الراصد القديم


?Palestine: Forgotten By the Arab Revolutions

Alain Gresh


December 2010: with the first demonstrations in Tunisia, a shock wave rolled across the whole Arab world, one as deep as those that had inundated the region after the defeats of 1948-1949 and in June 1967. While the first two were centered on Palestine and its future, the current one seems to be focused on domestic problems. Some even claim that the ongoing revolutions have nothing to do with Palestine. What is the real truth?
Before our eyes, a long period of stagnation and paralysis is coming to an end. The flight of President Ben Ali, the overturning of President Hosni Mubarak, the Libyan war, the removal from office of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, demonstrations in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, and even Saudi Arabia, have kept the spotlight on the region. None of the Arab League member states has been spared. Leaders who had governed their countries for decades have been overthrown. Granted, the movement is still in its early stages and it will probably take a number of years to bring down the power structures that have been in place since the 1960s, but for the first time since that period, the Arab peoples have taken their history into their own hands and the myth of their passivity and their inability to handle democracy has been shattered.
Palestine has seemed to be relatively absent from these waves of change. Certain Western commentators have claimed that these revolutions are not interested in the conflict with Israel or in Palestine, that they only have a domestic political program, that they are neither anti-American nor anti-Western. Without a doubt, these analyses are false, as scores of events have proven - from the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo to the welcome the new Tunisian government extended Hamas leader Ismail Haniyya. These sparse observations are still too brief to answer the question of Palestine's place in the Arab revolutions, however. In order to do so, it is necessary to go back into the history of the relationship between the Palestinian question and the Arab world.

