The leadership crisis in Palestine is not new. It predates Fatah and Hamas by decades.
Since the destruction of Palestine and the creation of Israel in 1948 — and even farther back — Palestinians have been beholden to international and regional power plays beyond their ability to control or even influence.
The greatest achievement of Yasser Arafat, the late leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), was his ability to foster an independent Palestinian political identity and a national movement that, although it had Arab support, was not entirely appropriated by any Arab country.
The Oslo Accords, however, were the demise of that movement. Historians may quarrel about whether Arafat, the PLO and its largest political party, Fatah, had any choice but to engage in the so-called “peace process.” However, in retrospect, we can surely agree that Oslo was the abrupt cancelation of every Palestinian political achievement, at least since the war of 1967.
Despite the resounding defeat of Arab countries by Israel and its powerful Western allies in that war, hope for a new beginning was born. Israel reclaimed East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, but unwittingly unified Palestinians as one nation, although one that is oppressed and occupied.
Moreover, the deep wounds suffered by Arab countries as a result of the disastrous war gave Arafat and Fatah the opportunity to utilize the new margins that opened up as a result of the Arab retreat.
The PLO, which was originally managed by the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, became an exclusively Palestinian platform. Fatah, established a few years before the war, was the party in charge.
When Israel occupied Lebanon in 1982, its aim was the annihilation of the Palestinian national movement, especially since Arafat was opening up new channels of dialogue, not only with Arab and Muslim countries, but internationally as well. The United Nations, among other global institutions, began recognizing Palestinians, not as hapless refugees needing handouts, but as a serious national movement deserving to be heard and respected.
At the time, Israel was obsessed with preventing Arafat from rebranding the PLO as a budding government. In the short term, Israel achieved its main objective: Arafat was driven to Tunisia with his party’s leadership, and the rest of the PLO’s fighters were scattered across the Middle East, once more falling hostage to Arab whims and priorities.
Between 1982 and the signing of Oslo in 1993, Arafat fought for relevance. The PLO’s exile became particularly evident as Palestinians launched their first Intifada (the uprising of 1987). A whole new generation of Palestinian leaders began to emerge; a different identity had its inception in Israeli prisons and was nurtured in the streets of Gaza and Nablus. The greater the sacrifices and the higher the Palestinian death toll, the more heightened that sense of collective identity grew.
The PLO’s attempt to hijack the Intifada was one of the main reasons why the uprising eventually faltered. The Madrid talks in 1991 was the first time that true representatives of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories would take on an international platform to speak on behalf of Palestinians at home.
That endeavor was short-lived. Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas negotiated an alternative agreement secretly in Oslo. It largely sidelined the UN, and the US became a self-proclaimed “honest broker” in a US-sponsored “peace process.”
Self-serving factions who seek limited legitimacy, fake sovereignty and American handouts do a disservice to a people who have been betrayed for decades.
While Arafat and his Tunisian faction were allowed back to govern occupied Palestinians with a limited mandate provided by the Israeli government and military, Palestinian society faced a dilemma. With the PLO, which represented all Palestinians, cast aside to make room for the PA — which represented only the interests of a branch within Fatah in a limited autonomous region — Palestinians were divided.
In fact, 1994, the year the PA was formed, was also the year in which the current Palestinian strife was born. The PA, under pressure from Israel and the US, cracked down on Palestinians who opposed Oslo and rejected the “peace process.” The Israeli gambit worked to perfection: The Palestinian leadership in exile was brought back to crack down on the leadership of the Intifada, while Israel stood aside and watched the spectacle.
Hamas, itself an early outcome of the first Intifada, came into direct confrontation with Arafat and his authority. Its rejection of normalization with the Israeli occupation won Hamas massive popularity, especially as it became clear that Oslo was a ruse and the “peace process” was a dead end.
When Arafat died and Abbas took over, Hamas took the first step in a political maneuver that proved costly: It ran for the PA’s legislative elections in 2006. Worse, it won. By succeeding in an election that was itself the outcome of a political process that Hamas had vehemently rejected, it became a victim of its own success.
Predictably, Israel moved to punish Palestinians. Under US pressure, Europe followed suit. The Hamas government was boycotted, Israel bombed Gaza and Palestinian coffers dried up.
A Hamas-Fatah war ensued in the summer of 2007, resulting in hundreds of deaths and the political and administrative split of Gaza from the West Bank.
Palestinians had two governments but no state. It was a mockery that a promising national liberation project abandoned liberation and focused on settling factional scores, while millions of Palestinians suffered siege and military occupation, and millions more suffered the anguish and humiliation of “shattat” — the exile of refugees.
There have been many attempts to reconcile the two groups in the past 10 years. They failed mostly because, once more, the Palestinian leaderships leased their decision-making to regional and international powers. The golden age of the PLO was replaced with the dark ages of factional divisions.
The reconciliation agreement in Cairo is not an outcome of a new commitment to a Palestinian national project. Hamas and Fatah are out of options. Their regional politicking was a failure, and their political program ceased to impress Palestinians who feel orphaned and abandoned.
For the reconciliation to become true national unity, priorities would have to change entirely, so that the interests of the Palestinian people — all of them, everywhere — again become paramount, above the interests of a faction or two, seeking limited legitimacy, fake sovereignty and American handouts.
• Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud