As the ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian organisations in the Gaza Strip entered into force in the early hours of 21 May, celebrations erupted throughout the Palestinian world. From their towns in Israel and the occupied territories to refugee camps in the surrounding Arab states, Palestinians took to the streets not to express relief at the end of Israel’s latest rampage, but to affirm the recovered unity with which they had sabotaged Israel’s war machine.
It is a remarkable transformation that in the space of mere weeks has given their struggle for self-determination a new lease on life and resonated powerfully throughout—and well beyond—the Arab world.
As recently as March, the Trump administration’s Metternich-in-residence, Prince Jared of Kushner, triumphantly announced that “We are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict”. Casually dismissing the Question of Palestine as “nothing more than a real-estate dispute”, he ridiculed its centrality to the region as a “myth” that he had effortlessly punctured with a fistful of F-35s.
Kushner was convinced that together with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he had solved the Question of Palestine with a formula that had been hiding in plain sight for over seven decades: pretend it does not exist, and it will fade away.
At one level, reality—shaped by the events of the past three decades—did seem increasingly aligned with such hubris.
A Municipal Model of Palestinian Politics
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for many years operated as a genuinely representative and overwhelmingly popular national movement. If this began to diminish in the aftermath of the PLO’s 1982 forced departure from Lebanon and subsequent internal divisions, it was compensated for by the First Intifada which erupted in the occupied territories in 1987. That mass uprising reverberated so powerfully across the region that within weeks the Lebanese Amal movement and Syrian government felt compelled to lift their murderous years-long siege of Beirut’s Palestinian refugee camps.
The 1993 Oslo agreement formed a turning point. The separatism implicit in Palestinian nationalism was formalised in an agreement that detached the Question of Palestine from the Arab-Israeli conflict. One could argue that Egypt’s previous abandonment of Arab ranks, the preoccupation of Arab states with the Iran-Iraq war throughout the 1980s, the squeeze put upon the PLO by the Gulf states after the 1990-1991 Kuwait Crisis and upon its dominant Fatah movement by the ascendancy of Hamas in the occupied territories, and then the preparedness of Syria—and therefore Lebanon—to negotiate a separate peace with Israel left PLO leader Yasir Arafat with few alternatives. If so, he chose the worst of bad options.
With the stroke of a pen, the Palestinian diaspora and Palestinians in Israel—together constituting more than half the world’s Palestinians – were shunted to the margins of Palestinian politics. As the centre of gravity shifted from the PLO to the newly-established Palestinian Authority (PA), these communities were explicitly excluded from participation in its institutions and elections. While Palestinians in Israel had their own political parties, the political significance of the diaspora, which had disproportionately led and sustained the national movement, dwindled away to little more than a demographic reality.
Within the occupied territories a similar process was taking place. As Israel began to replace cheap labour from the occupied territories with foreign workers in the aftermath of the First Intifada and the transformation of its economy required less of them, successive governments worked to increasingly isolate the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip from Israel as well as from each other.
After the arrival of the PA in the mid-1990s, this process of geographic fragmentation accelerated exponentially, and was now also enforced within each of these territories. This policy is an essential ingredient of the 2007 Fatah-Hamas schism, and numerous analysts have noted that maintaining a divided Palestinian polity has since become an Israeli priority.
The fruits of these efforts, ripened by Palestinian leaderships preoccupied with maintaining power and cultivating foreign support for their factional struggles rather than conflict with Israel, became increasingly visible.
Akin to municipal governments, and with few exceptions, the leadership of each Palestinian community dealt with only local matters. Thus, Hamas’s relationship with Israel was largely reduced to seeking relief from the punishing blockade of the Gaza Strip, Arab parties within Israel focused on the state’s increasingly brazen racism towards their constituents, while in Ramallah, President Mahmoud Abbas became almost wholly devoted to dying in office. At the formal, institutional level national politics was increasingly a thing of the past.
At the regional level, a similar trend emerged. Convinced by Abbas’s paralysis and Israel’s walls and fences that Kushner and Netanyahu had finally rid them of the troublesome Question of Palestine, Arab autocrats openly embraced Greater Israel in order to obtain special treatment from Washington. They gambled that Palestinians would no longer shame them with rebellion and martyrdom, and that their own peoples would obligingly leave it to the courts to resolve what remained of this “real-estate dispute” and move on.
Palestinians have a habit of rising up when they are at their weakest and most desperate and have been demonstrably abandoned to their dire fate. And that is what they did in 2021. The forced expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem and the repeated raids on the Al Aqsa Mosque, which in Israeli calculations would have pitted the might of the state against the sequestered and pauperised residents of East Jerusalem, mobilised Palestinians inside the Green Line, first to the Holy City and then within their towns and villages throughout Israel.
In contrast to its previous confrontations with Israel, this time Hamas struck the first blow and did so for reasons that ostensibly had nothing to do with conditions in the Gaza Strip. Within days Palestinian demonstrators in Jordan and Lebanon, along with at least as many Jordanians and Lebanese, were massing on the borders while increasingly large demonstrations erupted throughout the West Bank and Arab world in support of the Palestinians.
In Washington, the top military officer, General Mark Milley, warned of the “risk [of] broader destabilization... [and] a whole series of negative consequences if the fighting continues.” The chief myth-makers, in other words, were revealed to be Kushner, Netanyahu, and their now invisible partners.
Collectively, the mobilisation sent an unmistakable message that despite all efforts to the contrary, Palestine remains a national as well as an Arab cause. Perhaps it was on account of the powerful resonance of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. More likely it was a confluence of dynamics that produced a collective realisation that if rights are not defended here and now, they will be lost forever. In any case, the municipal model of Palestinian politics has been shattered.
In the recent past, the 1987-1993 Intifada led to Oslo, while the 2000-2004 Intifada concluded with Abbas in power and the Palestinians largely domesticated. Israel and its Western allies will now work hard to re-pacify the Palestinians and revive a model that has focused Palestinian attentions primarily inward and functioned so well for their adversaries.
For Palestinians, remaining mobilised is crucial. More importantly, they need to find a way to seize the moment and definitively consign fragmentation to the past in order to once again confront their existential challenges on a national basis. The alternative is a perpetuation of what is erroneously termed the status quo. Rather than being a static state of affairs, the status quo is in fact a dynamic reality characterised by a continuous process of dispossession that shows no signs of abating.
[This article was first published on the website of Al Jazeera English on 10 July 2021.]