Phantom Bids

Nicholas Blincoe writes about the Palestinian Authority and its detractors

The distance between the Palestinian leadership and the Diaspora has never been greater. Palestinians living under occupation see all the faults of the Palestinian Authority in fine detail, yet continue to recognise the need for leadership; the Diaspora, in contrast, has headed off in a more freelance, anarchic direction. Articulate young commentators from North America and Europe speak easily of Palestinian ‘factions’, with Mahmoud Abbas, head of a state recognised by 134 nations, chairman of the PLO and president of the PA, no more important than anyone else. Karma Nabulsi, the scholar and one-time PLO officer, was among the first to predict this estrangement, which she dates to the Palestinian presidential elections of 1996. Yasser Arafat was elected by voters under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, turning him from the leader of a government-in-exile into the head of a government under occupation. Nabulsi saw this change as a betrayal of the central place of the refugees in the Palestinian struggle. Her essay 'Justice as the Way Forward' opens with a bitter question from a refugee in Lebanon: 'Don’t I have the right to choose my president?' The new government was often incompetent, occasionally corrupt, and helpless to influence or resist Israel – but for many in the Diaspora, its greatest crime was returning home at all.

Raja Shehadeh, the Ramallah-based lawyer and writer, recently argued in the LRB (3 July) that Arafat’s government failed because it imported the attitudes and prejudices of the Diaspora: 'the experience of the Palestinian people under occupation,' he wrote, had 'meant little to Palestinians living elsewhere, including our leaders in exile.' Shehadeh blames the leadership’s incompetence on the romance that underpins the Palestinian struggle, where the refugee fighter is venerated over those who practise sumoud, endurance, under occupation. By abandoning the Diaspora and establishing a government in Palestine, the leadership had turned the great hierarchy of the struggle on its head. Arafat’s cohort of ageing PLO leaders, men-of-action who had been pushed from Jordan to Lebanon to Tunisia, were slow to understand how deeply this reversal would be resented by Palestinians outside the territories, just as they were slow to recognise how independent and self-reliant the population of ‘endurers’ had become in the process of creating a civil society – including schools, universities, hospitals, sports teams and theatres –under occupation. Subtly, Shehadeh admonishes the Diaspora for its continuing failure to understand the realities of occupation. He might also have chided them for their failure to understand the importance of maintaining ties to those institutions, from the PLO to the present-day PA, whose origins lie in the first Palestinian National Council of 1964.

Arafat returned to Palestine in July 1994. I arrived a few weeks behind him, in August, to meet the parents of my future wife, the film-maker Leila Sansour. By one of those strange collisions of personal fate and world history – being married to an eligible Palestinian voter also gave me the right to vote – I get to choose who will be the next president of Palestine, which can only add to the hurt felt by the refugee Nabulsi quotes. I arrived knowing nothing and Anton, my future father-in-law, took action. Late one morning he hustled me into his car and told me we were going for a drive. Everything I saw shocked and disturbed me, yet the occupation is many times more brutal and inhuman today, twenty years into the peace process. Anton’s tour stays in my memory as a kind of tableau: the day before the Palestinian Authority.

We set out from Beit Jala, a hill town inside the Bethlehem district, climbing west over a peak known locally as Everest, before dropping down by the family’s apricot grove in the shadow of Israel’s listening post, inside Har Gilo settlement. We threaded through the valley, overlooked by the Gush Etzion block – more settlements – and crossed the 1948 armistice ‘Green Line’ to visit the town of Ein Karem. Israel was just 46 years old, ten years younger than Anton Sansour, my guide. Our journey was more of a ‘show’ than a ‘tell’. Ein Karem’s stone houses, built in the traditional hosh style that is unique to Palestine, were clearly far older than the state of Israel. It was impossible not to feel the presence of two populations, one superimposed on the other, the local Israelis bustling through the town’s craft shops, and the absent Palestinians who had laid out such a beautiful town and built such desirable houses, now scattered refugees.

We returned via a circuitous route south, through Hebron: this was six months after the Brooklyn-born settler Baruch Goldstein had fired into a crowd in the mosque area of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, killing 29 worshippers and injuring another 125. Even in those days, Hebron had a population of around half a million. It is a larger and busier city than most cities in Israel but the central souk area was deadly quiet, as though a force field was preventing locals from entering: a force field of soldiers on the roofs with guns.

