The Palestinians Abroad Conference in Istanbul has presented nothing less than a challenge to the national authority installed and supported by Israel's allies in Ramallah. Despite the best efforts of the Palestinian Authority to prevent Palestinians from the diaspora getting together in this way, well over 4,000 men and women from 50 countries have gathered in the historic city to demand change.
For almost a quarter of a century, the Palestinian diaspora – now estimated at seven million strong – has been ignored and denied a voice in national decision-making processes. This was a direct consequence of the 1993 Oslo Accords, through which the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) granted full recognition to Israel in exchange for a tightly-controlled presence in the occupied territories.
One veteran speaker who participated in the drafting of the Palestinian National Covenant and the PLO Basic Law recalled for the conference the tragedy of the past two decades. "Our people have been struck by many calamities, from the Balfour Declaration through the British mandate and then the Nakba of 1948," explained Dr Anis Fawzi Qassim bitterly, "but the greatest of them all was Oslo. That turned the Palestinian revolution into a protector of the [Israeli] occupation."
The Istanbul conference was the result of many years of advocacy and initiatives spearheaded by institutions like the Palestinian Return Centre in Britain and its affiliates across Europe and Latin America. The idea of a mass gathering of the Palestinian diaspora has been discussed for some time. Prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, plans to convene in Damascus never materialised. Hence, when the the Turkish government agreed for the conference to be held in Istanbul, the opportunity was welcomed and seized.
Although apparently random, the timing of the event was not without poignancy, for 25 February was the anniversary of the Hebron Massacre. It was in 1994 that an American terrorist, Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein, shot 29 Palestinians as they prayed at dawn in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron's Old City.
Moreover, the demands for the Palestinian diaspora to have some formal representation were totally vindicated when the Israeli daily Haaretz revealed, just days before the conference, details of a "secret meeting" in Aqaba in February last year. Attended by Egypt's Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, King Abdullah of Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the then US Secretary of State John Kerry, the meeting was held to discuss a peace settlement in Palestine. However, there was no apparent Palestinian representation, although the muted reaction to the Haaretz article from the PA in Ramallah suggests that the leadership knew rather more about it than is being made public. This prompts a lot of questions and very few answers.
Has Palestinian decision-making been franchised off to regional and foreign interests? Why was the Aqaba meeting held in secret, and why were there no Palestinian representatives involved? If they were, then why the secrecy? The people of Palestine – whether at home or in enforced exile – have a right to know.
Whatever the plans were that the former US administration cooked up post-Aqaba, or whatever it is that Donald Trump and Netanyahu are now planning together, the role of the diaspora in advancing the Palestinian project for national liberation has become ever more important. It is, after all, the Palestinians whose country has been occupied for almost 70 years, and whose land is being stolen on a daily basis by Israel's colonial policies. Natural justice and international laws and conventions are on their side; they have to be engaged, otherwise any "solution" will have no legitimacy whatsoever.
Diaspora involvement was a theme running throughout the Istanbul conference. There was, however, a recognition that none of the goals outlined would be achieved without addressing the issue of leadership. One of the organisers, former Palestinian National Council member Dr Salman Abu Sitta, outlined tersely what was required: a leadership that was "capable and clean [of impeccable character]."
The current leadership is clearly lacking on both counts. Indeed, there is an undeniable sense that both the PLO and the PNC in their present forms are no longer fit for purpose. What appears unresolved though, is whether or not to abandon both entities and establish alternative bodies. Herein lies the challenge.
While the older generation seem wedded to the idea that the PLO should remain the umbrella body for all Palestinians, and the PNC their overarching parliament, there is a widespread view among younger Palestinians that a new beginning should be made, unshackled by the dictates of the Oslo accords and its discredited authority.
Daniel Jadue, the mayor of the Recoleta municipality in Santiago, Chile, is of Palestinian descent; he summed up the thinking of the younger generation succinctly: "If we continue to do business for the next 25 years in the same manner as we did over the past 25, then the results will be the same. But there is far too much human suffering for us to continue in this manner."
On the whole, the Palestinians Abroad Conference represented a turning point in the struggle for liberation and existence in their homeland. It was marked by a profound sense of urgency to fill the vacuum left by a political elite under whose "leadership" their right of return has been neglected, undermined and even threatened.
That this conference was held in the centenary year of the Balfour Declaration is testimony to the determination and indomitable will of the Palestinian people to regain their stolen land and inheritance. The trust is now passing from one generation to another.
This was witnessed unmistakeably when a frail octogenarian, Muhammad Abu Daya, handed over the title deed to his land in what is now Israel to his youngest grandson; he challenged the Israelis to prove that they acquired his land legally. When the youngster accepted the document gracefully and promised to "return" to the property one day, no one was left in any doubt that however long it takes, this struggle will continue until victory is achieved.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.