Palestinian Contemporary Political Performance: A Bitter Harvest
Writing about contemporary Palestinian political performance is not an easy task because, in the case of Palestine, internal and external factors are inextricably intertwined. The fact that Palestine was subjected to successive occupations throughout its history makes it easy to pin all the mistakes made by the Palestinians on external factors, where the Palestinians become the victim, free of responsibility and, thus, unable to change reality. Or it can lead to the opposite extreme, expressed in a large measure of self-flagellation, where the victim becomes responsible for all that has befallen it. Some critics go so far as to suggest that the Palestinian social infrastructure suffers from a basic dysfunction which makes it incapable of achieving any successes.

Between these two diametrically opposed views, a third view recognizes the impact of both the internal and external factors, but without exculpating one at the expense of the other.

The Glass Half Full

The Palestinian popular movement and its contemporary political leadership have five major characteristics:

1. "Sumud, or steadfastness." The Palestinian people have remained steadfast in the face of all acts of subjugation and dispersal, and in spite of all the tribulations and bitter experiences through which they have passed, starting with the Nakba of 1948, through the Naksa (setback) of 1967, Black September in Jordan in 1970, the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 and the two Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, and the subsequent expulsion from Lebanon of the Palestinian resistance elements to non-confrontation states in the region. This was followed by the siege of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in 1985 and the expulsion of the Palestinians from Kuwait in the early 1990s. In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians have been subjected to sieges and blockades since 2000, to the separation of the West Bank from the Gaza Strip and the separation of both of them from East Jerusalem, and to ethnic cleansing. In addition, they have had to put up with the separation wall and the Jewish settlement expansion, paralleled by their confinement in restricted areas in the Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that have become virtual prisons.

The Palestinians have also succeeded in aborting projects to resettle the refugees outside their homeland, or any attempts to abandon the refugee problem. It is still very much alive in the constant demands by the Palestinians of Israel who call for the recognition of their right to repatriate their families from the Diaspora, as do the Jews who have the right to "return" to Israel from any part of the world.

2. The resilience of the Palestinian political movement, which manages to constantly renew itself, its strategies and tactics. This began with the movement's acceptance in the 1930s of a proportionate Jewish representation in a Palestinian state - which it had formerly rejected; followed by its compliance in 1948 with the Partition Plan, also previously rejected. This compliance came in tandem with the setting up of the All-Palestine Government in the Gaza Strip, with a view of extending it to the West Bank and Jerusalem. It was not implemented due to the annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Jordan at the demand of pro-Jordanian personalities at the Jericho Conference in 1949.

The subsequent leadership - the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) - also engaged in a permanent transformation of its strategy, starting with the call to armed resistance as the sole means of struggle. From 1973 onward, the organization shifted to the concept of combining armed resistance with negotiations under an international umbrella, which coincided with the beginning of talks with "the Jewish force supportive of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination" as the Israeli peace movement was called then. At the same time, the PLO declared its acceptance of the "establishment of a national authority on any liberated inch of Palestine," in place of its previous position of "liberating every inch of Palestinian soil." At a later stage, the PLO declared its unequivocal acceptance of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and of a mutual recognition with Israel at the 19th session of the Palestinian National Council in Algiers in 1988.

Based on this stand, the PLO participated in the Madrid Conference in 1991 and, from 1993 onward, in the Oslo process. This, together with later developments, point to a high degree of flexibility on the part of the PLO, which was always forthcoming in re-examining its positions and changing directions, from the Cairo Agreement in 1994 to Taba in 1995, to the Hebron Protocol in 1997 and other subsequent agreements - all of which helped the PLO reposition itself on the national map.

The Palestinians witnessed a constant renewal of leadership, beginning with the Muslim and Christian committees of the 1920s, to the Higher Arab Commission in the 1930s - responsible for the All-Palestine Government in 1948. This was followed by the establishment of the PLO by Arab decree in 1964 and then the formation by the PLO of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994. Finally, another sign of the renaissance of the political movement is exemplified by the growth of parties and movements with Islamic ideologies that are vying with the PLO for the leadership of the Palestinian people.

3. The success in gaining international legitimacy and international recognition of the PLO, as well as of the right of the Palestinian people to an independent state within the borders of June 4, 1967. A large majority of the countries around the world recognized this right and, in the end, Israel began to inch towards this position because it came to the realization that the tightest strategic guarantee for its security would not be possible without the establishment of a Palestinian state. This would check the Palestinian threat to Israel's security, because the state would satisfy the aspirations of the Palestinian people to self-determination, like all the peoples in the world.

4. The three attributes of the contemporary Palestinian political movement since its inception in the 1920s: participation, pluralism and elections.

5. The creativeness on the part of the Palestinian popular resistance movement in coming up with non-violent civil resistance, including the 1936 Great Revolt and the famous strike which lasted six months. Later, there came the first intifada (1987-1994), and finally the recent protests against the separation wall in the village of Bil'in and other places.

