Palestine’s greatest asset: its people

Palestinians in the West Bank City of Nablus demand that rivals Fatah and Hamas go forth with reconciliation talks in Cairo, 8 November 2008. (Rami Swidan/MaanImages)

This week, various Palestinian factions were supposed to engage in a long-awaited national dialogue in Cairo, Egypt. Last October, after talks with most of the political movements, including Fatah and Hamas, Egypt proposed a plan to end the internal strife, calling for the establishment of a national unity government, the reform of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces and the preparation for elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hamas had apparently informed Egyptian officials that it will not participate. The party had been considering boycotting due to reservations towards the draft plan, differences over the extension over PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ presidential term and an ongoing campaign against Hamas members by Abbas’ forces in the West Bank.

In January US President-elect Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the new American head of state. Abbas’ term will end a few days before that, and in February, Israeli elections will be held. In 2010 the term of the Palestinian Legislative Council is also set to expire.

With the end of the era of US president George W. Bush, the failure of the Annapolis process will show once and for all that ever since the 1967 War, Israel has done all it can to ensure there will be no two-state solution. A whole series of statements from the Middle East Quartet calling on Israel to “freeze” the construction and expansion of settlements on occupied Palestinian land and to ease Palestinian movement were ignored with impunity by Tel Aviv.

As make-believe negotiations conclude without results, the Abbas regime and the PA lose their last shreds of legitimacy.

Originally, the PA was established to implement the 1993 Oslo Accords. An interim period was supposed to end in the creation of a, albeit never stated, fully independent Palestinian state by 1999. But the failed Camp David talks of 2000, the subsequent Taba talks, the moribund “Road Map,” and the dead-end Annapolis process have extended this “interim” period indefinitely with no end in sight. We have to face reality: the end of the two-state solution has come. Without any real purpose except to serve Israeli interests as a subcontractor of the occupier there is no need to keep the PA alive. Its existence only prolongs injustice rather than hastens its end.

In 1988, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), parliament of the PLO, approved the two-state solution, accepting the creation of a Palestinian state on a mere 22 percent of historic Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza Strip). As Israel has consistently rejected this far-reaching peace offer, the same body can now withdraw it. But to be able to do this, the most important institution of the Palestinian people has to be revitalized. The PLO is now no more than a shell, and can make no claim to truly represent Palestinians. There could be new elections for the PNC’s nearly 700 seats and a new PLO executive could be formed.

The option of revitalizing the PNC is now being discussed by several sectors. More than one thousand Palestinians living in exile called for the renewal of the PNC in a statement directed at Abbas and published in the Jordanian daily al-Dustour last July. The statement asked Abbas to implement “the 2005 Cairo agreement calling for a meeting of the preparatory committee to elect a new PNC.” The Cairo Agreement to reform and democratize the PLO was reached between Abbas’ dominant Fatah faction and other Palestinian factions including Hamas which is not part of the PLO. So far nothing has been done to move the process forward. The signatories warned against “anyone ignoring the Palestinian people’s demands to adopt elections as a basis for choosing a new PNC” and it stressed that “those who do not seek to preserve the all-inclusive representative nature of the PLO will isolate themselves from the Palestinian people and will have to bear the responsibility for dividing its unity and the unity of its struggle which has been built with blood and sweat, and by the entire Palestinian people’s collective effort.”

It was recently reported that the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khalid Meshal, exiled in Damascus, discussed reviving the PLO with PNC member and old-guard PLO heavyweight Bassam Abu Sharif. Reform of the PLO is a key issue in the talks among Palestinian factions set to resume this month in Cairo and aimed at restoring a “national unity government” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As soon as there is a consensus that elections should be held for the PNC, the Palestinian Central Elections Committee should start the process and could ask the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to conduct an out-of-country voting program. IOM has considerable experience and conducted such programs in Bosnia and Herzogovina, Kosovo, East Timor and in 2004 it organized the two largest refugee out-of-country registration and voting programs which gave Afghans and Iraqis abroad, including refugees, the opportunity to take part in elections in their respective countries. There are absolutely no practical or logistical reasons why the same could not be done for Palestinians.

Palestinians should not only regain the initiative but also keep hold of it. Palestinian leadership needs legitimacy and Palestinians from all sectors, wherever they live, need to be able to hold such leaders accountable. A real consultation should not only involve ad hoc groups but should engage every single Palestinian. Planning elections for the PNC is the means to achieve this. Palestinians shouldn’t let themselves be fooled by the US-backed Ramallah “government.” At the same time not all Palestinians are represented by Hamas. In fact the majority of Palestinians do not live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and have never been given a real say in who should lead them. What Palestinians need is inclusive processes, where there are means of accountability. The Palestinians’ greatest asset is themselves — the people — but unless the people are given a way to be involved, much of their potential to work for liberation is squandered.

Arjan El Fassed is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and the author of Niet iedereen kan stenen gooien (Uitgeverij Nieuwland, 2008).