The United States Embassy officially relocated to Jerusalem on May 14, 2018, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The initiative was driven by President Donald Trump
Peace Vigil co-founder Shirin recently interviewed Na’eem Jeenah, a well-known South African academic who has written widely on Palestine and Israel. He is the executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg. The new President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, has categorically stated that the South African government will end diplomatic relations with Israel over its actions in Palestine. This interview with Na’eem Jeenah is helpful to understand the situation.
By Ramzy Baroud
Five years after spearheading what is inaptly referred to as a ‘government of national reconciliation’, Palestinian Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, has finally resigned.
“We put our government at the disposal of President Mahmoud Abbas and we welcome the recommendations of the Fatah Central Committee to form a new government,” Hamdallah tweeted, shortly after Abbas had ordered him to dismantle the government.
Since the Palestinian Authority was founded in 1994, 17 governments have been formed, and every single one of them was dominated by the Fatah party, the largest faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Fatah’s monopoly over Palestinian politics has wrought disasters. Neither did the PA deliver the coveted Palestinian state, nor did Fatah use its influence to bring Palestinian factions together. In fact, the opposite is true.
Most of these 17 governments were short-lived, except that of Hamdallah, which has governed for five years, despite the fact that it failed in its primary mission: healing the terrible rift between Fatah in the Israeli Occupied West Bank, and Hamas in Israel-besieged Gaza.
Moreover, it also fell short of bringing PLO factions closer together. Thus far, the second largest PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) refuses to participate in a future government that will also be dominated by Fatah.
Palestinian divisions have never been as pronounced as they are today. While all Palestinian factions, Hamas and Islamic Jihad included, bear part of the blame for failing to unify their ranks and form a single national strategy to combat Israeli colonialism and occupation, Abbas bears the largest share.
Even before becoming a president of the PA in January 2005, Abbas has always been a divisive political figure. When he was the PA’s Prime Minister, between March and September 2003 under the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, Abbas clashed with anyone who would challenge his often self-serving political agenda, including Arafat himself. His constant clashing with Arafat at the time made him a favorite in Washington.
Abbas was elected on a weak popular mandate, as Hamas and others boycotted the presidential elections. His first, and only term in office expired in 2009. For a whole decade, neither Abbas nor any government of his have operated with the minimum requirement of democracy. Indeed, for many years the will of the Palestinian people has been hijacked by wealthy men, fighting to preserve their own interests while undeservingly claiming the role of leadership.
The 2006 Hamas victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections was a reminder to Abbas (but also to Israel and the United States) of how dangerous free elections can be. Since then, there has been much talk about the need for new elections, but no sincere efforts have been made to facilitate such a task. Logistical difficulties notwithstanding (for Palestine is, after all an occupied country), neither party wants to take the risk of letting the people have the last word.
Palestine and her people are not only trapped by Israeli walls, fences and armed soldiers, but by their inept leadership as well.
The 2007 Fatah-Hamas clashes which led to the current extreme polarization have split Palestinians politically, between the West Bank, under Abbas’ authoritative control, and Hamas, in besieged and struggling Gaza. While Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, often complains of the lack of a ‘Palestinian partner’, his government, with the aid of Washington, has done its utmost to ensure Palestinian division.
Several agreements between Fatah and Hamas have been signed, the latest, which appeared most promising, was achieved in October 2017. Palestinians were cautious, then, but also hopeful as several practical steps were taken this time to transfer legal responsibilities from Hamas to the Hamdallah government, whether in the various Gaza ministries, or at the Rafah-Egypt border.
Then, just when the wheels began turning, raising hopes among ordinary Palestinians that this time things were truly changing, Rami Hamdallah’s convoy was attacked as it crossed the main entrance to Gaza, via Israel.
Some sinister force clearly wanted Hamdallah dead, or, at least, it wanted to send a violent message providing the political fodder to those who wanted to stall the political progress between the two main Palestinian parties. Hamas quickly claimed to have apprehended the culprits, while Fatah, without much investigation, declared that Hamas was responsible for the bomb, thus stalling and, eventually, severing all reconciliation talks.
