It was the 18th of September, our third evening in Ramallah. We were at the Ramallah Cultural Palace to listen to Palestinian youth bands perform. The place was teeming with people, mostly young, in their twenties and thirties. The hall was packed, the atmosphere so electric that even if Magid had not been there to explain, there was no way we could have missed the excitement and the anger that the songs evoked in the audience. Interestingly, not all the songs were about Zionist oppression and the travails of everyday life in occupied Palestine. When a song critical of the PA (Palestinian Authority) began, the hall went up in spontaneous applause, endorsing the sarcastic lyrics directed at PA that has lately been involved in carrying out repression on its own population.
The complexity of the current phase of the movement arises from the fact that now, the new forces of Palestinian liberation are arrayed, not merely against Israeli occupation but also against this entity called PA and the Oslo Accords that put in place the political arrangements that mark the division of territories today. An arrangement that was supposed to be merely an interim one lasting but a few years, until the question of Palestinian statehood could be settled, has become a quasi-permanent one that is seen to threaten the longer-term goal itself.
Talk of a third Intifada is in the air. Speaking at the opening of the Conference “Two Years on the Arab Spring – Questions and Faultlines”, George Giacaman, General Director of Muwatin (the institute that had organized the conference), said that the greatest challenge for the Palestinians would be “to avoid ‘a new Oslo’ which would fail to solve the conflict, but rather postpone it by a continuation of Israeli land confiscation and settlement”. Later, in our conversations with activists of the youth movement and other academics and intellectuals in Palestine, we realized that this sentiment is constantly brewing under the surface, even if its contours are not very clear at the moment.
But Palestinians are not the only ones talking about this possible new uprising. Witness this report by Nathan Thrall in the New York Times, that claims that the ‘Third Intifada is Inevitable‘. Nathan Thrall’s report, published in June 2012, draws on what he claims was ‘a private meeting’ between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former intelligence officers, ‘Middle East’ experts and his security advisors – all of whom warned Netanyahu of an ‘imminent Palestinian intifada’:
The immediate catalyst, they said, could be another mosque vandalized by Jewish settlers, like the one burned on Tuesday, or the construction of new settlement housing. Whatever the fuse, the underlying source of ferment in the West Bank is a consensus that the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, has reached a dead end.
Both Geroge Giacaman’s emphasis on the need to avoid ‘a new Oslo’ and the point stressed in Thrall’s report above, underline one thing beyond any doubt: The Palestinian Authority (PA) and the entire arrangement that emerged out of the Oslo accords, is now being seen as an impediment in the future struggle against Zionist occupation. ‘New settlement housing’ and ‘vandalizing of the mosque/s by Jewish settlers’ referred to above – are increasingly being understood as impossible to resist within the framework created by Oslo.
This post addresses the present state of the struggle against ‘Zionist apartheid’ – a relatively recent analogy that is being drawn between apartheid in South Africa and the one in occupied Palestine. By referring to Israeli/ Zionist apartheid, it seems the Palestinian struggle has already begun to indicate the contours of what might be a post-Zionist, post-apartheid dispensation. If the dismantling of apartheid be the model – however imperfect – then the pointers are irrevocably towards a one-state solution. What its exact form will be is of course, difficult to predict and it is not my intention to speculate on it. What I do want to highlight here is the fact that the dispensation that emerged after the Oslo accords and the Paris Protocol (widely referred to as the ‘economic appendix’ to Oslo), is precisely what is at the heart of the conflict in Palestine today. This dispensation that ties the hands of the Palestinians as a subjugated population in an economy whose controls are firmly in the hands of the Israeli government, has led lately to increasing protests and mass demonstrations that call into question the entire arrangement. Observers and analysts have begun to see the post-Oslo arrangement as a way of “outsourcing the occupation”.
Gershom Gorenberg writes of this in his report on protests in early September in Ramallah, Hebron and other areas:
Thousands of Palestinians take to the streets. In Hebron, demonstrators burn an effigy. In Tul Karm, Ramallah, and other cities, they block streets and set tires ablaze. Teens hurl stones. All of the West Bank’s bus, truck, and taxi drivers go on strike for a day. In Bethlehem, truckers park sideways, blocking streets. In Nablus, kindergarten teachers join the strike; elsewhere storekeepers shut their shops. Universities announce they, too, will strike.
