x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Palestine's leaders have changed their language, but not their policy

The Arab Spring destabilised the status quo among Palestinian leaders, forcing them to use poignant speech to mask cosmetic political changes

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

On December 2, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, was back in Ramallah to a hero's welcome. A crowd, mostly Fatah supporters, cheered slogans reminiscent of those glorifying the late Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman Yasser Arafat. The sudden elevation of Mr Abbas's status was the result of a vote, on November 29, admitting Palestine to the UN as a non-member state. "Palestine has accomplished a historic achievement," Mr Abbas declared. "Now we have a state."

It was a remarkable turn of events, considering that two months earlier Ramallah was the scene of mass protests not witnessed in years. Neither Mr Abbas nor any of his officials was popular among fed-up, underpaid and despairing Palestinians.

But upon Mr Abbas's return, there seemed little need to dwell on the past, however recent. Thousands danced in the West Bank and Gaza, hailing the "victory" scored by the PA at the UN. The resolution at the UN General Assembly passed with an overwhelming majority of UN members: 138 votes in favour, nine against and 41 abstentions.

But to understand what transpired on that day, one needs to rewind about two years.

Soon after Egypt and other Arab countries followed Tunisia's revolutionary lead, Al Jazeera fashioned an interactive map of all Arab countries on its website. When a revolution ensued and chaos reigned supreme in any Arab country, the name of that country was highlighted in red, its place on the map shaded. It was a reductionist exercise at best, and, although subtle, a wish for revolution, or for something far more sinister. For nearly two years, "Palestine" on the Al Jazeera map remained unchanged, its name in black.

It was silly to think that an Arab Spring would reach Palestine in the same way it arrived to fully independent Arab countries, their peoples agonising under decades of unconcealed corruption, nepotism, sectarianism and outright dictatorship.

Palestine is not independent, hardly sectarian, and corruption and nepotism exist largely within political institutions affiliated with the PA, itself a creation of a lifeless political process that started with the Oslo accords nearly two decades ago. The PA subsists within the confines of the Israeli occupation, although it was meant to enjoy a temporary status that would, within a few years, lead Palestinians towards complete independence.

An independent country did not materialise. Nor did the PA manage to mobilise society towards fully functioning and accountable democratic institutions.

The issue of corruption in particular has frustrated Palestinians for years. It grew endemic in a political environment that requires transparent clarity of vision and objectives.

In an act of rare honesty in early February 2006, the PA's attorney general uncovered outright theft of nearly $700 million (Dh2.57bn) from PA coffers, mostly funds provided by the US, the EU and Arab governments.

The Guardian reported that Ahmed Al Meghami believed that billions of dollars may have been misappropriated in total. His office went on to order 25 arrests and to issue 10 international warrants related to fraud within the Palestinian Authority.

Despite the occasional "crackdown", Palestinian trust in their leadership remained scant. Last June, a poll published by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research indicated that 72.9 per cent of Palestinians in the West Bank believed that PA institutions were corrupt. The results of the poll were highlighted mostly in Israeli media, and prompted little discussion among Palestine's own political elite.

With a lame political process, record expansion of illegal Jewish settlements, deepening corruption and a hopeless quest for unity among Palestinian factions, collective weariness in Palestine was becoming more palpable, but was somehow contained, through repression at times and a general sense of lethargy.

When the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in Januarylast year, Palestinians in Gaza rejoiced, while those in Ramallah were suppressed with overwhelming force. As revolutions dragged on, the PA grew more wary of any attempt to challenge its rule.

On June 30 and July 1 last year, the PA police reacted with violence to peaceful protests in Ramallah's largest square. The beating of a large number of protesters went without any serious investigation. Complaints by local and international human-rights organisations also went unheeded. Human Rights Watch reported: "From January 2009 to July 2012, the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), the official Palestinian human rights ombudsman, received 584 complaints of torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank."

Concurrently, the official PA discourse grew more confused. Early in September last year, as general strikes and calls for the ousting of the PA government of Salaam Fayyad gripped major cities in the West Bank, Mr Abbas sought to take an early initiative. "The Palestinian Spring has begun, and we are in line with what the people say and what they want," he told Arab foreign ministers in Cairo.

Of course, nothing at all followed that poignant speech, not even cosmetic political changes, as is often the case with autocratic Arab governments when pressure mounts. Mr Abbas attempted to rebrand the issue as such: "Hunger is disloyal. We are trying to do what we can do to reduce prices."

But for two years, Mr Abbas desperately attempted to escape by pushing forward. Addressing a PLO meeting in Ramallah in July 2011, Mr Abbas tested the Arab Spring rhetoric once more. "In this coming period, we want mass action, organised and coordinated in every place." He called on Palestinians to wage "popular resistance" insisting that it must be "unarmed popular resistance so that nobody misunderstands us".

Mr Abbas needed any victory, no matter how insignificant, to be promoted to Palestinians as a "great achievement". He also needed a state, even only on paper, oddly imposed on a map dotted with settlements, military zones and an ever-growing Separation Wall.

Even when American pressure mounted on Mr Abbas to abandon his UN bid, it was no longer feasible that the 76-year-old leader would bow to the usual pressure.

Israel didn't make things any easier. On November 14 this year, Hamas, along with the resistance groups, scored what most Palestinians celebrated as a military victory over Israel in a fight Israel had initiated, and quickly called off.

"In the days that followed, the Palestinian Authority and Mr Abbas found themselves uncomfortably on the sidelines as Hamas rallied Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and other Arab countries to its cause," wrote TheNew York Times.

Hamas's representatives were for the first time regarded as representatives of all Palestinians. Mr Abbas understood that his UN moment would make or break the political future of his authority, his political party and him personally.

Palestine's UN membership reflected genuine solidarity with its cause by the majority of nations. For Mr Abbas it was a tactic nonetheless, aimed to offset a growing imbalance caused by frivolous peace talks, deep and growing corruption, and factional rivalry. The Arab Spring was the catalyst that destabilised the status quo in Palestine, forcing the PA to upgrade its language, without seriously upgrading its policies.

And soon after the Palestinians' party was over, Benjamin Netanyahu's government declared plans to further isolate Jerusalem and slice the West Bank into even smaller, disconnected parts. Then, few talked of symbolic victories or historic achievements. The only "facts on the ground" were now shaped by Israeli bulldozers, as has long been the case.


Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story

Online: www.ramzybaroud.net