Are Palestinians witnessing the end of an era in their national struggle and the last hurrah of the old guard who lead it? Looks like it. Never before in the modern history of that struggle have the people of Palestine and the people who lead them ever had such divergent agendas, such differing priorities and such antagonistic visions. It is as if the social contract between ruler and ruled has torn asunder.
First consider the leaders. These officials’ stated goal, certainly since the signing of the Oslo agreement on the White House lawn in 1993, was to achieve statehood, independence and freedom for their people. Not only have they failed in that endeavour, but their failure has left in its wake a withered landscape — look at it everywhere in that remnant of historic Palestine we call the West Bank and Gaza — defined by a fractured political culture, a divided territorial body and a spirit of desperation in the mass sentiment of the public. These leaders continue to cling, ever more tenaciously, to power, imbued as they are with a smug sense of entitlement — and do so though they have failed to achieve anything tangible for their people, contest Israel’s ongoing colonial project, or even come together as one body for the sake of national unity. They never mind any of that. Their goals have long shifted to one single focus: survival as a ruling elite.
National unity? Forget about it. Since the violent split of Gaza from the the West Bank over a decade ago, Hamas and Fatah have talked amicably at reconciliation conferences, then signed agreements they later failed to implement: the agreement signed in Makkah in 2007, the agreement signed in Yemen in 2008, and the agreement signed in Cairo in 2011. All of which fell apart. Then in 2014, the two sides agreed to form a national coalition government, which in no time went bust. And finally, in yet another dreary round of talks in Cairo in October last year, it again all came to naught. The whole exercise, needless to say, left even the most jaded political commentators among us unnerved for its juvenile unctuousness.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, Israel’s colonists ran free, expropriating Palestinian land, and in Gaza, a blockade that has pauperised, starved and reduced to a fragment the humanity of roughly two million Palestinian souls living there, endured.
Now when you consider, by contrast, what the Palestinian people themselves were able to do for the own cause, on their own time, in their own way, once they were untethered from the yoke of their leaders’ agenda — propelled, as it were, by the teleological spirit of their history — three cases in point stand out.
First came the intifada of 1987, that changed the calculus of struggle between Israelis and Palestinians in the eyes of the world, an uprising anchored in the painful conditions of life under occupation, which came about precisely as a consequence of the repeated failure of PLO leaders to address the needs of their people. The collapse of national hope, after 1982, following the expulsion of the Palestinian movement from Beirut left a reservoir of turbulent energy in the air, a corrosive sense of disenfranchisement, a feeling that one’s political destiny had gone absurdly awry, and that people were on their own.
Thus, by taking your life into you own hands, hampered by no laws other than those that govern the inward preoccupations of your soul, you live through a dizzying sense of total possibility, a passionate adventure of spirit. The intifada captured the imagination of the world, and the Arabic name became naturalised by every major language in it.
Then came the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement in 2005, a global campaign initiated by roughly 170 Palestinian non-governmental organisations, that promoted various forms of ostracism of Israel until that entity met “its obligations under international law”, a campaign whose effectiveness has scared the bejesus out of Israeli leaders and had them scrambling to combat its diffusion around the world. (During a visit to South Africa in 2013, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, stunned reporters, and scandalised Palestinians, by stating that “Palestinians do not support a general boycott of Israel”, but only of products produced by Israeli colonies in the Occupied Territories.)
And then, most recently, came The Great March of Return — a “happening” that Hamas disingenuously grafted itself onto — where people gathered in the tens of thousands, throwing stones at the southern border of their usurped ancestral homeland, from whence their parents or grandparents had been evicted, in an act rich with its tricks of irony and occasional bursts of lyric elan, all the while undeterred by threats to life and limb. They were undeterred because what drove them to march was a force that all human beings grow up with as they grow up with their skin — the will to be free, which at its core is, as the Austrian existential psychotherapist Viktor Frankl called it, the will-to-meaning.
Folks, I for one think it’s about time the old guard in the West Bank and Gaza lifted anchor and sailed away, leaving us to choose our own political leaders and determine our own political destiny. Don’t you?
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.