Is Palestine Next?
No one in the Arab world was watching the news more closely than the Palestinians during the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The first emotion they experienced was disbelief; the second – particularly when they saw Palestinian flags being raised in Tahrir Square – was relief that they were no longer alone. Arab lethargy has been a virtual article of faith among Palestinians, who felt that their neighbours had betrayed them in 1948 and had done nothing to help them since. The Palestinian national movement, which rose to prominence under Yasir Arafat’s leadership in the late 1960s, was defined in large part by its belief that Palestinians had to rely on themselves. Mahmoud Darwish was not the only one to note that during the siege of Beirut in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon in an attempt to crush the PLO, tens of thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv but the Arabs were too busy watching the World Cup Final to take to the streets.
The old Arab order was buried in Tahrir Square. Young revolutionaries rose up against a regime which for three decades had stood in the way of Palestinian aspirations. It seemed too good to be true and some pundits in Palestine wondered whether it wasn’t an American conspiracy. But it wasn’t, and Palestinians began to re-examine what had been one of their most disabling convictions: the belief that the US controls the Middle Eastern chessboard, and that the Arab world is powerless against America and Israel. ‘There has been a kind of epistemic break,’ a young Palestinian said to me. The excitement among Palestinians sometimes seems to be mixed with unease, even envy: the spotlight has been stolen from them. As a Hamas councilwoman in Nablus put it, ‘For 60 years they were watching us. Now we are watching them.’ But Palestinians have prided themselves on being the vanguard of protest in the Arab world and they will not be content to remain spectators for long.
In the absence of a state and an army, Darwish wrote in one of his best-known poems, Palestinians live in a ‘country of words’. The conversation that they are having is only beginning to translate into action. What was clear to me during the three weeks I spent recently in the West Bank is that the Arab revolutions have emboldened them to ask for more, both from Israel and from themselves, even if that means preparing for a much longer struggle.
The most immediate consequence of the Arab Spring in Palestine has been the end – or rather the beginning of the end – of what Palestinians call the Division: the grim struggle between Fatah and Hamas that broke out after Hamas’s victory in the 2006 elections and its pre-emptive takeover a year later of the Gaza Strip. Ending the Division has long been a popular demand, especially in Gaza, but neither party has made it a priority. Little divides Fatah and Hamas when it comes to a solution (both support the 1967 borders) or, for that matter, to the resistance (neither is pursuing it). Still, both sides had plenty of reasons to maintain their separate strongholds, above all their desire to retain their monopolies of political power, guns and money – whether it comes in foreign aid packages or through tunnels. Hamas was in no rush to sign an agreement that would involve unacceptable compromises, such as giving up control of security in Gaza, or recognising Israel. Fatah was in even less of a hurry, since the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority benefited richly from the Western backing it received for keeping Hamas in its place, policing citizens of the West Bank on behalf of Israel, and pursuing negotiations with the Jewish state.
The Sulta – as the PA is known in the West Bank – was convinced that negotiations were the Palestinians’ only option, and the Americans insisted that negotiations were impossible if Hamas entered the government. Talks between Fatah and Hamas to repair the Division became a futile exercise, brokered as they were by an Egyptian government which, in concert with the US and Israel, was doing its best to prop up the PA and to weaken Hamas. A flurry of local petitions was drafted in support of reconciliation, but Mahmoud Abbas made sure they went nowhere. When advocates of reconciliation set up a stand in the centre of Nablus to gather signatures a few years ago, a member of PA security destroyed the table they were sitting at. ‘What’s this unity appeal?’ Abbas sneered when another group supporting reconciliation came to his office. One of them started to talk about the prisoners held in PA jails. Abbas apparently flew into a rage, ‘shouting as if he were a little boy and claiming he didn’t have any political prisoners’.
That meeting was in 2009. The Egyptian revolution has upended the calculations that made the Division such a good investment for Abbas. The first foreign minister in Egypt’s transitional government, Nabil al-Araby, made it clear when he took office that Egypt’s policies on Palestine would be overhauled. Egypt would open the Rafah crossing to provide relief for the people of Gaza, it would promote Palestinian unity, not the interests of a single faction, and it would no longer be quite so deferential to Israel in such matters as the sale of natural gas and relations with Iran. Abbas reasoned that the regional balance of forces had shifted in favour of unity. The Americans couldn’t publicly oppose a deal between Hamas and Fatah if they wanted to maintain good relations with Egypt, and cutting off aid to the PA was no longer a realistic option: in the eyes of the Europeans, the PA was simply too big to fail. And so, where Abbas’s own people couldn’t persuade him, the Egyptians did. The night I arrived in Ramallah, Wafa Abdel-Rahman, the host of a political talk show, told me how it happened. In April, Azzam al-Ahmad, a high-ranking Fatah official, was in Cairo when Egyptian intelligence asked him if he’d be willing to meet Abu Marzook, the deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau in Damascus, who was in town for a medical procedure. Abbas gave him the green light, and two days later, under Egyptian mediation, an agreement was cobbled together. The announcement stunned Palestinians, including members of Fatah’s central committee: Abbas hadn’t bothered to inform his own people of the talks.
I went to see Taysir Nasrallah, a Fatah official who in 2007 was one of the authors of the Nablus Reconciliation Statement, a document Abbas had previously ignored but which has now been adopted as part of the Cairo agreement. He looked bemused when I asked him about the importance of the demonstrations in March organised by young Palestinian activists on Facebook, which were described by some Western journalists as the dawn of a new era in Palestinian politics. ‘The PA gave them tents and let them sing, but it was the regional equation that made the difference,’ he said. When Abbas lost Mubarak, and then Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, angered his Syrian hosts by refusing to support their crackdown, Fatah and Hamas were forced to look to each other. ‘I am afraid this won’t be a real reconciliation because the reasons for it are external,’ Nasrallah said. He sees little change so far in Nablus: opponents of the PA remain in jail, and Hamas members don’t dare wave their flags at demonstrations or take out large amounts of cash at ATMs for fear of arrest. (After the reconciliation ceremony in Cairo, I was told, Hamas leaders called men who had been shot in the knees during the seizure of power in Gaza and offered them financial compensation. ‘They weren’t offering to punish those who committed the crimes,’ my source says. ‘No one is talking about justice.’) Within days of the unity agreement, Israel withheld funds from taxes and customs from the PA to protest at Hamas’s inclusion in a provisional unity government (they were later released, under American pressure); when I met Nasrallah he still hadn’t received his monthly pay cheque. ‘We’re two weeks into the month, and 180,000 people don’t have their salaries. How is this reconciliation for real if I’m not paid? I don’t see reconciliation, and I don’t see my money.’
Nasrallah and I drove to a convention centre in downtown Nablus, where, in a ballroom painted pink and lavender, hundreds of Palestinian notables had gathered for a lunch to celebrate the reconciliation. The host was Munib al-Masri, the ‘Palestinian Rothschild’, whose fortune is estimated to account for a third of Palestine’s economy. (He is the West Bank’s largest private employer.) A tall, wiry man in his late seventies, Masri was making the rounds, pressing the flesh and posing for photographers. He is said to have political ambitions. His palace (he calls it the Palestine House), an Italianate villa with Versailles-like gardens and a collection of Picassos, could be seen from the terrace, looming over the hills of Nablus. There was a lavish spread: platters of lamb on heaps of rice, sprinkled with almonds and served with yogurt. An army of waiters danced around the room serving plates of kunafa and little cups of coffee. Everyone from Fatah and Hamas in the West Bank was there, but members of different factions sat at separate tables, and kept one another at arm’s length – except, of course, during the photo-ops. I noticed Nabil Shaath, a veteran Fatah official and Arafat loyalist, beaming in a natty business suit, having his photograph taken beside Aziz Dweik of Hamas, the white-bearded, grinning Islamist who became speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006, the last time elections were held in Palestine. ‘Look at the way they’re smiling,’ Nasrallah pointed out. ‘You can see in their eyes that they’re lying.’
The sun was setting as I took a taxi back to Ramallah. ‘See the settlements?’ my driver said. ‘They have the hills, we just have the plains. They have stolen not only our land but our lives.’ He wasn’t impressed by the unity agreement. ‘They are fighting over chairs.’ This is a common sentiment: disgust with the factions runs deep in both the West Bank and Gaza. The unity agreement, as one close observer put it, is ‘built on landmines’, and a question mark hangs over the future of Abbas’s prime minister, Salam Fayyad. Abbas, backed strongly by the West, wants Fayyad to remain in office, while Hamas – particularly the leadership in Gaza – distrusts him because of his extensive security co-operation with Israel. On the other hand, Fayyad himself has said that he would sooner step down than jeopardise Palestinian unity. But even if he did resign, that would still leave an even bigger landmine in place: the US and Israel’s continued opposition – quite fierce opposition – to the inclusion of Hamas in a unity government, despite Hamas’s agreement not to oppose the resumption of peace talks. Indeed, the US pressure on Abbas to keep Fayyad no matter the cost may be a way of scuttling the unity agreement without anything being said in public. It will, however, be risky for Abbas to abandon the reconciliation process, particularly if he is seen as having done so under American and Israeli pressure. After all, Palestinians can hardly fight the occupation if they are fighting each other.
And Abbas can hardly go to the UN in September and request formal recognition of the Palestinian state – as he has announced he will – if there are two Palestinian leaderships pursuing opposed agendas. The declaration of statehood is the culmination of Fayyad’s project to build state institutions and promote neoliberal ‘reform’ while still under occupation. ‘The mission has been accomplished,’ he recently told Haaretz: the PA has done everything the world has asked of it, having restored law and order and established the infrastructure of statehood. Many Palestinians ridicule Fayyad’s claim – ‘instead of a state, we got a ministry in charge of garbage disposal’ – but the ball is now in the world’s court to recognise Palestine as a state. Abbas’s plan to make his declaration in September is a gamble. Fayyad has long questioned the tactical wisdom of declaring statehood unilaterally while the occupation remains deeply entrenched. Palestinians, he warns, could find themselves in a ‘Mickey Mouse’ state, recognised by the world but without the sovereignty a state requires, if the US uses its power in the General Assembly to prevent Palestine from getting the votes it needs to attain full UN membership. In his speech on the Middle East in May, Obama echoed the Israeli view that declaring statehood is an unacceptable form of unilateralism. If Palestine isn’t recognised, some Palestinian officials have hinted, there could be unrest, even a third intifada.
The statehood declaration matters to the leadership, which wants the fruits of diplomatic recognition, and hopes to sell that recognition as a victory for the national cause. But it doesn’t stir much enthusiasm in the West Bank. One reason is that it’s a toothless strategy: ‘Who cares if we get recognised as a state if the Israelis can still block the roads?’ Another is that the declaration sticks to the modest, 1967 parameters at the very moment the Netanyahu government is building a Greater Israel. If Israel continues to act as if 1948 never ended, and shows no sign of wanting to reach a compromise on the 1967 borders, many Palestinians say, why shouldn’t we call for more too?
And there’s yet another reason for the lack of interest in the declaration: as the prospect of a genuine – a sovereign and independent – Palestinian state has receded, another discourse has returned, one with much deeper roots in the Palestinian political imagination than talk of statehood, and much closer to the ideas that inspired the Arab uprisings. It’s often forgotten that until the mid-1970s, Palestinians were looking not to establish a state but to achieve ‘national liberation’, to restore their rights in the land from which they had been driven – beginning with the right of return. Palestinians rarely talk about statehood, but they often talk about their rights; statehood is viewed, at best, as a means to achieve them. And because they don’t often talk about statehood, it seems unlikely that the failure to win recognition at the UN would be enough to spark an uprising. Any sign of serious unrest, moreover, would not be viewed kindly by the PA, which would do everything in its power to prevent a third intifada that might sweep it away.
Indeed, the PA already uses the American-trained National Security Force to undermine efforts by Palestinians to challenge the occupation. (Hamas, in Gaza, has cracked down on protest even more harshly.) ‘They are the police of the occupation,’ Myassar Atyani, a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told me. ‘Their leadership is not Palestinian, it is Israeli.’ On 15 May – the day Palestinians commemorate their Nakba – more than a thousand Palestinians, mainly young men, marched to the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem and clashed with Israeli soldiers; but when Atyani tried to lead a group of demonstrators to the Hawara checkpoint outside Nablus, PA security forces stopped them. The road from Ramallah to Qalandia is in Area C, which is not controlled by the PA; the road from Nablus to Hawara is in Area A, which is. And protesters who have attempted to march to settlements along PA-controlled roads have also found themselves turned back. It is an extraordinary arrangement: the security forces of a country under occupation are being subcontracted by third parties outside the region to prevent resistance to the occupying power, even as that power continues to grab more land. This is, not surprisingly, a source of considerable anger and shame in the West Bank. The question is whether Palestinians will grow exasperated enough to confront the Sulta.
Atyani, like a number of people I met in Nablus, predicts a third intifada in the next two years, but the spirit of insurgency is hard to detect in Ramallah, the centrepiece of the Fayyad plan for state-building and economic growth. Built with an infusion of foreign aid and investment from wealthy Palestinians in the diaspora, the PA’s capital is a bustling little bubble of chic restaurants and espresso lounges, telecoms companies and NGOs, where revolutionaries have reinvented themselves as power-point professionals, the Israeli army seldom intrudes and where, so long as you don’t wander beyond Area A, you can almost forget that Palestine is still occupied. Being the beneficiary of a PA salary – those 180,000 salaries trickle down to nearly a million dependants in the West Bank – is a powerful incentive to steer clear of political dissent; so is the easy credit Fayyad has made available.
Fayyad, who worked for the IMF before becoming Arafat’s finance minister in 2001, is a technocrat with little feel for the Palestinian street, but he has won some respect, even from those who see him as America’s man in Ramallah, by clamping down on the officials whose housing and expenses were being covered by the PA, and by building new roads and other infrastructure. Fayyad’s critics call him a ‘good manager of the occupation’, a ‘builder of apartheid roads’, ‘the sugar daddy who got us hooked on aid’, and it’s all true: but the improvements are seductive and, until the bubble pops, few will grumble.
The price of this semblance of normality – and of the $1.7 billion dollars in annual aid over which Fayyad has almost complete discretionary power – is the deepened security co-operation with Israel, which many Palestinians find difficult to stomach, and the creation of a police state; but it is a price most are prepared to pay, for now. ‘It will take a strong shock – a Bouazizi – before Palestinians rise up again,’ said my friend Souad, a journalist in Ramallah. When they do, she says, the third intifada will look more like the first than the second. In the West, the two intifadas blur into a single image, but in Palestine they are seen as distinct, even opposed. The First Intifada, between 1987 and 1993, was a popular insurrection that took the form largely of demonstrations, strikes and the non-payment of taxes; the most lethal – and most symbolic – weapon was the stone. When the Second Intifada began in late September 2000 following Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, it looked much like the first, but Israel’s response did not: the IDF, by its own account, fired more than a million bullets during the first few weeks. Before long, the intifada had turned into an armed struggle; there was much talk of emulating Hizbullah’s campaign of guerrilla warfare, which only a few months earlier had driven the IDF from Southern Lebanon. The stone was exchanged for the gun and eventually the suicide bomb; the theatre of conflict was extended deep inside the Green Line, as ‘martyrdom operations’ were carried out in Israeli cities. The IDF responded with tanks and helicopters, but what was asymmetric warfare in Lebanon was a losing battle in Palestine. As militias with competing agendas clashed, young men with guns turned from resistance to brigandage and extortion, and people began referring to the intifada as an intifawda (fawda is Arabic for ‘chaos’). It was Fayyad who restored law and order. And, as Palestinians began to breathe more easily in the rubble of their cities, many came to see the intifada – or intifawda – as a perversion of West Bank political tradition. ‘Our way of resisting,’ Souad said, ‘is to throw stones or burn tyres, not the armed struggle – that’s the tradition of the Palestinians in Lebanon. The Second Intifada wasn’t a Palestinian intifada. Israel lured us into a fight we couldn’t win, and we took the bait.’
A consensus has been building over the last few years that the Palestinians need to recover the First Intifada’s model of (largely) non-violent mass mobilisation: a model that led to the recognition of the PLO by Israel, and which was later applied with even greater success in the Arab revolutions. In the early days of the Second Intifada it was almost impossible to speak out against the armed struggle unless you wanted to be called a collaborator. Advocates of non-violence such as Mustapha Barghouti and Hanan Ashrawi, who pointed out that the armed struggle played to Israel’s advantage, appeared to be out of step with the people.
Things have changed now. Suicide attacks on buses and restaurants in Israeli cities made it easier for Israel to equate the Palestinian struggle with jihadi terrorism, and Palestinian society paid a steep price in lives and infrastructure. After the rocket attacks of 2008 more than a thousand Palestinians were killed under Israeli bombardment in Operation Cast Lead – a ‘victory’ Hamas can’t afford to repeat. Mass, non-violent mobilisation, meanwhile, has revealed its power, not just in Tunis and Cairo, but also in Palestinian villages, where local people organised into ‘popular resistance committees’ have been fighting the confiscation of their farmland by settlers and by Israel’s so-called security fence. The popular committees have given people a taste of their own power, and in a few places they have forced Israel to move the wall a little closer to the 1967 lines; the victories are small, and often fleeting, but to Palestinian farmers they make a difference.
