Time to re-engage with people power

The Palestinian people will have to look to themselves to continue their struggle for freedom, justice and equality. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)


Palestinians and others are still absorbing and thinking through the implications of the Palestinian Authority’s decision to withdraw its support for the Goldstone report on Israel’s assault on Gaza last winter. The 575-page Report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, which was led by South African judge Richard Goldstone, confirmed the already densely documented reports published by human rights organizations that systematically confirmed Palestinian claims that Israel had committed grave breaches of international humanitarian law during the Gaza assault, including crimes against humanity (not least the sealing off an entire civilian population from the outside world, denying it the ability to flee to safety, and then subjecting that same, defenseless, shelterless population — most of it composed of children — to an indiscriminate round-the-clock bombardment).

Nevertheless, as Professor Richard Falk (the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories) points out, the Goldstone report could have provided a basis for referring Israel’s conduct during the war in Gaza to the International Criminal Court or other international courts, or to the establishment of a war crimes tribunal along the lines of those established after the catastrophes of Bosnia and Rwanda. That would have been the best way to finally hold Israel accountable.

The process of referral depended, however, on obtaining a vote within the UN to have the Goldstone report referred to the Security Council for further deliberation, the creation of a war crimes tribunal, and so on. And all of that depended in turn on the support of Palestinian diplomats appointed by and accountable to Mahmoud Abbas, so-called President of the Palestinian Authority (“so-called” because his term of office, such as it was, expired almost a year ago).

But it is now clear that the Palestinian team representing Abbas at the UN (for they certainly do not represent the Palestinian people) has, on his instructions, dropped its support for the resolution that might have set the legal machinery of the international judicial system in motion. Other states can hardly be expected to stand up to US pressure and support a resolution on behalf of Palestinian rights that the Palestinian delegation itself is unwilling to support. Why should Venezuela or Nigeria or Pakistan be more Palestinian than the Palestinians?

Reports have been circulating in the Arab, Israeli and European media that Abbas and his associates may have been prompted to take this extraordinary action because Israel had been threatening, had they continued with their support of the UN resolution, to withhold its release of a share of the radio spectrum that would have allowed the creation of a new Palestinian mobile phone company, Wataniyya: the product of a joint venture between Qatari investors and the Palestine Investment Fund, to which Abbas himself and one of his wealthy sons have personal connections. Palestinians have suggested that simple corruption and cronyism may have motivated Abbas’s decision. The PA and the circle of officials attached to it have certainly had their share of corruption charges — most shockingly, perhaps, when Ahmed Qureia, then the so-called Prime Minister of the PA (again, “so-called” because prime ministers usually have countries to govern, and the PA is anything but a country), was accused of selling cement to the Israelis to build their wall in the West Bank. The corruption of the PA and the narrow circle of Fatah party officials running it, clinging to it, and benefiting from it, is one of the main reasons why Fatah was swept from office in the 2006 Palestinian elections in favor of Hamas. Most people then were voting against Fatah and its corruption and general hopelessness, rather than for Hamas (which had, and has, little to offer other than simply not being Fatah: a credit which goes only so far).

It’s possible, of course, that corruption and cronyism were not the motivating factors for Abbas’s decision to withdraw Palestinian support for the Goldstone report. There are two other possibilities.

One of these is simple incompetence: that Abbas and his associates are so lacking in intelligence, imagination and political skill that they just bungled the whole affair. This is certainly not out of the question: Abbas himself is an extraordinarily unprepossessing and profoundly compromised man, and his circle of associates — including men like Mohammed Dahlan and Saeb Erekat — hardly inspire any more confidence than Abbas himself. Quite apart from their sheer disregard for Palestinian suffering in Gaza (seeking redress for which ought to be their main priority), it ought to be clear that a party to a negotiation that wantonly throws a rarely-held card out of the window while attempting (or at least claiming) to negotiate is, to put it mildly, not qualified to negotiate in the first place, let alone to claim to “lead” a defiant and unvanquished people like the Palestinians. If the Ramallah leadership is really as hopelessly incompetent as this scenario would have it, that’s reason enough for their removal from office, if not the dissolution of the PA itself. (It’s difficult, though, to “dismiss from office” someone like Abbas who is not actually in office in the first place — he is there because the Israelis and the Americans want him to be there, because the election for his successor after his term expired has been deferred at the behest of Washington and Tel Aviv, and not because he holds any legitimate mandate from the Palestinian people themselves, the overwhelming majority of whom have no faith in him whatsoever, as opinion polls have regularly found).

Another — and I think more likely — possibility is that Abbas, the PA and the essentially defunct Palestine Liberation Organization are not (and never were, at least since the time of Yasser Arafat’s death) interested in serious negotiations with Israel that could have led to the creation of a genuine Palestinian state in the occupied territories. After all, one of the main criticisms of the Oslo accords of 1993-95 which created the PA, is that, far from ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, they merely served to shift the day-to-day burden and cost of administering the occupation to the newly-established PA, while allowing Israel to go on demolishing Palestinian homes, expropriating Palestinian land and building Jewish colonies in the occupied territories in contravention of international law. Oslo formally separated the three main chunks of Palestinian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967 (Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem) from each other and the outside world, and, additionally, broke the West Bank itself into Areas A, B and C. It was only in Area A (about 18 percent of the total) that the PA had any kind of practical presence on the ground, and in Area C (60 percent of the West Bank), the PA had no role or presence at all — and that’s where Israel was (and still is) busy demolishing, expropriating and building. Oslo and the PA, in other words, far from ending the occupation and laying the basis for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, actually allowed Israel to consolidate the occupation and further cement its grip on Palestinian land. Which is exactly why the population of Jewish colonists in the West Bank and East Jerusalem doubled during the period of Oslo and has been increasing ever since — and today numbers almost half a million.

As this latest episode so amply demonstrates, the PA serves Israel by facilitating the occupation — which is why Israel invented it in the first place, just as, historically speaking, colonial powers have always attempted to create or coerce local elites into helping them deal with the population at large. This approach is perhaps most gracefully summarized in Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education of 1835: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” Why would the PA want to bring to an end an arrangement from which it benefits? As the French scholar Regis Debray points out, the status quo provides the PA elites in Ramallah “with a living, status, dignity and a raison d’etre,” and probably (e.g., if the mobile phone contract rumors prove to be true) much more in the way of emoluments besides that.

Even if one were to grant the PA and Abbas and his associates the benefit of the doubt, and say that they really have their people’s best interests at heart, it still remains the case that the PA, even under the best-case scenario, can claim to represent only a minority of the Palestinian people, since only a minority of Palestinians live in the occupied territories. The majority live either in the exile imposed on them by force during the creation of Israel in 1948, or (in the case of those Palestinians who survived that year’s ethnic cleansing and remained) as second-class, non-Jewish citizens of the would-be Jewish state, which systematically discriminates against them simply because they are not Jewish.

These, then, are the possibilities before us: not only does the PA not represent the Palestinian people, it is also, on top of that, either corrupt to an almost unimaginable level; or it is profoundly incompetent and guilty of squandering the rights and hopes of a people that it is not entitled to claim to lead; or it is interested not in its people’s rights and hopes but rather in perpetuating its own status as the day-to-day caretaker of a permanent Israeli occupation — in which case it is no less collaborationist than the Vichy “government” of Nazi-occupied France in the 1940s. Corruption; incompetence; collaboration: ah, the agony of choice.

It is unlikely that Abbas and his associates will declare the “independence” of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, as has been suggested by the current so-called Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad — another man whose claim to office has no legitimacy, since his arbitrary appointment, by Abbas, to replace the legitimately elected Hamas leadership (whatever one thinks of it) was never confirmed by the Palestinian Legislative Council, many of the members of which are in Israeli jails. But even if an “independent” state were declared, it ought to be clearer than ever that such a “state” would offer Palestinians only more of the same choices (corruption, compromise, collaboration), while continuing to serve Israel’s interests, if not actually to take direct orders from Washington and Tel Aviv.

