This Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly voted to change Palestine's status in the organization from "observer" to "observer state". This is the first time the international body has recognized Palestine as a state, giving it the same status enjoyed by U.N. non-member Vatican City.
|The State of Palestine claims the West Bank and Gaza, which are largely occupied by Israel. The Golan Heights are not part of the Palestinian Territories. Public domain map (source).|
The Palestinian delegation campaigned to join the U.N. as a member last year, but had to give up after the U.S. promised to veto the application in the U.N. Security Council. Observer status, on the other hand, is determined by a majority vote in the U.N. General Assembly, which no single country can veto. That vote happened on November 29th, with members voting 138 to 9 in favor of granting Palestine observer state status (41 members abstained, and 5 were absent from the vote; see the full breakdown of national votes).
The only other U.N. observer state is the Holy See, which represents Vatican City. Many other countries have been observer states in the past, but all of them have since been accepted into the U.N. as full members (the last to join were Switzerland in 2002 and North and South Korea in 1991). While yesterday's events may help settle Palestine's legal status, the situation on the ground is more complicated, with most of the country's claimed territory under the control of Israel. The recognized Palestinian government also does not currently administer the Gaza Strip, one of the Palestinian Territories, which is instead controlled by right-wing opposition party Hamas. But despite their differences, the leadership of Hamas supported the campaign for statehood at the U.N.
Document: Full text of U.N. General Assembly resolution authorizing state observer status for Palestine
|Results of U.N. General Assembly vote on granting observer state status to Palestine. Green: In favor; Red: Against; Yellow: Abstaining; Blue: Absent; Black: Palestine. Map by B1mbo/Wikimedia (source). License: CC BY-SA|
Since the change is to Palestine's political status, the effects will be mostly in the domain of politics. Its actual role within the U.N. General Assembly will change little, because observers' privileges are mostly assigned on a case-by-case basis anyway. But now other U.N. agencies are more likely to consider Palestine for membership. It already successfully joined UNESCO last year, but was rejected from the U.N.-connected International Criminal Court (ICC) on the basis that members need to be states. Possible Palestinian membership in the ICC has received a lot of political attention, because it would allow Palestine to pursue war crimes charges against the Israeli government.
| Country Name: |
• Palestine (English)
• Filasṭīn (Arabic)
• State of Palestine (English)
• Dawlat Filasṭin (Arabic)
• Jerusalem (claimed)
• Ramallah (administrative)
Another area to watch will be Palestine's treatment by geographers: since the most common definition of "independent country" in maps and other publications is "member or observer state of the U.N.", Palestine may begin showing up on more maps and lists of countries from now on. Although it's already shown on many maps, it's usually indicated as special-case disputed territory rather than a country. Alternatively, if Palestine's nationhood proves too controversial, we could possibly see some change in how independent countries are defined in maps and books. In the U.S., some may choose to follow the lead of the American government, which currently recognizes all U.N. members and observers except Palestine.
Further Reading: Q&A - Palestinian bid for upgraded UN status (BBC), Why Palestine Won Big at the U.N. (TIME)