The mid-1960s saw the beginnings of the construction of a Palestinian political field after it collapsed in 1948, when, with the British government’s support of the Zionist movement, which succeeded in establishing the state of Israel, the Palestinian national movement was crushed. This article focuses mainly on the Palestinian political field as it developed in the 1960s and 1970s, the beginnings of its fragmentation in the 1990s, and its almost complete collapse in the first decade of this century. It was developed on a structure characterized by the dominance of a center where the political leadership functioned. The center, however, was established outside historic Palestine. This paper examines the components and dynamics of the relationship between the center and the peripheries, and the causes of the decline of this center and its eventual disappearance, leaving the constituents of the Palestinian people under local political leadership following the collapse of the national representation institutions, that is, the political, organizational, military, cultural institutions and sectorial organizations (women, workers, students, etc.) that made up the PLO and its frameworks. The paper suggests that the decline of the political field as a national field does not mean the disintegration of the cultural field. There are, in fact, indications that the cultural field has a new vitality that deserves much more attention than it is currently assigned.
There is a need today for independent research that focuses on the dynamics of the Palestinian cultural field (in its overlap with the Arab cultural field), which due to several considerations, has taken a different path from that of the Palestinian political field.1 Among these considerations is its emancipation, to a tangible extent, from geopolitical determinants and from the constraints of the balance of forces that permanently press on the political field.
The last remark is important because the cultural influence of the Palestinians in the 1948 occupied territories was and is still more prominent and tangible than their influence in the national political field. However, this does not mean ignoring their political role in certain situations and instances, as was the case for their mobilization on Land Day, their support and backing for the first intifada (uprising), and their fights against the plans to Judaize Jerusalem. There is also the model role that they initiated by succeeding in forming a unified list in the Knesset elections in 2015, and the insistence of the Palestinians of the Negev on resisting their forceful displacement by the Israeli state and many other situations. However, their role in the development and formation of the Palestinian cultural field has been and remains the most visible and most present contribution. Kanafani (2012) has recorded the remarkable cultural influence of Palestinians of the 1948 occupied territories, in a book about the literature of the resistance first published in 1968 in Beirut.2 Otherwise, the Palestinians of “inside” (i.e., those who remained in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948) have also played an important role in informing the Palestinians of “outside” (and other Arabs) about the dynamics of Israeli policy and the composition of the Israeli political elite through the role of a number of their researchers and intellectuals who joined Palestinian and Arab research centers and institutions in Beirut and Damascus. In addition to their steady contributions to newspapers and periodicals issued by political organizations active inside the areas which Israel declared its state in 1948, it is necessary to mention their significant contribution in the field of literature (particularly poetry and the novel) as well as in filmmaking, fine arts, and national music and song.3
One of the repercussions of the June 1967 war, following the Israeli occupation of all of Palestine, was the construction of a new Palestinian national political field that came under the hegemony of the Palestinian resistance movement in 1968. Israel not only occupied the whole of historic Palestine but also the Golan and the Sinai Peninsula.
One of the characteristics of the new political field (represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization or PLO) was that its national institutions had representatives from all the Palestinian political organizations, including the Communist Party, which joined the PLO after it declared itself as a Palestinian political party in February 1982, and which is the only political organization that acceded to the PLO while its leading institutions were based in the Palestinian occupied territories of 1967.
The Palestinian political field was developed on the basis of a structure characterized by the dominance of a center where the political leadership functioned. The center, however, was established outside historic Palestine, residing instead in Palestinian communities that existed in highly divergent non-Palestinian political fields (Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf States, Europe, the United States, and other countries). This paper examines the components and dynamics of this relationship between the center and the peripheries, and the causes of the decline of this center and its eventual disappearance, leaving the constituents of the Palestinian people under local political leadership following the collapse of the national representation institutions, that is, the political, organizational, military, cultural institutions and sectorial organizations (women, workers, students, etc.) that made up the PLO and its frameworks.
The paper suggests that the decline of the political field as a national field does not mean the disintegration of the cultural field. There are, in fact, indications that the cultural field has a new vitality that deserves much more attention than it is currently assigned.
The Palestinian political field has been gradually dismantled from a national field into local fields. This happened under the impact of both external and internal forces and dynamics. The moment when the PLO was forced to depart from Lebanon after the siege and invasion of Beirut in the summer of 1982 has special relevance as an event that initiated the dismantling process of the Palestinian political field. However, the most obvious event to signify this process was the signing of the Oslo Accords, which failed to lead to an independent state in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories. Then, the split of the Palestinian Authority for self-rule into two rival “Authorities” over separate territories announced the completion of the disintegration process of the national field into subgeopolitical fields where Palestinian communities existed. One such field is the Gaza Strip, which has been transformed by a harsh siege and repeated Israeli wars into a “ghetto” or a mass detention prison that lacks the conditions of strategic life support. The West Bank is another “ghetto” that the Israeli colonial settler state has fragmented into several enclaves besieged by Israeli settlements, Israeli bypass roads, the Separation Wall, and area “C,” which is under total Israeli control and which forms 60 percent of the area of the West Bank. The Oslo Accords excluded any discussion of the fate of the Palestinians with Israeli passports who were outside the concerns of the Palestinian Authority. The issue of refugees, like those of Jerusalem, settlements, and borders, was to be discussed in “status negotiations” between Israel and the PLO after the five-year transitional period that ended in 1999. This has not happened, and Israel has continued its expansion of settlements and its alteration of the character of Jerusalem. The failure of the summit at Camp David between Arafat, Ehud Barak, and Bill Clinton in summer 2000 led in late September to the second intifada, which was provoked by the visit of Ariel Sharon to the Haram Al-Sharif in East Jerusalem.
