Ten years ago, backed by solidarity groups from all over the world, it appeared that the first Palestinian Intifada had succeeded in forcing Israel to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestinians. Many supporters and activists worldwide saw in Oslo a hope, if not the only hope, to bring a just solution and end to this long conflict. With the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), many internationals felt that the Palestinians were now in control of their destiny and started to dismantle their groups in order not to disrupt this process. During and after Oslo, international governments took the lead as the popular solidarity groups were pushed aside to watch and wait.
Today, ten years after Oslo, after the many new initiatives and agreements, the second Intifada rages and we have yet to see all of its consequences. Today, who would continue to assert that the Palestinians are in control of their destiny?
I cannot blame the international solidarity groups for these shortsighted views; I do blame the PNA, the many Palestinian political parties and the many Palestinian civil society structures. Why? Simply because by accepting the interim peace in Oslo with apartheid Bantustans called A, B, and C, our legitimate resistance and struggle against the Israeli military occupation has been turned into illegal acts of terror and our supporters and friends all over the world have become confused. After Oslo, we let everyone down and anyone locally or internationally who dared to criticize Oslo was seen as anti-peace and a radical who needed to be stopped.
The solidarity groups, who for a long time campaigned for an end to the Israeli occupation and for Palestinian right of self-determination and the full implementation of UN resolutions and international law, were cast aside without clear guidance. Any local or international opposition to Oslo brought considerable criticism and were accused of hindering the good progress achieved. Oslo became the Holy Grail for the PNA, the US, and Europe as well as several important Palestinian political parties and some civil society structures. This resulted in more confusion for the solidarity groups; they were receiving too many different messages.
At that time, the PNA, Fatah and some of the other political parties, saw Oslo as the only way to end the conflict and their tactics changed. Where once they would seek the support of popular movements in the world, they began to approach the different governments to back up Oslo and support the establishment of the PNA. The PNA even called for funding to cease for those who opposed Oslo. This change greatly impacted the Palestinian struggle and their advocacy efforts in Europe, the US and elsewhere in the world.
As an example, most of the PNA officials had joint ventures with Israelis, the PNA wanted the Palestinian people and their supporters to stop their call for a boycott of Israel. Instead, they called upon the world to put pressure on Israel to comply with the Oslo agreements and to donate more money to the PNA to build its state. Simply put, ignoring our natural grassroot alliances, we had all our eggs in the basket of the PNA and world governments. The PNA encouraged this approach thereby showing the nature of such authority and their lack of confidence in the local and international popular efforts to bring an end to the occupation. There was a failure to understand and to use the abilities of the people.
During Oslo, everyone became confused and today we are even more confused. With many different peace initiatives, the situation continues to be vague and unclear. Our leadership has declared that we need to compromise and to be diplomatic in order to gain our national rights. We have been told that all revolutions in the world had to make compromises in order to obtain their legitimate rights and that we are no different.
Unfortunately, despite the general public acceptance of the compromise, our leadership approaches this in a very secretive manner and with no respect for the people. Even now, they employ the same approach; people are killed on the streets and they negotiate secretly in one of the world capitols without dispensing proper information to their people.
Secrecy has become a style of management for the Palestinians and is being practiced on more and more levels; even the latest agreement in Geneva was done in total secret as if ordinary people were too immature to hold destiny in their own hands and it was not worth it to involve them in the process. Once again, civil society might be asked to unconditionally support a secret game in which they have no say at all.
Unless there is a proper functioning democracy with frequent elections, a critical independent media and respectful institutions practicing what they preach, the diversity of the Palestinian civil society will be set aside by diplomacy. The role of a civil society must be a critical role but in order for this to happen, civil society must be involved. In order to be involved, we must be informed and protected by the rule of law but this is not the case.
After Oslo and prior to the second Intifada, the efforts of official Palestinians were focused on criticizing those who could not understand the “essence of Oslo” and “the prevailing power game.” They gave far less attention to the fast-growing Israeli colonies, which really amount to nothing less than fortresses, on our land. Their conundrum was how to persuade the Palestinians of something that was beyond the reality and the facts on the ground. Much the same pressure came from many international governments and some serious donors who used their money to sell Oslo to the ordinary Palestinian.
Reviving civil society
With the second Intifada, more efforts were spent reorganizing international solidarity actions. More local NGOs became active in the field of advocacy while many others used their connections to bring information to the world. Soon, too much information was flying all over the world by means of the Internet. People even started to joke about this by saying that anyone with a computer linked to Internet would use it to disseminate information but that it was mainly the same information distributed from others – that the information being disseminated was simply running in circles. There was lack of coordination locally and all the efforts made to coordinate the dissemination of information were not taken seriously.
Competition between the different local NGOs and desires for self-aggrandizement continue to hinder full cooperation. Adding to the chaos, and perhaps the most important issue, is the fact that the Palestinians don’t have a single, standard message. There are many competing political factions and NGOs, with different goals, strategies, tactics, and vision. Most of these initiatives were initiated without consultation with the local people.
Everyone has his or her own agenda and imposes it on both the local people and international solidarity groups. The international solidarity groups should be educated about this reality and continue to discuss and debate the complex character of the Palestinian struggle. Without this examination, they will be incapable of making good political judgments about the conflict and about their own means of supporting the struggle.