These are updates from the West Bank over the past week. They sound as if taken from the start of the first Palestinian uprising against Israel 25 years ago. But the leader burned in effigy in Hebron was Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian government in Ramallah, rather than Israel, is the direct target of protest. Economic frustration sparked the fury. This sounds like a variation on revolts in other Arab states—except the Palestinian Authority isn’t an independent state. Set up so as to provide short-term, limited autonomy until a peace agreement, it has become the lasting means by which Israel outsources its rule over Palestinians in occupied territory. Donor countries foot the budget; the PA provides local services. Israel’s current government acts as if the arrangement can last forever. The protests show how unstable it really is.
The arrangement put in place through the Oslo accords and Paris protocols not only place Palestine in a subordinate position where everything from currency, tax collection for PA, import-export, labour mobility, control of all productive resources including land and water is in Israeli hands; they make it mandatory for PA areas for instance, to keep fuel prices at not more than 15 percent below Israeli prices.
In another recent article, Neeve Gordon therefore underlines: “The only way to end the occupation is by forsaking Oslo; to force the Palestinian Authority to stop playing this futile game and to deal head on with its disastrous repercussions.”
Another aspect of the post-Oslo dispensation needs to be kept in mind. The West Bank territories were divided into three kinds: Area A, which is the area under PA control and includes most Palestinian cities; Area B that comprises large areas where rural Palestinian communities live and is under Palestinian administrative control and joint Palestinian-Israeli security control; Area C, the crucial part, comprising 60 percent of the Palestinian territory, which “is under complete Israeli administrative and military control, and comprises all Israeli settlements – including roads, buffer zones, and other infrastructure – and Israeli military training areas“. The entire strategy of the Israeli government, in these areas, is to rapidly depopulate it of its Palestinian population. Area C also contains most of the agricultural lands, natural resources and land reserves for other purposes, e.g. industrial development.
It is in this context, then, that the overall political problem of Palestinian liberation from Israeli occupation has got closely tied to the immediate crises in the everyday lives of a majority of Palestinians, with soaring unemployment, abject poverty and the PA’s inability to take any decisions regarding the economy. Thus writes Nabil al Sahli:
Despite Israel’s repeated closure of its doors to Palestinian workers, there are about 20,000 Palestinians still employed within the state. Before the second intifada the figure was 120,000, a matter which highlighted Israel’s control of 20 per cent of the Palestinian national revenue. Consequently, Palestinian society is exposed to constant Israeli political blackmail. Here, it must be noted that the Israelis handle an estimated $50 million every month from taxes imposed on Arab workers from the West Bank and Gaza who work in Israel.
Altogether, Israeli policies have severely undermined all sectors of the Palestinian economy. This process was accelerated with a series of blockades and military operations against the Palestinian people and their economic infrastructure after the beginning of the Aqsa Intifada in September 2000.
Arab statistical reports, as well as the World Bank, have confirmed a worsening of the unemployment crisis, which reached 60 per cent in the Gaza Strip this year and 30 per cent in the West Bank. As such, two-thirds of Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza suffer from abject poverty, a matter that will pave the way for the eruption of a third intifada.
