Last year marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. ISR editorial board member Phil Gasper spoke to Toufic Haddad about what has happened since then and the current state of the Palestinian struggle. Haddad is the author of Palestine Ltd: Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory (I. B. Tauris), released in paperback in 2018.
It’s twenty-five years since the Declaration of Principles (DOP) was signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Looking back now, this agreement, [which was the first of several reached between the two sides, and which are commonly referred to as the “Oslo Accords”] is totally in tatters from the point of view of the Palestinians and the aspiration to set up any kind of independent Palestinian state. Can you give us some of the history of where Oslo came from, how things have developed in the last twenty-five years, and how we got to the situation today?
There’s a lot to address in that question but I will start by debunking the impression that surrounded—and continues to surround—the accords, and that propagates the notion that they represented a bona fide peace agreement between the Israeli government and the PLO. Not only does the track record of what happened belie this, but twenty-five years on we have a lot more evidence indicating that what was happening was anything but a form of historical reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinian people that was intended to lead towards peace or Palestinian statehood. On the contrary, a “peace process” mythology was deliberately cultivated to obfuscate clear shortcomings of the accords themselves, the context in which they were reached and implemented, and the ends toward which these agreements were employed. Analysis of these dimensions ultimately discloses far more problematic—in fact, sinister—agendas, not only of Israel and the US, but the entire Western bloc of states that politically and financially backed, and continue to back, the “peace process.”
One would expect, at the very minimum, that a bona fide peace process would work to at least nominally address and amend the historical sources of conflict between the parties, ending the atrocious human rights situation the Palestinian people have lived in since 1948 within historical Palestine and beyond, with the majority of the population displaced from their land and homes, and those within Palestine existing under conditions of military occupation and hardship since 1948, denied the right to self-determination, etc. But the DOP does not even mention the word “occupation” let alone indicate that a Palestinian state is to be its end game. These suspicious elisions should be read in parallel with the failure to adequately address political critiques of the accords themselves, which were voiced most eloquently at the time by prominent Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. In fact, whole strata of Palestinian intellectuals and elites from most political factions, including some within Fatah, were against the accords, and understood very well that they were taking place within a context of gross power asymmetry. It was also well known that the PLO was politically and financially cornered at the time. The movement’s main international allies —the Eastern bloc and the nonaligned movement—had collapsed by the time of their signing, which was the height of a unipolar world under US hegemony. In this regard, the Oslo process was very much a move on behalf of US imperialism to consolidate an arrangement in its favor, to take advantage of the historical opportunities that had arisen, especially after the 1990-91 Gulf War, when the main Arab funders of the PLO stopped supporting the movement, blaming it for having sided with Iraq—a characterization that wasn’t entirely accurate but one the Arab states used to rid themselves of the Palestinian issue, which they had long sought to do.
If you read the biographies of the main negotiators, it’s very clear that the PLO was also financially bankrupt. Abu Alaa (Ahmed Qurei), for example, who was a negotiator and in charge of the PLO’s finances, recounts in his biography that the organization had less than two months’ funding before it was penniless at the time Oslo was signed. The PLO had already cut 70 percent of its budget for its “state in exile,” and was teetering on the verge of collapse. This financial pressure would also come on the backdrop of a larger historical decline of the movement whereby the PLO had transitioned from a more emancipatory political agenda in its earlier days, towards a “pragmatic” alignment within the “international consensus” by the late 1980s, including accepting the two-state solution and UN resolutions—even though institutions like the UN were gravely implicated in the creation of the Palestinian problem to begin with. So, this sort of rightward shift in Palestinian politics starting in the early 1970s reaches its apex around the time of Oslo, where the PLO was desperate for options that could ensure the movement’s survival. Here, the non-democratic practices that had been institutionalized in the PLO over the years of the movement’s rightward shift, would severely impair Palestinian strategic positioning, insofar as the survival of the personage of Arafat and the rule of the Fatah party over the PLO was equated with the survival of the movement overall.
