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The Palestinian national project: History and the present crisis

Nov 19, 2015

Dr. Azmi Bishara

298-(2).jpgAfter 1948, the Palestinian national project diverged from the policies of Arab states, at least with regard to the conflict with Israel.
It had turned refugee communities living under the sovereignty of other Arab states into one organised people with a national cause, coalescing around a national liberation movement.
At the time, the right of return was based not on UN resolutions calling on Israel to allow Palestinian refugees to return to lands it now occupied, but on liberating Palestine to enact the right of return.
Yet it is difficult to argue that the goal of liberation at the time was a purely Palestinian project.
It was clear that this goal could have only been achieved as a result of a pan-Arab war against Israel. No doubt, many leaders believed this was possible, at least until the war of October 1973.
Likewise, it is, in my opinion, difficult to argue a secular democratic state was a serious programme.
Rather, the proposal was advanced only in response to embarrassing questions by the European left about the Palestinian National Charter. Questions like: "What will be the fate of the Jewish population in Palestine after liberation?"
The Palestinian National Charter
The Palestinian National Charter embodied a political ideology that enjoyed the support of the representatives of the Palestinian people. It became part of the modern Palestinian identity.
Among its axioms added after 1967 were that Palestine remains the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people; and that "armed struggle" is the path to liberation.
Throngs of Palestinian refugees thus became regiments of Fedayeen "freedom fighters". The doctrine of this armed struggle included a protracted people's war inspired by leftist ideas, but championed by both the Fatah movement and separate left-wing factions.
Armed struggle became a key component of the Palestinian national project, irrespective of however realistic the political programme it served was, or its ability to actually defeat Israel militarily - this without underestimating the damage inflicted on Israel.
Indeed, the pressure on Israel was only relieved when peace treaties were signed, first with Egypt, and then with the Palestinians and subsequently the Kingdom of Jordan.
The key components of the Palestinian national project represented by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) were:
  • Arab solidarity with the Palestinian cause, expressed through the adoption of its inalienable principles; and establishing, financing and allowing the PLO to operate in Arab nations, before it sought to finance itself.
  • The centrality of the Frontline States [Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt] and the possibility of operating across their borders starting with Jordan until 1970 and Lebanon until 1982.
  • Palestinian refugee camps as both a social base and a source of recruits for armed struggle.
  • The Palestinian people everywhere recognise the PLO as the national representative of the Palestinian people.
  • The backdrop of this included the Cold War, where the world was divided into two main camps, in addition to the Group of Non-Aligned States, and rising global solidarity against colonialism.
The shift to statehood
After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Palestinian national project focused on one goal, namely, Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza.
All resources focused on the territories occupied in 1967, which helped the protests of 1987 become a national civil uprising led by people in the Palestinian interior.
One of the requirements of putting Palestinian statehood on the agenda of an international political process was the US and Israeli recognition of the PLO. But the price was renouncing armed struggle, the Palestinian National Charter and practically speaking, renouncing the PLO itself - in favour of establishing the Palestinian National Authority in any areas vacated by Israel.
Several global shifts that previously gave rise to the PLO accompanied these concessions, most notably:
  • Weakened Arab solidarity as a result of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed in Camp David, and later with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent events.
  • The collapse of the last remaining front in the confrontation with Israel following the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the PLO's departure from Beirut.
  • Palestinian refugee camps were no longer bases for armed struggle, but became slums and ghettos.
  • The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, one of the world's two pre-eminent superpowers.
It was not Palestinian policies that caused these changes, albeit they responded to them.
We disagreed between ourselves at the time; our differences over the Oslo Accords were profound.