A Long History
With the First World War, the British occupation of Jerusalem, in addition to the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, the future of Palestine seemed to be threatened. Worried about the Jewish immigration and the future of their territory, many Palestinian leaders first turned to Faysal, one of the sons of Sharif Hussein of Mecca (the leader of the great Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire), who had come to power in Damascus. The Arab elites of Palestine, who discovered with horror London's promise to create a "Jewish national home," sought protection against the Zionist project and the independent state in Damascus seemed to be an adequate framework. However, the entry of French troops into Damascus on July 25, 1920 and the flight of Faysal ended the hopes of the Palestinians for a "Greater Syria". The establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine in 1922 and the drawing of the borders contributed to enclosing the Palestinian movement within the defined limits and to centering it on "local" objectives.
This was the context within which the Palestinian movement developed its resistance to London and to Zionism. From the Arab and Muslim countries, it sought only external support, but in 1936 the great Arab revolt erupted in Palestine, beginning with a general strike that lasted six months. Concerned about this mobilization, the United Kingdom pushed its Arab allies, notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Transjordan, to intervene. The three countries effectively obtained the suspension of the strike though this led to only a short truce since London did not alter its policy of supporting Jewish immigration. A full-blown insurrection then began, which would not be crushed until 1939, and whose toll was disastrous: thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of arrests, internal divisions within the national Palestinian movement, which lost most of its leadership as well as its political autonomy. At that point the Palestinian question became an Arab question.
The growing interest in world opinion for Palestine, as well as the British desire to involve its Arab allies, also led to the "Arabization" of the conflict, but it was an Arabization that took place among governments which were indentured to London. The war of 1947-1948, the lack of a creation of an Arab state in at least a part of Palestine, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians all contributed to the dependency of Palestinians and their organizations on outside support.
The Arab defeat provoked a first wave of upheavals. In ten years, the region witnessed the overthrow of its old order. The upsurge of Arab nationalism shook the regimes that were allied with the West. Gamal Abdel Nasser and the "Free Officers" took power in Cairo on July 23, 1952 and Abd al-Karim Qasim overthrew the monarchy in Baghdad on July 14, 1958. The disaster of the Suez invasion in 1956 signified the collapse of British and French dreams of a colonial re-conquest. The 1958 creation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) between Egypt and Syria seemed to bring the hour of Arab unity closer.
Scattered in camps or living under Hashemite domination, the Palestinians maintained a strong attachment to the land from which they were driven and fostered a proto-nationalism, given the experience of social and political marginalization that they were undergoing: nowhere in the Arab world were they welcome, nowhere did they enjoy the same rights as the natives, even when, like in Jordan, they were granted citizenship.
During this period, which stretched from 1949 to 1967, a new generation of Palestinian leaders emerged. The events in Egypt and Iraq had an immense resonance among Palestinians, who enthusiastically rallied to the revolutionary - that is, resolutely anti-imperialist and non-aligned - version of Arab nationalism, where one of the most important representatives (though not the only one) was to be found in Nasser. Henceforth, for them, the catchphrase would be: "The liberation of Palestine will come through Arab unity."
However, Palestine has remained an object in the hands of Arab leaders and a card to play in their struggle for hegemony. It was Arab rivalries, notably between Nasser and Qasim, that triggered the process that ended in the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In September 1963, the Arab League invited Ahmad Shukeiri to represent Palestine within the League "until the Palestinian people are able to elect its representatives." At the first summit of Arab heads of state, which took place in Cairo at Nasser's invitation from January 13 to 17, 1964, Ahmad Shukeiri was put in charge of consultations in view of laying the foundations of a Palestinian entity (kiyan). From May 28 to June 2, 1964, the first National Palestinian Congress took place, which saw the creation of the PLO.
A charter was adopted at that time, insisting on the definition of Palestine as "an Arab area related by links of nationalism (qawmiya) to the other Arab lands which together form the Great Arab Nation" (Article 1). We do not find mention of the "Arab people of Palestine [who] have the legal right to their homeland," before Article 3, but this homeland "is an integral part of the Arab nation."
While most Palestinians adhered to this view, at the end of 1959 a small group called Fatah began to publish a different point of view, claiming that the liberation of Palestine is fundamentally a Palestinian affair and cannot be handed over to the Arab states. At best, the Arab regimes could provide help and protection. These themes, defended in the newspaper Filastinuna (Our Palestine), went against the grain of the surrounding "pan-Arabism". They were reinforced by the failure of the Egyptian-Syrian unity (UAR) and by the victory of the Algerian revolution in 1962, which served as a model for the leaders of Fatah. Some of their words were violent toward the Arab regimes. One of the editors of Filastinuna wrote: "All we are asking for is that you [the Arab regimes] surround Palestine with a security buffer and watch the battle between us and the Zionists." And again, "All we want is that you [the Arab regimes] take your hands off Palestine." The organization, still little known at that time, was badly looked upon by most of the Arab capitals, and was often denounced as being "regionalist". After the first military operations (at the beginning of 1965), it was even qualified as an agent of CENTO (Central Treaty Organization, a pact which encompassed Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Great Britain, under the leadership of the US).
The war of 1967 and the bitter defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan leveled a terrible blow at revolutionary Arab nationalism and triggered a second wave of changes in the Arab world. Among Palestinians, those who had banked on the independence and decision-making autonomy of the Palestinian people saw their positions reinforced. The political void created for several months by the scope of the Arab collapse allowed the groups of the Palestinian armed resistance, and above all Fatah, to come to center stage in the region, and to get established in Jordan.
The PLO, too closely linked to the Arab countries, thus entered into crisis. Negotiations were undertaken to integrate the armed organizations into it. In July of 1968, the fourth National Palestinian Council met, dominated by Fatah. The National Charter and the PLO statutes were modified to emphasize armed struggle. Article 9 of the amended Charter specifies, "the Arab people of Palestine [...] affirm their right to auto-determination and to sovereignty over its country." As of Article 1, Palestine is defined as "the homeland of the Palestinian Arab people," whose role is repeatedly highlighted. This insistence was translated into the very definition of the PLO, "which represents the Palestinian revolutionary forces, and is responsible for the Palestinian Arab people's resistance in their struggle to recover their homeland, to liberate it and to return to it in order to exercise their right to auto-determination."
The strategy of the fedayeen seems to have been similar to that which was developing throughout the third world at the same time, from Vietnam to Latin America to Eastern Africa - national and social revolution, via the rifle. Did that mean that the moment for an Arab revolution had come, spearheaded by Palestine? Not at all: no "revolutionary" logic ever motivated Fatah and armed struggle was never theorized. There was neither Palestinian strategic thinking nor any theoretical military text. What the Palestinian resistance sought above all was the construction of the lacking "state framework," necessary for nationalism to truly take off. It found this in the PLO. A leader of the left wing of Fatah, Naji Alloush, was right when he reproached the leadership for having abandoned the revolution and for wanting to transform the PLO into a "state in exile".
"The generation that took control of the PLO in 1968-1969," noted Yezid Sayegh, "was strikingly similar to the 'new elites' who came into power in Egypt, Syria, Algeria, and Iraq between 1952 and 1968." Fatah, the most powerful of the fedayeen groups, placed its cadres in many positions of leadership and integrated some of its own organizations (the Foundation of Martyrs, the Red Crescent) into the PLO; in addition, it created numerous structures to offer positions to its base (a form of clientelism) or to other organizations. Thus, it guaranteed itself the loyalty of tens of thousands of functionaries. This "was far from unusual" for young independent states, but the originality of this policy in the Palestinian case was the fact that "it developed in the context of a liberation movement" that didn't even control a part of its territory. The influx of financial aid from Gulf states and other Arab countries, a genuine political "rent income," was a decisive element in the construction of this quasi-state and in facilitating a form of management based on clientelism.
This "statist" choice determined both the power and the limits of the PLO. It became, in the 1970s, the framework of reference for all of the Palestinian organizations, and, more broadly, for all the Palestinians scattered throughout the world. It could claim its role as the "sole representative of the Palestinian people," but in the sense that a State represents its citizens. It lost its "revolutionary" character and accepted the Arab status quo that resulted from the defeat of 1967.
On the other hand, despite a certain pluralism, the PLO showed the same flaws as all of the surrounding Arab states from which it had been inspired, an absence of control over its leadership and the incapacity to critique itself, as well as bureaucracy, patrimonialism, personal power, etc. It feared any autonomous initiative in society and maintained a stubborn attitude of suspicion toward the movements in the West Bank and Gaza, which it could not entirely control. All of the organizations, including those of the Palestinian left, accepted this statist and clientelist logic, negotiating the allocation of positions and resources with Yasser Arafat. The PLO thus lost any role it might have had as a revolutionary inspiration in the Arab world. It established itself in the Arab political game, playing one capital against another, without ever truly breaking with any of them. Having successively clashed with the Jordanian, Lebanese, and Syrian states, incapable of developing a strategy of armed struggle, it committed itself to the diplomatic path, which would culminate with the signing of the Oslo accords.
However, this "bureaucratization" of the PLO (a phenomenon which affected all its organizations, including those on the left) did not diminish the importance that the Palestinian problem held for the Arab peoples; it was the symbol of the former colonial order and blatantly displayed the double standards of Western policies. During the second Intifada, as after the Israeli invasion in Gaza in December-January 2008-2009, Arabs powerfully expressed their solidarity with the Palestinians.