Keep in mind that in the early 1990s, the US, through the Madrid Process and the Washington Process, had a formal peace process going, but still considered the PLO a “terrorist entity” that was not recognized by Israel or the US. Independent Palestinian representation in negotiations was thus denied, and still only formally took place through Jordan, which had its own designs on Palestine. Knowing that the PLO was cornered financially and politically—not just from the West, but now from its backers—the US and Israel “put the squeeze on”. Acting through Norwegian diplomacy, the US allowed for the creation of a back door “escape” path for Arafat, through the Oslo channel, where the surrender on important political positions could take place away from public scrutiny or democratic oversight. Through this back channel, the PLO would de facto concede on two significant positions that continue to haunt the movement today. First, it accepted the concept of self-rule in the occupied territories without a full end to the Israeli occupation or guarantees that this was the final outcome of the process. This functionally meant that it was the groundwork for eventually creating an autonomy scenario, with no assurances that the process would lead to statehood or sovereignty. It’s important to underscore here that this was a long-standing aim of the US and Israel, as their own solution to the Palestinian issue. Second, the PLO also accepted through Oslo an agreement that contained no solid guarantees that settlement construction or expansion would end. This too would prove catastrophic as it allowed Israel to build settlements while negotiations continued, changing the strategic map that supposedly was being negotiated.
Did the PLO raise this at all in the talks?
In the case of accepting the principle of autonomy, this was fundamental to the accords and could not be avoided. Either the Palestinians accepted it, or there would have been no accords. From the Palestinian perspective, acceptance of the principle of autonomy was interpreted as accepting a state that was only temporary, without considering if temporariness became permanence. As to the issue of settlements, the PLO believed its ability to obtain a clause within the accords that stressed the agreement of both sides to “not prejudice final status negotiations”—one of which was settlements—meant that they were protected from Israeli settler expansionism. But Israel simply claimed its settlement expansion was due to the “natural growth” of the settler population, because settlers have “large families,” and it was unreasonable to prevent it. Irrespective, while the PLO was aware to varying degrees of the dangers of the agreement and its loose wording that was reliant upon “good intention,” it certainly did not anticipate how Israel would interpret and implement the accords, nor Washington’s wholesale backing of this interpretation/implementation. Perhaps more importantly to stress, though, is the fact that the PLO had very little leverage to change the conditions on offer. The leadership’s very survival and return to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) from exile, was thus seen as the best the movement could achieve under the circumstances, and Oslo allowed for this. So they went with it.
This brief and general description of how some aspects of the accord came about sheds light on how the entire character of the negotiations between the parties resembled a situation whereby Israel was the party which actual held all power, and was internally deciding what it was conceding on and what not, rather than actually negotiating things with the Palestinians. In fact, there is a quote from Shimon Peres in 1994, who said when they were negotiating the economic accords that “we are negotiating with ourselves”—because the Palestinians had zero leverage to influence this internal Israeli debate.
Here we need to shed light on Israeli and US interests as well. We know the Palestinians wanted an end to occupation and their larger demands around national self-determination realized. But Israel and the US always ideologically and strategically rejected Palestinian national self-determination because it represents a strategic competitor to the Zionist narrative and project and was considered part of the “radical Arab national” camp tied to an anticolonial, anti-imperial agenda. Israel and the US were concerned instead with how best to manage the large Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza that Israel “governed” (through military occupation), and which had become increasingly rebellious during the First Intifada,1 and represented a long-term challenge to the principle of the “Jewish democratic state.” The historically dominant political faction in Israel (the Labour Party) that led the Oslo process thus had envisioned “autonomy” for Palestinians as the best way to manage their “Palestinian problem,” at least in the near term, and saw the Oslo process as an avenue for realizing this. Autonomy differed from sovereignty, as it retained Israeli power over the autonomous zones and created a scenario whereby Palestinian affairs could be managed indirectly through a leadership willing to administer autonomy. In other words, it was the logic of subcontracting and leveraging the autonomy leadership to address Israeli security, political, and economic goals, while allowing for Israel to continue its settlement impetus. This was to allow Israel to continue its long-standing policy of attempting to unite the conquests of 1948 with the conquests of 1967. Autonomy allowed for Israel to nominally get the Palestinians off the Israeli “books,” and if the Palestinians didn’t like it, they could simply leave, or might be encouraged to do so, through some means or another.
