‘Ali Jarbawi, an associate professor of political science at Birzeit University, is the author of The Intifada and Political Leadership in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Beirut: Dar al-Tali‘a, in Arabic). MERIP contributing editor Penny Johnson interviewed him in Ramallah in late February 1990.

You have criticized the “Western analysis” of the uprising which posits that a new, youthful leadership here has changed the balance of power with the PLO outside. This line of thinking views the uprising as a massive social rebellion that has transformed the roles of youth, women, workers and camp dwellers. Do you think such fundamental change is underway?

I doubt it. Such assertions form a rhetoric of the uprising that bears further examination. Many writers generalize from examples that are true only in a particular region or segment of society.

The first six months of the uprising were dynamic and fluid; an upheaval did take place. One lasting achievement was the creation of the Unified Leadership. The model emerged from the grassroots experience of Palestinian activists before the uprising, in prisons and universities, where similar coordinating committees existed locally. This is the first entirely secret Palestinian leadership. It is not composed of personalities, but represents the unified coordination of the four factions [Fatah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestine Communist Party].

After this period, much else went back to normal. The public figures resumed high-profile activities with the media and international contacts. The uprising introduced new public figures — who previously had been almost uniformly pro-Fatah. Now groups on the left, who had been critical of the public figures, entered the arena of public relations by promoting individuals sympathetic to their positions.

Public relations has had a peculiar weight in the Palestinian struggle. Does this say anything about the nature of Palestinian strategy?

The battle for Western and Israeli public opinion is necessary but has perhaps assumed an exaggerated importance. We should learn from the errors of Sadat, who devoted his energies to winning over American opinion and neglected his own people. Palestinian public opinion is often taken for granted. The public figures often have no popular base. They derive their support from their loyalty to the PLO. Their channels of communication to the people are extremely limited.

It appears that any Palestinian delegation to talks in Cairo will comprise mainly public figures. What are the implications of this for the Palestinian peace process?

Yes, the Cairo delegation will be composed primarily of the public figures of the nationalist forces in the Occupied Territories rather than the organizational leadership of these forces. Most of these individuals will come from the central region of the West Bank — the Jerusalem/Ramallah region — despite the problems of delegates from Jerusalem proper. The other regions will be underrepresented.

Palestinian delegates to the talks must be cleared by three parties: Israeli, American and Palestinian, and here the PLO most likely will be cornered by the other two parties, leading to delegates that are not the favored choices of either the PLO or the population.

One striking fact is that the delegation to date does not contain experts — specialists in negotiation, international law, or other relevant issues — and there is no audible discussion of an accompanying delegation of specialists. The PLO may believe it simply has to move into the Cairo Sheraton. There is no Palestinian dialogue on a strategy for Cairo: positions are not being developed on specific issues — like Soviet participation, the conditions for and types of elections, or UN versus US observers.

The PLO’s central aim in these talks is to establish the mere fact of a Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In other words, the PLO is still waging a struggle for recognition rather than for a solution.

The focus on the composition of the delegation indicates that the PLO has partially fallen into Shamir’s trap, and is so immersed in the rather absurd details of the talks that it is not raising questions of principle. In addition, all three parties share a tacit assumption that this delegation may become the final delegation for negotiations, and thus are particularly concerned with its composition.

Most public figures are from the central region of the West Bank. What is the significance of regional dynamics in the uprising?

To simplify, one can say the remoter areas are doing the intifada, while the center is talking about it. Certainly protest is more militant in the north of the West Bank — Tulkarm, Jenin, Qalqilya — while these regions have no visible national leaders. Most Palestinian infrastructure, whether press, institutions, or universities, is located in the center. Intellectuals and activists alike have gravitated there. Jerusalem — through the media and foreign consulates located there — acts as a protective shield. It is striking how much more severe army repression is in the north.

In the north and the center, some regional differences are marked. The north responds more wholeheartedly to certain appeals of the Unified Leadership: for example, the call for a 25 percent cut in rent is widely obeyed in this area, while in Ramallah landlords are asking for the full rent in dollars. The north also launched the resignation of police and other civil administration officials (with the Jenin police in February 1988). The first collaborator was killed in Qabatya.

On the other hand, the central region was a stronghold of the tax revolt: this is true not only of Bayt Sahour, but of Ramallah, whose merchants were among the last to pay. Neighborhood teaching during school closures was much stronger in this region as well, even in Ramallah-area villages, while it was virtually absent from many areas in the north.

The clandestine Unified Leadership, I believe, is also drawn from the center, where many levels of organizational leadership already exist. The Israeli policy of isolating areas of the West Bank has reinforced this tendency.

Are there significant differences between the public figures and the organizational leadership?

First, there is a difference between the organizational leadership itself inside and outside Palestine. Inside, there is more debate, due to the necessity of opposing the occupation and to shared experiences in prison and elsewhere, as well as to the greater weight of the “left” forces in relation to the dominant mainstream.

In general, the public figures, particularly those who emerged before the uprising, have seen the uprising as an “event” which must be exploited to start a political process. A new word has entered the Palestinian political dictionary — istithmar, literally “investment,” and these figures assert that we must “invest,” or capitalize on, the intifada.

A second view comes from the cadres of all four organizations, including Fatah, particularly the young people. It sees the uprising not as an event only but as a process of change. This view leads to a strategy of escalating the uprising and to a growing disappointment with the string of “concessions” exacted from Palestinians in a process where they can see no tangible results.

What about forces outside the PLO consensus, specifically the Islamist movement, Hamas, and the Popular Front?

Hamas would like to reserve a place in the negotiating process, but it has put itself in a dilemma: Its leaders make clear that they are ready to be a part of negotiations, but their leaflets continue to be ultra-militant. They are waiting for a way to participate without jeopardizing their base.

The Popular Front has reservations about the whole process: the role of Egypt, of the Americans, the negotiations themselves. The Front does not believe that there is a real opportunity to advance the Palestinian position under prevailing conditions and in this form of negotiation.

Does the leadership of Hamas represent the same trend of drawing its leaders from the center, or a counter-dynamic?

Hamas is totally different. Its weight is in Gaza and the peripheral areas of the West Bank. The class composition and educational background of its leadership is also different. Hamas’ support rests on religion rather than politics, and this support has remained fairly constant. Before the uprising, for example, most student elections gave Hamas 30-35 percent; their support is still in that range. When there are real political choices — in particular if a Palestinian state is on the horizon — this support will weaken substantially.

Do you agree with the assessment of Bassam Abu Sharif that these talks will take place in the near future?

It’s quite possible, but the real question is whether to represent these talks as a big achievement. The talks are the fruits of a process the PLO, and Abu Sharif in particular, launched last summer. Whether these fruits are edible remains to be seen. The mainstream PLO leaders who have invested so much in their initiative must see the talks as a breakthrough. They have reached a point of no return.

How to cite this article:

Marilyn Johnson "“The PLO Is Still Waging a Struggle for Recognition Rather Than for a Solution”," Middle East Report 164-165 ( ).
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