Achieving a Palestinian Spring
This Al-Shabaka roundtable was developed in response to Jamil Hilal’s policy brief “Palestinian Answers in the Arab Spring.” A cross-section of policy advisors offer their reflections on the Hilal’s brief, the state of Palestinian politics and society, and the future of the Palestinian national movement. Hani al-Masri discusses why a comprehensive Palestinian uprising has not yet materialized. Will Youmans examines the need to reconceptualize the PLO to produce a PLO 2.0 that fosters decentralized collaboration among equal nodes. Toufic Haddad argues the case for reforming the PLO from below, through real struggles on the ground especially in the occupied territories. Mezna Qato contends that participatory democratic mobilization will form the basis for Palestinian liberation. Rana Barakat questions Hilal’s case for elections, asking whether they can begin to cure all the ills of the PLO and notes that the organization was not the victim of Oslo but part and parcel of the agreement. Ali Abunimah suggests that, instead of an institution-centered revival of the national movement, Palestinians ought to focus their limited resources on an agenda-centered revival, with specific reference to the three goals of the 2005 civil society call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). Beshara Doumani argues that Palestinian answers to the Arab Spring have to take into account socioeconomic and cultural challenges, not just political ones; and that the frequently invoked concept of "fragmentation" is a problematic one that needs to be approached critically and historically.
In his response, Jamil Hilal contends that the main issue is how Palestinians can rebuild rather than reform their national movement. Hilal adds that a new national movement must perform the role of maestro, coordinating activism by different and disparate Palestinian communities in order to achieve national, social, and human rights.
The impact of the Arab revolutions on Palestine is evidenced in the youth movement on March 15, the reconciliation agreement on April 27, and the commemoration of the Nakba on May 15. This impact will multiply since Palestine, the land of revolutions and uprisings for more than 130 years, cannot be immune to this spirit.
There are many reasons why a comprehensive Palestinian uprising did not ultimately materialize as some had believed it would:
The previous revolutions and uprisings – as many as 15 - in which the Palestinian people made tremendous sacrifices, did not achieve their primary objectives, although there have been gains. Before the people can rise up again, they want to understand and address the reasons for failure so that the next uprising can achieve results.
The devastating division between Fatah and Hamas depleted the potential of the Palestinian people, with both organizations engaging in a destructive internal conflict over power, benefits and positions.
There is lack of clarity regarding both the objectives of an uprising and the strategies to realize them. Since the 1980s, the Palestinian leadership has fallen short of the national agenda endorsed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), at the same time as Hamas has been adopting this agenda. There is confusion and uncertainty about what should be done regarding September and beyond. Indeed, Palestinians fear that their struggle and popular resistance might be used as a tactic to resume negotiations. They also worry about the focus on the West Bank and Gaza Strip while neglecting the remaining segments of the Palestinian people.
The leadership is disinclined to pursue either a popular or armed uprising because it fears the consequences and worries about its status as well as its Arab and international relations, particularly with Israel. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has openly declared that he is against all forms of uprising. The Palestinian Authority (PA) prevents any friction with the settlers or at checkpoints to prevent clashes that could develop into an uprising. If the PA supports an uprising, it will be punished by Israel; if it represses an uprising the people will turn against it.
The Arab revolutions have succeeded only in Tunisia and Egypt where they remain in a transitory stage that could be protracted. The fate of the revolutions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria is not yet decided, nor have they yet broken out in other Arab countries. Thus, the final picture as well as the medium-and long-term implications of revolution remain unclear. A Palestinian revolution that takes place amidst unfinished Arab revolutions would be inappropriately timed, with Arab peoples preoccupied with other affairs and unable to grant their maximum support.
The direct implications of Arab revolutions are contradictory. On the one hand they have strengthened the demand for a two-state solution, as can be seen in President Barak Obama’s speech and several international actions. At the same time, the prospects for such a solution have been weakened, as can be seen in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech. Moreover, Palestinian popular actions now raise the refugees’ right of return with unprecedented frequency compared to the period between the signing of the Oslo Accords and 2010.
I am entirely sympathetic to Jamil Hilal’s essay but would suggest we re-conceptualize the PLO, or PLO 2.0. Instead of a centralized, top-heavy, organ that becomes the center of a democratized Palestinian politics, we should be thinking of strengthening ties between networks, of finding new ways of coordination and collaboration between differently positioned Palestinians. A central, top-heavy organizational entity is inherently inflexible, too easy to co-opt and bottlenecks the creative currents and political cultures that are too often suppressed, especially those of younger generations.
What we have now that we did not have during the PLO’s heyday are advanced communication technologies, tools that allow for the rapid sharing of information and knowledge. As Manuel Castells writes, a network society is built of nodes and connectors. De-centralization is a fact of modern life, and as Palestinians, we’ve lived fragmented political lives, which Hilal points out is a symptom of Oslo myopia.
Forcing a centralization on the greater Palestinian body politic, in the form of a strong PLO, is incongruent with the fact of Palestinian dispersion as well as the logics of collective action that exist today, which the Arab Spring epitomized. Instead of a large, formalized institution, PLO 2.0 should be about the production, sharing and circulation of data, collaboration among equal nodes. It is about discourses, not by-laws; culture, not back-room politics.
I would argue for the PLO to be just one equal node that works to strengthen other nodes, to coordinate between them, and build ties. Rather than being a democratic umbrella that represents all different Palestinian groups, it should seek to embolden and strengthen the various nodes -- from camps in Lebanon, to groups in North America. Perhaps at a later time, the PLO could emerge as a fully central node, and even re-earn the status as a representative agent.
To be clear, I do not believe communication technology is our savior, it’s just we’ve been too fragmented to propagate a new center, and new models of political organizing now exist.