But it’s important to recognize here that there’s a contradiction in Israeli policy and even in American policy insofar as, on the one hand, Israel and the Americans want the Palestinians off the Israeli books and out of their direct control, financially, demographically, and security-wise, etc., but, on the other hand, they can’t entirely let go of the Palestinians, because doing so creates the basis for the nucleus of a national project and its organizing and strengthening. So US, Israel, and Western donor approaches to Palestine have constantly been structured by this tension of “separation and control.” This has had repercussions on the nature of the entity created through the accords, the Palestinian Authority (PA). It has meant that the PA has been shaped by contradictory forces. It is designed to provide a singular body to cater to Israeli subcontracted needs vis-à-vis the five hundred villages and cities of the West Bank, and the two million people in Gaza. But allowing this singular body to have too much power creates problems for Israel and the US, insofar as it can serve, in theory at least, as the basis of continued Palestinian national aspirations and organizing.
It should also be emphasized of course that the Oslo accords contained no guarantees that the whole process was to be run according to international law or UN resolutions, which were, and are, important cards the Palestinian movement holds, at least morally and legally. But not only was the process not being governed by these principles, but the accords themselves created no forms of independent arbitration within them. If any disagreements arose between the parties during negotiations, the only arbiter Palestinians could defer to was the US, or a committee that Israel also had to agree to. This created a self-referential system, where the Palestinians had no effective leverage to have somebody adjudicate differences independently, according to international legal norms. In this respect, the entire process reproduced all the power asymmetries of the situation on the ground around the negotiations table, and we see that in all aspects of the agreement that came about: in terms of security, economically, politically, etc.
On top of all this, was the mythology built around the Oslo process, which attempted to characterize the process as a bona fide peace process. This came in the form of the historic handshake on the White House lawn, and the provision of Nobel Peace Prizes to Peres, Rabin, and Arafat, which all aided in mystifying this process.2
The real benefit of this, from Israel’s perspective of course, was that Israel was able to pocket the concessions of the Palestinians from the get-go, while the Palestinians were forced to accept an arrangement whereby their national claims could, in theory, one day be addressed in “final status negotiations,” albeit without any guarantees that this would take place in accordance with their legal rights and historical claims. Among the key achievements Israel was able to pocket were: the PLO’s recognition of the state of Israel, and all that meant in terms of “security”; Israel’s realization of an autonomy scenario through the creation of a Palestinian Authority with delimited self-governing powers, with no requirements to turn this into anything bigger; and, just as important, the ending of the international boycott of Israel, which at the time, was much more powerful than the BDS movement today. Consider for a moment that the PLO had more international recognition than Israel before the peace process. This effectively ended with the accords, allowing Israel to integrate into world capital with access to markets in India, China, and beyond. Israel thus pocketed all these important economic, political, and security achievements, and the Palestinians were left hanging on to a process that was toothless to realize their national liberation aspirations. In fact it was designed to abort it. The “separation and control” model that Israel was able to achieve through Oslo effectively laid the cornerstone of implementing apartheid, though the world characterized this as a step towards peace.
It’s also worth highlighting that once Israel pocketed its achievements through Oslo, it had an interest to freeze the process overall, lest it lead to pressure to address Palestinian claims, as the latter hoped. My research has shown that Israel instigated events that created a security pretext, allowing it to freeze the political process with the Palestinians and, moreover, to implement “closure” over Palestinian towns and cities. Closure was not the only answer to Israel’s security dilemmas, but also was a convenient way in which Israel could separate and control Palestinians behind a security pretext, while building settlements in areas from which Palestinians were prevented from now accessing thanks to the accords’ Orwellian division of the territorial map—dividing the OPT into Areas A, B, and C, H1, H2, etc. The Palestinian suicide bombings of the mid-1990s enabled Israel to say, “You know, Israel has to have its security, before it can have peace.” But the suicide campaigns were part of ongoing conflict dynamics on the ground, where far more Palestinians than Israelis were being killed daily during the 1990s. More significantly though, Israel dramatically escalated tensions in the middle of the peace process––assassinating top Palestinian political and grass-roots figures. Some of these assassinations were even against members of Fatah, and thus sent clear messages that Israel intended to do what it wanted on the ground irrespective of the accords and the nominal “peace” it was pursuing. When some Palestinian factions responded to these provocations and attacks, it allowed Israel to put the brakes on the peace process overall, beneath the guise of security, and with the Western states backing them in this freeze. This, of course, generated even more explosive conditions on the Palestinian side, because there were already large doubts amongst the factions and elites regarding the extent to which Oslo could work. Alternatively, Israel’s security pretexts led to scenarios whereby it now sought to negotiate new agreements to implement already existing agreements. The political return for Palestinians was getting less and less, while Israeli leverage over the Palestinians only increased institutionally, and was backed by the Western donor community who were now bankrolling the Palestinians leadership.
When things finally came to a head in the summer of 2000 at the Camp David summit, Arafat was effectively presented with a fait accompli by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and US President Clinton, who pressured him to accept the parameters of a final solution that negated all of the main Palestinian demands—statehood, return, Jerusalem, the end of settlements, etc. When the Palestinian leadership rejected this, Israel and the US effectively reverted to their pre-Oslo approach to the Palestinians, boxing them in and smearing them as “not a partner to peace.”
Then, the Israeli government allowed one of Israel’s biggest war criminals—Ariel Sharon, architect of some of the worst massacres in Palestinian history—to enter the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, in yet another major provocation. It is this act—together with sending thousands of police the next day to the compound during Friday prayers, killing seven worshippers—that ignited the Second “Al Aqsa” Intifada. It is this context that allowed Israel to further entrench the system it created through Oslo, and eventually to get rid of the pretense of negotiating with the Palestinians at all.
Here it is worthwhile noting the cunningness of what took place when seen in a historical perspective: beneath the guise of a peace process Israel and the Western donor community, led by the US, facilitated Arafat to build the Palestinian Authority under extremely politically sensitive conditions for the Palestinians, based upon vague notions that it could lead to the achievement of Palestinian rights. In his weakness, Arafat accepted the role of going down this path, even though the principle of “self-governance under occupation” had been rejected by the PLO since the 1970s, and was seen as treasonous. The creation of the Palestinian Authority, however, was not designed to lead toward a Palestinian state, but toward its prevention and that of other Palestinian rights. Only Arafat had the ability to build the PA under these sensitive conditions, and he was to be exploited by donors and Israel toward that end. Arafat’s personal charisma and historical legitimacy supposedly insulated the process from being accused of conceding on Palestinian rights and being a collaborator government. However, once he rejected the political diktats of Camp David, he no longer was considered a “partner to peace,” but became an “accomplice to terror.” Moreover, Israel used the Second Intifada to pull out the guns, and basically eradicate any institutional, political, or military resistance to their aims—on the popular level, and within the PLO, as well as within the leadership, including ultimately Arafat himself.
This is where the World Bank and Western donors come in, because in the early period—1993 to 2000—the donors funneled billions of dollars into the Authority, some on-budget and some off-budget, so that Arafat could create the PA and “buy-in” from sufficient sectors of the population, and particularly local Fatah organs, into the Authority to be the governing party. He needed this money to carry out the controversial task of constructing an authority under such sensitive conditions. Once he became a political enemy of the Israelis however, donors stopped funding him, and the World Bank and the IMF came in and accused Arafat of corruption and lack of “good governance.” In truth, it was the donors themselves who actually facilitated the “corruption,” because it was they who facilitated off-budget accounting and “buy-ins.”
Arafat thus became politically expedient after his rejection of the Camp David diktats and after he constructed the PA, the main apparatus implementing autonomy. After that he was killed—first politically as “not a partner of peace,” then institutionally by the World Bank and IMF, who forced institutional reforms on the PA which marginalized him from the apparatus of the authority. While his final physical elimination is still shrouded in mystery, focusing on his actual death overlooks the significance of the elimination of Arafat historically, politically, and institutionally.3 Death through assassination simply ensured that this was permanent.
