Many Palestinians are boasting that they will soon enjoy, again, the most free and democratic elections in the entire Arab World. The only problem is that electing a Palestinian president while still under the boot of the occupier is an oxymoron. Sovereignty and occupation are mutually exclusive. The world, including many well-informed readers, seem to think that the Palestinian people is actually practicing the ultimate form of sovereignty by freely choosing its own president. This is easily extrapolated in the heads of many to mean that Palestinians are in a way free. So what’s all this talk about occupation? Notice, for example, how little media attention is given now to the almost daily killings of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli occupation forces. Of course, the only thing that matters is who is running; who is not; what Mahmoud Abbas might have intended to say; or what Marwan Barghouti could have done only if… Bulldozing houses in Rafah, expanding colonies in Hebron and killing innocent children in Beit Lahya is simply a bore, a peripheral story, an ordinary occurrence in the midst of an election extraordinaire. There are several things wrong in this picture.
First, some facts. This Sunday, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will be electing the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), not the president of the Palestinian people. The former is an organ created according to the 1993 Oslo agreements between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the government of Israel, according to which the PA will do little more than run the educational, health, municipal and taxation services. In addition, it will do its very best to provide security for Israel, mainly by clamping down on the armed resistance factions.
Israel and the United States helped create the PA specifically to control the occupied territories, — while maintaining the foundations of occupation, of course — and eventually to sign some “peace” treaty that would exonerate Israel from its legal and moral obligations to allow the repatriation and compensation of the Palestinian refugees, to comprehensively withdraw its entire colonial apparatus from the West Bank and Gaza — not just by removing its army but also its Jewish colonies, illegal under international law — and to end its system of racial discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens.
Ironically, the PA at best represents a minority of the Palestinian people, those in the occupied West Bank and Gaza strip. The majority of Palestinians, refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel, are not represented by the PA. Here’s where the real paradox lies: how can an entity that represents no more than one third of the people of Palestine be expected to meaningfully and legally sign away the rights of the remaining two thirds? Easy. Redefine the Palestinians to preclude those unwanted two-thirds. Since Oslo, the mainstream media in the west, and puppet Arab media as well, have done just that. They have used the term Palestinian exclusively to mean those resident in the occupied West Bank and Gaza alone. Problem solved!
Well, not quite. Those two-thirds cannot be easily written out of history and out of the identity of Palestine. They are increasingly becoming well-organized, politically active and they have developed their own channels of expression, if not yet their own frames of representation. Plus, many Palestinians in the occupied territories are themselves refugees who yearn to return to Haifa, Jaffa, Lydda, Majdal and Acre, all in what is now Israel. In all semi-accurate public opinion polls, the number one issue of political interest for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has consistently remained the right of return for the refugees. So it seems that the PA project may not after all yield the expected returns on the Israeli-American investment.
Given this picture, shouldn’t any form of sovereignty, albeit limited, help Palestinians declare their independence of Israel? But that’s precisely the problem. The Palestinians are not free; they should not be giving the world the impression that they are. They are a nation under a very real and brutal occupation that is committing crimes with utter impunity and passe colonial arrogance. They should remind the world in every occasion that the only just and enduring solution to the conflict in the region can be attained by ending Israel’s oppression — in all three forms mentioned above — not by changing the Palestinians’ perception of it. They should struggle to revive the moribund structures of the PLO, the only organization that ever represented all Palestinians. All three components of the Palestinian people urgently need a single, democratically elected body to represent their interests and to shoulder the responsibility for their fate. This task is well beyond the ability, the job description or the best intentions of the PA.
Ten years after Oslo, the PA’s political function seems to have become restricted to acting as an accessory to colonial rule, allowing Israel to maintain its oppression, while appearing to the world as engaged in some peace process. Since Oslo, the formerly closed doors have opened to Israel: in Europe, Africa, Asia and even in the middle of the Arab World. The once formidable Arab boycott of Israel has all but collapsed, allowing Israeli businesses to reap massive profits, boosting the Israeli economy to record growth rates, just before the second intifada broke out. In fact, the only peace that this Oslo process has achieved is the deadly silence of the oppressed while the oppressors go on with their regular business.
A presidential election under these circumstances can only help Israel cover up its speeding colonization of what remains of Palestine, while the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza are busy celebrating their superior “democracy.”
When the slaves are distracted with “free” elections of their deputy jailers, the masters can only rejoice.
Omar Barghouti is an independent Palestinian political analyst.