The Palestinian leadership, and with it a large segment of the Palestinian people, believed it was not renouncing the Palestinian national project - but was building a state in the Palestinian homeland.
The question it often had to the opponents of Oslo was "what is your alternative?"
In this new phase, armed struggle was no longer a component of the national project. Resistance was now separated from, if not conflicted with, politics.
Armed resistance was pursued by those who were not part of the political process or the national project for statehood, and "counter-terrorism" operations became one of the functions of the new PNA.
In many cases, the armed resistance was aimed against the political or so-called peace process.
In truth, Yasser Arafat was the last leader to try to reconcile the two approaches, at least as a tactical means to a political end, especially when negotiations reached an impasse.
Arafat paid with his life for trying to bridge two options that became contradictory in the era of security collaboration with the occupation.
Arafat pursued this after it became clear in Camp David that a final settlement with Israel was not attainable through bilateral negotiations, with Israel's conditions for Palestinian statehood invalidating Palestinian sovereignty while retaining Jerusalem under Israeli control.
And with regards to the crucial refugee question, the right of return was simply vetoed by Israel.
Arafat thus decided to return to popular protests and then armed struggle, creating the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, in some cases working with Hamas itself.
However, he discovered that he had crossed a regional and international red line, and proponents of the political process within Arafat's movement itself soon rebelled against him.
The political process now had powerful advocates within the Palestinian national liberation movement. New elites emerged that were organically linked to this process.
Since then, the devastating conflict between resistance and the political process has been relentless.
Resistance became a political force and identity of its own, entrenching divisions with the pro-negotiations camp.
Impasse then became outright political conflict, separating two geographic areas that together were supposed to form the Palestinian state.
An aside here: some have called these two areas the wings of the homeland, but to me they do not constitute a homeland, which should be all of Palestine and not just the West Bank and Gaza.
The Palestinian state was never established. Settlements expanded, and Israel continued to alter the Arab identity of Jerusalem in favour of Jewish demography, with enviable perseverance.
Negotiations reached an impasse for reasons we, Oslo's critics, have been writing about for years. These include:
  • The absence of an agreed basis for negotiations. Negotiations between enemies should be preceded by an implicit agreement, especially if the balance of power is not even, with negotiations focusing on implementation. As a result, all issues remained outstanding beyond the interim phase.
  • The over-reliance on the United States to force Israel to end settlements and accept the two-state solution. The United States did not desire this and/or simply could not deliver. The Palestinians were left as prey to a balance of power heavily skewed between the occupier and the occupied.
  • The fact that the PNA agreed to take on obligations reserved for states without being one itself. It fought "terrorism" not in a sovereign state, for example, but among a people under occupation - an impossible mission.
  • Negotiations did away with what was left of Arab and international solidarity with Palestine. The Palestinian leadership saw such solidarity as one-upmanship against those Palestinians who agreed to engage in negotiations with Israel. For this reason, the PNA did not support the bid to boycott Israel, save for boycotting products made in illegal settlements.
'Defensive resistance'
With the failure of the negotiations, the post-1982 Palestinian national project faced a real crisis.
Armed resistance was being pursued outside the context of the PLO and the political process.
And although armed resistance upheld Palestinian constants, its goals did not become a fully-fledged political programme.
When armed groups began speaking the language of political programmes, they also spoke about a state in the West Bank and Gaza. Recall that the resistance had forced Israel to unilaterally disengage from Gaza without a peace treaty, disregarding the PNA based in Ramallah.
After that, resistance became the subject of internal conflict with Gaza.
When Hamas prevailed in Gaza, a blockade was imposed by Israel and Egypt, putting it on the defensive.
Like in Lebanon, after Israel's unilateral withdrawal in 2000, war became Israel's answer to resistance operations.
Armed resistance became a mainly defensive strategy fending for the blockaded territories of the PNA in Gaza, and deterring Israel from attacking. This has not changed, despite the fact that with each round of Israeli aggression, the resistance became more formidable.