It is worth underscoring how the World Bank and IMF used neoliberal theories around good governance to push reforms of the PA from 2000 to 2004 that marginalized Arafat from the structure that only he could have created. These supposed reforms entailed the creation of the position of prime minister (which was then filled by Mahmoud Abbas—also known as Abu Mazen) and the redirection of all funds to an IMF-audited Ministry of Finance account, away from the powers of the President (Arafat). The World Bank and the IMF pressured Arafat to agree to all these “reforms,” which he did, believing they would ensure his political survival. In truth, they laid the grounds for his elimination, while clarifying the line of succession for who would follow him.
During my research I came across classified documents from 1993, just around when the Oslo process was taking place, which reveal that the US government used a kind of “game theory” to analyze who would be the winners and losers of the Oslo process under different potential scenarios. Here the US backed scenarios that, according to their own analysis in these documents, would lead to Israel and Jordan becoming the institutional winners of the Oslo process. This means that not only was peace, statehood, or justice never in the cards for the Palestinians, but that the US never really changed its position vis-à-vis the movement, and believed in scenarios that ultimately saw Israel and Jordan being the real mediators and governors of Palestinian claims, indirectly leveraged through the PA. These powers never cared for Palestinian nationalism, a Palestinian state, or a genuine independent Palestinian leadership. The process overall was not supposed to lead to statehood; it was supposed to allow Israel to continue to dominate the West Bank and Gaza, while facilitating the management of the “Palestine problem” through some form of Jordanian-Palestinian mix of powers locally on the ground. In practice, the accords have indeed led to Israel “winning” institutionally, while the role of Jordan has also become increasingly important. In fact, the Trump administration has begun to actively float the idea of reviving a Jordanian suzerainty over the Palestinians.
So, this whole process, with Arafat’s marginalization, accelerated the transformation of the Palestinian leadership, which came to play a different role. Maybe you can talk a little about that, as well as what it reveals about the class divisions in Palestinian society.
It’s important to emphasize that donors wanted the Fatah party to be the only viable political entity that could play the role of administering the self-governing areas within the Palestinian Authority-Oslo arrangement. Fatah was seen as a secular nationalist party, very much aligned with the regional order of “moderate Arab states.” Donors identified Arafat as politically controllable, because Fatah’s ideology did not believe in interference in internal Arab affairs and did not hold to larger ideological socialist, communist, or Islamist ideology. It was very much a pragmatic movement. So, Fatah was identified by both the Arab regional order and the West as the party to take charge. Oslo facilitated this Fatah domination of the Palestinian Authority structure. Moreover, Arafat always attempted to run the PLO within a neo-patrimonial logic—namely, with himself as the charismatic leader at the top, personifying everything within his person and his brilliance (or non-brilliance!) and avoiding the creation of institutions with democratic controls. This ensured his maneuverability on top. His methods of rule also crucially relied upon control over finance, with his personal signing of checks used to pay a layer of various Fatah elites who could control the show on the local level for him. Donor financing of Arafat allowed donors to get in on this game as well. Occupying the commanding financial heights over the PA donors essentially gave Arafat political and financial “rope” to construct the PA as a crucial apparatus necessary for managing Israel’s “Palestinian problem.” When these powers moved against him, taking away that rope, it was crucial to save the baby from the bath water. Eliminating Arafat however was necessary since his continued survival meant that he might radicalize, once he was boxed out.
Abu Mazen had his own political differences with Arafat, particularly because he believed Arafat was an opportunist. Indeed, that Arafat spoke out of both sides of his mouth. On one hand, he was not naive to Israeli and US intentions, and this is important to say, because part of his legacy is that people say Arafat was a collaborator and did all of these things for the Israelis. Fair enough: there was security coordination with Israel and he did agree to Oslo, etc. But on the other hand, when the Second Intifada happened, partly out of fear of losing the “streets,” Arafat did not attempt to crush the uprising in rivers of blood, as he was requested to do by Israel and the Western powers. Instead, he actually covertly allowed for a military dynamic to develop within parts of Fatah, with that task basically taken up by Marwan Barghouti, who at the time was Secretary General of Fatah in the West Bank. Although it was never Arafat’s intention to engage in an open military campaign, and it had more to do with him not wanting to lose the street, and looking to making tactical gains to improve the Palestinian strategic position in negotiations, it is important to acknowledge that Arafat was mercurial and not under anyone’s thumb, particularly. Ultimately, Israel launched a massive military campaign that went after the entire nationalist camp engaged in the Intifada and attempted to crush it, with moderate success. The reconstruction of the post-Arafat PA thereafter was to be much more strictly controlled by donors and Israel, with World Bank and IMF reforms facilitating that. But the point to emphasize is that Arafat tried to play both sides, attempting to survive on both the international stage and on the local stage, under impossible conditions.
