CHALLENGE AND OPPORTUNITY: "In this article, I will try to defend the notion that making profound changes in the Palestinian political system, with its various constituents, would achieve the unity of vision, awareness, will, and leadership capable of transforming the Ukraine war and its potential fallout from a serious challenge into a historic opportunity," contends Palestinian commentator Hani al-Masri in the Palestinian daily al-Quds.
Naturally, this will take a relatively long time. The war promises to drag out, the urgent need for comprehensive change is present both before the Ukraine war and after it.
The danger is that what is happening in Ukraine is the start of a long war that may encounter ceasefires and breaks, but it is part of a transitional phase that the world is going through that will end with a new world, and it is also the start of WWIII. Not only is it a military war, it involves imposing blockades and unprecedented sanctions, demonizing Russia, dispatching weapons from every corner to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and permitting the influx of 'international volunteers'. All of these are forms of warfare. The only thing preventing it – so far – from turning into another global military war is that the outbreak of WWIII would spell the world's destruction without victors or vanquished. Rather, everyone will emerge defeated.
In this article, I will address the potential dangerous effects the Ukrainian war and its fallout may have on the Palestinian cause. These include declining interest in the cause, the occupation and apartheid state reaping benefits through the influx of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, Russia and Europe to Palestine, and the occupation state gaining greater freedom of maneuver than before. They also include the possibility of influential Palestinian circles using what is happening in Ukraine to deepen the split, the continued abstention and exclusion of institutions, persistent human rights violations, and so on, until there is no longer any talk of holding general elections, forming a new government, or amending the current government.
Nevertheless, there is a chance to turn this serious challenge into a historic opportunity, stemming from what the Ukraine crisis has achieved in the past few days in terms of imposing unprecedented sanctions on Russia, supporting and legitimizing resistance against the occupation, the international community rushing to condemn the Russian invasion, opening an investigation into the International Criminal Court, and so on. This can be used to support the Palestinian right to resistance, especially since the Palestinian cause has endured over 74 years of invasion, occupation and crimes of all sorts without this leading to sanctions on Israel. This is on top of branding legitimate resistance to the occupation as 'terrorism' and blocking the Palestinians and their political system from achieving unity by placing the Quartet's conditions in their path, imposing sanctions on the Palestinians when they formed a national unity government, and preventing them from forming it once again.
The opportunity here lies in the fact that the world, and especially the Western world, is naked and exposed, its fig leaf discarded to reveal the prevailing logic of force, racism and double standards. This can be leveraged to bring the Palestinian cause back to the forefront of concerns and priorities, provided that the Palestinians do not commit grave mistakes like taking sides in the war. Neutrality is the right option, because the Palestinians, who have been victimized for over a century, cannot condone injustice befalling another people at the hands of their leadership, which is also responsible for what is happening in their country, Ukraine, due to devoting itself to serve U.S. interests and goals by threatening Russian security.
The basic condition for the Palestinians to turn this serious challenge into an historic opportunity is to end the split and restore unity based on a comprehensive package that includes reviving the national project and rebuilding the institutions of the political system (the PLO, the PA, parties, trade unions and popular unions), which are in a state of total deadlock that threatens to liquidate the Palestinian cause in its various dimensions.
The process of national advancement starts with understanding the nature of the predicament, diagnosing it, determining its causes, and recognizing that it cannot be treated with sedatives or simple surgical operations or mere reform. What is required is overall, radical change that starts with formulating a comprehensive vision that involves conscious observation of what is happening locally, regionally, and globally, reviewing past experiences, and deriving lessons, takeaways, and common ground for the Palestinians and building upon them. This must be done while accounting for the distinguishing characteristics of various communities and outlining goals, basic rights, basic methods of operation and forms of struggle, the different phases, and strategies for achieving them.
As we know, when the current leaders are afflicted with a sense of despair and defeat, when the most they aspire to is for the PA to survive with increasingly heavy restrictions, when they lose their vision and ability to progress and overcome obstacles and dead ends, when they go backwards instead of forwards, when their jobs take precedence over the goals and interests of their people, and when they and their institutions lose legitimacy, change becomes unavoidable. This is evident from their failure to complete their program, or hold elections for an extended period, or to continue the resistance strategy, as well as the occurrence of the split. Moreover, the leadership is becoming obsolete and decrepit, with no sign of renewal and change. Corruption, mismanagement, and exaggeration run rampant, the standards and the values of productivity, proactivity, professionalism, teamwork, and delegation are not prioritized, and the right people are not appointed to the right positions. This is on top of the lack of human rights, freedoms, the rule of law, and the values of freedom, justice and equality. When this is the case, it is incumbent to make the needed change to resume the process of moving forward.
Change occurs through one of the following ways:
First: Military coup. This is rejected on principle and not an option on the Palestinian arena, since Palestine is under occupation and lacks freedom, sovereignty, and independence. The state does not have an army capable of mounting a coup, only security agencies bound by the heavy restrictions under the Oslo Accords that have turned them into agents of the occupation. What has happened in Gaza serves as a lesson and warning.