On a scorching day in mid-May, I went to Bilin, a village of about 1700 people west of Ramallah, to talk to Muhammad al-Khatib, a leader of its popular resistance committee. Every Friday after prayers for the last six years, a group of about a hundred people – villagers, international activists and radical Israelis – has marched to an electrified section of the security fence which cuts Bilin off from much of its farmland. As soon as they approach the fence, soldiers respond with tear gas, ‘sonic bombs’ and water cannons filled with ‘skunk’ water that leaves an odour of sewage on whatever it touches; when the stone-throwing begins, they shoot rubber bullets and sometimes live ammunition; often they set fire to crops. Until the protests began, Bilin had an unsavoury reputation among Palestinians as a centre of the Village Leagues, a collaborationist organisation set up in the early 1980s when Sharon was defence minister. Today Bilin – along with the villages of Nilin, Budros and Nabi Saleh – is a heroic symbol of Palestinian defiance. In a recent speech in the Knesset, Netanyahu spoke about this dusty little village as if it were an existential threat to the Jewish state, mentioning a protest in Bilin when ‘a young girl was walking along holding a large symbolic key. Every Palestinian knows what that key symbolises. This is not the key to their homes in Bilin, Ramallah or Nablus. It is the key to our homes in Jaffa, Acre, Haifa and Ramle.’ That girl, Khatib told me proudly, was his six-year-old daughter.
Many of Bilin’s leaders have been jailed, and one has been killed; Khatib’s close ally Adib Abu Rahman was shot four times in the legs and imprisoned for more than a year. But the presence of Israeli activists imposes a certain restraint on the IDF, and builds trust with Palestinians, especially, Khatib said, ‘when people saw the Israelis getting injured’. The welcome extended to Israelis also sends a message; it shows, he said, that ‘we are not against the Israelis because they are Jewish, we are against the occupation.’ I asked him how he thought the conflict might be solved. ‘I am not for one state or for two states,’ he said, something you often hear from Palestinians. ‘I am for equality. The principles of equality and human rights are global principles, and they are no less applicable here than elsewhere.’ Bilin’s struggle is beginning to achieve results: in late June – four years after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the electric fence had to be moved – the IDF started to dismantle parts of it, though much of the village’s land will remain on the Israeli side of the border.
Khatib is a member of Fatah, which gave its official blessing to the work of the popular committees at its last congress two years ago. But members of all the factions, including Hamas, are involved in the committees, and the Hamas sympathisers I met were careful to praise non-violence: they have come to see its strategic if not its moral virtues. And though the PA has been keen to discourage protests it can’t control – particularly if they might lead to clashes with Israeli soldiers or settlers – Fayyad has set aside a small portion of the PA’s budget for the popular committees; he is a ‘friend of Bilin’, Khatib says, and occasionally shows up at the Friday demonstrations. Some Palestinians – particularly members of the Ramallah elite – dismiss the demonstrations as ineffectual rituals, a way for foreigners and Israelis to feel good about themselves. But however limited in scope, the work of the committees has shown that Palestinian military weakness can be converted into a strength.
‘If you want to beat Mike Tyson, you don’t invite him into the ring, you invite him to the chessboard,’ Husam Zomlot, the brash young deputy of Fatah’s Department of Foreign Relations, explained to me. ‘On Nakba Day a thousand people marched to Qalandia. Once we manage to get 100,000 people marching there, let’s see what Tyson will do. Will they use a nuclear bomb? Will they use their F-16s?’ Zomlot, who grew up in the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza before studying at Birzeit University and the LSE, talks about strategy as if he were a sports coach. The ‘time of negotiations’, he claimed with obvious (though perhaps premature) relief, is over: even Abbas, he said, has realised that negotiations can go nowhere so long as Israel refuses to reach a deal based on the 1967 borders. Having withdrawn from negotiations, Zomlot continued, the PLO’s plan is to pursue a long-term strategy of non-violent resistance on two parallel tracks: mass protests in villages and at checkpoints and settlements; and diplomatic and economic pressure tactics such as the statehood declaration at the UN and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, a movement launched in 2005 by a broad coalition of Palestinian NGOs in the West Bank. BDS, inspired by the boycott of apartheid South Africa, is aimed not only at Israeli products but at institutions ranging from companies that supply weapons to the IDF to – more controversially – universities and cultural organisations; it has attracted increasing support among activists in the West, particularly on university campuses. The Israeli government has responded with a fierce international campaign, claiming BDS is an effort to ‘delegitimise’ the Jewish state; in his speech on the Middle East, Obama adopted the same language.
American disapproval would once have counted against these strategies, but America is no longer seen by the leadership to hold the keys to liberation. ‘Obama, the poor man, he got into the ring with Netanyahu and he got a bloody nose while the whole world was watching,’ Zomlot said. ‘Should we wait for America to come around? We’ve been waiting for 20 years. The depressing fact is that America is impotent.’ But the Arabs, at last, are not. ‘The region has changed irreversibly,’ Zomlot said, ‘but Israel still has the manual of 1948. The removal of the Arab regimes that stood in the way of the Palestinians is neutralising Israel’s machine. If the Israelis don’t change, they will end up as a tiny minority in a sea of Arab democracies. I hope they will come back to their senses before it’s too late.’ But it may already be too late for partition. ‘I’m afraid we’re beyond the two states,’ he said. ‘Drive to Nablus. It’s Israel – all the roads to Nablus. Look at the map: the settlements are the core, they have the highways and the infrastructure, while Palestinian cities are the periphery, connected by bypass roads.’
When we met, Zomlot had just returned from Washington after a failed mission to persuade senior officials in the State Department and National Security Council to support the Palestinian declaration of statehood. I asked him why he was devoting time to a project he no longer thought feasible. Statehood, he explained, was a tactic, not a goal. ‘The struggle to end injustice is cumulative,’ he said. ‘You don’t waste all the diplomatic gains that you’ve achieved in the last 40 years. If the two-state solution materialises, Palestinians will accept it. If it doesn’t, we move to a different strategy. In any case, our strategic objective isn’t two states or one state, but to end the occupation, to ensure that the right of return is implemented, and to establish equal rights for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Whether these objectives are achieved in one state, or two states, or a hundred states, doesn’t matter to most Palestinians.’ Palestinians may not be strong enough yet to achieve their objectives, but at least they can block the Israelis from achieving theirs. ‘We have options. The apocalyptic option is to dissolve the PA, but we can also withdraw security co-operation, or transform the PA into a resistance authority. What’s happened in the last 20 years is not set in stone. It could be undone.’