The Political Divisions in Palestine
The Palestinian liberation struggle has been plagued for the last many years by an internecine struggle between the two major political formations, Fatah and Hamas. The tensions between the two escalated following the death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader in November 2004. The PLO, which was set up in 1964 and was a sort of umbrella organization of a number of different political groups and parties including Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and many others, was recognized as the “sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” by the United Nations and about a 100 states worldwide. With Arafat gone and the situation of the movement already weak, the conflict between the two outfits sharpened. Fatah, which was a largely left-wing nationalist coalition to which Arafat belonged, is now seen as a thoroughly discredited, corrupt organization with deep interests in the continuation of the present arrangement. Hamas, on the other hand is a relatively newer organization, an offshoot of the Egyptian Ikhwanul Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) and has steadily expanded its influence in the Gaza Strip bordering Egypt, over the 1990s. The early activities of Hamas included targeted attacks on left-wing and secular activists including those belonging to Fatah, and Israel, which liked to see PLO as a ‘terrorist organization’, actually played along with it. Consider the following reflections by an Israeli officer, Avner Cohen, who worked in the Gaza Strip:
Instead of trying to curb Gaza’s Islamists from the outset, says Mr. Cohen, Israel for years tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged them as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its dominant faction, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. Israel cooperated with a crippled, half-blind cleric named Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, even as he was laying the foundations for what would become Hamas. Sheikh Yassin continues to inspire militants today; during the recent war in Gaza, Hamas fighters confronted Israeli troops with “Yassins,” primitive rocket-propelled grenades named in honor of the cleric.
These observations made in 2009, reflect on what is the classic fallacy of the counter-insurgency strategist. This very revealing report in the Wall Street Journal, which cites Cohen, also cites the following from a 1980s Islamist leader of Birzeit:
A leader of Birzeit’s Islamist faction at the time was Mahmoud Musleh, now a pro-Hamas member of a Palestinian legislature elected in 2006. He recalls how usually aggressive Israeli security forces stood back and let conflagration develop. He denies any collusion between his own camp and the Israelis, but says “they hoped we would become an alternative to the PLO.”
Shades of the al-Qaeda story here. However, such are the ironies of history that when the Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, Israel, the US and the EU, went berserk and imposed sanctions and suspended all foreign aid, which has been crucial for Palestine’s survival. Today Hamas rules in Gaza like any other Islamist outfit, policing people’s personal and love lives as well.
The period from March to December 2006 saw increasing tensions as Fatah commanders refused to take orders and both sides embarked on a campaign of abductions and assassination. The violent conflict between these two major outfits, controlling two different parts of PA territory, continued unabated till 2011. Peace talks between them continued between 2010 and 2011 and a sort of agreement was arrived at, for which the real impetus seems to have come from the pressure of the youth movement.
The Palestinian Youth Movement
The Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) is an independent global movement of Palestinian youth – those in Palestine as well as those in exile in different parts of the world. It is clearly a movement that has been made possible by the new forms of global communication – especially the Internet – and it is a movement that emerges out of a disgust with political parties. It is widely perceived, especially within Palestine, that the two major political outfits have relegated the issue of Palestine’s liberation to the background. If Fatah, under the stewardship of the current President of PA in the West Bank, is seen to have developed a stake in the continuation of the present arrangement of power, Hamas is not seen as an alternative either. As Abu Yazan, one of the youth organizers in Gaza, told Time magazine: “For them [Hamas], they have God first, then their movement, their movement, their movement. Then Palestine.”
The beginnings of the PYM go back to 2006, when a series of meetings, conferences and summer camps were held in Amman (Jordan), Barcelona and Madrid (Spain), Paris (France) and a number of other locations. It is necessary to underline here that even though enabled through global communication networks, the PYM is not simply a virtual movement – nor just a network that is coordinated only through the Internet. In fact, it has evolved an organizational form where every national contingent is governed by a National General Assembly and a National Coordinating Committee elected by the General Assembly. Similarly, there is an International General Assembly and an International Coordination Committee to steer the movement.
The PYM was therefore well in place by the time the Arab Spring began. Undoubtedly, the Arab movements against their own oppressive regimes provided a great impetus to the PYM. It was against that background that one of the youth movement’s major interventions, the March 15 2011 demonstrations, were organized in Gaza and the West Bank, demanding that Fatah and Hamas stop their internecine war. It was a stirring call for Palestinian unity in which, by all accounts, “tens of thousands” of Palestinians participated. According to one report, an estimated 100, 000 people turned up at the rally in Gaza alone, where Hamas supporters first tried to disperse them and then attacked them with clubs. Hamas’ attack on the demonstrators actually had the opposite effect and the official leadership hastily issued denials about their role in the attacks. Quickly sensing the popular mood among the youth, both Hamas and Fatah moved towards reconciliation. As a report in Aljazeera put it:
Reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah may present the first victory of a nascent Palestinian youth movement, which earned its moniker, the March 15th movement, from the first day of its mass protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Only one day after the launch of their movement demanding an end to the four-year internecine conflict that also divided the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas announced his willingness to travel to Gaza to engage in unity talks, while other leading Fatah members, aware of the youths’ potential force, opened twitter accounts just to follow the pulse of the movement.
