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November 25, 2009

Palestinian leadership gets F

Dr. Baha Abu-Laban

Dr. Baha Abu-LabanIn recent months, even years, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) or Palestinian Authority (PA), under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Fateh’s top man, has been losing ground.

Under this leadership, the accomplishments of the PA have been unimpressive, to say the least, in part because the PA lacks a clear direction, resolute commitment, and stamina to address issues facing the Palestinian people both on the ground and in terms of their future.

Since the bloody 2007 conflict with Hamas, the main faction that now rules over the Gaza Strip, the PA has been floundering, largely confined to the West Bank.

It is also evident that Hamas, under scrutiny, does not fare any better.

To speak of the “Palestinian people” requires attention not only to those who live in the Israeli Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank (2.5 million) and Gaza (1.5 million) but also to those in Israel (1.4 million), Jordan (3 million), Syria (0.5 million), Lebanon (0.5 million), other Arab countries (0.6 million), and Western countries (0.6 million, half of whom are in the United States and Canada).

The conditions facing these Palestinian groups are not similar as some of them are better off than others.

For example, the Lebanese NGO “International Crisis Group”, says that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, marginalized socioeconomically and lacking of even the most basic political rights, require immediate attention.

Certain Palestinian groups are only a little better off than their counterparts in Lebanon.

Given the unique characteristics of the Palestinian people - many refugees, and existing in several different countries – the challenges for Palestinian leaders since the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948 become obvious. 

This is all the more the case because the Middle East is the site of larger geopolitical power struggles that have played out since the end of World Wart Two. 

The Palestinian leadership, in general, has failed the Palestinian people everywhere, most notably in the political, socio-cultural and the economic spheres.

Will the PA, under the control of Fateh, together with Hamas, be able to rebound and play an effective and constructive role?

Effective Palestinian leadership must address the needs of the Palestinian people wherever they may exist.

Following the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, particularly under Yasser Arafat’s tenure, the PLO must be given credit for:

  • Strengthening the Palestinian national identity.
  • Uniting the disparate Palestinians in Palestine and in diaspora communities around a national cause.
  • Providing social services such as health, education and welfare to Palestinian refugees in different regions.
  •  Implementing a national struggle program against Israel, which intensified after the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars.

This sense of unity —sense of purpose and hope— does not exist among the 10-11 million Palestinians in the world today as it did in the last third of the 20th century.

President Abbas needs to double his efforts to re-unite the geographically separated Palestinian communities and give them hope for the future.

While his immediate focus must be those Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, he should not lose sight of the needs and aspirations of Palestinians elsewhere.

The leadership deficit in both Fateh and Hamas has brought about a rift between the West Bank and Gaza, at a time when Palestinians are most in need of unity of purpose to deal with Israel and its staunch supporter in the West—the United States of America.

So far, this has been an elusive goal.

Egypt has been working for more than a year to heal the split between Hamas and Fateh.

Reportedly, Egypt’s Foreign Minister recently declared that a reconciliation pact between Fateh and Hamas would be signed on October 25, 2009. 

This date came and went, but no pact was signed. Even if such a pact is to be signed soon, there are still many sensitive issues in the relationship between the PA and Hamas that need to be addressed.

A complicating factor was President Abbas’ early-October 2009 decision to suspend action on Justice Richard Goldstone’s report, which was commissioned by the United Nations Human-Rights Council and which investigated the actions of Israel during the Gaza war in December 2008 and January 2009.

The report found strong evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Not surprisingly, Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza (and elsewhere), as well as Palestinian NGOs in the homeland, several Arab states, the Arab League, and Hamas were stunned and outraged by Mahmoud Abbas’ inept decision not to demand that the UN Security Council debate the Goldstone report forthwith.

In so doing, President Abbas wasted a golden opportunity to expose Israel for what it really is—a militarized colonial, settler state.

