The Future of Palestine: Analysing Internal and External Challenges

5 October 2017
[Al Jazeera]

On the 69th commemoration of the 1948 Nakba and the 50th commemoration of the 1967 Naksa, the political Palestinian landscape appears more complicated as internal division continues. This division is deepened by the failure to achieve national reconciliation between the two dominant factions, Hamas and Fatah, exacerbating the suffering of the Palestinian people at home and abroad. As for the future of the Palestinian cause, it remains unclear given the turbulent regional environment wherein international campaigns and rising powers compete in a global climate that does not see the Palestinian cause as a priority, and in which the actors are focusing their efforts on fighting the Islamic State.

The seriousness of such challenges and the local, regional and international complexities facing the Palestinian issue are rather clear, as the cause itself is affected by the conflicting visions of Palestinian actors concerning the choices and priorities for the national liberation project in the current stage. This raises the question of the role of Hamas’s new political document in resolving these complexities and a breakthrough in the movement’s relations with local partners and regional and international actors. The document is particularly important because it envisions the coming stage, the most prominent part of which may be the acceptance of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. This topic was the focus of a seminar organised by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies in cooperation with Al Jazeera Mubasher on 16 May 2017, entitled “The Future of Palestine: Analysing Internal and External Challenges”. Several analysts and scholars concerned with the Palestinian issues participated: Hani al-Masri, Director General of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies; Majed al-Zeer, Head of the Palestinians in Europe Conference; Jamal Issa, a leader from the Hamas Resistance Movement; and Chafic Choucair, a researcher at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

Internal challenges in the Palestinian landscape

The new political document presented by Hamas on 1 May 2017 has overshadowed debate in the context of an impasse in the Palestinian national liberation project. Majed al-Zeer, head of the Palestinians in Europe Conference, highlighted how the Palestinians are generally concerned with restoring their rights: “We view any project relating to the Palestinian question based on its proximity or distance from Palestinian rights.” Any political document, he argued, should invoke the will of the Palestinians, focusing on the right of return and Palestinian unity. The Palestinian diaspora also suffers from the effects of division. Al-Zeer stressed that Palestinians need real, practical initiatives since “any solutions presented under the Israeli intransigence remain in the framework of political theory and political initiatives, but what concerns us are on-the-ground initiatives that allow the Palestinian people to enjoy their rights and never relinquish them”.

Al-Zeer noted how the Palestinian people are now divided in various geographical areas, with vertical and horizontal division present in the Palestinian street as well as a clear deadlock in the resolution of the Palestinian issue. Therefore, “in any future initiative, the Palestinian people should feel that this aspect is being taken seriously,” and the rights of the Palestinian people inside and outside of Palestine should receive equal consideration. According to al-Zeer, the Oslo Accords “ignored Palestinian rights, especially the rights of Palestinians living abroad. The Accords did not deal objectively with the right of return, and they divided the West Bank and the Palestinian people accordingly. We believe that the Oslo Accords were entirely unjust to the Palestinian people, especially in this regard.”

The Director General of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, Hani al-Masri, said that Hamas’s new political document reveals a significant change. However, “if we look at the movement’s recent practices and positions, we find that there is practically nothing new in this document. All of the positions expressed by Hamas during the past years, including its controversial acceptance of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, are not new concepts; in fact, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and other Hamas leaders had already mentioned it.”

Al-Masri also raised several questions about the role of the document, especially since it did not offer anything new: Through this document, is Hamas aiming to recover from its current crisis, the deterioration of its relations with the Egyptian leadership or the closure of its relations with Saudi Arabia and other countries? Does it intend to qualify to increase its [political] participation or to replace the leadership of Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) or Fatah? In an attempt to answer these questions, he stated that Hamas’s document could not change US, European and international positions, mainly because Hamas is required to recognise Israel and its right to exist, cease the development of its weapons, abandon the resistance option, stop building offensive tunnels, and adhere to the commitments made by the PLO. On the other hand, he argued that the document could influence the internal Palestinian situation and Hamas’s relations with Europe in order to focus on the internal Palestinian situation and rebuilding Palestinian national institutions. This requires Hamas to demonstrate its seriousness about pluralism and participation, which were emphasised in the document. Furthermore, Hamas should put forward an initiative that emphasises its willingness to concede its unilateral control over the Gaza Strip in exchange for acceptance as a partner in different Palestinian institutions, whether in the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself or the PLO, as “such an initiative could have a greater influence than the document”.

