The situation in the Palestinian territories can be summarized in three indicators: the clash between the two main factions that are both in power, Fatah and Hamas, a government enjoying widespread popular support but enduring international blockade and the complete halt of negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides. All this is taking place while, the new government in Tel Aviv is about to begin implementing a plan to unilaterally separate the two entities.
I believe it is important to examine the impact of the current situation on the Palestinian political framework, which I feel has reached a decisive juncture. The fragile balances that have supported it throughout the last forty years are no longer effective.
It is known that the Palestinian national movement, since it was established in the 1960s, was based around a strategic goal: the liberation of the land and the creation of an independent state, in addition to the institutional structure, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, as an umbrella organization and the sole representative of the Palestinians at the Arab and international levels.
Despite the ordeals and difficulties that the Palestinian liberation movement has undergone, it succeeded in that it was able, throughout its different stages, to ensure a large consensus and strike a balance between local and exiled leaders, which was no mean feat.
The first Intifada in the 1980s placed the local leadership at the forefront. However, it also appeared as a strategic choice by those in exile to compensate for the loss of Lebanon as a base. Two main changes occurred:
1- The rise in influence of Islamic movements, which tended to remain separate from the group members of the PLO. Hamas was established and became a force to reckon with in the Palestinian street.
2- The emergence of young local members of Fatah that had first-hand experience of Israeli repression and insider knowledge of Israeli society. The most prominent figure was Marwan Barghouti who was renowned during both Intifadas.
Furthermore, the Oslo agreements, which led to the Palestinian self-rule caused a strategic shift in the PLO in three respects: the shift from armed struggle to political negotiations for peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel and the return of occupied land, the return of the exiled leadership to Palestinian territories and their acquisition to centers of power, and the creation of a representative institutional base for the Palestinian people inside Palestinian territories (elected municipal councils and legislative council.)
These changes led to two dangerous polarizations: that between the exiled leaders and local leaders and between the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The presence of the late President Yasser Arafat as a charismatic symbol had underrated the negative impacts of these polarizations. Nevertheless, the failure of the peace process and the eruption of the second Intifada, as well as the mysterious death of Arafat, had an impact on the Palestinian political structure, which has shown radical changes in strategic balances and procedural practices.
This change was clearly reflected in the crisis of the succession of Arafat, which passed seemingly peacefully due to strong Arab and international pressures. However, the changes crystallized again in the sharp disagreement between exiled factions, such as Farouk Qaddoumi, the head of the PLO’s political department in Tunisia, and executive leaders who head the bureaucratic, diplomatic and security agencies within Palestine. The conflict reached its peak at the summits of Algeria and Tunisia. This was reflected in what became known in the Palestinian street as the ‘battle of embassies’ (the appointment of Palestinian ambassadors internationally) which led to a paralysis of Palestinian diplomats.
Meanwhile, the post-Arafat municipal and presidential elections revealed a large gap between the founding generation and the young leaders of Fatah. The elections further revealed the beginning of the spread of Islamism in the Palestinian street because of the growing frustrations towards the PA that had been accused of corruption, bribery and human rights violations over the past few years. Therefore, Hamas’ victory in the general elections did not come as much of a surprise even though the victory was bigger than we expected.
The Hamas win and its consequent administration of public affairs in self-rule regions has resulted in an unprecedented paradoxical situation, as the PLO remains the only party permitted to engage in negotiations with Israel and the only party that has political legitimacy to take decisive decisions concerning a final resolution with Israel. Meanwhile, Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and was democratically elected, manages local affairs and is at the center of decision-making. At the same time, Hamas is still boycotted internationally and at risk of an Israeli military strike prohibiting it from carrying out its executive duties that are limited by the Oslo accords whether Hamas rejects these accords or not.
The clashes between Fatah and Hamas reflects an even more profound crisis that effects the Palestinian political action which is institutionally dormant and unable to represent national unity or consensus, which is alarmingly, bringing the country close to civil war.
In conclusion, there should be recognition that Fatah can no longer be a focal point of consensus for the Palestinian national movement and that the PLO itself is no longer able to absorb the contradictions and differences on the Palestinian street. Finally, the PLO is powerless to manage the polarization between exiled and local leaders or between armed resistance and peaceful negotiations.