Diplomatic activity on the future of the occupied West Bank and Gaza has again assumed a high profile. The luminaries traveling on this particular mission are jetting around the globe — King Fahd in Washington, Hussein in Algiers, and the US and the Soviet Union in Vienna.

The people at the heart of the discussion, the population of the occupied territories, still suffer from the lull that has gripped the West Bank and Gaza since the war in Lebanon. Initiatives, not to speak of solutions, seem far removed from the curfewed alleyways of Dheisheh refugee camp, the huckster-thronged streets of the Old City of Jerusalem or the solemn night streets of Ramallah and Nablus.

Even the accord announced on February ll between King Hussein and PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat, long-anticipated by both proponents and antagonists, has so far elicited only well- established political stances. Pro-Jordanian figures like Mayors Elias Freij and Rashad al-Shawwa embraced the accord, while Mayor Bassam Shaka’a and other anti-Jordanian nationalists warned of the new dangers it posed.

So far, opposition has been confined to statements by leading nationalists. It is difficult to foresee any effective counterforce emerging to this, outside student rallies and similar institutional forums. Fatah’s own Central Council is likely to provide a more serious stumbling-block than popular opinion in the occupied territories.

As left and opposition groups here perceive it, they are once again presented with a fait accompli, with only the familiar option of “rejecting and condemning” it. The convening of the Palestine National Council (PNC) in Amman was perhaps the most dramatic example of the strictures of this position. With television stations throughout the occupied territories tuned to Jordan TV’s somewhat selective but extensive broadcast of the PNC sessions, critics here — some with political acumen and commitment, others with weary cynicism — were reduced to a rarefied critique of a mass spectacle that had clearly reached and affected the unpoliticized but strongly nationalist majority.

Palestinians opposed to the PNC sessions were not solitary individuals; they spoke also with the voices of organizations rooted in the society and the nationalist struggle. The left still enlists the most potent “national symbols” — leaders like Mayor Bassem Shaka‘a, for example — while the right must still make do with recently rehabilitated “nationalists” like Freij and Shawwa. This new phenomenon of PNC mass politics by television is not yet the prominent mode of political discourse, but it had the familiar atmosphere of people as spectators. This was underlined by the striking fact that enthusiasm for the PNC did not translate into mass mobilization during the sessions, despite efforts by supporters to rally and demonstrate. Arafat himself came in for especially bitter criticism from opponents. One noted that Arafat had now mastered the lessons of the Arab regimes on “how to use and not to act with the people.”

Opposition to the PNC was not confined to the living rooms of intellectuals. Politicized circles in the West Bank were deeply divided along organizational lines, and a number of highly respected national figures, including Mayors Shaka‘a, Karim Khalaf (only Mayor Khalaf seems to have switched sides, later moving much closer to a pro-Arafat position) and Ibrahim Tawil had petitioned the PLO not to hold the PNC in Amman. During the sessions, large meetings were held at both Birzeit and Bethlehem Universities in opposition to the Amman meeting; at Birzeit, supporters held an equally large meeting at the same time.

Western media did not reflect these major divisions, partly because of their reliance on a limited number of Palestinian sources. In the Arab media, a long-simmering “war of the newspapers” broke into open and acrimonious conflict. Accounts of events in the pro-Arafat al-Fajr and the oppositional al-Mithaq were so dissimilar as to become a source of cynical humor. The cold war turned hot on occasion as well: pro-Arafat journalist Raymonda Tawil’s car was torchbombed in Ramallah; soon thereafter the car of Sufian al-Khatib, editor of al-Mithaq, was burned. The pro-Jordanian al-Quds, with the largest mass circulation, continued alternately issuing dire warnings that time was running out and pointing to the path of true salvation.

