Institute for Palestine Studies Senior Fellow Salim Tamari spoke at a panel discussion at the Palestine Center on 4 November 2011. 


I’m greatly honored to be sharing this panel with my colleagues, the great Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, who is leading a very important independent struggle in Palestine against occupation and for a more genuine representation of the Palestinian people, and my former colleague at Birzeit University, Riham Barghouti, who is also leading a very significant struggle here in the United States on the question of boycott. It’s very hard not to crack a joke about being squeezed by two Barghouti’s, but I will let this go.   

A frequent question following the Arab Spring rebellions of early this year is, “Why [were] the Palestinians left out? Why did they not join their Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni compatriots and other Arab youth in seeking regime change? Why were there no reenactments of the first intifada of 1987, or of the second intifada of 2000?”  The short answer is that there was indeed a rebellion of a kind that went relatively unnoticed. Palestinian youth throughout the spring of 2011 have moved collectively in two directions. They occupied public squares in Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron, Jenin and Gaza demanding an end to the split between Gaza and the West Bank, between Fateh and Hamas, and demanding reconciliation of the two parts of the national movement. They also moved in successive waves to confront settlers and soldiers in key areas throughout the cities of the West Bank and in the heart of Jerusalem.  But the major question remains unanswered since these protest groups do not amount to a mass movement and have, in fact, occurred within a relative quietism, if not complacency, among the majority of Palestinians. Nor did they put forth any demand to bring down the government – isqat al nizam – or even a regime change. Why? Because in my view, most Palestinians realize that both [Ismail] Haniyeh and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas – Hamas and Fateh – are themselves hostages of the Israeli regime of occupation, which they see as their main protagonist and tormentor. 

There was, in fact, several proposals voiced in the local press, some of them coming from within the ranks of the Fateh Revolutionary Council meeting last week in the occupied territories, for the dissolution of the PNA [Palestinian National Authority] and the transfer of power to the Israelis, thus unmasking the colonial nature of Israeli control and the emasculated capacities of the Palestinian Authority to govern. What undermined this proposal were two factors; fear that some warlord, maybe a la [Mohammed] Dahlan would step forward and fill in the vacuum on behalf of the Israelis leading to a Somalia-ization of the Palestinian territories. And second, that Hamas saw the proposal as an invitation for them to transfer power.  At the heart of this dilemma lies a major consequence of the Oslo Accords which was the redeployment of the Israeli military government and the Israeli army from inside the urban centers of Palestine to peripheral nodes of control in a formidable network of bypass roads, checkpoints and the wall of separation. Thus, unlike the situation of the first intifada where civil disobedience was successfully directed at the occupation regime and its infrastructure, the new system of control, ushered since 1994, is insular, hidden and is circumvented by a continued regime of indirect occupation masked by the security apparatus of the Palestine National Authority. “The hands of Israel shall be felt, but not seen”, as [Former Israeli Foreign Minister] Moshe Dayan was very fond of saying in the 1970s.  

Having realized these constraints and limitations, Palestinians living in the occupied territories also realize that a frontal confrontation with the army and the settlers would lead to massive losses without achieving tangible results, leading thus to a situation of depleting their resources. That is why the demands for regime change in Palestine is paralyzed by the absence of a meaningful alternative. And that is why many people outside the Authority and within it came to expect deliverance to come from external factors. But the external elements that of the PLO and the PA and in a different setting, [the] Hamas government in Gaza, have themselves proven to be problematic. Both the Quartet and the U.S. have demonstrated time and again that they are unwilling and/or unable to break the deadlock by insisting on continued negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis as a key platform for achieving independence and an end to occupation; the conditional precondition that now has acquired a hollow echo given the Israeli prolonged negotiations as a cover, which originally was developed by [Former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Shamir after the Madrid Peace Conference, to postpone any commitment on territorial issues. 

An astonishing and little noticed news item appeared in mid-October, a fortnight ago just before the UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] vote, in which the U.S. warned Israel against the continuation of building a new settlement extension near Gilo, south of Jerusalem. Such a move, the American ambassador asserted, “would harm U.S. efforts to thwart the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.”  This was enunciated in a meeting last Wednesday between U.S. envoy to Israel Dan Shapiro and [Israeli] Interior Minister Eli Yishai.  Note that the message of the U.S. administration is communicated between the U.S. ambassador and the Israeli minister of interior, not between the American envoy and the prime minister or the foreign minister, as is normal in such state relations. Notwithstanding the American intervention, the Jerusalem District Planning [and Building] Committee, according to Ha’aretz, announced late last month that it would approve the construction of 1,100 new housing units in Gilo despite past U.S. objections concerning any work that would expand the neighborhood further beyond the Green Line. The purpose of these expansions is to seal the last remaining gap, which connects greater Jerusalem to the West Bank. What is striking about this statement is not U.S. objection to the construction, but the rationale it brought against it. Namely, that it would undermine U.S. efforts to thwart the bid for statehood at the United Nations Security Council. Thus, under the Obama administration, the U.S. has culminated a progressive shift in Middle Eastern policy from one of mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict beginning with a call of return to the 1967 borders, to calling settlement activities as being contrary to a peaceful resolution of the conflict,  to settlements being unhelpful, and now today, to settlement expansion as undermining the strategy to stop the Palestinian bid for statehood, in favor, presumably, of direct negotiations between the two parties.

