Arab Spring and Al-Nakba
As Palestinians observe the 64th anniversary of Al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe, marking the birth of Israel and the loss of their homeland, they find themselves alone in their struggle to end occupation and fulfill their national goal of liberation and independence. The slow but consistent transformation of the Palestinian issue from a pan Arab cause into an individual one that concerns only the victims began many years ago. The signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979 between Egypt and Israel removed the former from the forefront of Arab countries fighting for Palestinian rights. But Arab states continued to consider Palestinian struggle as the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The neutralization of Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1990 was another blow to Palestinian efforts to maintain a steadfast Arab front against Israel. That was soon followed by the launch of the Madrid Peace Conference, which sought to reach a comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the Palestinians were tempted to engage in secret and direct negotiations with Israel, leading to the Oslo Agreement and the signing of the Washington Accords.
Since then the responsibility for concluding a final settlement with Israel fell on the Palestinian leadership. Arab role became secondary as Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) engaged in lengthy and frustrating negotiations under US auspices. With the Palestinians taking the lead role in negotiating with Israel, Arab leaders made an historic offer to Israel in the form of the Arab Peace Initiative. Israel rebuffed the proposal. It also reneged on most of its commitments to the Palestinians. The road to Palestinian statehood had reached a dead-end.
Even before the Arab Spring had arrived there were worrying signs that the Palestinian leadership had no more cards to play. The war on terrorism and the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq had sidelined the Palestinian issue. And in Israel a right-wing Israeli government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu had resisted US pressures to stop settlement activities and return to the negotiating table. It had already rejected Palestinian position on all final status issues. The Obama administration had failed to solve the gridlock and PNA President Mahmoud Abbas could do nothing to dissuade the Israelis from carrying out aggressive settlement activities in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The window for a viable two-state solution was closing fast.
But then a political tsunami hit the region. Popular uprisings flared up in Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Regimes were toppled and the Arab world was sucked into a vortex of calamitous change. Egypt, which had played a major role in supporting the PNA in the past, was now absorbed in local challenges. It is clear that it will take years for stability to return to the region.
Arab people and leaderships are now battling issues that include the rise of political Islam, the future of the civil state and democratic transition, in addition to new regional challenges. The Gulf states consider the potential threat of Iran and its rising regional influence as the primary strategic test. The possibility of Israel dealing a preemptive strike against Iran is sure to inflame the Middle East, rendering the Palestinian issue into a marginal one. The Syrian crisis is getting more complicated and the country is inching closer toward civil war. Iraq is not in a better shape as well with the specter of sectarian violence haunting the divided country.
It is safe to say that in light of these tumultuous developments the Palestinians find themselves neglected as never before. Europe’s struggle with its financial crisis and America’s concern with its presidential elections make it more difficult for President Abbas to bring attention to the cause of his people.
Furthermore, the Palestinians have failed to get their act together. National reconciliation efforts have reached a dead end, and Hamas remains in charge of Gaza. The PNA itself is divided and is hopelessly dependent on US financial aid and support.
One example of how the Palestinian cause is suffering today is the absence of strong Arab and international attention to the plight of thousands of prisoners and detainees in Israeli jails. Not a single Arab leader had come out in support of tens of Palestinian prisoners who are on a life-threatening hunger strike. The continuing tragedy of these prisoners is proof of how indifferent Arabs have become to what was once their most passionate cause.
The Arab Spring has not been kind to the Palestinians. It will take years for the region to overcome the challenges brought about by popular protests and regime change. In the long run this may be good for the Palestinians, but for now they must face growing Israeli threats on their own.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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