Nowadays, when Palestinian activists in their twenties and thirties meet up with veterans of the Palestinian struggle, they show an unexpected thoughtfulness towards the older, revolutionary generation, to which I belong. This is nothing like the courtesy extended as a matter of course to older people in our part of the world: it is more intimate and more poignant. What brings us together is always the need to discuss the options before us, and to see if a plan can be made. Everyone argues, laughs, shouts and tells black jokes. But whenever a proper discussion begins, the suddenly lowered voices of our frustrated young people, many of them at the heart of the fierce protests on university campuses and in rights campaigns elsewhere, have the same tone I used to hear in the voices of our young ambulance workers in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s: an elegiac gentleness towards the hopelessly wounded, towards those who were already beyond repair.

The way Palestinians see things, the fragmentation of the body politic – externally engineered, and increasingly internally driven – has now been achieved. This summer, even the liberal Israeli press began to notice that the key people in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s capital in the West Bank, no longer discuss strategies of liberation but rather the huge business deals that prey on the public imagination. Every institution or overarching structure that once united Palestinians has now crumbled and been swept away. The gulf between Gaza and the West Bank, between Hamas and Fatah, between Palestinians inside Palestine and the millions of refugees outside it, between city and village, town and refugee camp, now seems unbridgeable. The elites are tiny and the numbers of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised increase every day. There is, at this moment, no single body able to claim legitimately to represent all Palestinians; no body able to set out a collective policy or national programme of liberation. There is no plan.

The feeling of paralysis doesn’t only affect the Palestinians. It is found too among the hundreds of international institutions and less formal groups involved in the thriving carpet-bagging industry of the Middle East Peace Process. The US, the UN, the EU, their special envoys and fact-finding commissions, their human rights monitors, lawyers and NGOs, the policy think tanks, the growing legion of international humanitarian agencies, the dialogue groups and peace groups, all came to the same conclusion shortly after the start of the second Intifada in the autumn of 2000. Over the last decade, these bodies have produced thousands of institutional memos, governmental reports, official démarches, human rights briefings, summaries, analyses, legal inquiries into war crimes and human rights abuses, academic books and articles. And they have pretty much nailed it: Palestinians are enduring the entrenched effects not only of a military occupation, but of a colonial regime that practises apartheid.

The predicament is understood and widely accepted, yet Palestinians and non-Palestinians appear equally baffled. Protest and denunciation have achieved very little. How are we to respond in a way that will allow us to prevail? The vocabulary required to form a policy is entirely absent both nationally and internationally. Palestinians are currently trapped in a historical moment that – as the contemporary world sees it – belongs to the past. The language the situation demands had life only inside an ideology which has now disappeared.

Everyone else has moved on. In a world whose intellectual framework is derived from university courses in postcolonial or cultural studies, from the discourse of post-nationalism, or human rights, or global governance, from post-conflict and security literature, the Palestinians are stuck fast in historical amber. They can’t move on, and the language that could assist them to do so is as extinct as Aramaic. No one cares any longer for talk of liberation: in fact, people flinch at the sound of it – it is unfashionable, embarrassing, reactionary even to speak of revolution today. Twenty-first-century eyes read revolutionary engagement as the first stage on the road to the guillotine or the Gulag. Advanced now well beyond the epic and heroic stages of its history, the West views its own revolutionary roots through the decadent backward gaze of Carl Schmitt. Seen through that prism, Palestinians remain stubbornly – one could almost say, wilfully – in the anti-colonial, revolutionary phase of their history.

So the questions debated by Palestinians are the same now as they ever were: how to organise, how to mobilise, how to unify? There remains a constant sense of emergency, but Palestinians with long memories agree that we are at a nadir in our history of resistance. The only sign of forward movement lies in the tide of revulsion at Israel’s belligerent policies, which Palestinian civil society organisations have channelled into a vivid and well-organised campaign of solidarity through boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

Exactly 50 years ago, Palestinians were at a similar stage of social and political fragmentation brought about by defeat and dispossession and the anomie that followed the Nakba of 1948. Without a country or the protection of a sovereign state, they were confronting, on the one hand, Israel, and on the other, sundry Arab regimes: between them they controlled every aspect of Palestinians’ social and civic lives as well as their physical space. They lived deep in the dust and disease of tent cities, without personal papers or property. In 1955, a young Palestinian writer, Ghassan Kanafani, moved to Kuwait from Syria, where he had been a teacher at a school set up for refugees by the UN, after himself being expelled from Palestine with his family in 1948. One of his people’s most perceptive chroniclers, he described their mood in his diary: ‘The only thing we know is that tomorrow will be no better than today, and that we are waiting on the shore, yearning, for a boat that will not come. We are sentenced to be separated from everything – except from our own destruction.’

