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Palestine: the other schism

While the Western world was marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank were taking matters into their own hands, physically breaking through two sections of Israel’s Separation Wall in Ni’lin and Qalandia. As this was happening Ramallah’s political elite was busy digesting and assessing the latest developments with regard to Mahmoud Abbas’ future, the official peace process, and prospects for elections.

There could be few starker illustrations of the way in which the priorities, methods and assumptions of the PA and PLO leadership diverge from, and are being challenged by, growing grassroots activism in the Occupied Territories and internationally.

One of the most notable developments on the ground in recent years has been the emergence of community-based nonviolent resistance groups focused on Israel’s Separation Wall. Popular committees in various West Bank villages, acting under the auspices of the Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, have for years been holding weekly demonstrations against the Wall. Places like Bil’in, Jayyous, Ni’lin, Budrus, Aboud, al-Ma’sara, and al-Khader have been the testing ground for this kind of popular resistance, which in some ways is a throwback to the methods employed in the first Intifada in the late 1980s. Local leaders have been targeted by the Israeli military for harassment, violent assault and detention. Nineteen Palestinians have been killed during these demonstrations.

In parallel, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement was born and has grown. Called for by a large cross-section of Palestinian civil society in 2005, it has since been taken up by solidarity groups worldwide in a variety of forms, while on the ground, a diverse coalition – including political factions, trade unions, and activists – makes up the BDS National Committee.

Neither the anti-Wall nor the BDS campaigns are PA or PLO initiatives. Indeed, the relationship between these grassroots movements and the leadership has sometimes been strained. In his address to the Fourth Bil’in International Conference on Non-Violent Resistance in April, local leader Iyad Burnat pointedly, if diplomatically, urged the PA to work more closely with and provide material support to the “citizens’ resistance”.

But expectations are low on that front, and activists have been further disappointed by the PA/PLO’s failure to capitalise on the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion in 2004 that the Wall was in breach of international law.

Parting ways

There is, of course, a context for the current state of affairs: the transformation of the PLO from a national liberation movement into a pseudo-government with the trappings of statehood. The language and paradigms of “resistance” and “liberation” were replaced by a dependency relationship on international donors and an open-ended peace process.

The peace process never had “to be actually moving towards statehood,”remarks Ali Abunimah, activist and co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. “It was about appearance, keeping on track; a vague language that invoked movement.” The difference now, he maintains, “is that they can’t even fake movement.” One consequence of this has been to highlight the differences in approach, methodology, and assumptions between the PA/PLO leadership on the one hand and the grassroots activism/BDS movement on the other. The two sides are clearly divided over broad questions of legitimacy, accountability and democracy.

But the PA leadership and the grassroots also diverge in their understanding of how pressure can be applied to help the Palestinian cause. “The biggest gap right now,” according to Birzeit sociologist Lisa Taraki, “is when we talk about strategy and how to achieve justice in the end.” Abunimah puts it more starkly: “There is no room for BDS and popular resistance in the PA/PLO paradigm. They are actually opposed to it, since their commitment is to manage Palestinians under occupation.” Taraki argues that an “economic boycott, especially of settlement products” is not entirely incompatible with the PA’s political strategy, but concurs that “the logic of BDS in general is not compatible with the logic of negotiations.” This need not necessarily be the case. Taraki notes that BDS can actually be used to further meaningful negotiations, as in the case of South Africa. But in practice, “the PA has not yet decided to choose the path of pressure.” It thinks solely in terms of diplomatic pressure: of the kind that the US, or failing that the UN or EU, might be persuaded to exert on Israel. Popular pressure as presented by the BDS movement – wielded through unions, federations, students, organisations – is completely different.

A third important difference is in the articulation of political demands. While the Palestinian political leadership continues to speak in terms of nationalism and a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, the discourse emerging from the popular resistance in the Occupied Territories, and particularly the global BDS movement, is far more focused on the question of rights. This does not mean that the latter is monolithically supportive of a one-state solution. Many Palestinian leaders or groups supportive of popular resistance and the BDS campaign have been careful not to align themselves in this debate, even if some important intellectuals have done so. Taraki describes this as “one of the thorniest issues” that the campaign “hasn’t been forced to face yet.” But it is not necessarily a weakness: the language of rights is deliberately inclusive of both positions.

State of flux

However, there is a danger of overstating the actual impact of popular resistance and international solidarity on Palestinian policy.

Analyst Mouin Rabbani thinks its influence on official decision-making is minimal. Abbas’ u-turn over the Goldstone report, for example, had “nothing to do with public opinion” but resulted from pressure from Fatah’s Central Committee and the PLO’s Executive Committee, whose members felt compromised by his initial stance. The “real decision-makers” in Palestinian politics remain the politicians and factions, especially Fatah. Without denigrating the upsurge in international Palestinian activism, or the work of people in civil society and popular committees in Palestine itself, neither can achieve much in the absence of a political leadership “capable of mobilising this vast potential of support and investing it politically.” All that can be hoped for are “small victories here and there without
ultimately making much of a difference.”

Others, like Abunimah, question whether the activists should focus at all on influencing the policies of a leadership they consider to be unreformable.

Palestinian politics and the national movement are in a state of flux and transition. The question of “what comes next” as the PA crumbles in terms of legitimacy and possibly even structure, cannot ignore the vacuum created by what Abunimah describes as the “deliberate destruction by the Oslo class of whatever representative structures existed for Palestinians.”

There are calls for root-and-branch reform of the PLO in order to rebuild a representative, legitimate body that can speak on behalf of Palestinians in the diaspora and refugee camps, inside Israel, and in the Occupied Territories. This sounds appealing, but would be a massively daunting undertaking in practice.

Meanwhile, groups like the popular committees in the West Bank, Palestinian civil society, and the global BDS campaign form an increasingly confident and creative movement focused on rights, albeit one that is highly decentralised and has yet to develop a coherent message and voice.

First published in Middle East International, Vol. II, Issue 2, pp.29-31

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