When the chairman of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) called a meeting of the body for 15-16 September the date reverberated darkly, for it was on 16 September 1982 that the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia, acting with the support of the Israeli army, perpetrated the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees. The slaughter took place less than three weeks after Yasser Arafat and his PLO fighters were forced to abandon their Beirut headquarters and relocate to Tunis.
Almost 33 years later, the PLO is now a pale shadow of itself. Political and military infighting has become the [dis]order of the day. As Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, prepares to retire to his purpose-built $13 million palace, rival camps within the PLO's largest faction, Fatah, have been settling old scores in the most public of manner.
In Lebanon, where Arafat was based for over a decade, fierce fighting erupted recently in Ain Al-Hilweh, the largest of the Palestinian refugee camps in the country, between Fatah and the Salafist group "Jund Al-Sham". Not since the signing of the Oslo accords has the PLO been so paralysed by its internal weakness and loss of direction. One glaring sign has been its inability to incorporate into its ranks the Islamist forces — including Hamas and Islamic Jihad — almost thirty years after they emerged on the scene.
This failure has occurred in spite of the 21 March 2005 Cairo Declaration issued by 13 Palestinian groups. It envisioned the reform of the PLO and inclusion of the Islamist forces. Article 5 of the declaration is clear: "Those gathered agreed to develop the Palestine Liberation Organisation on bases that will be settled upon in order to include all the Palestinian powers and factions, as the organisation is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people."
It was also agreed "to form a committee to define these bases, and the committee will be made up of the president of the National Council, the members of the PLO's Executive Committee, the secretaries general of all Palestinian factions and independent national personalities. The president of the executive committee will convene this committee."
Subsequently, in March 2011, the parties reaffirmed, again in Cairo, their commitment to the 2005 declaration. At the time, the head of the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI), Mustafa Barghouti, described it as "a historic day in the lives of the Palestinian people with the development of a united national leadership as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PNI joined the PLO's leadership framework."
In this light, it appears that the latest call for a meeting of the PNC was not issued in accord with the "interim leadership framework" of the PLO at all. On the contrary, it came after ten members of the executive council, including President Abbas, tendered their resignations. That was seen as a desperate attempt by Abbas to reshape the PLO more in accord with his personal fancies rather than the long-delayed root and branch restructuring.
At the heart of the current dispute is the view of the Islamic forces that the election of the future PNC must include Palestinians in the diaspora; Fatah does not believe that this is realistic. The PNC, remember, is the highest authority in the PLO, responsible for formulating its policies and programmes. Many believe that Fatah's reluctance is due to it not wanting anything to interfere with the current balance of power within the PLO, which is firmly in its favour at the moment.
On another level, the current impasse also centres on the fact that Abbas and his inner circle view the discussion about reform within the interim framework as simply non-binding consultation. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, however, believe the opposite. As such, the latter charge the president with taking decisions unilaterally on a matter that will affect all Palestinians and their cause.
As things stand, the Israeli government could not hope for a better scenario, which virtually guarantees the continuation of the internal Palestinian rift. At the very least, it offers the Israelis more room to manoeuvre or, better still, to obstruct any form of negotiated agreement with the Palestinians. Politically, nothing is going to happen because Netanyahu and his ministers will tell Abbas that he doesn't represent all Palestinians, and they're right. In the background is the fact that, despite reports of an imminent truce between Israel and Hamas, it is now becoming increasingly clear that another confrontation looms large over the Gaza Strip.
Although 740 members of the PNC have been invited to a meeting in Ramallah next month it remains to be seen how many will manage to enter the West Bank, given the whims of the Israeli occupation authorities. Even if they manage to muster a quorum of 450, it is already believed that the venue was chosen specifically so that certain Palestinian elements would be unable to make the journey and thus be excluded from the process. Mahmoud Abbas has done this deliberately; in doing so, he has driven another nail in the coffin of the PLO with his own hands. The Palestinians are badly served by such transparently self-defeating leadership.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.