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The PLO and the continuing project to win Palestinian national liberation

January 29, 2014 at 4:08 pm

The reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas that has been under discussion since last April now seems to be moving to a new level, with the leaders of these two big Palestinian factions agreeing to hold national elections in May 2012. Though many western commentators have focused on the prospects this reconciliation might have for the Palestinian Authority (PA), more important are the effects on the broader, much more established Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Under the terms of the reconciliation agreement concluded in Cairo, new elections are supposed to occur “within a year”, not only for the PA president (currently Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas) and its legislative body, but also for the PLO’s foundational “legislating”/legitimating body, the Palestine National Council (PNC).

The PLO was established in 1964; it is not only older than the PA but also has a number of other key attributes. Among them are:

(1) It is the “parent” body which spawned the PA following the Oslo Accord between the PLO and the Government of Israel in 1993.

(2) The PA was only ever intended to be an interim body performing certain administrative functions during the scheduled five-year transition from Oslo to conclusion of a final-status peace agreement. (The PA’s original name was the Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority, PISGA.) The PLO, by contrast, has no terminal point other than the liberation of Palestine, which remains its stated goal.

(3) The PA was only ever intended to provide certain governance functions over, and in a limited way to “represent”, the 4.2 million Palestinians who are permitted by Israel’s draconian residence regulations to continue living inside the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and Gaza Strip. The PLO, however, has always claimed to represent all Palestinians including, crucially, that majority of the Palestinian people who are prohibited by Israel from residing in, or in most cases even from visiting, their homes, properties and close family members who remain in the areas under Israel’s control.

Back in 1993 when Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas and a small group of their Fatah colleagues were negotiating the Oslo agreement with Israel’s Labour government, they were taking a huge risk in terms of Palestinian politics. They believed that they could turn the significant amount of political capital that the Palestinian residents of the occupied territories had accrued as a result of the First Intifada into a process that would benefit first of all those “resident” Palestinians and then, with the subsequent conclusion of the final peace agreement, also a significant proportion of the “exiled” Palestinians. The legal right of return for these refugees was to be dealt with through a combination of some of them “returning” to the new Palestinian state, a smaller number returning to their families’ properties inside Israel, and compensation for the rest.

It is worth remembering just how much political capital (locally, regionally and globally) the “resident” Palestinians had amassed by 1993. The activists of the intifada had established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, remaining unbroken by the brutal counter-measures deployed by Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which included explicit orders to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to “break the bones” of demonstrators and far-reaching campaigns of mass incarceration, collective punishment and other classic tactics of colonial rule. US Secretaries of State George Schultz and James Baker pleaded with the spokespersons of the intifada, including Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, to represent the Palestinians in negotiations with the Israelis. Crucially, though, those leaders within the “resident” wing of the movement refused to take any action without the explicit imprimatur of the PLO leadership, then in exile in Tunisia. This echoed the discipline shown by Nelson Mandela in South Africa, who never took any political step without having explicit orders from the exiled ANC leadership in Lusaka.

When Arafat and Co. concluded the Oslo Accords, they perhaps thought that they were repaying the trust placed in them by the leaders of the secular wing of the first intifada, by bringing them something of real value: relief from the horrors of direct Israeli military rule. Anyway, when Arafat and his colleagues “returned” from Tunis to, in the first place, Gaza, and later Ramallah, they were received with outpourings of joy and adulation on the Palestinian streets. Fairly soon, however, it became clear to many of the “resident” Palestinians that their “returning” leaders understood very little about the true situation in the occupied territories, including, crucially, the multiplicity of mechanisms through which Israel continued its land-grabs and settlement building in the occupied areas.

In particular, the Oslo provision which allowed Israel to construct an entirely new road network across the occupied West Bank (with “bypass roads” for settlers, “during the interim period”) gave the PLO’s go-ahead for Israel to transform the human geography of the West Bank to one in which Palestinian cities and towns could be (and were) cut off from each other, atomised and controlled; life for the illegal Israeli settlers, meanwhile, became exponentially easier than before. This fencing-off was implemented first of all around East Jerusalem. When I visited the city in 1995, the Israelis had already constructed a ring of checkpoints cutting Jerusalem off from its West Bank hinterland. That made travel between Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank considerably harder than it had ever been, even at the height of the First Intifada, and set the stage for the slow strangulation of Palestinian East Jerusalem that continues to this day.

In addition, the political practices and ethics pursued by the “returned” Fatah/PLO leaders caused concern to increasing numbers of long-time residents of the occupied areas. During the First Intifada, for example, most residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip had become accustomed to working within a broadly egalitarian and accountable political structure. The corruption, favouritism, arrogance and sometimes brutality of the Fatah/PLO leaders came as a rude surprise.

All this is to say that though Arafat and Co. were able to “return” to the West Bank and Gaza only because of the steadfastness and political discipline of the people of the First Intifada, they repaid them very poorly. This was even more serious for the Fatah leadership because in effecting the (always very partial and conditional) “return” of Arafat and a few hundred other, generally high-level, people from Fatah and other secular-nationalist organisations to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), the Fatah leadership had also in a very major way turned its back on the concerns and interests of the “exiled” wing of the Palestinian people; the very people, in fact, whose interests, demands, and sacrifices, had incubated Fatah and the other secular organisations in the first place.

