For as long Palestinians have resisted violent Israeli policies against them, successive Israeli governments have tried to undermine Palestinian unity and foment divisions. A principal strategy has been to try to foster alternative leaders willing to abandon fundamental Palestinian demands for justice and focus on an agenda with which Israel is comfortable.
This is taking place now as Israel shuns the elected Hamas movement, and tries to prop up the discredited Fatah leadership headed by Mahmoud Abbas. Following the elections, Israel kidnapped dozens of elected officials belonging to Hamas and is still holding them in its prisons.
There is a great deal of continuity here; a key component of Israeli policy has been to refuse to recognize legitimate Palestinian leadership. While it now embraces the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and shuns Hamas, until 1993 Israel refused to consider the PLO as a possible negotiating partner. Israel could always produce internationally acceptable reasons for such a position. After all, one would not expect a “respectable” country to negotiate with “terrorists,” as Israel always did and still does refer to Palestinian leaders. Even after the PLO’s historic concessions in 1988 when the Palestinian National Council, the parliament-in-exile, accepted the two-state solution — without receiving any reciprocal recognition from Israel — Israel refused to deal with the PLO directly. The policy goes back even further.
In 1976, in an attempt to forge an alternative leadership to the PLO, Israel allowed elections to be held for municipalities in the occupied West Bank. Contrary to Israel’s hopes and expectations, PLO-aligned mayors and councillors swept the board. They called for a complete end to the occupation and opposed talks on Palestinian “autonomy” between Israel and Egypt at Camp David. In 1978 the leaders of this new movement formed the National Guidance Committee, which comprised of a wide spectrum of Palestinian national political orientations and included elected mayors (like Bassam Shaka’a and Karim Khalaf who were maimed when Gush Emunim settlers aided by the Israeli military planted bombs in their cars in 1980) and representatives of trade unions, societies and associations.
Just as it has done with Hamas leaders more recently, Israel dismissed the PLO mayors, expelling many of them into exile. In 1980 the mayors of Hebron and Halhoul were deported and the mayors of Nablus and Ramallah were severely maimed by car bombs planted by Israeli death squads. In March 1982, Israel occupation authorities dismissed all elected Palestinian mayors and city councils.
In the early 1990s, Israel was pressured by Washington to negotiate directly with the Palestinians, though it still refused to talk to the PLO. Instead, the negotiations that started in Madrid and continued in Washington, were conducted with respected independent personalities such as Haidar Abdel Shafi — with the backing of the PLO. It quickly became clear, to Israel’s frustration, that these negotiators would stick to basic Palestinian principles and not sell out Palestinian rights. Simultaneously, Israel began a secret back channel with the PLO leadership that had been weakened and bankrupted because its embrace of Saddam Hussein following his invasion of Kuwait. Those talks led to the disastrous Oslo Accords that transformed the PLO into a security subcontractor in the still-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In December 2001, a year into the second intifada, and after the failure of the Camp David summit in July 2000 to impose a bantustan solution on the Palestinians, then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon decided that PLO leader Yasser Arafat had outlived his usefulness to Israel. Sharon declared Arafat “irrelevant” and cut off relations with the Palestinian Authority. So began a slow decline until Arafat died under mysterious circumstances in November 2004. Arafat was replaced by the current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who had long enjoyed explicit backing from Washington and who was the key Palestinian figure in the secret channel that led to Oslo.
Abbas is now explicitly armed and backed by Israel and the United States and has declared war on the Hamas movement. We can reach back to another precedent to understand his current role. Following the debacle (from Israel’s perspective) of the 1976 municipal elections, it set up the Village Leagues in the 1980s. These were bodies staffed by Palestinian collaborators appointed by Israel.
Unlike the National Guidance Committee and many of the officials elected in 1976, the Village Leagues did not struggle against the occupation. While Israel attempted to suppress an authentic Palestinian national movement and uproot the influence of the PLO, the Village Leagues were an attempt to impose an Israeli form of limited autonomy. The Village League of the Hebron district was established in 1979, headed by former Jordanian Cabinet Minister Mustafa Dudin. In 1981, two more leagues were established in Ramallah and Bethlehem districts. Some members of the Village Leagues had criminal histories.
Because of their willingness to collaborate, Village League leaders were given a facilitator role by Israel; money was channeled through them and they received various benefits from the Israeli rulers. Through a series of military orders, the Leagues were authorized by Israel to arrest and detain political activists and establish armed militias, as well as carry out administrative and bureaucratic tasks such as issuing drivers’ licenses. Palestinians living in rural areas had to turn to the Village Leagues for everything from work permits to family reunification permits.
Palestinians responded to the forming of the Village Leagues with demonstrations and strikes, coordinated by the National Guidance Committee. After the deportation of the mayors of Hebron and Halhoul and the maiming of the mayors of Nablus and Ramallah, Ariel Sharon (at that time defense minister) outlawed the National Guidance Committee. The elected mayors and the municipal councils were dismissed.
Israel hoped that the Village Leagues would create and empower a “moderate” Palestinian leadership that would then to agree to negotiate with Israel on the subject of “autonomy” — a code word for limited self-rule under continued Israeli occupation and colonization. The leagues were designed to provide a “moderate” Palestinian leadership that would be prepared to negotiate with Israel on the subject of autonomy for the West Bank. For that same purpose the Palestinian Authority was established and it is for this reason that Abbas is currently allowed to talk with Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
There is a disturbing parallel with current Israeli policy: just as Israel now uses the Abbas-dominated militias of the Palestinian Authority to crack down on those who resist the occupation, Israel attempted to do the same with the Village Leagues. Members of the Village Leagues had little hesitation when it came to the use of force: they manned roadblocks, carried out checks on identity cards and broke up meetings and demonstrations against the occupation.
It is not known how many members the Leagues had and how much support it received. What is known is that Village League leaders were widely viewed as corrupt, dishonest and having accepted an Israeli definition of the problem. The aims of the Leagues were, in the words of the Hebron district Village League leader Mohammad Nasser: “to improve relations with Israel, to prevent terrorism, to combat communism and to work for the establishment of peace and democracy.”
If one replaces the words “communism” with “Islamic extremism” then one has a description that matches almost exactly the stated goals of the Abbas leadership even as it cracks down on civil liberties, gerrymanders election laws, and shuts down over one hundred civil society organizations.
Yet despite Israeli efforts to invigorate the Leagues with massive support, by 1983 they had begun to disintegrate, unable to operate in the face of public resistance. Many Palestinians already consider the players in Abbas’ regime as little more than criminals and collaborators. It is only a matter of time before today’s Village League, headquartered in Ramallah, headed by Abbas and his unelected prime minister Salam Fayyad, and armed and funded by Israel, the European Union and the United States, is also disbanded by the people.
Arjan El Fassed is cofounder of The Electronic Intifada.