Political Consequences

Fatah’s successful convening of the PNC was not simply an effective public relations campaign. It had political consequences. One observer close to Fatah, who has been involved in Israeli- Palestinian dialogue with Fatah’s backing, gave the most cogent argument for the PNC. “The PNC attracted people back to the PLO. The disunity in the PLO was leading to a popular attitude which could be summarized as ‘to hell with Abu Ammar and Abu Musa!’ Palestinians in the occupied territory had come to equate the PLO with ‘no settlement’ and Jordan with ‘settlement.’ Now, the PLO and the possibility of a settlement converge.”

The same person observed that the “flag of peace” has been explicitly waved with the new appointments to the Executive Committee, which included West Bank figures like Fahd al-Qawasmeh (since assassinated), Muhammad Milhem, Abu Mazen (in charge of Israeli-Palestinian dialog) and representatives of the “Gulf bourgeoisie.” He also noted that Jordan’s own analysis of the situation in the West Bank presumes popular support for a Hashemite solution from a population on the “verge of despair,” which is not, he felt, the case. Like other supporters of Fatah, he believes that the PLO is “using Amman as the gateway to the West Bank,” and not that the King is using the PLO.

The groups that compose the Democratic Alliance and the National Alliance, of course, strongly disagree. They see the convening of the PNC in Amman as destroying the decade of work since the Rabat summit of 1974, which affirmed the PLO only as the representative of the Palestinians. “The PNC was PLO in title, but its content was Jordan,” one former member of the banned National Guidance Committee said. Left and anti- nationalist activists emphasize popular distrust and outright hatred of the Jordanian regime. One communist echoed a number of others when he said that “King Hussein killed more Palestinians than Sharon did at Sabra and Shatilla.”

It is extremely difficult to assess this distrust as an operative political factor. On the other side, the optimism of pro-Arafat supporters rests heavily on the assumption that, in any Palestinian-Jordanian initiative, the West Bank infrastructure of the PLO can withstand the very heavy weight of Jordanian influence here. This influence continues to grow in the current political void, and has strong roots in the civil service and commercial trading sectors. The optimists also may not appreciate the heavy price Fatah has paid in terms of the PLO split and Fatah’s own capacity to act in a unified and effective manner.

Individual supporters of different political organizations may be less at odds, at least in sentiments, than their organizations. One communist faculty member at Birzeit University made an interesting observation on this January’s student council elections: the platforms of all student groups, excluding the Islamic bloc, were virtually identical, and coincided with the program of the Democratic Alliance. The elections thus were not a mandate for the policies of the PNC; rather the pro-Fatah Youth Movement’s program appealed to the same anti-Jordanian, pro-nationalist sentiment as that of the left bloc or the National Alliance. Indeed, it seems that Fatah itself, in the occupied territories, is under some pressure to come to terms with the politics of their leadership outside. Students in the National Alliance assert that their slate in the Birzeit elections won most of its votes from disillusioned Fatah supporters (they won a total of 112 votes, which, though small, was more than predicted). Other observers, however, note Fatah’s flexible tactics, and predict that the student movement and the anti-Jordanian statements of other Fatah mass organizations will simply serve as another point of leverage for Arafat and the leadership to use on Hussein in their negotiations. The next period should reveal whether Arafat’s accommodation with Jordan affects his mass base here.

Fatah supporters whom MERIP interviewed before the Hussein-Arafat accord all concurred that the alliance with Jordan would be short-lived. Opposition supporters were more convinced that it was based on a real convergence of interests. One intellectual supporting Fatah pointed out several signs of friction, including the refusal of the Jordanian authorities to allow a public memorial for assassinated mayor Fahd al-Qawasmeh, and the fact that the Jordanian media did not broadcast any news of the recent meeting of Arafat with Knesset members from the Progressive List for Peace. The same person noted frankly that the accord was a great “political shock.” One student leader, reflecting a much wider trend in Fatah leadership here, praised the “strategic nature” of the Jordanian-Palestinian relationship that he, only days before, believed to be of short duration.

New Alliance

A banner during the Birzeit student elections this January — the symbol of Fatah’s youth movement topped by a red star — underlined the new open alliance between Fatah and the Marxist Democratic Front in the occupied territories. Fatah did not enter into this as a vote-getting maneuver, and many observers speculate that in fact a number of Fatah supporters defected to the Islamic Bloc, disturbed by the “reddening” of their organization.

