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Roundtable on Palestinian Diaspora and Representation

[Mural of Yasser Arafat. Image from pulitzercenter.typepad.com.] [Mural of Yasser Arafat. Image from pulitzercenter.typepad.com.]

[The following series of articles is part of a Jadaliyya roundtable on “Palestinian Diaspora and Representation.” It features contributions by Naseer Aruri, Seif Dana, Karma Nabulsi, and Sherene Seikaly. The roundtable was first published in May 2011.]

Part I: Palestinians Organizing in Diaspora 

Part II: A Positive Model or Doomed for Failure?

Part III: Whither Palestinian Resistance? 

 

Part I: Palestinians Organizing in Diaspora [open in separate window

1. Palestinians are not unique for organizing themselves in diaspora. The Tamils of Sri Lanka have recently elected their transnational government and other ther ethnic polities like indigenous communities in Latin America, including the Mayans of Zapata, have organized themselves within their homelands, as opposed to without. How can the Palestinian national body be contextualized in a legacy of diasporic politics and calls for self-determination more generally? Can a “people” be adequately represented in diaspora? What lessons can be drawn from other case studies for organizing Palestinians in diaspora and inversely, what lessons can be drawn from the Palestinian experience?
 

Naseer Aruri

Given the relationship between the Palestinian body politic and its adversary, we need to raise a few questions relating to the settler colonialist nature of Zionism and the state of Israel. First, when did settler colonialism emerge as a framework of analysis? How has the PLO’s shift in strategy from liberation through resistance to independence through negotiations and statism been reflected in the shift in analytical and strategic paradigms on Palestine, Palestinian liberation, and modes of resistance and representation? And  how did the movement strategize its analytical framework following the loss of land as a result of Zionist settler colonialism, and how this framework was intellectually neglected and politically abandoned, and lost with the passing of time. For us, Palestinians, who are going through a second Nakba, today is yesterday.
 

Seif Dana

True, every diaspora experience is unique. The Palestinian experience of living and experiencing the diaspora have been shaped by a variety of factors that need to be highlighted to comprehend the experience and drew necessary lessons for future course. 

1-    Colonial Zionism

The expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs that led to the formation of many Palestinian communities in exile has been critical for the formation and transformation of the specific Zionist colonial genre. The pure settlement-colony, which is distinguished from other colonies of settlement (mixed settlement, plantation, and ethnic plantation) in its conquering of both land and labor (a condition that ineluctably shapes identity and brings about the erasure and negation of the other) dictated from the start the expulsion of Palestinians.

The shift from the “ethnic plantation colony,” the form Zionist colonization took at the beginning to the pure-settlement colony, which has characterized the Israeli state and nation building since 1904 with the second wave of Jewish European “immigration” had serious implications and led to the Nakba (for details see Shafir 1989. For the various colonial settlements types see Peterburge 2007). 

The ethnic plantation colony is based on land control, similar to the mixed settlement and plantation colony, yet “unlike the plantation colony, it employed local rather than imported labor, [and] in distinction to the miscegenation prevalent in the mixed colony, it possessed a full-blown European national identity and opposed ethnic mixture” (Shafir 1989: 9).

The pure settlement colony represents the underlying structural arrangements that have shaped every aspect of the colonial experience since the second wave of Jewish-European settlement in Palestine in 1904. Fredrickson explains that “the pure form, in which European settlers exterminated or pushed aside the indigenous peoples, developed an economy based on white labor, and were thus able in the long run to regain the sense of cultural or ethnic homogeneity identified with a European conception of nationality” (1988: 220-21). Thus, the difference between the ethnic plantation colony and the pure settlement colony resides in labor; in Palestine, this meant a shift from Arab to Jewish labor.

As such, pure settlement colonies involve the conquering not only of land, but of labor as well, excluding the natives from the economy. These colonies, therefore, are “inherently genocidal” (Churchill 1997), rest on the principle of “replacing a nation with another nation and a culture with another culture by means of extermination” (Akash 2002; 2004), and have the “purest form of racist impulse” (Fredrickson 1988: 221).

Colonial Zionism prepared the foundations for the expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs, shaped the Israeli culture that imagined the diaspora Jew, not the Palestinian, as the other (negation of exile), and, therefore, excised the Palestinians from the Jewish European awareness and Zionist discourse (A land without a people for a people without a land).

The PLO strategy and the hegemony of the state discourse or the two state solution (at least since 1974 and the adoption of the ten-point plan, or since the late 1950s for Fatah) ignores this fundamental fact (see discussion below).

2-    Al-Nakba and its consequences

The outcome of uprooting almost a whole nation was not limited to the creation of the refugee problem, and refugee as a new social and political category that composed the majority of the Palestinians. New political, social, economic, and spatial realities were created in which the old regime of power relations and the traditional political elite consisting mainly of competing groups of land-owners and urban elite, collapsed. The disintegration of the traditional elite and the new realities offered a political space for new elite groups to form.

While most Palestinians living in the area controlled by Israel were expelled or dislocated, the West Bank came under direct Jordanian control and was isolated until 1967 from Gaza that came under Egypt’s control. In both areas the composition of local political elite groups varied since 1948. The aftermath of the 1948 War or Nakba led to the creation of four separate realities (and many sub-realities) for the Palestinians where various elite groups would be formed in exile, the West Bank, Gaza, and inside "Israel."

The relationship between and within the political elite in the four areas would determine the politics of the Palestinian national movement and the PLO’s discomfited fate. Although the most obvious tension within the Palestinian movement seemed to have taken place between political organizations and within the institutions of the PLO in exile, some experts stress the “tensions inherent in the dynamics governing the relationship between those sections of Palestinian society that remained on the land (in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza) and those dispersed in other countries, primarily Jordan, Syria and Lebanon” (Tamari 2003).

Prior to 1948, Palestinians did not compose an undifferentiated mass. Sociologically, Palestinians were and remain sharply bifurcated. The Nakba and diaspora were and are, therefore, felt and experienced differently across the Palestinian communities. While many prosperous members of the fortunate few managed to deposit and transfer large sums of their wealth, accumulated before but certainly during the early 1940’s economic recovery, in foreign and Arab banks, the majority retained no more of their property than they inadvertently carried into the cruel exile in the chinks of their battered attire. Although immovable assets and urban buildings constituted two-thirds of the national wealth and were robbed by ruthless conquerors, bank records and estimates of movable assets show that millions of pounds sterling were either transferred or have already been deposited in English and Arab banks (see Smith 1984: 117-122).

