Palestinian unilateral implosion
The Palestinians should quit governing themselves to the benefit of their colonial master and instead leave the political and financial burden to the state of Israel, where legally it lies, writes Adam Shapiro*
Israel has announced its plans for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the impending visit of Ehud Olmert to the White House designed to furnish official US endorsement for the new prime minister and his plan of unilateral "withdrawal", it seems sure that Israel will move forward in establishing what it will consider permanent borders. The "withdrawal" from Gaza last August was in a sense a testing ground, of Israeli reaction (both among settlers and non-settlers), Palestinian reaction (both among officials and militant groups) and international dispositions. In all, the government of Israel was quite pleased with its efforts, the withdrawal seeming to vindicate then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's long-held view that there was no point in negotiations and that the Palestinians could be ignored altogether.
However, Gaza remains a prison, perhaps even more so than at any time when settlers held land in the Strip. Before even the election of Hamas and the subsequent cessation of international aid to the Palestinian people, Gaza faced serious humanitarian crises as a result of the strangling and destruction of the Gazan economy. Palestinian leaders of all political and factional stripes dealt with this situation in the only way available to them -- by calling for international assistance, pointing out the measures Israel was taking to make Gaza a living hell, and the absolute powerlessness of their position.
Fairly early on, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recognised the problem of closed borders, remaining on the ground to broker a deal. Yet as with most deals America has brokered between Israel and the Palestinians, the US neglected to follow through and ensure implementation, thus allowing Israel to stonewall and wait for any act of violence upon which to pin responsibility for its own inaction. Quartet Special Envoy James Wolfensohn was sent to the region to monitor the post-Gaza withdrawal and to try to bring international investment in Gaza. He quickly witnessed this long-standing Israeli policy and called it out, but by then his voice was marginal and his early resignation is indication of the powerlessness of anyone seeking to take on Israeli policy for creating facts on the ground.
Since Hamas won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories it has been under immense pressure to offer Israel recognition. Hamas has simultaneously rejected flat-out recognition while offering a number of unprecedented policy shifts, including spelling out terms for peace with Israel (certainly a form of tacit recognition). Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, has been largely absent from public view, perhaps willing to let the rival political organisation face the challenges of governance alone. However, those who are suffering the most are the Palestinian people, who are facing an economic and social crisis on a scale not seen since Al-Nakba -- the catastrophe -- when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to become refugees as a result of the 1948 war.
What responsible steps should the Palestinian leadership take in order to deal with this crisis? It has been suggested that it is time for capitulation and for Palestinians to forget their history and rights; that Israel's unilateral steps with American support, given the regional context of Iraq, Iran and oil prices mean the Palestinians have no options. Indeed, the primary strategy the Palestinians have pursued to date has been that of sumud (steadfastness) as a means of survival and gaining human and political rights. However, for both Fatah and Hamas today, sumud is being used to justify the continued existence of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA itself is a creation of the Oslo Accords, and was designed by Israel and the United States as a means of establishing an institution by which to bind Yasser Arafat and to outsource the costly aspects of comprehensive occupation (policing, municipal services, health care and education). As such, competition over ministries, budgets and political patronage, particularly given the last decade of corruption, seems a cruel joke at best and a second level of occupation at worst to most Palestinians.
The Palestinian political leadership instead should question the logic of what its role is today -- as gatekeepers of the Israeli occupation in an utterly powerless position. They are failing their own people as never before and are caught up in an internecine power struggle over the crumbs that Israel and the international community occasionally scatter. The victory of Hamas, in what were probably the fairest elections ever held in the entire region, has been used only for punitive purposes.
There is an option for the Palestinian leadership -- both Fatah and Hamas, and any other faction that recognises not only the failure of peace process but also the faultiness of the premises of prior negotiations. This option is self-imposed exile and strategic unilateral withdrawal from the occupation. By removing themselves from the dynamic by which Palestinian leaders have become prison guards for their Israeli jailers, Palestinians would be able to exercise initiative with regard to the conflict. By ending the PA and forcing Israel to pick up responsibility for the population under its control, Palestinians would force Israel to incur a serious cost for maintaining its occupation and unilateral policies. The international community would also be forced to question its own accommodation of and compliance with the occupation.
Palestinian leaders, removed from competing for meaningless positions, would instead face pressure and have the opportunity to unify their positions and efforts. Palestinian civil society and community associations, weakened considerably by the Oslo Accords, would have new motivation and opportunity to provide for the Palestinian people, while international civil society would have a more directed focus for its solidarity and assistance. Finally, the Palestinians would be able to develop a coherent strategy for negotiations rather than being bogged down and unable to fulfil impossible and constantly shifting demands primarily imposed by Israel and the United States.
Fifty-eight years after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee for their lives and found themselves refugees in foreign lands, the Palestinian leadership should choose exile as a means of strengthening their own position and changing a failed dynamic that has made them minders of their own imprisonment and destitution.
* The writer is co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Palestine.