Second: A popular revolution. This seems to be an impossible or unlikely prospect due to the lack of a central organizing goal or goals and the tools capable of achieving it, as well as chronic division and hopelessness.
Third: Elections. This option is prevented by the dominant forces, in particular those in control of the two conflicting establishments in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which will not allow elections to be held unless the results are guaranteed. Since the surprising results of the 2006 legislative elections, several elections failed to proceed as scheduled for fear of the results.
It is worth recalling that the election train left the station in September 2020. At the time, Fatah and Hamas delegations to Istanbul agreed to run in the elections on a joint list, and for President Mahmoud 'Abbas to be the consensual candidate for the presidential elections, only for the agreement to be cancelled due to opposition from groups within both factions and others among the Palestinian people, on the grounds that it infringes on freedom of choice and competition and that its purpose is not to end the split and agree on a program that embodies common ground, but to serve individuals and groups through quota distributions. It was also opposed by influential players on the Palestinian arena, with the occupation at the forefront, so as to not legitimize Hamas, even if it did not obtain a majority within the joint list.
For its part, creating change via foreign intervention is completely out of the question, because it would only be change for the worse. Those who seek help from the foreign devil become enslaved to it.
So how can change be achieved?
There have been attempts to end the split by first forming a national unity or national accord government, or first holding elections, or first forming a preparatory committee to convene the unifying PNC. All these attempts failed, because the deadlock is deep and far-reaching, encompassing every facet, and because it pertains to substance, and not formal or procedural dimensions. Moreover, the balance of power does not permit elections to be held, and what is in one's heart may differ greatly from what is on the page.
In the wake of the failed attempts to end the split first, the idea began to spread that elections are the solution or gateway to ending the split, although the same factors that thwarted efforts to start by ending the split will also thwart efforts to start by holding the elections – especially given the current map of the balance of power on the Palestinian arena and its relationship to influential factors and players. Change, even in a limited sense, in the direction of holding elections or achieving unity can only occur through two sides of the split reaching an agreement. This has become a more distant prospect with the split deepening horizontally and vertically and intensifying competition over succession and efforts to arrange the Palestinian map in preparation for the post-'Abbas phase.
Elections are a form of exercising freedom, and there is no way to hold them while ensuring they are fair and free and their results are respected unless the political establishment is united on the basis of patriotism, democracy, and true partnership. This is because it alone is capable of paralyzing, neutralizing, or limiting the occupation's interference at least throughout the various stages of the elections. The occupation state is a major player that will not voluntarily allow elections to be held unless it serves its interests, as in the case of the 1996 and 2006 elections.
Therefore, free and fair elections must be imposed by force on the occupation, and this can only happen if they are contextualized as part of the struggle against the occupation, and as the realization of the Palestinian people's right to self-determination. This requires changing the internal balance of power, which is a historic process that takes time, but is inescapable.
Moreover, elections will not be held under the split unless it is as the result of a quota agreement, in a bid to enshrine or perpetuate the split and turn it into partition by holding them in the West Bank alone just like the local elections. How can elections be held in the absence of one government supervising them, and when the security and judicial institutions of West Bank differ from those of the Gaza Strip and they each work in service of another ruling establishment? And if they are held, will Fatah concede defeat and hand over the PA to the winner, and vice versa for Hamas? The elections will not take place. And if they do, the results must be guaranteed, or else they will be rigged or overturned, until a change occurs on the Palestinian map. This requires the rise of a massive national movement that transcends groups and parties, or the formation of a broad national front that seeks to salvage and rebuild the PLO and change the PA, putting it in its natural place as a tool and not the PLO's effective replacement.
The notion of holding the Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections separately from the presidential and legislative elections, as some advocate, is impossible to realize. It would be more difficult than holding presidential and legislative elections in which the winning representatives from the PNC membership, because they lack Palestinian, Arab, or international support, Israel is standing in their path, and they will not be permitted to be held in Jordan and inside occupied Palestine, where over a third of the Palestinian people reside.
It is not technical or administrative issues, like whether to hold them in person or virtually, that prevents PNC elections from taking place, but rather the fact that the right conditions have not matured, especially politically. The will to hold them is absent, and there is a lack of popular uproar or large crowds demanding them or willing to participate in them. There is also the lack of a registry for Palestinian voters abroad to determine who has the right to vote and approval has not been obtained from countries that contain Palestinian communities, especially dual nationals.
Those who broach this idea either know it cannot be implemented and only mention it for obstruction, opposition, and objection purposes, or else they deem the participation of a limited number of Palestinians to be sufficient and to constitute a random, arbitrary representative sample of Palestinians.
There is a solution that has yet to be tried, although it is no magic wand: A comprehensive package that includes the national project, the charter, ending the split, restoring unity, rebuilding PLO institutions, approving a political, economic and social program that reflects common ground, changing the PA, and holding regular elections at all levels and in all districts whenever possible.
"It is this package that will fulfill the requirements for radical change and can rally the masses if they are convinced that its proponents are capable of embodying a new experience with the potential for victory," concludes Masri.