One consequence of this ill-advised decision is the chatter we are hearing today among some Hamas spokespersons that this is the wrong time to reconcile with Fateh.

In the face of heavy opposition, President Abbas, shortly thereafter (around October 8, 2009), reversed his decision and is now demanding that the Goldstone report be discussed by the UN Security Council.

While this is a welcome move by the Palestinian president, the fact remains that a great deal of damage has already been done.

Effective leaders seize upon every opportunity to advance the interests of those they claim to represent.

This has not been the case in another important area which requires immediate attention.

Specifically, President Abbas and his followers, though constrained by Israel and the United States of America, need to develop appropriate tactics and strategy in support of the Palestinian Arab residents of East Jerusalem, whose rights are violated on a daily basis.

The future capital of a Palestinian state is gripped with fear, violence, and tension between Muslim and Jew, particularly in light of the fact that the Jewish settlements in Occupied Arab East Jerusalem are expanding stupendously.

For a long time now, we have been witnessing a creeping process of Judaization of East Jerusalem. Hence, it is critical to continue to insist on a freeze on Jewish settlements not only in the occupied West Bank, but also in Occupied Arab East Jerusalem.

Neither in schooling for the Palestinian Arab children, nor in freedom of movement, nor in economic conditions is the lives of the Arab residents of Jerusalem normal.

The time to do something about Occupied Arab East Jerusalem and its threatened al-Aqsa Mosque is now, and no effort should be spared to address this worsening situation.

The alternative, we are told by none other than some Fateh officials, is the likely eruption of a third intifada among the Arab population of Palestine.

Despite his insistence on a settlement freeze before any negotiations could take place with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, President Abbas, ill-advisedly, broke his word and met with Netanyahu in New York last September 2009, to discuss prospects for the negotiations.

It is understandable for the President of the United States to put a great deal of pressure on President Abbas to meet with Netanyahu, but there are moments in the life of a leader where he or she must yield to higher principles more than to crude external pressure.

What we have witnessed is a situation which casts doubt on President Abbas’ resoluteness.

Moreover, life in the West Bank, not to mention Gaza, is oppressive to say the least.

No wonder that in 2005 more that 170 Palestinian civil society organizations called for an international campaign of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

The aim is to restore a modicum of peace and social and cultural security to the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza.

The inspiration for this campaign came from the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. 

The BDS campaign is a reminder that civil society groups everywhere may have a role to play in addressing the deplorable human rights conditions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Since the start of this campaign in 2005, the BDS movement has picked up a lot of international support among civil society groups, activists, academics, university students, and humanitarian agencies, much to Israel’s chagrin.

Significantly, many Jewish groups have joined forces with other non-Jewish groups in support of this campaign.

Not surprisingly, Israel’s supporters in Western countries have mobilized to counter the growing importance and success of the BDS movement. A common tactic among pro-Israel groups has been to label supporters of the BDS movement as anti-Semitic.

However, proponents of the movement have countered Zionist and Israeli propaganda by emphasizing that they are not anti-Semitic. Rather, that they are against Israel’s racist policies against the Palestinian Arabs, both Christian and Muslims.

While the Israeli state is vigilant, with a constant presence on the international scene to fight any criticism of its policies, the PA does not present a similar presence to articulate the daily human rights abuses experienced by oppressed Palestinians, let alone defend, their social, economic, and cultural rights.

At a recently-held Fateh Convention in Bethlehem to elect a leader (August 4-11, 2009), President Abbas was reinstated as Fateh’s top man.

Curiously, however, the Convention determined that Fateh remains a liberation movement.

It is not clear what this slogan or determination means, but it is important for a leader to convince his people of realistic ways and means of achieving their goals.

Palestinians deserve a better and more transparent leadership.

They deserve to have a detailed strategic plan describing where they stand today and where the Palestinian leadership commits to take them in the short, medium, and long term.

Dr. Baha Abu-Laban is Professor Emeritus at the University of Alberta.

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