In my 1984 book The Palestinian Liberation Organization: People, Power, and Politics (Cambridge University Press) I tracked the whole history of Fatah and the PLO up to that point. One of the key analytical conclusions I included, as I was completing the manuscript in mid-1983, was that with the IDF’s destruction of the PLO’s military capabilities in Lebanon the year before, and its exiling of the PLO’s leaders to Tunisia, Yemen and other places far from Israel’s borders, it seemed clear to me that the centre of gravity of the national movement was shifting from the exiled portion of the Palestinian people, to those Palestinians still resident in the homeland. The outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 vindicated that judgment.

The PLO’s conclusion of the Oslo accord, and the negotiations and agreements that flowed from Oslo, pushed that process even further. Increasingly during the 1990s the policies pursued by the PLO/Fatah leadership marginalised the exiled Palestinians from being able to have any meaningful input at all into the conduct of national-level policy. That additional shift was connected to the amount of energy the Fatah leaders and their allies put into developing “constitutional” institutions and processes for the PA only. It was connected, too, to the course of negotiations in the “refugees” track of the post-Madrid diplomacy. Though no actual headway was made in that track, in the “track-two” discussions held alongside it Palestinian negotiators were exploring many different alternatives to the outcome of full implementation of General Assembly Resolution 194, which underlined the right of the Palestinian refugees from 1948 to return to their homes or to receive compensation in lieu.

It was intriguing that this process of increasing marginalisation of the exiled Palestinians was occurring at a time when the right of exiled citizens of any national polity to have a full and proportional voice in the policies pursued by that polity was being affirmed ever more strongly with every year that passed. For example, in the elections that were held in conjunction with the ending of longstanding civil conflicts in Mozambique and South Africa, in 1993 and 1994 respectively, every effort was made to enable the many millions of citizens of those countries who were refugees to participate fully and meaningfully in the vote. The same had been true in Cambodia. Later in the 1990s, conflict-ending elections in Bosnia and Kosovo included provisions for refugees and exiles to vote. In the 2000s, the post-regime-change elections held in Afghanistan and Iraq involved similar extensive provisions for exiles and refugees to vote. So it became increasingly anomalous that the western governments still seemed content to think that the Palestinian refugees, uniquely among all the many peoples who have been scattered and exiled due to severe civil conflict, should be denied the right of full participation within their nation’s political system.

It is the PLO, and in particular the revitalisation of the PLO that is allowed for under the April 2011 Palestinian reconciliation agreement, which can reverse this situation and restore a say in their future to those 7-9 million Palestinians forced to live in exile from their homeland. There is no other body capable of doing this.

In structural and historic terms, the PLO is a bit odd. It was formed in 1964, by fiat of the Arab League and not, like most anti-colonial liberation movements, as a result of the activities of the colonised people. In 1969, the various (indigenous) guerrilla groups that had thrived primarily in the Palestinian diaspora – though Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) had had deep roots in the West Bank and Gaza – “took over” the PLO’s leadership under the terms of a political agreement between them and the leading powers in the Arab League. From then on, Fatah was by far the strongest faction within the PLO; hence Yasser Arafat became PLO Chairman.

Hamas was founded much later, in 1987; but its precursor movements in portions of the Jordanian and Egyptian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood were always very wary of the governments that dominated the Arab League. For that reason and others, Hamas was distrustful of the PLO from the beginning. The PLO’s decision to conclude the Oslo Accord increased Hamas’s opposition, given the strength of Hamas’s critique of the terms of the accord.

However, some interesting things have happened between 1993 and today. Throughout the 1990s, Hamas maintained a strong opposition to Oslo and everything that stemmed from it, including the election for the PLO’s legislature that was held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1996. Nevertheless, when a new round of PA legislative council elections was announced for January 2006, Hamas decided to participate. The consequences of that decision are well-known: Hamas won those elections handily and tried to form a PA government that was independent both of itself and Fatah; this was met with fury and harsh opposition from Israel and America. Hamas and Fatah made an attempt at political reconciliation in early 2007 under the auspices of the Saudis but that initiative also met with harsh opposition from Washington, which worked with Fatah strongman Mohamed Dahlan to plan a coup against Hamas. The coup was pre-empted in June 2007, since when there have been two rival “PA governments” in Gaza and Ramallah; only the latter is recognised by Israel and the West, despite the electoral mandate of the former. In December 2008 Israel launched a brutal military assault against Hamas in Gaza – killing 1,400 Palestinians in the process, one-third of them children   but even that failed to create regime change and overthrow the Islamic Resistance Movement. Several reports published over the past 18 months, meanwhile, have concluded that the Hamas government in Gaza has done a remarkably good job in providing basic governance services for its citizens, despite the tight blockade that Israel and its cohorts have maintained around the Strip. (See Yezid Sayegh’s report for the Crown Centre; the recent World Bank report; Nicholas Pelham’s report in MERIP.)

