With the return of Yasir Arafat and the installation of a Palestinian Authority (PA) in Gaza and Jericho, domestic political debates within the Occupied Territories are likely to focus less on the textual detail of the Israeli-PLO Declaration of Principles and more on the political nature of the nascent authority and strategies for the five-year interim period of self-rule.

Two figures who are bound to be significant voices in these debates are Marwan Barghouti, vice president of the Fatah Higher Council in the West Bank, and Ghazi Abu Jiyab who is politically identified with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Gaza.

Barghouti headed the student council at Birzeit University from 1983 to 1987. During this period the university became perhaps the most important center for nationalist thinking in the Occupied Territories. Expelled for membership in Fatah in May 1987, Barghouti worked in Tunis under the PLO’s second-in-command, Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), until the latter’s assassination at the hands of Israeli commandos in April 1988. Barghouti subsequently went to Amman, where he was elected the youngest-ever member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council. He returned to Palestine in April 1994.

Ghazi Abu Jiyab was arrested for killing an Israeli intelligence agent in Gaza in 1969 and spent 16 years in various Israeli jails until his release in 1985 as part of a prisoner exchange. Abu Jiyab has gained renown as one of the most independent thinkers on the Palestinian left. In 1992 he wrote a series of newspaper articles detailing and denouncing the political degeneration of the intifada, addressing particularly the vexed issue of collaborator killings. These articles prompted mass public debates in Gaza that went on for weeks.

An Interview with Marwan Barghouti

When you returned to Palestine, you said your role was to “act as a bridge between the PLO leadership outside and the local population.” Why was a bridge necessary?

Because there are two Palestinian political cultures. One born of the Arab world and one born of the Israeli occupation. My role — and that of other Palestinians who have had the two experiences — is to fuse these two cultures into a new political culture appropriate to self-rule. Without this mediation there are bound to be conflicts between the historical leadership in exile and the younger leadership in the territories.

Some say that the deterioration in relations between the two can be traced almost directly to the murder of Abu Jihad.

Yes. Abu Jihad was perhaps the only “outside” leader who really studied the situation inside the territories. He didn’t just issue directives. He was in direct touch with the cadres here, he listened to us and so had a fuller picture. When the Israelis killed him, they also killed a concept, a strategy, if you like, that held the two wings together. Abu Jihad was in direct control of Fatah, the largest movement struggling against the occupation in the territories. When he was removed, centrifugal forces in the movement were released and internal conflicts developed.

How do you foresee Fatah’s role during the interim period?

In the past, the Palestinians have missed a number of opportunities in the struggle for self-determination. This is why I support the peace process. If nothing else, Oslo has terminated the Zionist dream of a greater Israel. For the first time, an Israeli government has recognized the Palestinians as a people and the PLO as their representative.

But the implications for the national struggle are extremely complex. The occupation continues, and so our national resistance must likewise continue, but because we have a Palestinian Authority on Palestinian territory, the means of resistance must change. Fatah must continue the struggle to liberate the occupied territories. Second, we must build the PA. These two missions must be not complementary. This entails an extremely nuanced and flexible political strategy.

Historically in the territories Fatah operated as a clandestine organization based solely on the national question. Now we must go public and articulate positions on the social and economic dimensions of the struggle.

At my first Higher Committee meeting, I said that Fatah must mobilize the people around three central slogans for the interim period — national independence, democracy and development. I believe that these slogans together would command the support of the vast majority of Palestinians in the territories.

Gaza-Jericho First will not automatically lead to independence. This will only come if we set off an irreversible dynamic through the new national mechanisms we set in place.

I know the Israelis do not want this. Their vision of self-rule is one of a “security partnership” with the PLO. But we — the generation who confronted the occupation on a daily basis — would never consent to be “partners” in the oppression of our own people. We are also the generation, however, that has absorbed deep changes in the world — the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the defeat of Iraq, the realization, finally, that the armed struggle is no longer an option for us.

Oslo represents the PLO’s accommodation to this new balance of forces, a political realism as to what now is and is not possible. But the same holds for the Israelis. If Oslo expresses our accommodation, it also reflects Israel’s belated recognition that the Palestinian question cannot be resolved by force. But our condition is that Israel too must eventually recognize our national rights. The peace process is the objective reflection of these realities.

You talk of independence, development and democracy as being the three cardinal aims of self-rule. Which is primary?

Independence. But in practice the three cannot be separated. We will only get genuine independence if we develop a national infrastructure for the self-rule, and we can only develop an infrastructure if we have a democratic Palestinian civil society.

You have an opposition, both nationalist and Islamist. How is Fatah going to deal with this?

The fundamental attitude is one of respect. There can only be a genuine party of government if there are genuine parties of opposition.

There are two kinds of opposition confronting us. One is the Marxist streams of the Popular and Democratic Fronts. These traditionally have always opposed Fatah within the PLO, but have been unable to wrest hegemony from it. Fatah remains the backbone of the Palestinian national movement. If anything, the changes I referred to — particularly the demise of the Soviet Union — have strengthened Fatah’s hegemony.