Abu Mazen felt Arafat’s approach was flawed, and a strategic mistake. He didn’t feel that armed struggle had any enduring political relevance for the Palestinians after it had played its historical role during the movement’s early years. Instead, he felt that the movement needed to invest strategically in nonmilitary means, because, in his logic—and there is a basis to it—Israel would love to destroy the Palestinian movement and wipe it out. Military struggle, in the context of such gross power asymmetries and the war-on-terror logic that was prevalent at the time (and which preceded it as well), would give the basis for Israel to use its overwhelming power to crush the Palestinian movement. So, Mazen was strategically against militarism. This of course was popular with donors, plus he was no less a neo-patrimonial leader than Arafat. He too needed funds and could be allotted political and financial “rope” of his own to perform the task of administering the autonomy scenario. But his ability to take control and perform this task effectively in the context of the denouement of the Intifada was complicated.
The international community’s attempts to consolidate a new post-Arafat era by supporting elections in 2006 resulted in the massive victory of Hamas in the Legislative Council elections. This was a catastrophic failure for donors, who correctly understood it as a threat to the entire Oslo project. Their only way to deal with it was to back Israel’s moves to isolate and crush Hamas, preventing it from taking power. All the high-toned theory used to justify good governance, elections, and democracy so as to marginalize Arafat, was now thrown out of the window by the donors. They reverted to directly financing the presidency (under Abu Mazen’s control) rather than the institution of the prime minister (which they pushed to create) and the ministry of finance, because both were expected to be under Hamas control after elections. Let’s not forget that the CIA also got involved and tried to instigate a coup against Hamas, ultimately leading to the division of the West Bank and Gaza under different Palestinian leaderships. Donors then began to pour finance into the West Bank, while cutting off Gaza and backing Israel’s aggressive siege and military maneuvers there.
When we thus talk about the larger question of the transformation of political leadership of the Palestinian movement, what we essentially see is Fatah and Abu Mazen fighting for their political survival, and being kept afloat by donor aid and the cronyistic arrangements they were able to erect locally. But because they are tied to the Oslo process and tied to its financial lines, Palestinians can see little return from backing it politically any more, if ever they did so in the first place. (Let’s recall, Oslo never had a local referendum, let alone a national one). This political bankruptcy led inevitably to the emergence of new political actors on the scene, attempting to fill the political and leadership vacuum. Hamas played this historical role, given its headstart as the most viable political alternative to Fatah at the time, that already had an anti-Oslo agenda, that had independent financial lines, and that also developed a military potential during the Second Intifada. Moral and political legitimacy increasingly shifted towards Hamas, which filled the massive hole in Palestinian politics created by the failure of Fatah and its bet on the Oslo process to fulfill Palestinian rights, not to mention the weakness of Palestinian left forces, which is another discussion.
One should bear in mind that the Hamas/Fatah division is actually of great benefit for Israel, because it essentially lets it off the hook for engaging in negotiations. Moreover, Israel actually has different strategic interests in the West Bank and Gaza, and has historically approached each territory differently: the West Bank is much more important to Israel ideologically and strategically, while as far as Israel is concerned, Gaza can “sink into the sea,” as Rabin once said. The division, and Israeli and donor fostering of it, has important implications in turn for the Palestinian leadership, and particularly for Abu Mazen, because one of the main cards he has in his hands is that the PLO represents the “sole legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people.” Donors feared Abu Mazen’s weakness and lost political ground to Hamas, and hence ended up more than doubling the amount of aid they give to the PA, even though it was “half” the political territory (without Gaza). This pretty much explains the existing scenario, whereby donors maintain the buoyancy of Fatah and the PA in the West Bank, while Gaza is this territory that is to be contained and beaten, with the “lawn mowed” there every few years so as to prevent the contagion of this model spreading to the West Bank.
