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Friday, December 6, 2013
- Amidst a sudden downpour of rain here, the Palestinian flag was raised at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) on Tuesday, marking Palestine’s admission to the specialised agency.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, stood solemnly with members of his delegation and other officials as the flag was hoisted alongside the UNESCO banner, while the Palestinian national anthem played.
Some Palestinian onlookers cried openly as they witnessed the event from the scant shelter of umbrellas.
“Today is a dream day for us. We’ve dreamed of this for a long time,” Nasser El Fakawy, a France-based jewellery dealer originally from Gaza, told IPS. “To see our flag up at UNESCO for the first time made me cry. The rain is an announcement of good things to come.”
The admission to UNESCO is seen as the first step in the quest for Palestinian statehood, and Abbas indicated that he would press ahead to achieve international recognition.
“This is truly a historic moment and a very moving moment for my people to see our flag flying in this beautiful city of Paris,” Abbas said. “We hope this will be good auspices for Palestine’s becoming a member of other international organisations.
UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a full member on Oct. 31 during a session of its General Conference – one of the agency’s two decision-making bodies. Among the member states, 107 countries voted in favour, with 14 against and 52 abstentions.
The United States, which voted “no”, said that Palestine’s membership was “premature” without an agreement for lasting peace. Some of the other states that voted against or abstained said they did so because the U.N. Security Council was already considering a request by Palestine to be recognised as a state.
That appeal, made Sep. 23 by Abbas, is not expected to succeed as the United States has a veto vote in the Security Council which it has implied it will use. The U.S. government says it wants Israel and Palestine to reach a two-state solution, but following the UNESCO admission, Israel has continued with the building of settlements, a policy that resulted in the breakdown of talks last year.
“We are doing our utmost to restart negotiations,” Abbas told journalists on Tuesday. “We can talk about security, frontiers together, but Israel must stop the settlements. If that is done we will immediately go back to the negotiating table.”
Asked by a reporter whether the UNESCO membership was not a “cynical move” by Palestine, in light of the consequences for the organisation, Abbas said that the fact that 107 states had voted in favour showed that Palestine could become a member of international bodies and take its place on the world stage.
UNESCO stands weakened but defiant in the face of funding cuts by the United States, Canada and Israel. Officials said that the organisation is losing some 160 million dollars in U.S. fees and other contributions for 2011 and 2012.
Canada too has said it will not be making any “extra-budgetary” contributions, and Israel is withholding its annual fees of 1.5 million dollars, a UNESCO spokesperson told IPS.
In October, Israel slammed the decision to grant membership. The country’s ambassador Nimrod Barkan said UNESCO member states who voted “yes” had 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,” he said.
UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova welcomed Palestine to the organisation Tuesday, saying that the new membership “must be a chance for all to join together around shared values and renewed ambitions for peace.
“UNESCO is working on the frontlines today, to build a more peaceful, more democratic and more just world,” she said. “Human dignity is our starting point and the measure of our success. Solidarity is our guide and our objective.”
After the flag-raising ceremony, Abbas met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had at first opposed the UNESCO bid but later oversaw France’s surprise ‘yes’ vote. French officials said the backing was a result of strong “public opinion” in favour of Palestinian membership.
France, however, does not support full admission to the United Nations. Sarkozy is currently recommending that the Palestinian Authority ask the U.N. General Assembly to raise Palestine’s status from “observer” to something higher, as an alternative to full membership. Critics say the French attitude is an example of “double-speak”.
But Abbas thanked France for its support and declined to comment on the criticisms. On Wednesday delegates from the European Union (of which France is a member) were scheduled to travel to the Middle East along with U.N., Russian and U.S. officials to hold talks with Israel and Palestine.
“Today we are members of UNESCO and we sincerely hope that we will be able to have an independent state,” Abbas said. “We would like to see a sign of the Israelis’ determination to move towards peace.”