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Purgatory in the Holy Land

June 24, 2016 at 11:32 am

Jewish extremists set fire to two cars. [Image courtesy of arab48.]

In Mehran Kamrava’s powerful new book, The Impossibility of Palestine, he presents a penetrating and pessimistic overview of the prospects for a future Palestinian state. His thesis is simple: there is no real hope for the formation of a meaningful Palestinian state – either through a one- or a two-state “solution” – but that does not mean that the Palestinian nation must fade.

On the contrary, according to Kamrava, it is because there is no realistic chance of statehood that the Palestinian national identity – the “Imagined Community”, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s famous descriptor – has grown even more important and more prominent.

Kamrava’s analysis doesn’t stop there, however. With a forensic lens he identifies both the processes and the people who where responsible for creating this situation. In short, he isolates four reasons why the current status quo has come to be:

First was the sheer fact that the nascent Palestinian identity was subjected to conquest and defeat by a technologically superior adversary, initially by the British occupation – particularly in its savage suppression of the revolt of 1936-9 – and then by what was to become Israel.

Second, says Kamrava, was Israel’s policy of ethnic cleansing demonstrated in both 1948 and 1967, which has continued in the form of its modern day corollary, so-called “silent transfer”.

The third reason is similar in that it was also the product of a military struggle. This time it was the failure of the armed struggle against Israel. This began long before the outbreak of the first intifada of 1987 and took the form of various asymmetric assaults on Israeli military and civilian targets, including the infamous torture and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and associated alliances with various extremely unsavoury foreign leaders.

There were two consequences of this period that were perhaps the most damaging to the Palestinian cause: the ejection of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) – the vanguard of the cause – from nearby countries and its relocation to Tunisia, far from its focus of concern. There was also the alienation of potential international supporters, who were fed the narrative that the conflict was one between “a state” – representing stability and civilisation –versus barbaric “terrorists”, rather than a history of devastating colonisation, disposition and fierce nationalist resistance.


The final reason that Kamrava gives for the “Impossibility of Palestine” stands apart from the others, not only because it demonstrates a different methodological basis for the restriction of Palestinian ambitions toward statehood – in that it is not a result of military loss – but also because it is a critical indictment of the Palestinian leadership itself. Simply put, the final reason for the hopelessness of Palestinian Statehood in Kamrava’s view is the betrayal of that endeavour by successive Palestinian leaders.

In short, he suggests that both Yasser Arafat – the leader of the PLO (1969-2004) and first president of the Palestinian Authority (1994-2004) – and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, both effectively betrayed the Palestinian cause through their emphases on the trappings of office rather than creating substantive change on the ground. Moreover, claims Kamrava, in reality Mahmoud Abbas is not an actual president. “Abbas,” he says, “is, in effect, the Mayor of Ramallah and not much more.”

However, none of this should be taken to mean that the PA leadership is beyond criticism. Abbas is not – as some might assume – making the best of a bad lot. Instead, he is using the limited power available to him to line the pockets of himself, his family and his cronies while simultaneously using the various mechanisms of the “state” to suppress extremely brutally even the mildest forms of dissent.

The fact that Abbas’s son, Tareq, has just added a $1.5 million apartment to his collection of villas and other foreign property highlights the ostentatiousness of wealth at the top of the PA. Numerous similar such scandals also hint at corruption, including the existence of a $1 million account exposed through the “Panama Papers” and allegations of misusing public funds alongside the resentment caused by his monopoly control of Tabaco imports to the occupied territories.

It can’t be much of a surprise, then, that according to the latest opinion polls from the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Studies, the “perception of corruption in PA institutions stands today at 80 per cent” and more than half of respondents perceived the PA to be a “burden” on the people. All of this comes at a time when inequality among Palestinians in the occupied territories is reaching astonishing levels. As Tariq Dana explains, “According to recent reports, some public sector officials earn a monthly salary of more than $10,000, as well as enjoying other privileges. By contrast, two-thirds of PA public sector employees earn between $515 and $640 monthly.”


Abbas’s personal popularity is consistently in the doldrums; most recently, polls show that “65 per cent of the public want President Abbas to resign” and, in a head-to-head election with Hamas’s Gaza-based leader Ismail Haniyeh he would lose by 5 per cent of the vote. Moreover, if elections were to be held without Abbas’s participation – not an unlikely prospect, given the current president’s advanced age and frequent expressions of dissatisfaction with his job – polls suggest that imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti would be the most favoured candidate.

Yet, according to Hillary Clinton, the most likely successor to Barack Obama as US president, the Palestinians can’t be trusted with their own democratic process. This is because – in her view – the “alternative for Abbas might be ISIS.” Of course – because it’s impossible to prove a negative – Clinton’s argument is more an example of fear-mongering rhetoric than solid logic. It’s simply another way of saying “better the devil you know”.

The devil you know (is still a devil)

Ever since Abbas, unilaterally – and apparently indefinitely – extended his term of office in 2010 there have been numerous editorials and commentary pieces speculating on his future. For Kamrava, though, this particular question doesn’t seem to matter much.

For him, Palestine as a whole is caught in a kind of purgatory – somewhere between life and death – with no apparent way out. He suggests that while there might be a “Palestinian Mandela” somewhere, waiting in the wings, he or she would make little difference under current circumstances. There would simply be an exchange of one “Mayor of Ramallah” for another.

This is where my own reasoning departs from Kamrava’s. There may well be no clear way out of purgatory for the Palestinians now, but this doesn’t mean that there is nothing that can be done, even if it is for no other reason than to punish the current leadership of the PA for its successive failures and syphoning-off of valuable resources while conditions for ordinary Palestinians grow only worse.

In these dark and uncaring times, where misery and conflict abound, there is often an apparently compelling case for the “devil you know”, but let’s not forget that the “devil you know” is still a devil.

Instead, we should follow on from Kamrava’s first assertion that there is a Palestinian nation, even if there is no state, and that this national identity has endured, and even flourished, in spite all of the forces stacked against it. For these reasons, and for many others, the Palestinian nation is deserving of decent leadership who will treat it with respect. The current leadership offers nothing of the sort.

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