Surviving Oslo: Political Imperatives Facing the Palestine National Movement and the Palestinian People

Laura Drake

In discussing the political imperatives facing the Palestine national movement, it is important to start with the meaning of the term "imperatives." Imperatives are something above the agenda of today or tomorrow, something larger. They are about matters of survival, survival of the Palestinians as a people, as a nation, as a political singularity capable of speaking to the world with one voice. Such an attribute is not inconsistent with political plurality, the multitude of changing political trends and factions which have always existed under the PLO framework. For it is one thing for the Palestinians to speak to each other in a plurality of voices, but at the end of the day, they must be capable of presenting a single voice to the world outside.

Without this capability, the Palestinians will become the next Armenians, the next Kurds, peoples who have ceased to exist as peoples, peoples who have been reduced to mere ethnicities, like the Arabs themselves after the death of Arab nationalism. Once the idea of the common destiny is lost, the various segments of a former people have nothing in common except the objective attributes, like language and religion, and maybe even a common past, but not a common future. The primary imperative, then, for the Palestine national movement, is to arrest the progression of this type of fragmentation, accelerated by Oslo, to protect the survivability of the Palestinian people, to represent them all toward a common future.

The Inside-Outside Link

This means, first and foremost, restoring the severed link between Palestinians inside Palestine, under occupation in both the 1948 and 1967 areas, and Palestinians in exile, both in the cities and refugee camps of Arab cordon states and in faraway locations like Europe and America. After all, the Palestinian population of close to six million, split almost evenly between inside and outside as it is, is an inherently dichotomous entity. But today the linkages are faltering, due to the Israeli strategies to cut apart the unity of the Palestinian people by turning the knife of fragmentation at many different angles.

Israel through Oslo has fragmented the inside from the outside Palestinians by creating an objective divergence of interests between them. After all, without the right of return, even to the unlikely Palestinian mini-state, the outside Palestinians have no interests in common with those inside. They have no future to hope for from Oslo but the finality of the dissolution of their rights, their final severance form the larger Palestinian body, and the "solution" of their problem as refugees in terms of individuals, scattering them one last time to the various ends of the earth – "le akhir al-dinya," as they say.

For there are Israeli plans right now to remove the refugees from the doors to their homeland, especially those in Lebanon, and to send them to faraway places like Iraq, Sudan, Australia, Canada, Scandinavia, and the United States. The Israelis have even used the Chairman of the International Relations Committee of the United States Congress to petition the southern gulf states of the GCC to accept 30,000 Palestinian refugees each from Lebanon, thereby ending the refugee question as a political question, and foreclosing the implementation of the Palestinian right of return as a historical possibility once and for all. Fortunately, the target states have refused these plans, at least for now.

But the historical imperative facing the Palestine national movement must be faced head on; it is one that concerns the fears of the Palestinians outside as to having been abandoned, and the responsibility of the leadership toward them as equal members of the Palestinian nation. Can the Palestinian problem be solved at the expense of fully half the population? Could the Palestinians inside bear the thought of carrying on into the future by themselves, leaving behind their compatriots still trapped in exile? Must they not at least have the practical right to return to a Palestinian state, at an absolute minimum?

Restoring and constantly reinforcing the link between inside and outside must be done conceptually and operationally, in both theoretical and practical terms, and it must be done immediately, before the Palestinians outside despair of all faith in the fact that they too have a leadership. It means in the first instance that the responsibility falls on the Palestine national movement not to allow the Israelis to re-define the Palestinian people in reductionist form as Camp David did as "the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip." It requires focusing more political, diplomatic, strategic and public relations attention on the Palestinian refugee question, restoring it as the central problematic that it deserves to be, as one of the critical problems to be solved in accordance with inalienable Palestinian rights, as a question with the same historical and political weight as the settlements of Jerusalem. It requires the practical act of restoring the PLO funds and services to the refugees in Syria and Lebanon, to make up for the severe cutbacks in contributions by UNRWA and the international charities. It requires the Palestine national movement to energetically and enthusiastically seek out and expose all those schemes aimed at re-scattering the refugees outside to faraway destinations and using all available means to combat those schemes and prevent them from reaching fruition. It also requires that the successor or successors to Chairman Arafat, specifically as head of the PLO (as opposed to the Palestinian Authority), be acceptable to the Palestinians outside as well as inside, and that the outside half be given the chance to participate meaningfully and actively in the succession debate.

After all, the Palestinians outside have participated equally in Palestinian suffering as those inside, if not more so; their rights are no less salient, and their coherence as a political force is no less vital to the ultimate survivability of the Palestinian people as a nation. For the Palestinian tragedy is defined just as much by exile as it is by occupation; indeed, the very birth of the Palestinian problem resulted in the first instance from an act of exile and only secondarily from an act of occupation onto the emptied lands.

Finally, it is important to mention that preserving the inside-outside link falls primarily on one element of the Palestine national movement, that is, on Fateh. This is because the other political factions, while they must be respected, have in front of them impediments which prevent them from becoming that single voice which Palestinians present to the world, the voice that used to come under the heading of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

First, the secular factions outside have two impediments. One, they do not have entirely the independent decision. Two, they do not have sufficient presence inside Palestine. The Islamist factions have exactly the opposite problem: born almost entirely of the Intifadah, they have very little presence among Palestinians outside compared to what they have inside, primarily they have representative and public relations offices, and safe havens for their leaders. They are expending too little effort to obtain a following outside, which is apparent from their elaboration of political and strategic priorities, as well as from their operational recruitment efforts. Indeed, not all of them recognize the primary existential concerns of Palestinians outside as central to the Palestinian cause at large, concerns such as the ultimate answer to the refugee question; when confronted with the refugee dispersion schemes, they do not always recognize them as problematic, much less as a cause for alarm. To an inside Palestinian, the equivalent would be to say that the settlements or the Israeli absorption of East Jerusalem do not represent a cause for alarm or concern.

Given these deficiencies experienced by the other political factions, this most crucial and vital link between outside, that which joins the two sectors or halves of the Palestinian people, is preserved today only within the structures of Fateh; therefore, it is on the shoulders of Fateh that this most basic imperative of its continuation must fall. Without it, if a situation emerges whereby Palestinian conceptions of self-interest are allowed to diverge based on the country of residence, what will distinguish the Palestinians of future years from the Kurds, who have sectors in Turkey, in Iraq, and in Iran, all with different leaders, separate aspirations, diverging futures?


Palestinians in the refugee camps outside are becoming increasingly attracted to the prospect of emigration; this is particularly rampant among the new generation. The cause is a variety of "push" factors of economic destitution and distress and lack of hope in return to Palestine, combined with foreign "pull" factors deliberately exerted by Israeli interests in bringing about Palestinian self-dispersion. Doors of immigration are miraculously opening in many Western countries, complete with propaganda enticing them to leave their temporary homes for permanent ones outside Palestine. The result has been the gradual yet alarming de-population of the refugee camps; the Beirut camps, for instance, have lost fully half their population in the last 5-10 years.

Even more startling is that the emigration scheme is being targeted by foreign forces not only against Palestinians outside, but equally among those inside, even in PA areas. In the Gaza Strip, for instance, Palestinians report that the foreign advertisements encouraging emigration from Palestine have recently been on the increase. And there is a growing tendency on the part of these Palestinians to be attracted to the foreign attempts to "pull" them out, given the disastrous economic situation imposed on the inside by the post-1993 Israeli siege operation called by the name of "closure." Even the most enthusiastic former political cadres are now contemplating emigration, not for themselves, they say, but for the sake of their children.

Exposing these foreign schemes, which can be called under the general heading of the emigration war, and inventing strategies to counter them, represent another urgent political imperative facing the Palestine national movement. It requires taking political, diplomatic, strategic, and public relations steps to counter the operational aspects of the foreign schemes, both above and below the ground. Failure to face this imperative will result in the gradual erosion of the Palestinian population base and in another wave of de-population, both from Palestine itself and from surrounding areas outside. One way to face it is through mass education regarding the dangers of emigration, and by providing something constructive for those Palestinians to do other than emigrate; the leadership must give them both the means and the hope to stay where they are, and a political reason to do so.

