Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A state without a state, Part I – Who Is “The Palestinians”?

This was going to be my definitive piece on the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood, but I got distracted by arcania about the PLO, so four pages in, I decided to make this Part I.
The Palestinians, so we hear, are going to the United Nations this week to demand recognition as a state. Something many people would say they should have done at least twenty if not sixty years ago.

Now let’s get one thing clear: if they get it, whether from the Security Council, which will not happen because the U.S. has promised to veto it, or from the General Assembly, which seems likely, it will not make any discernible difference on the ground. The Israeli tanks will not pack up and leave their bases in the West Bank, Apache helicopters and Heron drones will not stop assaulting Gaza whenever they feel like it, Israeli border guards will not abandon their posts along the Apartheid Wall inside the Green Line, officially recognized as Palestinian land. Life on the day after statehood will be exactly like life on the day before, a condition of change without change Palestinians have become very accustomed to in the 18 years since Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Yassir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn.

The fact that it will not change life as they know it is only one reason that many parts of Palestinian civil society, contrary to what you may have heard, are not enthused about, or even in favor of, the demand for statehood.

The Boycott National Committee, which was formed in 2007 to direct the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel and includes representatives of 20 of the largest Palestinian organizations, said in a statement issued in August:

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority’s (PA) effort to seek UN recognition of “statehood” unilaterally, without consulting the Palestinian people from which the PA has absolutely no mandate, has raised fears among Palestinians that the move could actually harm Palestinian rights.

If the UN votes to admit the “State of Palestine,” it is likely that the unelected representatives of the Palestinian Authority would be seated in the General Assembly instead of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which currently holds the Palestine observer seat at the UN.
As the above makes plain, one of the problems is who is asking. The only entity which has the right to represent the Palestinian people at the U.N. is the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO. So officially, that’s who’s asking. It’s a plausible claim, because Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, is also Chairman of the PLO. Abbas inherited both positions when Arafat died, and he continues to occupy them because he and the PLO leadership put the scheduled elections for both on indefinite hold in 2009. Most factions of the PLO have publicly come out in support, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the largest of the left-wing parties (best known for the 1969 hijacking of a TWA jet led by Leila Khaled). Hamas and the other Islamic parties, as well as PLO leaders such as former Minister of Information Nabil Amr, have come out against it.

Most of us know little to nothing about the PLO. Growing up I knew only one thing: that its original charter called for “driving the Jews into the sea.” Many Zionist propagandists continue to assert that (see, for instance, a quote from Daniel Gordis’s 2000 essay “Home to Stay" or “The Truth About the Palestinian People”), while some allow as how that clause was dropped or amended in 1993, when Arafat agreed to begin the Oslo process. I’ve now read the original charter, which was signed in 1968, four years after the PLO was formed by the Palestine National Council. It’s officially called the Palestine National Charter. Here are the only things it says about Jews:

“Article 6: The Jews who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion will be considered Palestinians.” [That’s not an idle promise; I know Jewish Palestinians]
“Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood. Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.”
There’s a very interesting article by William James Martin in Counterpunch on the origins of the phrase “drive the Jews into the sea.”

What the charter does say is that:

“Article 15: The liberation of Palestine, from an Arab viewpoint, is a national (qawmi) duty and it attempts to repel the Zionist and imperialist aggression against the Arab homeland, and aims at the elimination of Zionism in Palestine.

“Article 22: Zionism is a political movement organically associated with international imperialism and antagonistic to all action for liberation and to progressive movements in the world. It is racist and fanatic in its nature, aggressive, expansionist, and colonial in its aims, and fascist in its methods. Israel is the instrument of the Zionist movement, and geographical base for world imperialism placed strategically in the midst of the Arab homeland to combat the hopes of the Arab nation for liberation, unity, and progress. Israel is a constant source of threat vis-a-vis peace in the Middle East and the whole world. Since the liberation of Palestine will destroy the Zionist and imperialist presence and will contribute to the establishment of peace in the Middle East, the Palestinian people look for the support of all the progressive and peaceful forces and urge them all, irrespective of their affiliations and beliefs, to offer the Palestinian people all aid and support in their just struggle for the liberation of their homeland.

“Article 23: The demand of security and peace, as well as the demand of right and justice, require all states to consider Zionism an illegitimate movement, to outlaw its existence, and to ban its operations, in order that friendly relations among peoples may be preserved, and the loyalty of citizens to their respective homelands safeguarded.”
The clauses calling for “elimination of the Zionist presence” – i.e., the state of Israel – were repealed in 1996, when, according to the website of the PLO Mission to the UN, “On 21 April, the Palestine National Council (PNC) holds its twenty-first session in Gaza City in Palestine for the first time since 1964, and decides by majority vote to “abrogate the provisions of the PLO Charter that are contrary to the exchanged letters between the PLO and the Government of Israel of 9 and 10 September 1993.” That’s one reason – possibly the only reason – Hamas and the other Islamic parties are not members of the PLO.