Not only was exile experienced differently, a few even made fortunes out of the national tragedy. Therefore, many Palestinian communities existed in exile, not one. The separation was geographic, economic, social, and political. Those who acquired employment, especially as civil servants, and investment opportunities of their wealth in the underdeveloped but oil rich Arab Gulf states, such as Kuwait, grew to form the richest and most influential Palestinian community in exile. Together with their wealth and political sway, the Palestinian community in Kuwait, the real birthplace of Fatah movement, would play a decisive role in the history of the Palestinian national movement and the PLO. 

In the West Bank, the Jordanian administration’s discriminatory policies and favoritism would deform the local economy and produce a dependency of novel form. More advanced in every standard, and “far outdistancing neighboring Arab countries on almost every economic indicator” (Kimmerling and Migdal 2003: 138), the West Bank, mutilated under the new regime, was reduced to no more than a satellite of the impecunious East Bank. After annexing the West Bank, a few of the local political elite retained commitment and remained dedicated to the "Government of all Palestine" established in Gaza by the former elite attempting to consolidate and extend their power into the new age. “Other prominent Palestinians either retired into obscurity or were absorbed into the political life of the kingdom of Jordan” (Waines 1971: 170). The latter’s influence extended throughout the Jordanian governance of the West Bank, delimiting the political spectrum. Despite political oppression, dissent existed, but at a level narrower than that of Gaza.

A cataclysm of refugees inundating the Gaza Strip altered the local demography in a manner unprecedented. Gaza’s population increased three folds, almost seventy percent of whom were newly arriving refugees, becoming one of the most densely populated areas in the world. While fifty percent of Gaza’s population lived in refugee camps, “the agricultural lands in the strip were concentrated in the hands of nineteen percent of the original population, who were the only ones able to sustain a living from it”(Jamal 2005:20). Due to deteriorating economic conditions and the elites’ monopoly over land ownership, tension between refugees and the local elite prompted almost immediately reaching severe levels at certain times. Politically, however, and due to the Egyptian political rhetoric, the political spectrum was spectacular: communists, Arab nationalists, Ba’athists, and Islamic groups. Unlike Jordan, Egypt did not annex Gaza, but also neither allowed the “consolidation of a local political force independent of the will of Cairo… [nor] endorse[d] the traditional leadership”(Jamal 2005: 21). 

Inside the area controlled by Israel, Arab Palestinians were the odd man out. Not only had they “found themselves on the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder… they became citizens of a state that celebrated its independence around the event that they considered their biggest catastrophe”( Kimmerling and Migdal 2003:169). Facing an overwhelming power and now an oppressed minority in their homeland, Palestinians would render Israel’s de-Palestininization and de-Arabization policy a total failure. Attesting to a robust non-chauvinist-nationalist tradition that, contrary to Israeli propaganda, preceded Israel’s establishment, they marvelously proceeded to take up every possible hue in the political spectrum in order to defend an identity under attack.

In addition to Arab and Arab identity-oriented movements, Palestinian Arabs would make up the core of the few non-racist Israeli movements such as the Israeli Communist Party. Astounding opposition to Israel’s policies led by Al-Ard, Abna’a Al-Ard, and Abna’a Al-Balad movements would legendarily enter Palestinian history and the history of the Palestinian national movement. Ghassan Kanafani’s examination of the “Literature of Resistance” of Palestinians under Israel’s military rule illuminates on artistically innovative, nationally and historically conscious writers since 1948. Mahmud Darwish’s grand poem “Al-Ard” commemorated the confrontation of “Land Day” of March 30th 1976, in which Israel murdered six Palestinians defending their land.

The forcible de-peasantization of the would-be refugees, and dispersion of Palestinians induced, among many things, the collapse and demise of the Palestinian political elite that led the Palestinian struggle against Britain and the Zionist movement before 1948. Prior social arrangements such as clan structure, land ownership, and religious clerkship and offices that constituted the power bases of traditional leadership were eliminated by the 1948 War. The Government of All Palestine established by Haj Amin Husseini and former political leaders, was the last attempt to consolidate the traditional elite into the new arrangements but died soon after the war. It was discredited by Palestinians for mishandling resistance, and sanctioned by some Arab regimes, such as Jordan’s King Abdullah, that perceived it as a competing force (see Shlaim 1990).
 

Karma Nabulsi

There is a long and very rich mobilizing tradition of peoples who have organized collectively against their repression in exile over the centuries. Struggles for liberation against tyranny and unrepresentative rule historically and quite typically have had a large exile component. It becomes even more pronounced in the cases like that of the Palestinian people who were subjected to ethnic cleansing on such a massive scale. Yet when you cross the borders of your country and become a refugee, you do not lose your humanity. What I mean here is that you do not become reduced merely to a legal status as a refugee (as much as you need to hold fast to that status, since it expresses the absence of particular rights you are claiming as a refugee).

However, at that moment and from that day forward, your political agency, your role in struggling to overcome that predicament becomes even more essential, more integral as a person, and especially as part of a people. Actually, it is this that is at the heart of the Palestinian cause: the Palestinian revolution was created by Palestinian refugees who were insisting on a return to their homes. They were not claiming this right as refugees, but as a people dispossessed altogether; the claim is a collective one. It is important to highlight this point because the liberal model of the state comprised of individuals – refugees – with individual rights neither captures the collective predicament nor solves it. It is as a people with political and civic rights – collective rights – that we struggle to overturn the injustices together. This leads us to the question of political representation of course and - as in any struggle to liberate ourselves - the question of freely representing ourselves as the first step becomes the key challenge we must address together.

It is also why I never much liked the term diaspora, although it is the term that most readily comes to mind. By implication, it denies the political predicament we are in, and of our unity as a people who are seeking to overturn the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba. Accordingly, I find the term Al Shatat more sympathetic and more inclusive of our current state of affairs. Once Palestinians who are part of the core body politic can return to their homes, and chose to do so, then what remains of those who do not chose to return home (and there will be some) will then make up what will become the Palestinian diaspora. But until that moment, those Palestinians in enforced exile outside of Palestine are the people - and indeed happen to be the majority of the people. So it is vital not to implicitly accept the outcomes of this ethnic cleansing, or the language that has emerged from this violent coercion; one which frames our predicament as being one of “people” inside Palestine, and a “diaspora” with refugees outside of it. 

