The question of Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza is one of the key issues in the effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israel has systematically suppressed political expression in the Occupied Territories, deporting or imprisoning local leaders as they emerge. The Palestinians, for their part, insist that the “correct address” of their representatives is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), based outside the territories.

Despite this, four categories of local Palestinian leaders can be identified: local leadership of the major PLO member groups; independent nationalists; religious leadership; and Palestinian “personalities.” This last group deserves special attention because of its paradoxical status: External forces — Israel, the United States, the PLO leadership in exile and many European countries — have identified them as leaders in the West Bank and Gaza, yet many of the people they purportedly represent refuse to accord them that role. A brief sketch of the other leadership groups will help set the backdrop for a look at the role of the Palestinian “personalities.”

The local leaders of the PLO groups wield considerable influence, not so much because of the leadership qualities they may or may not possess but because they enjoy the legitimacy of belonging to one of the main PLO factions. The semi-secrecy of their activities usually makes these leaders inaccessible to the foreign media or to diplomats. Foreign representatives often have little interest in this leadership, which is anyway not keen to open channels of communication. These leaders frequently face imprisonment, administrative detention, home or town arrest, or deportation. Most are professionals and students. The PLO remains their sole frame of reference, but differences among the PLO groups outside the occupied territories do find their way into the leadership of the “interior.” The current uprising in the occupied territories has raised the profile and the influence of this leadership component, and for the time being, at least, imposed a high degree of unity among them.

The independent nationalists are figures who are vocal in their opposition to Israeli occupation, and American and Jordanian plans for a political settlement of the conflict, but are also critical of certain attitudes of the PLO leadership in exile, especially Fatah. These nationalists endorse the PLO’s stated goals of self- determination and the establishment of a Palestinian state, but they vie for a “correct” relationship between the “interior” and the “exterior” based on the requirements of an effective national struggle. Among the most prominent nationalist figures are Bassam al-Shak‘a, the elected/deposed mayor of Nablus, and Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, the head of Gaza’s Red Crescent Society.

Until recently, the religious leadership in the Occupied Territories was not overtly involved in politics. It gave its loyalty variously to Jordan, the Fatah leadership and the Muslim Brothers at home and abroad. (Some Christian clerics have also played political leadership roles in recent years.) With the creation of the Islamic Jihad organization in the early 1980s, a new brand of religious leadership emerged which combined militant religion with politics and took up armed resistance to the Israeli occupation. They came to pose a serious challenge to both traditional religious leaders and to other segments of Palestinian leadership as well. Presenting Islam as a “liberation theology” has endeared this group to increasing numbers of Palestinians, and the combination of “Islam” and the “gun” may prove to be a potent formula for gaining adherents. The uprising has provided the religious leadership, and the Islamic Jihad in particular, with new opportunities to assert themselves and establish their credentials firmly as a force to reckon with and as representatives of a significant constituency.

The Personalities and the PLO

The Palestinian personalities are a score or so of men whom Israel, foreign consulates, embassies and officials, Jordan, and the Fatah leadership have “recognized” as spokespeople for the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The media often describes them as “moderates,” and as such they enjoy a margin of maneuver and Israeli tolerance not granted to others.

The various parties to the conflict each have their own perspective on these personalities. Some rose to prominence on the strength of being endorsed by the PLO leadership outside; others are from the traditional elite, enjoying Jordanian support. Yet major political groups spanning the range of Palestinian society in the Occupied Territories, including a significant portion of Fatah, explicitly reject the right of these personalities to speak on their behalf. These groups, each of which commands a significant constituency, are members of the PLO. The PLO, as recent polls and popular sentiment show conclusively, is the legitimate representative of the population. (A September 1986 poll conducted by al-Fajr newspaper found that 93.5 percent of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians believe “the PLO is the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”; 5.1 percent disagreed and 1.4 percent had no opinion or refused to answer.) What is going on here?

The Palestinian personalities can be divided into three sub-groups: pro-PLO, pro-Jordan and those whose allegiance is to both the PLO and Jordan. The PLO, or more precisely the external leadership of Fatah, regards these personalities as useful. They work on behalf of the PLO leadership in exile. Their usefulness is directly proportional to their loyalty, obedience to PLO directives and lack of individual initiative. Jordan, for its part, is interested in maintaining a local leadership sympathetic to its vision of linking the occupied territories once again to the Hashemite monarchy. Israel, the United States and many West European countries favor that part of the leadership less intimate with the PLO and more inclined toward Jordan.

A primary activity of the Palestinian personalities is to meet with foreign officials and visiting dignitaries, to convey to them the “position of the Palestinians” regarding a political settlement. Journalists, academics, lawyers and a former acting mayor comprise the pro-PLO faction. Notable among them (judging from the frequency of their appearance in the public eye) are Hanna Siniora, editor of the daily newspaper, al-Fajr; Fayiz Abu Rahma, a lawyer; Sari Nusseibeh, a Birzeit University professor; and Mustafa ‘Abd al-Nabi al-Natsha, deposed acting mayor of Hebron. These men represent a fair geographic distribution, though all are urban-based: Siniora and Nusseibeh are from Jerusalem, al-Natsha from Hebron, and Abu Rahma from Gaza.

These pro-PLO figures occasionally promote positions not publicly sanctioned by the PLO. Nusseibeh, at a time before he became a recognized pro-PLO personality, promoted the thesis that given the choice between autonomy and annexation by Israel, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be better off with annexation. Hanna Siniora announced in early 1987 that he would run for the municipal council in “united” Jerusalem, which most Palestinians view as acceptance of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. Usually, though, these figures confine themselves to conveying messages from and to the PLO. Occasionally they receive some margin of authority to sound out the positions of other parties, or to negotiate on a limited scale — Nusseibeh was one of several Palestinians authorized by Arafat to meet with a member of the Herut Party secretariat, Moshe Amirav, in September 1987, and Siniora has similarly met with Secretary of State George Shultz. The fate of these individuals is very much in the hands of the PLO leadership.

