Palestine: The Dilemma Inherent in the Paths of National Liberation and DemocraticDevelopment

In the current era, democracy is regarded as the antidote to the challenges faced by societies and regimes. It is seen as the indispensable roadmap for achieving development, modernity, and progress, in direct contrast to stagnation, poverty, and tyranny. This perspective has prompted human society to celebrate it on the fifteenth of September as the International Day of Democracy.

Although democracy, in theory, means the rule of the people, in the Arab context, it often translates to the rule of the elite. Here, the people are seen as mere masses manipulated by the elite and competing groups for power and its spoils. Alternatively, they may be preoccupied with activities far removed from democratic practice and its culture, such as involvement in closed sectarian, ethnic, regional, or tribal groups. 

One of the paradoxes of the Arab democratic scene is that the margin of freedom created by the democratic transition resulting from the Arab Spring revolutions, instead of promoting citizenship, has revived tribal, sectarian, and pre-state affiliations in the Arab region, as if democracy were the winds that blew the ashes off pre-state affiliations in the Arab region.

The State of Democracy in Palestine

In Palestine, the situation is not much different from the Arab scene, although Palestinian democracy faces systematic undermining operations by Israel, which seeks to obstruct any Palestinian attempt to advance democracy. This is what we witnessed in the disruption of the legislative elections canceled in 2021, due to Israel’s refusal to allow the Palestinian Authority to hold elections in Jerusalem. 

Israel is not solely responsible for the erosion and weakening of democracy in the Palestinian scene. The internal political division and its catastrophic repercussions played a prominent role in undermining the Palestinian progress. This was due to the intransigence of political actors in the Palestinian field, prioritizing their narrow partisan and factional interests over the higher national interests of the Palestinian people. 

Democracy suffered a major setback in the Palestinian context, not only due to the postponement of legislative or presidential elections, but also because of the entrenchment of a divisive, exclusive, and exclusionary approach in the Palestinian political landscape. This situation has placed Palestine at the 108th position in the world democracy index.

Many researchers agree that there is a need to democratize and develop the Palestinian political system. It is imperative to seriously seek solutions to lift Palestine in general, and the political system in particular, out of the state of stagnation. This system needs to become more efficient and capable of addressing the successive crises that afflict it, threatening its existence and future. Most researchers are skeptical about the Palestinians’ ability to overcome the current impasse, mainly because the political system has not developed democratic defensive mechanisms to protect it from sliding and rupture. Their analysis is based upon the assumption that the regime suffers from many flaws and shortcomings, attributed to the nature of the Palestinian political system, which must be addressed to make it more resilient and responsive to changes and transformations. 

The Palestinian cause faces fateful risks and threats, represented in the attempts by the settler government and racist occupation to liquidate the national rights of the Palestinian people. There is an attempt to take advantage of the current moment, which is witnessing a deepening of the division within the Palestinian political system due to the prevalence of factional tendencies over the requirements of the public interest in dealing with societal issues and citizens’ interests. There is also a notable absence of any serious review to restore citizens’ trust in the possibility of breaking free from the cycle of weakness and frustration and safeguarding their national destiny. On the one hand, there is a tendency to continue pursuing the elusive quest for a full consensus on an inclusive political vision without addressing the needs of citizens and the other requirements to provide the elements of success for the democratic civil construction of society. On the other hand, there is an attempt to move away from seeking the requirements of the aspired political consensus due to repeated failures in achieving it. And to opt to focus exclusively on the requirements of democratic construction whose goal is empowering citizens to live in dignity and preserving their right to citizenship based upon the existence of effective institutions capable of providing the necessary services to enhance their resistive resilience. 

This highlights the importance and necessity of the parallel paths of national liberation and democratic construction in the Palestinian case. Obstructing the process of democratic construction with its components of civil, cultural, social, and economic rights weakens popular participation in the various aspects of national liberation. This underscores that only free citizens, when they regain their status and role in the heart of the national process, are capable of defending and protecting their national rights, especially the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and the right of the refugees to return according to UN Resolution 194. The embodiment of the components of freedom and citizenship in their various dimensions calls for substantial consensus in terms of content and the means to ensure the effective coexistence of a democracy that secures and institutionalizes the diversity of visions and endeavors.

A Palestinian man views elections campaign posters for Mahmoud Abbas, one of six Palestinian Authority presidential candidates on the Jan. 9 ballot. All Photos: The Carter Center/ (2005)

In recent decades, the Palestinian situation has witnessed a state of disintegration, political and social backsliding, and a decline in values. This has created a significant gap between the components of the Palestinian people and the parties controlling its political and social decisions. Over the past three decades, Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been subjected to a systematic process of marginalization that has led to the disintegration of its structure and the depletion and waste of its resources. This has been the result of the spread of corruption, nepotism, financial mismanagement, and the squandering of public funds and resources. Simultaneously, Israeli settlement policies have led, for a high percentage of the population, to chronic deprivation as they become more and more preoccupied with their livelihoods. This has caused a decline in values of solidarity and mutual support, erosion of the justice system, the spread of tribal and local tendencies, the dominance of individualistic attitudes, and the rise of extremist right-wing populist discourse. These developments have resulted in the disengagement of the overwhelming majority of the people from political participation, and a sense of estrangement, neglecting public affairs, the rise of conspicuous consumption among certain segments of the population, and a dominant feeling of marginalization among a significant portion of Palestinian women and youth. Rebuilding the social contract on the foundations of democracy and citizenship, and the restoration of the role of institutions and the unified entity within the framework of the right of return and self-determination with the participation of all segments of the Palestinian people, form the basis for crystallizing a unified identity and unified representation of the Palestinian people.

