The Palestinian cause has splintered into different yet equally unrealistic visions. This is limiting Palestinians’ potential for achieving their rights. A painful shift away from the comforts of stasis will become necessary for the Palestinian leadership. And an intensive popular effort to transform the cause of a nation into the cause of a people will be required.
International observers have long been confused by Palestinian positions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the one hand, the political elites around Fatah in Ramallah (composed of the secular-leftist liberation forces of yesteryear, who have long since become complacent bureaucrats) pay heed to the two-state-solution, wherein a Palestinian state is to be established on 22% of historic Mandatory Palestine. On the other hand, the political elites around Hamas in Gaza call for the “liberation” of the whole of Mandatory Palestine (i.e. the end of Israel).
The younger generation, not represented by either political pole, finds both stances unrealistic and has another position entirely. Many simply don’t care anymore about the artifice of a Palestinian state. They want their political and civil rights, they want employment perspectives and freedom of movement. If this means they would need to become citizens of Israel, so be it. They see an increasingly authoritarian President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who can drop the hammer on his own people but needs an Israeli permit to go from Ramallah to Bethlehem. They hear the rote and tired Palestinian anthem, as played each morning in public schools and they feel less and less affiliation to it.
Elections for the Presidency last took place in 2005. Elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council last took place 10 years ago. Yet Abbas is still in office and many of the parliamentarians, whose mandate expired years ago, still make use of their salaries, offices and official cars without lifting a finger for the restoration of the balance of powers and parliamentary oversight. The only effort seems to be extended for mutual recriminations between Fatah and Hamas regarding who is to blame for the awful standstill. If this is a sign of things to come, if a Palestinian state will be another weak yet authoritarian Arab state, many Palestinians ask themselves, why bother? Who wants to rally behind an unaccountable and authoritarian President or any of the myriad conniving politicians more concerned with securing power in the event of Abbas’ departure than with a settlement enterprise eating away at the very foundations of that power? The inspiration, it seems, is gone.
Going through the motions for continued funding
Indeed, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has become a decrepit, lifeless structure merely simulating a government. Long gone are the days where Fatah had a political programme. International visitors are received, donor funding is welcomed, and salaries are paid. Every day, soldiers line the street to safeguard the passing motorcade of President Abbas. Yet he is rarely seen. The revolutionaries of yesteryear have become comfortable in their offices – too comfortable, in the view of many citizens. They have become, in the eyes of many, local administrators of a colonial occupation, their work padded with millions and millions in development aid. With every unkept promise of reconciliation and with every passed deadline for new elections, Palestinians lose more and more faith that the leadership has any interest in representing them or caring for their wellbeing.
There is no alternative, the functionaries of the PA readily tell all critics. Give back the keys to Israel and Palestinians will suffer. Israel doesn’t want to fulfill its obligations under international law as the occupying power. Keeping a weak local administration in place, financed by the international community, is much cheaper for Israel and much safer for the Palestinians. Indeed, breaking free of the bounds of the Oslo process, which laid the foundation for the Palestinian Authority, is a “lose-lose situation” for the Palestinians, at least in the short-term. The economy might go into a nose-dive; hundreds of thousands might lose their benefits. Donor funding, provided to an illegitimate PA on the premise of maintaining stability, could dry up almost immediately. The Israeli occupation and donors have, in unwilling (or, as cynics would have it, willing) concert, driven the Palestinians between a rock and a hard place.
Indeed, donor funding keeps alive the illusion that there is such a thing as a status quo under occupation. While the foundations for a state are disappearing with every new settlement building, with every instance of demolition of Palestinian structures, and every case of land expropriation, the Potemkin Village that is the Palestinian Authority is fortified with international monetary support. While donors talk in glowing terms about state building, critical Palestinian voices argue that many of their activities are actually about artificial stabilization, pacification and a moral bailout of the donors themselves, given their passive role vis-à-vis evident Israeli settlement advances and human rights violations.
Free Palestine by Freeing Palestinians
Where are Palestinians to turn? At the moment they also see no horizon for achieving equal rights as future citizens of Israel. An increasingly hostile right-wing government in Israel has made matters worse for Palestinians in almost all respects – and the Palestinian leadership has no answers. The spike in Palestinian violence (and relentless Israeli responses) in the past few months suggests as much. There is no political programme behind the stabbings and car rammings. They are a horrific sign of hopelessness and lack of vision. In their destruction they signify nothing and are therefore a rejection of everything – of the oppressive Israeli occupation, of the oppressive Palestinian Authority, of the oppressive Palestinian social structure.
As someone who has witnessed those Palestinian policy makers who still care run into one wall after the next and who has seen the increasing desperation of citizens, I must say to Palestinian friends: Give up on the pretention that you have any say over the big picture just to secure donor funding. This is more a fig leaf for the occupation than a blanket for you. Recognize that, even for the Israeli opposition, it is about a peace process to deflect international criticism rather than about a solution. Have a frank public debate about what this means. Israel will never give up on the West Bank, so force the Israelis to openly choose apartheid or democracy. End the lie that this is a temporary occupation, a lie that is fortified by continued Palestinian adherence to the Oslo Accords, which should have been a temporary mechanism to end in Palestinian statehood in 1999. Force the international community to develop a policy where Israeli human rights violations cannot be bought off with lavish development aid. Pressure international institutions and donor countries to move beyond the tired and repetitive and ultimately meaningless statements and press releases expressing concern after every new announcement of Israeli settlement expansion or land theft. They, like the PA, are going through the motions. Reject the international consensus that Palestinian statehood is subject to an Israeli veto by changing the narrative entirely. Strengthen human bonds between Gaza and the West Bank. Transform Palestinian national institutions into lighthouses of transparency and accountability, into institutions that Palestinians can take pride in and feel represented by. Put the increasingly morose Israeli democracy to shame by developing a vibrant culture of free speech and open expression. Propose progressive solutions beyond two ethnic-religious states. Make Palestine an idea which resonates the world over. In summary, free Palestine by freeing Palestinians.