The problem with Palestinian political leadership
For a few months now, discussion of Palestine/Israel has focused on the looming UN vote on Palestinian statehood, but this is obscuring more fundamental problems in the Palestinian political arena – of which the forthcoming UN vote is a symptom.
In three critical areas, there are significant flaws hampering Palestinian political leadership.
The first is a legitimacy deficit. Both the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and Hamas have, with the most generous interpretation, a minority mandate from the Palestinian people. The last elections of any sort took place in 2005-2006, and overdue local elections have been indefinitely postponed. And even if presidential or parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza were to take place tomorrow, they would still exclude Palestinian refugees. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) remains a potential vehicle for democratic decision-making, but serious reform is still not on the horizon.
The second critical problem is a lack of creativity and strategic thinking when it comes to tactics. This has a number of root causes which are beyond the scope of this article but the main point is a marked inability to adapt to circumstances with regard to the kind of smart resistance most appropriate for confronting Israeli colonisation. This is more than simply an issue of “violent” versus “nonviolent” (a discussion often plagued by patronising western double standards).
Fear of losing control over the course of events can be one factor inhibiting an openness to change – which brings us to the third problematic area: a focus on power for its own sake rather than for the achievement of a specific goal.
This criticism applies to both Fatah and Hamas, though the former has been guilty of it for a longer period of time and with more devastating consequences. Over the past five years or so, the conflict between these two factions has frequently resembled a fight for who can occupy the Bantustan palace, rather than who can serve most effectively the unfinished Palestinian revolution.
This fight for fake authority has resulted in a dangerous phenomenon: the harassment of youth activists (such as the 15 March movement) and dissidents in the West Bank and Gaza. The growing expressions of dissatisfaction, particularly from young Palestinians, have contributed to a hardening grip on power by two regimes that fear they stand to lose from an overhauled democratic system.
At the root of this is the Oslo Accords, 18 years old and still setting the parameters for official Palestinian efforts to realise “autonomy” in terms set by the occupier. “Liberation” was replaced by “authority” before any liberation had been achieved or any genuine authority was possible. The Palestinian Authority and the Oslo structure shifted the discourse over Palestine – both domestically and internationally – from a discourse of rights (right of return, liberation, decolonisation and self-determination) to one of statehood and independence.
As a consequence, basic rights became fodder for negotiations with those responsible for the Palestinians’ dispossession and colonisation, and popular resistance was hindered. For example, in the context of security co-operation with the Israeli military – and a growing number of protests in 2011 – the Ramallah leadership has made clear that it intends to police Palestinian demonstrations to keep them safely in urban West Bank enclaves.
Encouragingly, many Palestinian civil society groups are demonstrating vision, creativity and integrity: from the BDS movement and Gaza Youth Break Out, to Stop the Wall and other grassroots popular initiatives.
Yet there is no significant parallel in the political sphere – a failing that is a real impediment to Palestinians realising their rights. Even putting aside the problems with the unilateral UN initiative, it is clear that much bigger challenges remain.
Published first in The Guardian.