But overcoming the political divide that seems increasingly irrelevant to most Palestinians today, seems to be only the first step. For the real goal in the interim, perhaps the next stage, is to move towards a more representative Palestinian body. Thus says the same report:
According to youth leaders, reconciliation is only the first of many demands. The movement which transcends borders, and in some cases, the bounds of qualifying youth age, has its eyes set on rehabilitating the scattered Palestinian national body by holding Palestinian National Council elections that include all Palestinians, regardless of geographic location and circumstance. Its ultimate goal: to reconstruct a Palestinian national programme based upon a comprehensive resistance platform.
Holding elections to the Palestinian National Council in a bid to make it representative not only of the Palestinians living in Palestine but across the world, is one of the key next steps of the movement. Ibrahim Shikaki, one of the youth movement organizers based in Ramallah, thus argues:
Several youth groups have recognized that ending this division is yet but a minimal cause in a wider picture, and have decided to unite on a demand for legitimate representation of Palestinian by calling for an election of the Palestinian National Council (PNC). By creating new election mechanisms, such a body would represent Palestinians around the globe. The ultimate goal is to find a body that – unlike the existing – allows and adopts a resistance program; a program that recognizes and fights against the three layers of oppression; Palestinians living under illegal occupation in the WBGS, Palestinians living as 4th and 5th class citizens inside the state of Israel, and Palestinians expelled from their lands and living in refugee camps and elsewhere around the world.
In some of our most intense political conversations in Ramallah, youth activists spoke about their own experience and how they visualized the movement.
Anan Quzmar is emphatic that the movement is the outcome of the disillusionment of the younger members and potential recruits of political parties, with the way parties function. Yet, it is not as if the youth movement thinks it can simply do away with these outfits. Hence the demand for reconciliation. At one level, he seems to be in agreement with Khaled Entabwe, youth leader in Haifa, who told Alzajeera:
“We have a new conviction that this time more than any other, our work should not be based on party lines – and even if parties are involved, agendas should be taken out of the meetings and everyone present will participate as individual…We are ending the practice of taking positions ‘back to the party‘.”
That is the key difference now. In an earlier time, the agenda was set by political parties and people could only choose from a given menu, but this will no longer be be the case anymore. Agendas will be set independently of the parties and they will have to fall in line with democratic pressures.
Quzmar is very clear that there cannot be any predetermined agenda for the movement:
“There is a lot of discontent but no alternative has emerged as yet. In any case, an alternative political agenda will not fall from the sky. We need to learn from our mistakes. We hope that by marching in streets, we will be able to bring in questions of people’s concerns into the agenda.”
Anan Quzmar and his brother Ismat, also a youth movement activist, were interesting from another point of view. They brought in a certain perspective on the issue of how to relate to the PA, even though they agree with the overall understanding about Oslo outlined above:
“Half-baked ideas about scrapping of Oslo accords seem like a silly demand; what we need to think about more seriously is changing the role of the PA. That alone will change the situation.”
Scrapping Oslo is of course a position identified also with Hamas, but the point that Anan and Ismat were making was that while the demand of bringing down the PA was important, there were problems that needed to be understood.
As Lisa Taraki , Professor at Birzeit University put it, the PA is also a question of the employment of 160, ooo people who work for it. In an economy that is already squeezed by Israel, this is an important consideration. Taraki also refers to the fact, no less important, that in the pre-Oslo days, when Israel had direct control, there were many more arrests and a lot more repression. This is what provides complexity to the situation insofar as evolving a political programme is concerned.
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement
The intimations of what I term “post-party politics” in Palestine were evident in the form of what has come to be known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.