Zomlot is clearly hoping that these tactics might restore some of Fatah’s credibility among Palestinians, but it may be that the Fatah era is drawing to a close. Hussam Khader is a Fatah leader who played an important part in both intifadas. During the First Intifada, he was burned with cigarettes in front of his parents, and deported to Southern Lebanon; during the Second Intifada, he spent six years in an Israeli prison for funnelling money from Hizbullah to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Like Taysir Nasrallah, he’s considered a leader of the so-called Fatah ‘young guard’, which fought Arafat’s corruption and called for internal democracy, but at 50 he’s no longer young, and is the first to admit that he and his comrades have to make way for others. ‘You see where Aziz is sitting?’ he said, pointing to a journalist who had joined us. ‘That’s where Hamas will be sitting once I pack up my office. That is the nature of history. After the reconciliation, this will be the era of Hamas, the era of Khaled Meshaal.’
Khader is not alone in this assessment. Meshaal, whom Mossad came very close to killing in a botched assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997, has a growing influence in Palestinian politics. Militant yet pragmatic, he has cultivated relationships not only with Iran and Syria but with Turkey, Qatar and the transitional government in Egypt. At 56 he is two decades younger than Abbas and bears a passing resemblance to George Clooney, but relative youth is not the only thing that sets him apart from Abbas. Where Abbas is an autocrat with little taste for democratic niceties, Meshaal is said to canvas opinion before reaching decisions. He is also a forceful and articulate speaker: it was his speech, not Abbas’s that most impressed at the Cairo reconciliation ceremony. Many Palestinians see him as a far less compromised figure, because of his refusal to recognise Israel while the occupation continues.
As Khader sees it, Hamas is using Gaza as a bargaining chip. ‘Hamas is holding on to Gaza in the same way they’re holding on to Gilad Shalit. They don’t want to keep Gaza for ever, they want to trade it for the bigger prize.’ Sources close to Hamas confirmed that it would be happy to give up Gaza – and even to assume a much reduced role in governing the Occupied Territories – if it could join the PLO on equitable terms and have members on its executive committee: whoever leads that committee leads Palestine. It also insists that it must keep the Qassam Brigades, its military wing, as insurance against Fatah as much as against Israel. Hamas, Khader said, is strong not just in the West Bank, but in the influential diaspora communities of Europe and North America. And it has received a powerful boost from the revolution in Egypt, where its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood could become the dominant bloc in parliament, if not the ruling party. However much the Israelis may loathe Hamas, he said, Hamas has more to offer them than Fatah: ‘Hamas can stop the rocket fire, Fatah can’t. And I am sure the US will open a dialogue with them, if only to weaken the jihadis.’
Less than two weeks after our meeting, Khader was back in jail: arrested in the middle of the night by the IDF, along with several members of Hamas, and placed in administrative detention, where he remains. But on the day I talked to him, he seemed surprisingly serene for a man contemplating the decline of his own political movement. ‘The stone never stopped the river,’ he said, sipping his coffee. ‘The stone will dissolve with time.’ Very Zen, I said. He laughed. ‘I am a student of history. Sooner or later, and it might take another hundred years, we will liberate all of Palestine, from the river to the sea. Don’t believe we will continue for ever in peace negotiations. These will fail, just as the leaves of the trees fall in autumn. Israel is like the British Mandate, like Babylon. These states eventually pass. Ninety per cent of Israelis are originally from outside Palestine. One day they will even leave Tel Aviv.’
The question of the refugees, off the table during the Oslo years, has reasserted itself. Few Palestinians I spoke to believe they will return to their ancestral homes in Israel, but the right of return, inscribed in UN Resolution 194, is considered sacred, and the passions it stirs are more intense than ever. Several Palestinians told me they had no desire to return, but none would say it on record: ‘giving up the right of return’ – before Israel has even recognised it – is regarded by many as treason. ‘The right of return is a right,’ a friend in Nablus whose family is originally from Haifa explained, ‘so give me my right, and then let me decide how to implement it. I have made a life for myself in Nablus, and I don’t plan to return to Haifa, but I would like to take my children there. I am not talking about throwing the Jews into the sea.’ For many, perhaps most Palestinians, the right of return is now less about physical repatriation than about Israeli acknowledgment of the crimes of the Nakba and about reparations – and, just as important, about the restoration of their freedom of movement inside the entire country, regardless of whether it is called Israel or Palestine.
The idea of return is, of course, connected to nostalgia for the Palestine lost in 1948, and sharpened by Israel’s refusal to allow for the creation of a state on the 1967 lines. Gideon Levy, the columnist for Haaretz who has reported from the Occupied Territories for three decades, puts it very well: ‘If you don’t have hope, you go backwards in time and you start dreaming, even dreaming about something that isn’t a personal memory of yours.’ But in the Palestinian imagination the idea of return has always been not so much about reclaiming the past as redeeming it. It is about culture and honour as much as about politics, and to question it – or to appear to renege on it, as the Palestinian negotiators were revealed to be doing by al-Jazeera’s leaked Palestine Papers – is to question, even to deny, Palestinian identity.[*] Determined to prove that its passion for return is no less feverish than its constituents’, the PA mounted a boisterous street fair in al-Manara on Nakba Day. Children were having their faces painted the colours of the Palestinian flag, red, green, black and white and men were marching with an enormous key. ‘Nakba at 63’ posters were ubiquitous: ‘Dear Haifa, we are returning,’ one said. The PA was pulling out all the stops, but it was clear that this tightly choreographed event was designed to channel, as much as express, popular longings: the tents were set up to prevent people from protesting at nearby checkpoints and settlements.