The Hamas leadership has stuck by its decision to enter the PA process despite having received very harsh punishment as a result. We can look at that decision as having paralleled the decision the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood made in 2004-05 to enter what was also a very flawed political process in Egypt. We can also look at it as a decision by Hamas to lay the groundwork for a campaign to enter the real stronghold of Palestinian political decision-making, that is, the PLO. Indeed, in interviews I conducted with Hamas secretary-general Khaled Meshaal in Damascus in2008 and 2009, he focused quite strongly on the need to revive the PLO and thereby once more provide a full and proportionate voice in Palestinian decision-making to the millions of Palestinian “exiles”.

Now, it is true that the goal of holding worldwide elections for the PNC this May, as called for in the April reconciliation agreement, will be almost impossible to realise. The vast majority of exiled Palestinians live as refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, where it would be very difficult to implement a free and fair electoral process for people of Palestinian origin. The refugee lists and historical records held by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) could provide one first draft of a voter roll. However, a large proportion of the Palestinians living in those countries, or elsewhere, have never been on UNRWA’s records, which are restricted to those Palestinians who on a certain date in 1950 were financially needy and registered as such, along with their descendants. In any case, the political obstacles to holding such elections would be far greater, for the foreseeable future, than the purely technical aspects.

However, the PNC has never been elected, and was always constituted through a complex series of negotiations among the various Palestinian factions and a smattering of non-aligned personalities. It would be a great feat if a Palestine National Council constituted in 2012 could be elected; and that should remain the goal. However, a PNC that more truly represents the will of the Palestinian people as a whole rather than the “rump” that the PNC has become today would be one that can lead Palestinians far more successfully to the national independence and true self-governance that has so long been denied them. It would also provide a mechanism for mitigating and mending the splits in the national fabric that the Israelis have been so adept at exploiting for their own benefit over many years.

In March 2009, Ayman Daraghmeh, one of the many members of Hamas elected from the West Bank to the PA’s Legislative Council (PLC) told me,

“The PNC needs to be formed on the basis of new elections to it. It should comprise the 132 PLC members plus the 18 (PLO) Executive Committee members plus 150 PNC members from outside the occupied territories, as stipulated in the 2005 Cairo Agreement.

For those outside, we’d like to see them chosen by elections where possible; and where that’s not possible, they should be chosen in the same proportion as exists in the elected PLC.

The new PNC would oversee all the files of the PLO including the financial and diplomatic-activities files.”

How much of a rump has the PNC become? In August 2009, a speedy pro-forma meeting of the body was held in Ramallah. On its agenda was only the task of “electing” new members of the PLO’s governing Executive Committee, six of whose 18 members had died since the previous PNC session in 1998. The 2009 session, like the 1996 and 1998 sessions held before it, was open only to those PNC members whom Israel “allowed” to attend!

The goal of healing the rift between the two main political wings of the Palestinian movement has been one that many in the Arab and Muslim worlds – and in the Palestinian body politic itself – have worked hard to fulfil for many years now. It is possible that the new regional environment created by the Arab uprisings of the past year is one in which these efforts can finally bear some real fruit. The dominant themes in the popular movements that have erupted within so many Arab-state polities have been the dignity and worth of every individual citizen and the burning need for inclusive and accountable governing structures. The sentiments and desires of the Palestinians, wherever they are, are no different. For too long, all Palestinians, including that majority of the Palestinian people forced to live for many decades in exile, have been disenfranchised. Those Palestinians still resident in their ancient homeland have been “allowed” by Israel and its western backers to engage in a highly constrained simulacrum of self-governance, but that process has not brought them any closer to the realisation of their national goals. On the contrary, throughout the 18 years since Oslo, Israel has illegally implanted scores of massive, fortified, Jews-only residential complexes in and around the historic city of Jerusalem. The “deal” that some of Oslo’s more naive Israeli backers proposed, whereby the PLO would give up its claims on behalf of the refugees in return for keeping some limited foothold of access to Jerusalem, is no longer even remotely possible. Like Arab citizens everywhere, Palestinians inside and outside the homeland are now all demanding a national leadership that is answerable to them and serves their interests. It will be interesting to see if they can achieve this through the revitalisation of the PLO.


Helena Cobban is a veteran writer and researcher on Middle Eastern affairs and other global issues. From 1990 through 2007, she wrote a regular column in The Christian Science Monitor, and from 1993 through 2006 she wrote a regular column in Al-Hayat. Four of her seven books have been about Arab-Israeli issues. Her 1984 study of the Palestine Liberation Organisation is still available today from Cambridge University Press. It was translated into Arabic and Spanish and has long been taught to students in Bir Zeit and other Palestinian universities. She was a major contributor to a study of the Palestinian-Israeli question published by the American Friends Service Committee in 2004. In 2010, Ms. Cobban founded a groundbreaking publishing company, Just World Books, a majority of whose titles concern the Middle East. Since 2003, she has blogged at Just World News. A member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), she resides in Virginia, USA.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.