Comment | The Arab Spring: A Palestinian Perspective
Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, December 9, 2011 8:00 - 9 Comments
By Ahmed Masoud
(Caption: “Revolution Until Victory”)
While upheaval has been sweeping the Arab World since the start of the year, Palestinians seem to have taken a different approach to their struggle, focusing on their internal affairs and their hopes of achieving national unity.
Indeed, despite being divided on the issue, the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the U.N has also been the focus of the year for Palestinians, bringing different parties and intellectuals together arguing either against the move or in support of it. Abbas’s historical speech at the General Assembly on 23 September 2011 refocused people’s mind on the real issue of occupation. This was followed by the successful prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel on 18 October 2011; Palestinians had much to celebrate and little to disagree on.
However, one would wonder why the domino effect of the Arab Spring hasn’t reached Palestine, and why Palestinians are not taking part in the events which are changing the history of their region. Despite early glimmers of hope, Palestinians are unlikely to become a full state member of the U.N because of the expected U.S Veto; while no major development on the national unity issue has been achieved so far. Even the prisoner exchange deal did not live up to people’s expectations: although a large number of prisoners has been released, it included no big name leaders, like Marwan Barghouti, against people’s expectations.
The surprise came a few days ago, when Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Party announced that they would be willing to work with Mahmoud Abbas to adopt a post-98 Sinn Fein-style political model, by focusing on peaceful and popular resistance rather than the armed one. This is a huge announcement that seemed to have escaped the news reports completely, too busy reporting the continuing upheavals elsewhere.
There are a number of reasons why Palestinians are taking this neutral stance on the political changes around them, a position emphasised and agreed upon during the meeting between Abbas and the head of Hamas, Mr. Khalid Meshal. They both told the press publicly that Palestinians will not interfere with the Arab Spring. A point of view which has been criticised by many fellow Arab governments, especially Qatar which seems to continue playing a vital role in fuelling the Arab uprisings, particularly through its Al Jazeera networks.
The first reason for this abstention is that Palestinians have more to lose than any of the parties involved, whether in those countries which have overcome their dictators or those in the process of doing so. With over 5 million Palestinian refugees spread out across the Arab World, particularly Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Libya, any political position the Palestinian leadership takes on the Arab Spring will automatically affect many Palestinian refugees living in those countries and who have been, for decades, unable to return to Palestine since being kicked out of their homes in 1948 when Israel was established, and who have since become stateless.
The painful memory of Palestinians being kicked out of Kuwait immediately after the first Gulf War is still alive. In 1991, the Kuwaiti government expelled over 450,000 Palestinians out of their homes in response to Yasser Arafat’s support for Sadam Hussein’s invasion of the country; the second time these refugees found themselves with nowhere to go, and were hosted eventually in a number of other Arab countries including Syria, Jordan and Iraq. The Palestinian leadership can’t afford to risk a similar dilemma hence Hamas’s refusal to participate in pro-Assad demonstrations in Syria. A decision which has angered the Syrian regime and put the Palestinian party in financial and political isolation for sometime.
The second reason is perhaps that the Arab Spring, one could argue, had reached Palestine much earlier: when Hamas won the parliamentary elections in 2006 and took over Gaza militarily in 2007. During this period, most Arab countries did not take a neutral position and, instead, supported Fatah and the leadership in Ramallah massively. In fact, the former Egyptian regime imposed heavy sanctions on Gaza and helped tighten Israel’s siege by closing the Rafah border completely for nearly 5 years. Palestinian pursuit of democracy was then mocked by other fellow Arabs and referred to, ironically, as the work of foreign intervention in Palestinian home affairs.
What has been referred to as a military coup by the resistance movement, Hamas, is now more widely understood as no different from the current revolutions in the Arab World. From this perspective, the Palestinian Spring has had its chance to mature and develop into a more coherent political agenda where both Fatah and Hamas, as well as other Palestinian factions, are focusing more on building their civil society and getting international recognition rather than engaging in party-political infighting.
This is because both Islamists and Secularists have realised that they can’t exist without each other. Fatah is trying to re-engage itself with the Palestinian public as a resistance movement while Hamas is focusing on presenting itself as a leader not only in the battlefield but also in the political arena, hence agreeing with Abbas on civil resistance as an alternative method. This position ought to be saluted and encouraged by international players, such as the Quartet, rather than ignored.
Those wishing to see a speedy transition to democracy in the countries that have already got rid of their dictators need only look at the Palestinian model and realise that it will take some time for the political situation to mature and become more inclusive. Because of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, Palestinians focused on finding other sources to rely on other than Western financial support.
