The basic challenge facing the Palestinian Authority (PA) today can be reduced to the twin tasks of legitimacy and control. Any observer of the events that led to the bloody confrontations between the Palestinian police force and Hamas and Islamic Jihad followers in mid-November 1994 realizes that the legitimacy of the Oslo and Cairo agreements, and the provisional regime that they gave rise to, are unavoidably linked to Arafat’s ability to establish a political apparatus that can govern Palestine. Such governing capacities apply not only in Gaza and Jericho but also in the rest of the West Bank, where an embryonic Palestinian authority has begun to emerge through early transfer of powers in certain sectors (education, health and proto-police activities) even before a formal Israeli withdrawal.

It is inconceivable that Palestinians will reach any sort of sovereignty until these two issues are resolved. While non-resolution will not be the end of the “peace process,” it will probably be the end of Arafat’s leadership and the project for Palestinian independence, in favor of federal or confederal solutions with Jordan and Israel.

The issues of legitimacy and control manifest themselves today as a crisis of Palestinian national identity. This crisis is reflected in the symbolic national icons, on the one hand, and in the regulation of the relationship between civil society and the formative institutions of power — what, can be called the institutionalization of authority — on the other.

Palestinian political circles, both inside the country and among intellectuals in the diaspora, have reacted to the crisis of Palestinian governance, and also to the visible shortcomings in the execution of the Cairo and Oslo agreements on the ground. These debates have been varied and have so far failed to yield a consensus. But trends can be discerned in two major areas of rupture from the political disarray that prevailed during the intifada, and in the political wasteland that characterized the politics of the post-intifada period. One trend has attempted to remold the nature of Palestinian national identity, the other to define the tasks of civil society in the period of state formation. Both trends cut across — and transcend — the hitherto main divide in Palestinian society between supporters and opponents of the autonomy accords. Just as the “peace camp” has lost its earlier euphoria about the glorious prospects of impending independence, so has the opposition lost its agenda of annulling the Cairo Agreement. In many ways, all opposition in Palestine today — secular and Islamist — deals with the Oslo and Cairo accords as faits accomplis.

In the case of the first trend, that of rethinking the nature of Palestinian nationalism, the main thrust lies in defining its relationship to its wider Arab (and Islamic) contexts, after decades of asserting Palestinian particularism and indeed hostility to Palestine’s Arab crucible. The second trend is exemplified in denigrating the achievements, and in some cases the very existence, of a civil society (at least one that was forged during the intifada) which can temper and curb the hegemony of a future authoritarian state.

Flags and Anthems

The fluctuating state of Palestinian national identity is apparent in its most visible symbolic manifestations in the street: the national flag and the national anthem. The variety of articulations and uses that these symbols have gone through in the short period between the Oslo accord of September 1993 and the establishment of a Palestinian authority in Gaza and Jericho in the summer of 1994 — less than a year — are baffling.

This period has witnessed the alternation of three versions of the national anthem. On the eve of the establishment of autonomy, the natural selection was “Biladi” as rendered from the Fatah militarist hymn of the 1960s (originally “Fida’i”). This version soon proved unsuitable for the peaceful character of the transitional authority, and the more melodic rendition of Sayyid Darwish’s “Biladi,” with a Palestinian script, was adopted. When public schools opened last September the students were mandated to sing a third anthem, “Mawtani,” a nationalist ballad from the 1950s. This was soon taken up by the Palestinian radio services from Jericho to punctuate important announcements — which marks it as close to a national anthem as possible.

The Palestinian flag has had a less glorious fate. Forbidden during Israeli occupation, it became a potent expression of defiance and mass mobilization, hoisted with great pride and fanfare on the eve of the Oslo agreement and again when Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza and Jericho in August.

Hamas concocted its own version of the Palestinian colors by inserting the shihada (the Muslim profession of faith) — a la Saddam Hussein — in the wide center strip to differentiate its banner from that of secular Palestinian nationalism. A few months later, the Palestinian flag lies forsaken and virtually ignored, its green margins turning into dusty blue from the double exposure of sun and neglect. Aside from the PA, no political party today uses the flag as its own banner, and no attempts are made by opposition parties to “save” the flag from what they see as Arafat’s defilement through territorial concessions.

How is one to explain this sudden devaluation of the two most obvious symbols of Palestinian national identity? Are we observing here an ambivalence inherent in Palestinian nationalism, or a new rupture leading toward a transcendent supranationalism?

Nationalism Revised

Over the past few decades, Israeli and Arab writers have referred to the ambivalence in Palestinian nationalism with radically different interpretations. The former often attribute it to a weak and amorphous identity, the latter to the subsuming of Palestinian identity within a larger Arab (Syrian, Mashriqi or pan-Arab) nationalism. More recently, Islamic discourses have introduced the even more amorphous Islamic context of Palestinian nationalism.

We now see the beginnings of a rethinking of Palestinian consciousness, spurred by the crises generated by the transitional arrangements. One of the sharpest and most controversial of these reassessments, that of Birzeit University political historian Musa Budeiri, claims, initially, that there was no Palestinian national identity during the late Ottoman and early Mandate period separate from that of a larger Syrian identity. [1] Palestinian national identity, he asserts, was primarily forged in the camps and communities of the diaspora rather than in Palestine, and came into its present form only after the 1964 formation of the PLO under Arab League tutelage, reinforced by the alienation of Palestinians from the host Arab countries where they had sought refuge.