Jordan’s Personalities

The pro-Jordan figures are mainly from traditional elite families. Prominent among them are Hikmat al-Masri, deputy speaker of the Jordanian parliament, Elias Freij, elected mayor of Bethlehem, and Rashad al-Shawwa, a deposed appointed mayor of Gaza. Others include professionals such as engineer and journalist ‘Uthman al-Hallaq and lawyer ‘Isam al-‘Anani. Geographic diversity applies here as well: al-Masri comes from Nablus, Freij from Bethlehem, al-Shawwa from Gaza City, al-Hallaq from Jerusalem and al-‘Anani from Hebron. Since Jordan’s position on a political settlement is settled and clear, or was until late July, these figures are able to articulate precise political positions. The pro-PLO figures, by contrast, have the unenviable task of advancing fluid and often contradictory PLO positions.

Members of the third sub-group raise the art of political accommodation to new heights. This group, which can be described as both pro-PLO and pro-Jordanian, tries to keep a foot in each camp. If the scale tilts in favor of one camp, they will change their position according to the dictates of the balance of power and the logic of individual interest and political expediency. Mahmoud Abu al-Zuluf, editor-in-chief of al-Quds newspaper, is a good illustration. Until about two years ago Abu al-Zuluf was pro-Jordanian. But he moved to the pro-PLO camp when the Jordanians started promoting two alternative clients, al-Hallaq and al-‘Anani, founders of a new, rival pro-Jordanian newspaper, al-Nahar. The opportunism and lack of firm commitment of this group make them less significant than either the pro-PLO and pro-Jordanian groups.

Although they differ on certain issues, the pro-PLO and pro-Jordan figures all favor a Jordan-PLO understanding of some kind. Their relationship is competitive, which sometimes interferes with the broader goal of conveying a specific message to visiting foreign officials or dignitaries. Nonetheless, the two groups have developed a mutual tolerance that exceeds that between Jordan and the PLO, and they have continued working together despite King Hussein’s break with the PLO leadership in 1986 and Arafat’s abrogation of the 1985 Amman accords. The ability of the two groups to continue working together largely rests on their shared sense of the need for Jordan-PLO understanding. The patrons clearly find this relationship useful as a channel for communication when official Jordan-PLO channels are blocked. Furthermore, the clients are forced to live together in a small and circumscribed area. Some form of cooperation and civil behavior is required, as they often appear at the same diplomatic dinners and functions.

Although the Palestinian personalities are usually described as leaders, and their patrons provide them some of the trappings of leadership, they do not personally command popular constituencies. If the patronage of Jordan or the PLO evaporated or was transferred to others, most of these figures would cease to be leaders. They have not come to their positions through expressions of popular will (though they can be said to represent traditional upper and middle classes in terms of their social bases). Their assigned contacts with parties perceived as enemies actually undercut any popular nationalist support they might nurture. They are responsible only to their patrons. The prospect of these figures building power bases independent of Jordan or the PLO has always been negligible, even before the uprising.

Although these Palestinian personalities make some pretense of being politicians, very few of them truly are. They lack the credentials and have not mastered the rules of the game. They are, for example, generally available to meet with whomever will meet with them. They set no preconditions and fail to scrutinize the intentions of a foreign official, who may be seeking to meet with Palestinian “representatives” only in order to be able to claim to have met “with both sides.” The fact that most foreign visitors squeeze hastily arranged meetings with Palestinian “representatives” between their “real” business in Israel, is hardly flattering. Lists of prospective invitees are prepared and invitations extended in the final hours. The fact that the Palestinian personalities have accepted treatment amounting to insult undermines their self-respect and the respect of the people they claim to represent.

Because of the nature of the roles they are assigned, the pro-PLO figures cannot maneuver easily without actually departing from public PLO positions. The pro-Jordanian figures are conservative but articulate, constrained by the limits drawn by Jordan and the PLO. This situation adds to the confusion of some segments of the population and the resentment of others. One day the personalities advocate one thing, another day something quite different. After the estrangement between Arafat and Hussein, for example, al-Shawwa announced on Jordanian television that the majority of Palestinians favor an intimate relationship with Jordan but are intimidated by the PLO. More recently al-Shawwa declared that no local leadership can replace the legitimate Palestinian representative, the PLO. Siniora, who had said a few months before the uprising that he would run for a seat on the Jerusalem Municipal Council, now calls for civil disobedience. Sari Nusseibeh, who until recently saw no alternative to Palestinian integration into Israel, now declares that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza.

The Palestinian personalities identified with the PLO are affiliated exclusively with Fatah. No personality is identified with other Palestinian organizations — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestine Communist Party or any other smaller organization. This is a serious handicap, of which the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are acutely aware. They therefore do not place serious hopes on these personalities and their meetings with foreign officials. On the contrary, they often view these personalities with suspicion and doubt. Foreign consulates and embassies, local media and foreign officials themselves know that these personalities do not represent the broad Palestinian political spectrum. With the onset of the uprising in December 1987, the Palestinian personalities, particularly the pro-Jordanian ones, went out of their way to disclaim any representative role. It can only be a disappointment to the Americans, Europeans and Israelis to have the Palestinian representatives they selected and cultivated retire from the political arena in this way.

How to cite this article:

Ziad Abu 'Amr "Notes on Palestinian Political Leadership," Middle East Report 154 ( ).
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