A POLITICAL FIELD WITH AN ITINERANT CENTER
One of the manifestations of the transformation in the Palestinian political field is reflected in political discourse; terminology such as “the inside,” “the inside of the inside,” and “the outside,” has been replaced in favor of a terminology such as “returnees” and “residents” and “the territories of 1948,” the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the “diaspora.” The extended period between the birth of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1960s and the institutionalization of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s saw shifts in the center of the Palestinian political field, as the PLO leadership moved from one city to another in the Arab world. This was captured by Darwish in the saying, “whenever I befriend a capital city, it throws me in a suitcase.”4 The center of the political field moved, together with the headquarters of the Palestinian political organizations, between three or four cities outside historic Palestine: Amman, Beirut, Tunis, Damascus, before moving under a new guise to areas in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories (Ramallah, Jericho and Gaza). All these shifts were politically problematic, but the last one was the most problematic in terms of political representation as it indicated, politically and institutionally, the replacement of the Palestine Liberation Organization (which represented Palestinians as a whole) by the Palestinian Authority, which represented only one part of the Palestinian whole.
One of the manifestations of the transformation of the political field appeared in a new self-identification of the Palestinian political movement as both a national and an Islamic movement. Previously it had defined itself simply as a national liberation movement without reference to an Islamic component. Perhaps it is useful henceforth to distinguish between a national political field, which is embodied by national liberation movements or by a state (nation-state) and a national identity, which is different from nationality as granted by a state to its citizens. National identity is based on a historical narrative, and is a multifarious complex that will not necessarily collapse if a state or national movement does, as happened following the Nakba in 1948 when the Palestinian national movement collapsed, but Palestinian identity did not.
The defeat of the Palestinian national movement in 1948 meant the collapse of the Palestinian political field that existed at the time under the combined forces of British colonialism and Zionist settlement colonization, but the Palestinian national identity succeeded in renewing itself following that defeat (marked as the Nakba in contemporary Palestinian history). It incorporated the events and transformations that followed that defeat (displacement, ethnic cleansing, discrimination, annexation, settlement occupation, arrest, deportation, wars, and siege). The redeveloped Palestinian national identity (including in refugee camps) was an important engine in the promotion and maintenance of a new national liberation movement that constructed a new political field with national institutions, a charter, and political and mass organization which came to be known as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
In 1974, the PLO was recognized as a Palestinian political field by Arab states during the Arab Summit of Rabat and as the sole representative of the Palestinian people by the General Assembly of the United Nations. However, what was more significant was that the fact that the organization’s leading institutions formed the legitimate political and organizational reference for Palestinians as a whole and its various communities everywhere.
THE PLO AS THE PALESTINIAN’S NATIONAL POLITICAL FIELD
A number of conditions and circumstances combined to inform the structure and traditions of the Palestinian political field as embodied by the PLO institutions and their popular and professional associations. Perhaps the most prominent of these conditions and circumstances are the following.
First, because of the Israeli occupation in 1967 as a settler colonial state of all Palestine, in addition to the Sinai and the Golan Heights, the PLO was obliged to establish its headquarters and thus, the center of the national political field, outside Palestinian territory. Thus, a center-periphery relationship was established early between the headquarters of the PLO and other Palestinian communities (including those in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf, Europe, and the Americas). The Palestinian left wing did not act differently, as it itself adopted a highly centralized model of decision-making, wherein members of the political bureau decided on political, organizational, and financial issues. The leading bodies of organizations, apart from of the Communist Party, were located outside Palestine. The centralization of power in the hands of a few individuals was the method that Fatah followed but it maintained itself as a political and intellectual pluralistic movement with no strict ideology. Leftist organizations followed “democratic centralism” as practiced in the Soviet Union and other socialist counties. The quota system, which allotted the largest organization (Fatah) one half plus one shares in the makeup of leading PLO bodies, reinforced this highly centralized conception of political organization.
Secondly, the PLO and its factions emerged and developed their alliances in a regional and international political setting that looked at political democracy as a cover for imperialism and colonialism. At the regional level, totalitarian pan-national regimes and royal authoritarian theocratic regimes were dominant, and on an international level, only the countries of the socialist camp were ready to have relations with the PLO (and its factions). These also repressed political democracy, but supported national liberation movements (including the PLO and its factions), while the Western camp was supportive of Israel.
Thirdly, the political geography of Palestinian communities existing separately from each other justified the existence of an overriding or dominant political center, represented by the leadership of the PLO. One of the embodiments of this domination was the centralization of powers in the hands of a limited number of members of the organization’s top leaders; this applied to political organizations, nonorganizational formations, masses, or sectorial formations (women, workers, students, etc.) of the PLO and its factions outside of historic Palestine (Lebanon, Syria, some Arab countries, and socialist countries) and underground formations (as in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and in Jordan after 1970).
