AJCS webinar: Changing the course of the Palestinian national project requires a change of leadership and the election of new representative bodies

7 September 2021
From left to right, top to bottom: AJ Mubasher presenter Waad Zakaria, Ilan Pappe, Mohamed Jemil Mansour, Salman Salman Abu Sitta, Ibrahim Fraihat, Mohammed Mukhtar Al Khalil, Hugh Lovatt, Osama Abuirshaid, Mohsen Saleh, John Alderdice, Ghada Karmi, Mustafa Barghouti, Majed al-Zir, Jawad Al Hamad, Nabil Amr, Fadwa Barghouti, Antoine Shalhat, Sari Orabi. [Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and Al Jazeera Mubasher organised a webinar on Monday and Tuesday, 16–17 August 2021. Titled “The Palestinian National Project: After the Gaza War and the Jerusalem Uprising (2021),” the conference brought together a distinguished array of researchers, academics and experts in Palestinian and Israeli affairs.

Mohammed Mukhtar Al Khalil, the director of the AJCS, opened the conference by speaking of its goal, saying it hoped to be a platform for the exchange of opinions and views in order to reassess the Palestinian national project, and understand why it has stalled and how to remedy it. He also addressed the broader context of the conference, specifically the recent upheaval in Jerusalem that united Palestinians in Palestine and the diaspora and demonstrated anew the importance of resistance of all kinds.

Over the two days and four panels of the conference, participants discussed the evolution of the Palestinian national project, describing, analysing and assessing its evolution over the last century. They spoke of the gains made and losses sustained through periods of armed struggle and negotiations before turning to the present state of crisis, seen in the political division between the West Bank and Gaza; the breakdown of national institutions, most importantly the Palestinian National Council and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO); the lack of consensus around a vision and method to deal with the Israeli occupation in the present and future; and the declining interest in the Palestinian cause regionally and internationally, and even on the popular level. Whereas Palestine was once a central issue around which Arab elites and peoples coalesced, in the present-day, broad segments of the Arab public have lost interest in the cause and are no longer engaged with it.

After speakers reviewed the reasons for the current condition of the Palestinian national project, they presented their own visions for finding a way out of the present state of affairs.

Ibrahim Fraihat, professor of international conflict at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and a member of the Academic Group for Palestine:

Fraihat’s view is that the Palestinian national project has been in crisis since the Camp David talks of 2000 between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, the last serious attempt to work within the Oslo framework. Since the failure of those talks, the Palestinian national project has come to a standstill, with no genuine attempt to resolve the crisis, just empty sloganeering.

Fraihat proposes four steps for moving beyond the crisis. The first is to suspend negotiations in their current form. Given the power imbalance between the two parties, negotiations only lead to concessions, Fraihat said, which is incompatible with the settler colonial nature of the conflict experienced by Palestinians. True negotiations must focus on ending the occupation, rather than giving guarantees of security to the occupier. The second step is to end reliance on the West, drawing on the lessons of the Oslo process and the negotiations it produced. Counting on the West is delusional, Fraihat said, because the international community will give the Palestinians nothing as long as the latter have nothing to bargain with. The third step is to support grassroots initiatives, by which he meant the popular eruptions that force the Palestinian political leadership to act in accordance with the popular national agenda and which draw attention abroad, as was the case with the 1987 Intifada. Fraihat thus believes it is imperative to strengthen civil society organisations to enable them to play their role, particularly in driving the boycott against Israel as a discriminatory apartheid regime, much like that of South Africa. The fourth step is to find an alternative to international financial assistance received by the Palestinian leadership, whether from Arabs or the international community. The Palestinian economy must be strengthened and be able to survive without wholly relying on outside assistance, as is currently the case.