We returned to Bethlehem on the main Jerusalem-Hebron artery which led past Dheisheh refugee camp. The camp resembles a small town of densely packed breezeblock buildings, nestled inside a hollowed out hill. I believe it was once a stone quarry. The worst sight of the entire tour was the high chain-link fence that surrounded the camp, the only exit a turnstile inside a metal cage, like those then used at football stadiums. Dheisheh had a population of around ten thousand people. Anton explained the Israelis had built the fence because, in the First Intifada, it had been easy to close the Hebron road by throwing stones or burning car tyres. Imprisoning the camp behind a fence allowed the settlers to scream through Bethlehem on route to the settlements: Hebron, Efrata, Beitar Illit, Nokdim and Tekoa and the scores of others. The army had also disabled every traffic light between Bethlehem and Hebron.

Life was improving in Dheisheh. The fence was scheduled to be removed and already it was half torn down. This was a first tangible sign of the peace dividend. International aid money followed, allowing the residents to build a sewage system. Almost all got lavatories and showers, 46 years after their expulsion from the rural villages around Ein Karem. The improvements in Dheisheh can be put in the credit column for the Oslo Accords, alongside the fact that I can write ‘Palestine’ and ‘Palestinians’ without getting into the kind of argument I once had with the novelist Cynthia Ozick, who insisted no such people existed. Finally, we had a Palestinian Authority, not a government-in-waiting but something closer to a wartime civilian administration.

The debit column is far longer. My tour with Anton is now flat-out impossible. In 1994 he could still drive to Jerusalem each afternoon to pick up his son from school. Today, if we leave Bethlehem, we must do it on foot, after Leila has applied for a day pass. Most of her applications are rejected: there is a quota of a few thousand for Bethlehem, a metropolitan area of 200,000 people. The road we took between Hebron and Bethlehem no longer exists. Traffic has been rerouted and the road is blocked by a settler bypass that curves around the west of Bethlehem, tunnelling beneath Everest to reappear as a bridge across Beit Jala’s Cremisan valley, then disappearing into a second tunnel before connecting with the Jerusalem ring road. The Israelis built this overblown system of bypasses, bridges and tunnels with aid money; again, part of the imagined peace dividend. The closure of the millennia-old Jerusalem-Hebron road and its replacement with a bypass has led to a massive expansion of settlements around Bethlehem. In short order, a second bypass was built to the east, allowing the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to shave five minutes off the commute from Nokdim settlement. This bypass is widely known as the Lieberman Highway. In 1993, there were thought to be 250,000 settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem. As of 2013, the settler population stands closer to 650,000, of whom around 170,000 – more than a quarter of the entire settler population – live in the 37 settlements surrounding Bethlehem: that's almost as many as the city’s indigenous population. The two bypasses squeeze the city from either side, leaving the overcrowded urban core to the Palestinians, and the hills and plains of Bethlehem for future settlement expansion.

The PLO team at Oslo had no conception of the effects of schemes like the Bethlehem bypass – and indeed disregarded the warnings about the 'matrix of control' coming from advisers in the West Bank, such as Shehadeh, who resigned after the Madrid talks in 1991. Bethlehem feels claustrophobic even in relatively peaceful times. In violent times life becomes unbearable. As the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza proves, Palestinians have no effective means of self-defence or even deterrence. Between 2001 and 2002, in the early days of the Second Intifada, we saw Bethlehem attacked three times in eight months. Local government buildings were destroyed by missiles from a fighter jet, which tore the roof off Leila’s family home. The university and the souk area were attacked with wire-guided missiles. Israeli policy was to use the heaviest weapons in the most unorthodox ways against civilians, almost as though the aim were to provide case studies for the sales brochures of arms dealers.

The most dramatic change in Bethlehem is the eight-metre high wall that fills the gap left between the two settler bypasses around Bethlehem. The wall cuts across Bethlehem’s northern quarters like a guillotine, marking the final separation from its sister city, Jerusalem. Between 2004 and 2012, Leila worked on a documentary, Open Bethlehem, depicting life inside the town (the film will be released later this year). In that time we saw three elections, for president, parliament and local councils. There have been better and worse governments, local and national, democratic and appointed, but even the most efficient – which by near universal agreement was run by the prime minister Salam Fayyad from 2007 to 2013 – have been helpless to stop the building of the wall, the expansion of the settlements, the confinement of everyday life within a handful of ghetto cities. There is a fierce debate inside Palestine about whether the government is right to co-operate with Israel, especially on security. An Israeli soldier is said to cost $5000 dollars a month, a Palestinian policeman under $600: is the PA simply delivering a passive populace, to ease the way for Israel’s colonial project? Or is the leadership right, as it maintains, to ensure the population cannot be held hostage by unaccountable hotheads as it focuses on the task of institution building? Since the Israelis used the murder of three teenage settlers by a freelance ‘cell’ as a pretext to turn on Hamas and sabotage the Fatah-Hamas unity government put together in June, this is an argument President Abbas is losing, even if he can still count on the loyalty of the 180,000 people on the government pay roll – or so a senior Palestinian official told me. His Fatah party nonetheless remains a movement with a mass following, as the disciplined demonstrations it organised on 24th July at Qalandia checkpoint showed. The unity government was intended to prepare the way for new elections and to this end Fatah has held a series of regional conferences across Palestine, though there is little likelihood that elections will go ahead. The party has already cancelled the seventh Fatah International Congress, which was to take place in August in Bethlehem.