This was followed by clearly orchestrated steps to punish Gaza and push the people in the besieged and war-devastated Strip to the point of complete despair. First, Abbas refused to pay money to the Israeli company that provides some of Gaza’s electricity needs - thus leaving Gaza in the dark; then he significantly slashed salaries to Gaza workers, among other measures.
In response, tens of thousands of Gazans went to the fence separating besieged Gaza from Israel protesting the Israeli siege, which, with Abbas’ latest collective punishment, has become beyond unbearable.
Indeed, Gaza’s ongoing ‘Great March of Return’, which began on March 30, 2018, was a popular response to a people fed up with war, siege, international neglect, but also horrific political tribalism. Since the march began, over 200 Palestinians have been killed and thousands maimed and wounded.
Abbas is now 83-years old with increasingly debilitating health. His supporters within Fatah want to ensure a political transition that guarantees their dominance, because political monopoly offers many perks: wealth, privilege, power and prestige. For Fatah, Hamdallah and his ‘reconciliation’ government have ceased to serve any purpose. Additionally, a unity government with other Palestinian groups at this crucial, transitional period seems too risky a gamble for those who want to ensure future dominance.
The tragic truth is that all such politicking is happening within the confines of Israeli military Occupation, and that Israeli fences, walls, trenches, illegal Jewish settlements and Jewish-only bypass roads encircle all Palestinians, from Gaza to Jericho, and from Jerusalem to Rafah; that no Palestinian, Abbas included, is truly free, and that all political titles hold no weight before the power of a single Israeli sniper firing at Palestinian children at the Gaza fence.
Palestinians do need their unity and urgently so, not expressed in mere political compromises between factions, but the unity of a people facing the same brutal and oppressive enemy.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.
By Marwa Fatafta
(This article was first published by Al-Shabaka - The Palestinian Policy Network)
Palestinians recently ranked corruption as the second largest problem they face after the economic crisis – higher than the Israeli occupation, which ranked third. Indeed, Palestinians generally view Palestinian Authority (PA) officials as a self-serving, elitist group disconnected from the Palestinian national struggle and the daily sufferings of the people. Such perceptions are fostered by the failure of the Oslo Accords, the death of the Palestinian statehood project, and the continued fragmentation of political leadership in the context of Israel’s ongoing oppressive occupation and its violations of Palestinians’ fundamental rights.1
Despite this dissatisfaction, there has been little change in the last two decades, whether at the top leadership level or within the ranks of PA institutions. What remains a constant is the ‘old guard’ maintaining a tight grip on power, rampant and systemic corruption, and the alienation of Palestinians from participation in decisions that impact their lives and future.
The present reality of the PA in no way resembles the kind of Palestinian government promised since the heady years of the Oslo Accords. As Nathan Brown observed, ‘Palestine is, in short, a model liberal democracy. Its most significant flaw is that it does not exist.’ This discrepancy between envisaged democratic leadership and reality can be explained by the neopatrimonial nature of the Palestinian political system. Neopatrimonialism is a hybrid model in which state structures, laws, and regulations are formally in place but overridden by informal politics and networks of patronage, kinship, and tribalism. Instead of being organised according to merit, public function, or administrative grades, a neopatrimonial regime finds its glue in bonds of loyalty to those at the top of the political hierarchy.
In an institutional context in which Palestinians have no mechanisms to hold their leaders accountable, Palestinian neopatrimonialism has created a situation impervious to serious change in leadership or political system. Though the PA, after the onset of the Second Intifada, began to make attempts at reform, Palestinian political structures have remained corrupt and captured by one political faction, Fatah. The assets and resources of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PA have been channelled toward serving the interests of the few at the expense of the majority.
The question of what can be done to remedy this crisis cannot be answered without understanding the nature of Palestinian political corruption and how it has led to the failure to serve the Palestinian people and rendered any attempt at reform useless. This policy brief examines Palestinian neopatrimonialism and corruption through a consideration of PA overreach, patronage practices, and collusion with Israel, as well as pressures from the international community. It ultimately proposes avenues for genuine reform, with the goal of building a truly democratic leadership and a governance system that represents all Palestinian people.
The two main Palestinian political bodies, the PLO and the PA, in principle should be democratic and representative as set out in the Palestinian Basic Law and the PLO’s constitution. However, the PLO has not only failed in the mission it carries in its name, but has also failed to act as the ‘sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people’. The PLO’s weakness can be seen in the fact that its legislative arm, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), convened in May 2018 after 22 years of inaction. The absence, during which the Oslo ‘peace process’ proved a total failure, demonstrates how the Palestinian leadership impeded the PLO from fulfillingits duty as a representative of Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories.
The PA, on the other hand, has overstepped its role as an interim government as stipulated in the Oslo Accords, and has increasingly become an authoritarian governing force in the West Bank. Hamas has followed suit in suppressing political dissent in the Gaza Strip.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas enjoys almost absolute power as the highest executive authority – an arrangement inherited from former President Yasser Arafat, who is often credited for institutionalising the neopatrimonial regime. During his presidency, Arafat maintained power via political cooptation and suppression.
Since the 2007 shutdown of the PA’s legislative arm, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), Abbas has consolidated more power by assuming the roles of both the executive and the legislative branches of government, issuing legislation through presidential decrees and often in a process that lacks transparency and proper consultation with the public.
Among Abbas’s most recent legislative decrees is the Palestinian cybercrime law of 2017. The law, despite being amended following a public outcry, allows authorities to block websites and conduct surveillance on ordinary social media users. Palestinians can be arrested for expressing their opinions and political views online and charged with ‘cybercrimes’, punishable by up to fifteen years in prison.
The executive capture of power also extends to the judiciary. In April 2017, Palestinian judges, lawyers, and prosecutors gathered in Ramallah to protest a draft amendment that would grant the Palestinian president the authority to appoint the head of the High Judicial Council and the head of a committee that oversees judges. The amendment would also allow for the early retirement of judges, opening the door for the executive to interfere and threaten judges’ independence. Under such a provision, judges would have to think twice before issuing a ruling that challenges or opposes the executive authority. In an example of such forced pressure from the executive, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Sami Sarsour signed an undated letter of resignation shortly before he was sworn in.
The constant failure to reach a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, despite announcing a national unity government in early 2017, also speaks volumes in regard to Fatah’s power monopoly and its marginalisation of other Palestinian political actors and their constituencies. Power sharing is a prerequisite to the establishment of a solid national unity government, and requires fundamental changes to the current political setup.
As a result of Fatah’s control of the PA and the PLO, the Palestinian administrative and political machines run on dynamics of inclusion vs. exclusion and reward vs. punishment – fundamentally, according to loyalty. Appointments of public positions and promotions, for example, are awarded or withdrawn not on the basis of performance or professional merit but on the level of loyalty to the leadership.
For instance, holders of senior positions in the PA have invariably been appointed. Position descriptions are not publicly posted, nor are there openly established criteria for determining job scales, salaries, promotions, benefits, and bonuses. According to the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity – AMAN, the salaries and bonuses of the heads of some non-ministerial institutions have been higher than the salary of the president of the PA, whose monthly income, as stipulated by law, stands at $10 000. The appointment of freed Palestinian prisoners in the cadres of the civil workforce as compensation for their contribution to the Palestinian liberation movement is another example of the informal nature of PA positions.
Relatedly, in 2017 President Abbas forced 6 145 PA employees in Gaza into early retirement to pressure Hamas to cede control of the Strip. The number of PA employees in Gaza – both civil and security – is estimated to be around 50 000. Despite Hamas seizing control in Gaza, their salaries continue to be paid – albeit at a lower rate – to secure their loyalty to the PA. At the same time, Abbas uses government resources for political exclusion and punishment. A particularly abominable instance of this was the cutting of PA payments to Israel for electricity in Gaza, reducing the electricity supply to the Strip’s two million inhabitants to four hours a day.
The dysfunction of the PLC and the PNC, two toothless legislative bodies, has resulted in the executive monopolising and signing secret negotiations and agreements. The Oslo Accords are a prime example of how the PLO executive monopolised negotiations with Israel and took decisions in the name of the Palestinian people that proved disastrous. In a similar vein, the PA’s executive ignored on numerous occasions the PLC’s decisions mandating that the leadership must immediately stop negotiations with Israel in response to its continuous oppression of the Palestinian people and the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank.
The PA’s clandestine signing of agreements with Israel on matters related to energy, electricity, water, and communications demonstrates how far the leadership will go in ignoring formal processes and consultation with the public. These agreements have catastrophic political, economic, social, and environmental implications. One electricity-related agreement signed between Israel and the Palestinian private sector in September 2016 settled the PA’s outstanding $550 million debt to the Israel Electric Corporation with the aim of transferring the responsibility of providing electricity in the West Bank to the PA.
The PA, which celebrated the agreement as a national victory and a step toward liberation, kept the agreement confidential despite public demands to disclose its terms. Palestinian civil society, media, and electric companies wanted to know: How will the power to distribute electricity be transferred to the PA? How will it be regulated? What are the implications? Every Palestinian citizen, as service recipients, should have the right to know of such an agreement. In the absence of basic transparency, Palestinians are denied their right to access information that impacts their daily lives and the basic services delivered to them by their government. This also impedes them from exercising any accountability over the PA.
The Red Sea-Dead Sea agreement, signed by the PA, Jordan, and Israel, was also completed in secret. Palestinian water and environment experts protested, warning that the agreement would cause irreversible environmental damage if implemented, as it will destroy what little is left of the Dead Sea’s ecosystem. Palestinians also protested the pact because it will entrench Israel’s denial of Palestinians’ rights to water, as the agreement undermines Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and part of the Jordan River basin. The PA, represented by the Palestinian Water Authority, excluded Palestinian experts from consultation and ignored them when they questioned the motivation behind signing such an agreement that achieves nothing for – and in fact damages – Palestinians.
This lack of transparency and accountability has translated into the misappropriation, misuse, and waste of public funds. For example, Abbas constructed a presidential palace on a 4,700 square meter parcel of land (with another 4,000 square meters for auxiliary buildings, including a helipad) to host guests and foreign delegations. He decided last year to convert the building into a national library, to the cost of $17.5 million. While a national library is a noble idea, the investment in costly infrastructure by a government who is heavily in debt and dependent on foreign aid is a testament to misplaced priorities.
The PA’s reliance on foreign aid has also undermined the Palestinian political system by making it accountable to international donors rather than the Palestinian people. The PA’s reform agenda and anti-corruption efforts have mostly stemmed from US and EU pressure since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, when the security situation on the ground deteriorated. The intent behind the agenda has been clear: Emphasise security over administrative reform and thus ensure the security of Israel at the expense of the security and basic civil and political freedoms of Palestinians. This has been reflected in the prioritisation of security in the PA’s budget allocations, with that sector taking twenty eight per cent of the annual budget at the expense of other, more vital sectors such as health, education, and agriculture.
In his critique of the Oslo aid model – a model based on the neoliberal policy of investing in peace – Alaa Tartir argues that the donor-driven development agenda has worsened the economic and political circumstances for Palestinians. For example, agriculture – a lost, key pillar of the Palestinian economy – received only one per cent of the PA’s annual budget between 2001 and 2005, while around eighty-five per cent went to staff salaries. Consequently, the agricultural sector’s contribution to GDP shrunk from around 13.3 per cent in 1994 to 5.9 per cent in 2011.
Palestinians have launched grassroots campaigns and union strikes, demanding better education and health services, including a massive teacher strike, a campaign against medicine shortages led by a coalition of Palestinian civil society organisations, a campaign against the electricity cuts in Gaza, and a campaign urging the PA to address medical negligence. The PA often leaves these public demands unanswered, and they are rarely reflected in its fiscal planning and public policies. As one member of the National Social Security movement, which leads the opposition to the controversial national social security law, said, ‘The government is not listening to our concerns.’ The law, which obliges private sector employees to pay seven per cent of their monthly salary and employers to pay nine per cent of salaries in exchange for social security coverage, has caused a wave of anger among Palestinians, who have protested mainly against the high monthly deductions as well as the lack of a guarantee to safeguard their money in the context of political and economic instability.
In February 2017, the PA adopted a new agenda, ‘National Policy Agenda: Citizen First 2017-2022’, that aims to prioritise the Palestinian citizen in the government’s policies, promoting accountability and transparency in managing public funds and affairs. This is a US- and EU-supported financial and administrative reform that began during the tenure of former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; the agenda states that it is a second phase, following the previous one of building state institutions and enhancing their capacity. It proclaims that it is now time ‘to improve our citizens’ quality of life by providing high-quality public services, fostering job creation in the private sector, and protecting the vulnerable.’
The PA’s new agenda does not acknowledge that Fayyad’s state-building phase failed to lead to statehood, let alone democracy. The international donor community hailed Fayyad as the Palestinian good governance messiah as his cabinet led efforts to create a de factoPalestinian state under the Israeli occupation in the context of a major political schism between the two largest Palestinian political factions. Fayyad’s reforms did not go beyond technical and administrative parameters to ensure that whatever shakeup the cabinet made did not rock the entire boat.
The 2003 restructuring of the prime minister position itself under US and EU pressure to loosen Yasser Arafat’s executive grip is another example of how futile these structural reforms are in such a context. The prime minister’s role, decisions, and policies must be in line with Fatah and the president, as the prime minister simply implements the president’s decisions and has no political standing of his own. When Fayyad filled the position in 2007 and embarked on his reform plan, he became the target of senior Fatah officials who continuously pinned the PA’s ailments and the effects of the economic crisis on Fayyad’s policies. The international community’s strong financial and political backing of Fayyad also constituted a threat to Abbas, who did not defend his premier against the attacks of his party and challenged his authority by overruling some of his decisions.
The international community also dictates which Palestinian political figures are in power through financial and political support. This was the case when the US attempted to overturn Fayyad’s resignation, and when it withdrew funds to suffocate unwanted authority even if it was fairly and legitimately elected, such as when Hamas won the majority of seats in the 2006 legislative elections.
Any additional reforms dependent on international approval will not address the legitimacy crisis in leadership, nor will they lead to the much-needed rebirth of a united Palestinian national movement that could fulfil the aspirations of the Palestinian people. These reforms reinforce the same neopatrimonial dynamics that underlie systemic corruption in the Palestinian Authority by acting as a band aid rather than a solution that tackles corruption from the root.
Essentially, any PA effort to end the occupation and achieve independence – often the stated goal in many of these reform agendas – translates into the PA simply continuing to override the role of the PLO. By doing so, it continues to marginalise if not ignore altogether the voices of the millions of Palestinians who live in the diaspora and have a direct stake in whatever course of action the PA’s executive takes vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation and the ‘peace process’.
If Palestinians are serious about democratic, representative, and transparent leadership, they must end the farce of reform and build a representative and democratic system from the bottom up. Palestinians, especially the youth living in the occupied territories, in Israel, and in the diaspora, have a significant role to play in mobilising and initiating national grassroots dialogues to debate and build a common vision for future democratic Palestinian leadership. This task requires a massive effort given the existing challenges. However, the continuation of the status quo offers only a bleak future.
To ensure that a new model, whatever its shape or form, does not recycle the same neopatrimonial dynamics, three fundamental elements must be considered:
To break the monopoly of one group or party, there must be a healthy political ecosystem of counterbalancing powers. The limitations of the PLO as an umbrella body representing all Palestinians invites the question of whether such a central authority infrastructure is capable of representing Palestinians everywhere. Any Palestinian governance model must be agile enough to lead and be responsive to the Palestinian polities living in different geographical, juridical, and administrative jurisdictions in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Israel, and the diaspora. The experience of the PA thus far suggests that a central authority, as it exists, cannot fulfill such a role.
Decentralisation of power, through empowering grassroots and local community leadership, is essential to break the existing power monopoly. The leadership and organisation during the First Intifada, albeit belonging to a different political and social context, offers one example of what a collective leadership could look like.
Corruption and abuse of power thrive when those in power cannot be held to account. Any new governance model will be vulnerable to capture of power without the following parallel accountability mechanisms in place:
First: A vertical accountability line that enables the Palestinian people to question their leaders and participate in the decision making process. This is not limited to local and national elections but can extend to grassroots public committees and hearings, shadow councils, robust protection of freedom of expression and the media, and Palestinian civil society taking an active role in monitoring not only Palestinian government institutions but also the private sector and service providers.
Second: Horizontal accountability – such as an independent parliament, independent audit organisations, and so forth – is important to investigate and stop the wrongdoings of public officials.
While the current system has these institutions formally in place to some extent, the neopatrimonialism of the Palestinian political system renders these internal accountability mechanisms useless. This is why power sharing, decentralisation, and public scrutiny are important first steps to ensure that no Palestinian authority can abuse its power.
To restore the Palestinian public’s trust in leadership, the impunity of the corrupt must be eliminated. Despite the various attempts and claims of the Palestinian anti-corruption committee to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials, Palestinian officials and politicians remain largely immune to any serious consequences for their actions. Impunity of the corrupt makes individuals hesitant to report corruption they witness or experience because they see no value in, or change resulting from, taking such action.
There are existing hotlines and legal centers available to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to report corruption cases in a safe and confidential manner, such as the one operated by the Palestinian anti-corruption organisation, AMAN. However, encouraging Palestinians to report corruption must be accompanied by the availability of solid anti-corruption laws and an independent judiciary that can hold the corrupt to account regardless of their political, financial, or social position.
To end corruption and ensure accountability in the Palestinian context, an institutional and political overhaul, rather than limited and fragmented political and legal reforms, is necessary. The repeated patterns of Fatah’s power monopoly, systemic corruption, and informal politics, in addition to the current political stagnation, suggests that it is past time for Palestinians to build new institutions that are more democratic and more representative of their rights and needs.
* Marwa Fatafta is a Palestinian analyst based in Berlin. The MENA Regional Advisor for Transparency International, her work focuses on issues of governance, corruption, accountability and civil society in the Arab world.
By Fadi Quran
Instead of bringing an end to the occupation, the current Palestinian leadership and its institutions have become a key component of it. Yet a new generation of leaders is slowly emerging. Their goal is to build a new framework for the Palestinian struggle that avoids the mistakes of the past and ensures that freedom is achieved in their lifetime. Their successful entrance into leadership will require both a reckoning with and breaking of a cycle that blocks change.
Looking at former and current Palestinian leadership, one can observe a cyclical trajectory in which members of the elite first acquire the legitimacy to lead through a combination of traditional structures and foreign support. The legitimacy of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin Al-Husseini, for example, was grounded in religious and familial authority and enhanced and institutionalised by the Ottoman Empire and then the British Mandate. Ahmed Shuqeiri’s legitimacy derived from the Arab League as well as his educational status and familial ties, while President Mahmoud Abbas’s legitimacy was founded on factional loyalties within Fatah and then significantly consolidated by the US and Israel.
These leaders and the institutions they administer fail to deliver on popular aspirations, leading to stagnation and public dissent. This precipitates an inter-Palestinian power struggle that is often intergenerational and highly destructive. The struggle ends when a national tragedy occurs that either destroys or unites the competing factions. During these historical moments of national chaos, a new generation of leaders rises, mesmerising the public and accruing revolutionary legitimacy that propels them to the top.