Restoring the Status and Role of the PLO

It is high time to break away from the illusion of engaging in any political process without serious efforts to rebalance the power dynamics by unifying and mobilizing popular energies. Without Israel’s prior recognition of the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people, including the right of return and self-determination in all its components, no progress can be made. This is essential to end the fragmentation of the Palestinian political movement and restore the status, role, and nature of the National Front coalition of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people everywhere. This requires acknowledging the diversity of visions and public programs within the framework of the PLO. It also entails strengthening the participation of influential political forces and social movements, especially youth, women, and other popular and social segments, in decision-making to address the current challenges and ensure the protection of the rights, achievements, and historical narrative of the Palestinian people, as well as reviving their unified political representation. All political and social forces need to participate in the institutions of the PLO to transform it into a unified national front based on the principle of genuine partnership, away from quotas, exclusion, and unilateralism. This should safeguard, rather than contradict, the diversity of visions and public programs within the framework of a unified action strategy, with a permanent commitment to the principle of national consensus in making crucial decisions. 

The struggle to achieve the aspirations of the Palestinian people for freedom, return, self-determination, liberation from colonial settlement, and the apartheid system, as well as living in peace, dignity, and enjoying full citizenship, requires addressing the deep structural and representational crisis faced by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). It requires rebuilding its institutions based on comprehensive representative democracy, reaffirming its coalition and democratic nature as the supreme reference for the Palestinian people and their institutions, including the institutions of the Palestinian National Authority, while clearly separating their respective roles.

The PNA Should Be Providing the Best Services to its Citizens

The central mission of PNA institutions is summarized in providing the best services to the Palestinian citizens. This serves as the primary lever to bolster the resilience of the Palestinian people in their homeland while ensuring the eradication of corruption and nepotism and promoting the principle of equal opportunities. This, in turn, transforms our society into an attractive hub for talents, rather than a driving force for emigration. Achieving this goal necessitates a reevaluation of the role of the PNA and the structure of these institutions. 

Furthermore, establishing the foundations of civil democratic governance is essential. Democracy is a comprehensive societal system that cannot be reduced to the electoral process alone. It must extend to include the consolidation of transparency and accountability principles in the development and execution of public institutions’ budgets and developmental projects. The optimal use of public resources and fairness in dealing with the burdens imposed by occupation policies should be ensured too. Guaranteeing the regularity of political, municipal, union, and civil institutions’ elections and ensuring peaceful transitions of power within all these official, popular, and civil institutions is crucial. This requires the formulation of a new social contract that embodies a balanced and just relationship among the three branches of power, a complete separation of powers, full commitment to the judiciary’s independence, and liberating it from the dominance of the executive authority’s domination, as well as reforming the Palestinian Authority’s institutions.

Max Weber, the German sociologist, suggests that societies have three options when dealing with crises. The first option is rationalization, which provides a secure haven for societal divisions. This option arises from respecting the foundations of the social contract that underpins these communities. The second option is chaos and fragmentation, which stems from each group within society attempting to impose its views, rejecting other opinions, lacking partnership principles, and the disappearance of consensus mechanisms. The third option is reproducing the same system with the same tools, essentially maintaining the current status quo. 

Opposition and Regime Must Arrive at Basic Agreements

The theories of democratic transition, based on agreements between the opposition and the regime, as is the case in Palestine (between the two parties of the division, Fateh and Hamas), also suggest that resorting to negotiations and reaching agreements, after the deadlock of division, may open the door to free and competitive elections. 

This theory suggests that democratizing non-democratic regimes involves a combination of eroding old power relationships and hegemony and building new power dynamics that offer a credible democratic alternative. This requires the opposition to maintain its survival and existence, resist integration into the existing regime, assert its independence against the regime, and raise the cost of non-democratic rule while creating a credible democratic alternative. Furthermore, shifting power relations depends on the opposition, not only presenting itself as democratic but also being prepared for democratic competition, ready for democratic governance, and building a supportive opposition.

Based on this, the essence of practicing democracy in any society should provide an exit strategy for the crises in its political system, resolving conflicts among its powers and political elites through the principle of resorting to the ballot box rather than resorting to arms or violence. However, achieving this consensus necessitates political agreement and legal grounding, underpinned by a social contract that accepts pluralism, believes in national partnership and the common interest, upholds the rule of law, and renews the legitimacy of governing institutions, whether they are a legislative council, presidency, local bodies, trade unions, associations, or student councils, and so on. 

However, the situation appears to be more complex in the Palestinian context, which suffers from the absence of political consensus (the political social contract) that establishes the values and culture of democracy as an approach and practice. The political actors in the Palestinian arena no longer seem interested in reviving democracy within this context. Instead, they deal with the crisis based on narrow factional interests that have enabled them to seize control, dominate, and monopolize governance without accountability or oversight. As a result, all powers are concentrated in the hands of an elite that now controls the future of the Palestinian cause and national project, both in Gaza and the West Bank.