For his part, Hamas leader Jamal Issa discussed the document in the context of what he considered a major dilemma of the Palestinian issue. The document reflects the national responsibility borne by large movements such as Hamas, which plays a significant role in the national cause and has carried the weight of the resistance project for a long time. The movement has demonstrated an administrative model for the PA after its involvement in the political process and has proven the possibility to develop and adapt the PA to protect the resistance. In addition, while presiding over the Gaza Strip, the movement had fought and won several battles. It forced the enemy to leave the Gaza Strip unconditionally and imposed the Wafaa al-Ahrar agreement (prisoner swap). In addition, Issa argued that a faction this important could not deal with the national question in isolation from other groups. In his opinion, the movement is concerned with presenting a political vision to face the homeland’s challenges in the face of the enemy. Further, the revolutionary victory entailed other problems. A certain faction imposed a compulsory path for the Palestinian people under the banner of “settlement”. The enemy was gradually able to manipulate this faction; it began with exchanging peace for land, then peace for security, then occupation for the right of return and negotiations, and finally the end of the occupation for lifting the siege imposed on the wounded and families of martyrs.

In response to al-Masri’s scepticism about the document’s ability to bring about a breakthrough in the US, European and international situation in general, Issa emphasised how the document could achieve breakthroughs in political and international relations beyond the terms of the Quartet. He explained how Hamas could overcome such problems and strengthen Palestinian diplomacy, pointing out that Hamas and the Palestinians do not expect the US to resolve the Palestinian issue as the former is under Zionist pressure. However, in light of the lack of an adoption of a certain position by the US administration and its lack of a team of experts in this regard, Hamas is interested in influencing the US and regional perspective “in a way that best serves Palestinian rights”.

Chafic Choucair, a researcher at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, said that the challenges facing the internal Palestinian situation may not have changed much in general. However, the Arab Spring has had an impact on Hamas’s positions in dealing with the Arab reality, especially the PA. The political document’s proposal recognising the formation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders was meant to reach out to the PA in order to establish common ground. It intended to say to its friends, “I am now in a position that allows you to defend me, as some aspects have changed.” The current situation in the Arab world has forced Hamas to reposition itself. Choucair considered the PA’s position to be an internal challenge. The Palestinian Authority now faces two choices: either to turn to the international system, which is busy fighting terrorism, or to the internal option and address Hamas’s document.

Entrance to an inclusive national project

“We have a problem of legitimacy and leadership for the Palestinian people,” said al-Zeer. He stressed that the Palestinian people must overcome the dichotomy of Hamas and Fatah and focus on concern for Palestinian priorities and rights, in consideration of the division afflicting the Palestinian people and its influence on the future of the Palestinian cause. “Any national framework that encompasses and involves the Palestinian people in the decision-making process is a priority after seven decades of conflict. To us, restructuring the PLO is an urgent priority so that the voice of the Palestinian people can be heard,” because, in his view, the PA has marginalised the Palestinian people for the last quarter of a century. Therefore, he called for the need to address the internal Palestinian situation and not to provide any political initiatives, emphasising that the PLO should be a national, democratic framework that represents all Palestinians, inside and outside of Palestine.

Al-Masri described the issue as the starting point for tackling the catastrophic effects of the Oslo Accords, which separated the land, the cause and the people, and divided the land into sections and the resolution into transitional and final stages. In addition, the Accords cut off relations between the different segments of the Palestinian people, which resulted in negative effects from which the Palestinians are still suffering. Therefore, the starting point for a review of the Oslo Accords should establish unity of the cause, the people and the land, which could bring together Palestinian capacity, comprising 13 million people inside and outside Palestine, including all political and social factions under the umbrella of a comprehensive national institution based on true partnership and democracy. Al-Masri noted that Hamas did not describe the post-restructuring framework in the document, although it had mentioned it in other documents. This framework is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

The Palestinian cause and transformations of the Arab landscape

Six years after the Arab Spring revolutions, which have taken different paths, Choucair pointed out that the Arabs face serious challenges following the revolutions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen; however, the Gulf remains the most internally harmonious region. Previously, Arabs had different perspectives of resistance. Today, however, they all have the same opinion – in a negative sense. Nobody currently supports nor considers it as effective, regardless of the humanitarian issue. In fact, the Palestinian cause is threatened whenever there is a development in Syria or Iraq. The researcher also pointed out that Arab countries who were classified as ‘moderate’ did not support the Palestinian cause strongly. In fact, they only supported it from a particular point of view, identified by and aligned with the vision of the PA. In light of the transformations that the region is undergoing, Arab countries are more concerned with confronting Iranian expansion, arguing that this is also a huge problem for the Palestinian cause and should therefore be neutralised so that the cause can remain objective and has the ability to manoeuvre.