This central quest - to free ourselves and to represent ourselves freely - has been the dual challenge facing Palestinians since the zionist colonial project began at the start of the twentieth century. The violent combination of colonial and apartheid forces, together with the comprehensive, constant, and brutal repression by the Arab regimes, has meant that the urgent task of Palestinians is to overcome the geographic and physical fragmentation imposed by ethnic cleansing. This means that those Palestinians under occupation, who under the Oslo framework might have more priviledges in terms of political voice (especially in the West Bank), do not claim that voice, or seize the role of representation that belongs to all Palestinians, equally. This is a complex task given the current pressures. But here one takes great heart from the fact that the young generation of Palestinian activists in the West Bank and Gaza are increasingly aware of their responsibilities in this regard, and their understanding of their role as being one of ensuring the voices of the millions who are excluded are indeed heard, and have equal value and weight to their own.

Given this analysis, most of my own work, especially since the mid 1990s, has of necessity focused exclusively on exploring and establishing the precise mobilizing and representative mechanisms that can overcome this violent fragmentation, in the study of the philosophy and practices of democratic revolutions of the past and present. My own sense is that we can only overcome our current predicament through the force that the democratic will and mass mobilization of all our people – all – bring to this battle: with their energy, their commitment, and life. It is also because I believe that the struggle, and the land, and the claims to it actually belong to the people, being a committed adherent to the principle of popular sovereignty. This means that our cause cannot be run by an elite or a vanguard or a group who are as unrepresentative as the current few unelected officials currently holding the reins of offical power in Ramallah.
 

Sherene Seikaly

The Oxford American Dictionary defines "diaspora" as first and foremost “the dispersion of the Jews beyond Israel” and second as “the dispersion of any people from their original homeland.”

The notion of “diaspora” was central to Zionist understandings of the Jewish people as “abnormal.” Three foundational myths (the negation of exile, the return to the land of Israel, and the return to history) constituted Zionism’s colonial settler project (Piterberg, 2001). In understanding de-territorialization as a condition of abnormality, Zionism constructed the territorial nation as the necessary historical subject on the path to self-fulfillment.

I appreciate here Karma Nabulsi’s move away from diaspora when she says: “it denies the political predicament we are in.” I am interested in how we can begin to imagine a politics that demands Palestinian self-determination in, liberation on, and return to the land of Palestine, while dismantling the territorial nation-state as the natural and irreducible form of human collectivity. Seif Dana’s point that “many Palestinian communities existed in exile, not one” is central here. How do we critique the inherited essentialism and elitism of Palestinian nationalism, while still recognizing and demanding the nation-state as an object of struggle?

Zionist scholars explain that the mantra “a land without a people for a people without a land” did not in fact imply that Zionist were unaware that there were people on the land of Palestine. They were more precise. Palestinians were not a people. These “inhabitants” were disparate, an amalgam, a motley crew. It was the very denial of the Palestinian’s status as a people, a unified collective with legitimate political demands that was the basic infrastructure for British colonial rule. In November 1917, the British government instated its commitment to a Jewish National Home in Palestine through the Balfour Declaration, which pledged to facilitate Jewish immigration and land settlement while promising to safeguard the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Thus, from its inception, the facilitation of the Zionist enterprise was premised on the invisibility of the native people, who are neither named, nor possess even the potential for political rights. Through the dual policies of land settlement and Hebrew labor, and under the political and economic facilitation of British colonial rule, the Zionist movement began partitioning Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century as farmers and sharecroppers were increasingly dispossessed from their lands and livelihoods.

Despite the denial of their collectivity, Palestinians forged a multiplicity of registers to resist this project of enforced invisibility. These included various efforts of political and economic elites, women, laborers, farmers, villagers youth and local leaders to mobilize their aspirations and demands for self-determination. These at times disparate efforts found their culmination in the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 that included national boycotts and armed struggle against both British colonialism and Zionist settlement. British colonials tactics to suppress the revolt such as collective punishment, mass arrests, house demolitions, and torture were painful harbingers of what was to come.

Some Zionist conventional scholarship continues, until today, to portray the Nakba as a result of Palestinian “political deficiency” and the absence of an adequate “national spirit.” For over five decades now, scholars from all walks (Palestinian, American, European, and Israeli) have responded to this blame the victim approach by providing incisive accounts of Palestinian nationalism, urban life, literary and cultural production, populist politics and mobilization, the women’s movement, the struggle for labor rights, constructions and experiences of religiosity and much more. Such scholarship has seared a critical light through the accusation that Palestinians lacked the characteristics of a collectivity; that they stood outside of history.

Yet in a sense, historiographic debate continues to revolve around the relentless specter of the nation’s success or failure. Has the time now come to begin to imagine stepping out of the nation-state as the ultimate framing device? This labor could potentially allow us to dismantle and transcend the paradigm of Palestinian failure versus Israeli success as a civilizational and developmental fact on the ground. Indeed, the nagging and intrinsic problem that Zionism faced in the 1880s continues apace today: How can the vision of a democratic Jewish state be realized as long as Palestinians live in, around, underneath, or between the borders of the state of Israel? As Josseph Massad has put it: “Israel’s inability to complete its mission of thoroughly colonizing Palestine, of expelling all Palestinians, of 'gathering' all Jews in the world in its colony, keeps it uneasy and keeps its project always in the present continuous.” Moreover, the question of the authenticity of Palestinian nationalism and collectivity seems to miss a basic point. People struggled against the process of their dispossession from lands that they and their families had continuously resided for hundreds of years, regardless of their adherence or lack thereof to a nineteenth century European understanding of identity as bound to constructed myths and carefully drawn borders. 

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Part II: A Positive Model or Doomed for Failure? [open in separate window

2. Is it fair to say that prior to Oslo, Palestinians had effectively organized themselves in a transnational governing body in the form of the PLO and the PNC? What are some elements of this historical experience that may be taken for granted in the current discourse on representational politics? What is the value of representational government today, in the form of reviving the PNC for example, and are there different, more forward-looking models, worth considering?

