The Gaza ceasefire negotiated by Egypt has reinforced the position of Hamas regionally and internally. Meanwhile the UN voted to grant Palestine the upgraded status of non-member state, a success for Mahmoud Abbas. But the PA president faces opposition from the US, Israel and some countries in Europe — and scepticism from the Palestinians themselves.
Mahmoud Abbas, PLO chairman and president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) told the UN General Assembly in September 2011 that “at a time when the Arab people affirm their quest for democracy — the Arab Spring — the time is now for the Palestinian Spring, the time for independence.” A year later, despite his return to the same podium, independence seems more elusive than ever, and in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians appear unmoved, concerned instead with redefining the Palestinian political agenda.
The Arab Spring has led to an era of democratic aspiration unprecedented in the Middle East. In the Palestinian context, the Arab uprisings have emboldened popular demand to revisit, if not end, the regime that ushered in the Oslo peace process, and with it the two-states solution. It has brought to the surface an ongoing struggle — between Palestinian youth and the wider population against the political leadership and elites — in defining the content of popular protest and the future of Palestinian political struggle.
Palestinians took to the streets as early as February 2011 to support the Egyptian revolution. What soon became known as the March 15 movement, including youth groups, independent politicians and NGOs, went out in Ramallah, Gaza and Nablus demanding an end to the political division between Fatah and Hamas that since 2007 has kept them in respective control of the West Bank and Gaza. Both parties responded, signing three reconciliation agreements since May 2011, confirming the legitimacy of Hamas as part of the Palestinian political system. Yet these agreements have failed to produce any semblance of national unity and their officials have further alienated the population.
After May 2011 Palestinians continued to demonstrate, building on the work of civil society groups including the Stop the Wall Campaign, PNGO (the Palestinian NGO network), the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction Movement (BDS), and the popular committees in West Bank villages that support women, trade unions and political prisoners. They demonstrated outside Al-Muqata, the seat of the PA in Ramallah, marching towards Kalandia, a checkpoint village which blocks the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem; they campaigned through social media, and struck against increases in food prices.
Three key issues
The Palestinian protestors’ demands have coalesced around three key issues. First, they have called for the protection of Palestinian national rights, which they believe are not simply a right to a state, but the right of return for Palestinian refugees and equal political rights. During the May 2011 anniversary of the Nakba (the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948), Palestinian youth joined organised groups and popular committees to demonstrate at major checkpoints and at the separation wall to reaffirm the Palestinian right of return.
They coordinated with Palestinians inside Israel, who held remembrance days in Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948. They also joined forces with youth groups in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon seeking to enter Israel through the borders of those countries, to affirm the centrality of the right of return in popular activism.
The second demand is for resumption of the Palestinian democratic process. The demand is not confined to new elections for the PA and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in the West Bank and Gaza.
Al-Herak al-Shababi al-Mustakil, Palestinians for Dignity and other youth groups have called for new elections for the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the legislative body of the PLO that represents all the Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories, including refugees, the diaspora and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The PNC, which has not convened since 1988, has been marginalised politically by the Oslo peace process: Palestinian activists in the West Bank and Gaza wants it to be reinvigorated. Towards this, the young are creating coalitions with groups in the diaspora who have previously asked for its revival (1). Together they are attempting to reunify the politics fragmented by Oslo, trying to reactivate the democratic process from the bottom up and give voice to constituencies Oslo silenced.
The third demand focuses on the Oslo impasse: the demonstrators want to stop a “peace process” that exists only in name, and end political cooperation with Israel. Early this year, Palestinian youth demonstrated against the resumption of indirect talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials in Amman, and protested against joint Israeli-Palestinian peace activists meeting in Jerusalem and Ramallah, demanding no more contact with Israelis until Israel ends the occupation. Since the summer, Palestinians have gone on strike and demonstrated against the PA’s austerity measures. Many want it dismantled.
So Palestinian activists are now trying to reframe the nature of the Palestinian struggle as being for rights, not statehood per se. Following the lead of the BDS campaigns launched by 170 civil society organisations in 2005, activists are now reiterating that the Palestinian struggle consists of fighting what they define as an Israeli apartheid regime, and aiming to defend three fundamental rights; the end to occupation, the right of return and the right to equality inside Israel.
