Since Yasser Arafat returned to the Gaza Strip in July 1994 under the terms of the Israeli-PLO accords, many Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank find themselves worse off than before. Tens of thousands are out of work as a result of Israeli closures of its borders. Social services are contracting as non-governmental organizations run out of funds and Palestinians lose access to services in Israeli-controlled zones. The new Palestinian Authority (PA), under Arafat’s autocratic leadership and pressure from donor countries, remains preoccupied with security issues. Unlike the African National Congress, which came to power in South Africa at almost the same time, the PA has not yet forwarded any sort of program for national reconstruction and development. Meanwhile, as if to further remind Palestinians how tenuous their “autonomous” status is, West Bank residents have seen Israel seize more than 16,000 hectares of additional Palestinian land since the Declaration of Principles was signed on September 13, 1993. [1]

As the peace agreement unravels and conditions of daily life deteriorate, levels of frustration and mistrust — and incidents of violence — rise steadily, not only between Israelis and Palestinians but among Palestinians themselves. In Gaza, the new “state” security services, incorporating mainly Fatah cadre, have had violent confrontations with militant opposition elements led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In the West Bank, only a high degree of social cohesion in villages and urban neighborhoods has offset the almost complete absence of public authority. What makes this situation worse is that leaders of the secular left Palestinian opposition are not putting forward a coherent alternative. This leaves a vacuum increasingly filled by the militant Islamist groups, which have been operating grassroots social services and organizing in the neighborhoods for years, sometimes with considerably greater effectiveness than the left. The upshot is a deepening crisis in the national movement, which appears to have lost its way.

“We are at a stage where the old Palestinian movement is dying, and a new movement is not created yet,” says Moustafa Barghouthi, who heads the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. “Many leaders haven’t faced this crisis. They are stuck in the past with unrealistic solutions to the current situation, and many people are just tired.”

Although Arafat’s personal popularity remains high, his mainstream Fatah organization has the support of only 40 percent of the nearly 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to polls conducted in late 1994 by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre. Of the three main left parties in the PLO, the “rejectionist” Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP and DFLP) together garner 7-8 percent, while the Palestine People’s Party (PPP, formerly the Palestine Communist Party) has the backing of about 5 percent. Those who identify with the Islamist opposition — Hamas and Islamic Jihad — account for 15-20 percent. The fastest-growing group, at nearly 30 percent, is independents, who appear to be disenchanted with all the parties.

Many people, including leading nationalist activists, have been worn down by the eight-year intifada and are now deeply demoralized by the apparent failure of the peace accords. Calls by the PFLP and the DFLP to boycott the new Authority and to renew the uprising generally fall on deaf ears. Debates over which facets of the accords are to blame for the current imbroglio do not stir enthusiasm. New forms of struggle are needed, but most Palestinians insist that their effects should lead to tangible results. There are few signs that a thoroughgoing organizational renewal among Palestinian progressives capable of generating new initiatives is in the offing.


Such a renewal is extremely difficult under present conditions: The national struggle is far from over, but international support for the Palestinian cause has plummeted and the national movement remains severely factionalized. Meanwhile, new contradictions have arisen over the shape and structure of Palestinian society — issues long delayed by a movement preoccupied by the confrontation with Israel. Women, for instance, have been organizing against what they perceive to be a capitulation by the secular parties to Islamist conservatives on “personal status” issues. NGOs from differing political tendencies are coming together to campaign for democratic and civil rights. Signs of rising Palestinian investment are evident in a rash of new housing construction, and in plans among diaspora Palestinians for private sector investment. [2] Though Palestinian trade unions remain both heavily bureaucratized and badly divided along factional lines, an increase in Palestinian-driven economic activity will bring long-ignored class issues to the forefront.

At the same time, Arafat’s autocratic political style and his patronage-based economic behavior are provoking calls for increased democracy and accountability. Tax collectors are rumored to seek bribes to scale back assessments; back-room deals are said to account for lucrative public works contracts, many of which are said to be going to Arafat cronies; money Israel has turned over to the PA for rebates on the value-added tax has not shown up in financial statements; acquiring permits to travel from Gaza to the West Bank now need behind-the-scenes intervention of Palestinian officials, to whom obligations are then encumbered. When Raji Sourani, the outspoken director of the Gaza Center for Rights and Law, refused to muzzle his criticisms of the PA’s modus operandi, he was twice interrogated by Palestinian authorities, once formally arrested and finally fired by the Center’s board of directors on April 1, under what he claims was pressure brought to bear on its members by Arafat. [3]

The most discouraging political development in the West Bank and Gaza is the crisis unfolding within the secular Palestinian parties. None appears to be making an effective transition to the new situation, and there is little movement toward building a united front. A common refrain of mid-level activists is that their leaders, long based outside the West Bank and Gaza (except the PPP), are out of touch with Palestinian society, even though some have recently returned to the territories. People are resigning from the Democratic and Popular Fronts in large numbers. The two parties continue to talk about merger, but differences within them suggest the potential for more splits in the future. Though many Palestinians now deride the peace accords, “rejectionism” has few adherents. Even Popular Front members have been given approval on an individual basis to take jobs with the Authority, and at least one high-ranking member has gone to work for Yasser Abed Rabbo in the Ministry of Information and Culture. Cadre of the two rejectionist Fronts say their parties have presented no compelling alternative programs on which to ground their calls to boycott the PA, which, despite its manifold weaknesses, is having a growing impact on Palestinian life. The Popular Front’s brief tactical alliance with Hamas last year sparked vigorous debates within the party, especially among women, over strategy and tactics as well as internal democracy.

PPP members, for their part, complain that the restructured former Communist party has lost its identity as a self-designated working-class party in an effort to be all things to all people. The PPP is in the opposition, but does not reject the overall accords. This position has confused many people: The PPP’s efforts to distinguish which provisions or rounds of the earlier peace talks it supports or opposes, though principled, strike most people as nitpicking. The Palestine Democratic Union (or Fida, which split off four years ago from the Democratic Front under the leadership of Abed Rabbo) is wavering in its alliance with Fatah and many members call for the party to go into opposition. There is also dissension within Fatah. Many younger militants are unhappy with a recent Central Committee decision to postpone transforming Fatah from a front to a party. They are also angry that elections within Fatah were postponed after those in Ramallah last year resulted in the ouster of nearly all the Arafat appointees (before Arafat intervened and nullified the results of those elections).

In this new period, it is difficult to say what it means to be “left” in the Palestinian movement. Social and economic transformation has played a minor role in programmatic self-definition. The issue of democracy, though, is gathering momentum. The left parties are calling on the PA to guarantee freedom of speech, press and assembly, while dissidents in all the parties are demanding similar rights within their own organizations. “We have two experiences, inside and outside, and we have to unite them,” said Fatah activist Marwan Barghouthi after the organization’s regional elections. “We need to start with democracy in Fatah.” [4]

Slim Hope

Two converging trends may come to have an impact on this bleak political situation. One is the continuing effort to mobilize progressive NGOs into a new coalition that transcends factional differences. The other is the potential emergence of an autonomous, non-sectarian women’s movement. The slim hope is that trends such as these may portend joint efforts to build a stronger, more unified and more democratic national movement.

Having gathered momentum during the intifada, NGOs remain one of the more dynamic forces there today. But there is a tendency to view NGOs uncritically, as capable of substituting for strong popular, sectoral organizations. The NGOs — independent and party-based — have attempted with varying degrees of success to play a bridging role with the base of society. They also represent cutting-edge progressive thinking on social and economic issues, from education, health care and human rights to agricultural development. A newly formed network — the Palestine NGO Network, or PNGO — was initiated last year by a coalition of over 20 organizations. The number grew to 63 after a draft statement of principles was circulated, which called for, among other things, “the freedom to associate, organize and operate” as non-governmental organizations under the new PA. This initiative was driven in part by indications that the Authority was moving to restrict the role of independent organizations, and by a recognition that overcoming factional differences was essential if resistance to these moves was to be effective. Many NGOs have been hurt by deep cuts in foreign funding as donors shift their support to the Authority. The earlier failure of the secular parties to defend women’s rights against some of the more repressive influences of the Islamist movement is also helping to generate the seeds of a new feminist agenda, though the potential for a mass-based women’s movement is still in question. Palestinian women activists are raising their concerns with growing militancy, both to the PA and to the political parties. “These people are preparing legislation for education, for health, for housing, for everything, and we want to be part of that process,” says scholar-activist Islah Jad. “If we don’t do something to change this now, we will pay the heaviest price later.”

This also opens the way for a wider discussion of social and economic issues in a movement that has long resisted taking on a social agenda. During the past five years, more than half a dozen independent research centers have sprung up to focus public attention on such things as women’s legal rights and the problem of domestic violence. An array of training programs in the West Bank and Gaza are schooling women in the basics of organizational development, and most NGOs dealing with social services now have women’s sections. Recent conferences on women’s rights have drawn hundreds of participants from all walks of life and all parties. A women’s studies program that opened last year at Birzeit University, only the second of its kind in the Arab world, is drawing overflow enrollments, half of whom are men. Meanwhile, a broad-based women’s alliance is now gathering signatures and endorsements for a sweeping charter of women’s rights, inspired in part by the South African Women’s Charter.

This women’s activism aims to challenge the overwhelmingly male Palestinian leadership, not only on the rights of women but on the movement ’s failure to address social issues. The PLO prospered for decades prior to the Gulf war on external funding from Arab states, with little accountability to the Palestinian community it served. Constituent parties routinely differed over political strategy toward Israel, but they rarely spelled out what they were proposing for an independent Palestine. Party-run social and economic programs were, with a few notable exceptions, built on a top-down charitable model designed to dispense benefits in exchange for party loyalty rather than to empower communities or social sectors. Now, under pressure from below, that may change.

Each of the PLO factors has its own women’s organization which, like the divided trade unions, for years prioritized building party membership over constructing a movement for social change. Interviews with dozens of women active in these committees reveal a great impatience with the infighting among the competing parties, which they blame for their inability to build a broad-based constituency for women’s issues.