 

Karma Nabulsi

Rather than look at comparative cases (and there are many that can and will continue to be useful here), the
richest experience we need to draw upon first and foremost is our own. We have a quite extraordinary and truly epic tradition of collective organizing in our own revolutionary history, and one that provides us with principled guidelines to both liberation and representation.

In exploring representative and revolutionary mechanisms, one that was directly related to overcoming the Oslo framework’s physical, geographic, and political fragmentation took place in the early years of the last decade. Dozens of civic and political organizations in refugee camps and exile engaged in a mobilization from 2002 to 2006 involving tens of thousands of Palestinians in the more than twenty-four countries where our people now live and struggle. It also now provides us with an extremely useful template, as its conclusions go directly to the questions we now ask ourselves that we must answer. The results were plain: Palestinians everywhere seek direct representation in our national struggle, and see the only institutional framework within which it can have that representation is through reclaiming the national parliament of all Palestinians, the Palestine National Council of the PLO. This demand has already been synthesized into a collective one, and it has already been articulated by a broad base of our people.

At this moment we also now possess a forceful appreciation that only through reclaiming our national political institutions can we, as Palestinians, fashion our own destiny. And here the Arab spring has played a great role in clearing the minds of a generation of young Palestinians to understand that rather than engaging as solidarity activists with an existential Palestine, the task before us is to organize democratically and reclaim our national liberation institutions ourselves for ourselves. This reorientation in consciousness has been pivotal. We have not liberated Palestine, so we are not requiring of ourselves to create either a government or a state. The aim is simpler and more profound: to determine for ourselves together, collectively, our strategy for liberation and return. And since it is the only principle that puts popular sovereignty at its core, it is therefore the only truly revolutionary one.

During the previous era when the resistance organizations captured the PLO institutions from the notables and elites in the late 1960s, it functioned according to the ethos of the time, based upon the model employed by national liberation movements worldwide in the anti-colonial struggle for liberation. This means that those traditional organizing features of the period – underground resistance movements, unions, and mass institutional representation, were broadly popular and representative, and certainly legitimate. This is far from the case today. The PLO is empty of both the spirit and the will of the masses of struggling Palestinians. For example, most of our young people do not belong to any party, unlike the previous generation who filled the parties with their energy, commitment, and service, and gave the revolution its mandate. Most people belonged to one or more of the unions. In this way the PNC reflected a popular mandate. Today’s demands of direct enfranchisement of every Palestinian through democratic voting, constituency based, are reflective of this same principle of popular sovereignty, but expressed through the forms that are legitimate and collective today. And actually the issue here is both intrinsic and instrumental, for it is the only model that can work. A PNC based on factional quotas is not representative of the people, and only a directly elected national parliament can make the platforms and strategies of liberation that can represent the general will. So the demand is direct, and simple, and manageable. We have done it before, and we can easily do it again.

 
Seif Dana

I disagree that Palestinians had effectively organized themselves in a transnational governing body in the form of the PLO and the PNC. The PLO and the PNC were dominated since 1968 by wealthy members of the Palestinian community in Kuwait and the oil producing Arab states and formed the backbone of Fatah. For example, Arafat’s employment at the public work ministry in Kuwait put him in touch with the members of the wealthiest Palestinian community in exile, some of whom played important roles in Palestinian politics and PLO institutions since 1968.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the PLO’s first regime after the 1967 war, an interim chair of the executive committee, Yehya Hammoudeh, began an effort to reorganize the Palestine National Council with active participation of guerilla organizations that have just declared a strategy of armed struggle. Hammoudeh’s efforts together with strong influence from Fatah would result in an agreement that favored Fatah. The new Palestine National Council would consist of one hundred members distributed as follows: thirty-eight members for Fatah, ten for the Popular Front, twenty members for the Palestine Liberation Army, three for the popular and civil organizations (students, workers, and women), and twenty-nine independents.

During the February 1-4, 1969 PLO’s 5th Palestine National Council’s meeting, Fatah and the PFLP failed to reach an agreement regarding power sharing and control of the PLO, and the PFLP decided to boycott the meeting, insisting instead that “the existing PLO be completely dismantled to give all resistance movements equal voice in the leadership of the armed struggle”(Smith 1984: 195). Fatah took control of the PLO’s key positions and Yasser Arafat was selected as the head of the PLO executive committee (Jamal 2005: 19). In effect, the privilege and power baton traditional elite relinquished was passed to Fatah’s leadership and their supporters.

Fatah’s encroachment and control of the PLO was a significant political transformation in the history of the Palestinian National Movement, in which the orientation of the PLO’s agenda and even charter will have significant political and social impacts on the Palestinian national movement as a whole. Fatah’s control of the PLO’s key positions “gave the movement (Fatah) an advantage in the contest for supremacy within the Palestinian national movement. This step by the more conservative and pragmatic members of the national elite led to the marginalization of the other segment, which was more secular and more radical in its social views” (Jamal 2005: 19). So, The PLO (and PNC) was a powerful apparatus used to justify, or attenuate, the agenda of the right wing of the Palestinian movement.

The quest of the group that dominated the PLO and Fatah from the beginning was the establishment of a state. Fatah accepted and supported of the idea of entity (kiyan); “the establishment of a Palestinian revolutionary authority in the parts of Palestine that were put under Arab control after 1948 as an initial national step toward the liberation of all Palestine” (Filistinuna cited in Jamal 2005: 18) in the late 1950s, two decades before the ten-point plan of 1974.

Social, political, and economic transformations within the Palestinian communities, especially in exile, transformed the notion of a mini state (kiyan) from a treasonable notion into a "national necessity." The failure of the Palestinian elite to integrate into the Arab countries, and assimilate their growing economic power with the rising Arab elite in the oil producing countries, despite being accepted at the beginning, was the root cause underlying the quest for a political entity. This period of the history of the Palestinian national movement and PLO demonstrates not only the effective control and power the Palestinian elite in exile had on the PLO, but also the nature of the PLO as a revolutionary organization. The refugees, however, could not and did not integrate from the beginning.