On 9 July 2004, the International Court of Justice issued its well known advisory opinion on the matter of Israel’s Wall. It observed:
“Under customary international law, the Court observes, these were therefore occupied territories in which Israel had the status of occupying Power. Subsequent events in these territories have done nothing to alter this situation. The Court concludes that all these territories (including East Jerusalem) remain occupied territories and that Israel has continued to have the status of occupying Power. ..
“In sum, the Court is of the opinion that the construction of the wall and its associated régime impede the liberty of movement of the inhabitants of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (with the exception of Israeli citizens and those assimilated thereto) as guaranteed under Article 12, paragraph 1, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They also impede the exercise by the persons concerned of the right to work, to health, to education and to an adequate standard of living as proclaimed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Lastly, the construction of the wall and its associated régime, by contributing to the demographic changes mentioned, contravene Article 49, paragraph 6, of the Fourth Geneva Convention and the pertinent Security Council resolutions cited earlier.”
Exactly one year later, on 9 July 2005, members of Palestinian ‘civil society’, noting the failure of the international community to hold Israel accountable, “called upon their counterparts and people of conscience all over the world to launch broad boycotts, implement divestment initiatives, and to demand sanctions against Israel, until Palestinian rights are recognised in full compliance with international law.” Endorsed by about 170 organization, unions and associations, this movement came to be known as the BDS movement that has gained significant support in different parts of the world.
Israeli anti-zionist scholar and activist Ilan Pappe declared:
In order to stop the extension of these war crimes, the extension of this criminal behavior, let’s admit that we need external pressure on the State of Israel. Let’s thank the associations of journalists, physicians and academics who call for a boycott on Israel as long as this criminal policy continues. Let us use the help of civil society in order to make the State of Israel a pariah state, as long as this behavior continues.
Lisa Taraki explains the context and the backdrop:
“The unity that once existed under PLO is no longer there. The PLO which was the hope of so many has splintered. Today the Islamic component is much stronger.”
At some level, it was the sense that things were getting out of control and that the political parties were not really interested in taking up key issues except in some conventional, mostly ineffective ways, that led to an initiative like the BDS.
Fajr Harb, another youth activist in Ramallah, who grew up in Al Bireh in Ramallah, explained to us that there was a sense of despondency following the Israeli response to the second Intifada, when Israel occupied all of the West Bank (though they withdrew later).
“Major political parties had become part of the Oslo process. I became active when I heard of the BDS movement. The way the movement framed its demands made sense and we could also understand what we could do as individuals.”
He tells us that in the last three years, many youth have joined the BDS movement. Like most other youth activists today, Fajr too believes in a one-state solution. This is at one level the direct outcome of the frustration with the post-Oslo arrangement. He is much more categorical that this arrangement must go.
“We want a change of regime – we know it will be a messy process. The PA is very vulnerable but its going can lead to many disasters in the short or medium term.”
But that is a risk one has to be prepared to take, he seems to imply.
The “Other” One-state Solution: Imagining a Post-Zionist Future
There was a time not very long ago when the solution to the Palestine issue appeared intractable. There were basically two diametrically opposed narratives of the conventional one-state solution. On the one hand was the Zionist-Israeli narrative that the land of ‘Israel’ belonged to them by virtue of it being their ‘Promised Land’, on which was based Israel’s Law of Return. The other, the Palestinian narrative, held that they were colonized and dispossessed and their society destroyed, and that there could only be Palestine on that land. Only one of two solutions was possible: either there would be the ‘Jewish state’ of Israel or there would be sovereign Palestine. This is a stance that hardliners and right-wingers in Israel as well as perhaps the Islamists in Hamas still hold today.
At this point we need to take a quick detour to look at Israel’s claim to secularism despite being a Jewish state.