But what appeared to Kanafani to be the collective end was in fact its extraordinary beginning. By the end of the decade, the revolution had found a language and a form. For the first time in a century of rebellions and uprisings against foreign rule, Palestinians could mount a collective challenge to international, Israeli and Arab coercion, and unify sufficiently to represent themselves. Even a cursory study of the history of revolutions over the last 300 years reveals three elements essential to their origins. First, a plethora of revolutionary pamphlets, declarations and discussions issuing from different factions together begin to shape a shared understanding of the injustices that have to be overturned. A call to arms requires a convincing appraisal of the balance of forces if enough people are to be persuaded to embark on such a risky enterprise. The history of Palestinian attempts to achieve freedom would give anyone pause: two generations who tried lie buried in the cemeteries of more than two dozen countries.

Second, it is revolutionaries who make revolutions, and not the other way around. During the national mobilisation of the 1960s and 1970s, some joined the party, others the movement, but most simply joined the Palestinian revolution. It was taken for granted that one belonged to one of the parties, which were themselves embedded in the broader national liberation movement under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, a formal institution set up in 1964 by Arab states, which was captured from the Palestinian elite by the resistance groups a few years later. Empowered by becoming part of a fast-moving popular revolution, Palestinians – exiled, scattered and defeated as they were – achieved the two elusive things they have constantly sought: representation and unity.

If you raise the painful subject of this earlier time among Palestinians today, the usual effect is to revive the over-theoretical debate about when exactly the revolution died. (A discussion of its strengths and weaknesses would be more useful.) Some say it ended after Black September in Jordan in 1970; others that it ended in 1975 at the start of the Lebanese civil war. The majority see Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which brought about the comprehensive destruction of the PLO’s infrastructure, as having killed it off. The communiqués and declarations issued during the first Intifada, which took place in the occupied Palestinian territories between 1987 and 1993, were expressed in the language of revolution, but everyone agrees that it was all over by 1991, when the Madrid peace process was accepted on such unequal terms. That entire period of Palestinian history has fallen into disrepute for a number of reasons – not least having to watch its ghoulish remains driving around in official cars in Ramallah or posing at the White House – so the benefits are never assessed, or potentially useful lessons drawn.

Unity and representation are the common goods Palestinians must realise in order to advance their cause, and these clearly can’t be achieved via any of the options currently being suggested to us: not the distribution of the PA’s power between Hamas and Fatah (since the only representative institutional structure for all Palestinians is the Palestinian National Council, the parliament-in-exile of the PLO); not a US-sponsored peace process; and not the plan for Palestinian statehood proposed by the prime minister, Salam Fayyad, according to which the institutions of an independent state will be built in the face of a still expanding military occupation. Already by the 1970s, thanks to its fluid institutional architecture, the revolution was able to overcome national borders, protect its independence from the Arab regimes and convey its demands to the solidarity movements who supported it and exerted pressure on its behalf. Other national liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s – the FLN, ANC, Swapo, the Sandinistas – had to operate with their leaders underground and in exile, developing their strategy outside the country while the population remained rooted in the land they hoped to liberate. For Palestinians, whose national politics were undone in an instant over a single year in 1948, it took the concerted actions of tens of thousands of cadres across the region to hold the people together while at the same time putting sufficient pressure on those governments, both Western and Arab, that would have preferred to see us capitulate to Israel. The mood of that short period, as I remember it, was profoundly popular and democratic: pluralist, multi-party, universalist, secular and highly progressive. Palestinians who dared not join in – businessmen, academics, the money-grubbing classes – were carried along in its wake, and obeyed its mandate. Today we could not be further from that fleeting moment of unity the revolution once afforded.

The experience of revolutionary life is difficult to describe. It is as much metaphysical as imaginative, combining urgency, purposefulness, seriousness and hard work, with a near celebratory sense of adventure and overriding optimism – a sort of carnival atmosphere of citizens’ rule. Key to its success is that this heightened state is consciously and collectively maintained by tens of thousands of people at the same time. If you get tired for a few hours or days, you know others are holding the ring.

The third, counterintuitive feature of revolutions is that they are usually launched by astonishingly small groups of individuals. The Palestinian revolution was no exception. Young Palestinians today, caught in the grind of their daily struggle, feel unable to make contact with their own past: its stories are like fairytales, out of their reach. The appropriate model for the emergence of the Palestinian movement of the 1960s and 1970s isn’t the Leninist vanguard party but the revolutions that established democracies in 19th-century Europe, where the acts of a few were matched, and then rapidly overtaken, by an entire nation, all of whose members considered themselves leaders. No one here waits around for instructions.