The heavy pumping of money into the West Bank entrenched a sclerotic Abbas/Fatah regime, with the expected class dimensions this entails. Moreover, because Fatah is the only power allowed to really operate there, and because the neo-patrimonial logic of Fatah rule is even worse under Abu Mazen, we witness the bloating and degeneration of Fatah. Functionally, governance of the West Bank became a fight between different branches of Fatah over which parts of the movement would enjoy the pie, given that no external party was really going to challenge them. In one village I went to, Fatah had splintered into six different clusters all vying for control over the local municipality. This speaks to the decadent political and financial culture that has been fostered in the West Bank under Abu Mazen and donor backing of him.
Initially under the peace process, there was this mythology that the donors would fund viable economic projects within the logic of a “Marshall Plan” (their words), and which could anchor and nourish political peacemaking. Of course, no Marshall Plan ever materialized. What happened instead was donor support for Fatah elites and its cronyistic system designed to ensure the movement’s survival and administration of autonomy. The only capitalist investment to take place was politically determined (namely filtered through Israeli and donor political and economic interests) and then further filtered by the neo-patrimonial interests of competing Fatah subordinates. Capital was directed toward the most speculative, lazy, and predatory endeavors, given that no “rational” capitalist would invest in a place like the OPT given its political uncertainty, and Israel would not allow any competitive industries to emerge, consistent with its longer historical efforts to “de-develop” the OPT. This also explains why we see today the evolution of the Authority taking on more and more repressive qualities locally in its control of the West Bank, because it very much sees the West Bank as its last bastion. From the PLO-Fatah-Abu Mazen perspective, they used to control the diaspora and the whole PLO movement, but today don’t control Gaza, and see the West Bank as their last stronghold.
We’re basically at time, so perhaps you could wrap up on where things are going. The strength of the Palestinian movement has always depended on support from other parts of the Arab world, but the Arab uprisings have been pushed back and much of the Middle East is in chaos. So where does that leave the next steps for the Palestinian movement?
The Palestinian movement used to be the flagship movement of the Middle East and of the Arabs—supposedly—but since the Arab revolutionary process in 2010, it has been significantly marginalized, even in nominal terms. The onset of strong regional counterrevolutionary forces, together with the internal political divisions, have also led to an extreme deterioration of the situation. Certainly, Gaza is on the front end of this, in terms of the three military campaigns, getting clobbered in the siege, leading to explosive humanitarian conditions that are the worst in fifty years of occupation without question. So, this explains why Gaza is exploding right now, because there’s no political horizon and the situation on the ground is desperate. Gaza is a poisoned environment: it’s the world’s largest concentration camp, the water is not drinkable, 80 percent of the people are food dependent, and unemployment levels are the highest in the world. The West Bank, though marginally better off economically, is also a churning volcano that is equally unstable, but has no organized political actor to harness these dynamics. This is why the West Bank continues to witness upheavals that fail to gain traction and sustainability towards clear political ends. These efforts are aborted by Israel first, and Fatah second. These dynamics of course are exacerbated by the policies of the Trump administration, and the acceleration of Israeli settler colonial designs on the West Bank, empowered by the former.
The Palestinian movement overall is thus in a moment of genuine political crisis without a clear path forward. The Oslo “bet” failed, while the militarization of the Intifada also failed. Now we see political actors in Gaza experimenting with popular demonstrations and forms of nonviolent protest and struggle that try to reassert the Palestinian movement, and put it back on the political stage. While these struggles are inspirational, and show significant transformations in popular organizing, they have a long way to go, because the movement has so many external enemies and remains divided internally as well. Fatah, in particular, is resisting Hamas gaining political fruit from these actions and seeks to squeeze the movement financially by cutting finances of public sector employees it was still paying in Gaza, for the past decade. Israel and the donors aren’t making any major political concessions on the question of Gaza, either, and simply want to avoid a situation at this stage that spills over to Israel or the West Bank. The main thing we can say at this stage is that we see new shifts in the Palestinian movement to think outside the box of the preexisting structures, and to try and see what is possible by, in part, asserting a new kind of politics, while waiting to see what happens with the revolutionary dynamics in the Middle East.
