By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
First of all, the term “international legitimacy” means the set of principles and laws that govern and guide international relations through the United Nations (UN) and its main bodies. It means also the UN-sponsored agreements and the resolutions issued by its main bodies. However, it is necessary to be alert and careful when dealing with such a term in the case of the Palestine issue, and this due to five main aspects:
First: The balance of power plays a fundamental role in proving, denying or changing international legitimacy. Jurists of law and political science do not hesitate to question the origin of legitimacy, including international legitimacy, where legitimacy goes hand in hand with power. It is found that legitimacy is often the endeavor of the strongest to grant its power a legal and moral aspect. For example, the international legitimacy emanating from World War II was established by the victorious powers who dominated the international realm. Likewise, the resolutions of the UN General Assembly, where states have equal rights and duties, are generally just recommendations, while those taken by the Security Council, where states do not have equal rights and duties, are legally binding.
The international system reflects the post-World War II balance of power, granting five specific countries the right to veto and disable international legitimacy, even if their decisions contradict international consensus or even the laws, regulations and resolutions of the UN itself, as in the case of the Palestine issue and the US position.
Therefore, it is high risk when “international legitimacy” is relied upon, for it is led by international powers that are not only biased towards Israel, but are a major reason for its creation and continuity.
Second: The selective implementation of international legitimacy, based on what the dominant powers like and serve their interests. According to international legitimacy, when Palestine was placed in 1922 under the “mandate” system, the British occupation was required to prepare its population for independence. Besides, the British White Paper of May 1939 repudiated the Balfour Declaration and approved “the establishment within 10 years of an independent Palestine State”… but this has never happened.
Based on the UN Charter, the usual procedures for ending the mandate include giving the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people. The withdrawal of the mandate meant the independence of Palestine, as happened with all the countries under the mandate. However, the partition decision (Resolution no. 181) was contrary to this international legitimacy and fundamentally contradictory to the UN foundations and principles. It was issued by a party that does not have the authority (the UN General Assembly). Moreover, the Palestinian people (the party concerned with the decision) were not even consulted or asked to vote on a referendum regarding the future of their country or giving up parts of it. The Palestinian people never agreed to transfer the sovereignty of parts of their land.
Thus, a new “international legitimacy” arose that recognizes Israel, despite the fact that international law prohibits the occupation of lands by armed force, massacres and ethnic cleansing. These unlawful practices were the basis on which Israel was established on about 77% of Palestine, while the Palestinians have been owning at that time more than 94% of their land.
As for the UN General Assembly’s recognition of Israel, it was conditional on the establishment of a Palestinian state and the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, which was never implemented, and yet its UN membership still stands.
Therefore, it is not possible to seriously talk about the commitment to international legitimacy, as long as this legitimacy, its international system and the major powers have failed to oblige Israel to implement the relevant basic international resolutions. On the contrary, they provided cover for Israel to violate this legitimacy.
Third: This point is related to historical experience; for until this year (2023), the “international legitimacy” issued about 850 UN resolutions (General Assembly and other affiliated institutions) and about 130 Security Council resolutions regarding the Palestine issue, while pledging that all these resolutions adhere to the UN founding principles, such as the right to self-determination and the right to resistance. However, none of these were respected or implemented. Moreover, Israel was never forced to implement the General Assembly or the Security Council resolutions regarding Palestine, nor Chapter VII was used to force it to submit to international legitimacy. Israel has never declared its full commitment to international legitimacy, rather it declared a selective one that would serve its settlement project, and disregarded all international resolutions that demand respecting the rights of the Palestinian people.
This confirms that acknowledging international legitimacy to achieve any of the Palestinian national rights is futile, due to the huge power imbalance and the total bias towards Israel by the major powers in the international system, especially the Western countries. Furthermore, not one case of national liberation is known to have been accomplished through “international legitimacy” only… although it might have been used in the final stages of liberation, after imposing its authority on the ground. For the liberation process reflects the power balance rather than rights and justice.
Fourth: Recognizing international legitimacy includes approving resolutions 181, 242, 338, 194 and other Palestine issue relevant resolutions that are contradictory to other aspects of the international legitimacy; such as legitimizing Israel’s existence on part of Palestinian land. Therefore, approving totally what international legitimacy dictates would be, eclectically, used by dominant powers to impose concessions on the Palestinian people.
Fifth: Recognizing international legitimacy is demanded from states. Historically speaking, parties and liberation movements were never asked to abide by international agreements before they became a state or an official representative of a state. Furthermore, resistance movements are not signatories of any international agreement in order to express their acceptance or rejection. Therefore, it is out of place and meaningless when Mahmud ‘Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership demand from organizations like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement (PIJ) to recognize international legitimacy or adjust their actions based on it.
On the other hand, no one asked the Zionist parties their prior commitment to international legitimacy and its resolutions, whether before or after elections, or when forming any government. In fact, all the charters of Zionist parties do not stipulate their commitment to international legitimacy or the internationally accepted solution (two-state solution).
The Position of the PLO Leadership:
It is quite bizarre that the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PA (Fatah leadership) insist that Palestinian factions must abide by the “international legitimacy” in order to resume Palestinian reconciliation, form a national government, let them join the PLO and restructure it.
What is odd here is that instead of defending the fundamentals and looking after the supreme interests of the Palestinian people, this leadership insists that whomever wants to join the organization must violate its basic charter (the National Charter) and the Palestinian fundamentals. Thus, only those who recognize Israel, give up most of Palestine and renounce armed resistance can join!!!
The PLO and PA leadership has found that the term “international legitimacy” is acceptable in the Arab world and internationally, not to mention it is a “multi-faceted” one. Therefore, this leadership sought to use it to embarrass the Palestinian resistance forces, who reject the peace process and other concessions; hence, using it has been an excuse to evade this leadership’s national obligations and duties.
Finally, even if international legitimacy has positive aspects, one cannot take it into consideration without taking all precautions, so as not to fall into its “traps.” There is significant difference between the theoretical aspect related to UN principles and bases, including justice, equality and the right to self-determination, and the actual practices that Palestinians have paid dearly for over the past hundred years. Therefore, dealing positively with the rules governing international institutions must not diminish any of the inherent and natural rights of the Palestinian people, including their right to return, self-determination, resistance against occupation, and the complete liberation of their land and holy sites, based on the full and genuine commitment of the international powers to these rights.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 24/7/2023