In each turn of this cycle, sitting leaders either adopt the new discourse and co-opt members of the new generation or maintain status via intervention by foreign sponsors who kill or arrest insurgents. An example of this dynamic is the death of Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam, and later the leaders of the 1936 Revolt, who were crushed with great brutality by the British. Yasser Arafat’s conquest of the PLO from Shuqeiri in the 1960s, in which Arafat incorporated members of the new generation, is another. Such transitions also occurred on the local level during the First Intifada, and with Hamas’s gradual takeover in Gaza during and after the Second Intifada.
The third phase of this cycle sees the rise of a technocratic class, a generation of leaders that attempts to rebuild or replace the institutions that were destroyed in the internal conflict. These leaders are or perceive themselves to be institution builders, and although they rarely reach the pinnacles of power, they are able to acquire significant authority. These builders can take many forms in their approach to reinvigorate society, from the revolutionary to the neoliberal. Examples include Khalil Al-Wazir, a key founder of Fatah who was pivotal in slowly rebuilding the national movement in Palestine after the PLO’s failures in Lebanon. He was assassinated by Israel in Tunisia for his role in laying the groundwork that launched the First Intifada. Another example is Salam Fayyad, who pursued a Western-backed neoliberal institution-building process in Palestine after the Second Intifada. Regardless of the political leanings of these builders, their efforts are often short-lived as they tend to clash with more deeply-rooted power structures. This phase of the cycle often closes with a return to the first phase, wherein a small set of elites, supported by outside forces, hold control.
Today, this cycle seems blocked. An ossified Palestinian leadership has managed to cling to power for more than two decades. The institutional framework established by the Oslo Accords – a Palestinian Authority (PA) without authority providing inadequate administrative services, low-level employment, and security for Israel – still governs a subset of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The PA has become a buffer zone between the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation, one that largely favours the occupation. Meanwhile, through heavy foreign assistance, the PA has transformed the socioeconomic landscape of Palestinian society by increasing inequality, widening political divisions, and even attempting to alter the media and educational landscape to weaken all forms of effective struggle against the occupation.
The results of these developments, combined with the deteriorating regional politics of the Middle East, has led the most astute observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to conclude that the Palestinian struggle for freedom is comatose.
But one need only look a bit deeper to see that something is stirring. A new generation of Palestinians is organising and growing in strength. They are waiting for the right moment to transform the status quo and create the momentum that will end the occupation. The Israeli security establishment, although it may not fully understand these dynamics, sees this coming. Why else would defence minister Avigdor Lieberman ban the Palestinian “Youth Movement” and put it on the terrorist list? In fact, there is no organisation or organised body called the “Youth Movement” on the ground in Palestine. Rather, the term Al-Hirak Al-Shababi is most commonly used to refer to any social or political action led by youth. What scares Lieberman so? Why does the Palestinian General Intelligence maintain a file on “youth-led activities?”
Over the past five years I have met and spoken with thousands of young Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza Strip and in the diaspora. In every town, city, and refugee camp, youth groups are blossoming. Most focus on very local needs and lead volunteer work. They appear non-political and are not affiliated with any faction. These groups often fail, fall apart, and use what they have learned to try something new. Their growth is anything but linear, but their learning is exponential.
These groups’ driving questions are: What do we need to do to have a better life? What is our purpose? How do we achieve it? Having asked these questions, it is not long before they discover that the occupation and the PA as its governing body are obstacles in their path. This generation’s focus on grassroots action and its ability to conceptualise the PA as an impediment to a genuine liberation movement are fundamental to its potential to transform the stagnant Palestinian leadership model.
Further, many young people in Palestine are despondent about the status quo. This is clearest in Palestinian universities, which have been transformed from beacons of liberation to factories of disenchantment. Once hotbeds of Palestinian political struggle, the universities today produce young men and women focused on two things: a paying job or an opportunity to emigrate. One university dean I spoke with defined his job as simply training a workforce for the PA economy. Although youth groups are active on campuses, offering glimpses of hope, the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and Hamas's forces in Gaza have turned student politics and electioneering into a shadow of what they once were, ensuring that superficial slogans and fear override genuine student organising and hope.