The absence of the experience of a Palestinian state is responsible, Budeiri states, for the qualitative difference between the regional nationalisms of, say, Iraq and Syria, and that of Palestine. He sees the formation of the post-colonial Arab state after World War II as a critical factor in the new regional identities in the Mashriq.

Budeiri regards the domains of religious consciousness and secular consciousness as amorphous in the Palestinian context. For Budeiri, the idiom of Palestinian nationalism as articulated primarily by Fatah was markedly Islamic in content and lacked any social agenda. The Islamist movement’s adoption of the idioms of Palestinian nationalism in the late 1980s allowed the disillusioned followers of secular Palestinian nationalism to switch their allegiances to Hamas and Islamic Jihad without experiencing any existential break with their past. In other words, secular Palestinian nationalism was not really secular, and Islamist Palestinian activism today is not anti-nationalist, as is often claimed.

Budeiri’s cogent analysis anticipates trends in Palestinian political thinking that are still implicit. His strongest claim, I believe, is to attribute to the diaspora the historic act of galvanizing contemporary Palestinian national identity. We can examine this claim today by observing how the PLO’s Tunis leadership has superimposed its bureaucracy and political apparatus over existing political networks in the West Bank and Gaza. But his analysis makes too much of what should be an initial tentative assessment, and he is selective in buttressing his conclusions. His argument on the “interface” between religious and secular national sentiments, for example, makes sense only if we collapse all Palestinian nationalism of the pre-intifada period into the realm of mainstream Fatah politics, and if we ignore the markedly anti-nationalist sentiments in Hamas.

In my view, the sudden demise and even importance of the symbolic features of Palestinian nationalism should be sought not in the inherent ambivalence of this nationalism, but in the failure of the Palestinian leadership to approximate the expectations to which the peace negotiations had given rise regarding territorial deliverance and statehood. The demise also lies in the wide gap separating popular yearnings for freedom and “return to normality” that followed the Madrid peace conference, and in the mediocre PA performance on the ground following the Cairo agreement.

Many of these failures were rooted in the dismally uneven balance of power of the Palestinians vis-a-vis the Israelis, an imbalance beyond the leadership abilities of the PLO to circumvent. Nevertheless, the fervor of expectations raised by the revolutionary momentum of the intifada was such that the gap between what was anticipated and the brutal realities of everyday life have led to the widespread cynicism that Palestinians are experiencing today.

Civil Society: Fragile or Illusory

Ultimately the dismal performance of the PA relates to the unwarranted expectations regarding systems and institutional patterns of governance that were supposed to have emerged during the intifada “in embryonic forms,” as the prevailing expression had it. It is also related to the absence of a strong civil society which can monitor, steer and temper the repressiveness of these institutions.

Recent revisionist writings now see Palestinian civil society of the 1980s as being either fragile or non-existent. This is the view propagated over the last year by — among others — philosophy professor Azmi Bishara and political scientist ‘Ali Jarbawi, both at Birzeit University, in the pages of al-Quds and al-Hayat. This perspective regards the emergence of institutional forms of nation-building in the 1980s as too short-lived, as the product of exaggerated claims by various political factions — mostly from the left — in order to emphasize the rupture between two forms of resistance: one essentially political, with an armed content, which prevailed in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the second, emerging in the mid-1980s prior to the intifada, which is social and contributed to the building of proto-state institutions.

There is no doubt that parties leading resistance before and during the intifada made exaggerated claims about the inroads of civil society. This took the form of assertions about the enhanced performance of mass voluntary organizations in the areas of public health, peasant unions, rural production units and women’s organizations. Leftist intellectuals contributed to this myth-making by producing a substantial amount of theorization about the singular achievements of the intifada in the history of revolutionary movements. These achievements included the claim of a new subsistence economy able to replace (colonial) market economies of dependence, of popular committees that were the Palestinian equivalent of soviet power, of nascent state power in the heart of the behemoth and so on.

There is no doubt that these exaggerated claims contributed to a vision of society on the verge of seizing power. A proper critique of this period, moreover, has not yet been made regarding the character of the intifada itself. But the argument that the intifada produced few or no inroads in civil society is spurious. Revolutionary movements have, on a number of occasions in history, established modes of self-perception and ideological claims that are at variance with the new social reality that they generate. Yet they always generate unanticipated consequences that are nevertheless real. In the case of Palestine, the transition from a revolutionary situation (1988-1992) to a routinized regime of self-government has occurred far too quickly, and without proper substantial decolonization of the South African variety. This is why the role of the Palestinian non-governmental organizations in the West Bank and Gaza is still critical, not only in sustaining the grassroots development schemes which they established during the height of Israeli control, but, more significantly, in putting the breaks on the emerging authoritarian and antidemocratic tendencies in the new Palestinian regime.

Author’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part essay. The second part will examine the shortcomings of the Palestinian Authority in establishing a functioning regime in the Gaza and the Occupied Territories, and the likely consequences of these shortcomings/or the devolution of Israeli control over the West Bank.


[1] Musa Budeiri, “The Palestinians: Tension Between Nationalist and Religious Identity,” unpublished essay, September 1994 .

How to cite this article:

Salim Tamari "Fading Flags," Middle East Report 194-195 (July/August 1995).

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