By Ramzy Baroud
It’s never easy to admit that the Palestinian front, both at home and abroad, remains as fragmented and self-consumed, thus ineffective, as ever before, and got worse during the disastrous post-Oslo period.
Such realization wouldn’t mean much if the inference concerned any other polity; but when it’s made in regards to a nation that is facing an active campaign of ethnic cleansing at home and an international campaign of sanctions and boycott, the problem becomes both real and urgent.
Palestinians in the West Bank, especially in areas penetrated by the formidable Israeli imprisonment wall, are losing their land, their rights, their freedom and their livelihood at an alarming speed, unprecedented in their tumultuous history of military occupation. The 700-kilometre wall, once completed, will further fragment the already splintered West Bank; Israel’s settlement project since 1967 has disfigured the West Bank using Jews-only bypass roads, military zones and so forth, to ensure the viability of the country’s colonization scheme, but split or isolated Palestinian areas, making the two-state solution simply inconceivable.
Gaza, which Yitzhak Rabin had once wished would sink into the sea and which Israel has labored to dump on anyone foolish enough to take responsibility for it as long as it is not part of any comprehensive agreement that would include Jerusalem and the West Bank, maintains its “open air prison” status. Palestinians there are being reduced to malnourished refugees, manipulated into violence and discord, a spectacle that Israel is promoting around the world as an example of Palestinian lack of civility and their incapacity to govern themselves.
The Israeli government insistently refuses to consider Jerusalem an issue that warrants negotiations; nothing to talk about, according to Israeli officials who see Jerusalem as their state’s undivided and eternal capital. Vital movement from and into Jerusalem is increasingly impossible for West Bank Palestinians. Muslim and Christian properties in the city are continuously threatened, targeted or desecrated. The most recent targeting of Al Aqsa Mosque was intended to further exacerbate Muslim fury and emphasize the point that Israel retains the upper hand in its relations with the Palestinians.
Other major issues such as settlements, water, refugees, borders, continue to be subjected to unilateral Israelis actions, while the Palestinian role is relegated to that of a hapless, submissive and often angry victim.
If such decisive matters go largely unchallenged by a solid, popular Palestinian strategy, one mustn’t be surprised if other issues, such as the need to restructure the progressively more fragmented Palestinian national identity, the need for a powerful, sustained and articulate Palestinian voice in the media and an influential body that unites and channels all Palestinian efforts around the world to serve a clear set of objectives, are receiving little or no attention whatsoever.
It must also be acknowledged, as uncomfortable as this may be to some, that the Palestinian democratic experience is rapidly succumbing to Israeli pressures, American meddling — tacitly or otherwise, coordinated with other governments — and the fractious Palestinian front that has been for decades permeated with ideological exclusivism, cronyism and corruption.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), since its formation by the Arab League in 1964, but most significantly since its reformation in the early 1970s under Palestinian leadership, was for long regarded as the main body that eventually brought to the fore the Palestinian struggle as — more than a mere question of a humanitarian issue that needed redress — a national fight for freedom and rights. There was, more or less, a national movement that spoke and represented Palestinians everywhere. It gave the Palestinian struggle greater urgency, one that was lost, or willingly conceded, by Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993, and again in Cairo in May 2004.
Aside from snuffing out the Palestinian national project, reducing the territory to self-autonomous areas, rendering irrelevant millions of Palestinians, mostly refugees scattered around the world and thus demoting the international status of the PLO to a mere symbolic organization, Oslo gave rise to a new type of thinking among Palestinians who see themselves as pragmatic and whose language is that of real politic and diplomacy. This is the most woeful case of self-defeatism, and it continues to infuse most Palestinian circles whose new “strategy” is limited to acquiring funds from European countries which eventually dotted the West Bank with NGOs, mostly without a clear purpose, agenda and coordination. Involving oneself in such useless projects is ineffectual, while rejecting them without a clear alternative can be frustrating or demoralizing.
An official in President Mahmoud Abbas’ circle chastised me during a long airplane ride once for subscribing to Edward Said’s school, whose followers, I was told, wish to parrot criticism from the outside and refrain from “getting their hands dirty”, i.e., getting involved in the Palestinian Authority’s institution building, and so forth. Such a claim is utterly baseless; and no viable institution can possibly come out of the current setting, an amalgam of a most violent occupation, and internal corruption sanctioned, if not fed, by both Israel and the US government.
Truth is there have been no serious collective Palestinian efforts to redress the Oslo mistakes and to breathe life into the PLO. The Intifada was a popular expression of Palestinians disaffection with Oslo and the occupation, but, alone, it can hardly be considered a sustainable strategy. Neither a religious movement like Hamas nor a self-exalted one like Fateh is capable of approaching this subject alone, nor are they individually qualified to alter the Palestinian course, which seems to be moving in random order.
The problem is indeed bigger than mere ideological or even personal quarrels between two rival political parties; rather, it is the expression of a prevailing Palestinian factionalism that seems to consume members of various Palestinian communities regardless of where they are based.
My frequent visits and involvement in many activities organized by Palestinian groups seem to leave me with the same unpleasant feeling that there is no collective national strategy, but incoherent actions undertaken mostly by groups whose work, however well intended, never boasts a unified national agenda.
In the absence of centrality everywhere, individuals hoping to fill the vacuum are offering their own solutions to the conflict, once more without any serious or coordinated efforts and without a grassroots constituency either in the occupied territories or among major Palestinian population concentrations in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan. Others, like the Geneva Initiative enthusiasts, find it acceptable to negotiate a solution on Palestinians’ behalf — without any mandate whatsoever — and obtain sums of money to promote their ideas, though the whole enterprise is run by a few individuals who have no support from the Palestinians.
Oslo has lost its relevance as a peace treaty, but the individualism it imposed on Palestinians still prevails; its legacy was self-preservation at the expense of the collective good, and I believe no Palestinian party, including Hamas, is immune from subscribing to its luring values.
To avoid further debacles, Palestinians must ditch their factionalism and quit thinking of their relationship with their struggle in terms of funds, ideology (at times so flexible as to fit political interests) or religious interpretations. They are in urgent need of a new collective strategy that pushes for specific principles which can only be achieved through national consensus. Waving flags in the face of passersby and the proverbial preaching to the choir alone will lead nowhere. Individual initiatives will further confuse the Palestinian ranks. Only a consistent, cohesive and reasonable strategy that emanates from the Palestinians themselves can engage international public opinion — with the hope of breaking the patronage system that unites the West, especially the United States to Israel — and possibly slow down the Israeli army bulldozers currently carving up the West Bank into a system of cantons and high-walled prisons.
Reforming and revitalizing the PLO is not an option, it is a must.
-The writer’s book, “The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronology of a People’s Struggle” (Pluto Press, London), is now available at Amazon.com.