However, despite these repressive policies, the new generation has not given up on its Palestinian identity or its dreams of freedom. Many are preparing to enter the struggle for freedom under the right leadership: one they can be part of and trust. This new generation of leaders, learning from the experiences of the past, have wisely chosen to work quietly, away from the spotlight, and patiently prepare for when the moment is ripe.
Identifying that moment, however, will be difficult because three stars need to align: a) Reigniting hope: The Palestinian street needs to go from being risk averse to being hopeful that a better future is possible; b) Overcoming the power threshold: The youth must feel they have the human resources and endurance to slog through the obstacles the PA and Israel can put in their way; c) Consolidating to confront the occupation: Given that the PA and its security apparatus are pivotal in maintaining the status quo, and that any more internal Palestinian strife is to be avoided, the youth will have to find a moment when the occupation has committed an act so severe that they can mobilise many of the ranks of the apparatus into the struggle against the occupation and away from internal repression. Of course, Israel and its backers will do their best to make sure these stars do not align, from killing hope to arresting dozens of youth activists. The only way for this moment to arise is for Palestinian civil society and youth activists to build their strength and expand societal self-awareness.
How will these young people avoid the mistakes of the past and break the cycle outlined above? For a new Palestinian leadership to be successful, a culture of transparency, accountability, and feedback must first be created at the local level. No matter how powerful, resilient, and disciplined a leader is, and no matter how much they love their country and people, they are human. It is only through developing a culture of accountability that a community can produce leaders that can move the struggle forward. While Palestine has had many leaders, none have maintained a culture around them that helped birth new leaders and ensured that they remain accountable. Creating this culture is not something done through legislation or rules alone, but is a daily practice.
Although there is not enough space here to flesh out the necessary practices in detail, some are fairly straightforward. For example, leaders at all levels of society, from volunteer groups to ministries, can work with their teams to put forward a clear vision for what they want to achieve, define each person’s responsibilities and specific outcomes, and ensure that leaders take ownership of their and their teams’ results. They should allow team members to provide feedback on the process in an open setting, such as in a weekly meeting when tasks are tallied and learning is discussed in a convivial manner.
In such a process, the group’s leader helps ensure that the team achieves its vision in a united, collaborative spirit. Eventually, this ensures that everyone in the group is a leader because leadership is not couched as a zero-sum process.
The process may not always work perfectly, but the lessons learned are valuable, including lessons about how one’s ego can get in the way of achieving team goals. Most importantly, the youth participants become aware of a method of teamwork and leadership that transcends what they see in local politics. Though it may sound cliché, it is nonetheless true that nothing is more impactful than leading by example and learning through experimentation.
These self-aware leaders and their culture of transformative leadership will clash with the socioeconomic environment and political elite established and strengthened by international players and Israel. Such a people’s-based leadership, whether directly or indirectly, will be the target of massive co-optation and, if that fails, assassination. One can argue that Israel’s “mowing the grass” in Gaza and the PA’s assault on student and youth politics are pre-emptively attempting to destroy rising leaders.
While some argue that a top-down approach to reform will fix the leadership problems – by restructuring the PLO, gaining representation, and holding elections, among other strategies – the current socioeconomic dynamics, reality of occupation, and international intervention in Palestinian politics make these efforts at internal reform easy targets for political manipulation. It is authentic change at the local level that can fix the problem from its roots and bring about a lasting leadership transformation for Palestinian society. If this generation succeeds, it will not only liberate the nation, but will ensure that the future beyond liberation is more beautiful than many of us today can imagine.
* Fadi Quran is a Senior Campaigner at Avaaz and a Popular Struggle community organiser. Fadi is also an entrepreneur in the alternative energy field, where he has founded two companies bringing wind and solar energy to Palestine and other countries in the region.
** This article was first published by Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network as part of its Policy Circle on Leadership and Accountability.