Occupied Palestine: Prisoners, Colonial Elites, and Fundamentalists
Occupied Palestine: Prisoners, Colonial Elites, and Fundamentalists
In recent weeks in Palestinian politics, one thing is certain: Mahmoud Abbas's group has decided to either rule or ruin Hamas's victory.
Shocked, disoriented, and visibly outraged, the Fatah elite saw the election results as a total rebuff of their policies, practices, and conduct. Hamas, its main ideological and political rival, which had before shunned participating in Oslo-created institutions, had suddenly come to power and become a serious political force that had to be contended with. The Fatah elite's history of opportunism and denigration of popular sentiment meant, however, that it would not respect or support the newly elected Palestinian government. If before Abbas used his government office to try to curtail Arafat's robust presidential powers, now he is utilizing the presidency to do the reverse: the government's authority is daily undermined and its control of internal security prevented (an issue which had previously led to Abbas's own resignation during Arafat's tenure), and it is continuously pressured to accept Oslo and other Western diktats. As the New York Times put it, Palestinians are to be 'starved' for their choice (or 'sent to a dietician,' as senior Israeli government advisor Dov Weisglass put it -- all legitimate speak when it comes to Palestinians or other Arabs for that matter: one can in fact say nearly anything about Arabs these days and get away with it, like one did about Jews in the days of anti-Semitism). For the first time in Palestinian history, then, the specter of civil war is discussed, debated, and traded over openly and in public. This is what the Fatah elite calls the Algerian scenario: ignite a domestic confrontation with Hamas on a massive scale and oust it from power by force. There is nothing unique about Palestinians which make them immune from such an eventuality: with the interests of the colonial depraved elites so deeply entrenched (on which more later), anything is possible.
Rather than as an innocent measure of democratic accountability or public consultation, Abbas's call for a referendum should be seen in this context. Why, one wonders, demand a referendum on a document issued by a small number of prisoners only weeks after a successful and impeccably-run democratic election? It's certainly not because of an excessive investment in democracy on the part of the Fatah elite: Oslo itself and all of its subsidiary agreements were never even considered for public ratification. It's hardly realistic to think that a bureaucrat like Abbas has suddenly woken up to the joys of democratic accountability. No: Abbas is trying to use the referendum as a tool for delegitimizing the Palestinian government even further and discrediting its democratic constituency. What Abbas has done by invoking a referendum (for which there is no precedent or legal stature) is to instrumentalize the prisoners' document and use it as a political tool in order to inflict a political defeat on the Hamas government.
This, at any rate, is his intention. Whether he succeeds with this or not depends a lot on how Hamas decides to handle this challenge. Its initial response has been to accept the document but only as a basis for further national dialogue and discussion (which has, for now, failed to produce agreement). Though it is correct and reasonable for Hamas to worry about Abbas's referendum initiative, and to argue that the democratic legitimacy of the government is far greater than the words of a few non-elected albeit extremely popular group of prisoners, it is far from clear that Hamas should reject the referendum idea tout court and underestimate the significance of the document. The content of the prisoners' document is much closer to its own overall political positions than it is to Abbas's policies and objectives. Indeed, on many issues the document stands in strong contradiction to Abbas's own cynical practices of capitulation, dishonesty, and Western dependency.
