Since the start of the Arab uprisings in January, Palestinians have been hotly debating how they can break out of their own political impasse and rebuild their national movement.
This resulted in some direct action on the ground – such as the March 15 calls for protest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
There’s also little doubt that the Nakba Day marches by Palestinian refugees in May drew inspiration from the uprisings in other Arab countries.
But the burning questions remain unresolved: should Palestinians try to reform or rebuild the PLO and if so how? If not, how can they reconstitute an inclusive national movement and what should it look like?
Achieving a Palestinian spring
Recently, Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network, a “virtual think tank” for which I am a policy advisor, curated a roundtable called “Achieving a Palestinian Spring” (The roundtable is also available in Arabic).
It started off with an issue brief by Palestinian political scientist Jamil Hilal, and was followed by written contributions from Hani al-Masri, Will Youmans, Mezna Qato, Beshara Doumani, Rana Barakat, Toufic Haddad and myself. It was then rounded off with a response from Jamil Hilal.
Everyone took a slightly different approach to the problem, and while we did not come up with definitive answers, the result is a conversation that certainly pushed my own thinking. I highly recommend taking the time to read the essays.
My own contribution raised the question of whether Palestinians should pursue an “institution-centered” revival of their movement with all the costs and risks that would entail, or focus on building a looser, “agenda-centered” movement around the BDS call and deal with institutions at a later phase.
Politics can’t exclude economics
Several authors raised questions that have been on my mind recently – how to bring economics back into Palestinian political language and action. This is particularly relevant in light of the false claims by the Palestinian Authority and its Israeli and Western sponsors of a West Bank “economic boom” that are being used to bolster equally fictitious claims of “state-building.”
Arguing for a bottom-up movement, Toufic Haddad observes:
We cannot fool ourselves that democratization can come without reasserting power from below against those who have taken it from above. The undemocratic, neoliberal agenda of PA prime minister Salam Fayyad is the best place to start, as it asserts the power of Palestinian, Israeli, and international capital over the people.
Putting the same issue in the broader regional context, Beshara Doumani warns:
Surely the Arab Spring would quickly turn to winter if the answers [to people’s demands] call for a liberal political order that does not challenge the neo-liberal economic order.
These questions have to be at the center of Palestinian discourse and struggle as a neoliberal elite dominates the Palestinian national agenda ever more completely and substitutes privatization and profit for national liberation and rights.
A Palestinian Tahrir Square?
A key question is where and how Palestinians can organize. Unlike Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, Greeks or Spaniards, Palestinians are geographically dispersed in a way that precludes or limits the potential of the kinds of mass mobilizations that have occurred elsewhere. In his final response, Hilal does a very good job of summing this up:
The distinctiveness of the Palestinian case lies not only in the fact that Palestinians have, throughout their long history of national struggle, undertaken a number of uprisings, some of which went on for years. Its distinctiveness also lies in the overlapping of the national cause, the cause for democracy, and many social issues. The national movement has failed to address this multidimensional reality and allowed the national cause to obscure all other issues. Palestinians live in a number of countries (or political fields) with differing political, social, legal and cultural conditions.
Therefore, they must manage their activism in each country in a manner that combines their struggle for self-determination and their struggle for other rights in accordance with the conditions of each community (in Israel, in the areas controlled by the PA, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and so on.)
They have different statuses within these political entities – as refugees, as citizens to varying degrees, as immigrants, as residents without the right to permanent residency or the right to citizenship, among others. In other words, Palestinians do not have one Tahrir Square where they can gather, nor do they have unified social demands to present, nor a single democratic transformation to unite them. Their conditions vary according to the state in which they reside. Conditions differ from in Israel to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria; they are different in the West Bank under occupation and in the Gaza Strip under a stifling siege; and they differ between the refugee camp, the village and the city.
I found this, and the other views put forward in the roundtable to be very compelling food for thought.