Fourthly, in practice, political decision-making was considered the monopoly of the top leadership, and politics became the domain of elites. This view was enhanced by the nature of the revenue of the organization and its factions, that is, its dependence for revenue not on voluntary contributions from people, or on subscriptions from supporters and members, but primarily on contributions from Arab and socialist countries, all of whom were undemocratic and denied basic freedoms to their citizens.
Fifthly, the militarization of the Palestinian organizations was promoted for several reasons. These included the aggressive colonization policy of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian land and the conflicts (often armed) between the PLO and the Arab regimes or armed militias within these regimes, as in Lebanon, which often involved aggression against Palestinian refugee camps. The militarization and regimentation of armed fighters reinforced the already existing trend toward the centralization of command within the PLO structures and its political factions. It was a tendency promoted by the dominant patriarchal culture, although the national liberation movement did produce strong democratic political culture in the form of address between members (regardless of position) as “brothers” and “comrades.”
Without a thorough examination of its structure, its leadership style, and the basis of its relations with the various Palestinian communities, the PLO’s institutions as they functioned in the 1970s and 1980s could not manage the PLO’s multifaceted conflict with the colonial settler state, and simultaneously, withstand the pressures and interventions to which it was subjected by Arab states.
The established political leadership of the PLO viewed the various components of Palestinian communities, in effect, as tools (or agents) for implementing its decisions through the organizational structure of the various political parties or factions in these communities. These communities were not appreciated as fully able to initiate policies and actions appropriate to their specific conditions. They were expected to respond to instructions from the leadership and to refrain from taking initiatives on their own as regards the situations they faced in their daily lives. This was the dominant style of leadership that prevailed, albeit unevenly, among all factions of the PLO and it was rationalized by the priority of the national question over other issues. It also prevailed among political movements that emerged outside the structures of the PLO, such as in Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These prioritized religious affiliation as opposed to national identity, although they adopted some of the language and rites of secular political organizations such as having a political bureau, holding elections by secret ballet, celebrating anniversaries, having their own flag, holding speech rallies, et cetera.
FROM THE “NATIONAL” TO THE LOCAL
Given its gradual weakening, the Palestinian political field was set for corrosion because of a combination of several factors and determinants, both objective and subjective. These led to a moment when the national institutions in the field were easily marginalized, which resulted in a crisis of representation.5 The marginalized institutions were not confined to those of a legislative or political nature such as the Palestinian National Council (PNC), but encompassed popular federations, trade unions, and cultural institutions that robbed the Palestinian communities of any means of interaction and joint communication. The breakup of the national political field into local fields was complemented by the splitting of the Palestinian Authority (as an administrative self-rule authority) into two; one operating in the West Bank and another in the Gaza Strip, each run by a separate political party or movement. This process of political and geographic fragmentation widened the gap of inequality in income, wealth, and life opportunities, not only between regions, individuals, and genders but also in opportunities for participating in the decision-making processes at the local and national levels.6
The process of fragmentation happened despite the continued and all-encompassing colonial presence of Israel, which controls all aspects of life in the 1967 Palestinian occupied territories. Instead of national political elites inhabiting national institutions, local elites emerged, at best, located in locally bound institutions. This situation, if it continues, entails repercussions of strategic dimensions in the existential and the political senses. One of the most important of these likely repercussions is a denial of the right of most Palestinian communities to voice their opinions on the national question and to struggle for their right to self-determination and freedom. It is true that some political organizations are still active in more than one Palestinian community (specifically Fatah, Hamas, and, to a lesser extent, organizations such as the Popular Front, Islamic Jihad, and the Democratic Front) but these operate as separate entities and lack a unifying national political field. In the last two decades, the contest for influence and power has been between Fatah and Hamas and has been mostly confined to the West Bank and Gaza Strip where they retain relatively high levels of support.7
Among the reasons for the relatively high levels of “support” for Fatah and Hamas in the 1967 occupied areas relates to the resources they control in these areas, particularly in terms of employment opportunities, having both acted as “ruling” political parties. It is worth noting that major political organizations that operate in more than one community tend have tended to act autonomously in each community, partly because of the specific sociopolitical features of each community, but also because of the absence of a unifying political field with a unified leadership and national vision.
Some may see that the Arab and international recognition of the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), who is also the chairman of the executive committee of the PLO is proof that the PLO is still alive. However, the executive committee of the PLO and its president—as in the case of the Palestinian Authority and its president—have no real power over crossings, natural resources, foreign trade, East Jerusalem, and most of the West Bank, and have no authority over the Gaza Strip and its crossings, nor over the Palestinians of Jordan and elsewhere. The PA cannot act to change, in any tangible way, the situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and the Gulf States, nor that of the Palestinians of 1948 occupied territories (those Palestinian holding Israeli passports).8 This is due not only to the marginalization of the national institutions of the political field, but also to the deficiency in power and resources at the local level. There is little credibility attached to the political discourse of the political parties in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. The impact on the political discourse of both Fatah and Hamas, following the reconciliation negotiations (held in the autumn of 2017) between the two, under Egyptian sponsorship, will have to wait for results of actual developments, which do not seem to be promising.
GEOPOLITICS AND THE PRESENT CONTOURS OF PALESTINIAN POLITICS
A series of events and changes during the 1970s and 1980s that continued into the 1990s set in process the dismantlement of the national political field into local political fields, each with its political elite and discourse.9 The first step in these events was the reformulation of the PLO program in 1974 from a program calling for the establishment of a single democratic state on the historic land of Palestine to a program that entertains the establishment of a Palestinian state (Authority) on the borders of the Palestinian 1967 occupied territories. This change relocated the center of political attention from the rights and fate of Palestinians in the diaspora (where the most prominent issue is that of a return to the homeland), to the rights and fate of Palestinians in the 1967 occupied territories (where the most prominent issue is ending the colonial occupation). The shift in the political agenda—as stipulated by the Oslo Accords—removed the fate and rights of the Arab Palestinian minority in the 1948 occupied territories from the PLO political agenda. The movement in Israel towards right wing, populist, and fundamentalist politics has shown that Zionist policies are congruent in areas that were occupied in 1948 and in 1967. This has become obvious not only in the accelerating rate of colonial settlement building in the West Bank, but also in discriminatory laws against the Palestinian indigenous minority and in the demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state, which demands from Palestinians a denouncement of their own historical narrative and national identity.
Another the events that weakened the PLO as a national political field was its forced departure from Lebanon in 1982, which was preceded by the Camp David Accords in 1978 between Egypt and Israel, and was followed by the bloody wars against Palestinian camps in Lebanon in 1984–85. Also of importance is the Palestinian intifada in late 1987 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip against the Israeli occupation and for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.10 The intifada enhanced the influence of the PLO following its departure from Lebanon and the efforts of some Arab regime attempts to split it and influence its policies. The intifada prompted Jordan to declare its disengagement from the West Bank in August 1988.
Following the first intifada were other events that weakened the PLO. They included the Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the imposition of Arab and international political and financial sanctions on the organization in response to its stance on the invasion of Kuwait. The intifada did, however, prepare the ground for the convening of the Madrid Conference on Peace in the Middle East in 1991, following the resolutions of the PNC in November 1988, which recognized Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, a condition demanded by the United States. Following these regional and international changes, the PLO political leadership did not see a need to review and renew the structure, tasks, and responsibilities of its leading institutions, particularly towards the various Palestinian communities inside and outside historic Palestine.
The unified national leadership of the intifada in the West Bank and Gaza Strip considered itself as an arm of the PLO, and the popular and professional organizations considered themselves the bases of the PLO. However, this was translated in favor of relegating a specific autonomous role to each of the various Palestinian communities. This role was entrusted to the dominant “center” without any serious accountability or oversight mechanisms. Therefore, the unified national leadership of the intifada hastened to authorize the leadership of the PLO (an elite of a small number of individuals) in Tunisia to review and amend its statements and directives to the intifada, though this leadership was far removed from the rank and file and from specific conditions prevailing on the ground. This was a major factor in the Intifada losing the impetus it had gained by the participation of its organized, popular grassroots.
It was the vitality of Palestinian patriotism, and not conviction of the wisdom of the political elite, that disallowed the emergence of a tangible rift between the local leaders (who represented the major political factions) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the political elite of the “center” abroad in Tunisia. This same consideration prevented the Palestinian political leadership in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from exerting serious pressure on the leadership of the PLO and on the leaders of its factions. Without such pressure, it was difficult for the national leadership in Tunisia or Damascus voluntarily to change their highly centralized leadership style in dealing with the various Palestinian communities. The local communities needed to voice their concerns and opinions on their own affairs as well as on national matters. The local leadership was reluctant to claim the right to share in national decision-making process and feared that such legitimate demands might be interpreted as evidence of a desire to erect an alternative or parallel leadership to that of the PLO, a development that was much favored by Israel and desired by the United States among others. The local political leadership in Palestinian communities instead left major decisions on political, organizational, and financial issues to their leadership in the “center,” wherever that might be at any moment in time.
The source of vitality of Palestinian patriotism lies in its reliance on an interactive pool of collective memories, the experiences and successive struggles for more than a century. It is a history of pillage, displacement, ethnic cleansing, discrimination, marginalization, national humiliation, and wars and military incursions into Palestinian towns and camps in several locations; a history that is rife with the killings of tens of thousands of people at the hands of the Israeli colonial settler state and the British colonial occupation before that. It is the memory of the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages and towns and the continuous confiscation of land and the building of Israeli settlements (colonies). It is based on the live experience of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have been, and still are, subjected to political and arbitrary security detention and collective punishment and siege. It is the experience of discrimination in airports (including Arab airports), of the denial of the right to work, freedom of movement and civil rights. Moreover, it is replete with innumerable narratives of popular and armed resistance, belonging the undercover resistance organizations over and above the public ones. It is the story of the ongoing Nakba and the struggle for freedom, equality, and self-determination. It is the story that informs the discourse of all Palestinian political groups, including that of Hamas.11 In parallel, the religious discourse of Hamas has left a strong mark on Fatah’s political discourse and social attitudes.12 The Oslo Accords and the split between Fatah and Hamas have not diluted this patriotism, as the Palestinian cultural field has witnessed a revitalization that continues to nourish this vitality, as the author of this article pointed out in an article on that subject.13
REPERCUSSIONS OF THE FRAGMENTATION OF THE POLITICAL FIELD
In the early days of the first intifada, a new and tangible political force appeared in the Palestinian political field from outside the PLO, representing an international Islamic movement: Hamas, as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. This intrusion into the Palestinian political field was a qualitative event, because it presented itself as an alternative to the PLO, defying that the latter was the sole representation of the Palestinian people. It proposed slogans and objectives that differed from those of the PLO and its political program.