The Glass Half Empty

On the other hand, the Palestinian political condition has suffered and is suffering from a deep and fundamental impasse, mainly due to failures in several areas:

* The Failure to Reach the Goal of an Independent State

Regardless of the profound impact of external factors on the Palestinian case, the Palestinian political leadership - in contrast to the majority of leaderships of national liberation movements around the world - has, so far, failed to realize its goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state.

In addition, there is the collapse of the Oslo process. The Palestinian leadership bears a large share of the responsibility in failing to bring the process to its logical conclusion - an independent Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, which was supposed to take place in 1998, i.e., five years after the signing of the Oslo agreement.

* The Failure to Bridge the National Palestinian and the Arab and Muslim Dimensions

Throughout its history, the political movement of the Palestinian people consisted of the triad: Palestinian, Arab and Muslim, with close contacts with its Arab and Muslim neighbors. But since its creation, the PLO has not managed to bridge the narrow Palestinian national and the wider Arab contexts. This was the cause of painful occurrences like Black September in Jordan in 1970 and several wars in Lebanon in 1968, 1969, 1974 and 1985. It was also the cause of the Palestinians' expulsion from Kuwait following the official Palestinian backing of Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Added to this, one can mention the successful infiltration of the internal Palestinian arena by certain Arab regimes that have proceeded to establish factional extensions for themselves, playing upon Palestinian factional differences, as well as intra-factional disagreements.

Since the first intifada, the internal divergence between the two Palestinian dimensions, the national and the Islamic, began to grow. It started with the issuing of two different periodical communiqués: one in the name of the united national leadership representing the PLO factions, and another in the name of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas. This eventually evolved into the deep political rift between the two currents, culminating in the separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - on top of the geographical separation due to the occupation measures.

To date, the Palestinian political movement has not succeeded in producing a common-denominator program that would unite the national and the Islamic sides - although, in theory and in practice, this is feasible with the provision of a realistic common political program and a program for democratization and internal development.

* The Democracy Deficit

In spite of its distinguishing features of participation, pluralism and elections, the Palestinian political movement has widely resorted to mechanisms of appointments and selection instead of election. In the past, this led to the autocratic grip by leaders like Haj Amin al-Husseini prior to 1948 or Ahmad Shuqeiri during the first years of the PLO; more recently, this trend has been repeated with Yasser Arafat as the sole leader of the Palestinian people from 1988 to his death in 2004.

During his time, Arafat linked the various Fateh wings directly to him and kept all the factions in line with "clientelism" ties. When he formed the PA, he virtually centralized every aspect of government in his person - even after the 1996 elections, as though the elections had not taken place. He marginalized the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), and did away with the independence of the judiciary. With the PA, he attempted to incorporate a part of civil society NGOs and the economy, with the result that the PA became actively involved in commerce and export, and set up monopolies which it turned into an income-generating regime. What helped in this respect was the fact that the tax returns transferred from Israel to the PA were placed in a private bank account managed personally by the president.

Very often, as it reached a historical crossroads, the Palestinian leadership succumbed to a fear of popular participation. This was especially the case with respect to participation in resistance activities through non-violent methods and civil disobedience; the leadership feared that such participation would lead to matters getting out of its control. Its predilection for keeping a tight hold on the reins of power was the factor that drove the leadership to evade disseminating the model set by the village of Bil'in, among others, in its non-violent resistance in confronting the issue of the separation wall.

* Sterility of Resistance Methods

Sixty years on, Palestinian resistance methods seem to be split between scattered non-violent methods, as seen in Bil'in, Ni'alin, Um Salamuna and others; and haphazard, ineffective and unfocused armed resistance. Moreover, its ethics are questionable, especially with its rudimentary missiles directed primarily at Israeli civilians instead of at the Israeli army.
The Palestinian resistance suffers from a lack of consensus on a unified strategy - while one side accepts tahdi'a (ceasefire) with Israel, another rejects it. A chaotic weapon-wielding situation prevails, with some aimed at Israelis and others used in in-fighting. Thus, the second intifada became militarized, and armed clashes among Palestinian elements became a common occurrence, culminating in an all-out armed confrontation in Gaza in June 2006. This brings to mind the writings of Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Albert Memmi and Paulo Freire, which refer to the state people reach when subjected to occupation and they start imitating the occupiers'/colonizers' methods in internecine conflicts. They slide towards self-destruction because of pent-up frustrations arising from an inadequacy in confronting the occupying powers and liberating themselves. All this, naturally, is a reflection of the leadership's failings in the national liberation process.