As an article by Annette Grossbongardt in Speigel Online on secularism in Israel tells us, Theodor Herzl dreamed of a secular state in which religion would have no influence whatsoever. “We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples”, he wrote in his 1896 visionary work, The Jewish State. But what Israeli discourse means by ‘secular’ has to do entirely with internal debates in Jewish society. David Ben-Gurion ignored Herzl’s advice, says Grossbongardt, and to attract devout Jews to the new-founded country, he include religious leaders as well in his government. The war in Israel between the secular and the religious, it is clear from her article, is over what defines a good Jew: Is it one who follows God’s commandments and observes all the religious injunctions or is it one who serves the state of Israel? As will be evident, this debate on secularism has nothing whatsoever to do with the co-existence of different religious denominations and the neutrality of the state vis-a-vis them. The state remains irrevocably Jewish.
To return to the debates on ‘The Solution’ then, the actual political negotiations in the past decades have generally had to eschew this either/or stance – as negotiations are wont to – and have been conducted on the assumption of a two-state solution. That is to say, the idea has generally found greater acceptability in practice that there would be two separate sovereign states – Israel and Palestine. That was the basis on which the arrangement in Oslo was carved out and territories divided between Israel and Palestinian territories.
However, as indicated above, the Oslo move towards a two-state solution is now totally discredited within Palestine. Edward Said observed in an important article in 1999, where he advocated an alternative binational one-state solution based on full citizenship for both Israelis and Palestinians:
“To its discredit, Oslo did little to change the situation. Arafat and his dwindling number of supporters were turned into enforcers of Israeli security, while Palestinians were made to endure the humiliation of dreadful and noncontiguous ‘homelands’ that make up about 10 percent of the West Bank and 60 percent of Gaza. Oslo required us to forget and renounce our history of loss, dispossessed by the very people who taught everyone the importance of not forgetting the past. Thus we are the victims of the victims, the refugees of the refugees.”
Said’s larger point about the future however, arose from the recognition that over the past half a century, especially “since Israeli settlements were first implanted on the occupied territories, the lives of Jews have become more and more enmeshed with those of non-Jews.” He therefore argued:
“What exists now is a disheartening, not to say, bloody, impasse. Zionists in and outside Israel will not give up on their wish for a separate Jewish state; Palestinians want the same thing for themselves, despite having accepted much less from Oslo. Yet in both instances, the idea of a state for ”ourselves” simply flies in the face of the facts: short of ethnic cleansing or ”mass transfer,” as in 1948, there is no way for Israel to get rid of the Palestinians or for Palestinians to wish Israelis away. Neither side has a viable military option against the other, which, I am sorry to say, is why both opted for a peace that so patently tries to accomplish what war couldn’t. “
The interesting thing is that Israel has, by its own settlement policies, knocked out the basis for a sovereign Israeli state clearly separated from Palestine.
In the emerging political configurations in which the conventional one-state solution is impossible, and the two-state solution unsustainable, it is not only the most dynamic sections of Palestinian resistance to the Zionist occupation that advocate a binational one-state of Palestine-Israel or Israel-Palestine. Similar views are held by Israelis, most notably by Ilan Pappe:
At least try out two ideas and give both a chance, the Two States Idea side by side with the One State Idea. Let’s give some respect to the new idea. The old idea, the idea of partition, we have tried for sixty years. The result was exile, occupation, oppression, discrimination. Peace it did not bring. Let’s give something else a chance…
We will find an alternative model. All of us, including the old settlers and the new – even those who got here yesterday – including the expellees with all their generations and those who were left after the expulsions. We will ask all of them what political structure fits all of them, which would include the principles of justice, reconciliation and coexistence.
We do not yet know what the binational one-state solution will look like, but as many of the activists we spoke to suggested, solutions will only emerge in the course of the struggle. The idea of a binational one-state solution opens up many possibilities. The post-Zionist state can only be a state of the post-apartheid South African type. The return of populations expelled from their original villages will no doubt create serious difficulties for the settlements that stand upon them. Quite apart from the fact that settlers and Israelis in general will have to learn to live with the Palestinians in the same areas, as equals with access to the same privileges and amenities. If they refuse to, they will of course have the option of migrating wherever else they want to – elsewhere in Israel or in the world.
In other words, by a peculiar dialectic, the very success of the Zionist project has become the cause of its fundamental failure. In this sense, however invincible it may seem today, Zionism is fundamentally a failed project and we shall perhaps live to see its end.