After its departure from Beirut, the exhausted and besieged PLO was not able to accommodate Hamas without making serious structural changes to its institutional programs. The Hamas movement also presented itself as the main opposition to the Oslo Accords and succeeded in becoming a major political (and armed) force with the failure of the Oslo Accords to lead to a sovereign Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital. It succeeded in becoming a large political movement that defeated the Fatah movement and won the largest number of seats in the election of the Legislative Council in 2006. In mid-2007 it imposed its unitary military control on the Gaza Strip, leaving the West Bank to be manage d by Fatah, aided by political factions that were part of the PLO legacy. Many attempts from many Arab capitals failed to reconcile the two movements until autumn 2017, when Egypt managed to get both of them to declare a willingness to take steps to enable the Palestinian Authority to take civil control of the Gaza Strip, leaving the military control (held by Hamas) to a later stage. It is still too early to know if the very tight siege imposed on the Gaza Strip will be relaxed or ended and if reconciliation will take place.14
The Oslo Accords provided the setting for the marginalization of PLO institutions and the launching of a new phase that entailed prioritizing the construction the institutions of the Palestinian Authority as the nucleus of the hoped-for Palestinian state. The experience of nearly a quarter of a century of bilateral negotiations (under US sponsorship) since the Oslo accords in 1993 was enough to show the Palestinian people that they had lost their main unified and unifying national institution (the PLO) without gaining an independent state, as Israel continue to colonize their land and ignore their basic rights.
The fragmentation of the Palestinian political field is evident in the following phenomena:
The Vanishing Chances for an Independent Palestinian State
One of the most striking signs that accompanied the fragmentation of the national political field has been the decline in the chances of establishing an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital on the borders of the Palestinian 1967 occupied territories, without prejudice to the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. It is now clear to many that the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the near future is no longer possible under the existing local, regional, and international conditions. This is partially due to the marginalization of effective national institutions, and consequently, the absence of a credible and legitimate leadership that can mobilize Palestinians in their various communities in their struggle for national freedom.
The existing local political elites have been busy managing the ongoing repercussions of the split between Fatah and Hamas into two “authorities,” one in the West Bank and the other in the Gaza Strip. Because of this, and because of the expected measures of the Israeli occupation, presidential and Legislative Council elections are long overdue. Therefore, the trend towards determining the march of each of the various Palestinian communities in isolation from each other has strengthened to the point of posing an existential threat.15
Palestinians in the 1948 occupied territories (i.e., Palestinians with Israeli passports), who were disregarded by the Oslo Accords, set out to develop the High Follow-up Committee for the Palestinian Masses with the aim of giving themselves a role in voicing the interests and rights of Palestinians in Israel.16 This was accomplished following the Palestinian Arab political parties’ formation of a unified electoral list to participate in the Knesset elections in 2015. The political future of the list is not clear, as it may fail to develop into a unified political leadership, or it may succeed in developing itself as a successful formula that can be followed by Palestinians in other communities.17 In Jordan, there are no specific unifying institutions for Palestinians (including for non-naturalized Palestinians), nor do these exist in Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf States, Europe, or the Americas. In other words, Palestinians in these communities suffer from a lack of formal bodies, frameworks, and institutions that represent their interests and give them a voice in national affairs.
The absence of institutions and representative bodies that enjoy national legitimacy has meant that individuals without authorization, authority, oversight, or accountability take decisions on national issues outside representative and democratically formed institutions. This was an earlier tradition that existed in the 1970s and 1980s, but was somewhat circumscribed by the existence of national institutions and multiple political parties. The difference from the previous era is that decisions in the current era are taken directly by individuals who ignore the decisions taken by institutions that claim to be representative and legitimate. Examples include the numerous resolutions taken to end the split between Fatah and Hamas and the repeated resolutions by named bodies of the PLO (the Central Council and Executive Committee) to halt security coordination with Israel. These are “resolutions” endorsed by Fatah central bodies and seconded by many partisan and civil forces, but to no avail.
Dependence on External Transfers and Security Services to Maintain the Continuity of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip “Authorities”
The fragmentation of the national political field and the weak, truncated, and fragile economies of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which were (and still are) kept under the control of the settler-colonial state (Israel), dictated the dependence of Fatah and Hamas on external sources of transfer in running their self-rule administrations. This has also meant that both regions are permanently vulnerable to a high rate of unemployment and impoverishment. The dependence on foreign aid and external transfers has also kept the Palestinian Authority exposed to political extortion from donors (including the colonial state) and at the mercy of external transfers. In a way the monthly securing of external income has become one of the main concerns of both Fatah and Hamas, as well as the concern of a large number of civil society organizations.