 
Naseer Aruri

Is the situation reversible? Can the PLO return from its status as a virtual regime to a national liberation movement? Perhaps not with the same leadership the PA should remain with powers as a large municipality. Nothing more. The PLO, which has lost its structure, must be rebuilt.

One of the tragic mistakes is that we did not focus on the demand for the right to self-determination that encompasses everything. Instead, they concentrated on the idea of a state. A state? Netanyahu, Obama and Ariel Sharon also talked about a state, without land, water and borders. Everything is enclaves. Dr. Mamdouh Akr, head of a major human rights organization in the occupied territories put it this way:  

As far as I'm concerned, they can call that an empire. I can feel the seeds of change. There are demonstrations in the villages, the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel], the boycott on settlement products, defying the PA on the Goldstone report. What has happened in Tunisia and Egypt will expedite the process of change, revitalize the Palestinian cause and bring it back to where it belongs - not to a government or a 'state,' but as a movement of national liberation.

 

I would add: " ...as a representative movement of national liberation."


Today, US imperialism and hegemony are on the rise. Israel is governed by Iron Wall adherents, and thus unrestrained. The Arab states, which were inept in 1948, have been downright complicit. Egypt and Jordan not only enforced the Israeli siege on Gaza civilians, but they also provided training camps to the new quislings, in order to enable them to do the job of the Israeli army, and camouflage the occupation.

But this collaboration will be gone, no doubt, particularly after the great Arab Revolt of the spring 2011. This Arab awakening, which is still ongoing, is bound to reverse the earlier trends and create a milieu of emancipation and liberation. Egypt is no longer a symbol of subservience and collaboration; Its revolution has already placed it on the path of Arab nationalism.

At this juncture, one hopes that a regional milieu would create a more suitable environment for turning complicity back to resistance (perhaps the ongoing resistance in the form of BDS, and other means of non-violent struggle, together with serious efforts at unification of Fateh and Hamas). The backbone however, would have to be the non-violent mobilization. It would have to serve as the framework for the new resistance, the rebuilding of new institutions and the injection of democratic representation -- not that which governed the previous recruitment by appointment and the balancing of factions (fasail) in which Abu Ammar played the principal role.
 

Sherene Seikaly

I would agree with Seif Dana that Palestinian elites played a dominant role in the PLO and PNC. I would also emphasize that the character of those elites necessarily shifted and that is an important question to further explore. Additionally, it is also important to trace when and how Palestinian refugees constituted and challenged Palestinian politics. From today’s standpoint, the PLO’s turn to accepting a two-state solution and its recognition of 242 (the language of which reduces the Palestinian struggle to that of nameless refugees) are critical turning points, when the PLO’s ostensible base, Palestinian refugees, became marginal to the very terms of the struggle.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS

Karma Nabulsi

I would like to add some historical comments about the PLO. I raise these now because I believe that a clear understanding of our past can help us better confront our many present challenges; a fair appraisal of the revolutionary elements in our history can certainly help us to organize revolutionary action and thought in the future. Too many black legends are propagated about the history of the Palestinian revolution. The remarkable world of that revolution has been presented to our young people as being nothing more than a series of betrayals, corrupt acts, and nasty leaderships. Besides its inaccuracy, this alienates Palestinian youth from their own history, and creates a demobilizing atmosphere, guided as it is by the principle that everything was always wrong and nothing was ever right. Such narratives negate all the sacrifices, everyday heroism, and positive elements that flourished in the Palestinian revolution (pre-Oslo Fateh included), and especially of the contribution and actions of the tens of thousands of cadres it was comprised of.

First, it is not accurate to argue that the “state discourse or the two state solution” had been hegemonic within Fateh since the late 1950’s. This claim relies on a single quote from an article in the magazine Filastinuna, taken out of context, and presented in a secondary source that itself has a very problematic teleological reading of Palestinian resistance. Any serious reader of Filastinuna will notice that it advanced an absolute and unquestionable commitment to the idea of total liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea. Fateh at that time believed that the liberation struggle was to be led by the Palestinian people from Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinian areas that were under Egyptian and Jordanian administration. Those that spoke of a Palestinian kayan were interested in a fighting entity that could mobilize the entirety of the people in the battle for liberation. That is partly why they used the word kayan (entity) not dawla (state). Those interested in understanding Fateh’s ideas in the fifties should go back to the original sources, the two most important being Bayan Harakatuna (Our Movement’s Manifesto) and Haikal al-Binaa al-Thawri (The Structure of Revolutionary Building). The first goal of Fateh was outlined in its founding bayan without any ambiguity: “the liberation of Palestine in a total manner, and liquidating the Zionist occupying state politically, militarily, socially, and intellectually.” Every other Fateh principle, argument, article, pamphlet, or book from this period was built on this principle.

Actually, the same goes for Fateh of the sixties. Fateh was the first to call for armed struggle during this period. To call it “right wing,” is not entirely accurate, as it included numerous leftist (as well as rightist) elements that were committed to that principle. In fact, Fateh was the closest thing to a broad “national front” at the time, inspired in particular by the Maoist experience in China and by Ho Chi Minh’s example in Vietnam (for intellectual articulations of this fact see the following 1960’s Fateh publications: Al-Tajruba al-Vietnamia and Al-Tajruba al-Seenia, as well as Tahreer al-Aqtar al-Muhtala; for its concrete application check the lists of major cadres that were active during this period, reflecting communist, nationalist and Ba’athist as well as Muslim Brotherhood backgrounds). This is not to defend Fateh of today by any means, but it is to salvage the revolutionary legacy of the movement. Rejecting Oslo and its defeatist logic should not amount to rejecting the history of the Palestinian revolution -- indeed, reclaiming the history of the revolution should be a matter of concern for anyone serious about emphasising the importance of revolutionary struggle in the present and future.

Those who have experienced the revolutionary spirit of the past find claims that “the PLO and the PNC were dominated since 1968 by wealthy members of the Palestinian community in Kuwait and the oil producing Arab states and formed the backbone of Fatah” as quite alien. Sure, the Palestinian community, including the bourgeoisie and the businessmen in Kuwait played an important role in financing Fateh (as well as the PFLP by the way). But to claim that this amounts to “wealthy” or “Kuwaiti” dominance over the PLO and PNC is not only inaccurate but incorrect. Most of the Fateh leadership and cadres came from families that were out of the orbit of the traditional politics of the notables. And in fact, the 1960s witnessed quite a shift in the Fateh leadership from the Gulf based group to those located in Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon.