The PA had no part at all in the main event of the day: an unprecedented march to the border by thousands of Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Occupied Territories, co-ordinated by activists on Facebook and Twitter. At least a dozen people were killed by Israeli soldiers, but more than a hundred succeeded in crossing into the Druze town of Majdal Shams in the Golan, including a 28-year-old man called Hassan Hijazi, who made it all the way to Jaffa, his ancestral city, travelling there on a bus with Israeli soldiers who had no idea they were sitting next to a ‘security threat’; he turned himself in to the Israeli police after visiting his grandparents’ house. A spectacular enactment of the drama of return, shown live on TV news broadcasts, the crossings electrified people in the West Bank. ‘For 63 years, Israel has tried to un-nation us, to turn us into West Bankers, Gazans, East Jerusalem residents, “Israeli Arabs” and refugees, but on Nakba day we were united,’ Husam Zomlot said.
The technologies Palestinians used to co-ordinate their movements exploited an Israeli weakness. ‘The military was totally unprepared for the border crossings,’ Yossi Gurvitz, a journalist in Tel Aviv who writes on intelligence affairs, told me, because the upper echelons of Israeli intelligence have an institutional bias in favour of secret information acquired through spies, collaborators, prisoners and phone taps, and tend to discount what is publicly available. ‘I doubt Yuval Diskin’ – the former chief of Shin Bet – ‘even knows how to do a Google search,’ he said. The IDF’s violent and clumsy response to the crossings made them look more like Mubarak’s police than like the invincible Israeli soldiers of legend.
A few days after the protests of 15 May, I met two of the young activists who helped organise them. Ibrahim Shikaki, an economist, and Haya al-Fara, who works for the PA’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have studied the example of Tunisia and Egypt closely. Both of them see the struggle for reconciliation as a distraction from a much more important matter: the lack of democracy in the Palestinian movement, and the exclusion from decision-making of Palestinians outside the Occupied Territories – both in the diaspora and inside Israel. ‘One of the things the factions do so well is to hijack the energy of the movement,’ Shikaki told me. ‘Our biggest fear,’ al-Fara said, ‘is that elections for the Palestinian National Council will be held, but the quota system will be maintained, with Fatah and Hamas dividing the pie among themselves.’ The PNC is the body that meets every two years to decide the direction the PLO should take and to elect its executive committee. What Shikaki and al-Fara are calling for is a new PNC, voted into office in transparent elections based on the principle of one Palestinian, one vote: by which they mean all Palestinians, wherever they may live. Shikaki and al-Fara, together with activists outside Palestine such as Karma Nabulsi, are pushing forward the registration of Palestinians scattered throughout the diaspora, most of them living in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, but still emotionally bound to the villages their families left in Palestine. The concentration of power in the hands of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories has, they believe, not only deprived the Palestinian majority of a voice in their future, but cost their cause some of its moral grandeur. ‘It’s time for us to sit down and reflect on what the peace process of the last 20 years has brought us,’ Shikaki said, ‘and that is a decision for all Palestinians.’
The call for a new PNC might seem like mere procedural reform, but the leaders of Palestine’s factions aren’t likely to see it that way: any increase in the power of the refugees, or of the 1.5 million Palestinians inside Israel, would threaten their interests (registration in the diaspora could add more than two million voters to the roll). Shikaki and al-Fara have the wider perspective – and perhaps the utopianism – that comes from having lived abroad. Al-Fara, brought up in Cairo by Gazan parents, said she felt ‘chained’ when she moved to Ramallah. ‘The society was suffering from fatigue, and people had been blinded by a narrative imposed by the PA. In Ramallah you can pretend everything is OK, but it’s a lie: as soon as you leave the bubble, you’re confronted by the occupation.’
Shikaki and al-Fara’s laments about the inauthenticity of their lives in Ramallah, the lethargy and complacency of their society and the corruptions of old men in power struck a familiar chord: one hears such talk from student radicals in the West. What’s different is their confidence that the future belongs to them. Politics in Palestine has always been a patriarchal affair, but after the events in Tahrir Square that too is changing. ‘The fact that youth played such an important role in the revolutions in the Arab world has given us a lot of courage,’ Shikaki said. ‘And older people have become more afraid of the young, or at least more afraid of disagreeing with us.’ Unlike the PLO and Hamas – unlike most people in the West Bank – they are calling for a single democratic state in all of Palestine. ‘My grandfather was from Zarnouka, which is inside the Green Line,’ Shikaki said. ‘The two-state solution means I can’t go there, while any Jewish person, from anywhere in the world, can go to Israel, become a citizen, and live in my grandfather’s house. I can’t accept this.’ His father, he says, still supports a two-state solution. ‘Whenever we have a political discussion, it ends in 15 minutes because I start screaming at him.’ Al-Fara said her colleagues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ask her: ‘Who are you to advocate these views? You weren’t here during the intifada, you didn’t see bodies in the street.’ Last year a group of activists put up posters in Ramallah in support of a single democratic state, with the colours of the Palestinian and Israeli flags. Within 24 hours the posters had been defaced with such slogans as ‘our martyrs want to see freedom, they don’t want to see our annihilation.’
It will be even harder, I suggested, to persuade Israeli Jews to support a one-state solution. ‘I haven’t thought a lot about the Israeli side,’ Shikaki admitted. ‘But, you know, the oppressor isn’t supposed to have a say in how the oppressed gets rid of oppression. And in a few years, we’ll be the same number as the Israeli Jews, and later we’ll become the majority. Time is on our side. I’m not saying this will be easy, but what the Arab revolutions have taught us is that we can dream.’ ‘They have also taught us,’ al-Fara said, ‘that the impossible is possible.’
This sort of talk worries Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the PLO negotiating team. A Canadian-Palestinian who is a firm supporter of a single state, she’s concerned that its young advocates are thinking about it in terms of a ‘victory’ over Israeli Jews, rather than coexistence with them. ‘Their argument is that Jews in Israel will come around to their vision – or not – like the whites in South Africa, and that we’ll just slide into one state. But in South Africa you had a 90-10 population ratio, and here it’s 50-50, so numbers won’t get you there. Their view is why should we have to reach out to them? But if you’re going to create a healthy and productive society, wouldn’t it make sense to reach out to them? This is what the ANC did. They had a place for white South Africans in their constitution, and in their struggle. If you believe in a single democratic state, you have to think about what it would mean for Arabs and Jews to live together. What would the school system look like? What would be the place of religion?’
