Thursday, July 29, 2010

On the PA, Hamas and that Matter of Palestinian Resistance

Rarely are surface impressions as riveting as they are this stark simple.


“Truncated archipelago,” was Dr. Rashid Khalidi’s distressingly apt description of the Occupied Palestinian Territories in his 2009 piece on “The Crisis of the Palestinian System.” But the fourth snapshot, coming as it does at the end of this visual abstract of the evolving political geography of the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy, stands like the latest entry in a catalogue of Palestinian retreats and regrets.

Palestine—a fading thumbprint. Look at it, won’t you! There are plenty of doorsteps on which the Palestinians can lay blame for this sorry presence on the map. Certainly their leadership’s is no less deserving than Israel’s. It’s a long, winding, nasty patch of history, but if we were to choose that one miscalculation since 1967 that helped keep a people’s nationhood a figment of their imagination, it would have to be the mistaken conviction by the PLO in 1993--inexcusably picked up by Hamas in 2007--that to rule, under Israeli occupation, is in fact to lead.

But enough of that. So much has been written about the temptations of power that turned two so-called resistance movements into satraps over the Occupied Territories. To dwell on the mistakes and abuses of that period would be like pressing a full set of fingers on an unbearably painful injury. Suffice it to say that in the thick chronicles of this conflict there are plenty of Israeli moves that qualify as chutzpa, many among them, it has to be said, helped see the Zionist dream become a robust reality. But using the Oslo Accords, presumably a framework for liberation, to farm out an occupation that became indefensible (and progressively more costly) after the first mostly nonviolent intifada (1987-1993) is one of those remarkable Israeli tactical achievements that, from the start, had all the makings of strategic folly. Equally, the role that Yasser Arafat and then Hamas willingly, even enthusiastically, played in this book on how to change a liberation organization into a local enforcement agency has marked the Palestinian cause itself with an unforgivably unkind legacy. 

And yet, as debilitating as chronic dispossession has been to the nationalist cause of the Palestinians, it is only one of their problem’s many intertwining surface realities. What the four snapshots are missing are the human heartbeats—Israeli and Palestinian—that make silly putty out of thumbprints. Place these on the landscapes above and watch an apparently clear win for Israel turn into a moral and demographic muddle. 


It has been, then, a rotten game for the Palestinians, but it is far from over. Their struggle for a state may yet have its day. And herein lies perhaps the most daunting challenge for them, for they enter a new kind of battle with Israel as would an orphan into the hazards of life.

All the serious studies that have been done on the PA and Hamas differ on many points but agree on one: when it comes to that most essential question of resistance, both groups have all but written themselves out of the equation. The rhetoric of engagement versus the rhetoric of armed struggle--this is the trivial difference between the strategies of the PA and Hamas towards Israel. Both latch on to language for cover the way an old hag makes for a towel after an open-air shower. In deed, though never in words, the two are simply out of breath and out of answers. However, theirs is more than a bankruptcy of policy and vision. As Dr. Khalidi writes, “In the wrenching divide that has grown between Fatah and Hamas, and in the growing fissures within Fatah, and between the ‘old Fatah’ and the PA [the Palestinian Authority], there reside the seeds of a dissolution of the Palestinian political system...”

Palestinians are indeed suffering a crisis of existential proportions. They have to plow the future in burning fields guarded by two ghastly custodians.  And pouring ink about Hamas’s tenacity in Gaza and Prime minister Salam Fayyad’s technocratic focus on “institution building” in the West Bank misses the crux of this besieged nation’s dire situation: if all that Gaza and the West Bank aspire to be is an efficient prison, then clearly Hamas and the PA have cornered the market for wardens. But the Palestinian people do aspire for and deserve nothing less than their own full-fledged state, and it is blue-sky clear that neither the PA nor Hamas have the faintest idea how to lead the way. Worst still, at this very mature stage of the conflict, when the longstanding two-state solution is giving way to forbidding scenarios that warn of death and mayhem, both leaderships have already begun fortifying their own side of the fortress.

Oftentimes the predictable defense by these two outfits starts and ends with an expression top heavy with symbolism and emotion for Palestinians: steadfastness--sumud in Arabic. Every band-aid or balsam applied by the PA and Hamas under occupation carries that proud stamp. In all fairness, for a frightened, miserably insecure, despondent people the quick fixes and remedies are not exactly negligible. So if you’re in the mood to distribute kudos, be my guest… But lest we be seduced by linguistic subtleties, there is a difference between sumud and stabilizing a punishing status quo. To get credit for the former, the two regimes require all the facilities of the Arabic language and the capacious love of supporters. As for the latter, the glory is all theirs to claim.

The Palestinian people know this. If you were to match on-the-ground insights with the accumulating power of numbers, the trends are not that hard to detect. Neither the PA nor Hamas can credibly claim anywhere close to a popular mandate (the latest PSR poll gives Hamas 38%, its best showing yet since three years, and the Fayyad government 48% approval ratings, mostly for improved security and order), while the field reports point to rising dissent and increasing oppressiveness as standard operating procedure between the two systems and their people.

For far too long, day-to-day has been the Palestinians’ modus operandi. And when approval ratings of the PA and Hamas rise or fall, they don’t with liberation or resistance in mind. Bottom of the list is where these two linger every time the average Palestinian is asked to place in order of importance the weight of their burdens.


Now that the Territories have been swathed in darkness it is time for that faint ray of hope. Nil’in, Ma’sara, Budrus, Bil’in, Jayouss, Umm Salamouneh: these are just some of the Palestinian villages that are giving the strongest hint in years that Palestinian civil society still has a pulse. As if in response to the utter failure of leadership in those who were supposed to look out for it, recently it has been galvanizing its own forces against the occupation. As if in response to Fatah and Hamas’s weapons of choice of years past—mind numbing aimless chatter, ever-erect white flags, senseless violence and all—the new generation of community organizers and activists has opted exclusively for legal recourse, civil disobedience and nonviolent protests.

Since many of the villages lost land and livelihood to Israeli settlements and the deliberately invasive Separation Wall, their targets are land theft and settler encroachments. There is no critical mass yet, the skeptics and booby traps are many, there is no real independent party support (just independent voices) and much work is required for the current activism to coalesce into civil disobedience on a society-wide scale. But this budding grassroots effort is sending out a medley of messages that could well be announcing a seismic shift in the Palestinian-Israeli divide.

The loudest and certainly most meaningful of these messages is an insistent pragmatism that embraces nonviolence as the only effective answer to an Israeli occupation that thrives on, even provokes, Palestinian fury to justify to itself and explain away to others its hideousness and feed its rapacity. The implications of this chosen path are as consequential for the PA and Hamas as they are for Israel. For this activism is reaching beyond the usual politics, beyond borders, beyond its own kin and beyond yesterday’s failed experiments and pain. It’s still a toddler, but it’s glaringly aware of the PA and Hamas’s infirmities and it knows the Israeli occupier’s intention and method only too well.


This is not 1987. Much has changed since the first largely nonviolent Palestinian intifada in the Occupied Territories erupted and Yasser Arafat, after having been caught totally off guard by it, piggybacked on it and then came in through Oslo and stemmed its already ebbing tide. If 1987 was prologue, then 2010 is epilogue. Over two decades of “self-rule” have passed since 1993, punctuated by corruption, 60,000 intelligence and security agents, systemic violations of human rights, a second very violent intifada, suicide bombings, more settlements, more settlers, less and less land, over 500 Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, Israeli redeployment from Gaza, a coup d’├ętat, occupation by remote control, spastic missiles that aim nowhere and everywhere across the Green Line from a destitute cul-de-sac that totally depends on Egypt and Israel for dear life, devastation, an existence from hand to mouth, ruptures, sieges, cease fires …

It’s a very deep ditch that has been dug by the PA and Hamas, and everything about it says serious political vacuum. Palestinian civil society, as exhausted and browbeaten as it is, is taking baby steps into it. And as difficult as prospects for a free future may seem, there is actually much that activists and organizers can work with when gauging the chances for it: the fluid demographic situation in Palestine, the changing geopolitical map in the region, the darkening visage of Israel and her growing estrangement from old allies, the strengthening affinities between them and Israel’s own civil society in fighting the nonviolent fight, increasing civic activism in key Western countries on behalf of Palestine--and ironically, but perhaps most significantly, the dimming star of both the PA and Hamas.

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