Following Obama’s visit to the region, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has embarked on shuttle diplomacy which signals that, perhaps, diagnosing the peace process as “moribund” is premature. But despite signs that the U.S. is attempting to resuscitate its engagement in the peace process, it is unlikely that such an effort will produce any favorable results. This is not simply because the peace framework—tried and tested for over two decades—is intrinsically problematic and has consistently failed, but because there are issues on all sides which hinder a positive outcome. Yet within the context of failure to achieve a solution on the level of leadership and institutions, there arises an opportunity for the Palestinian people to collectively redefine the parameters and direction of their own future. This effort is proceeding on the popular level.
Many argue that the so-called Arab Spring has bypassed the Palestinians, who have failed to collectively and resolutely mobilize against Israel or their own governments in the West Bank and Gaza. Such an assertion overlooks the varying constraints shaping these popular struggles in different locations. For Palestinians, these assertions underestimate the challenges they must overcome to achieve the level of protest seen in the streets of neighboring Arab states. Palestinians planning popular gatherings have to contend with systematic restrictions of movement which make critical mass much harder to achieve. Crowd mobilization is made more difficult by the higher probability that protests could be countered with a violent crackdown. Moreover, Palestinian civil society has arguably been weakened through years of repression, arrests, and detentions— diminishing its ability to mobilize.
Nevertheless, suggesting that Palestinians have failed to rally overlooks clear signs to the contrary. Even with the unique factors to contend with, recent developments in the territories have sustained speculation of “a Third Intifada”; intermittent outbursts have targeted both Palestinian and Israeli leadership. Internally, Palestinians have channeled anger at their politicians for their persistent inability to deal with festering differences to achieve a viable framework for reconciliation. In the West Bank, recurring protests have focused on the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) fiscal and economic policies, as well as occasionally objected to politicians’ own stances. A recent target was President Mahmoud Abbas, who seemed to forfeit the Palestinian right of return during an interview on Israeli TV. Protests in Gaza, unsurprisingly, have been less perceptible and subject to greater repression due to the Hamas regime’s authoritarian tendencies, but have nonetheless surfaced periodically.
Externally, protests against Israeli policies have gathered in frequency over the past few months; these have been most visible as crowds rally in support of Palestinian prisoners. Long revered in a society which has experienced wide-scale arrests, the issue of prisoners is a highly emotional one which affects most Palestinian families. Recently, a series of events served to inflame tensions around the issue of prisoners: hunger strikes, opaque deaths of Palestinians in Israeli detention centers, arrest and maltreatment of Palestinian children, and poor treatment of Palestinian prisoners have all mobilized the population.
These incidents are reminiscent of those which took place in the months preceding the eruption of the Second Intifada. Alongside these “typical” protests, Palestinian civil society has been demonstrating a resilience which is propelling its cause forward—conveyed through various activities such as the makeshift encampment of “Bab al-Shams” and movies like Budrus and 5 Broken Cameras. The non-violent struggles which villages (such as Bil’in) throughout the West Bank have been waging—largely under-reported until recently—are now at the forefront of the struggle against the occupation. Supported by an increasingly vibrant diaspora, global networks such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement have also multiplied. On the Palestinian side, this determination suggests that the chronic failure to achieve a just solution has in effect shifted the onus for action from institutional leadership to civil society in the Occupied Territories and Palestinians living abroad. With such a shift, there is an opportunity to overhaul the present leadership framework to one which effectively integrates these disparate efforts into a single cohesive strategy for self-determination.
Civil society can shape the upper echelons of government. By maintaining the momentum at the grassroots level, the Palestinian people can define the nature of their leadership and the direction of their national aspiration. Disillusionment in the PA and in Hamas can underscore that reconciliation and reform of the PA in the hope of reigniting the peace process are potentially misguided efforts which perpetuate the status quo and fail to break from its institutionalized shortcomings. After all, the Authority was established as an interim government to foresee the creation of a Palestinian state; it has not only outlived its purpose but has arguably entrenched the occupation by reducing the cost of the Israeli state to maintain it.
Rather than operating within the confines of the PA, reform should address the broader liberation entities of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian National Council (PNC). Constitutionally, these are the highest executive branches of the Palestinian government and the only internationally recognized representative of Palestinians. Reforming these bodies to make them pluralistic, democratic, and representative of those in the Occupied Territories and the diaspora would allow them to become powerful arenas for Palestinians to collectively outline the parameters of their national struggle. These entities can provide the structure needed to channel the frustrations being voiced at the grassroots level in a systematic manner which would produce a single representative strategy.
With such reform, Palestinians could engage in national debates and referenda which would guide their efforts—for example, by voting on the type of state (whether a one or two state solution) they might wish to inhabit. Options abound. For instance, Palestinians could adhere to the path initiated by President Abbas to gain international legitimacy through organizations such as the United Nations. This kind of initiative would look vastly different from the current practice. Primarily, leaders might have the voter approval needed to pursue tough measures, and Palestinian diplomats would be able to initiate action through the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Israel’s abuses of international law without fear of a subsequent backlash that might undermine popular resolve. Alternatively, through a referendum within a reformed PLO, Palestinians could choose to initiate a civil rights campaign within the boundaries of a single state. Local civil society is already well poised to work towards demands of equality, sovereignty, and freedom of movement; a representative PLO supported by an active and democratic PNC—and by extension Palestinians in the diaspora—would provide further support for such efforts.
As critics rightly warned in the early 1990s, the Oslo framework adopted for peace building has left entrenched structures within the Palestinian polity which are detrimental to advancing the national project. Resuscitated American involvement in peace building within this framework is unlikely to yield results differing from previous such efforts. The onus is currently on Palestinian civil society to break from these efforts and articulate—through broad-based national platforms—the trajectory of their national struggle.
Tareq Baconi is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Social Science and Public Policy at King's College, London, and holds an MPhil in international relations from the University of Cambridge.