On the Israeli side, the objective of these moves has been rather consistent. Namely, to create irreversible facts on the ground though re-drawing boundaries, zoning laws, categories of residency and the physical movement of populations and the creation of permanent settlements that will make any return to the 1967 boundaries physically impossible and politically unrealizable. This is a strategy of pre-emption that has been eminently successful and was able to impose a fait accompli on the Palestinians, with faint verbal protestations from the Europeans. What is worse is that it succeeded in producing a magical connivance from the [former U.S. President Bill] Clinton administration and all successive U.S. administrations since that it is no longer practical to go back to the June 1967 boundaries. 

It was this belated realization that the American position is a de facto endorsement, albeit a negative one, of Israeli pre-emptive strategies that drove the Palestinian leadership to seek international redress at the UN in its bid for statehood admission. Even though the chance of success this November, of this bid in two or three weeks, are very slim, either because of Palestine’s inability to muster the essential nine-nation support – at the moment the problem is with Bosnia, it seems – or because of the inevitable American veto if such support is garnered. It is also supplemented by the realization that the European relative autonomy from American policy is not leading anywhere. The reasons are the inability of the EU [European Union] to conduct a united foreign policy and the subordination of the Quartet and its mediator, Tony Blair, to U.S. diktat vis-à-vis Israeli moves. Against these conditions, we witness new regional conditions that accompanied the Arab rebellions of this spring. We have a new energized, but yet not stabilized, Egyptian regime that is bound to lift the embargo against Gaza and bring to an end the isolation of the Hamas government. This is offset by the decline of Syria as a logistic asset and patron of the Hamas leadership in Damascus. We also have the emergence of Turkey as a new regional economic power and political arbiter, drawing on its Ottoman heritage, and openly calling for a new Middle East that would not tolerate Israel’s continued intransigence. Despite the Mavi Marmara incident, we should not discount Turkey’s ability to continue as a mediating force in future negotiations. Thirdly, we have the emergence of the significant differentiation within the European community and the role of the Quartet most recently expressed by the voting pattern in which France, Spain and several other important European countries voted in favor. Add to this the UNESCO vote this week, which has brought in the UN as a significant arena as the struggle for Palestine, one which can play a crucial factor in mobilizing regional, European and international actors, some of whom with critical clout on Israel, for intervention, and for creating an alternative to the hegemonic role of the UN and the paralyzed role of the Quartet.  

What then is an alternative strategy in the face of these overwhelming odds? I know this was the subject of my talk, but I had to have this long introduction. It is clear that Palestinians cannot produce miracles, that the objective situation in the world today is lopsided against Palestinian aspirations and that there are built-in structural factors that mitigate against bringing in an early Israeli withdrawal. Even though we are witnessing a crisis of leadership in Palestine, it is important to realize that the weakness of the leadership is the product, not the cause, of these structural impediments. Both inside the country and in exile, these conditions have created a new momentum that is emerging today. This momentum is based on the need for reconciliation and unity between Gaza and the West Bank, and between Fateh and Hamas as a condition to resolve the issue of representation either through elections or through a coalition government. Second, the futility of continued dependence on American mediation of the conflict, referred to by Mustafa Barghouthi, and the need to pursue their case within an international context that includes formal UN institutions, as well as seeking strategic alliances with key European states such as Spain, Belgium and France. 

Another axis is a strategy of confrontation with the settlements and settlers, the building of the wall and a sustained struggle against the land grab policy of the Israeli government. These are struggles that are taking place on a daily basis in Bil’in, in Qalandia, in Budrus, in Sheikh Jarrah, in Nabi Saleh and several other nodes of defiance. Sometimes we hear about them, mostly we do not. They belong to a movement that has been non-violent, focused and sustained. Its success, despite the campaign of vilification against the ISM [International Solidarity Movement] and other international and Jewish participants in it, has been largely due to its non-violent tactics. It effectively contains community activists, villagers and international supporters. It brought international attention to the predicament of Palestinians under occupation and highlighted the centrality of the land question in this struggle. It should be compared to the futile and counterproductive use of unguided rockets in Gaza against Israeli targets.  A significant dimension in campaign is the international campaign for boycott and divestment which highlights the colonial nature of the Israeli regime and replicates the precedence of the apartheid system in South Africa. So far this campaign has had limited but important successes, partly because of the ability of Israel and its allies are able to muster a much more powerful machinery opposition than was the case with the apartheid South Africa regime. Finally, Palestinians realize that their protagonists are powerful, and the machine of occupation is formidable, but not invincible. Their political objectives require a policy of protracted struggle in which survival, resilience and the building of local institutions of sustenance are crucial. In many ways, this period recalls the conditions which sustained the first intifada, both in tactics and objectives, despite the changed circumstances. The problem today is that these three struggles are undertaken by different segments of political currents and are often falsely portrayed as exclusive of each other. For example, there is a tendency to portray the international campaign for UN recognition in terms of an outdated negotiations strategy, and that the boycott campaign is predicated on seeking the creation of a single electoral solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Either you negotiate or your fight has been a recent slogan. Either you struggle for a single all encompassing state in Palestine or you succumb to a mini-state equivalent to a Bantustan status.  These are false alternatives partly because they are not political options that the Palestinians can choose from. If the struggle for statehood within the 1967 borders is becoming increasingly elusive because of the manner in which Israeli expropriation of land and building of settlements have eroded territorial contiguity in a future Palestinian entity, and because it undermines the possibility of re-sovereignty, then the struggle for a single state in historical Palestine is doubly elusive because it is predicated on the liquidation of the Israeli state and the creation of a supra-national entity. We should ultimately learn to combine modes of struggle that are realizable and have international legitimacy. These twin considerations are pivotal and necessary for the long struggle ahead. Thank you.