Void of lead­er­ship, to­day’s Pales­tinian move­ment loses mo­men­tum

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - By Joshua Mit­nick

RA­MAL­LAH, West Bank — Just across the street from the gleam­ing white mau­soleum of Yasser Arafat on the grounds of the Pales­tinian Author­ity head­quar­ters stands a tent vil­lage de­pict­ing towns de­stroyed dur­ing the 1948 Is­raeli-Arab war.

But save for an oc­ca­sional group of lo­cal stu­dents or ad­ven­ture­minded tourists, the tent city — spon­sored by the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion — is typ­i­cally empty and ig­nored by pass­ing traf­fic.

Sixty years af­ter Is­rael’s birth, Pales­tini­ans con­tinue to press un­ful­filled de­mands for state­hood, land repa­ra­tion and com­pen­sa­tion for refugees. But more than any other time since it placed the cause of Pales­tinian sovereignty at the top of the world agenda, the Pales­tinian na­tional move­ment finds it­self in a de­te­ri­o­rat­ing state of paral­y­sis.

“There’s al­most no Pales­tinian lead­er­ship,” said Kadoura Fares, a for­mer Pales­tinian Cabi­net min­is­ter and mem­ber of Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas’ Fatah party.

“The na­tional move­ment as a lo- co­mo­tive is weak. When [the Pales­tini­ans] shoot rock­ets, it’s not a sign of strength­en­ing. It’s a sign of weak­ness. When you can bring thou­sands of peo­ple into the streets and in­clude them in a non­vi­o­lent strug­gle, it’s a sign of strength­en­ing.”

Two years af­ter Fatah was trounced by Is­lamic mil­i­tant politi­cians from Ha­mas in leg­isla­tive elec­tions and nearly a year af­ter Fatah mili­tias were de­feated in the Gaza Strip, there are few, if any, hints of a re­vival.

Fatah, the po­lit­i­cal party founded by Mr. Arafat as the core of the PLO, re­mains par­a­lyzed by in­ter­nal fight­ing.

It has been un­able to shake the im­age of cor­rup­tion rooted in years of crony­ism and pa­tron­age that be­came the hall­mark of the Pales­tinian Author­ity.

Al­though ne­go­ti­a­tions have re­sumed with Is­rael for the first time in seven years, Pales­tini­ans see the peace process as an ex­er­cise in vir­tual diplo­macy with lit­tle, if any, bear­ing on their ev­ery­day lives.

“In short, we had a very just cause, and we had very bad lawyers,” said Eyad Sar­raj, the di­rec­tor of the Gaza Com­mu­nity Men­tal Health Pro­gram.

Mr. Arafat’s big­gest achieve­ment was his ap­pear­ance at the United Na­tions in 1974, for the first time as­sert­ing a Pales­tinian na­tional iden­tity in­de­pen­dent of the sur­round­ing Arab regimes, Dr. Sar­raj said.

Aside from that, the doc­tor ticked off a string of Mr. Arafat’s fail­ures and mis­cal­cu­la­tions: a 1970 coup at­tempt in Jor­dan known as Black Septem­ber, set­ting up a mili­tia head­quar­ters in Beirut and in­cur­ring spite from the Le­banese, sid­ing with Sad­dam Hus­sein dur­ing the 1991 Iraq war, and the 1993 Oslo peace ac­cords, which failed to bring Pales­tinian state­hood.

Dr. Sar­raj also pointed to what he con­sid­ers a more chronic is­sue.

“We have a se­ri­ous struc­tural prob­lem in the na­tional move­ment. The con­trol all the time was by the gun, and mil­i­tants, who are largely un­e­d­u­cated and ig­no­rant, caused most of the dis­as­ters we are in to­day,” he said.

Dr. Sar­raj’s in­tro­spec­tion con­trasts with much of the Pales­tinian dis­course, es­pe­cially when for­eign­ers are present.

Pales­tini­ans typ­i­cally cite Is­rael’s oc­cu­pa­tion of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as the cause of daily hard­ships for more than 4 mil­lion Pales­tini­ans in the two ter­ri­to­ries.

They say Is­rael pushed the Pales­tini­ans out of their coun­try in 1948, con­fis­cated land for set­tle­ments, threw up check­points and mil­i­tary clo­sures, jailed stone throw­ers and built a bar­rier on their land.

Sit­ting in his Ra­mal­lah of­fice un­der a pic­ture of Mr. Arafat and jailed mil­i­tant leader Mar­wan Bargh­outi, for­mer Cabi­net min­is­ter Mr. Fares echoed many of the sen­ti­ments ex­pressed by Dr. Sar­raj.

The Pales­tinian mil­i­tants were given too much free­dom to act on be­half of the peo­ple, and then in­tim­i­date crit­ics, he said.

“Who cre­ated that men­tal­ity among Pales­tini­ans? The lead­ers. The Pales­tinian peo­ple, be­cause of our pain, most of the time we thought from our gut and not from our head.”

A fi­nal mis­take, Mr. Fares said, was the fail­ure to build an ef­fec­tive gov­ern­ment in the 1990s when the Pales­tini­ans were of­fered au­ton­omy un­der the Oslo peace ac­cords.

“It’s like you de­mand a palace but get three rooms as a test be­fore you get the palace,” he said. “The world gave us a chance to es­tab­lish an au- thor­ity. We could have used the author­ity as a good model to show we are a mod­ern peo­ple, an ed­u­cated peo­ple. We failed.”

Out­side in the tent vil­lage, Anir Abu Shams, an of­fi­cial in the Pales­tinian youth min­istry and a res­i­dent of the United Na­tions-run Shuafat refugee camp, re­flected on the hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in in­ter­na­tional aid given to the Pales­tini­ans as a mixed bless­ing.

The Pales­tini­ans in the West Bank and Gaza are among the high­est per capita re­cip­i­ents of for­eign aid in the world. But the as­sis­tance at times has damp­ened the Pales­tinian as­pi­ra­tions while al­low­ing the world to for­get about their prob­lem, he said.

“The Arab re­gional pow­ers thought the U.N. solved the prob­lems of the refugees, and the Pales­tini­ans went along,” Mr. Abu Shams said.

“The U.N. con­cen­trated on giv­ing flour, oil, ed­u­ca­tion and ser­vices, and de­railed the Pales­tini­ans from their main ob­jec­tive of get­ting back to their vil­lages.

“The U.N. low­ered the ceil­ing of Pales­tinian ex­pec­ta­tions to a sack of flour. They were wait­ing for their next din­ner.”

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