In November 2022 I returned to Palestine/Israel (P/I) for the first time in three years. I returned primarily to meet with some of the people I had met on previous visits. All were, and are, significantly involved in P/I politics, with long and noble personal histories of activism, for which they and their families have suffered at Israeli hands.
Any account given here can be no more than the sharing of fragments, glimpses of insight necessarily incomplete. Underpinning all the conversations were the questions that exercises so many of us: Who speaks for Palestine? When will a legitimate leadership emerge?
The legacy of the Oslo Accords (1993/94) permeated, explicitly or not, all the conversations. The Accords created, or exacerbated, existing centrifugal tendencies within the Palestinian people and polity.
The Accords, coupled with the Palestinian National Council’s 1998 Declaration of Independence, effectively disaggregated a previously assumed unity of Palestinian concerns and interests into three distinct spheres:
- those within the OPT – 22% of historic Palestine, the subject of the Declaration of Independence – wherein a new Palestinian state was supposed to emerge.;
- the Palestinian diaspora’s right of return consideration of which was to be subject of final status negotiations within five years of the Accords;
- and the ’48 Palestinian citizens of Israel that figured not at all under Oslo.
Among the younger people I spoke to, their goal was liberation, an end to colonialism. Armed resistance was seen as legitimate for a range of reasons: as pushback to counter the violence daily perpetrated by the Israeli colonialist regime; and because talking and negotiation had failed utterly. These views chime with a December 2022 survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research which found that 72 percent of respondents supported forming armed groups similar to the Lion’s Den, which is based around Nablus.
Liberation! Then what?
When I asked my interlocutors, after liberation, then what? This question brought no clear answer. The focus was on liberation first, what follows would be determined after it had been achieved. Tactics taking precedence over strategy. The goal is known: Liberation. And, at this stage, that’s enough to be getting on with. The difficulty here is that liberation is an abstract idea, it’s not a programme for change or governance.
By way of contrast, and a salutary reminder that Palestinians are not a homogeneous group sharing in every regard the same interests, two or three students I interviewed at Birzeit university took issue with my questioning the role of the Palestinian Authority. These particular students supported the PA and straightforwardly explained why: family members were PA employees. The PA was a source of family livelihoods and was not to be dismissed in negative terms.
One knows, of course, that the PA is a substantial, possibly the predominant, employer in the West Bank and a significant one in Gaza. But the encounter with those particular students turned abstract figures into the flesh and blood of real lives being lived, and the fragility that attends them. Any change, or unravelling, of the PA at some potential future point will need to take into account how, for many Palestinians, daily existence relies on that body, and that, not simply cynically, but pragmatically, prompts loyalty to it.
One young woman I spoke to, she a committed, courageous activist, was clear that the older generation, her parent’s generation, who in this case had been, and are, activists, had got it all wrong. They had failed. They had believed in the value of talking, negotiating but for what? Things had got worse. As for the Oslo Accords, they represented ‘a sort of giving up’. ‘My generation will fight for all rights, from the river to the sea’. ‘We have no leadership in this situation.’
‘We are not victims. You need to see us as freedom fighters. ‘Only choice we have is to struggle against the colonising enemy.’ She had no faith in the UN, nor in other international institutions.
Here, too, the ‘after liberation, what? question had no answer. And in this conversation at least, seemed not immediately pressing. This was a brave, young woman, seemingly inhabiting a space between resolve and despair.
Her father, I’ll call him ‘X…’, had an interesting comment about his daughter and her generation. He described his daughter’s generation as more active, strong and brave. Thinking about himself at his daughter’s age, there was a ‘colonisation of the mind’. Israel had not only colonised the land, but also the Palestinian psyche. Hence, Oslo. He sees the two-state solution as a project of the Israeli left. The ‘solution’ maintains Israel as a Jewish state for which Palestinians have to relinquish 78% of historic Palestine. At one time he had supported Oslo and the two-state solution.
The conversation with ‘X…’ turned to the question of leadership. Oslo had split Palestinians from themselves. Palestinian citizens of Israel in particular felt cut off by the endorsement of the two states approach. Israeli Palestinians ‘felt alone’, uncoupled from the wider Palestinian people. In response, some had begun to identify more strongly with Israel, to seek full rights there, for it seemed that is where their future lay. However, in contrast to this nascent tendency, X… felt that it had reached its peak and it was now in decline. This a judgment, at this stage not informed by polling or other opinion gathering.
More widely, and perhaps encouragingly, attention was being turned to revitalising Fatah, this as part of a process to revive the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people as a whole. An approach that negates Oslo. Informal talks were going on between a range of Fatah, and ex-Fatah people. This assessment underscored by a cautionary note that it is early days yet. How matters will turn out, cannot at this time be known.
Palestinian Popular Conference (14 million)
Against the divisive, damaging logic of Oslo and its consequences, there is the hope that a unified counter-movement is developing. On the 5 November 2022 the Palestinian Popular Conference (14 Million) was held simultaneously in Occupied Palestine, and among ’48 Palestinians, as well as in places where Palestinians are present in the diaspora. At its heart was the call for the reinstatement of the PLO as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, based on the Palestinian National Charter of 1968.
I had a conversation with one of those involved. Significantly, he is a ’48 Palestinian, this in itself a testament to the integrative intent of the conference. He believed that over the past decade Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli dissenting intellectuals and academics had contributed to broadening thinking about responses to the Palestine/Israel situation. (Interestingly, by way of an aside, he floated the notion that, within Zionism, nothing that could be described as new thinking had emerged in the same period)
However, the imperative was now to create a popular movement, not limited to or dominated by intellectuals and academics. A movement ‘built from below’.
How this initiative will fare cannot at this stage be assessed. But what can be said is that the conference represents a radical break with the rationale underpinning, and the policies pursued, over the past fifty years.
One Democratic State from the river to the sea
Those I spoke to, Palestinian and Jewish-Israelis, are all engaged with the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC). What was, and to a significant degree still is, a campaign generated and sustained by intellectuals and academics, has as its self-appointed task to broaden the popular base of the campaign.
One democratic state from the river to the sea, notwithstanding the momentous difficulties and obstacles that need to be overcome, is not only an ethical imperative, but also a political necessity if there is to be the remotest chance of peace in historic Palestine.
It is of course true that the West, the PA and other interests continue to pay homage to the ill-described two-state ‘solution’, but empty rituals of obeisance to a dead idea will not revivify it. Notable in this context is another finding in the survey of Palestinian opinion referred to above. Support for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict with Israel in the framework of the two-state solution has receded over the course of three months, now standing at 32 percent, according to the poll. A decade ago, support was at 55 percent.
Nothing said here can minimise nor counter the dire state of affairs in Palestine/Israel. In the words of one of the Palestinian interviewees, ‘The immediate position is bleak, it will get worse, there will be more blood spilled. We are going to suffer’.
In the same conversation, in discussing the absence of a unified Palestinian leadership, yet taking account of, for example, the discussions taking place among Fatah members and ex-members, and the Palestinian Popular Conference (14 Million), and the continuing momentum of the ODSC, he quoted Gramsci:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear
An oft-quoted line, perhaps, but here has a sense of unerring accuracy.