I have not yet exercised my right to vote. According to a handbook from the Central Election Committee, I need to get my marriage certificate endorsed by a Palestinian court. Though I have taken part in every election campaign, the only time I was in the country on polling day was in January 2005 when acting president Mahmoud Abbas was challenged by the independent politician Mustapha Barghouti, the director of a medical relief NGO. Barghouti is a family friend, educated like my father-in-law in the Soviet Union, and his wife is from Bethlehem. We knew little about Abbas, but he seemed, in the course of the campaign, to be an articulate figure and, perversely for a politician, one who never shrank from blunt truths. He saw the violence of the Second Intifada as a mistake, and wanted an end to the militarisation of the Palestinian struggle. By the time I discovered I could vote, it was too late to find a judge. Rereading the handbook now, I realise voting is not such an exclusive club. Anyone who can prove a connection to Palestine can vote: all they have to do is get to a polling station. This is impossible for refugees in camps in Lebanon and Syria; the few hundred Fatah representatives from the Middle Eastern camps who attended the Sixth International Fatah Congress in 2009 had to struggle to obtain permission to enter the Occupied Territories. But it's easy enough for anyone with a Western passport, though I have never heard of anyone doing it.

Nabulsi explains the breakdown of the relation between the Diaspora and the leadership by focusing on self-determination and right of return, two of the pillars of the Palestinian struggle. These are pure, primary impulses, she argues, that precede the founding of actual, working institutions. The spirit of self-determination finds its expression in the instinct to act and work together; the right of return reflects a pre-legalistic apprehension of natural justice. Framed in these terms, such sentiments are unlikely to survive the corrupting influence of real, concrete state institutions. Nabulsi never refers to the third pillar of the struggle – Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state – but it is the most important insofar as it provides the context for the other two. The Palestinian National Council and, indeed, Fatah itself included Marxists, Ba’athists and Islamists with competing notions of supra-national identity. This has clouded the issue of Palestinian nationalism, which – like any other national struggle, whether Greek or Italian or, more to the point, Algerian or Vietnamese –envisaged a nation whose members would express their identity through the institutions of a state, including a parliament, a civil service and an army. The long, often faltering, emergence of this state has thrown the spotlight on different protagonists in the Palestinian struggle at various times, whether the refugees, the fighters or the occupation. Nonetheless, a state was always the objective: not a binational state, or a postmodern state, or a non-nationalistic homeland-of-all-the-peoples, but an old-fashioned state of the Palestinian people anchored by a capital in Jerusalem.

The national struggle remains fundamental to the Palestinian leadership, which is dominated by Fatah but comprises other founding parties. The original PLO charter was hostile to the United Nations and sceptical of international law. The UN, after all, was the body that conjured Israel into existence. Yet as early as 1973 there was a radical and controversial about-face. Arafat spoke at the UN headquarters, forging a new approach that pressed for multilateral recognition of the PLO, a process that necessarily implied an equivalence between Israeli and Palestinian national aspirations, long before the PNC’s recognition of Israel was made explicit. Today, the Palestinian Authority is often criticised for being too close to America, but this is a consequence of its multilateralism; it aims to operate by international norms, both economic and, especially, legal. Arafat is remembered for shaping a distinctive Palestinian foreign policy, and while his independence is often overstated, the current leadership can seem obsequious in its relations with regional powers: there is very little room for manoeuvre.

It is sometimes hard to remember the PLO was once seen as a force for progress and enlightenment – a cousin of other national liberation movements with secular, progressive states as their objective. Palestine currently has two power bases, both geographic and ideological, in the PA and Hamas. Yet the PA continues to look beyond Ramallah for ways to press Israel on international fronts, using diplomacy and legal means. The PA's claim to 'leadership’ is rooted in this Enlightenment genealogy, a perspective forged by broadly leftwing Palestinian parties engaged in a multilateral, international and largely legalistic campaign. The complacency that the leadership shows in the face of a fractious and often hostile Diaspora is based on the assumption that Palestinians outside the territories cannot turn away for ever, since they have no other home.