The next week proved this alliance was no fluke. In elections for the Hotel Workers Union on February 10, the two groups won a major victory over the Popular Front/Communist Party group that opposed them. These shifting alliances are all the more striking given recent bitter factionalism in the trade unions (in 1980 Fatah set up trade unions separate from the longer-established unions dominated by the left).

Democratic Front activists state clearly that they see their role as promoting unity in the nationalist ranks. One union activist from the Democratic Front stated that his group’s alliance stood for a “unity stance in the PLO” while the Communist Party/Popular Front alliance stood for a “unity stance in the leadership.” This unity stance among the West Bank trade unions at least, has been translated into renewed efforts to knit together the two federations. A condition of Fatah and the Democratic Front running in the same bloc has been that both keep their affiliation to their rival federations rather than “majority rule.” Whether this alliance will withstand the Hussein-Arafat accord remains to be seen. Whatever its fate, it underlines the shaky future that faces the Democratic Alliance — and indeed any unity of left forces. The alliance reflects the internal dilemma of the left: if it stays on the high ground of theory, it can maintain its ideological purity; a descent into action, however, poses the immediate practical problem of alliances.

Observers close to Fatah predict that the Communist Party will abandon its alliance with the Popular Front, which is obviously on difficult ideological and organizational ground, and join the other two organizations. At the moment, the Communist Party is more interested in a freeze on the resolutions of the Amman sessions and a reconvening of the PNC based on the Aden-Algiers agreement. Adherents to the National Alliance in the occupied territories (these forces are quite small) oppose such a reconvening as long as the present structure of the PNC remains and Arafat is in control.

The Popular Front itself may be the organization most affected by the changes in political climate and conditions following the PNC. It appears to be at a crossroads, with one trend pressing to continue support for the line of the Democratic Alliance, and the other urging a more open link with the National Alliance.

In outlining the positions of various groups, it is clear that the long-standing capacity of the left to exert primarily a negative or reactive force has been confirmed by the political dynamics surrounding the PNC and, of course, by the increasing strength of the right throughout the region. One person here sympathic to the left argued that left groups should have appeared at the PNC and launched their opposition to current policy from that platform.

Have possible new directions of strategy emerged in the occupied territories? Might local conditions generate new forms of political discourse and new patterns of resistance and mobilization? In some recent cases, pressing local developments have forged a degree of national unity, and most important, joint action, between all groups. In the besieged Dheisheh refugee camp, settler violence, army measures and the consummate threat of expulsion of camp residents have compelled all nationalist groups to act together. The example of Dheisheh is emphasized by political activists here of all stripes.

One analyst close to Fatah remarked recently that locally-based alliances are the “exceptions that prove the rule.” On specific issues, he went on to say, activists here can often determine policy, but the large political issues remain in the hands of leaders outside the occupied territories. The fact remains that some local issues may place the West Bank in the heart of the struggle in the next period. In particular, escalating settler violence, in the context of a divided Israeli government, is a matter of growing concern and discussion here. A new political climate of fear and terror will inevitably generate West Bank resistance, although most probably in the form of spontaneous and uncoordinated “guerrilla” actions ranging from rocks to molotov cocktails and small arms, as was the case in the recent killing of an Israeli soldier in Ramallah.

In the absence of any progress towards an end to the occupation, the pattern of terror and resistance could lead to what one person here called an “Ulsterization” of the West Bank and Gaza. It is a dangerous dynamic, although one can only applaud the spirit of the teenagers who will bear the burden of these resistance actions. In the end, though, only a new political strategy which is capable of mobilization on a massive scale, with an effective and critical leadership, will allow the people of the occupied territories to benefit from the sacrifices and hardships they have endured and face now.

How to cite this article:

A Special Correspondent "Hussein Hangover," Middle East Report 131 (March/ April 1985).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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