Salman Abu Sitta, founder and president of the London-based Palestine Land Society:

Abu Sitta said that Palestinians have two sources of strength in the near future. The first is demographics. There are currently 14 million Palestinians and there will be 18 million by 2030. Currently half of them live in Palestine and 80 percent of the other half live within 100 km of Palestine. These numbers can be transformed into an effective, influential force, Abu Sitta said, pointing to Israel’s recent disorientation when faced with a revolt by Palestinians in Gaza, Jerusalem and the 1948 territory. Such collective action had not been seen in decades and represents a return to the natural state of affairs, which is that Palestinians are a single people. Comparing Palestinians and Israeli demographic strength, Abu Sitta said that there will be no more than eight million Jews in Palestine in the future, attributing this to the Jewish desire to distribute their population between Palestine and outside of it.

Secondly, technological advancements in communication can be exploited to the benefit of the Palestinian national project. Certain applications, such as Zoom, can be used to better expose Zionist crimes against Palestinians, which Abu Sitta believes could change the minds of many in the global public, including Jewish youth. As an example, he pointed to a group of young Jews at a university where he taught, saying that 22 percent of them changed their beliefs and came to view Israel as an apartheid regime. He concluded that Zionist media control is disintegrating, which can be used to the benefit of the Palestinian national project.

Abu Sitta added that it requires patience and effort to turn demographic strength and trends in global public opinion into policies and decisions that can change the current reality of the Palestinian issue. But he is optimistic that the time will come when the world believes that the costs of continued support for Israel outweigh the benefits, much as Americans’ belief that the cost of staying in Afghanistan was too high prompted the US withdrawal.

Mohamed Jemil Mansour, former president of the Mauritanian Tewassoul Party:

Sensing popular indifference to the Palestinian cause among parts of the Arab public, Mansour said that it is important to find a genuine balance of power that could equal or nearly equal that of the enemy. Palestinians managed to change this balance of power through armed resistance to a certain degree, he said, but they need to do more, and not only on the level of military power. They also need to improve the political balance of power by uniting ranks and achieving harmony within the leadership in order to increase their political influence in the Arab, Islamic and international arenas.

Mansour said that the integration of all dimensions of the Palestinian cause is vital and must be preserved and reinforced. The Palestinian issue is a Palestinian, Arab and humanitarian cause, he said, and its full integration is necessary for the Palestinian national project to benefit from all aspects. We should avoid sensitivity toward any of these dimensions or aspects.

In order to bolster the Palestinian national project, Mansour said that Arab and Islamic peoples should be encouraged to stand behind the cause as a duty and central issue that should not take a back seat to regional priorities.

He added that Arab regimes must be pressured to lend more support to the Palestinian cause. Arab peoples can exert such pressure until regimes reconsider their offensive actions and at least return to the feeble stance expressed by the Arab peace initiative in Beirut in 2002.

Ilan Pappe, director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter:

Pappe laid out four important points where the Palestinian national project can be strengthened. Firstly, it must be internalised that that the two-state solution is dead and that it will not lead to a comprehensive or just solution of the Palestinian issue in either moral or practical terms.

Secondly, and following on the first point, an alternative to the two-state model must be created, whatever we choose to call it. The Palestinian liberation movement itself must present this alternative, he said, and it will not be able to do so until it unites its ranks and formulates a clear vision of what it means to liberate Palestine in the 21st century, taking into consideration the basic principles of any liberated state and the “conditional” return of refugees. Pappe said that this vision could move attention to the Palestinian cause from the realm of global public opinion to the realm of governments and major powers able to assert the vision and transform it into the agreed upon formulation for the state.

Thirdly, he said, it is important to end US interference and stop entrusting the United States with the job of resolving the Palestinian issue, particularly since the United States has offered no real solution for decades. The issue must be the province of a set of international actors rather than the United States alone.

Mustafa Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council:

Barghouti believes that Palestinians must ask themselves where they now stand, after the illusion of negotiations since Oslo and after the Zionist movement has proven that it has no desire to establish an independent Palestinian state, but rather to push them into an ostensibly autonomous entity without sovereignty. For Barghouti, the solution for the Palestinian national project begins with ending the reliance on the United States, given that it sees itself as Israel’s strategic ally and given the power of the Zionist lobby in the United States. Barghouti believes that dialogue between Palestinian factions, particularly Fatah and Hamas, will not succeed unless there is a good-faith effort to accept five principles: 1) democratic participation and the conviction that no single power on the Palestinian landscape can make unilateral decisions on the fate of Palestine; 2) the people’s right to democratic elections and the right to choose their leaders free of Israeli or American paternal oversight. If the leadership is not elected and chosen by the Palestinian people, it will be unable to negotiate or speak on its behalf, which is the crux of the current crisis of the Palestinian cause; 3) an agreement to end the division between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, end all forms of discrimination against the Gaza Strip, and accept that Palestinians have equal rights and duties; 4) a shift in the centre of gravity away from the Palestinian Authority and toward the Palestinian national liberation movement, and the formation of a unified national leadership in the framework of the currently disempowered PLO; 5) the constitution of a unified Palestinian leadership on the basis of a programme of struggle and resistance. There will be no Palestinian unity, Barghouti said, if any one party continues to place faith in negotiations, the Oslo Accords and security coordination. If such faith persists, there will be no unity among factions and no united leadership to lead the Palestinian national project.

Adnan Abu Amer, professor of political science at Ummah University, Gaza:

Abu Amer said that talk of a two-state solution is an intellectual luxury given the assaults on Palestinians, the current reality of settlements and the fragmentation of Palestinian cities and towns by bypass roads, the reality of a “decrepit” Palestinian Authority, an Arab region preoccupied with domestic issues, and a US administration that has put the Palestinian-Israeli issue at the end of its priority list.

For Abu Amer, the solution is resistance that can increase the cost of occupation and impede the settlements’ annexation of more Palestinian land. In order to have a positive impact on the ground, this requires a genuine national will on the part of resistance movements to continue with resistance and a grassroots base to embrace resistance. To support his assertion, Abu Amer pointed to Afghanistan and the Taliban’s victory over the United States and NATO as a model and exemplar. Yielding to pressure and abandoning resistance is submitting to the will of the occupier, Abu Amer said. Every resistance movement and its grassroots support base throughout history has suffered to win freedom. The solution to the Palestinian issue and the way to move the Palestinian national project forward are to be found in resistance as a fundamental choice and its political utilisation. It should be adopted by the Palestinian National Authority in conjunction with resistance factions, while making more efforts to alleviate everyday pressures in order to preserve the relationship between resistance factions and their grassroots base and stymie Israeli attempts to divide them.

John Alderdice, director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict (CRIC) at University of Oxford and a member of the House of Lords:

Alderdice said that Palestinians’ belief that the Israeli occupation is fated to end is incorrect, noting that many occupations have persisted for long periods. Pointing to Irish nationalists who considered the British presence an occupation, he said that that occupation lasted 700 years and the Irish were ultimately forced to sit at the negotiating table. The important thing for Palestinians, he said, is that they agree on the outcomes their representatives come to; otherwise, they will reach nothing that can meet their aspirations.

Alderdice added that it is a mistake to generalise about resistance from the example of the Afghan Taliban because the US presence in Afghanistan was from the beginning perceived as temporary. Israelis, on the other hand, view their presence in Palestine as permanent. The two cases cannot be compared, Alderdice said.

He believes that it is foolish to think that any US administration will change its stance toward Israel or that any Israeli government will respond to pressure and change its policies. He said that no state can do anything concrete on the ground except talk, and this includes China and Russia. If the Palestinians want change, then, they have no choice but to assume the responsibility and do it themselves. Thy must agree on a leadership that enjoys popular support to lead the political process, in all its dimensions, in order to reach the outcomes they want.

Ghada Karmi, lecturer at the University of Exeter, UK:

Karmi said that we must ask the right question if we want the right answer. In her view, the right question is: Are the Palestinian people a single entity with a single struggle and a single goal?

Yes, she said, the Palestinians are indeed one people with the common goal of ending the occupation. She pointed to the uprising in all Palestinian territories in 2021 to demonstrate the unity of Palestinians in and out of Palestine. As such, Karmi concluded, a solution must be found that comprises the entire Palestinian people simultaneously. She believes that the two-state solution is impossible, but before clarifying her own vision, she listed three demands of Palestinians: the return of all people expelled from Palestine in 1948, compensation for losses incurred as a result,  and a dignified life for Palestinians in the land of Palestine. The two-state solution does not meet these demands, she said, although it is the demand of many Palestinians and is accepted by the international community. In support of her view, she noted that the two-state solution gives Palestinians only 22 percent of historic Palestine, does not provide for the return of refugees or compensation, and will not realise a dignified life for Palestinians.

