Only direct elections can rejuvenate the Palestinian liberation movement by taking power from the few back to the many
- The Guardian, Tuesday 29 March 2011
After another week of breathtaking demonstrations from Jordan to Yemen heralding dramatic revolutionary change, in occupied Palestine things appear much the same. The repetitions of bombing, air attacks on civilians, muted international protests, and dubious gestures towards a bankrupted peace process: all lend an air of futility and hopelessness to the trajectory of Palestinian freedom. Palestinians urgently need their voice to be represented at this historical moment in which unrepresentative rulers are being toppled by popular movements, and citizens are reclaiming their public squares and political institutions on the age-old principle of popular sovereignty.
Since January Palestinians in the refugee camps and under military occupation have all been asking the same question: is this not our moment too? Yet how are we to overcome the entrenched system of external colonial control and co-optation, the repression, the internal divisions and the geographical fragmentation that have until now kept us divided and unable to unify? The situation appears a thousand times more complex than Bahrain, or Egypt, or Libya, or Syria.
The solution to this fierce dilemma lies in a single claim now uniting all Palestinians: the quest for national unity. Although the main parties might remain irreconciled, the Palestinian people most certainly are not. Their division is not political but geographic: the majority are refugees outside Palestine, while the rest inside it are forcibly separated into three distinct locations. The demand is the same universal claim to democratic representation that citizens across the Arab world are calling for with such force and beauty: each Palestinian voice counts.
The campaign is for direct elections to the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the national parliament in exile. It is the institutional body that gives both legitimacy and a mandate to the PLO, which is still recognised internationally as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
The PLO signed the Oslo accords that created the (supposedly temporary) interim Palestinian Authority in 1994, and the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996. The authority was to form the institutions of an independent Palestinian state within five years; 16 years later it has yet to achieve any one of the basic liberties Palestinians urgently require, reflecting instead an institutionalised division between the West Bank and Gaza – and, crucially, between Palestinians inside occupied Palestine and the majority of refugees outside it, who were disenfranchised by its creation.
The PNC, as the parliament of the PLO itself, was once the heart of the Palestinian national movement; made up of the resistance parties, unions and independents, it could claim the legitimacy of a national liberation movement. But there have not been proper elections to it for decades: most of the seats are quotas, reserved for the factions; members have died of old age; there is not even a definitive list showing who the current members are. Those on the West Bank and Gaza legislative council are the only directly elected members of the PNC. No one understands how the legislature should now function: everyone agrees it doesn’t.
This crumbling hollowed-out mausoleum once housed a vibrant and well directed Palestinian struggle for freedom, full of dynamism and debate. Now only the mobilising power of direct elections can make it the representative institution Palestinians demand.
The call for PNC elections unifies every Palestinian because it rises above faction, ideology and political orientation. It is also the single revolutionary principle that can overturn Palestinians’ current political imprisonment, because it reassures them that each voice contributes to determining national platforms, policies and strategies. Organising around this demand takes the decision-making out of the hands of the few and puts it back into the hands of the people themselves – Islamist and secular, one-state or two-state supporters, conservative or radical. And the one thing Palestinians certainly need is all these sectors working together in this moment: no one can lead except the people themselves.
It is also by now very clear that nothing else will work: democratic representation cannot be achieved by new presidential elections to the Palestinian Authority; nor can it be secured through fresh legislative council elections held only in the West Bank and Gaza, which excludes the voice of the majority of Palestinians. It cannot be brought about by the transfer of power to a provisional salvation front made up of individuals; it cannot even be achieved through the much needed Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, with the intention of re-activating the PLO on the basis of dividing the seats of the PNC between the two parties.
Indeed, many such measures are designed to keep power out of the hands of the Palestinian people themselves, and they continue to disenfranchise millions of young Palestinians (most of whom don’t belong to either party), who have never had the chance to vote in their lives, but live days full of struggle and peril in the deathly prisons of Arab regimes and the horror of the refugee camps. Their voices are equally valuable and deserve the same dignity as every other Palestinian voice.
The challenge facing Palestinians is to hold to this key demand in the face of the concerted pressure that will be exerted by those who wish to keep to the old order, or to put themselves in charge of the new one. The decades-old Palestinian struggle for freedom and representation takes new life, and new hope, from the Arab revolutions.