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Occupation magazine - Commentary

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Only Palestinians can create a new Palestine : The UN vote on Palestinian statehood has accelerated the drive for self-empowerment and economic independence
Tareq Baconi
The Guardian

The flurry of activity around the coming UN vote on Palestinian statehood suggests this is a key moment in the struggle for self-determination. While that might be the case, it is not because of the vote itself. Independently of the vote`s outcome, the Palestinian move has already had a positive impact on the ground. It has also transformed the way Palestinians are approaching their struggle by precipitating a drive for self-empowerment in anticipation of this moment.

Once a date was set, Palestinians increasingly came to view growth and development as prerequisites for liberation. A young Palestinian refugee in the Lebanese Mar Elias camp echoed the views of many by stating that one cannot be expected to enter a strategic battle for liberation from a weak base. Preparation for the September `battle` manifested itself among Palestinians in an effort for self-enhancement.

This effort has been most tangible in the West Bank. For prime minister Salam Fayyad, an economically developed West Bank that alleviated the poverty of Palestinians under occupation was the essence of self-development. Fayyadism, premised on economically strengthening the Palestinians and reducing dependence on Israel so as to create a base from which a future state could grow, has done well despite debates over sustainability due to dependence on aid and the economic recession. The West Bank has drawn a significant amount of investment over the past few years, with Palestinian and international investors engaging in large-scale infrastructure projects despite the occupation.

In parallel with Fayyadism, various discussions have revealed that this effort has also been manifested in Hamas. Ideologically opposed to the UN bid, Hamas has nonetheless also focused on governance and growth in Gaza. When asked about their experience ruling the Strip, leading members unhesitatingly point to efforts to create a safer and more developed urban space. Hamas`s brief period in governance-under-blockade has focused on state building and institutional development, effectively growing a government from scratch following the 2007 split.

With arguable success, Hamas has endeavoured to cater to the needs of the civil population and pursued economic independence despite the boycott (the most flagrant example being tunnel trade). While the socially conservative trend in Gaza could be seen to contradict claims of development, in Hamas`s view, it does the opposite. Despite the movement`s leaders denying that they are engaged in active Islamisation, Hamas`s extensive social infrastructure has been conducive to it. Its efforts in the Gaza Strip have supported what Hamas views as a development path.

Hamas`s view on Islamisation is potentially tinged by the legacy of the 1970s and 1980s Muslim Brotherhood ideal of `Islamisation before liberation`. This favoured strengthening the Islamic social fabric at the expense of resistance until such point that the Palestinians could ensure victory. Hamas broke from this by advocating for resistance alongside Islamisation. Nonetheless, the call for Islamisation endured. To Hamas, a moral Islamic population is viewed in much the same way that Fayyadism views economic development: as means to liberation.

This logic of self-empowerment has even cropped up in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Grassroots organisations focused on enhancing the livelihood of Palestinians in the diaspora are being founded by entrepreneurs looking to create change independently of the bureaucracies of Palestinian institutions. Their mission has expanded beyond mitigating the discriminatory policies of host states. Founders of one such movement explained to me that they are now focused on enabling the camps to execute a development agenda including health and education, to alleviate suffering there.

All three examples share a common theme: an internal effort at self-development until liberation can be achieved. There are sceptics of this approach. Some argue that no development should take place within the framework of the occupation, as that facilitates it and acquiesces in its existence. The intent to declare statehood is also opposed by those who support a one-state solution or the full liberation of historic Palestine.

Despite this, September 2011 became an end date which has successfully provided an impetus for development. It has fed and sustained a drive among Palestinians to improve their situation. It has also reiterated to the Palestinians a lesson they are familiar with: self-determination can only be the product of internal struggle and cannot be bestowed externally.

This lesson has enabled the Palestinians to make a choice. They have chosen a unilateral path for self-determination over a path of multilateral talks. Negotiations have not been dismissed, yet they have been demoted to a supplementary role. This is a fundamental shift in the dynamics of the struggle, and one that has been unfolding over several years.

Last-minute efforts are unlikely to convince Palestinians of the value of the old dynamic of bilateral or multilateral negotiations. In a tumultuous environment led by people calling for equality, sovereignty and human rights, this choice has been given further credibility. The UN vote merely determines what form the execution of this choice takes.
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