What, then, is the solution? The solution is what will achieve these three demands. But although the Palestinian political leadership is aware of these demands, they are choosing the policy of “something is better than nothing” and the course of “taking a little then demanding more.” Karmi said that this path had proved futile. She concluded that her preferred solution, though Israel currently rejects it, is a single democratic state for everyone that will achieve dignity and rights for everyone.

Mohsen Saleh, General Manager of Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultation:

Before enumerating a set of challenges, both old and new, Saleh mentioned two important changes: the postponement of Palestinian elections, which he believes has undermined faith in the current leadership, and this summer’s Operation “Sword of Jerusalem,” which rallied people in Palestine and on the Arab and Islamic street around resistance and its programme. Despite this, Saleh said that the current Palestinian national leadership is determined to cling to the same old programme, however unsuited it is to the current moment, which puts the leadership “outside the context of history and far from the aspirations of the Palestinian people.”

Saleh summarised the crises arising from the status quo and the conditions that led to it in five points: 1) a lack of consensus on a vision defining fixed principles and the paramount interests of the Palestinian people and clarifying the meaning of “liberation” and the position of historic Palestine within this vision; 2) the determination of a strategic course for the Palestinian people and whether this will rely on negotiations, resistance or some combination of the two; 3) the demarcation of a political programme that can set incremental goals and how to realise them, and clarify the mechanism for the establishment of a Palestinian state on part of the land of Palestine in the context of the subsequent establishment of a Palestinian state on the entire land of Palestine; 4) the restructuring of the PLO in the framework of rebuilding the structures of representation for the Palestinian people to replace the current dominance of a single faction; and 5) a creative deployment of the geographic diversity of Palestinians, including those who live in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the 1948 territories and the diaspora.

Saleh sees the solution in overcoming these combined challenges, starting with the most urgent. The most pressing problems in his view are resolving the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership, thwarting attempts by some Arab and Western states to reproduce the PA in its current form, making a space for the Palestinian people to forge a genuine democratic path that expresses their will, reconsidering the mechanisms for Palestinian decision making by reviving the Central and National Palestinian Council with their members in Palestine and the diaspora, far from the Israeli occupation, animating Palestinian civil society at home and abroad, and forging a consensus on an effective political program.

Osama Abuirshaid, non-resident scholar at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Washington:

Abuirshaid agreed that the Palestinian national project is facing challenges, first and foremost the lack of leadership, vision and consensus. This is reflected in the international stance on the Palestinian cause, he said.

He said that a reference point must be set when talking about change or the lack thereof in US administrations’ stance on the Palestinian issue. If we take the Trump administration as the benchmark and compare it with the Biden administration, for example, there appears to be some shift. In his view, however, the overall US stance for the past century has not genuinely changed, and all US administrations are wholly biased towards Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights. Nevertheless, Abuirshaid did point to the changing awareness of Americans, Israeli youth and evangelical Christian youth, saying this will be important in the future. The more all of these groups understand about Israel, he said, the less sympathy they have for it and the more they understand the Palestinian cause. Abuirshaid thus advises focusing on this point to derive maximum benefit for the Palestinian cause.

Sari Orabi, director of Al Quds Centre for Studies in Ramallah:

The problem in Palestine is not a lack of ideas, Orabi said, but wills, resulting from attempts by some to privilege negotiations over other paths with all the linkages, complications and model of relations to the Israeli occupier that negotiations entail. Orabi believes that the Fatah leadership should be addressed directly with the demand to abandon the path of negotiation, which has brought nothing to Palestinians, and to implement decisions issued by the councils representing the Palestinian people.

For Orabi, the solution lies in unifying the Palestinian national project around resistance in general, not resistance under the banner of any particular faction. During the upheavals around Jerusalem this year, he said, most Palestinians in all Palestinian territories and across the political spectrum showed a desire to unite around the project of resistance, having despaired of a political settlement. Orabi urged Palestinian resistance factions to form a unified front to lead both armed and political resistance.