As for the reasons behind the PFLP’s initial attitude to the PLO, these are complicated. There was a traditional mistrust of the PLO on the part of the groups that were committed to armed struggle (indeed, Fateh’s entry to the PLO was itself made with hesitance and after much internal debate). There were also differences over the percentage of seats that each party would get (the PFLP demanded a larger quota than Fateh was prepared to give, that did not represent its diminished weight in the post-Karameh period). Those interested in the debates of the period should go back to PFLP publications from those days rather than Western secondary literature on the topic.  A good sense can be gained from the PFLP’s 1969 pamphlet “Al-Jabha al-Sha’biya Li Tahreer Filasteen Tuwadeh Mawqifaha Min al-Ishtirak fi al-Majlis al-Watani wa Al-Lajna al-Tanfithya wa Qiyadat al-Kifah al-Musalah” (The PFLP Clarifies its Position Regarding Participation in the PNC and the Executive Committee and the Leadership in the Armed Struggle). The evolution of these positions can also be seen in the post-Black September period in such writings as "Al-Bayan al-Siyassi al-Muqadam ila al-Dawra al-Tasi’a Lil Majlis al-Watani al-Filasteeni.” (The Political Communiqué Submitted to the 9th Session of the PNC) which explains why the PFLP participated in the PNC for the first time. The PFLP’s history with the PNC has ebbed and flowed, but it has always accepted the principles of the PNC, and for many years it has regretted its early positions on it. Certainly, those positions were not shared by the entirety of the Palestinian left (including the left-faction within Fateh and the DFLP).

What is important to emphasize, however, is that whereas the PNC at the time operated on the basis of “revolutionary legitimacy” (accepted as a concept and guiding principle by PFLP, Fateh, DFLP and everyone else at the time and common to anti-colonial liberation movements of the period), what is relevant today is to shift the basis of representation to “electoral legitimacy,” by enfranchising all Palestinians including those living in the places of refuge and exile. Our strength does not lie in either negating or disposing of our entire political heritage, but rather in reclaiming its proper resources and strengthening it through common principles and purposes. Structures like the PNC and the PLO were established after a long and arduous process of struggle with the Israelis, the Arab regimes, and the western states, and most importantly, in spite of them. These structures afford Palestinians struggling for liberation and return the necessary mechanism for representation -- once re-energized with our people’s popular will -- in spite of their current emptiness and unrepresentative character.
 

Seif Dana

I argued that the PLO did not only fail, but enfolded the seeds of failure from the beginning in its political thoughts, structure, and social orientation and background of its leadership. My concern in this very short exercise (to call for reconstructing the history of the Palestinian national movement (PNM) and the PLO) is to explain the political present of the PNM and its leading force, the PLO. Failure alone not only does not suffice neither explaining the tragic conclusion of the PLO venture nor the political present. It does not provide any insights for any promising alternative future. In other words, my concern with an alternative past is not to explain the causes of the failure per se but also to seek principles of a view for an alternative future (this, of course, requires more space and effort than this very short synopsis).

I inserted the term “tragic” above to characterize the PLO’s failure in order to highlight the amazing heroism and great sacrifices of the Palestinian people and the cadres and members of the PLO’s factions despite the disastrous outcome. In this sense, there is a need to distinguish between history (which explains the present, or should be reconstructed to do so should we continue to seek the envisioned promising future of the first generation of Palestinian rebels) and historical literature. Slipping into idealism and holding on to the romantic optics to perceive the PLO and the history of the PLO’s venture might have been necessary in the early period of the Palestinian revolution -- like any revolution at the beginning (David Scott’s “Conscripts of Modernity: the Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment” reading of C.L.R James account of the Haitian Revolution in the “The Black Jacobins” might be useful to consider). Retroactively, however, it is possible now to see that underneath the shrill of revolutionary lexis of defiance, there was always a tacit, and sometimes explicit, willingness to compromise and accept a political settlement to the contrary. Both Arafat’s 13 November 1974 UN speech and 15 November 1988 Declaration of Independence of the State of Palestine are good examples. (I dealt with both in more details elsewhere in Arabic in the “State Discourse” and “Tragedy of the PLO”. We live in a new era, however, that requires highly critical lenses to perceive the PLO experience in order for the liberation, not state, scheme to remain alive.

In short, given what seems to many as an undisputed outcome, or failure, (unless we can pinpoint concrete success or if we consider the establishment of the Palestinian Authority as a historical achievement) any recounted history might show that, at its kernel, the PLO germinated conditions and enfolded forces that spearheaded its demise. The PLO failed because of factors similar to those that rendered earlier independence and development attempts in the Arab homeland (and elsewhere) ephemeral, calamitously departing the nationalism and independence age. Similarly, the PLO’s failure was immaculate. Post-Nakba rising social forces that took over the PLO, led a fundamental reconstruction of the whole political and cultural landscape underlying the PLO’s national and democratic liberation cause.

Changing global, regional and local structural conditions coincided with the highly pragmatic, but hegemonic nonetheless, Palestinian elite to produce the co-optation of once the most spectacular manifestation of revolutionary vigor in the modern history of the Middle East. An evener, an alternative to dwarf the effects of the inescapable social nature of the leading forces the post 1948 war realities sprouted, was not missing and the elites’ ascendance to and grip on power was not without a fight internally and beyond the PLO’s institutions (e.g., Fatah vs. PFLP; PLO vs. the 1970s “National Front” and “National Guidance Committee” in the West Bank and Gaza). Failure, however, was a matter of history, not in spite of it. With the exception of few a cases, literature on the Palestine question has ignored this highly important dimension of the conflict within the PLO (see Habash 1998; Kazziha 1975; Gresh 1985; Tamari 2003).

However, this is not and cannot be the end of the story of the Palestinian struggle. Given that the specter of Palestine appears to be occupying a central status in the ongoing Arab revolts that definitely signify the beginning of a new era, one should remain highly optimistic. The beginning should be a shift in the political discourse towards restoring the original and true view of the conflict (anti-colonial struggle rather than border conflict), a discourse of liberation rather than state. This is a great step.

