Paralysis of false ‘either or’ strategies for Palestinian liberation
Is there a Palestinian strategy?
By Salim Tamari, Jadaliyya
A frequently asked question following the Arab Spring rebellions was why were the Palestinians left out? Why did they not join their Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni compatriots, and other Arab youth in seeking regime change? Why were there no re-enactments of the actions of the first Intifada of 1987, or of the second Intifada of 2000?
The short answer is that there was indeed a rebellion that went substantially unnoticed in the midst of neighboring Arab uprisings. Palestinian youth throughout the early spring of 2011 moved collectively in two directions. They occupied public squares in Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron, Jenin, and Gaza demanding an end to the division between Gaza and the West Bank, and demanded the reconciliation of the two parts of the national movement, Fateh and Hamas. They also moved in successive waves to confront settlers and soldiers in key areas throughout the cities of the West Bank and in the heart of Jerusalem.
But the major question remains unanswered because these protest groups do not, and did not then, amount to a mass movement and have in fact occurred in the context of a relative quietism, if not complacency, among the majority of Palestinians. Nor did they put forth any demand to bring down the government (“isqat al-nizam”) or even a regime change. It seems to me most Palestinians realize that both Haniyeh and Abbas* and (as well as Hamas, and Fateh) are themselves hostages of the Israeli regime of occupation, which they see as their main protagonist and tormentor.
There were, in fact, several proposals voiced in the local press. Some of them were coming from within the ranks of the Fateh Revolutionary Council calling for the dissolution of the PNA , and the transfer of power to the Israelis—thus “unmasking the colonial nature of Israeli control” as many delegates put it, as well as highlighting the emasculated capacities of the Palestinian Authority, and its ability to govern. What undermined this proposal were two factors—one was the fear that some local potentate, including some figures from within the national movement, would step forward and fill in the vacuum on behalf of the Israelis leading to a process of Somalization of the Palestinian territories. This concern echoed similar events in 1988-1990 when the Village Leagues became local surrogates of Israeli power prior to the Oslo Agreement. Within the ranks of Fateh, secondly, fears were expressed that the Hamas leadership might see the proposal for dismantling the authority as a failure not of the PNA but of the Fateh leadership and therefore an invitation for them to govern, as the ‘legitimately elected’ party.
At the heart of this dilemma, and the failure of a resistant strategy, lies a major consequence of the Oslo Accords—namely, the successful redeployment of the Israeli military government and the Israeli army and their relocation from inside the urban centers of Palestine, to peripheral nodes of control—-creating at the seams a formidable network of bypass roads, checkpoints, and the wall of separation. Within this network of control emerged the Palestinian authority in 1996, as the visible but unsovereign surrogate power. Thus, unlike the situation of the first Intifada, where civil disobedience was successfully directed at the occupation regime and its infrastructure—the new system of control—ushered since 1994 is insular, hidden, and is circumvented by a continued regime of indirect occupation masked by the security apparatus of the PNA. The hands of Israel shall be felt, but not seen, as … Moshe Dayan was fond of saying when he was Defense Minister.
Having realized these constraints and limitations, Palestinians living in the OPT also understand that a frontal confrontation with the army and the settlers would result in massive losses, without achieving any tangible results, thus leading to a situation where their resources have been depleted. This explains how the demands for regime change in Palestine were paralyzed by the absence of a meaningful alternative. And that is why many people, outside the Authority and within it, came to expect deliverance to come from external factors rather than from popular action.
But the external elements which the PLO and the PA (and in a different setting, within the Hamas government in Gaza) had depended on, have proven to be problematic. Both the Quartet and the US have demonstrated time and again that they are unwilling and/or unable to break the political stalemate by insisting on ‘continued negotiations’ between Palestinians and Israelis as a key platform for ending the deadlock. Continued and sustained negotiations became a hollow formula, now an American mantra, even when it was clear that Israeli used the negotiations as a cover for consolidating the building and extension of settlements.
An astonishing, and little noticed, news item appeared in mid-October just before the UNESCO vote in which the US warned Israel against the continuation of building a new settlement extension, Gilo, south of Jeruslaem. Such a move—the American ambassador asserted “would harm US efforts to thwart the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.” This line was enunciated in a meeting a week earlier between US envoy to Israel Dan Shapiro and Interior Minister Eli Yishai. (Note that the message of the US administration is communicated between the US Ambassaor and the Israeli ministry of Interior—not between the American envoy and the PM or the foreign minister, as is normal in state to state relations)
The Jerusalem District Planning Committee, according to Haaretz, announced at the end of September that it would approve the construction of 1,100 new housing units in Gilo, despite U.S. objections concerning any work that would expand the neighborhood further beyond the Green Line. The purpose of these expansions was to seal the last remaining gap which connects greater Jerusalem to the Arab areas in the West Bank.
What is striking about this statement is not US objection to the construction, but the rationale it brought against it. Namely, that it would undermine US efforts to thwart the bid for statehood at the UN Security Council. Thus under the Obama Administration the United States has culminated a progressive shift in its Middle East Policy, from one of mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict (at the Madrid Peace Conference), beginning with a call of return to the 1967 borders (UNSC Resolution 242); to calling settlement activity as being contrary to a peaceful resolution of the conflict; to settlements being “unhelpful”, and now– to settlement expansion as undermining the strategy to stop the Palestinian bid for statehood, in favor of “direct negotiations between the two parties.”
On the Israeli side the objective has been rather consistent. It was, in effect, to create irreversible facts on the ground through re-drawing boundaries, zoning laws, categories of residency and the physical movement of (Jewish) communities from Israel and abroad in order to create and buttress new settlements. The idea was to make any return to the 1967 boundaries physically impossible and politically unfeasible. This is a strategy of pre-emption that has been eminently successful and was able to impose a fait accompli on the Palestinian, with faint verbal protestations from the Europeans and the US. What is worse is that it succeeded in producing a colluding connivance from the Clinton administration and all successive US administrations since—“it is no longer practical to go back to the June 1967 borders”
It was this (belated) realization that the American position is a de facto endorsement of Israeli pre-emptive strategies that drove the Palestinian leadership, this September, to seek international redress at the UN in its bid for statehood admission. The move was seen as necessary to signal a shift from a strategy of dependence on American and European mediation, even though the chance of success for this bid are very slim. This is due to Palestine’s inability to muster the essential nine nation support and because of the inevitable American veto if such support is garnered. It is also supplemented by the fact that the European relative autonomy from American policy is not leading anywhere. The reasons stem from the inability of the EU to present a united foreign policy and the subordination of the Quartet, and its mediator Tony Blair—in Palestinian eyes–to US and Israeli diktat.
Against these conditions we witness new regional conditions that accompanied the Arab rebellions of this spring. Those include:
A new energized, but yet not stabilized Egyptian regime that is bound to lift the embargo against Gaza, and most likely to bring to end the isolation of the Hamas Government. This is offset by the decline of Syria as a logistic asset and patron of the Hamas leadership in Damascus.
The emergence of Turkey as a new regional economic power and political arbiter, drawing on its Ottoman heritage, who openly talks about a new Middle East that does not tolerate Israel’s continued intransigence. Despite the Mavi Marmara incident, we should not discount Turkey’s ability to continue as a mediating force in future negotiations with Israel. The AKP and Recip Tayib Ardogan himself, managed to placate the nationalist groups and anger the Muslim brothers at the same time by referring to the congruence of Islam and secularism, during his October visit to Cairo.
We should add to this the continued and significant differentiation within the European community on the need for intervention; with France, Spain, and Belgium (but not Sweden anymore) leading the pro-Palestinian forces, and Holland, Britain, and the Eastern Europeans veering towards the Israelis. Significantly, Germany and Italy have been vacillating on which role to play.
Finally the UNESCO vote, in early November, which brought in the UN as a significant arena in the struggle for Palestine, one which can play a crucial factor in mobilizing regional, European, and international actors (some of whom with critical clout on Israel) for intervention, and for creating an alternative to the hegemonic role of the UN and the paralyzed role of the Quartet.
These are the elements of the new regional forces, signifying the need for a new Palestinian strategy that is not dependent on the Quartet—or at least not dependent on the American-European initiatives within the Quartet.
