Ten Years Since Arafat’s Death: Lost Hope as the Illusion of Temporary Occupation Fades

Palestinian society is completing its split into geographic units cut off from one another. Meanwhile, economic gaps widen among the regions, cities, villages, refugee camps and extended families.

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A Palestinian security force officer stands guard next to a large banner showing the late Yasser Arafat.
A Palestinian security force officer stands guard next to a large banner showing the late Yasser Arafat.Credit: AP

On Wednesday evening, as young Palestinians were sparring with the Israel Police in East Jerusalem neighborhoods, a documentary about the life of Yasser Arafat was being shown at the Mahmoud Darwish Museum in Ramallah. The museum’s Galilee Hall was filled with members of the PLO and Fatah — high-ranking and lower-ranking, well-known and not so well-known, old and young. There were more men than women. They applauded when, on-screen, Arafat declared the establishment of a Palestinian state on November 15, 1988.

The people in attendance, like the rest of the residents of the Palestinian Authority’s de facto capital, followed Wednesday’s events in East Jerusalem, “the capital of the Palestinian state,” 10 to 15 kilometers away. They “followed” the demonstrations and clashes as opposed to “participated” or “expanded” them to other areas of the occupied West Bank.

This is because the identifying feature of Palestinian society today is the split into local units, where dramatic incidents that take place in some units — war in Gaza, mass arrests in Hebron, conflicts with the Palestinian police in Jenin — don’t affect the rest. The mental distance between one geographic unit and the next is several times greater than the physical distance — not only when it comes to Gaza and Jerusalem, where Israel’s policy of closure and movement restrictions cut people off physically from the West Bank, or in the villages behind the separation barriers such as Bart'aa, Nabi Samwil and Nuaman.

The common objective reality — a foreign rule that the Palestinians experience as a colonialist system working to displace and dispossess them — is broken down into separate components with ostensibly different experiences for each.

The choice of the anniversary of Arafat’s death to discuss the changes in Palestinian society contains the assumption that the presence or absence of the late PLO chairman had an effect on these changes. There is no doubt that Arafat, in going to Oslo or signing the agreement for gradual progress toward a goal never explicitly defined with the occupying state, had a hand in creating the geographic fragmentation that so profoundly affected the societal fragmentation (the West Bank’s temporary division into areas A, B and C, which became permanent).

But in Arafat’s defense, let it be said that Israel began fragmenting Palestinian society in the territories that it occupied in 1967 even before the Madrid Conference or the Oslo talks. The regime of movement permits that Israel created cut Gaza off from the rest of Palestinian society in January 1991; with East Jerusalem this process began in March 1993. Since then, the political, economic, religious and cultural Palestinian capital has undergone a process of withering, withdrawal and return to the un-national and segregating spheres of influence of the extended families.

The sociologist Jamil Hilal says that had it not been for Arafat’s death, the political split between Gaza and the West Bank never would have happened, and two competing Palestinian governments would not have been created. If that’s true, this is an area where Arafat’s absence had a direct effect on the negative and far-reaching developments in Palestinian society.

Hilal told Haaretz it’s very likely Arafat would not have agreed to hold the 2006 Palestinian election, based on the belief that the vote would have legitimized the occupation (which, according to the Oslo Accords, was supposed to have ended in 1999). Without an election, the deep sociopolitical split in Palestinian society never would have happened. With an election under Arafat, Hilal believes Fatah would have won because Arafat would have risen above the internal splits and rivalries.

The geographic fragmentation has been complemented over the years by a process of atomization, or – in Hilal's words - individualization.

“The spread of individualism means that more and more Palestinians are legitimating, promoting, and protecting their personal interests and concerns above the collective interests and concerns of the community. This is the outcome of a number of factors,” Hilal wrote in an article asking what was stopping the third intifada. The article was published in May on the website of Al-Shabaka, an independent think tank of Palestinians without borders — in Palestine, in the diaspora and in exile.