This situation— in the Gaza Strip and to a significant extent in the West Bank—has increased the important role of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in alleviating poverty in the camps. UNRWA also symbolizes the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. Hence, there is a need to “thwart the plans of the United States and Israel to end the work of the agency, as a beginning and condition for ending the refugee file, Palestinians need UNRWA because of their need to maintain the refugee issue as the core of the Palestinian cause in all its ramifications.”18
One of the most striking aspects of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is the size of the security services and the role it has played, especially after the second intifada in 2000.19 Its role exceeds the maintenance of internal security, as it is mandated to dismantle the “infrastructure of terrorism” and subdue the sources of internal opposition. After 2007, Hamas security and military devices in the Gaza Strip have assumed the role of deterrent of Israeli military belligerence and war on the Gaza Strip but, in addition, they control the political freedom and the opposition to Hamas’s rule. In the West Bank, the security coordination between the Palestinian security forces and the Israeli security forces has been an important focus of the Israeli-Palestinian security relationship.20 This fact has provided real hindrances to the outbreak of a third popular Intifada, given the context of split between the Fatah and Hamas movements. The split has deepened the political, institutional, and geographic separation between the two regions, since the Gaza Strip, with one of the highest population densities in the world, is under siege militarily and economically, while the West Bank is fenced with colonial settlements and fragmented into “Bantustans” and “ghettos.”
The situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip remains explosive given the policy of colonization, collective repression, and the absence of hope for Palestinians to achieve statehood or self-determination in the near future. This is in addition to the prevalence of high rates of unemployment, especially among young people and graduates, and the widening of inequalities between the rich and the poor with the prevalence of conspicuous consumption under the authoritarian racist occupation.21
Significant Changes in the Class Structure of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip
The fragmentation of the political national field was accompanied by changes in the class structure, especially in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip where the Palestinian Authority was erected. A large middle class (those who possess cultural and educational capital) emerged as the Palestinian Authority had to build its various institutions and agencies (educational, health, social services, security, and other governmental types). With the Palestinian Authority, a new service economy (telecommunications, insurance, import and export) developed, together with new banks and currency exchanges, and an increase in the number of NGOs devoted to service delivery and advocacy, all of which offered middle-class types of occupations, in contrast to the traditional petty bourgeoisie who had owned or run small businesses and properties. The relative size of the working class has declined as restrictions on employment in Israel have increased. It is necessary to note the qualitative differences in the working conditions and circumstances of each of the two classes, which is not discussed in this paper.22
In the areas where the Palestinian Authority had relative control (given the dominance of Israeli colonial rule), a new type of businessmen, with domestic and foreign capital, grew in the context of neoliberal capitalism, which regarded the private sector as the motor of economic and social “development.” Under this directive, investments in the private sector, especially in the financial, real estate, and commercial fields, have been encouraged by the Fatah and Hamas elites. The administrative, economic, political, and service center of the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah-Al-Bireh-Bitunia, has undergone a construction boom, particularly vertically and, to a lesser degree, horizontally, as the building mandate of the Palestinians is confined to areas “A” and “B” which jointly comprise 38 percent of the West Bank. This boom in building construction, especially after the second Intifada, has resulted in two-thirds of the inhabitants of Ramallah and its environs being in the new middle class and has generated needs to cater to a middle-class lifestyle.23
The fact that a very large segment of the middle class depends, directly and indirectly, for its livelihood on the Palestinian Authority and the modern sector of the economy that it brought with it, makes this middle class aware of the risks it will face should the Authority collapse or dissolve. This is so despite the fact that Palestinians, including the middle class, know that the chances of establishing an independent Palestinian state are nonexistent in the foreseeable future. The middle class is also aware that a narrowing of the scope of freedom has taken place, particularly after the split between Fatah and Hamas and will continue to be so should they reconcile.
Large segments of Palestinian workers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip remain vulnerable to unemployment, impoverishment, low wages, sickness, and disability because of the fragility of the economy in these areas and the decreasing employment opportunities for the increasing number of young people who enter the labor force annually. Israel closed its labor market completely for workers from the Gaza Strip, and destroyed large parts of the Strip’s infrastructure in the three wars between 2008 and 2014. During these years, less than 12 percent of the Palestinian labor force (all from the West Bank) was employed (with permits and without) in the Israel labor market. The political repercussions of having a large section of educated young people unemployed and without prospects for a decent future should be taken seriously. The situation is likely to get worse as the opportunities for decent employment rise, while the level of repression from the colonial power and the local authority increases.
Both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have seen structural inequalities within and between them widen. Inequalities have intensified between areas, villages, towns, and camps, as well as between social classes. Conspicuous expressions of wealth have invaded public space (villas, luxury cars, expensive restaurants, and luxury hotels).
The two separate self-rule authorities that emerged in West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 2007 developed as bureaucratic authorities with excessive staff. More importantly, under the conditions of assuming a “state” structure” while under colonial dominance, a kind of ethos peculiar to the office “employee” developed prematurely in both authorities. This replaced the ethos of the militant freedom fighter of the pre-Oslo period. Although the Fatah and Hamas movements defined themselves as national liberation movements, in reality both movements assumed the postures of “governments” with hierarchical institutions and rigid bureaucratic systems. This ethos and reality could not be an incubator of a third Intifada. They could not promote a new form of collective resistance given the dominance of a neoliberal discourse and the rise of a culture of egoistic individualism and consumerism, particularly within the middle class and business circles. Such a culture was not known in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip before Oslo. Nevertheless, forms of resistance at local and individual levels that can develop into collective forms should not be ruled out, such as the popular protests against Israeli attempts to control the Aqsa Mosque during the summer of 2017 showed. This remains likely especially where direct confrontation with Israeli soldiers and settlers exists—despite the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli security coordination—particularly given the intensive collective repression exercised by Israel, the harassment and daily attacks by settlers against the Palestinians in the West Bank, and the intentional starvation siege on the Gaza residents.
Dominance of Distorted Discourse on Palestinian History, Geography, Demography, and Struggle for Freedom
The existing dominant international and Arab political and diplomatic discourse on the Palestinian question, as well as that of Palestinian official and nongovernmental institutions, significantly distorts the history, geography, demography, and struggle of the Palestinian people.24 This discourse tends to reduce Palestine to the West Bank and Gaza Strip (i.e., the 1967 occupied territories). This was what the United Nations General Assembly acknowledged as the borders of the Palestinian state, what the PA demanded, and what 2002 Arab Peace Initiative proposed. In 1993, the PLO leadership recognized Israel’s right to exist in return for recognition by the Israeli government of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, and not in return for the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, the right of refugees to their homeland and the right to an independent, sovereign state.
This distortion in the narrative was accompanied by a discourse that dates the emergence of the Palestinian question to June 1967, the year that Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This narrative had a clear political function: it rendered completely irrelevant the history of the British colonial domination of Palestine and the Zionist colonization of the country that resulted in the displacement of the Palestinian people and the creation of the state of Israel on Palestinian soil. It also disregarded the issue of Palestinian refugees. Thus, the Palestinian right to return is blurred, and the long struggle of the Palestinian people for their freedom, self-determination, and return to their homeland is disregarded.
In the same context, the current dominant discourse defines the Palestinian people as those residing in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, when it is worth noting that the population proportion of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip does not exceed 39 percent of the total population of the Palestinian people. Such discourse excludes Palestinians in the diaspora. It is likely that the main function of this reduction is to market the idea that the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (or on parts of these) would mark the end of the conflict with Israel and Zionism.25
The current political discourse on the Palestinian question is solely a question of a people living under occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The other dimensions of the question have been sidelined.
Adoption by Political Elites of a “State of Denial” Attitude
One of the illusions that continues to be heavily promoted by Palestinian, Arab, and international political classes holds that the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state on the borders of the Palestinian 1967 occupied territories with Jerusalem as its capital, while preserving the Palestinians’ right to return, remains a realistic and achievable project. This is an illusion that completely ignores what has been taking place on the ground, such the building of colonial settlements, the reality of the Segregation Wall, the imposition of a system of apartheid, arbitrary detention, and collective punishments, the subjection the people of the Gaza Strip to war and siege, and the implementation of a system of slow ethnic cleansing on the population of Jerusalem. In 2012, the percentage of Jewish settlers in the West Bank exceeded one-quarter of its Palestinian Arab population, and the settlements completely encircled Palestinian cities and villages.26 This illusion has been tied to the illusion of establishing an independent Palestinian state through bilateral Palestinian-Israeli negotiations or through the internationalization of the Palestinian issue. It is also tied to a proposition that “sustainable Palestinian development” is not only possible, but also attainable, despite Israel’s control of borders, resources, trade, roads, and the movement of goods and people.
Under the illusion that the Palestinian state is imminent, the Palestinian political class has become obsessed by state symbols and titles (president, prime minister, minister, undersecretary, advisor, general manager, military and security officers, etc.), and to feed this illusion, many civil institutions and NGOs have emerged with the purpose of making recommendations on various matters to Palestinian “decision-makers.”27 The denial of reality has become embedded in the discourse of the political class. Strategy has been reduced to negotiations or diplomatic contacts conducted in closed rooms by individuals who are not elected, or whose election is very much overdue. For Hamas, “resistance” has become its mantra and it is reduced to one type and assigned to specific trained individuals while the public are expected to voice support and show steadfastness when Israeli initiates a full-scale military invasion or aggression. The successful experience of the first intifada has been ignored.28
Palestinian politics has been reduced to a series of meetings and negotiations attended by a small number of individuals representing political parties (mainly Fatah and Hamas). The task of rebuilding and revitalizing national institutions on representative and democratic bases has been replaced by the task of constructing self-government institutions and apparatuses that are controlled by persons in the leadership of the one of the main two political parties in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Civil society has been reduced to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and democracy to its procedural component, that is, to rare, periodic general elections without accountability and the necessary separation between the executive, judiciary, and legislative powers.
Aggravation of the Situation of Most Palestinian Communities
As the Palestinian political field became frail and then fragmented, most Palestinian communities inside and outside Palestine became vulnerable to political, economic, and some existential dangers. This aggravation became noticeable soon after the PLO’s departure from Beirut in 1982. Very soon after that, the massacre of Sabra and Shatila took place. In 1984 and 1985, armed belligerence and besiegement were imposed on a number of Palestinian camps in Lebanon. The first intifada (which started in late 1987) saw multifarious Israeli repression directed against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who rebelled against the military occupation and called for its end. The early 1990s saw the collective expulsion of the Palestinian community from Kuwait, and Palestinian communities in Iraq and Libya and all the camps in Lebanon and in Syria (after 2011) were subjected to various measures of repression and discriminatory treatment. The West Bank towns were reinvaded in 2002, and a military blockade was imposed on the Palestinian leader, Arafat, in his residence in Ramallah. Gaza Strip saw a strict siege imposed on its population in 2006, and Israel waged war on it in 2008, 2012, and 2014. The last decade has seen a number of discriminatory laws passed against Palestinians in Israel. A slow process of ethnic cleansing is being enforced on Palestinians in Jerusalem in the context of Judaizing the city and driving its Palestinian inhabitants out. Large numbers of Palestinians who are Jordanian citizens feel they are treated as second-class citizens because of their Palestinian origin.29
CONCLUSION: THE NEED TO BUILD A PALESTINIAN POLITICAL FIELD ON NEW BASES AND CONCEPTS
The nonexistence of a national field means the absence of a functioning national state and/or the absence of a viable national liberation movement, and this is where Palestinians stand now. However, Palestinian patriotism continues to be very much alive because of the vitality and dynamism of the Palestinian cultural field, as it is best suited to record and relate what is happening in the various Palestinian communities. It is the continued vitality of Palestinian patriotism that can be counted on to generate a new national political field outside the prevailing political banality of the current Palestinian factions.
What is taking place in the Palestinian cultural field deserves much more attention than it has received since the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization, particularly recent endeavors to overcome the “factionalism text” and to discard the logic that rejects the calls for renewal and democracy.30 Attention should be given to the newly formulated concepts of the unity of the Palestinian people, including calls to rebuild a new liberation organization or to renew the PLO so that it democratically represents all the constituents of the Palestinian people and to redefine the role of the Palestinian Authority in the context of the tasks of a renewed national liberation movement.31
Research and think tanks need to pay attention to the activities of cultural and intellectual activities on both sides of the Green Line and outside of historic Palestine, and take notice of impact of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. It is also worth noting the ongoing coordination of activities taking place among Palestinian NGOs inside and outside historic Palestine. There are also the doings of dozens of associations, committees, unions, centers, and associations that engage in defending the right of return and keeping it alive among the younger generations.32 We need to document the diversity of output of Palestinians in different cultural fields (cinema, singing, dance, novels, short stories, poetry, fine art, theater, crafts, historical research, journalism, etc.) and the public reception of these activities. In this field, a significant turn has occurred in the last two decades. In addition, Palestinian participation in social media needs to be noticed. What is disseminated on social media and the internet reveals what the various Palestinian communities are experiencing in terms of discrimination, deprivation, as well as the various forms of resistance used to combat repression, occupation, discrimination, and exclusion.33
Reviewing the march of the Palestinian political movement and the prospects of its future suggests a need for a new understanding of political action that is radically different from the elitist understanding that has prevailed and continues to be maintained. Such awareness is emerging among Palestinians in the 1948 occupied territories, who are beginning to realize that coexistence with a racist regime and working within institutions of a state that insists on identifying itself and on being recognized as a Jewish state while claiming to be democratic at the same time is impossible. This state Jewish identity demands from the Palestinian people to be acknowledged as such which amounts to a denial of their historic, national, and human rights, a denial in fact of their own historic narrative.34 The democratic awareness of the scope of political action is becoming more extensive in Palestinian society in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as people there witness the wretchedness of the existing political elites that generated the split and their failure to advance the rights and interests of the Palestinian people with its various constituents.
It is the Palestinian communities’ right and duty to take part in the formulation of national policies. It is also their right to have the first word concerning their specific situation, and to reject the “democracy” of the elite, which has meant a monopoly by a few individuals to decide the fate of the majority and to speak on behalf of the main constituents of the Palestinian people. It is the right and the duty of all the Palestinian people as a whole to reject any settlement project put forward by one community that endangers the rights and interests of the other communities. Therefore, the structure of the new political field (the new PLO) to be rebuilt must not be hierarchically formed, but rather it should be formed to represent the rights and interests of each Palestinian community or component and the Palestinian whole at the same time. Although the construction of a new national political field has become very difficult because of the interests generated by certain strata and their fear of the results of political democracy. It is wise to take “initiatives and popular steps, through the formation of popular committees and local leadership frameworks with the participation of as many forces and members of society as possible, where its institutions manage the conflict with the occupier.”35 In other words, what is required, objectively, is the restoration of the Palestine Liberation Organization as a national liberation movement based on comprehensive representational democratic foundations.36
The reconstruction of a new national political field or the rebuilding of the PLO, according to the above stated criteria, aims at ensuring the representation of the different components of the Palestinian people and its political, ideological, and social orientations in democratically national institutions. This is the basis of the commitment of all to a comprehensive political and social contract, and the rejection of a supposed contradiction between the aim of national liberation (i.e., the struggle for self-determination) and the values and principles of deep democracy (such as the embodiment of the values of freedom on the basis of equality and social justice). Those values hold high the best that is embodied in the heritage of the Palestinian people with their long and rich history of struggle. They do not suppose that resistance to a totalitarian movement is in opposition to the values of freedom, equality, and social justice.