He added that the Jerusalem uprising should be generalised across Palestine within a comprehensive framework, and that Palestinians pursuing this path should be supported to sustain their uprising.

Antoine Shalhat, researcher in Israeli affairs:

Shalhat stressed the need to preserve the sense among new generations who live in the 1948 territories that the Palestinian issue is their defining cause, regardless of Israel’s attempts to integrate them and suppress their identity. Investing in these generations in the coming phase would be beneficial for the Palestinian national project, he said.

Shalhat opined that the political process after Oslo sidelined 1948 Palestinians, pushing them toward what he called Israelisation. In his view, most of the obstacles preventing the Palestinian national project from moving forward are self-imposed and attributable to the politics of Palestinian parties and factions in Palestine and abroad. He sees the new dynamics on the landscape as an important development that is likely to strengthen the national project. The grassroots have begun to again seize the initiative, he said, and this has the potential to change the positions of political forces, even if it takes time and even though the current government under Naftali Bennet is more right-wing than its predecessor.

Fadwa Barghouti, member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council:

Barghouti said that the Jerusalem uprising and Operation “Sword of Jerusalem” represented a general state of revolutionary momentum. This manifested as a general confrontation across all parts of Palestine and demonstrated that the unity of the people in and out of Palestine is the rule and a condition of victory, further showing that struggle on the ground generates both official and grassroots support on the regional and international levels. She said that the Palestinian masses who rebelled had the necessary response, which represents a critique of the inaction of the forces that should be active on the ground and rise to the historical occasion. She added that the younger Palestinian generation will lead and determine the necessary change.

Barghouti listed six points she believes are important for strengthening the Palestinian national project: 1) the prisoners’ document for national accord should be the basis for the Palestinian national project, given that it enjoys political, popular and national consensus; 2) setting a date for presidential and legislative elections, as well as elections to the National Council including in Jerusalem, is a priority for getting the Palestinian house in order and is necessary to move past the state of resentment and confusion, preserve the democratic path and save the tattered Palestinian political system; 3) the PLO must be rebuilt and reformed to bring in Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other factions currently not included in order to function as an expression of all political forces and factions; 4) the functional role of the PA must be redefined and re-examined as a domestic administration and service provider. Its security role must also be reconsidered and work must be done to make the PA a bridge to and servant of the national project unable to coexist with occupation and settlement; 5) national, political and struggle-oriented activities must be determined by the newly restructured PLO representing all Palestinian factions and forces; and 6) the national liberation struggle must be joined with the democratic struggle for values of justice, liberties and equality. The separation of powers, an independent judiciary and the rule of law must be consolidated, and individual and civil liberties and human rights protected; corruption of all kinds must combatted on all levels, and women’s freedom and rights must be protected and vindicated in contemporary laws.

Nabil Amr, Palestinian writer and politician:

Amr said that the Palestinian issue will take a turn for the worse due to the major political forces’ lack of will to end the political division between the West Bank and Gaza, the lack of progress on restructuring Palestinian institutions, and the failure to manage citizens’ affairs in both the West Bank and Gaza. “We are faced with comprehensive, compound failure,” Amr said, not only political in nature but economic and social as well.

Commenting on some of the speakers he had heard at the conference, Amr observed that it is easy to talk about what should be, but that we need to proceed from what actually is and attempt to brainstorm solutions based on this reality. The time has come, he said, to reconsider the totality of Palestinian-Israeli relations, not only security coordination, because security coordination is part of a comprehensive political settlement that stipulates duties for both Israelis and Palestinians. Since Israelis abandoned their duties in the first phase of the settlement, the entire relationship must be reconsidered. The entire relationship has collapsed utterly on all levels, he said, and this must be demonstrated to the Israelis.