But what would be an alternative strategy—if there is one– in the face of these overwhelming odds?
It is clear that Palestinians cannot produce miracles, and that the objective situation in the world today is lopsided against Palestinian aspirations. There are built in structural factors that mitigate against bringing in an early Israeli withdrawal. Most critical assessments have been referring to the crisis of leadership—one that is routed in factionalist politics, suffering from endemic corruption, and unaware of its own impotence. Yet, even though we are witnessing a crisis of leadership in Palestine, it is important to realize that the weakness of the leadership is the product, not the cause of these structural impediments.
To the extent that the Arab rebellions have triggered critical thinking about alternate strategies, both inside the country and in exile, this reflection is creating a new momentum with several trajectories. These trajectories, listed here at random, are obviously being led by various Palestinian groups, sometimes at odd with each other, and encompassing the PNA and its adversaries:
The need for reconciliation and unity between Gaza and the West Bank, and between Fateh and Hamas– as a condition to resolve the issue of representation—either through elections or through a coalition government.
There is a consensus on the futility of continued dependence on American mediation of the conflict, and the need to pursue their case within an international context that includes formal UN institutions, as well as seeking strategic alliances with key European states such as Spain, Belgium, and France.
There is an emergent strategy of confrontation with the settlements and settlers, against the building of the wall and for a sustained struggle against the land grab policies of the Israeli government. These struggles are taking place on a daily basis in Bil’in, in Qalandia, in Budrus, in Sheikh Jarrah, in Nabi Saleh, and in several other nodes of defiance. They belong to a movement that has been non-violent, focused and sustained. Its success, despite the campaign of vilification against the ISM **and other international and Jewish participants in it, has been largely due to its non-violent tactics. It effectively contains community activists, villagers and international supporters. It brought international attention to the predicament of Palestinians under occupation and highlighted the centrality of the land question in this struggle. This confrontational strategy, and its significant political results, should be compared to the futile and counter productive use of unguided rockets in Gaza against Israeli targets.
A significant dimension in this new strategy is the international campaign for boycott and divestment, which highlights the colonial nature of the Israeli regime and draws on a comparison with the apartheid system in South Africa. So far this campaign has had limited success. This is partly because Israel and its allies are able to muster a much more powerful machinery of opposition than Apartheid South Africa possessed—and also because the boycott campaign has failed to gain popular support inside Palestine, where the Palestinian economy is heavily dependent on, and is penetrated by, the Israeli market and Israeli commodities.
Finally, Palestinians realize that their protagonists are powerful and the system of occupation is formidable, but not invincible. Their political objectives require a policy of protracted struggle in which survival, resilience, and the building of local institutions of sustenance are crucial. In many ways this period recalls the conditions that sustained the first Intifada, both in tactics and objectives, despite the changed circumstances.
The problem today is that these types of struggles, diplomatic and activist-based, are undertaken by various segments of political currents and are often (falsely) portrayed as exclusive of each other. For example, there is a tendency to portray the international campaign for UN recognition in terms of an outdated negotiations strategy, and that the boycott campaign is predicated on seeking the creation of a single electoral solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Either you negotiate or your fight has been a recent posture. Either you struggle for a single all encompassing state in Palestine, or you succumb to a mini-state equivalent to a Bantustan status.
These are false alternatives—partly because they are not based on political options that the Palestinians can chose from. If the struggle for statehood within the 1967 borders is becoming increasingly elusive, we need to realize that the elusiveness is due to the manner in which Israeli expropriation of land and building of settlements have eroded territorial contiguity in a future Palestinian entity, and because it undermines the possibility of territorial sovereignty. If this is the case then the struggle for a single state in historical Palestine is doubly out of reach because it is predicated on the liquidation of the Israeli state and the creation a new constitutional entity with a supra-national character.
We should ultimately learn to combine modes of struggle that are realizable and have international legitimacy. These twin considerations are pivotal, and necessary for the long struggle ahead.
This is a transcript of a lecture given at The Palestine Center in Washington DC on 4 November 2011.
*Prime Minister of Gaza, President of Palestinian Authority, **International Solidarity Movement, ‘a Palestinian-led movement committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles’