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Palestine After Arafat

By Hatem Abudayyeh

Before the death of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Nov. 11, there had been an enormous amount of speculation raised, and analysis offered, concerning the issue of succession. And now that the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Rawhi Fattouh, has been named the interim president, the speculation will continue for at least 60 more days.

Arafat was a revered leader in the hearts and minds of Palestinians. His iconic stature as one of the original leaders of the Palestinian government-in-exile, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian national movement in general cannot be denied. And he died as so many Palestinians before him, on foreign soil. From Gaza to Kuwait to Jordan to Lebanon to Tunisia to Ramallah and then finally to Paris, Arafat embodied the essence of the Palestinian exile.

But many believe that he never should have returned to Ramallah. The Palestinian Intifada [uprising] that had begun in 1987 was supported and led by the PLO, and was gaining momentum and wide international support from people and countries that supported Palestinian self-determination. A mass revolt that included all of the different sectors of Palestinian society, the Intifada was on the verge of forcing the Israeli/American hand – but that uprising ended when news came from Norway that Arafat and the PLO had brokered a deal.

The Oslo Accords, which Arafat supported and signed, allowed him, in 1994, to make that infamous trip from Tunis back to Palestine, more specifically the West Bank. Many other senior PLO leaders refused to follow. The Palestinian Authority (PA), the entity formed at Oslo, named Arafat its president, and he was officially elected by popular vote in 1996.

That Arafat was legally elected is undeniable. That the PA became the representative body of the Palestinian people is another issue. The Oslo Accords were negotiated in secret, rejected by the bulk of the PLO and prompted the resignation of most of the PLO’s Executive Committee. The PA was created by forces outside of the Palestinian national movement, and was only able to gain legitimacy and prominence because of Arafat and a small cabal of his associates. These elements negotiated Oslo in secret, ignoring the fact that the PLO had institutionalized an internal, democratic structure that did not allow any one sector of its leadership (in this case, Arafat and his Fatah organization) to negotiate unilaterally on its behalf.

Overnight, the PLO was rendered superfluous by Oslo and the American/Israeli support of the ‘peace process,’ especially since most of the original PLO factions refused to join the PA. Understanding the mistakes of Oslo helps in understanding the current Palestinian, post-Arafat situation.

A new reality was established at Oslo, a reality that did not correspond with the real political, social and economic conditions of the majority of the Palestinian people. Dr. Adel Samara, one of the foremost economists in Palestine, called Oslo “peace for capital.” He meant that it was a peace treaty signed by the ruling class of the Palestinians, for their economic and financial benefit alone.

In the ten years since Oslo, Israel has doubled its illegal, Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian land, even though the accords stated that settlements would be frozen. Land expropriations and home demolitions continued unabated, as the Israelis stole more of Jerusalem and the West Bank. Palestinian political prisoners remained in jail, treated to inhumane and state-sanctioned human rights violations, including torture. And Palestinian refugees, over 4 million in number, remained destitute and forgotten in refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and within the occupied territories. Israel broke withdrawal agreements five times, according to British journalist Robert Fisk, and it succeeded in forcing the Palestinians themselves (via the PA) to administer the occupation.

So the ‘state-building’ experiment went awry, and the ‘statesman’ Arafat went back to being a ‘terrorist’ as another Palestinian Intifada erupted in September of 2000, after he had refused to give in to U.S./Israeli pressure to concede on the issues of the Right of Return and Jerusalem. Non-PLO formations such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad had already begun to gain popular support in the territories, and Oslo imploded as it was destined to, because the United States, Israel, and the PA tried to impose a solution on the Palestinian people, a solution that was, and still is, antithetical to the goals and objectives developed decades ago by the Palestinian national movement.

