions of the future relationship with Israel. Whether it
will be war or talks will depend on whether the frustrations
accumulated in over 60 years will prevail over a peaceful solution.
Otherwise it will be conflict, possibly a mass struggle (an Intifada),
that will cause yet more, albeit disproportionally, deaths and
suffering in both Palestinians and Israelis.
It is within this context that we have to evaluate the Vatican's decision to recognize the State of Palestine. A step that reinforces the political stance and international credibility of the ANP's current president, Abu Mazen, aka Mahmoud Abbas, as opposed to Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh from Hamas. The initiative is even more important if we consider that Israel has just voted in favor of the nth government ruled by Benjamin Netanyahu, whose approach is against any negotiated solution. The Israeli PM declared during his electoral campaign that he will never allow the creation of a Palestinian State, that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish State (although 37% of the population is Palestinian) and approved the construction of 900 homes for settlers in Eastern Jerusalem as the first act of his new government.
Given such a stance, any peaceful negotiation will be possible solely is the Palestinians seeking a dialogue, read the ANP, will be able to produce tangible results. The Vatican's initiative helps in this precise direction although they were not the first ones to take such a step. In November 2012 the UN's General Assembly approved Resolution 67/19 that granted Palestine a “non-member observer status”, just like the Holy See, that voted in favor.
The Vatican has now moved one more step ahead and signed a direct and global recognition of Palestine as a State whose legitimate representative is President Abu Mazen. By cutting Hamas out of the equation, Pope Francis is trying to foster a return to dialogue between the parties as underlined by his May 2014 visit to Jordan, West Bank and Israel. Even during that trip Mahmoud Abbas had been labeled by the Pontiff as “President” of the Palestinian “State”. The Pope's activism did not stop there. In June 2014 he invited Abu Mazen and Shimon Peres to Rome. A year before that a delegation from the Vatican had met with the PLO to discuss the status of the Catholic church. Pope Francis is continuing along the lines of a long standing relationship between the Vatican and the Palestinians that started back in 1994 and became official through the PLO in 2000. The entente between the Holy See and Palestine includes issues of religious freedom, jurisdiction, properties and status of the personnel employed by the Catholic Church for a total of 69 articles.
The biggest step is, of course, the signature of an agreement between the Vatican and Palestine, not just the PLO. The two sides had initially agreed to be represented by an envoy and not an ambassador. But this is a merely formal detail and such a distinction has no meaning in the Holy See's diplomatic list. Although not officially, a Palestinian diplomatic representation has been deployed at the Vatican for years. The latest ambassador appointed by Abu Mazen in August 2013 is Issa Kassissieh, a Greek Orthodox, while a Chargé d'Affaires named Ammar Nasnas has been taking care of the Rome office for quite some time. The Apostolic Nuncio in Jerusalem, instead, represents the Holy See in Palestine. In light of the recent clashes in the Occupied Territories, the Vatican has taken yet one more step: it has granted the Palestinians a building where to host their embassy right in front of the Sant'Anna gate that leads inside the Holy See. Such an initiative has a precise political meaning.
The Pope's activism is not simply a reflection of his attention for the marginalized (as are his condemnations of the Armenian genocide and capitalism) or his predilection for peace (as in Cuba or against an armed intervention in Syria), but a strategy targeted at the Middle East to protect the Christians. The PLO's secular characteristics help in this direction.
Since the days of Yasser Arafat the PLO has paid a lot of attention to its christian minority, as the presence of an Anglican Bishop, Eli Khoury, in the Executive Council of the organization and that of a Catholic Priest, Abuna Ibrahim Ayad, in Fatah's Central Committee show. The circumstance is particularly relevant if we consider that the PLO is a majority muslim, secular, and marxist (at least in the past) movement where Christians represent a mere 8% of the people. Yet, Christians have a strong marxist tradition in the Middle East ever since the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine led by George Habash. Arafat loved repeating that there can be no Palestine without the Christians.
The Vatican is not the first country to recognized Palestine as a state. Over 100 nations have already done so: all South America (with the exception of Colombia and Panama), Africa (except Cameroon and Eritrea), a good part of Asia and Eastern Europe. In Western Europe only Sweden has granted its recognition to Palestine, whilst both the British and Italian Parliaments have approved motions that mandate their governments to proceed in this direction. The European Parliament has done the same in December 2014. On the other hand, the United States, although indirectly, expressed their support for the national unity government formed by the PLO and Hamas, although the latter is still a considered a terrorist organization, in June 2014.
Abu Mazen's diplomatic offensive goes beyond the Vatican's recognition and a complaint filed against Israel for crimes against the Palestinian people at the International Criminal Court after it became the 123rd member of the institution on April 15, 2015. Yet, the failure of the national unity government with Hamas is hindering such attempts. Abu Mazen was elected in 2005 with a 4 years mandate, but no elections were held ever since.
The Palestinian diaspora scattered across the world counts 12 million people. 2.8 million live in the West Bank, 1.8 million in Gaza and 4.6 million in the Occupied Territories (43% of whom are refugees), while the rest is abroad. Each of these communities suffers in the hope of a Palestinian state. Those that live in Gaza – the city with the highest population density in the globe and under embargo by Israel – or in one of the 31 refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon or Israel or that are subject to abuse and discrimination in the Occupied Territories could be more incline to radicalism. And they are the numeric majority of Palestinians.
In the statistics of feelings and resentment the Israelis also have to be taken into account. Their perception with regard to the creation of a Palestinian state is one of fear. They fear for their security, isolated in a hostile region and with a tragic past made of holocausts, persecutions and discriminations behind them. The Jewish diaspora has always been against each and everyone. They were the nomadic people in search of the promised land, a dream that came true in Palestine. This should help them understand how their counterparts feel now, but this story has seen so many deaths, witnessed too much blood to candidly drift towards a peaceful resolution. Palestinians and Israelis did not learn from their past, they are influenced by it. The sole hope lies in the spirit of the new generations of both peoples, those seeking a better future without having to look back. It is a long road that has no alternatives. The end lies where the Jewish Aliyah (the return to the promised land) meets, in peace, the Nakba (the 1948 exodus and catastrophic day) of the Palestinians.