Contingency Planning for PA Failure

Before addressing this very sensitive subject, I want to clarify one thing very well. I am one of those people who was very critical of the terms of Oslo as an agreement. But I recognize that the leadership in the PLO did not do this agreement by its own choice, but under some kind of duress. After the Iraq war there was a financial crisis, a political crisis in the form of an increasingly relevant Hamas, and a geographical crisis, in that the pressure from the United States government on Tunisia to expel the PLO from Tunis had become overbearing. Washington wanted the PLO to agree to Israel’s terms, and the pressure of possibly losing its headquarters was supposed to function as an additional inducement. Is it possible the PLO could represent the Palestinian people from Cuba? The truth is that the PLO had to get inside by any means possible, to live and fight another day, much along the same lines as why they left Beirut in 1982. Had the PLO been allowed to fade into historical irrelevance, nobody would be left in the area to represent the Palestinian aspirations, or to hold the Palestinian people together, or to carry their cause across the bridge that joins the past to the future. Under these conditions, the PLO did what they thought they had to do, not because they wanted to accept those terms, but because they thought they had to.

Regardless of these fact, there is a dangerous trend emerging among many of those who used to combat Israel from both a political and a humanistic perspective, who used to opposed the occupation in the 1967 areas in particular, to divert their opposition wrath from Israel onto the Palestinian Authority. This is something very wrong, it is a fatal distraction from the main problem, which remains the Israeli occupation in almost all of Palestine, with the exception of the besieged Gaza Strip, whose entire population has since been sentenced to life imprisonment. Let no one imagine the West Bank is approaching statehood; if anything it is being absorbed even more rapidly. One comparison of the reality on the ground in the West Bank today versus three or four years ago reveals that the West Bank is beginning to look more and more like the colonized 1948 areas and less and less like Palestine, with the exception of the legalization of Palestinian national symbols in the populated cities. Over the course of this time, the signs have been removed from the Palestinian villages, and the Green Line, if anything, has been erased.

The truth is that the Israelis have found in Oslo a solution to their Intifadah problem: a way to withdraw from the people without withdrawing from the land. Today the Palestinians under occupation cannot even see the faces of their enemies due to the physical interpolation of PA soldiers. It is common for all people to focus on what is right in front of their face rather than on the big picture, and right now it is the Palestinian Authority that is right in front of their face. However, Israel remains there as it was before, surrounding them, imprisoning them inside their small enclosures, preventing almost all travel to or through East Jerusalem, and completely cutting off all movement between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to the point where people have begun to refer to travel between them in the same terms as "traveling overseas" – all this is done in the name of peace.

Anyone who becomes distracted and forgets about this reality, anyone who focuses his or her wrath on the political administrative faults or flaws of the PA, and especially anyone who raises the slogan of an "Intifadah against the PA," not only have they distorted he memory and spirit of the Intifadah, but their motives in this instance should be doubted because this is exactly what Israel wants. It is the work of Israel whether intended or not. For Israel would like nothing more than to prove to the world that the Palestinians are unable to rule themselves even in this limited way, and how therefore could they ever be "trusted" with independence?

One can acknowledge that the PA has faults without focusing on it. The central flaw of the PA is that it is not an independent entity, though it seeks as its primary objective to become one. But since it is not now independent, it cannot be treated as a state to be held to the same standards as the government of an independent state would be, or even as an independent organization would be. In other words, the PLO can be held to such high standards, but the PA, under its current circumstances, cannot.

And even though, structurally speaking, the PA has been put in the position of a Gen. Lahad, it does not, as a national force, fit well into that role. This position is accepted only under the most extreme duress, it is born of neither surrender nor treason, and anyone who compares the personage of Arafat to the personage of Lahad is not familiar with the long struggle of the PLO. Therefore, it is very important not to allow a criticism of the PA to displace the struggle against the occupation and the exile, or to take precedence over it, for this will only further weaken the fragile Palestinian position and relieve the Israelis of the burden of Palestinian pressure that used to be exerted onto it. Even worse, it will ultimately destroy the very concept of Palestinian nationalism, which has, in its entirety and perhaps wrongly, been temporarily reduced and encapsulated into the safe-keeping container of the PA.

This leads to the very important conclusive imperative, which is the creation of a contingency plan in the event that the PA should fall or be destroyed as a national force. This could happen as a result of a multitude of factors. It could happen by virtue of an Israeli-Palestinian war, between the Israeli army and the Palestinian police, the so-called "Intifadah with weapons." It could happen as a result of a crisis of succession, in the midst of which the PA is so weakened that Israel is able to find a leader or leaders who will do its bidding truly, and in which the PA is transformed into the 1990s version of the Village Leagues. It is at that time that the Palestinian Gen. Lahad will emerge, or even two Lahads, one responsible for the West Bank cities and one for Gaza, or a plurality of Lahads, one responsible for each "autonomous area," with no connection between them except the competition for US and Israeli favor. It could happen by virtue of Israeli intransigence, in which the PA loses credibility as a national force capable of ever liberating the West Bank and Gaza Strip through negotiations; this is the particular track on which history is currently moving.

