Since the onset of the Arab Spring two years ago, with its public protests in the streets and squares of many Arab cities, it has become clear that there is a drastic change in the political awareness of ordinary people in the region. Historically-speaking, that change should not surprise us. The Palestinian issue, Arab nationalism, socialism and the struggle against imperialism have all been a priority at one time or another in the latter part of the twentieth century.
In all of these issues, the Arab regimes can be seen as obstacles to the development of Arab states and societies, citizenship, democracy and modernity. They put themselves at the centre of their country’s interests, establishing control over the people and national resources at the expense of everything else. This failure also applies to their approach to the challenge of Israel.
Official regimes have been exposed for what they are, and their attempts to cover-up tyranny and corruption in regard to Palestine fool no one. Nor are the claims about facing external threats, often used to justify their failure to develop, their blocking of democracy and their violations of human rights.
Citizens of Arab states in the midst of suffering and internal repression have witnessed Israel moving forward and continuing to defy Arab and international opinion and resolutions. For example, even though Arab countries cover large tracts of land and have huge natural and human resources it was comparatively small Israel whose population has grown from 700,000 people in 1948 to six million in 2013; whose average income has grown from $3,100 in 1950 to $31,000 in 2011, putting the country among the world’s top 15 countries in terms of individual income. On top of that, Israel’s unemployment rate is a relatively low 6.5%.
Israel has not only superseded the Arab states economically and technologically, but has also outperformed them in human development, community management and governance. The Israeli political system is based on democracy, political parties, separation of judiciary and legislature, and the devolution of power. This is missing in Arab countries.
The Arab Israeli wars are no excuse as military expenditure in the Arab world has no connection to wars with Israel. The Arab armies have neither the training nor capabilities to go to war. In fact, the last such war in any real sense was in late 1973, almost forty years ago, which suggests that the Palestinian issue has not been at the top of the Arab political agenda. Syria is a classic example of this; having told its citizens that it is building the country at the expense of resistance to Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights the regime in Damascus is now destroying the country and its people in order to survive.
The outbreak of popular Arab revolutions with slogans concentrating on citizens’ needs also raised questions regarding the place of the Palestinian issue in the shifting Arab reality. The revolutions reflect onto the Arab Israeli equation and it must be considered what the pro-democracy revolutions represent to Palestinians in their fight against their enemy and the nature of their presence in the neighbouring countries hosting refugees.
Although some criticism has been forthcoming about the revolutionary focus on domestic issues and not Palestine, such views are too hasty. The revolutions themselves have not run their full course and must still overcome the remnants of the old regimes which coexisted with Israel and manipulated the Palestinian issue for the benefit of themselves.
With this in mind, it is reasonable to assume that revolutions which fought to empower citizens to regain their stolen rights, freedom, dignity and justice, will also result in external policies which reflect the struggle for the same principles. It will be in phases; there will be shortcomings, but that is to be expected in any historic transitional phase in any era. It is time to move on from the negativity which makes no link between internal struggles for freedom and justice and similar efforts in foreign policy. Experience shows that depriving citizens of their basic rights weakens society and exposes it to external challenges and threats.
We shouldn’t, however, exaggerate the effects and influence of the revolutions on the Palestinian cause. There’s still a long way to go as well as a military imbalance in favour of the Israelis. Nevertheless, while it is true that the revolutionaries can and should avenge the Palestinians, they must first tackle the injustice in their own countries. That is both logical and practical.
As far as the Palestinians are concerned, the Arab Spring revolutions highlight the importance of enhancing national awareness to restore freedom and enhance their unity, transcending tribal, ethnic and ideological differences. They must concentrate on regaining their rights stolen from them; promoting freedom, justice and dignity; developing democratic change; and building new state institutions.
Revolutions which foresee the establishment of a new Arab reality must, in all sincerity, work for the liberation of Palestine, not only from the Israeli occupation but also from the custody of the current factions. They must also inspire and encourage the Palestinians to take internal initiatives to improve their own political system. In this, the Arab Spring can play an important role by prompting Palestinians to restructure their national movements to include humanitarian and democratic elements. The aim should be to liberate the values of equality and democracy as well as the land.
It is true that concepts linked to these values have never been absent from politicians’ speeches, especially those representing the “one secular, democratic state” solution, but they need to be strengthened. Palestine has to be seen as more than a dispute over land in which Palestinians are dependent on aid.
In fact, the concept of national liberation and an independent state on part of the land in question, and for just a portion of the people, no longer convinces. In this respect, the experience of “Arab independence” is not promising, as it does not appear to have solved all the problems, nor does it meet the needs of Palestinians in respect of justice, liberty, democracy and citizenship.
Even so, the Arab revolutions, with all their shortcomings, have opened windows of opportunities for the Palestinians to widen their options from the limitation of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By creating a new political reality in the region, and by ending the myth of Israel being the “only democracy in the Middle East” with the establishment of Arab democracies, a new legitimacy is given to the “one-state solution” for Palestinians and Israelis. This can be established by undermining the security and ideological mantras of Zionism in their various manifestations. Indeed, the establishment of democratic states in various Arab countries will back Israel into a corner, no longer able to boast about being an oasis of democracy and exposed as a colonial, racist state which insists on defining itself as a “Jewish state”.
Palestinians must learn from the revolutions and move away from a political system defined and controlled by factions with little or no legitimacy and support in society. This will open the way for Palestinian unity based on a national, institutional, and democratic representative basis. In those countries hosting Palestinian refugees, an Arab Spring sea-change in the political scene should bring fairness and justice to their case.
In the end, it has to be realised that a country cannot be free unless its people are free. Having revolutions with a veneer of the Palestinian cause will simply not suffice. Palestine and the Palestinian cause is more than a conflict over some land; it is a political allegory for freedom, dignity and justice.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.