This has proven to be successful given that Gaza remains a stronghold of the resistance despite continuous Israeli attacks and invasions. Coupled with isolating Abbas and Fatah in the West Bank, by continuing settlement building, Israel has exposed the bias of Western politics. This is why the U.S and Europe are very keen on starting a dialogue with the Islamist movements across the Arab World to ensure that the same mistake they made with Hamas is not repeated. The advantage here is that the U.S and Europe won’t have to adhere to the Israeli pressure as they did with Hamas.
Unlike many who would argue that the hope for a true democracy in the Arab World is set in Tunisia and Egypt, the position that Hamas will take from National Unity and resistance will determine the way other Arab Islamist movements will adopt in the coming few months. This is particularly true if Palestinian elections go ahead as recently agreed upon in May 2012. During the lead up to the recent Tunisian elections, which the organisers wanted to be purely Tunisian without any foreign observers, the only place they sought advice and observers from was the small and humble Palestinian authority.
A third reason why Palestinians are refraining from getting involved could be because they have always been the weaker side, whose opinion is discounted even when it comes to Palestinian issues. Many Arab governments boycotted Yasser Arafat for signing the Oslo Agreement. In fact, Gaddafi expelled nearly 30,000 Palestinian refugees after the agreement was signed in 1993. Those refugees were mostly from Gaza, they tried to go back but they Egyptians wouldn’t let them claiming that the Israelis wouldn’t allow them to return home. A large majority then was admitted to Syria after months of negotiations.
Palestinians have always paid a heavy price for what goes on around them starting from the Great Arab Revolution in 1916 led by Sheriff Hussain of Mecca who had, for personal interests, ignored the Belfour Deceleration while concentrating mainly on his expansion agenda, and was helped by Britain and France.
One would also ask why a Palestinian authority was not established between 1950 and 1967 when Egypt and Jordan ruled Gaza and the West Bank respectively. It would be impossible to answer this question without digging deep into the Arab rivalry and quest for leadership, particularly between the old and current regimes of Egypt and Jordan. Palestine has always been used as a propaganda tool for Arab regimes to keep their own peoples under control.
Therefore, staying away from current changes in the region is the right thing to do, as no one can predict where things will go and what price will need to be paid. Focusing on internal affairs and developing a unified front where political, civil and popular resistance go hand in hand to raise awareness of the Palestinian struggle for freedom should be the priority for now. With an Israeli hardline government that continues to build settlements, increase checkpoints, besiege Gaza and isolate Fatah and Abbas, it is no surprise that Palestinians are developing a new political outlook that focuses on people’s right to build a state.
The Islamists across the Arab World have learned a lot from the Palestinian model, trying to present themselves differently. During the Tunisian elections, the new Justice and Development Islamist party has already announced that they will not be adopting Sharia Law and will continue to capitalise on the country’s economic strengths, such as tourism. It is also reported that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will not revoke Egypt’s Camp David Agreement with Israel if they win the elections.
Most of these new parties have no experience of politics to speak of, just as Hamas was when it won the Palestinian elections in 2006. All eyes will be focussed on the way Palestinian politics develop, which will produce more lessons to be learned.
Ultimately, if the U.S and Europe would like better relationships with the Arab World, they should engage with Palestinian politics and open a dialogue with Hamas and Fatah encouraging a unity government, instead of continually yielding cravenly to Israeli pressures.
Finally, if the new form of civil disobedience and demonstrations that have swept the Arab Spring are to reach Palestinians, they are more likely to affect those living within the state of Israel in places like Haifa, Galilee, Jerusalem…etc. This is because of Israel’s official policy towards its own non-Jewish citizens, those Palestinians who stayed in their homes after 1948 and now represent 20 % of the population. This segment of the Israeli society is continuing to experience increasingly unsustainable forms of apartheid, where they are limited in their choice of jobs, places they can live and government positions they have a right to aspire to.
In fact, the Israeli Kenesset has repeatedly tried to ban Israeli-Arab political parties that do not explicitly recognise Israeli as a Jewish State, a move that would obviously jeopardise any Palestinian, Muslim or Christian right to live in Israel were it to be succeed. The last such bill, put forward in 2010, was rejected by The Israeli central elections committee due to lobbying by the country’s Palestinian citizens. Unless reversed, Israel’s Gaddafi model of restricting citizens from its own population from practicing their civil, religious and political rights will eventually open the floodgates of an Arab Spring in the country.