Now is the winter of Arab discontent
The UN will soon vote on Palestinian statehood – yet the
revolutions elsewhere in the region have
The euphoria of the Arab spring is giving way to gloom as autumn is upon us and one Arab country after another appears to be in crisis. Bright optimism has evaporated in the face of the daunting challenges of a transition to democracy in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, regime repression and the potential for full-blown civil war in Yemen and Syria, police-state tactics and sectarian tensions in Bahrain and, elsewhere, the stalling of popular efforts to achieve democratic reform and social justice.
Nevertheless, events of the past nine months have changed the Arab world in many ways. Among the changes has been the re-emergence of a unified Arab public sphere, visible in slogans and organising methods that have spread from country to country; transnational contacts (largely by means of new media) between young organisers and activists all over the Arab world; and the ubiquity of Arabic satellite television coverage of the events. Another is the revival of elements of pan-Arabism that malicious observers had long asserted were passé (if, they claimed, they ever existed). These elements include a deep, popular concern with the question of Palestine and a constant interaction between the Palestinian political/cultural worlds and Palestine's Arab hinterland. We saw the former in demonstrations in Cairo in support of the Palestinians and in hostility to the shabby dealings of Hosni Mubarak's regime with Israel. It is also visible in other Arab countries, as popular sentiment is released from the straitjacket of repression. Partly as a consequence of these developments, the Arab upheavals have contributed to unblocking the situation in Palestine, which had appeared frozen for the better part of a decade.
This has come about in spite of the absence of popular protests against a status quo that most Palestinians find stifling. Nothing like the upsurges experienced in some Arab capitals has taken place in Palestine. This is largely because of the unique situation that the Palestinians find themselves in. Unlike other Arab peoples who won their independence decades ago, the Palestinians have yet to liberate themselves from colonial rule. Indeed, they are among the world's last few remaining victims of ongoing classical colonialism. Among the consequences are the lingering effects of the 1948 expulsions of over half the Palestinian people from their homes, unceasing Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, and the restriction of Palestinians within a tight matrix of control, whether they live in Israel, or in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, or in neighbouring Arab countries.
At the same time, the Palestinians are burdened with a political structure that is derived in part from moribund remnants of their own political traditions, such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and partly the work of sleek figures in expensive suits working for others' agendas, such as the Palestinian Authority (PA). This peculiar system is nearly as dysfunctional and as dominated by external powers as any Arab regime. Palestinians are thus trapped between the repression wielded by others and that generated by two Palestinian "authorities" whose origins lie in the Oslo Process (one of them exists in the West Bank, and the other in Gaza). Neither has sovereignty, real jurisdiction or full authority, but both have the capability to imprison and torture. These Palestinian and non-Palestinian systems of control often work in tandem, with the Israeli occupation and the Ramallah-based PA engaging in security liaisons; equally, there is close co-operation between the Israeli and Jordanian
security services (as there was between Israeli and Egyptian intelligence under Mubarak). It is therefore not as straightforward for the Palestinians to move against such amorphous mechanisms of control as it was for the Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and Syrians to oppose their respective regimes.
Even so, the Arab spring has had a powerful impact on the situation in Palestine. Palestinians demonstrated in the territories of both of their supine authorities, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They did so while adapting the slogan of the Arab revolutions - Al-sha'b yurid isqat al-nizam, which means "The people demand the fall of the regime" - into the catchy Al-sha'b yurid inha al-inqisam: "The people demand the end of the split" (between Fatah and Hamas, between the two authorities and between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip).
These demonstrations, though quickly repressed, represented the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians. They are fed up with the split, the partisan spirit of both leaderships and their lack of strategic vision for liberation. The Palestinians rightly argue that such a division serves nothing except the occupation and the personal interests of some who benefit from the status quo.
