It was once an internationally renowned anti-colonial movement that brought the question of Palestine into the regional and international spotlight. But today, the Palestinian national movement suffers from increasing irrelevance and dramatic decline, torn by polarisation and division, its national strategy replaced by competing self-serving agendas.
This can easily be attributed to the mechanism of control devised by the Oslo process, notably the Palestinian Authority (PA), which coopted a significant segment of the Palestinian movement and leadership. But the movement’s structural crisis predates Oslo, with factionalism having long sowed the seeds of intra-Palestinian rivalries.
Instead of imbuing the Palestinian body politic with revitalising pluralism, factionalism has instead been largely driven by rigid dogmas and exclusionary politics. It devastated the pre-Nakba Palestinian struggle against British and Zionist colonial forces, which was dominated by clan cleavages inherited from the Ottoman era. Parties lacked clear political programmes and frequently engaged in squabbles over power and authority.
The formation in 1964 of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a collective framework for various political movements initially breathed new life into Palestinian politics. But it was soon riven by competing factional agendas, sometimes presenting irreconcilable visions. The absence of genuine democratic mechanisms within PLO institutions further damaged the national movement.
One of the major historical divides related to the 1974 “10-point programme”, embraced by Fatah but rejected by other factions because it prioritised statehood over liberation through the creation of a “national authority”.
Factionalism constitutes fertile terrain for competing Arab regimes to manipulate Palestinian politics for their own ends. In Syria and Iraq, for example, Baathist forces founded as-Saiqa and the Palestinian Arab Front respectively, aiming to represent their competing claims within the PLO. This was a factor in diverting the national movement from its anti-colonial objectives towards rival Arab state interests.
Islamic movements introduced an additional factional pillar to the national movement. The foundation of Islamic Jihad in 1981 and Hamas in 1987 challenged the historical dominance of the PLO. Hamas in particular has presented itself as a viable alternative to the crisis-ridden PLO, advancing a radically different vision of how Palestinian politics and society ought to operate, including through a conservative social order.