Reclaiming Palestine

30 July 2007

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In Gaza City, a member of Hamas’ Executive Forces stands in front of a mural of the late leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat. In 1993 Arafat signed the Oslo Accords that created the Palestinian Authority (PA). Now, especially after Fatah’s deposing of the democratically elected Hamas government, the PA is said to no longer be a body that represents the Palestinian people and only through a reviving of the PLO will Palestinians around the world once again have a sole representative organization to speak on their behalf. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)


Today, Palestine and the Palestinians are divided as never before. The West Bank and Gaza are geographically and politically separated, and Israel’s Apartheid Wall is carving the West Bank into isolated cantons. These divisions are exacerbated by the political rift between Fatah and Hamas and the specter of civil war. Meanwhile, stateless Palestinian refugees are largely disconnected from their brethren in Palestine and the Diaspora, as well as from any semblance of a representative national movement. Another far more intangible factor, has been the impact on the Palestinian psyche not just of 41 years of a brutal occupation, but of assisting in their own oppression since the Oslo Accords were signed. This environment does not create states or peace, it perpetuates personal and societal devastation. Thus begging the question: what can be done to reverse this trend toward permanent dislocation? By concentrating on dissolving the Palestinian Authority (PA) and reviving the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Palestinians, and all those sympathetic to their cause, can take advantage of a window of opportunity that currently exists to reclaim their national movement.

The PA currently represents Washington and Israel’s most vulnerable ally in their shared vision for reshaping the Middle East. With a “caretaker government” populated by a coalition of bland unelected technocrats and led by a president who long ago chose the United States and Israel over his own people, the PA is no longer a viable political entity for Palestinians. For Israel, however, it is essential because it maintains the facade of Palestinian civil rule, from which it derives extensive political and economic benefits. From a public relations perspective, the existence of the PA has allowed supporters of Israel to claim that there is no occupation, that these territories are “disputed” or the more extreme statement that the Palestinians already have their own “dysfunctional state and government.” This situation has also served to confuse the basic facts of the conflict, leading some misguided observers to believe that there are two states whose armies are at war, rather than one state, Israel, occupying an entire people on their own land.

By outsourcing civil services to the PA, Israel has been able to free itself from the burdens of providing an Israeli staff for the top bureaucratic positions, as it did from 1967 to 1994. Moreover, because it is still collecting tax revenues for the PA, one of many myopic provisions of the Oslo Accords, and withholding them when and for as long as they see fit, Palestinian civil service employees are compensated intermittently, if at all. The fanfare surrounding Israel’s recent release of $120 million dollars in an attempt to bolster President Mahmoud Abbas, largely ignored that this was a fraction of the $500 to $700 million owed. Israel claims that it continues to withhold money due to PA debts, including for water and power services. Due to another short-sighted arrangement under Oslo, Palestinians have the privilege of paying more for inconsistent and inadequate utility services than either Israeli citizens or Israeli settlers in the occupied territories. Moreover, Israel’s political and military policies prevent the establishment of efficient and independent utility services for the Palestinians. Indeed, Israel’s monopoly over these services is more than just a deliberate policy of “de-development,” as Harvard scholar Sara Roy has demonstrated; it ensures a perpetual state of dependence and occupation, to which the PA is an active participant.

The PA will not dissolve itself. Without pressure from the entire Palestinian community, inside and outside of the occupied territories, the political hacks and their entourage of sycophants that populate the PA leadership will not relinquish power. Their careers and personal fortunes, skimmed from the public coffers, are dependent upon their continued rule. Success requires that this effort be led by Palestinians living in the occupied territories across all levels of society. They elected both Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas in free and fair elections, and they must declare that they no longer have confidence in the body that purports to represent them. As past attempts have demonstrated, this must be a broad-based effort, not just limited to an elite clique of intellectuals or an isolated group of committed grass-roots activists. This will require “rank and file” members of Fatah to acknowledge that their leadership has failed them and the Palestinian people. Similarly, the Hamas leadership must reiterate its commitment to national unity and to join a larger movement whose goal is an independent Palestinian state. While those Palestinians who have advocated for a “third way” now have an opportunity to be part of a broader coalition which will help them achieve the political goals they have advocated. At the grassroots level, this process must be supported by the different trade unions and federations in the territories, whose membership comprises a broad swath of the Palestinian public that has arguably suffered the most from the brutality of the Israeli occupation and the corruption and incompetence of the PA. Similarly, the civil servants of the PA who have attempted to serve their people honorably must also recognize that the leadership has not done the same. Obtaining participation by all these groups will not be easy, but it is essential. National unity is the only path to success, factionalism and petty fiefdoms will result in failure.

These efforts can, and must, be supported by Palestinians in the Diaspora. Those who believe in the need for national unity should begin organizing at the local and national levels to withdraw the political, financial, and moral support for the PA and its leadership. This support must be redirected toward those individuals and groups in the West Bank and Gaza organizing against the PA. Roughly 160,000 Palestinians are currently employed by the PA, but they represent over 750,000 Palestinians due to extended family networks, and mechanisms must be developed to support them financially. Palestinian professional and intellectual groups outside the territories must coordinate and unite with their counterparts inside Palestine to declare as publicly and widely as possible, in Arabic and English, that the PA must be disbanded. This declaration should be expanded by boycotting officials and institutions associated with the PA, including diplomatic fronts like the American Task Force on Palestine, a group that boasts among its slim record of “achievements,” sponsoring polo matches and hosting a speech by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. At the very minimum, all Palestinians who live in countries with a PA mission should contact it and demand that the PA leadership resign, the PA be dissolved and new elections to the Palestine National Council (PNC) be held. Silence is no longer an option; it provides a leadership that has lost its legitimacy with security and consent and further enables the occupation.

In conjunction with these efforts, a delegation of former PLO officials who resigned after Oslo must meet with the remaining current leadership untainted by the PA. It is imperative that these current PLO officials live up to the duties of their office and reaffirm their commitment to the national movement by helping to organize new elections to the PNC. Similarly, negotiations must be held with key Hamas leaders, inside and outside the occupied territories, to formally bring the organization into the PLO so they can participate in the PNC elections. If the current officials refuse to act, then they must be pressured to step aside. This is a time for leaders, not divas.

However, Palestinians can expect that any attempt to reassert control over their representative institutions will be resisted by the United States and Israel with assistance from the European Union and conservative Arab regimes. This will include promoting alternative organizations and leaderships, as well as rebranding a revived PLO as a “terrorist organization,” regardless of its political strategies and policies. Yet, this cannot be a deterrent or an excuse for non-action. Palestinians have faced these obstacles before and must do so again if they have any hope of ending Israel’s occupation, realizing the right of return, and achieving an independent state.

What has been proposed above is not a comprehensive strategy or a blueprint, it is a starting point for a discussion in which all Palestinians must engage and contribute. Nor are these suggestions novel or revolutionary. For ten years until his death, Edward Said wrote and spoke eloquently and passionately about the depravity of the PA and the need for a new representative body free of the machinations of Yasser Arafat and his coterie. If you agreed with him then, his words are even more relevant today. Even those who dismissed his contentions as ivory tower griping must now acknowledge that his analysis was prescient. The PA is not the future of Palestinian self-government but an abortion masquerading as one. In the name of all those who have sacrificed their lives for freedom and justice in Palestine, it is imperative that Palestinians act now.

Osamah Khalil is a Palestinian-American doctoral candidate in US and Middle East history at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on US foreign policy in the Middle East. He can be reached at okhalil at berkeley.edu.

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