There is no shortage of conspiracy theories in the Diaspora about the PA. Often these are stories of abuse of privilege and nepotism: Fatah is obliged to run a system of patronage to coax and reward its supporters. The overarching conspiracy theory, however, is that of a plot against the Palestinian people. In its most neutral form, it is a Marxist critique of imperialism. There are certainly good reasons to look at the economic basis for Israel’s policies; like the Conquistadors, the Israeli state has no regard for the people under its control, only their wealth: not Inca gold, of course, but Palestinian land. By confiscating property and issuing tenders for new settlements, Israel boosts its construction industry and mortgage market, while injecting new credit into its banking system: it is a uniquely Israeli version of quantitative easing. However, like the European states of the 16th and 17th century, the Israelis have discovered that a flood of newly minted money from abroad brings its own problems. Speculators will strive to hold onto ‘good’ currency – in this case, the more desirable homes in Israel’s coastal cities – and trade only in ‘bad’: the settlements. The process creates a kind of addiction. If Israel were to stop issuing tenders, much of its banking system might seize up. Yet one rarely reads such specific critiques. Instead the PA – and Fayyad especially – is attacked for adopting broadly liberal-market economic policies, while its essential strength, its multilateralism, is seen as a form of collaboration with international institutions and confirms the treacherous nature of the Oslo accords. The critique proceeds via a series of higher and higher abstractions, moving from Israel through America, to address the ills of international capitalism: at that point Israel is off the hook, and only the PA comes in for condemnation.

Diaspora activists have looked for partners in ‘grassroots’ organisations outside the government or Fatah. In Palestine, the term ‘grassroots’ refers to the NGO sector, often sardonically dismissed within Palestine as ‘shops’. The NGOs are created by social entrepreneurs from the community and, if successful, are funded by international donors. As they grow, they attract bright young workers, fuelling a brain drain from the Palestinian civil service. By contrast Fatah, with its mass membership across Palestinian society, really is a grassroots organisation, even though the term is used in the Diaspora to mark off opposition to the leadership. In the end, the appeal to the ‘grass roots’ is an act of faith, a belief in a virtuous Palestinian community unsullied by history or ideology. At worst, international activists appeal to the ‘grass roots’ like shady auctioneers pulling phantom bids off the wall.

Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions is to some extent a 'grassroots' Palestinian movement with addresses in Ramallah and Bir Zeit. Opinion is split, however, over the issue of whether to target the settlement industry alone, or all Israeli institutions and companies. The PA actively supports BDS on settlements, and though most Palestinians doubtless feel it should go further, all sides are recognisably part of the same campaign. The goal of BDS, as Shehadeh writes, is to force Israel to abide by international law and face penalties where it does not. His advice to the leadership is to focus on BDS, rather than waste energy in the relentless pursuit of recognition as a state-in-waiting. Yet BDS’s greatest successes, for instance on the labelling and provenance of food and other goods, are often the result of lobbying by diplomats – PA appointees – in the EU and UN. Their role is ignored by some in the Diaspora, who regard BDS as an alternative to the leadership and argue that the PA’s support for an anti-settlement boycott is an attempt to co-opt or neutralise BDS. In online discussions as well as journals like the Electronic Intifada such conspiracy theories abound. In this view, BDS is not a focused campaign strategy so much as a new revolution with the power to transform the conflict and give birth to radical new forms of nationhood.

Shehadeh sees the recourse to fantasy as a feature of life in exile. He writes of the pursuit of 'abstract lofty aims that have great resonance but are almost empty of practical meaning'. One of the main debates in the Diaspora today is the One State/Two State question. The same topics are debated in Palestine, of course, but like similar discussions over the scope of BDS, they are recognised as ‘philosophical’ questions: the stuff of speculation rather than directives guiding and informing the struggle. Life in Palestine rewards practical intelligence. It is easy enough to find Palestinians who are willing to put themselves – and others – at risk, yet there is a greater wisdom to the choices made under a hostile occupation, when every decision affects the lives of family and friends. The leadership does not always manifest this wisdom, but for better or worse its presence in Ramallah lends it an authority that no one in exile can claim.

Shehadeh was still submitting case studies and legal briefings from the West Bank to the leadership in exile the 1980s, though he was less and less sure that the urgent issues on the ground which he chose to highlight would be understood outside the confines of the occupation. Even during the First Intifada, which began in 1987 and was often remembered as a popular uprising, activists like Marwan Barghouti, who was deported in the early days of the uprising, were in constant contact with the leadership in Tunis. Today, Palestinians in the Diaspora run protests, organise boycotts, publish blogs and journals but do so without maintaining a connection to the leadership under occupation. It is a process of give and take, of course, and the leadership needs to recognise the disaffection of the Diaspora. But for all the energy, intelligence and creativity shown by Palestinians living outside the 1948 borders, if there is no connection to the leadership under occupation, they remain far from the real Palestine.