On Nakba Day, Pope Francis Gives Palestinians a Symbolic Victory

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The pontiff, right, seen with Palestinian President Abbas, has agreed to sign a treaty recognizing the state of Palestine.

It’s a day of mourning and memory, and one that shows the other side of Israeli independence. In 1948, as war raged across the former British colony, more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes during the fighting. Few would ever be permitted to return.

For Palestinians, Friday was the 67th day of commemoration of this loss, known as the nakba,” which means “catastrophe” in Arabic. It is a solemn day for the Palestinian diaspora and their 7 million descendants—many of whom still carry the keys to their former homes.

For Palestinians, Nakba Day is always a wrenching reminder of their struggle for statehood. But this year’s anniversary came on the heels of a small, symbolic victory—courtesy of the Vatican. On Wednesday, the Holy See announced it would sign a treaty with the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs the West Bank. The treaty formally recognizes the state of Palestine and allows the Vatican to oversee aspects of Catholic life in the areas Abbas controls.

After Francis’s announcement, Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement citing its “disappointment,” saying the decision would not advance a negotiated end to the long-standing conflict.

In practice, the Vatican has recognized a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza since a 2012 United Nations vote granting the Palestinian Authority nonmember, observer status. But analysts say the move provides momentum to the recent Palestinian push for international recognition outside of the moribund peace process with Israel.

Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pope Francis is the spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics worldwide. Given his international stature and immense popularity, some believe the pontiff’s move could help open lines of communication between the two sides.

In recognizing the state of Palestine, the Vatican joins 135 countries, most of which have considered it a country since 1988 after the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declared statehood. During his Easter address earlier this year, as part of a prayer for “an end to all war and every conflict,” Pope Francis specifically asked God to “sustain the hopes raised by the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Last year, when Francis toured the Holy Land, he made a symbolic stop at the barrier that divides Israel from Bethlehem, which is said to be the birthplace of Christ. Francis used his stature to invite Abbas and then Israeli President Shimon Peres to a prayer summit at the Vatican. In June of 2014, not long after the most recent peace talks broke down, Peres and Abbas met in Rome for a two-hour prayer session. Though talks never resumed, the two parted after kissing on the cheek.

In Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Christians are a tiny minority—only 2 percent of the population. Francis’s official recognition of a Palestinian state comes at a time when Christians throughout the Middle East are feeling particularly vulnerable with the rise of radical jihadi groups. Many are fleeing to what they see as safer locations.

The Vatican’s move also came as Francis prepares to canonize two 19th century nuns: Marie Alphonsine Ghattas of Jerusalem and Mariam Baouardy of Galilee. In a Vatican ceremony on May 17, which Abbas will attend, they will become what the Vatican calls the first Palestinian saints.

In the United States and Israel, Francis has widely been seen as a friend of the Jewish people. But some Jewish leaders were disappointed with his move on Wednesday. Mort Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, a pro-Israel group, calls it a “terrible decision.”

“This will strengthen Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to negotiate with Israel, to end hostilities with Israel and to remove Hamas, a terrorist organization,” he says.

Many Palestinians applauded Francis’s decision, but also wondered what sort of practical effects it might have. “Yes, countries recognize Palestine—but where does this lead?” says Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the PLO. “I’m hoping the church might take a more proactive stance as there are Catholic lands near Bethlehem that the state of Israel wants.”

Like many others, Buttu is not convinced the Vatican will help restart the talks. Israel’s new, more right-leaning government has promised to “advance the peace process.” But while on the campaign trail, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there would be “no Palestinian state” on his watch. (After his election-day victory, he said he supported the idea but thought it was unlikely in the current climate.) “The new Netanyahu government is not making any commitments to a two-state solution,” says Buttu. “They are ideologically opposed to it.”

Itamar Rabinovich, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and former president of Tel Aviv University is also skeptical, yet he does not dismiss the power of Francis’s symbolic act. “Look, it’s not a Security Council resolution or a U.N. General Assembly resolution,” he says, “but it’s another stone in the wall that’s being built.”

Ben Loeterman, director of a recent film, 1913: Seeds of Conflict, which explores the history of the region, agrees: “One can only applaud the pope’s effort. Perhaps this is just the catalyst needed to bring the various sides together to work through their differences.”

Not everyone is so optimistic. In the lead up to this year’s nakba anniversary, the Israeli columnist Gideon Levy wrote that in making it difficult for the country’s 1.7 million Arabs (also known as Palestinian citizens of Israel) to commemorate the event, Israel is only fueling the desire for Palestinian statehood. As he puts it: “The more Israel tries to repress the memory, the stronger it gets.”