Palestinian Leadership and a New Generation at Odds

by Rena Zuabi

Ramallah – This past week, imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti wrote a letter addressed to the Palestinian Authority (PA), calling for an end to all security and economic cooperation with the state of Israel. He further called on the PA to reject negotiations with Israel that do not include preconditions for two states along the 1967 borders, and an end to settlement building. Since the release of the letter, the Israeli government has placed Barghouti in solitary confinement.

The event itself is highly symbolic of the dilemma facing Palestinians today. It seems the most decisive, and assertive of Palestinian leaders, such as Barghouti, have been long absent from Palestinian politics – killed, jailed, or effectively silenced.

What has such lacking leadership meant for the Palestinian cause in recent years?

A new generation of Palestinians have undoubtedly moved to the vanguard of the struggle for Palestinian rights world-wide. Freelance journalist Ben White, wrote a timely piece in Al-Jazeera English recently, highlighting a growing network of politically engaged, Palestinian youth – with invigorated creativity, talent, and a profound commitment to a more just and free future. As the Arab Awakening continues to develop, Palestinians have been further inspired by the empowerment of an Arab voice in the broader region.

Palestinian society in the territories, Israel, and the Diaspora has also increased the intensity and visibility of the campaign for non-violent, civil disobedience as a tool of resistance to Israeli occupation. From the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, hunger strikes due to illegal administrative detention, to weekly protests against the Wall, Palestinians have engaged diverse fronts of resistance, aimed at undermining the most oppressive of Israeli policies.

Such a direct confrontation with the Occupation has proven increasingly effective in bringing the Palestinian cause to the international stage. Despite the critical step forward, it has not been deeply felt in Washington, where the Obama administration has completely failed to forge a coherent policy initiative on the conflict. President Obama’s sloppy foreign policy in Israel/Palestine, permissive stand on Netanyahu’s unhindered support for settlement expansion, as well as the proliferation of anti-democratic, anti-Arab legislation in Israel, has effectively left the “peace process” obsolete at best.

Therefore, despite organization on the grassroots level, Palestinian society is also tired – disillusioned with its powerless leadership and ever more skeptical of the intentions and interests of the US.

While other Arab countries are immersing themselves in the birth pains of revolution and all of its subsequent uncertainties, the Palestinians are still in need of a catalyst that will mobilize and inspire a broad populist movement for human and civil rights.

Ultimately, prospects for such a movement are rooted in the future of viable Palestinian leadership, whose current position in the conflict is extremely worrisome.

The PA – an administrative body of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) – has been made to bear the burden of governing and managing Israel’s occupation. The current means of governance in the territories perpetuates political stagnation, frees Israel of its responsibility to the fate of the Palestinian people, and encourages the US’ vague stance on the future of a now defunct peace process.

The PA has effectively served to coddle Israel, who pretends to pursue a roadmap for peace that actually leads to nowhere.

Consequently, the evolving discourse of the Palestinian struggle for rights, while undoubtedly forged to break down the broad political and economic apparatus of the Israeli Occupation, will likely reject what Raja Khalidi so appropriately describes as “the PA’s poorly messaged national liberation narrative.” In his recent article in Jadaliyya, Khalidi notes the way in which the PA’s neoliberal development policies over the past few years mistakenly dismissed the dire need for social justice and economic access in Palestine. Khalidi further writes that the distinct socioeconomic demands of Palestinian workers, women, youth, the unemployed, disadvantaged, and marginalized of society have potential to become mainstream.

This potential is most apparent in the buzzing, yet still diffused movement of Palestinian youth, who have long worked to redefine the terms of the Palestinian resistance movement and the question of Palestine, yet have never experienced inspirational, unifying leadership. The unsuccessful, yet telling message of mass demonstrations for reconciliation and unified government between Hamas and the PA last year, is one of many clear signs that young Palestinians are seeking to reconfigure decades of Palestinian leadership.

Palestinians in Israel suffer from severe party divisions as well. While elected representatives proudly hold a burning torch for the Palestinian cause in front of Knesset, they have continuously failed to unify Palestinians on a common, cohesive platform for rights and institutional access.

A lack of cooperative, visionary leadership amongst Palestinian MKs has stagnated the development of the Palestinian cause in Israel – demobilized by competing political interests, and crosscutting divisions across religious, geographic, and socioeconomic lines. Similarly to the occupied territories, Palestinians in Israel are strongly engaged in the question of their rights and historical narrative, but remain entrenched in competing party camps of an old-guard leadership.

Whether circumstances will significantly change in the coming years has yet to be seen. Without the presence of such leadership however, cycles of fruitless exploratory discussions and diplomatic buffoonery will inevitably continue.

Rena Zuabi (@rena_zuabi) is a freelance writer based in Ramallah, also working in local sustainable development and rights advocacy.

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