So Who Is the PLO?

As explained in a memo (released as part of the "Palestine papers") written by Mazen Masri for the PLO Negotiation Support Unit in 2006, “The PLO was initially founded by Arab states in 1964 in order to deal with the Palestinian national cause. It was controlled by Arab states till the late 1960s when the Palestinian factions gained more representation in the PLO. In 1969, the late Yasser Arafat, then Head of Fateh faction was elected Chairman of the PLO Executive Committee. Ever since then, the PLO became the umbrella organization for most of the Palestinian factions, and is widely acknowledged as the embodiment of the Palestinian national movement.” (I have to say, I just love that the PLO has researchers writing them memos about their own history. Maybe certain members of the U.S. Congress and former governors of Alaska could take a lesson from them.)

The PLO is a coalition of ten organizations. Fatah, the party founded by Arafat, is the largest, followed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Palestinian People’s Party (PPP, formerly the Palestinian Communist Party), and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Most of the other six are split-offs from one of the original factions. In the last Palestinian legislative council elections, the DFLP, PPP and a smaller faction, the Palestine Democratic Union, ran candidates together as al-Badeel, The Alternative.

Officially, the highest authority in the PLO is the Palestine National Council, or PNC. The Masri memo calls it “the parliament for all Palestinians inside and outside of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem.” It elects the 18-member Executive Committee, which makes day-to-day decisions. So far so good. The problem? The PNC didn’t meet for thirteen years, for elections or anything else. They finally met in late 2009, primarily for the purpose of replacing six dead members of the Executive Committee.

To complicate matters further, Masri explains, under an elections law that was enacted in 1995 by the PA, the members of the Palestinian Legislative Council – the Parliament of the Palestinian Authority, would become members of the PNC. This, presumably, was a step on the path of substituting the PA for the PLO. Under that provision, 1) there would be a PNC that had been elected in this century, and 2) a bunch of Hamas legislators would automatically become members of the highest body of the PLO, which would be interesting. But, alas, that law was repealed in 2005, prior to the elections which swept Hamas into power.

The PLO’s obligation is to represent all Palestinians in the world, not only those in the West Bank and Gaza or even inside the borders of historic Palestine. So any decision about statehood, if it’s coming from the PLO, would need to be consented to by the refugee population, which is almost twice the size of the Palestinian population inside the country, and presumably they will not accept any solution that does not guarantee their right to return to Palestine. It also needs to satisfy the aspirations of Palestinians living within the 1948 borders of Israel for full equality as citizens of whichever country they choose to belong to (or both), and that is not possible as long as Israel defines itself and is internationally recognized as a Jewish state.

In practice, the decision to go to the U.N. seems to have been made by the Palestinian Authority leadership, which overlaps with, is close to and at times indistinguishable from the PLO. But there are key differences between the two bodies.

Who Is the Palestinian Authority?

The Palestinian Authority was created by the Oslo accords as part of the transition to statehood which never took place. There have been four rounds of PA elections – two legislative and two presidential. All have been marked by nearly unparalleled fairness, and the only curtailment of freedom has come from the Israeli authorities, who in the last round arrested both candidates and voters in order to ensure that Palestinians in East Jerusalem, who are entitled to vote for the PA, did not have the opportunity to do so.

The PA, unlike the PLO, represents only the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, not those in the 1948 areas and not those outside the country.

Moreover, the PA leadership is also at this point basically self-appointed. Presidential and legislative elections which should have taken place two years ago, were cancelled in the wake of the U.S.-backed coup attempt against the Hamas government and never rescheduled. In the early months of the “Arab Spring,” Abbas announced that local and legislative elections would be held this fall, and Hamas – which won the last round of legislative elections but is considered unlikely to win the next – condemned the unilateral move. As part of the unity agreement was reached in Cairo in April, both factions agreed to postpone the elections, apparently united in their fear of the people’s will.

So any effort now for the PA, over the protests of Hamas and members of Palestinian civil society, to take its statehood demand to the U.N., looks like a power grab by the PA, which will permanently separate Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza from those in the 1948 borders of Israel and most of East Jerusalem, and permanently disenfranchise the refugee population. There has even been speculation that Israel and the U.S. are only pretending to oppose the bid, in hopes that that will encourage the Palestinians to support it, since if it succeeded, it would give them exactly what they have been clamoring for.

Next time: When is a state not a state?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this article! It was extremely helpful in understanding the confusion between the PLO, the PA, the PNC, and the PLC.

    And the link to William James Martin's article on the origins of the phrase “drive the Jews into the sea.” was also great.