Palestinians Have Been Abandoned by Their Leaders
Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are undermining democracy. Only a new generation can bring real change.
When the Trump administration decided to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a critical juncture in the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom, the Palestinian Authority leadership failed to respond in any meaningful way. It also failed to prevent the murder of civilians in Gaza and instead continued its punitive policies toward the 2 million besieged Palestinians living in the strip — including by withholding public servants’ salaries.
After waiting for 22 years since its last meeting, the Palestinian National Council convened recently in Ramallah to choose the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its chairman. The four-day meeting that took place between April 30 and May 3 was a painful reminder of how Palestinian democracy is being undermined by Palestinian leaders.
The meeting ended with the announcement of a new Palestinian leadership based on patronage and narrow factional politics. The so-called elections missed the most crucial element in any functioning political system: the people, who were dismissed, marginalized, and silenced in a dreadful illustration of the growing disconnect between the political elites and those they govern. Though this is not a particularly new phenomenon, the level of the leadership’s arrogance was astonishing.
In addition to the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory, Palestinians suffer from the absence of legitimate leadership and the lack of accountable and inclusive political structures and democratic, effective, and transparent governance. All of this prevents Palestinians from confronting the multiple levels of oppression and repression they face. Reversing this sad state of affairs is an unattainable objective in the existing Palestinian political system. Yet it is a prerequisite if upcoming generations of Palestinians are to have brighter prospects.
If they hope to reinvent the current political system, the Palestinian people and a new generation of leaders must expose the current political elites as they continue to divide, disempower, and marginalize the population. This process of reinvention goes beyond the question of dissolving the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Fatah-Hamas binary, and the frameworks dictated by the Oslo Accords 25 years ago. It will require greater political representation, a more inclusive approach to national planning, and the imagination to transcend the antiquated ideas and blinkered worldview that currently dominate the Palestinian leadership’s political thinking.
The current Palestinian leadership is neither willing nor interested in the people’s grievances because they threaten PA rule in the West Bank (and Hamas rule in Gaza). The leadership thus continues with its authoritarian ways, seeking to suppress any voices that put its legitimacy at stake or challenge its monopoly on governance.
Over the last decade, numerous local and international human rights organizations have documented the excessive use of force by the Palestinian security forces to suppress protesters. There have also been politically driven detentions, limits on freedom of speech and political participation and mobilization, as well as surveillance, acts of torture, and grave human rights violations in response to political activism in the streets or on social media.
The recent demonstrations at the Gaza border and the clashes in Jerusalem in the summer of 2017 must be understood in this context. Frustration over the status quo and the lack of future prospects and dire living conditions led to the confrontation at the Gaza Strip military fence, explicit Israeli settlement policies intended to bolster the Jewish population in East Jerusalem led to the clashes there, and repression by both Israel and the PA led to resistance in the West Bank. Palestinian collective action today is an expression of resistance to the violence of the Israeli occupier but also to the Palestinian leadership.
It is therefore not surprising that tensions escalated after the April 30 PLO meeting. Though many Palestinians — due to the PLO’s historical role in bringing the Palestinian struggle to the global stage — continue to romanticize the organization as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people everywhere,” Palestinians also saw live on TV, as one youth from Gaza says, “the extent that this body and its institutions are rotten.” He adds, “When the last hope evaporates … you lead an uprising to be heard, to be seen, to be recognized.”
For the younger generation, the reaction to frustration has been to organize and mobilize. As another youth activist from Gaza insists, “We saw that in the summer of 2017 in Jerusalem, and now we see it in Gaza. Even if these cycles of confrontation don’t last … only the people — not the political leadership — will change the imbalances of power between the colonizers and colonized.”
A third Gaza youth activist angrily argues, “It is us, the people, the future generation, the young — and not Hamas — who are protesting.” The struggle, in her view, is one of “popular resistance against all forms of control and domination, be it Palestinian or Israeli or Egyptian or any other.…We have had enough of the top-down model that only creates dictators and VIP elite who cause us harm.”
It is clear that there is a new entry point for leaders in the making: local, bottom-up activism that generates leaders attached to their social circles and linked to the daily struggles of the people rather than an aloof and distant elite in their fancy offices in Ramallah.
The protests in Gaza are the product of this grassroots anger. Israel has sought to misrepresent Hamas’s involvement in the border demonstrations in order to criminalize and discredit the protests. Although Hamas is not the organizer of the march, it is directly and indirectly involved as it is one of the main actors governing Gaza. It is vital to recognize that Hamas is an integral part of the Palestinian political scene regardless of the harm that it (as well as Fatah) causes to the Palestinian quest for freedom and regardless of its strategies, visions, or ideological principles. Hamas has simply done what any other political party would do — instrumentalize these protests for political gain.
The marches in Gaza are fundamentally about the undeniable, internationally recognized rights of the Palestinian people as a whole. Many political actors other than Hamas have participated in these marches, which shows that there is a nonfactional new generation of leaders — a lesson that Fatah and Hamas would do well to learn.
Although the marches may soon end, the international community has learned one lesson: that the grievances of ordinary Palestinians should be taken seriously. This is not only because of the tragic death toll but also because international actors understand that a genuinely bottom-up Palestinian social movement could destabilize and threaten the status quo — a status quo that the majority of actors are happy with.
If a future generation of Palestinian leaders is ever going to win influence, they can’t simply criticize and curse that status quo. They must be proactive and envision a specific future and operationalize that vision through concrete and attainable actions. Changing politics requires playing politics, and changing the existing rules of the game requires playing the game.
This will be a complex and messy process, but future Palestinian leaders will only become visible if they form new political factions, enter youth-led lists in elections, establish a culture of accountability, and create a youth-led shadow government that engages in a nationwide debate on the priorities of the Palestinian people.
“You have something in this world, so stand for it,” the Palestinian writer and political activist Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated by Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, once said. The Palestinians in Gaza, Haifa, Jerusalem, and elsewhere are doing precisely this: standing up for justice, freedom, dignity, and self-determination as fundamental values. The forces that fight these values — most often under the pretext of security — must be held accountable until they support peace and justice. Only then can we talk about a prosperous and peaceful Palestinian future.