The discourse of coexistence, Buttu believes, was one of the casualties of the Oslo era, as Israel consolidated its project of separation during the ‘peace process’. The borders between the Occupied Territories and Israel, which had been open from 1967 to 1991, were closed and Palestinians who worked in Israel were replaced by foreign labour. Palestinians had fewer and fewer interactions with any Jews who weren’t soldiers or settlers. The idea of living with Jews – a central tenet of large sections of the Palestinian movement during the First Intifada – gave way to a vision of struggle against a faceless coloniser. When Israel began to build the wall, Palestinians retreated in pride and defiance behind a separation wall of their own. Many now refuse to associate even with those Israelis who are in sympathy with the Palestinian struggle. Amira Hass, the great left-wing Israeli journalist for Haaretz, who is based in Ramallah, was prevented from studying Arabic at Birzeit; Daniel Barenboim has been vilified by some leaders of the boycott movement on the grounds that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Arab-Israeli youth orchestra he created with Edward Said, is promoting ‘normalisation’ with the Zionist state. One BDS leader told me with eerie self-assurance that Said would have shut down the orchestra in line with BDS demands. There was even a debate within BDS about whether the Bilin protests ought to be boycotted because of the participation of Israeli Jews who might call themselves Zionists. ‘These people don’t go to Bilin,’ Buttu said. ‘They prefer to issue fatwas from their laptops, and if you question the logic behind the fatwas, you get called a traitor.’
I asked the writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh, who founded the human rights organisation Al-Haq and advised the PLO during the Madrid talks before retiring from politics, about this disengagement from dialogue with Israelis, which appears to have become such a point of pride among a small but influential group of young, progressive, Western-educated Palestinians. As he sees it, hostility to coexistence, on the part of both Israelis and Palestinians, is a product of borders, not the other way round. ‘People have internalised these borders, and what used to be possible now seems impossible. But these borders can disappear, and once they do, perceptions can change very quickly.’ Whether or not the solution is one or two states – Shehadeh himself speaks somewhat romantically of a Palestinian state in a neo-Ottoman federation with Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, in which people can move freely between borders – Palestinians and Israeli Jews have a common future. ‘Look, I am against Zionism but Zionism is a historical matter, and Israeli Jews are not going to leave. But there will have to be a different set of relations, based on equality rather than exclusion and domination.’
There is, of course, a large group of Palestinians who, while living side by side with Israeli Jews, have sought to establish more democratic relations between the two peoples: the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who comprise more than 20 per cent of the state’s population. For 63 years, they have struggled to defend their rights and to preserve their language and identity in a Jewish state that has fought just as tenaciously to deny its binational character. About 130,000 in number in 1948, they have since increased more than tenfold: a telling sign of their determination to remain in their homeland. Netanyahu received one of his 29 standing ovations in his speech to the US Congress in May when he boasted that ‘of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa … less than one half of one per cent are truly free, and they are all citizens of Israel’, but very few Palestinians in Israel would describe themselves as free. In the words of the novelist Sayed Kashua, they see themselves not as citizens but as ‘almost citizens’.
Subject to military rule between 1948 and 1966, the Palestinian minority has become partially integrated into Israel over the years. Fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew, it has been remarkably loyal to a state that has shown it little loyalty in return. In the 1980s and 1990s, Kashua writes in his novel Let It Be Morning, ‘they not only resigned themselves to be citizens of Israel, they even grew to like their citizenship and were worried it might be taken away from them.’ But when the Second Intifada erupted in October 2000, 13 Palestinian citizens were shot dead, 12 of them inside the Green Line: ‘Two days of demonstrations had been enough for the state to delegitimise its Arab population, to repudiate their citizenship.’ ‘The illusion that we were immune because of our Israeli citizenship was shattered,’ the novelist Ala Hlehel told me. ‘People decided to be careful.’
Since then, the Palestinians ‘inside’ have been in a state of alert, subject to increasing threats and harassment, as well as the usual programme of land confiscation and home demolitions. The nationalist Balad Party’s charismatic leader, Azmi Bishara, a member of the Knesset, was forced into exile after being accused of aiding Hizbullah during the 2006 war. Although no formal indictment was ever issued against him, the Knesset passed a special law to strip him of his salary and pension benefits, and there has been pressure for his citizenship to be revoked. His call for Israel to become ‘a state for all its citizens’ – a modern democracy based on the separation of state and ethnicity, without special privileges for Jews – made him a target of the authorities; he was also despised for his unapologetic Arab nationalism, something Palestinian politicians of an earlier, more cautious generation had been careful to hold in check, at least in public. With Bishara effectively banished, the Knesset has passed a number of discriminatory laws which make it harder for Arabs to purchase or inherit land, and to bring spouses from the Occupied Territories to live with them inside Israel; the new Budget Foundations Law, targeted at Arab cultural organisations, authorises the finance minister to cut funding to any institution that holds activities commemorating the Nakba. As Palestinians see it, the aim of these laws, along with the increasingly strident declarations about Israel being a Jewish state, is to make their lives so unpleasant that they will leave. Surveys indicate that many Jews, perhaps a majority, would be happy if they did; the idea of ‘transfer’ is part of mainstream political thinking. ‘The Jewish majority is becoming blocked,’ Hlehel said. ‘According to the latest surveys a third of them say if there’s a war we should put the Arabs in camps. They’re talking about camps, can you imagine?’
When Palestinians inside Israel hear Netanyahu and Obama – or Abbas – speak of ‘land swaps’ in any future peace agreement, they fear that those in ‘swapped’ areas will be dumped into another state, stripped of Israeli citizenship and, just as important, of their right to move freely without permits, searches and checkpoints: they will get Ramallah and Nablus, which they can already go to, and lose Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth and the Galilee – not to mention Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem. The journalist hero of Let It Be Morning wakes up one day to discover that, as the result of a ‘historic peace treaty’, his village, Wadi Ara, is no longer in Israel. ‘I think we’re Palestinian now,’ he says to his wife, as white jeeps with UN flags drive past his window. ‘We’ve been transferred to the Palestinian Authority.’ Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has in fact proposed to transfer Wadi Ara to the PA in return for ‘settlement blocs’ in the West Bank. Palestinians inside Israel support the creation of a Palestinian state, but they don’t want it to be established over their heads, or at their expense. ‘I’m afraid that Abbas will cut a deal with Israel without taking us into account,’ Hlehel said, ‘and the Israelis will come to us and say: “If you want to live in a Palestinian state, go live in Ramallah.”’
