Void of leadership, today’s Palestinian movement loses momentum
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.”