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The Palestinian Left

When the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Abu Ali Mustafa was assassinated in his Ramallah office in 2001, and Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze`evi was subsequently killed in retaliation, the PFLP were subjected to a level of media scrutiny rarely seen during the second Intifada. But aside from a few isolated incidents, the leftist groups have become increasingly invisible to mainstream analysts.

It is a far cry from the hijackings of the late 1960s, or the community-wide resistance of the first intifada. Now, all the talk is of the challenge posed by Hamas, and concerned parties from local activists in the West Bank to the US State Department scramble to adapt to the end of the era of Fatah dominance. Does this bipolar environment leave any role for the leftists, and if the answer is yes, are they up to the challenge?

The Presidential elections held across the Occupied Territories early this year were a useful indicator of the strength of various parties, but owing to the absence of Hamas, were also severely flawed as an accurate reading of popular sentiment. Combining the figure for Mustafa Barghouti (a ticket endorsed by PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the People’s Party, means that a quarter of the electorate opted for a ‘leftist’ vote.

Although this sounds promising, it was a different, though not disastrous picture, in the municipal elections held in May. About 20% of municipal councils have majorities from the Left or independents, against around half of councils being Fatah majority, and over a quarter for Hamas. Some opinion polls conducted this year, however, have estimated that all Palestinian leftist groups combined have the support of no more than 8% – and perhaps as low as 2.4% – of the public.

All the various statistics cannot hide the fact that the leftist groups face a fundamental problem related to their perceived irrelevancy and marginalisation in both the struggle against Israeli occupation, and internal Palestinian politics. A combination of factors has led to the current crisis. Firstly, on a global level, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and the end of the bipolar world of the Cold War, was a blow to the interests of many localized leftist groups, not only ideologically but also practically.

The demise of the Soviet Union deprived the Palestinians of a key backer of their struggle, and ushered in the age of the US as hyperpower. Reflecting on these events, PFLP-founder George Habash spoke of an unstoppable wave approaching – a tide of US global domination. For many Arabs across the Middle East, meanwhile, Islamism had now replaced socialism and pan-Arabism as an effective resistance to imperial interference.

These sweeping changes had repercussions in every local context, and Palestine was no different. Suddenly, groups like the PFLP found themselves struggling with increasingly vivacious Islamist groups, at the same time as the left’s ideological foundations had been shaken to their core. But there were also changes underway in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and colonization had gained a new face in the Oslo Accords.

Sitting in his home in Beit Jala, political analyst Khader Abu Abarra is critical of the left’s approach to Oslo. “The attitude of the left was ideologically ‘right’ but not pragmatic. They isolated and weakened themselves. Fatah, on the contrary, took all the positions, political and military”. Khader, who for many years was a prominent member of the PFLP and spent years in Israeli detention, notes the contrast with how Fatah and the left dealt with the new situation post-first Intifada: “I stayed 10 years in prison, and I have comrades from Fatah who went on to become ministers – they lived with me in the same prison cell!”

This decision to remain ideologically ‘pure’, but stay outside the political process, meant that groups like PFLP, unlike Fatah, were not able to invest gains made during the Intifada to their own advantage. Even if a critique of Oslo was, and remains, valid, the consequence of this principled rejectionism was that the left missed out on the benefits of pragmatic participation.

The third factor in explaining the current weakness of the left is the strength of Hamas. With the second Intifada if not over, at least mutating into a different phase, analysts are in a good position to assess the organization’s gains, both in terms of leading resistance and establishing a political power base. Hamas too, rejected the Oslo process, and stayed outside of the mainstream political institutions. But unlike the leftists, Hamas could draw on a reservoir of support from outside of Palestine, and were therefore not lacking in resources.

As the Palestinian Authority established a reputation for corruption and inefficiency, Hamas concentrated on building what was effectively a parallel ‘Authority’, with their own social institutions. Bethlehem councilor Zoughbi Zoughbi, a candidate who ran independently, though considered as Fatah, now works in a municipality with a strong Hamas presence. He has seen how the Islamists busied themselves with a level of welfare provision and community development that made aspects of their policies appear surprisingly socialist, “talking about the social needs before they moved to the political, after they had mobilized people”.

Having stayed outside of the new infrastructure of Oslo, Hamas also remained unaccountable, and free to criticize the PA from outside. They enjoyed the benefits of opposition parties the world over, and as Zoughbi points out, “it is easy to say, ‘God will do that, God will respond to that’”. This religious dimension points to a further impact of the rise of Hamas on the leftist groups, the withdrawal by some Christians from the political sphere.

The second Intifada assumed an Islamist dimension that distinguished it from the broadly secular first Intifada, when Palestinian Christians were individually and collectively part of the uprising. Now, according to Abu Abarra, the conflict “has the look of a fight between two religions, when in reality, the struggle is between occupier and occupied”, the upshot of which is that “the Christians have isolated themselves from the political struggle”. Since the main characteristic of the leftists was their ability to involve Christians politically, this has deprived the left of their main constituency.

This combination of factors – external support drying up with the end of the Cold War, the left remaining outside the Oslo process, and the rise of Hamas – has led to the situation today where the left can seem bordering on the politically irrelevant. Yet others are keen to highlight the cards still held by the leftists. Husam Madhoun, media and information coordinator at The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH), believes the left still has something valuable to offer.

“What the leftist parties represent today in Palestine is social conscience, another way of looking at things, an alternative. Their injection into politics, their feedback, and their role as watchdog, is very welcomed by the general public”. Husam also cites the left’s ability for perceptive analysis, to “have the best reading to certain crises”. But if the Palestinian left wants to avoid becoming more than glorified journalists, then work needs to be done. One of the major recommendations cited by every analyst is the need for the left to unite around common goals. Some speak of a new group in the making, a party that will be secular and democratic, drawing from ex-Fatah and the left, including, it is rumoured, Mustafa Barghouti and Yasser Abed-Rabbo.

Currently, however, this is just talk, and should not distract from more serious reappraisals that need to take place. Husam spoke derisively of the leftist electoral slogans that he says were just the “usual”: “From the leftists we want a social agenda, not things about Jerusalem, the ‘red lines’, and final status”. The leftists must think creatively and inventively, concentrating on the social agenda that, in theory, should be what distinguishes them from the other parties.

Time is short, and both Husam and Abu Abarra stressed the need for the left to engage in a major rethink of strategy and ideology. Husam reckons that the leftists must “work very hard to get their act together, setting immediate goals, and clarifying a revisionist ideology”. Abu Abarra feels that the left must become more pragmatic.
“They are very good analysts, but they are not providing the pills for the cure – I don’t see their affect on the ground. For example, during Oslo, there were many procedures of the PA that violated the rights of the people. What did the leftists do to prevent the PA violating human rights? They are only focusing on the political issues, and ignoring the internal issues”.

Abu Abarra still believes that the leftists are “a thousand times better than the others”, and in the Palestinian political context, the left have the potential to offer political integrity and resistance, as well as an alternative, progressive social vision, distinct from Fatah and Hamas. But every sign suggests that there is only a narrow window of opportunity for a resurrection, and limited time for the left to coalesce around common goals, and avoid a more fatal slip into the political margins.

Published in Palestine Chronicle.

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