At this stage, the region’s revolutionary processes are in retreat and are not in a position to support the Palestinians. I find it fascinating that Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh4 gives speeches now in front of political billboards that have Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela on them. This is because Hamas is forced to actively think outside the military model it had relied upon, to try and reassert the human dimension to the Palestinian cause. Here Hamas is not leading, but following the popular grass-roots efforts to rethink Palestinian national activity and its tactics and strategies, with dynamics in Gaza at the forefront.
A significant factor in the success of these efforts will be determined by the extent to which solidarity can be built around this activity internationally and particularly in the West. Here I believe a new periphery of allies can be won to the Palestinian cause, embedded in the new social movements emerging to challenge the Trump agenda and the broader right-wing populist swing we witness globally. It’s helpful to keep in mind that Palestinians are still on their land, still demanding their rights, and still demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice for it. Toward this end, they seek and need political allies that can help them in their effort to reorient their struggle to meet the challenges before them. Without this solidarity, it will be difficult to make significant gains and sustain the momentum of struggle, with its heavy losses. In this regard, building the BDS movement in the West, and educating a new periphery of political actors will be important. Part of doing this will entail making the connection between Israel as a reactionary, pro-US satellite in the Middle East and the role that Israel plays globally, and even in Western capitalism, in terms of the influence in the war on terror, on securitized politics, on domestic policing, etc. We see the Harvey Weinstein case, for instance, and the use of Black Cube, an Israeli consulting firm used by Weinstein to conduct investigations against women who made accusations against him. Cambridge Analytica was also using Black Cube and another Israeli consulting firm, all of which are run by ex-Israeli Mossad and Shin-Bet personnel. All of these technologies and techniques of repression, which are used in typical military engagement theaters, are now being applied in civilian matters to address the concerns of powerful capitalists in the US, together with local government and big government. They have been used against the Palestinians for years, but their migration to the West is bringing the war home, so to speak. Building a movement against this kind of politics will entail building a critique against this logic, in which Israel plays a large part. I think these are some of the important avenues where we can make connections, in addition to the very clear and direct fact that US tax dollars are being used to support Israel, to the tune of more than three billion dollars a year. Since 1948, Israel has received more than 250 billion dollars from Washington, which obviously could have been used toward much better ends domestically.
These are the connections we need to be making in an era characterized by the collapse of the political center, and economic stagnation post-2007. The world economic crisis has created potential to build new movements, and reeducate people, because the traditional structures, narratives, and political constellations that used to run the show are collapsing, delegitimized, and weak. It’s also clear that there is new movement happening at the base. The politics of Palestine needs to be part of these new movements and this new process of reeducation, if we really want to build an alternative to US capitalism, US imperialism in the Middle East, and to finally see an end to this bloodshed, which is to the benefit of Israelis and Palestinians and all the people of the Middle East. Right now, we have a system that’s just aligned around militarism, domination, and colonialism, which is veering domestically towards fascistic, or increasingly nationalistic kinds of politics. It is very scary. So, this is the political challenge before us. Palestine has a lot to offer those movements. It hasn’t left. It’s still there, and it continues to provide an inspiration to become engaged politically and struggle for what you believe. We need to take advantage of the new tools that exist to rebuild our movements, and make success possible. Palestine, and world survival, may depend on it.
Thanks to Adam Fendos for transcribing this interview.
- An uprising by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories which began in December 1987.
- Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were respectively the Israeli Foreign Minister and Prime Minister at the time of the Oslo negotiations. Together with Yasser Arafat they were awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.
- For the last two years of his life, Arafat was prevented from leaving his Ramallah compound by the Israeli army. In late 2004 he became seriously ill and was allowed to travel to Paris for medical treatment. He died there in November 2004. There has been persistent speculation that he may have been poisoned.
- Haniyeh has been the political leader of Hamas since May 2017.