The Palestinian national movement has always stated, very clearly, these goals and objectives: the unequivocal Right of Return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants, an independent state of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital and self determination for the Palestinian people. And the Palestinian national movement has always had an entity to uphold these goals and objectives and to work to achieve them – the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Formed in 1964, and led since 1969 by Arafat, the PLO was always recognized as the sole, legitimate representative of all the Palestinian people, including those living in the 1948 territories, the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and the Diaspora. The PLO had legislative, judicial and executive branches, and helped establish democratic, popular committees that represented women, youth, students, workers and peasants – all the social sectors of Palestinian society. The PLO also had a military component, as all national liberation movements resisting occupation must, but the bulk of its work was organizing (general strikes, demonstrations, civil disobedience, etc.) against Israeli occupation and U.S. support of Israel. The PLO had members all over the world, and came to embody – in the same way as the Vietnamese, the Cubans and the South Africans, among many others – resistance to colonialism and U.S. imperialism.

As the Intifada has made quite clear, the Palestinians refuse to give up their human, civil and national rights; they refuse occupation; they refuse the imposition of solutions by the Israelis and the Americans. And now that Arafat is gone, they will refuse a Hamid Karzai or Ayad Allawi-type leader appointed in his stead. The PLO is still the only relevant institution that would guarantee a collective, unified and democratic leadership of the Palestinian struggle for national liberation. Besides some of the political organizations that originally formed it, the Islamic organizations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, could be equitably represented in a collective leadership as well. Despite ideological differences, all of the national and Islamic forces agree on the basic goals of the Palestinian national movement.

The Israelis have tried their best to wipe out the top leadership of Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP, the second largest faction within the original PLO), respectively, knowing that the PA has done its bidding in the past, and would still be the easiest entity to deal with in the future. They fear the very concept of the PLO, which is why they and the U.S. continuously speak of a Palestinian ‘partner for peace,’ or ‘moderate element’ – someone that they can control and dominate.

A united Palestinian leadership that includes all of the national and Islamic organizations cannot be controlled or dominated. It would have an authentic mandate from the Palestinian people, which Abu Mazen, Abu Ala’a, Nabil Sha’ath, or any of the other Western-nominated ‘successors’ to Arafat lack. The Palestinians do not need ‘elections’ in the same way that the U.S. has elections. The PLO was a democratic institution with an internal democracy that made for collective decision-making processes, and it can be that again. Israel and the U.S. can not force a form of government on the Palestinians, because the Palestinians have learned from Arafat’s most pronounced mistake – that they are not in the ‘state-building’ stage of their history, but still in the national liberation stage. They are a nation without a state, and must continue to resist occupation and struggle to build that state, within the framework of a united front of political, military and diplomatic leadership.

Arafat led the PLO, Fatah and the PA with political brilliance and an incredible force of personality. He was able to use Fatah’s influence among the masses to protect him from the mistakes and corruption of the PA. Without him, there is real potential for the poor workers and peasants within Fatah and other political organizations to revolt against the PA and their ruling-class ‘peace for capital.’ More dangerous is the possibility that the PA’s armed security forces begin vying and fighting for control of the Authority, prompted by Israeli and American pressure on some elements of the PA to accept more and more concessions in return for their endorsement and support.

The Palestinian situation cannot be separated from the U.S. war on Iraq and its plans for economic and political hegemony in the Arab world. The strong Iraqi resistance in Falluja and the troubled American occupation of all of Iraq makes it ever more important for the U.S. to attempt to quiet Palestinian resistance as well. Continued revolution in Palestine will make the U.S.’s imperialist plans even more difficult, so the U.S. is trying to use all of the power at its disposal to appoint a Palestinian that it can ‘trust’ and control. The reintroduction of the PLO into the Palestinian national liberation movement will keep these scenarios from materializing.

Arafat’s legacy could have been secure, as the revolutionary fighter and leader of the PLO. But his legacy was tarnished by Oslo – tarnished by the unilateral move to ‘state-building,’ and by ignoring the fact that the Israelis were not interested in an independent state for the Palestinian people. In 1993, the Palestinians were still in the national liberation stage of their history. And in 2004, the national liberation struggle and the Palestine Liberation Organization is still the answer.

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