In any case, the Palestinian cause is a struggle for freedom and justice, not for the creation of a statelet in the occupied territories that would, as I said — even in the best circumstances — only address the interests of that minority of the Palestinian people who live there.

What, then, are we to conclude from all this?

Above all, that no Palestinian ought to look to the official leadership as a source of guidance and direction. It has betrayed the people and proved itself totally unworthy of their trust — indeed, many Palestinians, including Abdelbari Atwan, editor of the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, are demanding that those behind this recent decision be apprehended and put on trial. And of course with a leadership this corrupt, inept or collaborationist, Palestinians can hardly expect better treatment from Washington and Tel Aviv than they are getting from Ramallah. And the Hamas opposition and its alternative leadership has little more to offer in the long run other than resistance for the sake of resistance, which is not, in itself, a blueprint for freedom and justice, and in any case has nothing to offer to Christian or secular Palestinians (and hardly much more than that to offer Muslim ones either, for that matter).

The second immediate conclusion to be drawn from this experience is that, as more and more Palestinians are demanding, the PA ought to be dissolved once and for all — the sooner, the better. This latest action really ought to be the last in a long and dismal record proving that the PA has not only failed to serve the interests of the Palestinian people, but that, on the contrary, it fundamentally serves the needs and requirements of Israel.

Bereft of any credible or legitimate leadership, the Palestinian people will have to look to themselves to continue their struggle for freedom, justice and equality. Indeed, their struggle has been at its best, for example, during the first intifada of the 1980s, when the official leadership — at the time in exile in Tunis — was actually least involved in it. No wonder, then, that the Israeli response to the grassroots autonomy of the first intifada was to usher the official leadership back into Palestine; the first intifada then stalled, and things have gone downhill ever since.

In looking for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then, we should once and for all stop looking to governments and officials (elected or otherwise), in the US, Israel, or among the Palestinians themselves. As the Obama Administration has already demonstrated, the US government, in the present political conjuncture, will never put peace and justice in Palestine ahead of internal domestic pressures and politics; the Israeli government will not for one moment back down from its continually expanding colonization plan in the West Bank and East Jerusalem until it is compelled by outside pressure to do otherwise; and the Palestinian government — well, there is no such thing. There is a people living partly under military occupation; partly in enforced exile; and partly as a racialized and discriminated-against minority inside Israel. What they need is to refocus their struggle in ways that they can all identify with, collectively and equally, and, moreover, in ways that people of good will around the world — who have repeatedly demonstrated in their tens of thousands in support of justice for Palestine — can as well.

Indeed, the Palestinians are not alone: they have the support of people around the entire world. And it is to that reserve of good will and good faith among ordinary people around the world that the Palestinians must look. As the struggle against apartheid in South Africa demonstrated, governments not only can, but do, act, when ordinary people of good will make them act. In fact, even as governments have dithered, a vibrant global campaign to boycott, divest from, and impose sanctions on Israel in order to bring it into compliance with international law and in order to realize the rights of the Palestinian people (all of it) has been recording one success after another, reminding us all that boycotts really do work.

This is the direction in which all Palestinians, bereft of leadership, must now throw themselves. And their demand must be something that addresses and unifies the rights of all segments of the Palestinian people, not just those suffering under occupation, as well as addressing and recognizing the rights of Jewish Israelis — something that most decent people in the world can readily identify with: justice, equality, one person, one vote: in other words, the creation of one democratic and secular state in which Palestinians and Israelis can live equally in a just and lasting peace. For without justice there will be no peace.

Saree Makdisi is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA and the author of Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation. His website is http://sareemakdisi.net/.