Between 13-15 December, the Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem, Mada al Carmel, the Birzeit University Institute of Law, the Stop the Wall Campaign, the Trans-Arab Research Institute (TARI), and the Arab Studies Institute (ASI) will be convening a conference under the banner: Alternative Strategies for Realizing Justice in Palestine. The conference will take place in Jerusalem, Birzeit, and Nazareth to highlight, and attempt to rehabilitate, national fragmentation and explore strategies for resistance. What follows is a summary of the ideas that led the aforementioned organizations to join together in this effort. The summary is by TARI president George Bisharat, in coordination with, and on behalf of, the conference organizers.The conference program can be found here.
More than twenty years ago, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) made a strategic decision to seek a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip through bilateral negotiations with Israel. Yet today the Palestinian people remain in practical terms stateless, and are divided and fragmented in a manner that rivals the immediate post-1948 period. Israeli colonization has relentlessly eroded the land base for a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state. The United States has posed as the broker of the negotiating process, even though it has repeatedly proven Vice President Joe Biden’s insistence that “There’s absolutely no daylight -- none -- between us and the Israelis on the question of Israel’s security.”
Israel eventually suspended the seemingly endless peace negotiations in 2014, but this did little to slow it from further entrenching its project of apartheid and colonization on Palestinian land. In response, the Palestinian leadership, for a brief period, opted for the “internationalization” of the Palestinian struggle through accession to international treaties and multilateral bodies, including the International Criminal Court.
It also continued to pay lip-service to “national reconciliation,” a goal shared by virtually all Palestinians. At this point, there is no indication that such reconciliation will be implemented. Thus, there is no chance that it could lead to a distinctly different Palestinian strategy for liberation and more participation by all sectors of the Palestinian people. Indeed, the rhetoric of national reconciliation of the Palestinian leaderships on both sides of the divide seems no different than the Israeli commitment to the peace process or to a two-state solution: an empty political gesture. Meanwhile, there is little question that the Palestinian people are facing a transformed economic, social and political landscape.
We now have more than two decades of empirical evidence that the peace process, as practiced so far, is not a viable path to justice for the Palestinian people. We also have sufficient evidence that the current Palestinian leadership has little incentive to change its course, least of all by adopting strategies that empower its constituent base. It is therefore contingent upon those concerned with Palestinian rights, and with justice more generally in Israel/Palestine, to formulate alternative strategies for achieving liberation and establishing a just society for all people entitled to live in the country, including Palestinian refugees.
In recent years, Palestinians have developed two alternative approaches that have proven more promising than U.S.-brokered negotiations and have gained considerable global support. One is the civil society-driven BDS movement. The other is a multilateral approach to diplomacy based on moves through the UN General Assembly and other international bodies that are relatively less hostage to U.S./Western dominance.
One successful example of the approach within the United Nations system was the request for an Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legal consequences of Israel’s construction of the Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. That initiative resulted in a sweeping legal victory for Palestinian rights in 2004. As such it suggests the gains that can be achieved through international bodies when backed by a committed Palestinian leadership - one that is not afraid to displease Israel, and most especially, the United States, in its pursuit of the rights of the Palestinian people.
While the ICJ’s rulings have yet to be implemented, the decision itself has spurred the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The BDS call requires that Israel dismantle its regime of apartheid and settler colonialism and respect the internationally-recognized rights to freedom, justice and equality of all Palestinians, including those occupied since 1967, those living in Israel as second-class citizens and the exiled Palestinian refugees who are entitled to return. Palestinian civil society launched the Call on the one-year anniversary of the ICJ decision. The global movement in response has gained significant momentum, public notoriety and mounting tangible successes over the last years.
At the same time, there are many indications that Israel’s position within the international community is increasingly tenuous. Outside of the United States, there is very little question about Israel’s substantial responsibility for undermining the two-state solution. That awareness is growing within the United States as well. As Israel’s government, policies, and people turn to even more extreme nationalism and overt racism, its record of serial aggressions and constant war-mongering is harder to ignore or defend. This underscores the urgency for determined, pro-active strategies of liberation.
Naming and Resisting Fragmentation
Since 1948, geographic dispersion and subjection to a variety of foreign sovereignties has challenged the sense of unity of the Palestinian people. After 1967, the PLO effectively forged such unity among the Palestinian nation. That hard won unity, however, is currently under threat among the global Palestinian nation, politically, as well as domestically among Palestinians. This is largely a consequence of the diminution in the stature and vitality of the PLO, the unresolved split between Fateh and Hamas, and the fragmentation and elite domination of politics that as ensued as a direct consequence of the Oslo accords.
Palestinians live parallel lives in discrete communities, under different systems of law and government. We pursue diverse models of political participation and representation via community-based organizations, NGOs, political groups, and movements, the Palestinian Authority, and the Israeli parliament (Knesset), with relatively little opportunity to meet, discuss, and debate national goals and priorities. Beyond political representation, the differences in daily experience, are particularly acute between the relatively privileged and virtually all other Palestinian communities as is the case of those Palestinians in the West Bank who inhabit what is widely referred to as the “Ramallah bubble,” home to Palestine’s political and economic elites. The Palestinian body politic is being subject to incremental dismemberment.
Even within Palestinian communities, moreover, distinctions have widened between the category of individuals who have profited from the current conditions, and the far greater majority of Palestinians who have been impoverished in these same conditions. Thus pre-existing vertical or class divisions have been exacerbated within Palestine alongside geographic and other forms of fragmentation.
It is crucial that we recognize the damage to virtually all Palestinians inherent in these processes of dismemberment, and devise strategies to resist them. For this reason, the first roundtable set in Jerusalem asks the discussants to consider how local strategies for resistance can reflect the interests of, and perhaps mobilize, the entire Palestinian nation. Similarly, the last roundtable in Nazareth brings together discussants from Gaza, ’48, the West Bank, and the United States to explore ways for rebuilding Palestinian unity.
Strategies for Justice and Liberation
It is possible to identify a number of categories of strategies for justice and liberation: legal, diplomatic, economic and popular resistance, international solidarity, and for Palestinian citizens of Israel, partaking in Israeli domestic politics and its legal system at a variety of levels. There is, of course, overlap between all of these categories, yet each seems sufficiently distinct to serve as a pole around which to orient fruitful discussion.
How can law be used to advance liberation and justice in Palestine? “Law” here is not limited to courtroom litigation, but also comprehends uses of law in public writing, scholarship, diplomacy, and elsewhere. What kinds of legal actions are feasible to advance Palestinian rights in our own legal systems, in the legal systems of foreign nations, and in the international legal system, especially the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court? In addition, do the advantages of legal actions within the Israeli system outweigh the risks, particularly the legitimation effects of seeking justice from the oppressor?
This discussion seeks to build on the May 2013 conference at Birzeit University that highlighted the advantages of augmenting the legal conceptualization of Israel’s control of Palestinian lands as mere “occupation,” by invoking legal principles of apartheid, colonialism, forced population transfer/ethnic cleansing and associated criminal responsibility and third-state obligations. The conference eventually generated a set of guidelines for activists that have been distributed widely; it is time, therefore, to evaluate their impact, and to either revise or reinforce those guidelines according to experience.
Economic and Popular strategies
The Oslo process has also induced economic dependency of significant segments of our people, either through neoliberal policies in the private sector, or via public employment in the Palestinian Authority. Some Palestinians have profited from current circumstances, and/or have vested financial interests in their continuation. The vast majority, however, have suffered major economic deprivation. A clear analysis of the situation is crucial, especially in view of the recurring suggestion to dissolve the Palestinian Authority.
Further thinking must be done regarding how we, as a people, can shape our economy to render it less vulnerable to external political pressures. For example, it is time to explore the mutual benefits of building economic cooperation between Palestinians in the West Bank and those in the 1948 areas. Moreover, how can popular resistance (i.e., demonstrations, civil disobedience, tax withholding, boycotts, anti-normalization) transcend the divergent interests of various sectors, social and political, of Palestinian society and mobilize them into action?
Over the last several years the Palestinian leadership began taking steps toward “internationalizing” the struggle for liberation by joining numerous international treaties and organizations. Palestinian officials have often appeared to take these steps with the greatest reluctance, in response to disappointment with negotiations, and possibly as a tactic to revive those negotiations with Israel under more favorable circumstances.
The implications of, and possibilities provided by, these accessions must be studied and discussed. Changing regional and other international circumstances bear implications for Palestine - such as the reemergence of Russia as a potential counter to U.S. power in the Middle East and the growing economic and political importance of the emerging economies. We must examine how to effectively mobilize overwhelming support by international law and peoples worldwide for the Palestinian cause in multilateral initiatives inside and outside the UN system.
Diplomacy is conducted primarily by Palestinian officials, and is commonly considered to be outside the reach of civil society. But critical focus should be trained on how civil society already engages in the diplomatic arena - for example, in the recent presentation of evidence to the International Criminal Court by an array of Palestinian human rights organizations - and under what circumstances this can be productive. Further, we must address the question on how to ensure accountability of Palestinian diplomats to the people they purport to serve.
In the course of ten years, the Palestinian civil society-led BDS movement has shown how international solidarity can be actualized in manner that changes the balance of power in favor of the Palestinian people and its fundamental rights. It does so by working with civil society abroad to sever ties of support between, mainly Western, consumers, businesses and academic and cultural institutions and Israel’s system of settler colonialism and apartheid, and by challenging normalization of Israeli oppression. How can this movement be strengthened globally and how can it help further cohere a fragmented Palestinian nation?
Additionally, it is imperative to highlight transnational movement building at a time of increasing synergies between the Palestinian liberation movement and other communities, like the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States as well as movements for public spaces, and indigenous people’s movements globally.
The Struggle Within
Palestinian citizens of Israel have, for many years, participated in Israeli electoral politics, including, in the most recent elections, via a unified list of candidates. What are the costs and benefits of that participation? How can Palestinian citizens of Israel take part in the struggle of the Palestinian people for justice and liberation, without invoking drastic retaliation by Israeli authorities? At various points in our national struggle, the initiative for achieving justice has shifted from the diaspora, in the days of a vibrant PLO, to the OPT’s, in the first intifada. Is it conceivable that Palestinian citizens of Israel could be the next to provide leadership to the nation as a whole? The third and final day of the conference to take place in Nazareth will consider these salient issues.
We may be entering a particularly critical transitional phase in the struggle for justice in Palestine. The Oslo peace process has not yet been buried, and the possible revival of negotiations in the coming months cannot be entirely dismissed. Still, the time is ripe for wide public discussion among all Palestinian communities about our collective future. We must exploit every opportunity to engage in a national dialogue characterized by frank, informed, and respectful discussion of the problems that we currently face as a people. Faced with a lack of a national and popular leadership to initiate these discussions or steward the movement for national liberation, we must begin the discussions ourselves. This conference is intended as a first step, among many, in that direction.