Of ‘Symbolic’ Victories and Real Defeats

By Ramzy Baroud

A small group of students affiliated mostly with leftist Palestinian factions meandered through the streets of the small town of Birzeit near Ramallah in the summer of 1993. It was an impromptu political rally.

They denounced what they understood as the relinquishing of basic Palestinian rights in exchange for meagre returns: Self-autonomy governed by some Palestinian political body, future negotiations without any guarantees and a hollow Israeli recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The hastily organized protest was prompted by earlier news that an agreement — Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements — was reached in Oslo and that an official signing ceremony would soon be held at the White House.

The agreement had hallmarks of what promised to be a mockery that merely attempted to reintroduce an Israeli-American version of self-autonomy — as opposed to real independence. Many such shams were introduced and soundly defeated by the Palestinian people and their leadership.

This time, however, it is the leadership itself that was involved in repackaging past failures as national triumphs. Intentionally, overlooking similar US-Israeli quests to undermine Palestinians rights — for example, the Roger Plan, Camp David, The Village Leagues and others — Yasser Arafat’s Fatah leadership spoke of an astounding moral victory of historic proportions. Many Palestinians celebrated the “peace of the brave”.

They danced in the streets and hailed Arafat and his men as liberators. Those who had doubts were told that “it was a step in the right direction,” that Israel’s recognition of yesterday’s freedom fighters was an unparalleled triumph which would soon be crowned by an independent state. Indeed, the Palestinian flag was made legal by Israel. There were no fines to be exacted and no jail terms for repeated offenders who insisted on owning one.

However, a few Birzeit students were still not convinced. Those who opposed the dubious agreement, however, could not agree on unifying their efforts by holding one single rally. Hamas held its own and the leftists, barely 30 or so, did the same.

I joined the leftists, partly out of solidarity because of their small number, but primarily because they spoke a language with which I could identify. There were no sharp slogans and, frankly, no full understanding of what had transpired, for, after all, Oslo was shrouded in secrecy. (Late Palestinian chief negotiator in Madrid, Dr Haidar Abdul Shafi revealed to me in an interview that he learned about Oslo from his hotel’s radio, as he, and few Palestinian intellectuals and academics were still negotiating a just peace agreement in earnest, before being sidestepped by Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas and a few others.)

For nearly two-decades after that fateful day, Palestinians find themselves subsisting in a progressively shrinking landscape, cut off from one another and surrounded by a gigantic and growing matrix of Jewish-colonies, Jewish-only bypass roads and Israeli military security zones — a reality much worse than that which existed when Oslo was signed in 1993.

More than 42 per cent of the West Bank has now been effectively conserved for that ever-growing colony apparatus and more land is being stolen on a daily basis. The so-called Israeli “Separation Wall” is eating up its share of Palestinian farmland.

Between the Wall, illegally occupied Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, numerous colony structures, no-go zones and racially prejudiced roads, Palestinians now live in a system that is similar, if not in some ways much worse than South Africa’s Bantustans, which were reserved for black people.

However, it is not the vices of Oslo that deserve urgent contemplation, but the dangerous phenomenon of branding political moves — particularly those without any hope — as symbolic victories, moral victories and other imagined victories that seem to never translate into any tangible gains.

Thousands are once more dancing in the West Bank and Gaza, hailing yet another more recent “victory” scored by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) at the UN. Palestine has become a “non-member state” at the UN.

The draft of the UN resolution beckoning what many perceive as a historic moment passed with an overwhelming majority of General Assembly members: 138 votes in favor, nine against and 41 abstentions.

Of course, there are reasons to permit a degree of hope — no thanks to the very entity that guarded Israeli interests in the Occupied Territories for all of these years. It is simply gratifying to witness the global show of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, one which has always existed, but was overshadowed by futile “peace talks” and US-hegemony over all Middle Eastern conflicts.

Moreover, the support that ‘Palestine’ has received at the UN must be heartening, to say the least, for most Palestinians. The overwhelming support, especially by Palestine’s traditional allies (most of humanity with few exceptions) indicates that the US dominion, arm twisting and Israeli-US propaganda were of little use after all.

However, that should not be misidentified as a real change of course in the behavior of the PNA, which still lacks legal, political and especially moral legitimacy among Palestinians, who are seeking tangible drive towards freedom, not mere symbolic victories.

In fact, since the late 1970s, when the US, along with its arbitrators in the Middle East, began co-opting the PLO leadership, it has been one symbolic victory after another. When it emerged that Arafat was the PLO’s “strong-man” — a major clue for US foreign policy specialists — a decade-long charade commenced.

Empowered by Arab support at the Rabat Arab League summit in October 1974, which bestowed on the PLO, the ever-opaque title of “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, Arafat was invited to speak at the UN General Assembly.

Despite the fervor that accompanied the newly-found global solidarity, Arafat’s language singled a departure from what was perceived by western powers as radical and unrealistic political discourse and territorial ambitions.

The rise of the PLO’s acceptability in international arenas was demonstrated in its admission to the UN as a “non-state entity” with an observer status on November 22, 1974. The Israeli war and subsequent invasion of Lebanon in 1982 had the declared goal of destroying the PLO and was in fact aimed at stifling the growing legitimacy of the PLO regionally and internationally.

Without an actual power base, in this case, Lebanon, Israeli leaders calculated that the PLO would either fully collapse or politically capitulate. Weakened, but not obliterated, the post-Lebanon war PLO was a different entity than the one which existed prior to 1982.

Armed resistance was no longer on the table, at least not in any practical terms. Such change suited some Arab countries just fine. A few years later, Arafat and Fatah were assessing the new reality from its new headquarters in Tunisia.

The political landscape in Palestine was vastly changing. A popular uprising (Intifada) erupted in 1987 and quite spontaneously a local leadership was being formed throughout the occupied territories. Equally important, new movements were emerging from outside the traditional PLO confines. One such movement is Hamas, which has grown in numbers and political relevance in ways once thought impossible.

That reality proved alarming to the US, Israel and, of course, the traditional PLO leadership. There were enough vested interests to reach a “compromise”. This naturally meant more concessions by the Palestinian leadership in exchange for some symbolic recompense by the Americans.

Two major events defined that stage of politics in 1988: On November 15, the PLO’s National Council (PNC) proclaimed a Palestinian state in exile from Algiers and merely two weeks later, US ambassador to Tunisia, Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., was designated as the sole American liaison whose mission was to establish contacts with the PLO. Despite the US’ declared objection of Arafat’s move, the US was in fact pleased to see that the symbolic declaration was accompanied by major political concessions.

These events were the real preamble to the Oslo accords a few years later. Since then, Palestinians have gained little aside from symbolic victories, starting in 1988 when the UNGA “acknowledged” the Algiers proclamation. It then voted to replace the reference to the “Palestine Liberation Organization” with that of “Palestine”. More symbolic victories followed.

While the rally of Birzeit students seemed ill-prepared and unclear on its objectives, those men and women should take comfort from the fact that they did not sing and dance as their national project was about to be methodically crushed by both Israel and the Palestinian leadership. It is strange how “symbolic” and “moral” victories can usher many years of unmitigated defeats.

– Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

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