The Arab Revolts
The third revolutionary wave to hit the Arab world, after those in the 1950s and 1960s, has not been directly provoked by Palestine although one could imagine that the spectacle relayed by satellite television of the incessant oppression of the Palestinians has contributed to the feeling of humiliation among the Arab peoples and their will to recover their dignity (karama).
This wave has also touched all "Palestinian powers"; however, in both Ramallah and Gaza, these powers, Fatah and Hamas, prohibited demonstrations of solidarity with the Egyptian people struggling against Hosni Mubarak. The two authorities then sharply suppressed the March 15 movement, which intended to transpose the demands for dignity, the struggle against corruption, and the desire to end authoritarianism to the Palestinian situation. Here we see the first consequence of the Arab revolutions - to have called into question the incompetent Palestinian leadership. This crisis within the Palestinian leadership is due not only to its authoritarianism, but also to its incapacity to formulate strategies. The strategy founded upon the negotiations attempted by Fatah with the Oslo accords has entirely failed, and that of Hamas, founded upon "armed struggle," is even less credible given that since January 2009, the Islamist organization has done its best to guarantee peace with Israel.
Beyond these direct consequences, the Arab revolutions have changed a fundamental fact - for the first time since the 1970s, the geopolitics of the region cannot be analyzed without taking into account, at least to some extent, the aspirations of peoples and countries that have become masters of their own destiny again.
For decades, the United States was able to support Israel unconditionally without having to pay the price - except that of their unpopularity in the Arab streets, which they didn't care about - since the Arab leaders remained faithful allies. This period is coming to an end. In March 2010, General David Petraeus, then head of the US military's Central Command (CENTCOM), was heard saying, "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in this region and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world." This can also be seen in the Egyptian debate around the Camp David accords and the question of Israeli-Palestinian peace. As Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations (New York) wrote, "From the perspective of many Egyptians, this arrangement hopelessly constrained Cairo's power while freeing Israel and the United States to pursue their regional interests unencumbered. Without the threat of war with Egypt, Israel poured hundreds of thousands of Israelis into settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, invaded Lebanon (twice), declared Jerusalem its capital, and bombed Iraq and Syria."
Any government in Cairo will have to take Egyptian opinion into account from now on, even if only partially, and henceforth no president will be able to be as submissive to Israel and the US as Mubarak was. More importantly, democracy is creating the conditions for a more general thought process about the struggles in the Arab world, about their forms and their goals, and about the relations between democracy and national liberation. Without doubt, Palestine will be at the heart of this questioning and the renewal of the Arab world, just as it has come to be - as I attempt to explain in this book - at the heart of worldwide movements against an unjust international order.

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