The Palestinians: Fifty Years Later

Dr. Hisham Sharabi

Dr. Sharabi is the Chairman of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine (CPAP), an educational program of The Jerusalem Fund, a Washington-based non-profit organization. CPAP was established in 1990 to study and analyze the relationship between the United States and the Middle East, with particular emphasis on the Palestine problem and the Arab-Israeli conflict. On May 25, 1998, Dr. Sharabi delivered the Kareema Khoury Annual Distinguished Lecture at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. The CPAP then issued a paper entitled "The Palestinians: Fifty Years Later" adapted from his lecture. In the paper, Dr. Sharabi explored the effects of the creation of Israel on the Palestinians. In the following section, he analyses their future and discusses how Americans can help usher in a new and better era:

he Madrid peace process initiated in 1991 produced what Arafat had dreaded most: the emergence of an alternative Palestinian leadership. The distinguished Palestinian negotiating team headed by Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi projected an image of Palestinians as rational, practical, and articulate, in sharp contrast with the image of Arafat and his group. He had every reason to fear Abdel Shafi, a respected physician, who looked like Nelson Mandela, with an impeccable political record and a long history of struggle, and who would have probably played a leadership role in Palestine had he been allowed to remain in the public eye. But Arafat’s secret Oslo agreement not only enabled him to pull the rug out from under Abdel Shafi and his team, but to put himself firmly back in the saddle. Duly elected chairman of the Palestinian Authority in 1995, he emerged more powerful than ever. Now formally recognized by the international community as the democratically elected spokesman of the Palestinian people, he had the power to agree to any condition acceptable to Israel, and to validate any final settlement simply by affixing his signature to it.
    In the eyes of many Palestinians, Mr. Arafat today represents the gravest threat to the cohesiveness, security and national well-being of the Palestinian people.
But Mr. Arafat will not last forever. In the next few years, as the older Palestinian generation dies out and the younger generation takes over, fundamental changes are likely to take place in the political organization and goals of the Palestinian people in regard to action within Israel itself, within the West Bank and Gaza, and within the Palestinian diaspora.
    What form will these changes take in each of the three arenas of future Palestinian action?
    Within Israel, where political action will focus more and more on equality and civil rights, the younger educated generation entering political life will shed the traditional ethnic and religious ties that were carefully cultivated by the Israeli administration since 1948 to divide the Palestinians, and begin to participate fully in Israeli political life as Israeli citizens with equal rights. As Palestinians become more integrated politically and economically, they will be in a position not only to influence significantly the outcome of national elections, but also to have an input in political decision-making. As a distinct political force, they will be able to enhance their effectiveness by forging alliances with the progressive and secular forces in Israel. There is little doubt that a prosperous, cohesive Palestinian community in Israel, as it acquires political power commensurate with its size, will bolster Palestinian identity and transform the Palestinians in Israel into important players in Palestinian and Arab affairs.
    In the West Bank and Gaza, the failure of the peace process has revealed Israel’s structural inability to accept a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict based on the UN resolutions and international consensus. The reason for this is that both the UN resolutions and the international consensus are predicated on the partition of Palestine. Both the former Rabin Labor government and the present Netanyahu Likud government sought to get around a partition solution by offering different formulas based instead on separation. While Rabin’s formula was based on a streamlined version of the South African bantustan model with limited self-rule in the guise of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu’s plan is based on an antiquated apartheid model, with local autonomy but without even a vestige of statehood. Thus, the disagreement between Labor and Likud is not over substance, as the mainstream media maintain, for both reject partition, but over a politically correct way of segregating the Palestinians within a framework that will preserve Israel’s hegemony over all of Palestine.
    If this is a correct description of the situation, and I think it is, then the central question is, what action can the Palestinians take in dealing with it?
    The Palestinians have three options: accepting the status quo, opposing the status quo, or engaging in long-term struggle against it.
    The first option, which some Palestinians consider the most realistic option, is based on the belief that the Oslo peace process offers the best chance to establish a foothold in Palestine, which could be transformed into a political entity that could in time become a state. This view bases itself on the experience of decolonization, particularly Tunisia’s, where acceptance of limited autonomy eventually led to independence, the dismantling of the colons settlements, and the eventual repatriation of the colons themselves. This view ignores the fact that in Palestine radically different conditions obtain, most significantly, the fact that there is no mother country to which the Jewish settlers may one day be repatriated, and that the settlements in time will only continue to increase and expand.
    The second option is reformist opposition to the existing regime in the West Bank and Gaza. Its goal would be to reform the Palestinian Authority and expand Palestinian autonomy, along the lines being attempted today by various groups and organizations in Palestinian civil society. In this reformist movement, the Palestinian Legislative Council, or at least certain members and groupings within it, could play an important role, firstly, protecting those democratic structures that still exist in Palestinian political life, and, secondly, preparing, when the time comes, for the orderly transition of power, and the replacement of the present patriarchal regime with a democratic one.
    The third and probably most important option – and the one likely to be central in the next phase – is long-term national struggle to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, restore Arab and Muslim Jerusalem, dismantle the Jewish settlements, and establish an independent Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel.
    What form would the struggle option take?
    It would claim the right to all legitimate forms of struggle, from non-violent forms of resistance to classical forms of armed struggle. From a political point of view, however, non-violent struggle is probably the more effective one in the long run. Yet, if the present conditions of repression and humiliation continue, wide-scale violence could prove to be the more likely option. Opting for national struggle is bound to enhance uncontrollable individual acts of self-sacrifice, the ultimate power of the powerless.
    Popular resistance, which is likely to bring back the intifada, will simultaneously lead to building alliances and grassroots organizations, like the ones that emerged spontaneously in the early days of the original intifada (which was snuffed out by the PLO leadership in Tunis). If this succeeds by the turn of the century, this new post-patriarchal liberation struggle will regain the human face of the first intifada and win the support of progressive forces the world over, including the support of progressive Jewish forces in Israel and the United States.
    In the next phase of struggle, a heavy responsibility will fall upon the shoulders of the diaspora Palestinians, the largest group of Palestinians. This group will have to carry out the task of putting together the financial and administrative structures necessary for extending all kinds of support to the Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and in the diaspora as well, in economic aid, educational and social assistance, and broad political support.
    Today, as Meron Benvenisti reminds us, the population in the area of mandatory Palestine is 8.2 million, or whom 4.8 million are Jews and 3.4 million are Palestinians; that is, despite massive Jewish emigration since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Palestinians are more than 40 percent of the total population (Meron Benvenisti, Haaretz, March 26, 1998). Within the next 10 to 15 years, it is quite likely that the proportion of Palestinians to Jews will equal or even exceed the 50 percent mark. The present confrontation between the two communities, alternating as it has been over the past decades between violence and the search for a political solution, will necessarily shift to different grounds, to demography and culture. Thus, if in the next decade or so the Palestinians manage to transcend their present difficulties and succeed in building an educated, healthy, prosperous, and cohesive society in Palestine intimately linked to the Palestinian diaspora, the present balance of power will be transformed by becoming irrelevant. This is why, for the Palestinians, the strategy and the means of struggle are bound to change, with violence receding to the background and the social and economic process becoming primary.
    Because of its human and financial resources, the Palestinian American community could play a large part in the transformation of Palestinian society at home and abroad. But to qualify, it must first prove itself capable as a community of building an institutional framework that will assure viable, systematic cooperation among the various existing groups and organizations. This will require a break with the past and the creation of new ways of thinking and organizing. If successful, the Palestinian American community will provide the catalyst that could bring together the larger Arab and Muslim communities in America and build a powerful, functioning Palestinian-Arab-Muslim coalition.
    To be successful, this effort must not try to enforce total unity by creating yet another all-embracing Arab American organization. The practical challenge facing Palestinian Americans in the transitional stage is to discard the rhetoric of unity and find the proper means to accommodate difference and plurality within their community. If the Palestinians in the United States can provide a workable democratic model for making collective decisions and engaging in sustained cooperative action, they may supply the needed integrative model for the Arabs and Muslims in America and elsewhere in the diaspora.
    Undoubtedly, the emergence in the United States of a cohesive and cooperating Palestinian-Arab-Muslim community will usher in a new era for effective political action on a national scale. American citizens of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim background organizing in support of a just and lasting solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, would not only allow them to exercise their constitutional rights as Americans, but also to influence a dangerously biased American policy in the Middle East. Such a role would help restore a badly needed direction and balance to U.S. foreign policy.

For a copy of the entire paper, contact the CPAP at (202) 338-1290.

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