The PA (under Arafat and even more strongly after his death) adopted a neoliberal economic regime in which, Hilal writes, “the private sector was granted the determining role in shaping the Palestinian economy and the PA’s dependency on external aid and on Israeli tax transfers was cemented. This dependency has made the PA vulnerable to political pressure and made the employees of its large public sector wary of any change that could jeopardize their sources of livelihood.”

The adoption of neoliberal thinking is not surprising, says Hilal: The PA was established at the peak of a global neoliberal era and was supported from the start by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, donor countries and NGOs that themselves relied on donations from abroad.

Another "factor related to the process of individualization has been the decline in the influence and credibility of political organizations and the buildup of the PA bureaucracy [and also that of Hamas] and formal institutions under the illusion that this would soon lead to an independent Palestinian state,” writes Hilal.

“The largely egalitarian political culture ‘of brothers and comrades’ and the relatively easy access to leaders by the rank and file that existed before the Oslo Accords has been replaced by pseudo-state institutions with their rigid hierarchical structures and discourse. There are now ministers, director generals, and other civilian and military ranks, each with its own special privileges and job description.”

Economic gaps have widened among the regions, cities, villages, refugee camps and extended families. Hilal told Haaretz that before the Oslo Accords, when the number of workers in Israel was high and movement into Israel was unrestricted, workers’ salaries were even higher than those of the middle class.

In recent years, the middle class that is dependent on the PA, its security agencies and the private sector, which is motivated by profit, has expanded. The main interest of this class — represented by fairly strong professional associations, unlike the workers and the farmers, who are not organized properly — is not to rock the boat, not to break the status quo.

The sociologist Hunaida Ghanem, who runs MADAR, the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies, described the Palestinian hierarchical structure as follows: “There is a small elite that established [the new Palestinian city of] Rawabi, and there are those who got rich from the Oslo process. There is the middle class of Ramallah, who live in a bubble and in an illusion that their situation is good because they live on bank loans. And there is the majority of the people, who don’t live in a bubble and suffer from the existing reality.”

As Ghanem told Haaretz, “The middle class chases personal security and car loans — not even in Tel Aviv and New York do you see cars like the ones here in Ramallah. This is a middle class under occupation that lives in nonprofits, academia, the schools, the government ministries. It used to be the avant-garde of national action, of resistance and the national project. Now it is busy with repaying debts. Those who work in nonprofit organizations are busy with pleasing the donors.”

The reality of the separate units, created when the Oslo process began, calls to mind the PLO’s experience in Jordan and Lebanon. There, too, it worked in a scattered Palestinian society that lacked space and territorial contiguity, but the common experience of being a refugee nation and the struggle overcame the lack of contiguity. So maybe that is why Arafat wasn’t worried by the imposed geographic fragmentation into areas A, B and C in 1995. He saw it as something that would end no later than 1999.

“Arafat and many others in the Palestinian community bought the temporariness that Israel sold,” said Ghanem. “But Israel created the largest settlements under the umbrella of temporariness. Arafat, as a Ben-Gurionist, believed in his ability to maneuver what existed toward a defined goal: the establishment of a state in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Arafat, said Ghanem, symbolized for the Palestinians hope, various possibilities and an alternative — if a given method failed. “During Arafat’s time, when people said ‘peace process,’ people trusted in his ability to lead to a breakthrough. They believed it wouldn’t be a static situation.” Today, without him, Palestinian society has lost its hope and horizon.

Palestinians are well aware of the internal contradiction; this, too, is a prominent feature. On the one hand, as Hilal puts it, the Israeli occupation provides all the objective and unifying conditions for a third intifada. On the other, the reality of Oslo (which is part of those objective conditions) created subjective conditions of social stratification, economic disparities and discipline-imposing security agencies that are subject to the will of the donor countries. All this prevents or delays the next uprising.

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