Although Amr recognises the current Palestinian reality and the implications of political division and the reliance on foreign parties, he was nevertheless optimistic about the future of the Palestinian cause. Despite the failure of both courses of action—armed struggle and peaceful negotiations—and despite the hostility of regional and international parties, this is but a temporary failure. Things change, he said, and we should rely on the Palestinian people; they will not surrender or raise the white flag because they believe in their cause. They are learning and know how to perfect the contemporary tools they possess.

Majed al-Zir, Deputy Chairman of the Palestine Abroad Conference:

Al-Zir began by describing the reality of the Palestinian issues, noting that just two months earlier with the Jerusalem uprising, the people had rallied around the resistance project and made an important achievement. He then asked: What do we lack to propel the Palestinian national project forward? Al-Zir said that the Palestinian people lack political leadership that could invest all these efforts and strengthen and build on them.

Al-Zir also said that the future would bring leaders who were more in tune with the Palestinian people and who would seize the initiative. The future is therefore promising. He added that it is important for the Palestinian people to unite around a single programme for the liberation of Palestine and the defeat of the occupier, drawing on all the capacities and potential of Palestinians at home and abroad. He also said that the time had come to change the PLO, draw on the depth of Arab support, and make better use of the capacities of Palestinians in the diaspora, particularly in the arenas in which they act, taking advantage of their trans-factional unity initiatives and holding elections within the diaspora for a representative leadership that can pressure the PA to restructure. This requires additional Palestinian-Palestinian coordination. The Palestinian national project is in good shape, al-Zir said, and requires what is “forbiddingly easy” to achieve its goals and invest in the latent capabilities of the Palestinian people through a program of resistance.

Hugh Lovatt, Senior Policy Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations:

Lovatt said that because of the lack of a consensual Palestinian national strategy, the Western vision is fragmented and Western leaders do not know exactly what Palestinians want: is it a two-state or one-state solution?

Lovatt dismissed the importance of armed struggle, which in his view precludes Western support for the Palestinian cause. As an example, he cited the stance of Western states on the latest Israeli war on Gaza, which they viewed as self-defence against missiles fired from Gaza. Methods of peaceful civil struggle are more likely to enable the Palestinian cause to find a sympathetic hearing among European and Western publics, he said, referring to the struggle of South Africans against apartheid as an example.

Lovatt observed that knowledge of the Palestinian issues is growing among the American public, attributing this to the growth of Black Lives Matter, which, he said, had cleared space to allow Americans to learn about other similar issues. He advised increasing outreach to Western publics, not only on the level of Palestinian activists, as is the case now, but also on the level of the Palestinian leadership, which is completely absent from the field.

Jawad Al Hamad, Director of the Middle East Studies Center in Amman:

Popular Palestinian, Arab, and Islamic support will persist as long as actions against the occupation do, Al Hamad said. Jerusalem should be at the centre of these efforts, and Palestinians must be unified on the goal of confrontation. Arab powers should deal with the Palestinian issue as the central conflict in the region.

Al Hamad said that it is important to stop efforts by some Arab states that are working to perpetuate Palestinian division, rushing toward normalisation with Israel, and prohibiting the expression of any form of popular support for the Palestinian cause in their territory. Similarly, it is important for Palestinian forces to continue their pattern of not interfering in the domestic affairs of Arab states or aligning themselves with any particular Arab or Islamic axis whatever the motives or reasons. The price for this will always be paid by Palestinians themselves whenever calculations change and the balance of powers shifts.

Moreover, Al Hamad said that the Palestinian cause was at a historical juncture after the Jerusalem uprising showed the public coalescing around a project of political, military and civil resistance. To advance their national project, he said, Palestinians must end the state of division immediately, resolve the problem of leadership, and move the international community away from the dead two-state solution and the Oslo agreement toward the idea of ending the Israeli occupation, at least within the 1967 borders.

Al Hamad said that it is important to take advantage of Palestinians in the diaspora, who have demonstrated greater vitality, dynamism and capability. The same is true of 1948 Palestinians, who must be fully integrated into the Palestinian project.

Al Hamad believes that some states’ move toward normalisation with Israel has no future and is indeed declining. He further said that the goal of recent Western communications with the PA was to revive negotiations, undermine the gains of the recent Jerusalem rebellion, and prevent an outburst of anger in the West Bank.