The Palestinian Uprising or Intifada of 1987 remains the single most significant triumph of popular mobilization in Palestinian history.
The First Intifada, as it is commonly known, had, once and for all, placed the Palestinian people as a collective on the political map of a region that previously had room only for Israeli Merkava tanks and US ‘peace envoys’. The Arab body politic had been led by mostly powerless leaders, and Palestinian factions with multiple allegiances were led by men with numerous nom de guerres.
Not discounting that some of the Palestinian factions had, in fact, contributed to the long and arduous struggle for Palestinian freedom, a chasm had long existed between the larger mass of the Palestinian people and those who claimed to represent them.
The Intifada tried to change that unsettling paradigm. It transported the struggle away from Arab capitals back to Palestine, and, more importantly, involved ordinary Palestinians in the campaign to end Israeli occupation. The parties that represented the traditional ‘players’ in the conflict faced an unprecedented situation in a conflict that had previously been determined almost solely by Israel’s military might, enabled by the US’s unconditional support and Arab acquiescence. But this time around, no bullets were deadly enough, no US support was generous enough, and no political submission was demoralizing enough to stifle the spontaneous calls of freedom made by ordinary Palestinians.
The Intifada eventually subsided. Palestinian political elites tried to capitalize on its gains, and Israel did its best to prevent its reoccurrence. Thus the Oslo Accords, a joint effort by Israeli and some Palestinian leaders to create a new status quo. Selected Palestinians were brought back to the occupied territories to manage the ‘unruly’ masses while Israel carried on with its colonial mission unhindered. Since then—and despite of the Second Palestinian Uprising in 2000—no major paradigm shift has managed to change that terrible reality. The Palestinian leadership, clustered in the so-called Palestinian Authority (PA), has fallen deeper into corruption while illegal Israeli settlements have morphed beyond the imaginings of Ariel Sharon and other ardent Israeli rightwing leaders.
Meanwhile, Palestinians continue to subsist between bouts of defiance—as exemplified in Gaza, Jenin and other places—while slowly being ethnically ‘cleansed’ from East Jerusalem and the West Bank to make room for expanding Jewish settlements. The courage of these ordinary Palestinians, men and women holding onto their beloved ancient olive trees as they are ruthlessly bulldozed, is now a trademark known in its Arabic form: sumoud, steadfastness.
That said, the political landscape is once again being locked into a predictable pattern. Two-faced Israeli leaders speak of peace while maintaining a state of siege and occupation over millions of Palestinians, while a self-designated Palestinian leadership grows increasingly reliant on the very occupation it is trying to end. According to the International Middle East Media Center, citing an academic study conducted by a Palestinian researcher from the West Bank, “the amount of investments by Palestinian businessmen in Israeli settlements and in Israel itself, amounted to $2.5 Billion in 2010” (IMEMC and Agencies, November 9).
In fact, this is a much bigger issue than Palestinian money invested in the Israeli occupation, or even some outrageous concessions made by one ‘chief negotiator’ or some other official. The tragedy is that while Israeli dominance is once again being normalized (as was the case before 1987), the Palestinian leadership, despite repeated failures, insists on maintaining its position of ascendancy and control. This insistence continues even as the geopolitical map of the region is being redrawn—whether by the action of Arab peoples, or through the military might and political influence wielded by outsiders.
A paradigm shift is in fact underway in several Arab countries, especially those immediately adjacent to Palestine and Israel. While the breeze of the so-called Arab Spring is likely to be felt by occupied Palestinians, the extent of its political influence remains uncertain. Even if change in Egypt, for example, proves truly fundamental and irreversible, it will do the Palestinians little good if an alternative and truly revolutionary leadership doesn’t materialize soon. This is the only change that could possibly renew and harness the indefatigable energies of the Palestinian people.
The political attitude of the Palestinian leadership, whether the US-backed ‘moderates’ in the West Bank, or Hamas in Gaza are maneuvers aimed at accommodating the political change underway in Cairo and Damascus. The unity talks between Fatah and Hamas—the latest touted ‘successful’ talks being held in Egypt on November 24—might, in theory, bridge the divide between the two rivals. Yet, in reality, it remains a political project between two movements aspiring to find common ground for their own political ends. This is arguably a positive feat, but it will definitely fall short of the minimal paradigm shift required in Palestine under the current circumstances.
It is almost ahistorical that Palestinians haven’t yet marched forward, along with Tunisians, Egyptians and others. This could be attributed to the extreme factional polarization and bitter politics that have divided Palestinians in myriad of ways. There have been a few bashful attempts at reaching a critical mass of popular mobilization, but instead a limited movement with overly sentimental and unclear political demands was quickly co-opted.
In reality, national unity is not a mere strategic decision, necessitated by rapidly changing political reality. It requires a fundamental shift from old strategies and the shedding of old beliefs. In the case of Palestine, a new beginning requires the total mobilization of all aspects of Palestinian society, restating nationally unifying priorities, introducing original language, new tools and strategies, and accompanied by as little empty rhetoric as possible.
This critical stage of the Palestinian struggle cannot be satisfied by the rebranding of Palestinian politicians, and it cannot be ushered in by a leadership with tainted records. It requires a generation of leaders with clean slates, revolutionary in their thinking, motivated by the single belief that no freedom can be achieved without true national unity, under a single flag. The allegiance must not lie with any particular faction, but to Palestine itself, and the only unifying slogan should be ‘Freedom’.