Tensions over gender issues burst into the open in 1992 with the onset of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Madrid: The PLO established a network of advisory committees that mostly excluded women and women’s issues. Women responded by setting up a self-funded advisory committee of their own. Hanan Ashrawi, an independent professional, was given a prominent position on the negotiating team. Many women say that they still felt marginalized in the peace process. “Almost all the appointments made since then were men. All the hard work of women to get to this point was not acknowledged or remunerated,” says Rita Giacaman, a community health activist.

The clincher came after signing the Declaration of Principles. Arafat asked a small group of lawyers, all men, to come up with a “basic law” to serve as a temporary Palestinian constitution. An early draft made no mention of women’s rights. A later draft, issued after strong protests, guaranteed women equal rights in “public life,” implicitly ceding the sphere of “private life” to the strictures of shari,‘a law. The document failed to commit the Authority to respect the 1979 UN convention on women’s rights, though it explicitly cited other conventions on human and civil rights.

The Palestine women’s charter, announced with great fanfare in East Jerusalem in August 1994, aims at inclusion in a future Palestine constitution. The document demands the abolition of gender discrimination in public and private life, an affirmation of women’s right to vote and hold public office, and a commitment to equal pay for equal work. A September 1994 conference on women and law — organized by an ad hoc women’s committee and convened under the auspices of the Ramallah-based human rights group al-Haq — drew over 400 women and went further on the sensitive “personal status” issues: It called for a ban on child marriages, protection for battered women and free public education for women up to the age of 18. When a delegation of women met with Arafat last November to question him about his commitment to women’s rights, however, he cautioned that he could not take on the Islamic conservatives and urged them to be patient. “This showed us that women are only decoration in the PLO,” says Amal Khuraysha, who led the delegation and who heads the Working Women’s Society. “We have a big challenge now, and we will have to strengthen ourselves to deal with it.”


For there to be genuine progress toward peace, an agreement must be reached with Israel based firmly on a recognition of Palestinian self-determination. The present arrangements do not contain any such commitment. Dismantling the settlements would be the most obvious constructive step at this point, but there is no indication that the Rabin government will move in this direction, nor that the Clinton administration is willing to push it to do so.

A weakened and divided Palestinian national movement cannot exert pressure to move the peace process forward on anything resembling its own terms. Palestinian progressives need to focus on rebuilding a movement less dependent on manipulative support from outside powers, and not focused exclusively on diplomacy as its only arena of struggle. There are few indications that the deep reformation needed to generate such a strategic shift is underway.

Most activists agree that the parties need to focus on social and economic issues. But there are strong differences over what political form this should take, as well as what the programmatic content should be. A series of meetings between leaders of the PPP and Popular and Democratic Fronts in the West Bank and Gaza last year failed to produce any agreement to work together. Fida may merge with Fatah and become its “left wing,” though a tendency within Fida advocates a merger with the non-rejectionist opposition. As a multi-class formation of diverse political tendencies, Fatah itself is likely to fragment if it is transformed into a party and has to articulate a political program on social issues.

The PPP is still struggling to overcome an ideological crisis triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has declared itself a party of all classes. The party does not suffer the inside/outside dichotomy that is rending the other parties, and retains a relatively strong base that includes dynamic young activists experienced in mass-based work. But its internal disorientation is underlined by the repeated postponement since August 1994 of a party conference at which a new program is to be unveiled. One PPP organizer in a village outside of Nablus signaled the problems the party will face at the conference: “We have changed our ideology, our program, our class base and even our name,” he observed, “but we see the same people at the top as before.”

Modest moves in the direction of renewal are visible in the emerging women’s movement and in the NGO sector, as well as in the struggles within the left parties and in the broader society around issues of democracy. Efforts since Oslo to form a “third force” among PLO supporters as an alternative to both Fatah and the rejectionists have centered around Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, the politically independent head of the Palestinian negotiating team during the pre-Oslo talks. He was the featured speaker at a series of public political meetings that led up to the launch this spring of the Movement to Build Democracy in Palestine. Formerly associated with the Palestine Communist Party, he enjoys wide respect among all secular political tendencies, though he is sometimes criticized for weak organizational skills.

To have a lasting impact on the national movement, these initiatives would either have to reorient and unite the political parties or generate a new one. Neither prospect appears imminent. The organizations, parties or party factions to play any sort of leadership role in the national movement will be those that articulate — and demonstrate in practice — a program for Palestinian society that compels a mass following and forges a common front. The question is whether there will be the time and the space to achieve progress in this direction before the rapidly growing polarization between the Palestinian Authority and Islamist groups precludes this option.


[1] Economist, January 21, 1995.
[2] Issues: Perspectives on Middle East and World Affairs (Paris) IV/3, pp. 8-11.
[3] Washington Post, April 11, 1995. For a fuller discussion, see also Palestine Report(Jerusalem), April 9, 1995.
[4] See Graham Usher’s interview with Barghouthi in Middle East Report 191 (November-December 1994).

How to cite this article:

Dan Connell "Palestine on the Edge," Middle East Report 194-195 (July/August 1995).

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