'I'm not sure this helps us much': European countries are recognizing an official Palestinian state

It has a flag. A national anthem. Diplomats. Even its own international dialing code. In fact, three-quarters of the world's 195 countries − 143 U.N. member states plus the Vatican and Western Sahara − say it is a state.

A decision by Ireland, Norway and Spain to recognize an independent Palestinian state, which officially took effect Tuesday, comes nearly eight months into Israel's war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and decades into one of the world's most high-profile and intractable conflicts, between Israelis and Palestinians.

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Tuesday that "recognition of the State of Palestine is not only a matter of historic justice," it is also "an essential requirement if we are all to achieve peace."

But what does this formal statehood label mean? And will these recognitions, which the U.S. and larger European nations have not joined, bring full Palestinian statehood closer, and improve the lives of Palestinians?

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Rowan Nicholson, a scholar of international law at Australia's Flinders University, said that to qualify as a state four criteria are typically required: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and independence.

He said the conditions for statehood are both fairly rigid and a matter of debate.

"The criteria have developed over the centuries through the practice of states. There’s no single definitive written version of them; they are fuzzy and open to interpretation," said Nicholson, who has worked on cases before the International Court of Justice, a Hague, Netherlands-based court that last week ordered Israel to halt its military operation in Rafah, in Gaza, as part of a war crimes allegations case brought by South Africa.

"But one attempt to write them down that people often refer to is the Montevideo Convention of 1933. There are exceptions. For example, you can’t create a new state by unlawfully invading an existing state and separating off part of it, as Russia tried to do a few years ago with Ukraine," he said.

Still, in the Palestinian context, one reason to doubt Palestine qualifies as a state as defined by the Montevideo Convention and similar formulations, said Nicholson, is it doesn’t have effective independence from Israel.

Israel's military occupies Palestinian lands. Israel supervises some civilian aspects of life in the Fatah-run West Bank, and even before the current war it largely controlled access to Hamas-run Gaza.

A Palestinian state, step-by-step

Larry Garber, a former U.S. Agency for International Development mission director to the West Bank and Gaza, said the U.S. has long taken the view that any formal recognition of a Palestinian state should come only through the direct negotiation between the relevant parties: between Israelis and Palestinians.

"For many years, we all operated on the basis of a theory that this should be done in stages," Garber said. "First, Palestine should build up the various attributes of a state, such as good governance and an independent economy that operated effectively, then statehood would be the ultimate goal."

Germany and France echoed this position, and they still do.

"Our position is clear: the recognition of a Palestinian state is not a taboo for France," the country's Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne said in a statement last week. However, Sejourne added "this decision must be useful; that is to say, (it must) allow a decisive step forward on the political level. France does not consider that the conditions have been present to date for this decision to have a real impact in this process."

Mai’a Cross, a professor of political science at Boston's Northeastern University, said the recent European recognitions are essentially saying they recognize the "aspirations" of a future Palestinian state.

"You could say technically, in legal terms, this is pure symbolism. But I do think it is more than that because it's not as though there's only symbolism versus legality. There's politics − international relations is full of politics."

Cross said one "tangible" impact of the recognitions is the message they send to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected calls for Palestinian sovereignty. He even spent years, Israeli media has claimed, propping up Hamas in Gaza as a counterweight to the Palestinian Authority's attempts from the West Bank to advance toward the establishment of a two-state solution.

Legal scholars such as Marc Weller, who chairs international law and constitutional studies at the University of Cambridge, agreed. He said that "the recognizing states are saying 'we will now change the status (of Palestine) from an entity that ought to be a state into an entity that we claim is a state.' That makes it more difficult for Israel to deny (Palestine) has a right to become a state. The recognitions are deliberately framed to oppose Netanyahu's assertions that there can't be a two-state solution," he said.

"It's a powerful political tool to help isolate Israel's denial over Palestinian statehood," said Weller.

Palestine state recognition − and its trappings

Garber said that the recognitions do nevertheless have some concrete consequences.

"They upgrade the diplomatic relations between Palestine and the recognizing state, including potentially allowing for the exchange of ambassadors. It allows them to sign more formal treaties," he said.

Nicholson, the legal scholar in Australia, said "whether or not the entity really meets the criteria, the recognizing state commits to treating it as a state for practical purposes."

That means, he said, it will do things like accept passports, grant sovereign immunity to officials, and generally act as if the recognized entity is entitled to govern its own territory.

“Recognition of Palestine is not the end of a process, it is the beginning," said Simon Harris, the taoiseach, or prime minister, of Ireland, in apparent nod to this, when announcing his nation's Palestine recognition.

Slovenia and Malta indicated they may also recognize a Palestinian state, and Palestinian officials have expressed optimism that more soon could follow, though Israel's Foreign Minister Israeli Katz has described the development as sending a message to Palestinians and the world that "terrorism pays."

'I'm not sure this helps us much'

Earlier in May, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring that Palestinians qualify for full U.N. membership status. The Assembly can only grant full membership with the approval of the Security Council, which the U.S. would likely veto. Some of this U.S. support for Israel can be explained in historical terms.

The U.S. was one of the first countries to recognize Israel as an independent state, in 1948. It is a major supplier of weapons to Israel. American diplomats have habitually framed Israel as a lone democracy and security partner in the Middle East that shares values and interests with the U.S.

Still, Amed Khan, who worked on Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns and held several U.S. government positions and has been described as a "direct action philanthropist" who travels to the frontlines of humanitarian crises and uses his own personal wealth to purchase and distribute aid, said there was a simpler explanation for the lack of a U.S. recognition of a Palestinian state.

"What data point does anybody need to say that, basically, the U.S. is carrying out Israeli policy," he said.

"It's not hyperbole to say that the U.S. is doing everything it can to prevent recognition of Palestine because that limits Palestine's ability to exercise state functions locally, regionally and internationally."

One example, according to Khan: "The U.S. can't even get Israel to open up its land borders, so it ends up spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a floating pier that's delivering almost nothing," a reference to a Pentagon-built dock that has encountered various troubles fulfilling its mission.

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Omar Shaban, founder of the Gaza-based think tank PalThink for Strategic Studies, put it more diplomatically.

"Of course we appreciate this recognition," the Palestinian said, by phone from Brussels, where he was meeting with European officials. Shaban escaped Gaza three months ago and currently lives in Cairo. "But I'm not sure if this helps us much. The situation for Palestinians is not improving at all − with the war in Gaza; with the government in Israel; with the Palestinian divide; with the fear we have."

On Monday, an Israeli airstrike triggered a massive blaze killing 45 people in a tent camp in the Gaza city of Rafah. In its wake, as Palestinian families rushed to hospitals to prepare their dead for burial, global leaders urged the implementation of an International Court of Justice order to halt the assault.

Palestinians, Shaban said, would prefer Europeans help to stop Israel's war in Gaza, to a statehood recognition.

"Let us get help to stop the killing," he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is Palestine a state? Palestinian statehood, explained