The Middle East Channel

Palestine after Mubarak

Palestine after Mubarak

Within days of the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority announced plans for municipal, legislative, and presidential elections, as well as a cabinet reshuffle. Although these appear on the surface to be democratic measures in the new spirit of the times, they sidestep — so far — the serious challenges Palestinians face, including: the Fatah-Hamas split, the exclusion of refugees and exiles from Palestinian governance, and continued Israeli colonization and control over Palestinian land and lives.

The PA does not seem ready to address the Hamas-Fatah split, otherwise it would have sought reconciliation before the announcement of elections — the latter of which Hamas rejected. Perhaps the PA still fears an American veto of unity efforts until Hamas meets the Quartet’s three conditions. Yet elections in the absence of reconciliation would reinforce the West Bank’s separation from Gaza. Even assuming a best-case scenario in which all parties are allowed to contest elections freely and fairly and the results are respected, it is not clear how elections will help bring an end to Israel’s occupation.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, far from upholding "the will of the people," the PA is hiding from the post-Tunisia/Egypt reality. Arabs are demanding wholesale regime change, home-grown not foreign-driven. In the Palestinian case, that would mean going beyond a reshuffling of cabinet portfolios or another election under the yoke of Israel’s occupation to tackle core issues of governance and new strategies for liberation.

The PA’s disconnect from the people was underscored by chief negotiator Saeb Erakat’s resignation when the leak of the Palestine Papers was traced back to his office. In a normal country setting, this would be a welcome show of accountability. But for most Palestinians it was the leaked papers’ content that mattered, not their source–particularly revelations that the PA was willing to make major concessions about Palestinian refugee rights and Jerusalem.

Palestinian communities in exile were more vocal in their outrage. Voices now openly challenge the Ramallah-based leadership’s claim to representation, as in the recent petitions organized by Palestinian American and Canadian groups. While these statements may be longer on rhetoric than actual ability to change the situation on the ground, they do erode a self-imposed Palestinian barrier to public criticism that has been in place, with few exceptions, since the first Oslo Accord in 1993. Even more significant is the simple, powerful statement by the General Union of Palestinian Students launching a campaign for direct elections to the Palestinian National Council in order to restore the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole legitimate representative of Palestinian people, wherever they may be.

The Union’s statement goes to the heart of the way Palestinian governance has been skewed towards statehood, almost at any price, and away from the quest for freedom. Since the first Oslo Agreement in 1993, the PLO has been allowed to shrivel while the PA has been beefed up. Even though the PLO is formally responsible for negotiations and agreements, the real power is with the PA insofar as there is freedom of action under occupation. The move to reclaim the PLO is significant because the Union is an integral part of the PLO’s political structure and has long nurtured Palestinian, particularly Fatah, leaders. It thus has the capacity to impact the situation on the ground.

Yet the PA still seems to be on auto-pilot, believing it can really swing a Palestinian state by September on its own accord, even though United Nations recognition would not stop Israeli colonization or loosen its controls.

Meanwhile, Hamas is calling on Egypt to end its support for Israel’s siege and open the Rafah border. However, Egypt’s military rulers are likely to be as wary of inheriting Gaza as they were under Mubarak, given Israel’s goal of shedding its responsibility as the Strip’s occupier. If the PA is happy to leave Gaza to its fate, and Hamas is happy to have Gaza for its own, then both would be effectively playing into Israel’s hands.

Will the inspiring Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions derail Israel’s expansionist dreams and the PA’s illusions of statehood? Despite the Palestinian people’s political and geographic fragmentation, several trends are moving in that direction.

The most important, as described above, is the challenge to the PA’s claim to representation and the attempt to revive the PLO. Another trend is the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions’ affirmation of the sense of a common Arab destiny that was dormant since the 1973 October War. Arab youths’ current use of social networking tools to connect and share experience is likely to grow, sustaining the cross-border movement for participation in the political and socio-economic decisions that affect their lives.

This may also inspire more Arab support for Palestinian civil society’s struggle for freedom. For the past six years these have included the demonstrations against the encroachment of Israel’s separation wall on Palestinian land, which have drawn international and Jewish solidarity, and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that has scored considerable success — so much so that the Israeli Knesset just passed the first reading of a bill to make it illegal for Israelis to support boycotts.

The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions have also pushed the discourse about Arab and Palestinian causes more firmly into the realm of universal human rights. They will reinforce a shift that had already been taking place with greater numbers now willing to apply the term apartheid to describe Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territories and towards its own citizens. Efforts by Israeli officials and institutions to whitewash military occupation and inequality and to de-legitimise the "de-legitimisers" simply reinforce the parallels to South Africa.  

Finally, America’s grip on the region is weakening, despite the fact that close ties with the Egyptian military will give the US more of a say in Egypt’s transformation than the people want. The US continues to undermine its capacity to influence events through its unwavering support of Israel’s occupation, including its apparent intention to veto a United Nations resolution affirming the illegality of the settlements, even though this has been the formal US position since a 1978 State Department legal memo that was never superseded. 

September is just seven months away. It is not yet clear that these trends will develop fast enough to forestall moves towards a settlement of the conflict that would abrogate Palestinian rights. But at the very least, the notion that a US-funded security state — whether in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, or Palestine — can buy stability forever has been dealt a body blow, and as peoples take action to determine their own futures, expect Palestinians to do the same.

Nadia Hijab is co-director of Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network