In his attempt to identify challenges facing the Palestinian cause in the Arab context, Issa focused again on the internal Palestinian situation, considering that Hamas’s starting point might be the end point for another faction.

We believe that allowing the West Bank to be part of the negotiations was a strategic mistake made by a Palestinian faction…Our main problem is Oslo, which was imposed on the Palestinian people by the leadership, which placed the Accords in front of the national community and divided it. However, when the resistance was united, it proved its ability to free a part of the land through the enemy’s unconditional withdrawal. As a result, the leadership that forced the occupation to withdraw was then seen as the most-qualified entity for the leadership of the national project. In the legislative parliamentary elections, the majority favoured the resistance, indicating public approval and interest. Therefore, the real political issue is that this faction was led by the Zionist enemy into many problems; we, as the resistance, pay the price.

Al-Zeer, on the other hand, said that what moves the Palestinian cause towards and away from the Arab countries and the international community is the Palestinians themselves and how they deal with and manage regional and international public relations. He stressed the main factor of any decision maker in Palestinian politics: the Palestinian people and their well-being. A united and coherent Palestinian position towards a genuine political administration in international relations and its authentic application internally and externally could force the Arab and US perspective to take the Palestinian position into consideration. “However, the way we manage our affairs has merely marginalised us. We keep waiting for others to act, although we have elements that can be truly utilised, and we lack a vision that makes use of the Palestinian people’s strengths”.

The Palestinian cause and the US position

Choucair noted how the US administration has always followed certain principles in dealing with the Palestinian cause, which are definitely not in the latter’s favour. Furthermore, the US administration only appears to adhere to the two-state solution.

The real challenge is going to be with Trump, who overlooked the colonisation issue as if it is now mere history. In addition, there have not been any strict guidelines to prevent Israel from further occupying certain areas. Trump has also opened the case of the refugees, which is seen as the most dangerous move for the Palestinian cause; once whispered about, the issue of the refugees in exchange for a Jewish state has now been openly disclosed.

Choucair mentioned that there is a big plan for the Middle East. The US administration has always used the Palestinian cause to give a moral dimension to any deal between the Arabs and the United States. “Whenever they launch a war against terrorism or anything of the sort, they turn to the Palestinian cause and announce some decisions. These decisions, however, are not usually carried out.”

Al-Masri denied any commitment on the part of the US administration towards the Palestinians. The Palestinian side is under a lot of pressure to resume negotiations without the actual end of the occupation. He explained how delusional it would be to bet on the US administration under the current wave of weakness, Palestinian division and Arab conditions. He said,

If we wish to influence Trump and others, we must employ the strength and unity of the Palestinian community. We should focus on changing the balance of power. However, if the current situation continues, we will only have a new transitional solution that covers Israel’s practices of enforced discrimination and occupation, and hinders the possibility of reaching a solution that achieves a minimum degree of Palestinian rights.

Al-Masri also denied the possibility of the implementation of either a two-state or one-state solution in the near future. He attributed this to the local, Arab, regional and international balance of power, which does not allow any real gain for the Palestinian people. In addition, he pointed to current attempts to divide the Occupied Palestinian Territory. In a best-case scenario, Israel would agree to allow self-government.

Issa said that the resistance was able to provide practical evidence that imposing the Palestinian will on the enemy was possible since the latter only responds to the language of force. He said:

There is an ongoing political diplomatic dynamic represented by Abu Mazen, the president. Why wouldn’t the president use the Palestinian people’s power, especially since the people refuse to relinquish any part of their land or give up on their children’s right of return? Why shouldn’t he fortify his decisions with the Palestinian people as the Zionist enemy does when it fortifies itself with the extremists in Jerusalem?

He added:

When Abu Mazen went to the White House, he should have said, “I represent the Palestinian people who refuse occupation and settlement. The assaults against the people are continuous, and the occupation remains the same, which is unacceptable”. Therefore, he would not choose the option of a settlement where he cannot put any pressure on the enemy. For Abu Mazen, or any other Palestinian official, without public backing, he cannot impose the Palestinian will, and is therefore harming the cause despite intending to resolve it.

Issa explained that Hamas would welcome any force that could establish a state along the 1967 borders. “The only point of disagreement between us and the others, including Arabs, is the recognition of Israel as a legitimate state. We will never recognise Israel as a state. We will deal with the enemy based on the status quo. If we can establish part of our homeland through a state along the borders, we will. However, our project will forever be the liberation of Palestine”.