The revolutionary events in the Arab world were amplified by their indirect effects on Palestine. These included the collapse of the Egyptian regime, one of the mainstays of the Fatah-dominated PA, and the weakening of the Syrian regime, a major supporter of Hamas. Each of the major Palestinian factions was deprived of some or all of the backing it received from a primary ally. The new Egyptian regime, whose immediate predecessor had worked tirelessly to prevent inter-Palestinian reconciliation, made the reunification of the Palestinian national movement a primary plank of its foreign policy. At that point, both of the main Palestinian factions, under pressure from Palestinian public opinion, had no choice but to reconcile. This has so far amounted to little more than a papering-over of their differences, and many challenges lie in the way of real reconciliation -
but it marks the first movement away from debilitating, inter-Palestinian conflict since 2007. Needless to say, US and Israeli policymakers were displeased by this turn of events: Palestinian division and dependency are central to their Middle Eastern strategy.
The Arab spring also provoked an unprecedented initiative by refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the occupied territories on 15 May 2011 in commemoration of the 63rd anniversary of the Naqba, the destruction of most of Palestinian society in 1948. On this occasion there were simultaneous marches to the armistice lines
of Syria and Lebanon with Israel, as well as towards crossings from the Gaza Strip and West Bank into Israel. Scores of unarmed demonstrators in Syria and Lebanon were shot at by Israeli snipers. Although, in both places, groups under Syrian influence tried to benefit from the Palestinian uprising, this was, in its conception and organisation, a grass-roots effort by refugee groups inside and outside the occupied territories, collaborating for the first time using the internet and social media. In form and in content, it was clearly inspired by the examples of the Arab revolutions.
Other examples of civil society activity include the growing movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions; protests along the Israeli wall designed to steal land from West Bank villages such as Bil'in; and activism in Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, which are targeted by the Israeli state for takeover behind a screen of well-funded settler groups, "development" plans, archaeological digs and myriad forms of bullying, harassment and legalised theft.
The role of such civil society groups is not new in Palestinian history. The Palestinians have never had access to the mechanisms of a state of their own and, due to the weaknesses of the PLO and the PA, they have long had to depend on the strength of civil society and the ties of solidarity that have developed among a people inured to hardship. This has been visible from the 1930s, when grass-roots activism set off the 1936-39 revolt (to the surprise of the old leadership), through to the uprisings of 1987 and 2000, which were also initiated at the grass roots and took the political leadership by surprise.
Another change for the Palestinians has been the partial opening up of the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip at Rafah. This constitutes an important shift, given the Mubarak regime's diligence in keeping the Rafah crossing nearly completely sealed, under its collaboration with Israel's land and sea blockade of the Strip after the Hamas takeover in 2007. The impact of this is largely psychological, as the crossing is open to people only (and then partly so).
Gaza's economy is still suffering badly from the siege, despite more widespread smuggling through the ubiquitous tunnels since the fall of the Mubarak regime and an easing of the onerous Israeli restrictions on passage of goods, following the negative media fallout for Israel after the Mavi Marmara flotilla fiasco in 2010. The publication this month of a UN report that justified the Israeli naval blockade while criticising Israeli military tactics did not diminish the damaging impact of this incident for Israel: its ties with Turkey continued to deteriorate. The ransacking of the Israeli embassy in Egypt on 9 September exposed the breakdown in relations between Tel Aviv and Cairo in the post-Mubarak era.
In this Palestinian landscape, subtly reshaped in the wake of the Arab upheavals, the PLO and PA in Ramallah have proposed obtaining UN membership for Palestine. This has arisen in spite of the realisation by all concerned that such a course involves huge challenges. Among these is the likelihood of a US veto in the Security Council (Security Council approval is a necessary preliminary to a membership vote in the General Assembly); the expectation of ferocious retaliation by Israel and the US Congress; and the probability that, whether it fails or succeeds, this measure will leave Palestinian public opinion dissatisfied, as it will not change most Palestinians' experience of occupation or exile. There has been criticism of the approach by some Palestinians, who fear that it will diminish the role of the PLO, the internationally recognised representatives of all Palestinians, to the benefit of the PA, which can only legally claim to represent those living in the West Bank and Gaza, and which is largely dependent on the occupation for its continued existence.