On the other side there has been also very little coordination and cooperation internationally between all of these solidarity groups. There is no well-coordinated strategy between the Arab and the Palestinian groups in the Diaspora and the solidarity groups from the different countries to educate the general public and resist Israel actions. In the first Intifada, the Diaspora took a better and stronger role and was more involved.
It looks, despite the long struggle, that we still need more time and efforts to educate the public opinion world wide about the Palestinian plot and motivate them to put pressure on their governments to recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. We failed to realize that any call for governments to pressure Israel should be accompanied by huge popular campaigns inside these countries to pressure these same governments to comply with such calls. We failed to help to turn these solidarity groups into voting powers influencing their parliamentarians and decision makers.
The fact that the Palestinian question is much more complicated than any other cause in the world including the South African one cannot be ignored since Israel is a red light for many countries and individuals. We did not, however, try our best to influence public opinion worldwide; we did not engage ourselves in a real constructive and organized work to do these tasks efficiently; and we failed to unite the civil society structures. We also failed to tell our stories for audience worldwide and these were missed opportunities.
Adding to our miseries, any gain achieved on the popular level was distorted by the PNA practices, strategies and tactics. We failed also to mobilize the Arab and Palestinian people in Europe and the US through our lack of understanding of how things operate in the West and the power of the public opinion. They also shared the blame since they failed to be engaged in their societies and communities, to form lobbies and influence the policies of their host countries. The PLO and later on the PNA international representative offices were very much involved in building connections with governments but not with the people or civil society in the west and they did not work on mobilizing the Arabs and Palestinians living there. Because of these failures, we have made it easy for Israel to successfully claim self-defense as they continue their practices in the occupied territories without facing any real objection anywhere in the world.
How to change from being re-active to pro-active strategies? Is it too late to change this situation? Maybe not, but we need a different approach and methodology. We still can build solidarity around Palestinians from the different international groups to advise us. They can take further our demands and help us by building a discourse that could reach the entire international community.
The democratic forces within Palestine and Israel, the Palestinian Diaspora and international support groups cannot afford to wait until the situation will permit the “Road Map” or the “Geneva Accords” to be implemented. We need to address the current facts and the most alarming and pressing issues like the Apartheid wall and to stop the Israeli confiscation of land, the lack of the rule of law and the legitimacy of activism and criticism.
The cornerstone here is that we, as a civil society, need to prepare ourselves for a long engagement and to keep the struggle alive. If not, there will be no use for such solidarity. The most important point, however, is to come to an agreement within Palestinian society as to where it is exactly that we want to go and what our vision and objectives are. In order to achieve this, we need to be honest and transparent and not simply hide behind wishful thinking and slogans. When we say “all the truth to the people” we need to practice this honestly. We cannot organize supporters around us when we are not clear about what we want or what we want to say.
I truly believe, that any message could be reached if it is logical and rational. The Palestinians need to study further the experience of South Africa and other successful international causes. We need to learn that mobilization is not enough if it’s not organized. In order to have a well coordinated, consolidated and sustained solidarity movement, we need to have clear long-term goals and a vision and develop careful tactics and strategies.
At present, our position is fragmented into various and diverse messages. Instead of voicing the clear and short message to end the Israeli occupation, dismantle all Israeli colonized fortresses in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, to establish a sovereign, independent, and viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capitol, and to implement the right of return for all Palestinian refugees, some of us are calling for many different things. Some are calling for a shared East Jerusalem; some are calling for the right of choice instead of the right of return; others are willing to cede some colonized fortresses to Israel; the list goes on. These fragmented and vague messages should not come; at least, from Palestinian civil society because we should not start negotiating our rights before the negotiation process even starts. This practice only serves to distort our message and confuse our supporters.
We should advise our international partners keep their focus clear as well: the implementation of all relevant UN resolutions and not be sidetracked by the “Road Map” or the “Geneva Accords,” etc.
Once our message has crystallized, the tools and the means to bring all the international groups together can be developed providing them with a way to work in their own communities. If our message, if our purpose, if our vision remains as fragmented and divided as it is today, we cannot hope to attain a consensus of opinion from the world body or solidarity with international groups.
To be democratic, open and transparent is the first and most important step towards gaining more supporters. We need to debate openly and respect each other’s opinions. Criticism should be seen as a way forward, not as a threat.
The second step must be to create and insist on our own vocabulary and terminology and not fall into the trap of using the occupation vocabulary and expressions. In writing and speaking about the situation, we must use our own terms like “fortresses” or “colonies” instead of mere “settlements,” “assassination” instead of “targeted killing,” “Apartheid Wall” instead of “separation fence” to name a few.
Furthermore, the Palestinians must work closely with the International solidarity groups in the territories, in Israel and in the Diaspora to build a long-term vision and goal. Unlike in the past, the internationals - including the solidarity groups and the international donor community - should not be the ones to decide whether the Palestinians should do this or that; or whether this or that action is permissible; Palestinians should make these decisions themselves, with good advice from outside, and then go to the international bodies for confirmation and support.
At the same time, we Palestinians should hone our tools for evaluating this kind of support and, based on such evaluations, we can build stronger programs and activities. If Palestinians can mobilize and organize themselves with a sincere supportive international solidarity movement around a vision and set of concrete goals and strategy, then certainly an international demand will be created which Israel and their supporters will not be able to ignore.
Rifat Odeh Kassis is the Executive Director of the East Jerusalem YMCA and the President of Defense for Children International - Palestine Section.