A thousand Palestinians from all over the world met in Istanbul last weekend to elect a new leadership for the Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad and to evaluate its work over the five years since it was established in 2017. The conference is the only entity that brings Palestinians together outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and calls for their legitimate rights to be recognised and implemented. By its very nature, the conference rejects the marginalisation or exclusion of expatriate Palestinians from the political process in their occupied homeland.
Palestinians living abroad support the legitimate right to resist the Israeli occupation until it is ended; the liberation of the holy sites; and the legitimate right of return for refugees. These are the basic constants of the Palestinian cause that cannot be waived or neglected by any party. Participants at the conference were keen to stress the importance of this point.
Istanbul remains the only major capital city to open its arms to the Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad, despite intense pressure from Mahmoud Abbas and his leadership team to prevent it taking place. As the titular head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Palestinian Authority and Fatah, Abbas does not want any genuine representation of the people of occupied Palestine, especially those who reject his defeatist approach to the occupation. He is making political and diplomatic efforts to prevent expat Palestinians from meeting to reject the Oslo Accords, even at the grassroots level, as is the case with this conference.
Palestinians from all backgrounds took part in Istanbul. Notable absentees included those who are directly subordinate to Abbas, or have material interests in him staying in control. The presence of young men and women alike was remarkable; they are our future and it was heartening to see them at the conference.
However, the lack of institutional and democratic action for and by Palestinians was evident, which cast a shadow over proceedings. Some participants have been able to exercise their right to vote for the first time, whereas others are unable to criticise any party freely except during this programme. Anger and tension were the understandable results, albeit justified in such a context.
Critics of the Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad allege that the organisers waste both time and money. Such allegations are usually exaggerated, and are made without seeking the full facts beforehand. The reality is that most of the participants paid to attend the conference and covered their expenses; others from the refugee camps and thus on low incomes were sponsored by relatively wealthy businessmen. Travel costs were paid for by the participants themselves.
It cannot be stressed enough that an exceptional conference like this taking place every four years is of immense benefit, and is therefore justified in terms of expense, because it brings Palestinians together to coordinate activities and promotion of the cause. The conference also provides a unique networking opportunity for participants and organisations, including charities and humanitarian NGOs.
As is usual in such gatherings, everyone with specific interests felt that the time allocated to them was insufficient. That is inevitable, though, and does not detract from the overall effectiveness of the conference. Even the sort of opening day protocols seen regularly at major events had to be curtailed, such was the pressure on the organisers to squeeze as much as possible onto the programme.
There were also administrative and logistical difficulties that need to be acknowledged and eased so that Palestinian community work can be more structured and coordinated. This is essential if the Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad is to become more widely known across the diaspora and the objective of having one million members is to be achieved.
The new leadership was duly elected, including the Secretary-General, Dr Ahmad Muhaisen, following some recent regulatory amendments. He is supported by the General Secretariat and a committee, the Public Authority, chosen to represent the membership.
Such collective effort for the sake of Palestine and its people is both appreciated and necessary, especially in the absence of democratic and transparent Palestinian representation in our occupied homeland. Abbas and the PA, remember, cancelled the scheduled presidential and legislative elections last year, and have reduced the size of the PLO and made it an affiliate of the PA, instead of the reverse. The PLO is now dependent on the president of the still largely hypothetical "State of Palestine".
The belief in the Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad shown by national figures such as Palestinian thinker Mounir Chafiq, veteran diplomat Rabhi Halloum, economist Fouad Bseiso and the elected head of the Public Authority of the conference, Samaan Khoury, along with many others, is testimony to its importance in serving the Palestinian national project. The repositioning of the Palestinian expatriates towards the centre of the project is essential given the attempts by Abbas and his allies to marginalise them.
As one participant pointed out, "One hand is not able to clap." Palestinian expatriates across the diaspora have a vital role to play in the future of the national project. The Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad is dedicated to making sure that they are not overlooked by the leadership within occupied Palestine. It should not be dismissed lightly.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.