Palestinians inside Israel, like Palestinians in the West Bank, are learning the effectiveness of mass, non-violent mobilisation; young people in particular are starting to communicate with people in the Occupied Territories and in neighbouring Arab countries, using Facebook and Twitter to organise themselves. People who a few years ago were admirers of Sheikh Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah, are now saying that they ‘don’t need his rhetoric of resistance because they have discovered their own power and their own voice’.
Or, perhaps, rediscovered them: the Palestinians inside, as a national minority in a Jewish state, have a rich history of civil rights struggle. And though their interests can sometimes clash with the interests of those in the Occupied Territories, their emphasis on rights and cultural identity rather than statehood increasingly converges with the thinking of Palestinians in the West Bank. ‘This conflict is about two major issues, the right of return and the Law of Return,’ Hassan Jabareen, the general director of Adalah, a legal centre for Palestinian rights in Israel, said, referring to the 1950 law which allows Jews from anywhere in the world to become citizens of Israel, even as Palestinian refugees and their descendants are denied their right to return, or even enter. ‘All the rest,’ he continued, ‘is footnotes. Once the indigenous people are given their right of return, the Law of Return will not be a problem, and the state can be normalised. The question of how to divide the territory can come later, and it will be much easier then.’ So long as Israel accepts the right of return, and acknowledges the historic injustice of the Nakba, he said, ‘whether democracy takes the form of one, two or three states is irrelevant to me.’ The reality, however, is that Israel is day by day consolidating itself as a Jewish state, at the expense of Palestinians inside. I asked Jabareen if he was afraid. ‘We are an indigenous people, so we don’t have that fear of being a minority. Haven’t you noticed the quietness that Palestinians have, that resilience?’
The resilience of Palestinians under conditions that would madden most people, their curious lack of urgency about the situation, is indeed striking. No less striking is the contrast with the Israeli mood. When you ask Israeli Jews about the future of the Jewish state, you’re often met by panic, even apocalyptic fear, whether it’s about the ‘demographic threat’ posed by the Arab birthrate, the Iranian nuclear programme, the rise of Arab democracies that won’t be as friendly to Israel, or – in the case of the dwindling number of Israeli liberals – the prospect of Israel becoming another Middle Eastern theocracy, or sliding into a Balkans-style civil war between Jews and Arabs. The historian Tom Segev told me that Israelis today remind him of ‘the Japanese who lived under the nuclear reactor. Israelis know the explosion will come, but they don’t know how to stop it.’ Palestinians may be frustrated, but they’re not gloomy about their future. They are patient because they are confident, and they are becoming more, not less confident as a result of the Arab Spring, even as Israel seeks to expand, and to force them to recognise it as a Jewish state. The announcement of new settlements is even welcomed by some Palestinians on the grounds that the settlements bring the one-state solution closer: in the Middle East, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between winning and losing.
The Arab world may be impatient for the Palestinians to rebel, but they are not. When they are ready to mobilise, they will; meanwhile they will continue to prepare, and to wait until the time is right, as they have for the last 63 years. This waiting should not be mistaken for passivity; it is a deeply political act – even a long-term strategy according to Ramzi Suleiman, a behavioural theorist in the department of psychology at the University of Haifa and a member of Hadash, Israel’s largely Arab Communist Party. When I asked him whether there was any connection between his politics and the models he studies in his academic work, he drew this analogy:
Let’s say we have two players, and one is given $100 which he has to divide with the other, in conditions of complete anonymity. The divider makes a proposal which the other player can accept or reject. If she accepts it, everyone goes home. If she rejects it, both players get nothing. According to game theory, a rational player who’s interested in increasing his profits, and who assumes the other player is rational as well, will offer her maybe $1, since otherwise she will get nothing. The Israelis are game theorists, so they were very upset that the Palestinians didn’t accept what they viewed as a very generous offer. Since the Palestinians had nothing, the Israelis thought they were irrational. But rejecting a low offer may be rational in the long term. And what we find in laboratory experiments is that the divider usually offers around 40 per cent, which is much higher than what game theory predicts and also higher than what the Israelis have offered. So the Israelis are good game theorists, but they are short-sighted. Because if the game is repeated, it’s not in the weaker party’s interests to accept a low offer. It makes more sense for me to show that I’m not cheap, and that you can’t buy me so easily, even if nobody sees us. Now let’s say others are looking, people I might interact with in the future. If they see me accept a low offer, they might say I’m someone who accepts low offers and I’ll get a reputation. I might even begin to think of myself as cheap too.
Suleiman pointed out that this strategy of sticking to one’s red lines while waiting for a better offer to come along has a name in Palestinian political culture. It is called sumud, or ‘steadfastness’. ‘Sumud, in game theory, is the last line of defence of the weak,’ he said. ‘The weak person has to be steady. If he accepts the unfair situation, it’s like admitting that it’s fair, and the stronger party can take more.’ Israelis may have been angry when the ‘peace process’ collapsed, but Palestinians felt exhilarated because ‘when you reject an insulting offer your dignity is preserved. If you keep your dignity you can’t be walked on, and your chances of survival are increased.’ And if you keep playing the game then the weaker party has the advantage over time. ‘So the Palestinians are right in thinking, game theoretically, that time is on their side.’ It’s less clear whether this strategy will bear fruit outside the university. But as long as Israel continues to put forward offers no Palestinian leader can accept, and as long as the other Arabs are closely watching the two sides play, Palestinians are in no hurry at all.
[*] The Palestine Papers: The End of the Road? edited by Clayton Swisher (Hesperus, 318 pp., £13.99, March, 978 1 84391 353 5).