The Palestinian national project is experiencing a loss of direction which prevents progress and blocks opportunities to take advantage of the enormous potential of the Palestinian people. The route to a peace agreement adopted by the PLO leadership, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Fatah is at a standstill. Similarly, the path of resistance to the occupation adopted by Hamas and Islamic Jihad is also at a stalemate.
The Palestinian factions have stumbled in the efforts to achieve national reconciliation; the PLO has an ever smaller role; and the PA suffers from being split in two between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The PA also suffers under Israeli hegemony in the occupied West Bank, while the people of Gaza labour under Israel's blockade. Financial crises grip both branches of the Authority. Widespread frustration prevails among ordinary Palestinians fed up of their leaders' poor performance and weak interaction with the Arab Spring.
All of this leads some to ask sarcastically if the Palestinians have ever had a truly "national" project. What could or would be the basis for such a project? Could yielding most of historic Palestine to the Israelis be a "national" act or be pursuant to a national programme? What are the red lines and the required constants within the national project and what would amount to treason or unpatriotic behaviour damaging to the national interest? How can we differentiate between "treason" and a "point of view" if the constants themselves are up for discussion?
The national crisis is nothing new; during the British Mandate period there was a struggle between the Hussaini family and the Nashashibis. While this took the form of an inter-family conflict, it nevertheless included those linked to nationalist activities and helped to shape the relationship with the British authorities, the regional situation and priorities for the resistance and peaceful political action. Similarly, a crisis appeared when the PLO, led by Ahmed al-Shaqiri, rose within the domain of Palestinian guerrilla factions – particularly Fatah – which saw its establishment as a pan-Arab attempt to dominate Palestinian national action.
It appears that there is no one single factor in the current crisis. In a crisis of identity and ideology, Islamic, nationalist, leftist and liberal trends squabble; perhaps this is an important factor, particularly when disagreements relate to faith-based constants like the Islamists' refusal to recognise Israel or relinquish any part of Palestine in contrast to others' pragmatism, realism, vested interests, tactics and progressive action.
The same applies to the way that the conditions stipulated by the International Middle East Quartet following Hamas's victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections were dealt with; the most prominent of the conditions remains formal recognition of Israel. Hamas's rejection of this condition, about which Fatah had no problem agreeing, and the refusal to give up armed resistance resulted in the imposition of a harsh US and Western-led blockade against the movement, its government and the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It also led to and continues to cause conflict between Fatah and Hamas, with one camp in favour of a peace agreement and the other favouring resistance.
This highlights the crisis surrounding the national project's priorities. Armed resistance, civil disobedience or peaceful acquiescence? The formation of a unity government, fresh elections, the re-structuring of the PLO; all are on the priority list. As are reform of the security agencies, the economy and lifting the siege of Gaza. Maybe UN recognition of an independent Palestinian state should be at the top of the list, or tackling Israel's Judaisation of Jerusalem. How is it possible to decide and give each of these issues the attention they all deserve? On what basis should some be deferred while others are pushed forwards?
Institutionally, the lack of a single umbrella body is a major obstacle. Fatah has assumed a lead role in the PLO for almost 44 years, whereas Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which represent large segments of Palestinian society, are not part of the organisation. The PLO, therefore, does not represent the will of the people and its effectiveness has been lost as it has taken a subsidiary role to the PA. The Palestine National Council has not convened in any meaningful way since 1991, and has not had free and fair elections for even longer. Fatah bears responsibility for what has happened to the PLO and should take the lead on its restructuring.
It goes without saying that regional and international influence plays a huge part in Palestinian affairs. The role played by Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is clear. Egypt has had a historic role in bringing order to the Palestinian house, and was a prime mover behind the formation of the PLO. Its links with Fatah have been close which also led to pre-revolution moves to weaken Hamas; support for the movement up to the current revolutionary phase came largely from Syria.
The Arab states, especially those neighbouring Palestine, must bear responsibility for deepening the crisis of the Palestinian national project as they prevented or limited the scope for resistance, for popular and national activities, and for the Palestinian people, including refugees, to organise themselves freely in their "host" countries.
Ever since the signing of the Oslo Accord and the creation of the PA Israel has been the "absent presence" in much of the decision-making process of the PLO and the leadership of the Authority. Oslo obliged the PLO to abandon armed resistance and establish a national authority whose economy and movement of people and goods is controlled entirely by the occupying power, Israel. This gives the state of Israel enormous power over the Palestinians and their institutions, which they have used to disable the leadership, dismantle the infrastructure and arrest the opposition. In fact, Oslo has allowed Israel to restrict and prevent Palestinian reconciliation.
Western attitudes, particularly in the US, have had a considerable effect on the Palestinian situation. Absolute and unquestioning US support for Israel, economically, militarily and politically, has provided cover for the occupation and its violations of human rights and crimes against humanity. The imposition of Israeli conditions on the Quartet the recognition of Israel, ending armed resistance, recognition of agreements previously signed by the PLO including the Oslo Accords – constitute blatant interference in Palestinian affairs. Similarly, America and its allies have sought to isolate and topple Hamas; to present it as a "terrorist" organisation and strip it of its legitimacy, while punishing the Palestinian people for their free and democratic electoral choice.
The openly pro-Israel stance of the US played a part in the failure of peaceful negotiations and in blocking any prospect of obtaining Palestinian rights, or even some of them, from the Security Council or the United Nations. It also played a part in bringing the peace plan of the current Palestinian leadership to a full stop.
An essential part of Palestinian reconciliation talks focused on the method of formulating a Palestinian government in accordance with Quartet conditions and the anticipated US and Israeli veto; this also applies to the holding of elections and reform of the security apparatus among other things.
Divide and rule has long been a tactic of colonial powers, but in this the people of Palestine have not helped themselves. They have allowed cultural differences to take priority over national interests, affecting the art of managing difference and peaceful co-existence and being able to meet on common ground. Individual selfishness and partisanship have led to a struggle for control and exclusion; suspicion and political mistrust, with serious damage done to trust-building as a result.
For the past 25 years, Fatah has placed state building over liberation of the land, and has regarded Hamas's resistance operations to be disruptive to the PA's attempts to find a peaceful settlement with Israel. Both factions have used harsh language against each other and taken actions and reactions to try to get the upper hand. Frequent bloodletting, physically and metaphorically, has increased the lack of confidence held in both groups.
All of this has had an effect on Palestinian leadership, which has failed to live up expectations and the aspirations of the people. There is clear disrespect for legislative authorities and a weakening of the executive arm. Political opportunism and corruption has dogged attempts to develop the political and economic infrastructure. This has been compounded by the very apparent failure to manage political differences.
Finally, the geographical split has complicated efforts to build bridges between Fatah and Hamas and develop a coherent strategy. Palestinians in historic Palestine are physically divided, with 2.6 million living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank; 1.6 million under Israeli siege in the Gaza Strip; and 1.3 million inside "1948 occupied Palestine", now known as Israel. Add to that the refugees in surrounding countries and the worldwide diaspora who are still denied their right to return to Palestine after 64 years, and you have a very difficult position from which to develop an effective political programme.
The Palestinian national project is thus facing a real crisis. Perhaps the atmosphere of the uprisings and the changes affecting the Arab world give hope for the possibility of real, positive change within the Palestinian arena. However, the realistic route to the development of a serious national project is reform of the Palestinian house internally under a single umbrella body which includes everyone; which benefits from the energies of all groups and individuals; and which is built on a unified national charter and political programme compatible with the Palestinian constants. All should be implemented by an elected leadership committed to national priorities free from external influences.
*The author is a Palestinian academic and director of Al Zaytouna Centre for Studies & Consultations in Beirut. This article is a translation from the Arabic which appeared on Al Jazeera, 24/9/12
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.