The Islamist opposition, represented mainly by Hamas, emerged after the intifada. The precursor of Hamas was the Muslim Brothers, who never engaged in any kind of national activity against the occupation.

Historically, these oppositions have always had to accommodate Fatah. When, in 1965, Fatah took the strategic decision that liberation would be achieved via armed and popular struggle, most of the Arab groups at that time were against it. Once we had demonstrated the essential political realism of this approach, the opposition took up the same line. In the case of Islamists, it may have taken them 25 years, but eventually they adopted the same approach.

We can live with the opposition. Indeed, if they can come up with a better alternative to Oslo to realize our national rights, I will join them! Fatah isn’t the important thing. But neither the PLO opposition nor the Islamists have an alternative. In the end, Palestinians will always be drawn to the basic realism embodied by Fatah’s politics. Now, for sure, Fatah’s support is not constant. When nothing changes on the ground — as during the Madrid peace process — our support declines. When things do change — like when prisoners are released or the Palestinian police return to Gaza and Jericho — you see that Fatah’s support revives. The same dynamic will happen in the West Bank, once the PA establishes its influence here.

The more Fatah progresses on the road to independence, the more the opposition will have to adapt to the reality of self-rule. It is already happening. Fatah is currently in negotiations with the opposition over forming municipalities throughout the occupied territories. The PFLP and DFLP are participating.

Two years ago, I engaged in a long dialogue with Ibrahim Ghoshah, Hamas’ representative in Amman. I told him that Hamas, politically, would sooner or later have to come to terms with the peace process, no matter how much they rejected it. Today they have.

But adaptation brings its problems. The Islamist Bassam Jarrar told me that a condition for “quiet” between Hamas and the PA during the autonomy would be the preservation of shari‘a as the basis of all personal law. Is this a condition that Fatah could agree to?

Fatah, first and foremost, is a national movement, the median. We respect the plurality of faiths in Palestine — Muslim, Christian and Jew. I am a Muslim; 90 percent of Palestinians are Muslims. Of course, I respect Islamic tradition and law. But we are trying to build a civil society that is habitable for all Palestinians, including Christians who have been active in our national struggle and will have a crucial role in building a future Palestinian society.

Hamas has the right to call for Islamic law or for anything else, but they also have the duty to accept the democratic process. Within six months or a year, we are going to have elections for the PA. If Hamas representatives win a majority of seats, they can pass their laws. But if they don’t, they must accept the diversity of Palestinian opinion.

Will this lead to civil strife between Fatah and Hamas? I can state categorically that it will not. Whatever our differences, all of the Palestinian groups desire a democratic PA and all know that the primary objective remains ending the occupation. We must air differences democratically so that the people, not the gun, can judge.

You have said that with the self-rule Fatah should transform itself into a political party.

I think there must be a clear distinction between the PA and the Fatah movement. A government must serve the people as a whole, not any one faction. To maintain this distinction we must draw clear lines of demarcation between Fatah and the PA, and these lines must be inscribed by law. The PLO’s electoral committee is currently drafting a law for political parties in the PA. The best way to facilitate this process would be for Fatah to take the lead and turn itself into a political party. This view, however, does not yet enjoy consensus among Fatah members. But there is agreement that we must build anew our mass institutions in light of the political and civil changes brought on by self-rule. And there is agreement also with the central principle behind my call for a political party — that while Fatah supports the PA, it must preserve its organizational and political independence from it.

What would be Fatah’s relation to the PLO?

The political priority now has to be to build the PA. The PLO is not — and never has been — an end in itself; it has been the political and organizational bridge for Palestinians to their homeland, the living symbol of their right to return. And this mission has yet to be accomplished. This is why, in the Declaration of Principles, it says that the final “permanent status negotiations” are to be conducted between Israel and the PLO, not between Israel and the PA.

But once the permanent status negotiations begin, the PLO will gradually have to cede political authority to the PA in the territories, because the central struggle will then be here. I foresee the PLO’s ultimate role as akin to that of the World Zionist Organization for Jews — an international institution that facilitates and sustains the right of return.

What kind of Palestinian state do you want?

A democratic state, based on law, human rights and respect for a plurality of faiths and diversity of opinions. All the things, in fact, that have historically been denied us in our struggle for a homeland. For Palestinians, nothing less will be acceptable.

An Interview with Ghazi Abu Jiyab

What are the central objectives of the PLO opposition now that the PA is in place?

First, to confront the dangers of Oslo, which represent a major setback for the Palestinian national struggle. The agreement grants unprecedented legitimacy to the Israeli occupation. Many in the West and Arab world now see the Palestinian question as basically solved, that the Declaration of Principles marks the start of Israel’s military withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. On the contrary, it entrenches the occupation, but makes Palestinian resistance to it much more difficult.

The second and more immediate aim is to prevent the PA from establishing a dictatorial self-rule. There are already signs of this. Arafat’s decision to close down Al-Nahar, allegedly because it lacked a “license” but actually because of its pro-Jordanian sentiments, demonstrated his vaunted commitment to freedom of expression. Similarly, despite pre-existing arrangements between all the Palestinian factions, Arafat chose to staff the new Gaza municipality solely with his own loyalists. The opposition had agreed to work with PA supporters on the council because it is concerned to provide decent services for the people. Arafat simply ignored this agreement.

These actions signal to me that the existing PLO leadership simply cannot deal with the complex nature of Palestinian civil society in the territories. Society here has always operated amid a plurality of political opinions. The leadership therefore resorts to autocratic methods which may have ensured its rule in Tunis and Lebanon but which, in my opinion, will spell doom here. As we proved with the Israelis, it is impossible to found a regime in the West Bank and Gaza based on repression.

If the immediate objective is to stop dictatorship, this begs the question of the opposition’s alliances with other Palestinian forces. You have an alliance with Hamas….

There is no real alliance between the PLO opposition and Hamas. The attempt by the Damascus-based leadership to forge an alliance on the ground has proved a failure and is now over. This doesn’t preclude tactical alliances with the Islamists around single issues, such as the municipalities. But the idea of strategic alliance remains problematic because of our differences with them over democracy and social matters.

Let me be clear: There are responsible and rational factors in Hamas and, when our interests converge, we will work with them. Besides, Arafat’s autocracy precludes any common ground with him, so all strands of the opposition are to some extent forced into the same boat. Given this reality, we shall work with Hamas on common concerns.

What is the opposition’s attitude toward the campaign for the PLO’s democratic reform associated with people like Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi?

The problem with Haydar’s campaign is that it presupposes that there are PLO institutions amenable to democratic reform. The reality of the PLO today is that it is largely under the tutelage of one man. Where are the mechanics by which Arafat can be called to account? They don’t exist. Arafat runs things like the chieftain of a tribe rather than the head of a political administration. This is why I say he won’t survive in the political environment of the territories.

So while we agree with many of the reformist’s democratic slogans, we disagree with the means. Haydar solicits reform from the leadership. Change has to be demanded through confrontation with Arafat. I don’t mean through violence. I mean through demonstrations, strikes and other mass forms of protest. Look at the prisoner issue. Only when we took the matter to the streets did the PLO delegation again start to raise it with the Israelis. Meetings, petitions, solicitations led nowhere. Arafat has no problem with verbal criticisms so long as he remains in charge.

Does this mean that the opposition will not stand in elections for the self-rule?

I don’t think current PLO leadership is interested in elections, especially if there is any doubt as to their outcome. I also think that neither Israel nor the international community wants elections, and for the same reason. They are only concerned that Oslo be implemented, one way or another. Shimon Peres is on record saying that should the Palestinian opposition win the elections, then the COP would be abrogated. So elections are permissible on condition that a specific political conclusion can be granted in advance. None of the parties to Oslo are serious about election.

Our formal position is not to participate in such elections. But, personally I feel we have to wait and see whether they actually occur and, if they do, what kind of electoral system is proposed.

There appear to be elements within Fatah who are serious not only about democratizing their own movement, but about holding the leadership to its pledge on elections. Can you envision an alliance with them on these democratic issues, separate from the question of Oslo?

We will support any part of Fatah that dares to criticize Arafat. There is a real common ground between us on the matters to which you referred. But there is also a dilemma. On the one hand, many Fatah activists genuinely want the leadership to be more accountable. On the other, they also want jobs in the authority. When Arafat returned, he promised all leading members of Fatah in Gaza a position in the PA. I don’t know of one who has protested that this isn’t a particularly democratic way of running things. There are good cadres in Fatah. But the test is whether they dare organize themselves into a force that will challenge Arafat.

How can the opposition broaden its base during the interim period?

We seek to build an issue-based opposition. Most of our people, including our “leaders,” haven’t read the agreement. The opposition must focus on its practical effects. How, for instance, the Declaration of Principles won’t lift the restrictions imposed on our workers; how it will leave the settlements in place; how it won’t address the problem of the refugees in the diaspora; how it leaves over 5,000 prisoners in jail; and how it gives free rein to PLO corruption through the practice of appointments to the PA. These are the issues that have to become the terrain of the opposition.

Do you see a future for the PLO?

Not in the form that we have known it, no. We must still fight to reconstitute the PLO. I believe that a part of the Israeli leadership still hankers after the Jordanian option, particularly in light of the Israel-Jordan agreement. It seeks to destroy Arafat by placing ever more humiliating conditions on him, so that, out of despair, Palestinians will turn to King Hussein to deliver them. To guard against this we must preserve the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. But we must understand that the PLO as it was before September 13, 1993 has ceased to exist.

How to cite this article:

Graham Usher "Arafat and the Opposition," Middle East Report 191 (November/December 1994).

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