The Palestinian national project, along with the bid for Palestinian statehood and armed resistance, is in crisis.

But the key question to ask is this: Which project can the forces of the Palestinian people engage with - both today and going forward?

Today, the West Bank and Gaza, and Fatah and Hamas, remain sharply divided. The Palestinian diaspora has meanwhile been fully excluded from participating in their people's national liberation project.

In Syria, the Palestinians suffered a new Nakba, this time not confined to them alone, as part of Syria's innumerable Nakbas.

In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are in political deadlock and live in dismal conditions.

Meanwhile, Arabs are preoccupied with dealing with tyrannical regimes in their own countries.

Initially, we expected the Palestinian cause would benefit from the rise of Arab democracies, complete with a proactive body of Arab public opinion. However, Arab revolutions stumbled - and were drawn into a bloody confrontation with counter-revolutionary waves.

The Arabs are now caught between the forces of the ancien regime and the radical religious groups that have emerged, without being committed to any of the issues championed by the Arab peoples rising up in recent years against tyranny.

Recently, the US president all but mourned the peace process. In September, he omitted any mention of Palestine in his UN speech.

Against all this backdrop, a pro-settler government is in power in Tel Aviv, and Arab leaders in Arab capitals are busy preserving their regimes and tackling internal and regional threats, with Palestine at the bottom of the list of their priorities.

Conducive factors

Yet despite this non-favourable climate, dynamics that are favourable for the Palestinian cause have emerged:
  • An unprecedented international consensus is emerging in favour of the just cause of Palestine, despite it having been marginalised on the international agenda set by the major powers.
  • Palestinian youths are in contact with one another using means that challenge the barriers between the places where they live, including Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, the territory occupied in 1948, as well as the diaspora.
  • It has become clear that boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) against Israel work, and can be endorsed by the public opinion in democratic countries.
  • The eruption of Palestinian wrath has proven that the post-Oslo generation has not accepted the Oslo status quo, and still dreams of the end of occupation.

I want to say here that I know directly that many are not happy with some of the methods used in Palestinian uprisings. However, a people under occupation is not obliged to give the occupier insurance policies.

Ultimately, despite Israeli brutality, the cause of Palestine is not about the number of dead and injured, and the types of oppression impressed.

The cause of Palestine is above all a question of a homeland that has been stolen and appropriated by colonial force.

It is also a central cause combining what the world has seen as the Jewish Question and the Arab Question respectively, and the challenge is to turn this fact into a strength, not a factor of weakness and complexity as it is now.

The intifada(s) and Palestinian struggle

The struggle in Palestine, call it an intifada, an uprising or anything else appropriate, hurts Israel and her plans in many ways, and it should be expected to continue, given the continuation of settlement and appropriation of Jerusalem.

In the past, Israeli settlement-building was only halted during the years of the intifada, only to resume after it ended. Therefore, leaders must develop a political programme with clear demands for Palestinian struggle at home and abroad, rather than just express support or denounce Israel's brutality.

The recent Palestinian uprising was prompted by Israel's transformation of Arab Jerusalem into an Arab ghetto surrounded by a Jewish city.

Israel has attempted to alter the status quo at Al-Aqsa Mosque, at a time Arab and international actors are preoccupied away from Palestine. And Israel pressed ahead with an extensive settlement building programme, which included schemes for annexing Area C of the West Bank.

The Palestinian National Authority's lobbying in international organisations and temporary departure from negotiations did not make a lot of difference. In the end, Israel remains reassured by the continuation of security coordination with the Palestinian side, which for Israel is the most important issue.

However, it seems to me that the moment of truth is fast approaching, and a decision has to soon be made regarding whether the Palestinians should continue working under the ceiling of the PNA or not.

Currently, the PNA does not feel like it has to make this choice, as one implication could be losing its privileges under occupation.

The PNA believes the current intifada is mostly the result of individual, desperate actions, and is inclined to de-escalate, based on the lessons of the second intifada.

But if the current intifada ends without achieving specific demands, and the PNA returns to some form of negotiations, the same political game would return - albeit with a much weaker hand of cards. This is unacceptable.

Ending ambiguity

It is difficult to imagine a full uprising against the occupation without a clear stance from Palestinian leaders, starting with ending security collaboration and not ending with confronting the occupation head on.

We know that this would be a path completely different from negotiations.

The PNA has tried all possible tactics pertaining to negotiations, but negotiations reached a dead end when the Palestinian side held on to the borders of June 4, 1967.