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Part III: Whither Palestinian Resistance? [open in separate window

3. For many Palestinians who had hitherto been involved in the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its associated bodies like the Palestinian National Council, the advent of the peace process and particularly the terms of the Oslo Accords signaled a collapse in a resistance platform and instead a turn to complicit accommodation of Israeli colonialism and apartheid. Do you agree with this sentiment? If so, what factors do you believe contributed to the collapse of the resistance platform and do you believe it can be rehabilitated? If not, what do you believe constitutes a resistance platform today?   In either case, how can the Palestinian national body continue its struggle for self-determination in light of the peace process’s most recent collapse?

 Naseer Aruri

The Palestinian struggle for "independence" or self-determination since the 1967 occupation passed through three stages: Paramilitary, known as "armed struggle," diplomatic/political, political, and statist. Initially, the armed struggle was declared as the means to establish a single democratic secular state in all of Palestine in which equality among Christians, Muslims and Jews would prevail. That was a short-lived endeavor, which effectively came to an end in the early 1970s. An unwritten agreement was then reached between the PLO and the Arab states, in which the former agreed to tone down its revolutionary rhetoric, give up the “armed struggle,” and launch a form of diplomatic struggle jointly with the Arab states in pursuit of a mini-state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The diplomatic struggle proceeded since 1973/74 (Algiers and Rabat summits, which recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people). But while pseudo diplomacy was the major focus of the PLO’s work during the 70s, 80s and 90s, there was an important political struggle going on inside the occupied territories. It was the endeavor of civil/political society applying a non-violent struggle under the banner of the Palestinian National Front PNF during the 1970s). Their techniques varied from non- payment of taxes, to boycotts, demonstrations, and other peaceful means designed to not only declare the occupation For the next two decades, this unwritten agreement, and the search for a “two-state solution,” was to consume the combined energies of Palestinians and Arabs.

The third phase is the statist, the search for statehood began with the PLO quest for international recognition, as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, claimed the largest portion of Arab and Palestinian resources, and that came at the expense of fundamental national and human rights, including refugee rights and interests. The PLO was easily enticed to embark on the Oslo process, just as it had been persuaded to enter into the joint diplomatic struggle for a futile two-state solution two decades earlier. Israel’s aim was to side-line the political/civil society struggle going on inside the Occupied Territories. From there the road to Oslo was paved for an unprepared PLO, and the result was the present disaster. 

For the millions of Palestinians scattered outside pre-1948 Palestine, Oslo meant that there would never be restitution or a right of return, there would never be adequate representation. For the Palestinians inside Israel, Oslo meant that they would have to accept, for all times, their status as second-class citizens -- the cutters of wood and hewers of water.

Oslo succeeded in dismantling the fabric of civil society and destroying its grassroots political struggle. In its place, we now have a state apparatus without a state. Thus, Oslo’s biggest damage was the one inflicted on civil society.

Peace may never be at hand as long as the 1948 Nakba is not recognized for what it is — a form of ethnic cleansing, a colonial settler enterprise, which covets the land without the people.

The ultimate goal of the colonial settler regime is to destroy the political and national existence of a whole community of people, and thus deny it the possibility of self-determination. It is a process of politicide, one that has as its ultimate goal the dissolution of the Palestinian people’s existence as a legitimate national, social, and economic entity, which may also include partial or total ethnic cleansing.

This is what Israel has been doing to the Palestinian people, persistently between 1948 and the present —destroying the very fabric of the Palestinian nation and obliterating the Palestinian WUJOUD (presence).

Of course, the so-called peace process could never succeed in these conditions. First, a colonial settler regime is inconsistent with peace and so is the pursuit of politicide.  A two-state solution is not in the offing, given the lack of intent to withdraw from occupied land, and to permit any sovereignty other than Israeli on any piece of land lying between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Consequently, a real state in the West Bank and Gaza is simply not in the cards. That also goes for Fayyad's 2011 project.
 

Seif Dana

Yes, I agree. Actually, a tacit willingness to accommodate the Zionist colonization of Palestine existed since the early 1970s. The quest for a mini-state by the Palestinian elite began much earlier and became possible after this group took over the PLO. The Palestinian elite control of the PLO since 1974 was truly nothing less than a coup d'état .It replaced the liberation discourse that enfolded early Palestinian revolutionary thoughts with the state discourse, which entails not only a tacit recognition of the Zionist colonial scheme, but clearly showed that Palestinian (and Arab) elite shared structural interest with the Israeli elite. This, at least partially, explain not only much about the Oslo era (an agreement intended originally to prepare the foundations for a neo-liberal Middle East rather than achieve alleged peace), but also the futility of all attempts to reform and rehabilitate the PLO. The story of the Palestinian elite in exile since the Nakba is important and is worth narrating to understand the sequence of events from 1970 on. 

In the aftermath of the Nakba, wealthy and influential Palestinians embarked on economic schemes and extended their economic base to the rest of the Arab world and beyond. The economic success story of the Nakba duly bred Palestinian bourgeoisie is more than just impressive. In less than five years after the Nakba, Palestinian owned firms dominated the Arab economy and were the central player in enormous economic ventures that were regional in scale. The story of the Contracting and Trading Industry (CAT), one of several ventures that operated at the regional level and had international connections, testifies to a significant impact these ventures had on the development of Palestinian and PLO politics later.

It all began with the early 1940s economic recovery when CAT, a Palestinian venture established by the Lebanese businessman residing in Palestine, Emile Bustani, received major construction contracts from the British Army during the war. After the war, CAT extended its operation to the rest of the Middle East, operating in construction of, among many things, oil pipelines and oil installations. In the early 1950s, CAT formed a partnership with the British Motherwell Bridge and Engineering company. The new breed, MotherCat, specializing in refineries construction, pipelines and oil tank farms, was the only one in the world that was capable of providing the kind and size of pipe needed for the Middle East oilfields (Smith 1984: 137).

Successfully performing major construction work for British Petroleum and Shell (such as the construction of the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC) in the early 1950s), CAT’s operation extended to all British controlled Arab Gulf States. CAT and MotherCat won

major contracts for the construction of oil pipelines, oil terminals and storage depots, roads, power plants, water-supply installations, port and harbor works, pumping stations and commercial buildings in Kuwait, Qatar, the Emirates and later, in Saudi Arabia and Oman as well. In Qatar, CAT obtained a virtual monopoly on foreign trade and construction for the oil industry in the early 1950s (Ibid: 135).     