The Obama administration appears determined to confront this Palestinian initiative at the UN in spite of the damage this will inflict on the already tarnished image of the US. A few months ago, when the media were reporting breathlessly on the Arab spring and Americans were supportive of the upsurge, there might have been more reluctance to contemplate such an open split with the views of the Arab world. As media attention and US public opinion on the region turn sour or turn away, and as the US presidential elections approach, this caution has gone out the window.
Despite the deep suspicion of Obama by the Likud-led Israeli government and its US enablers, his policy on Palestine is nearly as negative as that of George W Bush. His administration has, in some respects, gone beyond its predecessor in its pandering to the Israel lobby. This includes giving US state department funding to the Middle East Media Research Institute to search for anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Led by the Bush administration neocon Elliott Abrams, Memri (as it is known for short) manipulates Arab media reports in the best black propaganda tradition of its founder, Yigal Carmon, a former Israeli intelligence officer.
In this, the administration is capitulating to the extremism of Congress, 80 of whose members took part this summer in a junket to Israel that was sponsored by a spin-off of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israeli lobby group.
A confrontation is looming between the PA, which is dependent on the US and Israel, and its patrons. It is unlikely to be defused by feeble
attempts by the US and agents such as Tony Blair to restart the moribund "peace process". If the Ramallah PA leadership makes the unlikely mistake of abandoning its initiative to follow this chimera, it will be discredited among its last supporters. If it goes ahead, as seems likely, the only certainty is that more instability is in store.
What Palestinians have realised over the 20 years during which the US-imposed "peace process" was spun uselessly, while the number of illegal Israeli settlers in the occupied territories more than doubled and a two-state solution became virtually impossible, is that the US is not an honest broker. It is a "lawyer for Israel", as the US diplomat Aaron David Miller said of his colleague Dennis Ross, who has disastrously influenced the policies on Palestine of every administration but one since Ronald Reagan. While most Palestinians recognise this, the PA in Ramallah has clung to the option of negotiating with Israel under disadvantageous US auspices and clings even more tightly to US funding.
In these circumstances, an initiative at the UN makes sense only as part of a wider strategy to revive and reunify the Palestinian national movement inside and outside of Palestine. This would involve developing an approach that abandons both of the existing pillars of Palestinian strategy - the one espoused by the PA of negotiating from a position of weakness, and that of Hamas, of engaging in violence that succeeds merely in strengthening Israel's occupation while leading to the deaths of many more Palestinians than Israelis, as happened during the Israeli assaults on Gaza of 2008-2009.
Abandoning both bankrupt approaches and striking out on a new course would, at the same time, constitute a Palestinian declaration of independence from US-Israeli tutelage, which is what the Oslo "peace process" has, in essence, come to mean. Although its bars may appear to be gilded from the perspective of the booming Ramallah, Palestinians are in an iron cage that is partly of their own making - and from which only they can liberate themselves.
The Fatah-dominated old guard of the Ramallah PA are unlikely to pursue such a change of direction, which would involve accepting that the Oslo Process they are closely identified with has been not just a dead end, but a lengthy detour away from liberation. However, being a member of the old guard in the Arab world is no longer what it once was.
Across the region, change is coming from below, not from above; from within society, not from the political elite. This has generally been the pattern in modern Palestinian history. Only when a critical mass of people feel the status quo to be intolerable does a tipping point arrive and change begin. This may finally be happening, triggered by the example of other Arab countries this year. If so, there is much to be done, as only a new approach will make it possible to overcome the daunting status quo of occupation, oppression and exile faced by most Palestinians.
Rashid Khalidi is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University and author of "Palestinian Identity" (Columbia University Press, £20) and "The Iron Cage: the Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood" (Oneworld Publications, £9.99)