Going to the UN
The PA’s decision to seek UN membership for the Palestinian state can be read as an attempt to bypass the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and to deal with overwhelming popular opposition to the Oslo accords and the rule of Hamas and Fatah. Comparing Abbas’s speech this year to the UN General Assembly with last year’s speech reveals sharply the extent to which the PA has been trying to accommodate the demonstrators’ language, while attempting to monopolise the Palestinian political agenda.
Both speeches try to link the “Palestinian Spring” with the quest for statehood and independence, and to engage the international community by asking it to fulfil its responsibility towards the Palestinian people. The main difference is that in 2011, the PA submitted a request for full UN state membership, but did not get the nine votes necessary to submit it to the Security Council for consideration, mostly because of US opposition. This year, Abbas requested full non-member state status, similar to that of the Vatican. If granted, the upgrade would allow Palestine to become a member of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), International Criminal Court and other UN agencies, enabling the PLO to pursue Israel for war crimes and other violations; this is similar to the legal strategy used at the ICJ in 2005 to object to Israel building the separation wall inside the West Bank rather than along the 1967 Green Line. But the upgrade would not resolve how the occupation is to end or the right of return be protected.
For the PA, this UN move is the only way to assert the Palestinians’ right to an independent state on 22% of historic Palestine, including the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital (all declared as occupied under UN Security Council resolution 242). Abbas said the return of these lands would provide relative reparation for the expulsion of 1948; it is the price to reach peace with Israel and implement the international consensus on the partition of Palestine, established since 1947 by UN resolution 181. Abbas argued that only a state recognised by the international community can protect Palestinian rights.
To answer dissent about his prerogative to speak in the name of all Palestinians, Abbas points out that the Palestinian state project has been endorsed by the PNC since the declaration of independence in 1988. He recalls that it is the PLO, not the PA, that is presenting the UN bid (2). In both speeches he reiterated the unity of the Palestinian people, mentioning refugees, those under occupation and Palestinians citizens of Israel, as well as the diaspora.
What is new in the UN bid is the attempt to re-internationalise the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By going to the UN, Abbas hopes to shake, if not end, US monopoly of the peace process. This strategy became clear when he said on 23 September 2011: “The question of Palestine is intricately linked with the UN via the resolutions adopted by its various organs and agencies ... We aspire for and seek a greater and more effective role for the United Nations in working to achieve a just and comprehensive peace in our region.”
A year later the tone has hardened. In the latest UN speech in 2012, Abbas draws more directly on the language used by Palestinian protestors. He describes Israel not simply as “settler colonial” as in 2011, but also as implementing “apartheid” policies and “ethnic cleansing” in East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied territories, terms Abbas avoided using until then. In 2011 he was still trying to extend his “hand to the Israeli government and the Israeli people for peace making ... based on parity and equity between two neighbouring states — Palestine and Israel.” In 2012 he squarely puts the blame on the Netanyahu government, which “rejects the two-states solution” and is “emptying the Oslo accords of their meaning.”
Outrage over Oslo
In this way Abbas showed that he is responding to popular outrage over Oslo and the futility of negotiating with Israel while the occupation continues. The stronger tone of 2012 also reflects his frustration at Israel’s intransigence.
He told the UN the final map and borders that Israel is offering the Palestinians is one of “enclaves ... subject to full dominance of military colonial occupation, only packaged under new names.”
This year’s speech also shows his anger at the international community, and indirectly the US, unlike last year, when he was optimistic that the international community would help reignite the peace process. This year he laments that it allows Israel “to be permitted to evade accountability and punishment”, and provides Israel with a “licence for the occupation to continue its policy of dispossession and... entrench its system of apartheid against the Palestinian people.”
Moreover, Abbas mentions for the first time that the only way to reach peace “must first and foremost be predicated on the understanding that racial settler colonisation must be condemned, punished and boycotted in order for it to be completely halted.” He seems to have heard the Palestinian civil society call for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction). The question remains what political leverage the PA can get from its UN bid, and what legal strategy it will pursue to engage the UN in international sanctions against Israel.
Meanwhile Palestinians back home seem to have given up on their leadership. The municipal elections of 20 October in the West Bank confirmed the dwindling legitimacy of Fatah, as independent candidates won in major cities — Nablus, Ramallah and Jenin. Popular participation in these elections showed yet again the Palestinians’ determination to defend their rights to freedom and dignity, irrespective of whether or not they get their state soon. Israel’s war on Gaza has further validated their stand.