    

Scores of Palestinian firms and Palestinian businessmen embarked on other ventures that would also extend their operations to the rest of the Middle East. Investors from the pre-war Arab Bank branch in Haifa would establish the Arabia Insurance Company, with branches in most Arab countries and even in Britain, the Cortas Canning and Refrigeration Company, Al Mashriq Financial Investment Company of Beirut, and the Beirut-based Intra Bank that became the largest financial institution in Lebanon with assets amounting to just under one billion Lebanese pounds (325 million US dollars) in 1965. In addition to their actual specialization, these corporations would own airlines (Middle East Airline operating from Lebanon), casinos, publishing houses, radio and TV interests. 

The power of this group was not only in being the best and most-fit instrument suitable for a possible integration of the Arab economy, but also in their access to political power in Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Lebanon, Libya, Bahrain, and their political involvement in Palestinian politics and PLO since the beginning. Fuad Saba of the Arab Bank and the founder of the Al Mashriq Financial Institution that handled businesses for CAT, Arabia Insurance, and other Palestinian-owned firms, was responsible for setting up the Palestine National Fund and was appointed Secretary of the Arab Higher Committee (Ibid: 132-3). Emile Bustani’s death in a crash while campaigning for the presidency in Lebanon, in addition to other seemingly unexplainable accidental deaths of several Palestinian businessmen initiated many conspiracy theories regarding their fate. The Palestinian elite not only created a structure for a possible economic integration of the Arab world, but assumed that they have successfully integrated into the Arab surroundings.

The success of the Palestinian bourgeoisie in exile, engrossing the envy of rising local bourgeoisie in the recently independent Arab countries, led to a series of new measures adopted by the Arab countries favoring compatriots for holding supervisory positions in the economy, and local companies, rather than Palestinian-owned firms, for major contractual work. Such a strategy would stabilize these regimes and eliminate such structures that might make Arab unity in the future conceivable. Many Arab countries amended their agreements with oil corporations giving priorities to their nationals to hold key positions in oil ventures, while others, like Kuwait, gave this favoritism the power of the law as in the 1965 Industrial Law. In the exceptional cases in which Palestinian firms could still acquire contracts and were allowed to operate, they were required, as foreigners, to pay hefty fees. The new measures coupled with the nationalization of firms, resources, and assets in many countries such as Iraq after the Qasem revolution, Syria and Libya, and even arrest of Palestinian businessmen as in the case of Libya, bankrupted many of these firms, while others lost holdings to rising Arab businesses, especially in the Arab Gulf states.   

The last of these pernicious measures took place in Jordan. Forced by the decision made during the Arab Summit Conference held in Rabat, Morocco, in 1974 to recognize the PLO as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and following the failure of the United Arab Kingdom initiative to unite the West and East Bank, King Hussein temporarily abandoned his quest for controlling the West Bank and embarked on the program of Jordanizing the East Bank. As a result, influential Palestinians lost their powerful political posts in the government and civil administration. Thus, “Palestinian merchants, financiers, and industrialists who depended on the government for contracts and funds found themselves at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their Jordanian rivals” (Ibid: 142). Losing ground in exile, many prosperous businessmen and ex-Jordanian loyalists switched allegiance to the PLO. The Palestinian bourgeoisie began their long quest for a state of their own, and the PLO was the effective instrument. 

It is fair to conclude that the PLO did not really fail miserably, one might say, but enfolded the seeds of failure from the beginning. The destiny of diaspora activism was ill-fated from the beginning as well. It failed to either contribute to the national liberation scheme or community building in the diaspora. Entwined structurally and politically with that of the PLO’s scheme, the fate of the diaspora activism was sealed.


Karma Nabulsi

Not to be too dialectical, but this same strategy to free ourselves and to represent ourselves freely is also the same self-mobilizational mechanism to unite ourselves. This is why a reconciliation of the factions (although always welcome) neither addresses nor solves the Palestinian predicament. Without the force of the popular will coming together in the equivalent of our own national public square, we cannot liberate ourselves. As this core aim is what binds us, the calls for direct elections to the PNC has taken new life. And I am confident, within the fold of the Arab revolutions that are currently underway, that it will succeed.

Many other strategies and frameworks that have either distracted us from our national responsibilities, or have not been able to have the strong effect they must, can function properly when emerging directly from a body comprised of the people themselves. It is here, too, that the early revolutionary generations’ work can provide useful models. Our people, as we know, possess an extraordinary amount of talent, determination, and courage. Within a loose framework of the institutional unity that the PNC provides, all of these independent initiatives and gestures, all the civic activities in the realm of intellectual initiatives, of student activism, of workers’ mobilizations, of culture production, of collective and individual enterprises and campaigning, of resistance through popular and legal strategies, can take both strength and direction. For we absolutely need this kind of intellectual, ideological, and sectoral pluralism, this vitality, this debate and contestation within the national architecture of our liberation struggle.

Here, the differences and divergences become a real strength, rather than simply adding to our current fragmentation and frustration. In our own revolutionary history at its best, and in every revolution’s history, it is within the collective framework that the unique contributions of each find their home inside the collective. For me, this is the essence of political freedom.


Sherene Seikaly

Nasser Aruri makes a powerful point in reminding us of the PLO’s shift from armed struggle, to pseudo-diplomacy, to pseudo-state strategies. I would add here that there the Arab spring offers some lessons and reminders for the course of Palestinian politics. Grassroots mass mobilization was the force that inspired, executed, and undertook the uprisings and revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt. We are now witnessing various leadership figures scrambling to catch up to the will and strength of popular demand. Similarly, in 1936 the elite Palestinian leadership was at pains to harness the popular resistance to British colonialism and Zionist settlement. In the 1970s and later with the beginning of the Intifada, grassroots organizing led and the political leadership followed in the struggle against the occupation. This is the case today, as broad efforts in the West Bank and Gaza and beyond call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. As we witness the unlikely sight of courageous Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese lining that invented and impermeable border that has interrupted lives and families, the possibility of another moment of popular politics is upon us. 

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