However, the PNA did not declare an end to negotiations, and continued to coordinate with Israel on security matters, keeping its position ambiguous even at the height of the intifada.

No one takes the Palestinian threat of disowning agreements with Israel seriously. For one thing, this is often meant to urge the world to act, while stressing commitment to negotiations and a political solution.

To escalate the struggle in Palestine into a full confrontation with the occupation therefore requires a clear position from the Palestinian leadership, which in turn will require setting up an all-inclusive framework for Palestinian factions.

Palestinian reconciliation

This is also the sine qua non for achieving Palestinian reconciliation. Indeed, any Palestinian now knows that reconciliation between the two disparate authorities in Ramallah and Gaza is out of the question politically, due to intractable obstacles and concerns on both sides.

However, reconciliation would be possible if preceded by abandoning the idea and reality of the Palestinian Authority in favour of resisting the occupation.

Then negotiations could be rebooted on clear bases, after Israel and the United States understand the inevitability of fulfilling the rights of the Palestinian people.

Today, the PNA's security services consider "terrorism", not Israel, as the enemy. These security services are willing to confront any plan to resist Israel, including by cracking down on Palestinian protesters against occupation.

It is therefore no surprise that the raison d'etre and structure of the PNA inevitably reinforce Palestinian division.

It follows that the only possible way to escalate the confrontation with the occupation is discarding the Oslo Accords.

At the same time, lessons should be learned from the Israeli siege of Yasser Arafat, and from the experiences of Hamas which, too, is today under siege.

A roadmap for the struggle with Zionism

There are several key fronts in the conflict with Israel and Zionism today:
  • The struggle against occupation and settlement expansion in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank
  • The struggle to end the blockade on Gaza and attempts to sever it from the West Bank
  • The struggle against racist policies in Israel proper, where the emphasis should be on equal citizenship as the antithesis of Zionism, and collective rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel

    - This is an important struggle because it challenges Zionism for claiming to have a democratic state, and because it asserts the endurance of the Arab people in historic Palestine.
  • The international struggle with Israel as a settler-colonial apartheid state.

The Palestinian diaspora

We are all aware of the tough conditions of the Palestinians in the diaspora, especially in Syria and Lebanon. For them, the clock has gone back to 1948.

There is a real need for solidarity with the Palestinians in the diaspora, especially in Syria.

The civil wars raging in the Arab Mashreq did not end up improving Israel's image. International public opinion is fed up with the endurance of Israeli occupation and brutality.

Israel has changed little even after the Cold War and the Arab Spring.

Yet it is important not to squander growing international support for Palestine, to increase solidarity with Jerusalem and Gaza, support Palestinian struggle against settlement in the West Bank and step up support for Palestinians in the refugee camps, especially in Syria and Lebanon.

Palestinian youths in the diaspora must engage directly in pro-Palestinian action, particularly BDS campaigns, and must do so while transcending Palestinian divisions.

A democratic discourse

To confront Israel internationally, a democratic Palestinian discourse must also be developed, to counter Israel's claims that it is the only democracy in the Middle East.

It would be impossible to fight a democratic struggle before an international public opinion without a democratic discourse.

This cannot be done using a rhetoric that sees Arab tyrannical regimes as "progressive", peoples demanding freedom in the Arab countries as "reactionary" and Russia, friend of the European and Israeli right, a friend of the Arab peoples.

To have any credibility we must also be democratic and accommodating other peoples' struggle for democracy.

The Israeli exploitation of religion and scripture to advance Tel Aviv's settlement agenda cannot be confronted either by summoning religious zealots to our country; we cannot tackle a religious discourse with another.

It may work to mobilise support for Al-Aqsa, but not to discredit the democratic claims Israel makes in the West, and to expose the fundamentalist essence of Israel beneath its democratic veneer.

These are but some lessons we draw from the complexity of the Palestinian cause. The above is a necessary mental exercise to turn the weaknesses of the Palestinian cause into strengths.

Azmi Bishara on Twitter


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