What usually goes unmentioned in the history books is the dangerous and seemingly interminable slog that is required to build up to any revolution’s launch: it may take years, even decades, once the match is lit, for it to ignite a mobilisation large enough to create a truly national initiative.

One of the individuals who still keeps the revolutionary spirit alive in these bleak times phoned me this week, and this time I rang him back. (Often I can’t face talking to him because his situation is so terrible.) Ziyad was a key activist in the first Intifada when he was a student at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, and for the last 20 years he has dedicated his life in Gaza to what is commonly known as ‘mobilising from below’. Ziyad is, or was, head of the Rafah refugee camp’s popular committee, the local elected body, legendary now for its history of civic resistance to Israeli rule. Ziyad is like an artist, restlessly exploring ways to preserve people’s humanity amid the oppression and misery of southern Gaza. His cool eye and steady nerve, together with a seemingly inexhaustible affection for others, have kept him from turning away in despair at the things he has seen. At the height of the war on Gaza, he managed to create and sustain the only committee that included all the factions, with Fatah members working alongside Hamas, or vice versa. Members of other committees that had previously tried this (including his own) had been kneecapped for their pains.

Ziyad spent much of last year in prison in Gaza, and, as it turned out when I returned his call, some of this year’s Ramadan as well. ‘Oh no!’ I said, ‘What happened this time?’ He said that he’d been trying to organise in the elementary schools. This struck me as one of the funniest things I had heard in a long time: Ziyad laughed, too, when he began telling me about it. He had tried to organise a prize-giving in the camp for some of the students, but the current administration in Gaza didn’t like the idea at all. ‘I am not selecting children from Hamas families or Fatah families,’ he said, ‘just those who had done well in school. I had to try something!’

What the administration in Gaza does not like, Ziyad said, is the idea of movement, of freedom, of opening things up from below, of bringing people together for any common purpose at all. I told him I had spoken to Adnan in Beirut only that morning, and that the story was no different there: Adnan has been forced to stay at home for months now, unable to move. Until last year, he had worked closely with another old friend of mine, Kamal Medhat, a child of the revolution who was not so different from Ziyad in his determination to go it alone while carrying everyone with him.

Just over a year ago Kamal was assassinated by a car bomb in south Lebanon. He had been trying to urge people forward towards national unity, and to attack the political corruption then entrenched in the refugee camps: these two objectives, it soon became clear, were intertwined. He was making a very successful job of it, for he brought formidable experience to the task. Already a legend as a young man, Kamal was responsible for, among many other things, the security of the leadership when the revolution was centred in Beirut, and attempts against it took place on an almost daily basis. An obituary in the Arab press noted that ‘he constantly criticised Arafat, who would laugh.’ This was true: Kamal could be brutally honest, but he made everyone in the room feel happy, taking and giving endless orders, joking, and being especially encouraging to young cadres, though also quite tough. I witnessed at least a dozen acts of bravery by Kamal in the 1970s and early 1980s. After the PLO leadership was evacuated to Tunis in 1982, he returned to Lebanon to help lift the military siege of the Palestinian refugee camps by the Syrians and their proxies. In the 1990s, in disagreement with the leadership’s negotiating strategy, he absented himself from public life, studying for a doctorate in international law, staying very quiet. We lost track of each other until a few years ago, when he burst back onto the scene in Lebanon, unchanged and undefeated, now the second in command at the PLO embassy that had finally been re-established there.

I went to his funeral; we all walked the familiar path to the Palestinian cemetery, accompanied by thousands of refugees, clapping and singing and shouting revolutionary slogans. After the 40 days of mourning I returned to Beirut, where the traditional memorial meeting was convened at the Unesco palace. The hall was packed with Palestinians from the refugee camps across Lebanon, and black and white images of the handsome Kamal at different stages of his life succeeded one another on a screen behind the stage. Most of the Palestinian leaders were at an urgent meeting in Amman, and couldn’t attend. The eerie pockets of silence at various moments throughout the ceremony were bound up, it seemed to me, with the implications of his death (don’t organise, don’t push, don’t try to change things for the better). Something felt as if it was about to give.

His family, with whom I was staying, had asked me to speak about him, as Kamal had been an early teacher of mine. Afterwards, in the foyer, a stream of young people came up to me. They wanted me to know exactly what he had meant to them: ‘Kamal was the only one who spoke up for us’; ‘Kamal listened to us, he stood with us’; ‘He fought for us’; ‘He encouraged us.’ One after another, they told me stories of what he did. Each had recognised his revolutionary spirit, I thought, as I watched them wander away afterwards into the streets of Beirut.

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