A restructured PLO
Without an organisation capable of representing all Palestinians, both in the occupied territories and the diaspora, the future can comprise little beyond internecine conflict, writes Azmi Bishara
The US and its Western followers revealed what democratisation of the Arab world actually means to them when they rejected the results of the Palestinian legislative elections and instead began an economic boycott. The result was escalating internecine violence fuelled by the lure of money.
The Mecca Agreement between Fatah and Hamas to form a unity government opened the horizon for a unified Palestinian strategy that would include the restructuring of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and that would compel Arab governments to face their obligations to press for an end to the blockade against the Palestinian people and for the implementation of The Hague ruling on the separating wall. Some pro-settlement Palestinians believed that the Mecca Agreement was aimed at containing Hamas and that since Hamas had agreed in principle then all that remained was to name Hamas's price. They thought a haggling process would drag on as the new Fatah-Hamas partnership stumbled from one crisis to the next while at the same time negotiations and communications would be conducted through diplomatic channels aimed at a permanent solution and these would require discussions between members of the unity government. There was, therefore, room for political action.
But the US and Israel were dead set against the Mecca Agreement. They saw it as a defeat for the forces within the Palestinian Authority (PA) in which they had invested such high hopes, one being that they would turn against Arafat. These forces, it is now apparent, accepted the agreement not because they liked it but because others in the PA felt that they could not take on Hamas in Gaza. The Mecca Agreement, then, was a way to put off the inevitable confrontation against Hamas. In the interval the PA would have to be funded through its executive branch while the presidency, the security agencies and the relationship between the two would have to be strengthened in preparation for the next elections or the next showdown. The US, meanwhile, knowing that to boycott the president of the unity government would drive Fatah closer towards embracing that government, came up with the notion of holding "theoretical talks", as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert termed them, over a permanent solution so that people would get used to hearing certain ideas -- the "hypothetical" relinquishment of the right to return and the "hypothetical" renunciation of Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. As long as everything was couched hypothetically it would be possible to keep a unity government intact with people in it advocating such ideas until they became perfectly normal.
In spite of the Mecca accord, on the very day of the 59th commemoration of the nakba -- the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the consequent dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians -- a Palestinian shot another Palestinian in Gaza. But this was nothing compared to what happened next. In the course of Hamas's attempts to pre-empt any possible action by forces opposed to the Mecca Agreement undermining the unity government and delivering a debilitating blow to Hamas, the movement's field operators indulged themselves in a spate of retaliatory violence that surpassed in bloodthirstiness anything their leadership could possibly justify.
Call Hamas's actions a coup, if you like. The decrees that followed, however, were nothing less than a complete overthrow of the elections that had brought Hamas into power in the first place. Worse yet, the forces that broke with Hamas after these decrees were issued pushed for escalation. These are the forces that vanish in times of unity and thrive in times of strife, and they want to see a tighter economic stranglehold on Gaza and an easing of conditions in the West Bank so that people will draw the comparison between the "successful" recipient of outside financial aid and provider of public services and the boycotted "failure" in Gaza, paying the price for its refusal to accept Israel's conditions. For some reason former US special envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross, after having heard this scenario from second-rank Fatah officials and from sources in west Jerusalem, felt it would inevitably play out. He wrote about it in the Washington Post of 5 June. But even the thoroughly pro-Israeli and anti-Arafat and anti-Syrian Ross had reservations.
Apart from voiding the Palestinian cause of any substance beyond the rivalry between two entities, one of which will have the screws of the vice tightened because it needs to learn its lesson, the other having the good fortune to take part in delivering this lesson, the strategy leads to other nightmare scenarios: the starvation of people in Gaza while PA offices in the West Bank drown in money; the loss of a single agency representing all the Palestinian people and a rise in attacks against Israel following the principle of "as long as the roof's caving in, I'll make sure it crashes down on the heads of my enemies too".
What does the right of return and Jerusalem have to do with all of this?
Is the right of return to become the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their camps after the fighting ends? Is the question of Jerusalem to be reduced to the right of its Arab residents to vote for Ehud Barak as the next Labour Party chief, as they did in the party's preliminary elections, leading a Barak aide to remark, "Too bad we didn't kill more Arabs so we could have gotten more of the Arab vote."
No amount of political pragmatism can justify this collapse in morals and morale. What counts now, more than ever, is will power. Either the Palestinians summon the resolve to unite under the PLO and other frameworks or they resign themselves to total disintegration and the above-mentioned scenarios.
Gaza is not just an occupied territory, whether defined geographically, historically or demographically. Nor is what is happening in Gaza a power struggle between rival factions. To reduce the situation to those terms is metaphysical hogwash. Gaza is the largest refugee camp on earth. The violence that has erupted inside it is not dissimilar to a prison riot, and the dynamics of the factional rivalry has much in common with pecking order battles among inmates to determine who gets to speak to the wardens on behalf of other inmates.
Somewhere on the way to this fracas the national liberation movement lost its identity. The Palestinians became a "party" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the beginning of the Palestinian cause was postdated to 1967 instead of 1948 and recast as a territorial dispute; and the cause, itself, lost its ethos as a national liberation movement. To refugees in Gaza and the camps in Lebanon this latter means one thing -- the right to return. As a result large numbers of people who would not benefit from, would even be harmed by, the so-called peace process have lost all sense of direction and are caught between the moral degeneration of those leaders who put considerations of status and the material welfare of their own families first, and the rigid fundamentalism of others. Moral decay on one side, fundamentalism on the other is symptomatic of a national liberation movement that has lost sight of its goals and failed to understand the dynamics of tensions at play inside a concentration camp.
Normally, national liberation movements can rejoice when they achieve their mission of independence and statehood and can set their struggle aside. For Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, though, it changes nothing if the West Bank becomes an empire and Gaza an Islamic republic. They'll still be left in the lurch when these states impose seeking to espouse an alternative legitimacy to that of the liberation struggle. Yet it would appear that something along these lines is in the mind of whoever is engineering developments in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians there, and along the banks of the Euphrates, are being told to rethink their cause in its entirety.
Since Oslo the Palestinians left in the ghettos of Gaza and the West Bank have been penned in behind an impenetrable wall, as if they were an alien lump and Israel the body warding off infection. But it is Israel that is the alien body, though this is not something people are supposed to see. Instead, they are expected to view Israel an authentic state with borders defined by the 1967 boundaries, despite the fact Israel occupies large swathes of land beyond these borders. As for the Palestinians, they are an ethnic minority demanding some rights -- freedom of movement, the right to buy and sell, the right to receive foreign aid. Accordingly, the West Bank is now to be severed from Gaza in people's minds. It will be granted its "rights" while Gaza will not. Such is the treatment in store for Israel's "subject peoples." Meanwhile, the cause of the refugees in Lebanon, Iraq and the rest of the diaspora does not even have a representative.
Ever since Oslo there has been a determined and systematic drive (or, by virtue of the creation of the PA, an unwitting and random process) to void the PLO of all meaning, substance, structure and power. It is as if the PLO was the queen bee: meant to give birth to the PA, sign the Oslo Accords and then die -- or be killed. It was probably for this purpose that Israel recognised the PLO in Oslo while Arab and non- Arab supporters of the settlement process played along. They adopted the PA as the representative of the Palestinian people and ignored the PLO, indifferent to the fact that the same faction -- Fatah -- controlled both. There was a pitiful and short-lived attempt to breathe life back into the PLO when that same faction tried to outwit the elections that gave rise to the Hamas victory. Posts and titles were taken off the shelf and dusted down but the result was to sideline the PLO even more. For a paltry few months it became a tool in the struggle against the PA and then was laid to rest again. Well before this, the titles and insignia of statehood were given great play. "President," "Minister," "National Security Chief" and other VIPs (Very Important Palestinians") abounded long before there was even a glimmer of independence and statehood.
After the meaning of a process that began in Oslo and ended with a Palestinian gunning down another Palestinian on the commemoration of the Nakba became impossible to deny, it also became impossible to disguise the nature of the PA and its historical role. Little wonder, therefore, that the Mecca Agreement called for the revival, expansion and restructuring of the PLO. But Arab decision-makers and the Arab media did not monitor the follow-through on this point of the agreement, regardless of it being one of the most crucial. It was a grave mistake to let the PLO die its slow death. But it would also be a mistake to bring it back from the dead as it was. If the PLO is to be revived, it must be done in light of new realities, a major one of which is that new and dynamic resistance forces are out there and have to be represented within the framework of any resurrected PLO.
Arab mediation will be indispensable in creating a new PLO. But mediation producing an understanding between Fatah and Hamas is not enough. As vital as the two movements will be to restructuring the organization they do not comprise the PLO. The PLO must be revived as an umbrella organisation for all Palestinians, including those in the diaspora. And it must be revived as a liberation movement, not to produce a PA clone, ie a local administration and policing agency meant to serve as the kernel for a Palestinian state, without Jerusalem as its capital, without the return of refugees and without the dismantling of all Israeli settlements.
Presumably, one of the first tasks of the new PLO's first elected National Council will be to conduct a thorough review of the peace process and the political consequences of its failure. As it engages in this endeavour representatives on the National Council will have to be very realistic. I mean by this that they must take to heart the fact that under current circumstances peace settlement is still a long way off. In the meantime they must do their utmost to safeguard Palestinian unity and the cohesive values of Palestinian society, which have been shaped by the aims and aspirations of the national liberation movement. Realism also means refusing to accept anything but a just peace with Israel, for otherwise the Palestinians' fate is disintegration as a people and a cause. Being realistic will entail hard work. It will require sustaining the struggle in a way that will not turn resistance into the permanent, the only possible, way of life.
It will simultaneously require satisfying the day-to- day needs faced by Palestinians in the territories. A national unity government can only succeed if it fully appreciates these are the tasks that fall to it. It must tend to education, health, the economy, the infrastructure, and leave the question of the success or failure of the settlement process to the PLO. Resistance is a long term strategy. The PA is charged with the proper organisation of the life of the people under its administration. If that is not how the PA perceives itself then the Palestinians would be better off without it. The PA, after all, was imposed by agreements that have proven misguided and which enabled the occupation power to wash its hands of any responsibility for the welfare of those under its occupation without first granting them liberation.