By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal

It is refreshing that United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) accrued the distinction to become the first UN agency to welcome Palestine as its full member. UNESCO has indeed kept up its apolitical mandate, while responding to the collective voice of international conscience.

A huge cheer erupted in UNESCO’s General Assembly after the vote. “Today’s victory at UNESCO is the beginning of a road that is difficult, but will lead to the freedom of our land and people from occupation,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki commented.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas said, “This vote is not directed against anyone, but represents support for freedom and justice…This vote is for the sake of peace and represents international consensus on support for the legitimate Palestinian national rights of our people, the foremost of which is the establishment of its independent state.”

Israel has called the vote a “tragedy”. “We regret that the organization of science has opted to adopt a resolution which is a resolution of science fiction,” said Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO. Barkan warned that those who voted for the resolution would lose influence over Israel. “It certainly will weaken their ability to have any influence on the Israeli position”. He slammed the countries that “have adopted a science fiction version of reality by admitting a non-existent state to the science organisation, UNESCO should deal in science not science fiction.”

However, he admitted that the vote, while symbolic, could have a knock-on effect: “There is potential for a cascading effect of this resolution on many other UN specialised agencies and in New York.” Israeli foreign ministry responded; “There is no Palestinian state and therefore one should not have been admitted…“This is a unilateral Palestinian manoeuvre which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement,”

In an ugly reaction, Israel has gone beyond diplomatic sabre rattling and initiated physical actions against Palestine. It has announced to build 2,000 settler homes and freeze the transfer of Palestinian tax remittance to punish them for successfully joining UNESCO. The decision to speed up construction in east Jerusalem and in nearby settlements was taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, which met a day after UNESCO’s general assembly voted to admit Palestine as a full member.“These measures were agreed … as punishment after the vote at UNESCO…We will build 2,000 housing units, including 1,650 homes in east Jerusalem and the rest in the settlements of Maaleh Adumim and Efrat” a senior Israeli official commented.

Furthermore, Israeli test fired a new nuclear-capable InterContinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) as a warning to regional states only two days after its diplomatic defeat. This missile was launched for the first time since Israel became a nuclear power two decades ago. Missile is an upgraded Jericho 3 which can deliver a 750 KG nuclear warhead to a distance of 7,000 kilometres.

On the economic side, Israel has decided to temporarily freeze the transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority. Every month, Israel is required to transfers to the Palestinian Authority customs duties which are levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports. Israel often freezes the transfer of funds as a punitive measure in response to unfavourable diplomatic or political developments.

A statement from Netanyahu’s office said the decisions were taken during a “first discussion” of the UNESCO issue and further steps would be considered at the next meeting of the so-called ‘Forum of Eight’ comprising senior ministers. Israel is also reportedly considering withdrawing the special permits granted to top Palestinian officials that allow them to move between the West Bank and Israel with relative ease. “We won’t sit around idly in the wake of these moves that harm Israel and are a crude violation of the most elementary commitment the sides took upon themselves in the peace process – to solve the conflict between us through negotiations only,” Netanyahu retorted.

Palestinian internet servers across the West Bank and Gaza Strip were electronically attacked, cutting all Internet access. Palestinian communications minister Mashur Abu Daqqa suspected that Israel was involved in these disruptive activities. “I think from the manner of the attack and its intensity, that there is a state behind it,” he opined.

Punitive measures drew an angry response from the Palestinians, calling on the Middle East Quartet and the US administration to “put an end to this recklessness.”

The United States has commented that: “UNESCO vote to admit Palestine as a member is regrettable, premature, and undermines its shared goal of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the Middle East; United States remains steadfast in its support for the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state, but such a state can only be realized through direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians”.

The US ambassador to the UN said that UNESCO would suffer. America has stopped its obligatory financial contributions to UNESCO for granting membership to Palestine. A legislation of yesteryears stipulates that the US can cut off funding to any UN agency that accepts Palestine as a member. United States provides about 22 percent of the UNESCO’s funding, which is around $70 million. Canada and Israel have also announced to withhold their portion of funding.

The US has acknowledged that it could lose international influence as it would lose its right to vote in UNESCO, if it makes no payments over the next two years. During cold war era, America had boycotted UNESCO from 1984 to 2003 over what the State Department called “growing disparity between US foreign policy and UNESCO goals.”

Palestine got affirmative nod from two third of UNESCO’s members to become its 195th member. Of 173 countries that voted from a possible 185, 107 voted in favour, 14 voted against, 52 abstained and 12 were absent. The United States, Canada, Germany and Holland voted against Palestinian membership. Pakistan, Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa and France voted in favour. Britain and Italy abstained. Palestine needs to continue working on the 52 abstaining states and win over their support to make the crucial number of 129, when its request for UN membership moves to the General Assembly.

UNSC is to meet on 11th November to decide whether to hold a formal vote on Palestine’s application for statehood. It requires at least nine votes and no veto to succeed. Palestine has assurance from 8 SC members; Bosnia is yet to make up its mind. Muslim Ummah expects that Bosnia would vote in favour of Palestine to pay back the unclenching support it received from the Muslim Ummah during its difficult times.

It will be in the fitness of things that to offset the impact of politico-economic arm twisting of UNESCO, countries supporting the Palestinian cause should voluntarily enhance their contributions towards UNESCO.

Writer is an analyst of international security and current affairs. He is a former assistant chief of air staff of Pakistan Air Force.

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