* The Failure to Prepare the Nucleus of an Independent State

The Palestinian leadership has not been capable of building the nucleus of an independent state. Neither institution-building nor the separation of powers has proved a success as claimed. Added to that is the wide influence acquired by the security apparatuses, which are not subject to monitoring and follow-up by the PLC as is the case in democratic countries. Hamas followed in the footsteps of its Fateh predecessors by instituting a security force in Gaza that is also above scrutiny and accountability. Furthermore, the leadership has failed to generate economic growth locally and depended instead on extensive external financial assistance. The Palestinian middle class offered itself to the highest bidder, as Jamil Hilal suggests in his recent book The Palestinian Middle Class.1 This includes large segments of Palestinian society, especially since the cream of civil society, the media and political and religious people belong to the middle class.

* Failure to Deal with the Israeli Public

After a short period - the 1970s and 1980s - of cordial relations with Israeli society, in particular building relations with the Israeli peace camp and working towards convergence and a common stand regarding the contentious issues, since the 1990s, the situation has reverted to the era of frosty relations. What led to this were primarily the bombings inside Israel, springing from the mistaken perception of the Palestinians that the Israeli public knows only the language of force.

In his article "After the Incursion" (2002), Palestinian writer and politician Azmi Bishara debunks this view, noting that as a consequence of these bombings, the issue of security gained center stage among Israeli public opinion, stoking their vindictive urges that were translated during the second intifada into statements like "Let the army win." Compassion for the Palestinians with their daily suffering got blunted and any sense of solidarity disappeared. The conflict was transformed in the Israelis' eyes from a struggle between occupier and occupied into one predicated on the "right of Israel to defend itself" against those who "threaten its security."

Palestinian resistance in all its forms was branded as "terrorism," not only among Israelis, but in international public opinion at large. The result was the widespread rallying of Israelis around the "strong leader" who can defend the Israelis against "terrorism" more efficiently - military roadblocks proliferated in the West Bank and the separation wall was built with new and dire consequences for the Palestinians.

The fact that the Palestinian media lacked the competence to address the Israeli public did nothing to redress the distortion in relationship. This was compounded by the scarcity of scholarly, well-documented Palestinian publications that can present their narrative in a convincing way to the Israeli side.

* The Failure to Mobilize Core Issues towards the Goal of an Independent State

This failure relates especially to the issues of Jerusalem, the refugees and Jewish settlements.

a. Jerusalem: The predominant rhetoric regarding the city remains the traditional one, which says to postpone any development or improvement in the conditions of the Palestinian Jerusalemites until the occupation ends, thus causing further deterioration in their living conditions. The need arises now for the elaboration of a development scheme where the local community will be called upon to work from the bottom up, while the prevalent method now works in the interest of the traditional leadership that primarily wants to dominate from the top down.

b. The refugees: There is a need for the activation of the right of return and its transformation from a slogan into a working agenda for negotiations, which would put the issue back on the solution track, within the framework of a clear and realistic political program. Accordingly, return per se will be to an independent Palestinian state, with the return of a limited number of refugees to Israel.

c. The settlements: The major absent factor in this case is a persistent popular non-violent movement, working diligently in all the West Bank localities, in order to turn the settlement project into a failed program, paving the way for its demise.

* The Failure to Produce an Efficient Leadership Infrastructure

A lot has been said about the dysfunction of the leadership of the Palestinian people, represented by the PLO and then by the PA, theoretically as a branch belonging to the PLO. In fact, Arafat had merged the PLO and the PA without distinction under his sole command. The PLO did not attempt to rectify its shortcomings throughout its existence. It has always been beset with divisions, fragmentations, inconsistent stances and decisions, as well as the divergence between the sources of revolutionary legitimacy and the sources of electoral legitimacy. This state of affairs has been heightened by the fact that the organization has lost its historic leadership - some were killed in Israeli operations; others died a natural death.

Added to all this is a lackluster political program that has not evolved to encompass a social developmental program, not to mention its undemocratic structure and modus operandi. Several suggestions have been offered for the reformation and restructuring of the PLO on democratic bases, including the representation of all the Palestinian people - nationalist and Islamist - but none of them have been implemented.


Throughout their long trajectory, the Palestinian people and their political movement have preserved their steadfastness and their capacity for renewal and rebirth. But persevering along this path and reaching the goal of an independent state has become, now more than ever, contingent on reconciling the national, the Arab and the Islamic dimensions through the re-formulation of the PLO program. This should combine national, developmental, social, economic and environmental issues and work towards institution-building and the evolution of the negotiating strategy, to combine what goes on in the negotiations room with non-violent popular resistance as a pressurizing tactic - and not as an alternative to negotiations. All this should aim at integrating Palestinian societal infrastructure within the framework of a unity that respects pluralism and is capable of looking with a critical eye at its history and of drawing lessons for the future.

1 Hilal, Jamil. The Palestinian Middle Class. Ramallah: Muaten - The Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, 2006.