Given these possibilities, and history (like physics) is all about the probable realization of possibilities, a central imperative emerges: the imperative of a post-Oslo contingency. There must be a contingency plan by the PLO and especially be Fateh in case the PA collapses or is altered beyond recognition. For even if the Palestinian authority dies, the Palestinian people must still live. And it must be understood that the central feature dictating the effectiveness of a contingency plan is that its preparation must be completed before the historical inevitability of the projected contingency has become obvious.

To prepare for such a contingency, it is imperative to restore substance to the PLO structure and not allow the organization to become an empty shell. It is not strategically sound to encapsulate the entire substance of Palestinian nationalism in the weak and fragile PA, which exists in a context of an Israeli occupation which surrounds and imprisons it, and which may someday destroy it; it is more sound to leave some of the substance in the more independent framework of the PLO, which is international and not surrounded, and hence, not so easily destroyed. The PLO can be something larger and higher than the PA, representing all Palestinians everywhere, embodying Palestinian nationalism in the larger sense, inside and outside, without taking away in the slightest bit from the integrity or authority of the PA. The PA can be seen simply as the internal branch of the PLO, the embryonic government inside, until such time as full independence has been achieved. It is only at that time when the PLO can be secure in actually becoming the Palestinian state and transferring all its people and its substance back to the Palestinian homeland.

Also due to the lingering uncertainties, it is important to leave some of the important PLO figures and cadres on the outside, not only the PLO foreign minister in Tunis, but also the leaders of the refugee populations outside. Removing these leaderships to the inside will do nothing but deprive huge sections of the Palestinian people of whatever semblance of leadership they have left, to very little gain, all the while making the PLO even more vulnerable by bringing all its capable figures and fighting forces under the jurisdiction of Israel, and within its easy reach. And, in the final analysis, what kind of leaders would they be, if all of them returned to Palestine without bringing their people home with them? It only makes sense for all the outside leaders to return when an independent state has been declared and the refugees have been given the practical option of returning to the territory of such a state.

It is equally imperative to create a structure of survivability within the PLO organization and its core element Fateh, something capable of existing if need be in a post-Oslo or post-PA phase, some phoenix that could rise intact from the ashes of a fallen, collapsed or altered PA. Again the effectiveness of such contingency planning depends totally on building the dormant potential replacement structures well before the projected contingency has had the chance to become manifest.

Finally, and I leave these until last to emphasize its importance, the PLO must never, never give up its military option, either inside or outside, for this is its only source of leverage. And by this I do not refer to the "threat" of another Intifadah. After all, the Intifadah was a unique war in that it was conducted by civilians, including many children, but today, the civilians are tired and cannot be asked to do such a thing again. Furthermore, Israel is not afraid of another Intifadah, because the new structures of closure and prevention of normal Palestinian movement do not support Intifadah-style combat or Intifadah tactics. Fighting a new Intifadah is the same as fighting the last war and it will not work. While the people may do it under instructions, their heart will not be in it. They are cynical about it because they think it is only for show, and that they are being asked to sacrifice as civilians simply for purposes of show.

This means that the military option should be of paramilitary form and not civilian form. If there must be a model it should not be that of the Intifadah; instead it should embody a combination of Hezbollah and Hamas tactics to be implemented anywhere in the country and not specifically in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. The military option that should be preserved is of the old style, and I am not saying whether or not it should be operationalized now or whether it should stand dormant, only that it is imperative that such structures and capabilities be quietly constructed and preserved fully intact. Israel does not surrender its military option against the Palestinians where they live, peace agreement or no peace agreement, and therefore, what strategic logic dictates that the much weaker Palestinian side should do so? After all, who ever in world politics made concessions to a powerless enemy, incapable of violence? The answer is no one. States do not concede power to others out of altruism, or because of justice or recognition of rights or any of the other synonyms for altruism. And it is on this note of calculated realpolitik that I close.

Laura Drake is a political and strategic affairs consultant in Washington and the Middle East. She delivered the foregoing address to the Association of the Palestinian Community in London, England, at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies on October 22, 1997.

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