It's worth looking at the prisoners' document in more detail. Its full title is: The Palestinian National Accord Document, and is signed by leading representatives of the five major Palestinian groups in the Occupied Territories and diaspora. They are: Marwan Barghouti (Fatah executive member and resistance leader), Sheikh Abdelkhalek al-Natshe (executive committee member of Hamas), and representatives from Islamic Jihad and both the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine. It has 18 main points and covers a whole spectrum of issues relating to occupied and exiled Palestinians ranging from internal Palestinian security issues, to institutional reform, resistance, refugee rights, and negotiations. The basic tone and register of the document is one of national unity. The document seeks to affirm the basic political rights of the Palestinians (the 'Palestinian fundamentals') and create a national consensus around pursuing them. It seems to be written in the spirit of a 'united front' alliance: a strategy based on agreement over common aims and objectives without forgoing the legitimate right of political and ideological contestation. Clause 14 clearly states that internal conflicts are constitutive of unity so long as they are resolved peacefully, politically, and legally. This indeed is a clear message against civil-war mongering and internal violence, and a strong affirmation of the value of dialogue, discussion, and contestation (including demonstrations) in the resolution of conflicts and political differences within the alliance. Indeed, the document is fundamentally democratic, affirming democratic elections and accountability as the best means of conducting Palestinian politics. And this is one major reason why the Palestinian government has nothing to fear by signing onto its recommendations. Even though the document clearly allows Mahmoud Abbas to pursue a negotiated, diplomatic course with Israel (which, incidentally, is doomed to be sabotaged by the new Israeli unilateralists), and implicitly approves of the Arab peace initiative of Beirut 2002, it also clearly stipulates that any major end-of-conflict agreement is subject to PLO approval (which would by then include Hamas and Jihad) and popular ratification. The document also clearly suggests that any future 'fateful' referendum won't only be open to occupied but also to exiled Palestinians. The prisoners' document is thus an important political precedent, which celebrates popular Palestinian sovereignty as the ultimate arbiter of national goals and programs and sees popular political participation and mobilization as fundamental values in Palestinian politics. It also envisages a reactivation of the Palestinian diaspora and the boosting of international solidarity campaigns around the world. The document also clearly affirms the refugee right of return as a basic tenet of Palestinian nationalism, which is not to be abandoned or negotiated over with the Israelis.
The prisoners also call for the end of the Israeli occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital, thus abiding by international laws and resolutions over Palestine. It thus effectively endorses a two-state solution as the minimum precondition for beginning to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It also clearly calls for the continuation of resistance against the occupation, along with negotiation and diplomacy, until withdrawal is secured. Clause 3 thus has a broad conception of resistance, which is military as well as popular, and focused, crucially, in the occupied areas of 1967, i.e. the clause implicitly shelves suicide bombings against civilians in Israel as a legitimate form of violence. The prisoners clearly do not think that relying on diplomacy alone is the way forward for achieving Palestinian national aims. There's much emphasis in the document not only on political unity but also on unifying the resistance forces: they even go so far as to call for the creation of a Palestinian Resistance Front to coordinate all action against the occupation forces. The right of resistance thus plays a central role in the broad program of Palestinian unity that they are advocating.
In brief, then, the document strongly and unquestionably affirms all Palestinian rights (of self-determination, return, and resistance) and calls for a unity government to withstand the pressures of political and economic siege and international boycotts. It also clearly affirms democracy and democratic representation as the only means of resolving internal conflicts and of moving forward as a nation. The prisoners also recommend that Hamas and Jihad join the PLO as permanent members, making the PLO again the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Considering how significant, robust, and ambitious in scope and outlook the document is, disagreements about it seem a trifle. What's important is whether Abbas and his group are really interested in utilizing it to reach a fair and workable agreement with Hamas (which is clearly doubtful), and whether Hamas itself is capable of overcoming its own cloistered religious outlook and of taking clear and decisive decisions in the political sphere, which is far from clear.
Hamas seems strangely committed to the notion that Palestinian land itself somehow carries its own religious affiliation, i.e. that it is sacred Islamic waqf property that lies above the sphere of political contestation. But that just sounds like the Zionists who claim Palestine as Jewish 'promised land.' Land is land: to be divided, shared, ruined, corrupted, or productively and justly utilized. Islamizing it is just as retrograde ideologically as Judaizing it. Doesn't Ismail Haniya himself talk about Palestine in clear political terms in his interview with Ha'aretz on May 23, 2006: 'If Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, peace will prevail and we will implement a cease-fire [hudna] for many years.' Worldliness is clearly a fundamental value for the Palestinian struggle, and Hamas should be the first to recognize this: without its welfare programs and its struggle against the occupation it would never have become a significant force in Palestinian life. It's not clear, then, why it continues to employ invented religious dictums when it clearly recognizes that what is at stake here is political not religious.
