Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Image Credit: AP

Yes, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize — and no shortage of kudos all around — with Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres for their “efforts to create peace in the Middle East”.

The award ceremony was held in the Oslo City Hall in the Danish capital in 1994, less than a year after the Oslo Accords were signed, with much fanfare, on the South Lawn of the White House, as millions around the world watched.

Many Palestinians among that multitude, feeling a surge of optimism, wondered of this might, just might, be it. For these folks, expectations of political enfranchisement took on a dizzying sense of total possibility. Free at last, free at last!

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Fast forward to 2004, when Yasser Arafat, after being confined within his Ramallah compound for over two years, fell seriously ill and was flown by a French military plane to a hospital in Clamart, a suburb of Paris, where he later lapsed into a coma and died on November 11 that year at age 75.

Almost three decades after the ceremony on the White House lawn and their leader’s Nobel Peace Prize, Palestinians today find themselves — after the drama had played out, the curtain fell, the lights dimmed and the theatre emptied — back to square one, with that dizzying sense of possibility now seeming mockingly remote. A lot more water will flow under that bridge before their fortunes shift.

Yet, their leaders today, characteristically out to lunch, act as if they and the people they lead are still very much part of the forward motion of history.

Here’s a case in point. By virtue of a decree issued by President Mahmoud Abbas early this year, Palestinians in the occupied territories will go to the polls on May 22 to cast their ballots for parliamentary candidates and on July 11 for president.

A time of reckoning

You will recall that the previous parliament, a toothless institution from the outset, was declared open for business in 1996 but mothballed soon afterwards, and the incumbent president, in office since 2005, will spare no effort to stay in power. (Bet the farm and the family jewellery, bet everything you own, that he will.)

If you think that these elections will be a time of reckoning, when Palestinian voters hold their leaders to account for their many excesses and dismal failures, and more importantly when they feel empowered to inject new blood into the system, think again.

The old guard, fittingly headed by an octogenarian, will prevail and go on to cement its hold on power, its sense of entitlement and its cult of insouciance, a sorry state of affairs sure to lead to the secretion of more poisonous torpor and corrosive ennui into the body politic — and from there into individual consciousness.

How sadly it has all panned out for the people of Palestine!

There was a time, for close to a century, when the Palestinian cause occupied an exceptional place in the public discourse of the Arab world. No society believed in a cause more vehemently — and to none was a cause more indispensable in its political culture — than Arab society.

Consider how the dismemberment of Palestine in 1948 was seen by Arabs as the most convulsively disruptive event in their modern history, an event that gnawed away at their national soul, like a raw wound, for generations.

It has panned out sadly. The fate that has befallen the Palestinian cause, as it became less and less able to assume the burden of new, transformative meaning, can be conveyed through the simplest of images — a fire dying in the grate.

Yet. Yet, though Palestine — or that remnant of it left Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza — is today inhabited by a people with no reason to live there, but it remains to us, nevertheless, historic Palestine, a place that has a mastering grip on our sensibility, however much we seek to pull back from it.

There’s something mystical about how it never ceases to draw us into its orbit and how, even after we’ve stopped listening to its quotidian plaints, its voice sounds like a hug feels.

Not all, I say, is lost. When a struggle for freedom declines, as that of the Palestinian people has done, its energies and instigations do not wholly disperse.

You see, a people engaged in a struggle for freedom — a principal adjunct in the grammar of human being — know that in the conjugation of verb “to be” there’s a future perfect. And this is a tense of reality that the people of Palestine know full-well by heart.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile