Deserting a Sinking Ship

Arab leaders and Islamic groups are filling the vacuum left by the defeated and withering Palestinian national movement, and the PLO and its institutions are becoming obsolete. A movement in crisis.

Danny Rubinstein
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Danny Rubinstein

In the summer of 1971, Prof. Yehoshua Porat of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published his important book "The Emergence of the Arab- Palestinian National Movement, 1918-1929." In a preface to the book, veteran teacher and researcher Gabriel Baer praised "the pioneering work in the field, in which the scientific approach has been neglected." The best scholars associated with this research field, including Arabs, praised Porat's work. Quite a number of Palestinians with an ability to be self-critical bitterly remarked that the best work on the early days of Palestinian nationalism was written by an Israeli scholar, of all people.

Although Porat's book deals with the first decade of the British Mandate in the Land of Israel, it is based on a study conducted during the years following the Six-Day War, when Palestinian nationalism flourished anew, after the mortal blow it had sustained in 1948. But today, over 35 years after Porat's book was first published, if a scholar were to express a desire to write a sequel to this work, he could give it the title: "The Withering and Decline of the Palestinian National Movement."

It would not be a great exaggeration to state that the Palestinian national movement has almost ceased to exist in recent years. The government of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza is barely functioning. The PA's establishment was supposed to mark the decisive stage in advancing Palestinian national aspirations, but its rule has failed abysmally. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) - Palestinians mockingly say among themselves - is no more than the president of the Muqata compound in Ramallah.

The institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which presumed to represent the entire Palestinian nation, have in recent years become obsolete and unimportant. They do not include any representation for a national religious movement like Hamas (which holds that religion takes precedence nationality), although its supporters make up about one-third of the Palestinian public. The PLO Executive Committee (the organization's executive arm) and its National Council (the PLO parliament, which never meets) represent several of the Palestinian leftist movements (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - PFLP, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine - DFLP, etc.), which have long ceased to exist. This means that for quite some time now, the PLO has ceased to be a relevant body in Palestinian politics.

Deserting the PA

One of the most obvious signs that the ship of the Palestinian national project is sinking is the fact that many of its members are deserting. Nabil Sha'ath, a veteran PLO leader, who served as a minister in the Palestinian government after returning to the homeland with Arafat and settling in Gaza, has returned to his Cairo home and is spending his time running his successful businesses. Mohammed Dahlan and Hassan Asfour, who until recently served as powerful ministers and advisers in Gaza, now spend most of their time in Cairo, together with their families.

Officials in Ramallah estimate that about 50,000 West Bank residents have left in recent years. The vast majority of those leaving own houses and assets in Amman. These are senior and junior officers and officials who came to Ramallah and Nablus in order to work in the PA's institutions. Now, when the PA is barely surviving, they are leaving. There is no money, wages are delayed, the offices are paralyzed. Every day there are shooting incidents and Israel Defense Forces raids. The economy has collapsed and their family members are frequently delayed at the checkpoints.

Recent visits to the homes of several ministers and senior officials living in Ramallah have shown that they live here only part of the time, alone. Their Ramallah apartment has gradually emptied out and their wifes and children have taken most of their personal belongings with them as they left the West Bank and moved, or returned, east of the Jordan River.

While it seems as though the Palestinian national project is finished, it cannot be said that the Palestinian problem has disappeared. It definitely exists. About 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza under conditions of poverty and siege. The West Bank is characterized by political, social and economic distress. There are still refugees and camps, and there is still a desire to remove what Palestinians consider to be an occupying and exploitive Israeli rule - whether directly or indirectly. But if the national movement - that is the PLO, Fatah and the PA - is bankrupt and incapable of solving these problems, the solution to them must be sought in other places.

The first such place that comes to mind is the Arab world. In recent years Arab countries have re-entered the Palestinian fray. For decades the various Arab states assumed key roles in Palestinian history. The peak occurred in 1948 - but even after the establishment of the State of Israel the Arabs continued to support the Palestinians. That was true until the 1973 Yom Kippur War and shortly thereafter, up until the PLO and Arafat showed up and threw out their Arab brothers. We are the ones with the problem and we are the only ones with the autonomy to make a decision - this was one of the most famous slogans of the PLO, which exploited the first intifada, signed the Oslo Accords and tried to reach an agreement with Israel independently.

The Arabs return

When these attempts failed, the Arab countries slowly came back into the picture. Since the Camp David summit seven years ago, it has become clear that the Palestinians cannot achieve an agreement with Israel by themselves. This is why all the Arab states, and first and foremost the Saudis, are invited to Annapolis, and not just the Palestinians, who failed.

The return of the Arab countries to the crux of the matter is reflected in the ongoings in the West Bank and Gaza. The Jordanian government, with Israel's encouragement, has once again begun to demonstrate its presence in the West Bank, mainly in East Jerusalem. For many years Yasser Arafat and his followers tried to take over the senior positions in the Islamic institutions in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount. While they did meet with success in the past, recently PA and PLO supporters have been removed from all the key positions in Jerusalem. At present the mufti, the director of the Waqf (Muslim religious trust) and others in senior positions, are Jordanian loyalists only.

King Abdullah II and the leaders of the administration in Amman make a point of publicly declaring that they have no ambitions regarding the West Bank. That may be true, but there is no question that their interest in what is happening west of the Jordan is steadily increasing. Former Jordanian prime minister Abdul Salam Majali, Abdullah's confidant, recently embarked on a very long visit to the West Bank. He met with public figures there and did not conceal Jordan's plans to establish cooperation between the two banks.

There is no escaping such cooperation, which will have political implications as well. The higher the separation walls between Israel and the West Bank, the closer the ties between the West Bank and Jordan. This process is logical: If a resident of Nablus cannot go abroad via Ben-Gurion International Airport, he has no choice but to leave via Jordan. The same is true for Gaza, where Egypt is forced to become increasingly involved in what is happening in the Strip.

The vacuum left by the defeated and withering Palestinian national movement is being filled by the various Islamic groups. And I am not referring to Hamas, which is a national religious organization, as mentioned, but rather to movements whose values are far removed from nationalism. In Hebron and other West Bank cities, the power of the Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir) has greatly increased of late. A British journalist who spoke to acquaintances in Hebron gained the impression that Hizb al-Tahrir has become the most popular party in the region. This is a veteran religious movement, which has been active in the West Bank since the days of Jordanian rule, and aims to restore the Islamic caliphate. It has undergone splits and struggles and some people even considered it a joke - but today they do not disparage it.

In Gaza, too, there are religious parties that are not nationalist in nature. Perhaps the substantial strengthening of the Islamic Movement in Israel - which focuses first and foremost on the Muslim religious issue rather than on the Palestinian national issue - is related to that.

The Green Line as a border and a capital in East Jerusalem - these are the "red lines" of the Palestinian nationalist movement. With all the changes this movement has undergone, there doesn't seem to be the slightest possibility of reaching a compromise for a solution that grants even one millimeter less than that. If Israel doesn't accept these conditions, the Palestinian national movement will be doomed to failure and will end up disappearing. Israel, on the other hand, will remain with the problem and will be forced to deal with a situation that undergoes slight changes every so often, but is looking increasingly difficult and ugly.



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