Such archaic logic is clearly a problem, as is the Fatah elite's own abysmal record in politics. Worse than hanging on to fundamentalist doctrines, the Fatah elite seems hardly interested in ending the occupation, let alone in creating a united resistance front with Hamas. It's important to recall its brief, corrupt history in order to understand the truth of its current positions. According to the Oslo Accords, Mahmoud Abbas's group, including Dahlan, Rajoub, and the rest of the Oslo security apparatus have a clear role to play in the Occupied Territories. In return for recognizing the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people (and not much else), the PLO has become Israel's colonial enforcer. Arafat approved what was earlier rejected in the Camp David talks between Begin and Sadat. As Samih K. Farsoun has put it in his book on Palestine:
'Israel achieved what it set out to do since at least the signing of the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1978: It won limited functional civil autonomy for the Palestinians of the occupied territories and a legalized tight grip on the land, resources, economy, and security of the areas.'
No sovereignty, no national rights, and no end of occupation, while colonies and colonizers doubled in number. The Fatah elite approved this deal because of their total political marginalization after the first Gulf War, a weak position compounded by their isolation since their expulsion from Lebanon in 1982. Desperate political groups are capable of nearly anything. And, in the Palestinian case, the PLO sold Oslo as yet another Palestinian victory even though it was a clear political capitulation to Israeli and American diktat. What Oslo created, then, is a colonial Palestinian elite which gains its power, legitimacy, and benefits from the occupying forces themselves and from their international backers. The Israeli occupation was reconstructed to privilege a particular Palestinian social stratum which was raised above the generalized misery and subordinate position of its own people in order to do Israel's bidding in the Occupied Territories. Like all systems of collaboration, it breeds tensions, internal conflicts, and resentments within its structure (or 'partnership,' in diplomatic speak). And it is sustainable as long as the oppressed fail to identify the colonial elite as part and parcel of the occupation problem and to act against their systemic interests. This duly came in the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000. Occupied Palestinians rebelled yet again against their occupiers, and expressed their exasperation with the colonial structure of Oslo. Hamas's recent victory is part of the same pattern. Corruption, authoritarianism, and colonial collaboration should have no place in a national liberation struggle, the Palestinian elections declared.
It is clear, then, that Abbas doesn't intend to uphold the content of the prisoners' document, or keep to the 'national fundamentals,' which he and his fellow Oslo elite have done everything in their power to undermine. Indeed, one would wish that by negotiating with the Israelis Abbas intended to push Israel back to the 1967 borders and force it to dismantle all its illegal settlements, as the document recommends. Not one inch of land, however, has been liberated as a result of Abbas's own action or in coordination with him since he became president ('the disengagement,' like 'the convergence,' is a unilateralist Israeli affair). Nor was one ounce of real independent sovereignty ever gained under his reign. Abbas's strategy is not about ending the occupation: it's about regaining legitimacy in Israeli and Western eyes in order to reactive the Oslo colonial system which keeps him and his group alive. His politics are reactionary in the extreme: his goal is to restore corrupt Fatah elite domination over Palestinian life and regain the diplomatic initiative abroad. By claiming to adopt a document which if implemented would mean the end of his rule as privileged colonial enforcer, i.e. a document which goes against his own social and political interests, Abbas is misleading the Palestinians yet again. In fact, Abbas seeks to convince Palestinians that it is either Fatah elite rule of a neo-colonial dependency type, dependent on Israel (as ex-Foreign Minister Ben Ami once put it), or starvation and international siege with Hamas, with the added catastrophic prospect of civil war looming on the horizon. Abbas is also sending a clear message to his American backers that he can deliver Palestinian capitulation, and that the US should push Israel to resume negotiations as stipulated in the Road Map (and ditched by Sharonist unilateralism). In brief, Abbas seeks to dupe the Palestinians yet again into believing that what his group stands for is the end of occupation. After years of helping to consolidate a reconstructed occupation, it is totally illogical to conclude that Abbas has suddenly reawakened to the possibility of realizing the self-same 'Palestinian fundamentals' which he has done everything in his power to undermine all those years. No change of heart here, then, only more cynicism, opportunism, and lies.
How will this contradiction be resolved? It's still not clear. Nor is it clear that a referendum will necessarily produce Abbas's desired outcome of reactivating Oslo-style negotiations. Israel is set on a unilateralist course (and has rejected the prisoners' document in no uncertain terms), and the US is uninterested in seriously changing that (that is, if the interest was ever there in the first place, which is doubtful with Bush in power). Iran is now much more important on the foreign policy agenda, at the heart of which lies the quagmire of Iraq. So there's no use looking towards Western elites for any meaningful resolution of the conflict. European noises are just that, and have never amounted to a serious alternative to US foreign policy objectives in the region: European states have on the whole opted to work under rather than outside the US strategic umbrella in the Middle East. For Western elites to compel Palestinians to capitulate, submit, or acquiesce to Israeli colonialism is neither fair nor democratic. Worse: it will lead to more suffering, increasing starvation, and death.
The future of the Palestinian cause thus still depends on popular mobilization both within Palestine, the Arab world, Israel, and the West. Radicals have a huge task on their hands if justice in Palestine is to be achieved. Domestically, it's time to consolidate a robust alternative to both Fatah elite capitulation and to Hamas's fundamentalist agenda of Islamizing Palestinian society. This is clearly no time for uncritical support for Hamas: it's important to unite with Hamas when it defends Palestinian rights and fights the occupation and to stand in clear and coherent opposition to it when it seeks to implement a religious, obscurantist agenda which, among other things, aims to collapse the separation between religion and state. This indeed is the spirit of the prisoners' document.
There is also the issue of future liberation. Part of the crisis of Oslo is that it has become extremely difficult to contemplate a time after occupation and exclusivism. Palestinian lives have been so curtailed and repressed, and energies have been so preoccupied with overcoming daily hardships, that a vision of liberation has been lacking. The challenge here is both to remember that the Palestinian struggle is about what Edward Said has called the 'Palestinian idea' (a non-exclusivist, democratic, universalist project) and to renew it in even more harsh conditions than ever before. The Palestinian diaspora has a key role to play here, both in organizing exiles, increasing popular support for the Palestinian cause, standing in solidarity with their suffering brothers and sisters in Palestine, and re-engaging with the interior. A renewed Palestinian struggle should, then, really be an international campaign: only if Palestinians unite their disparate forces, and begin again to think of themselves as individual bearers of a common cause can we begin to think beyond the continuing Nakba. Exile is constitutive of Palestinian existence, and a crucial site and resource of hope and renewal. This is no time for self-pity or complacency. A whole people has been terrorized and put under siege. The only question to ask is this: what are we going to do to help them? Our struggle is legitimate, our demands democratic and universalist, and our cause just. Are we defeated yet? I think not: life cannot be allowed to continue like this.
The near future may thus look bleak. Abbas and his group are still powerful; the Palestinian government is still besieged and attacked; and the Palestinian nation still killed, collectively punished, dispossessed, and terrorized by the Israeli army. In the face of all this, pessimism may seem realistic and despair natural. But there's one principle of hope that should be recognized: Palestinian popular will (and the call for a referendum is, if anything, clear recognition of its power). Steadfast, resisting, and politically unbending, many of the Palestinians who voted for Hamas thought that by doing so they would send a clear collective message to the world: no more lies about peace, no more capitulation, and no more occupation. The question that remains is whether Palestinians have the popular and organizational capacities and support to carry this message through.
1. Whatâ€™s interesting about this clause is that only Islamic Jihad voiced its reservations against negotiations with Israel, and this in a very brief footnote at the end of the document. Itâ€™s clear that Hamas has no objections to Abbasâ€™s diplomatic initiatives.
Bashir Abu-Manneh teaches English at Barnard College, New York.