By Omar Shweiki.
In the midst of a wave of commentators, analysts and politicians trying to keep up with, control, and define the movement of revolution now unfolding termed the ‘Arab Spring’, one popular demand has risen above them all, in a single voice. Breathtaking in its clarity, the sentiment is captured by the single refrain heard from Yemen to Libya, from Egypt to Bahrain: ‘The people want!’ The determination of citizens to come together in order to take control of their own destinies has been reaching its full expression at every level of society across the Arab world, from the ousting of dictatorial leaderships, to the formation of popular committees in order to meet basic local needs such as cleaning the streets and managing local security. In all these achievements, the people have been driven by the will to take back ownership of everything from their local neighbourhoods to the national institutions of the state itself.
For Palestinians, the movement for reclaiming our national institutions is growing through the campaign for direct elections to the Palestinian National Council (PNC) of the PLO, the highest legislative body of the Palestinian people. The PLO is still considered by Palestinians (and the international community) as the sole legitimate representative of the entire Palestinian people, and therefore the national institution that represents the Palestinian people. However, with the creation of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Legislative Council since Oslo, the PNC has ceased to function as the national forum for the creation of the policies and strategies of the Palestinian people both in exile and under occupation. The current Palestinian demand is the inclusion of Palestinians wherever they live through direct enfranchisement and representation, through elected representatives to the PNC.
This article describes the launch and recent activities of the campaign, the core principles around which communities have coalesced, and provides a background to the foundations of the campaign for direct elections to the PNC. In this latter part of the article, we will return to the mobilisation undertaken in the Civitas project, in order to understand the roots of the campaign in previous struggles by Palestinian activists for democratic representation over the past decade.
At the start of the ‘Arab Spring’, and during the week the ‘Palestine papers’ were leaked, the national campaign for direct elections to the PNC was launched. After years of organising on this issue amongst refugee and exile communities, it was understood that the time had come to relaunch the campaign. On January 27th Palestinian students in the UK made the first call for direct PNC elections in the name of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) during their occupation of the PLO embassy in London.
Without denunciation or blame, the GUPS declaration spoke in a collective spirit of national unity, making reference to the 2006 Prisoners’ Document, signed by all the factions and which calls for the democratic reactivation of the PLO through the formation of a new PNC by means of direct elections. Their call announced for the first time the three principles that had been agreed upon by the various associations and communities that had coalesced to mobilize for the campaign in recent years:
1. The call for direct elections to the Palestine National Council, the parliamentary body that gives authority to and creates the political platform, strategies and policies for the Palestine Liberation Organization, to be held one year from this day, in January, 2012.
2. The inclusion of all our people wherever they now live - in the homeland, the Shatat, in the prisons, and the camps of refuge in that election.
3. That this new representative body, reflective of all sectors of our people, reform and reactivate the PLO institutions so that they embody the will of the Palestinian people as a whole, in accordance with the principle of direct elections.
Since this launch at the end of January, an educational phase began in different countries, with the publication of articles and information in newspapers and on the internet. On April 9th an initial wave of meetings were held in six countries, discussing the call for direct elections to the PNC, and the need to engage in organizing for it. Another series of meetings was coordinated in a dozen countries in May.
The principles drawn on, and the campaign’s formulation, can be found in the findings of the Civitas Register (see previous articles by Karma Nabulsi)*. Developed by Dr Karma Nabulsi at Oxford University working closely with refugee communities in 2002, and running until the publication of the report in 2006, the Civitas campaign was established in the wake of the ‘second Nakba’ of the Oslo process. During this period Palestinian refugee and exile communities had suffered from a political process that excluded them from their own national institutions, while at the same time had a leadership increasingly distant from their concerns and priorities.
This mobilisation involved the participation of thousands of Palestinians in self-organised meetings across 24 countries. These meetings facilitated a popularly driven civic needs assessment, that was both designed and carried out by Palestinian communities in order to strengthen their own voices to their national representative, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and make their voices heard. The outcomes, published in the Register of the project, are extremely rich and politically relevant, testifying to the complex array of experiences of a refugee people scattered by force across six continents. However, just as the particularities of the distinct Palestinian communities across continents are apparent from the findings, more striking is the recurrence of common themes and collective demands that transcend these geographic divisions. This collective voice is present in the two main findings of the Register. Firstly, the unwavering commitment to the Right of Return and secondly, the demand for national representation through a newly elected PNC. While the connection between the two is fundamental, it is to the latter we now turn in order to understand the foundations of the campaign.
Crisis of Representation
Participants devoted much of their comments to criticism of the shortcomings of the PLO/PA leaderships but were at the same time remarkably clear in their identification of the PLO as the national representative structure of the Palestinian people. In fact, the PLO was typically described as the marji’ya or reference point to which all Palestinians refer, despite its contemporary failings to achieve representativeness. The issue of whether the PLO was still needed was not avoided by the gatherings but participants often viewed its importance as almost self evident, given the conditions of Palestinians communities faced:
We are with the PLO and we know the need for it because we are dispersed here, and we are part of the large Arab world, and the tragedies in this world are mounting upon us. In spite of everything though, the PLO restored our Palestinian character on the international level, and within ourselves. We are for Palestine.
(Participant, Public Meeting, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, p.35)
However, there was a keen awareness that there was a distinction between the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and the extent to which it was currently able to fulfill that role. As one participant in a public meeting in London explained:
that the PLO is the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, is nearly taken for granted…[But] the PLO is what is left in a framework that has been completely emptied from content; a non-legitimate National Council; a non-legitimate unelected Executive Committee; and a union structure that had been dissolved by a decisions from inside the PLO which resulted in the absence of students, labor, and women unions. Thus free democratic self-expression is totally absent in the opinion of the Palestinian sectors.
(Participant, Public Meeting, London, UK, p.34)
The PLO has suffered major fractures that undermined its institutional capacity to effectively fulfill the civic and representative needs of Palestinians, in particular of those living in exile. The first was when the PLO left Beirut after the almost comprehensive destruction of its institutional base which had been rooted in the camps. The second was the creation of the Palestinian National Authority, the transposition of the PLO elite into its structures and the subsequent election of the Palestinian Legislative Council by only those Palestinians living in the oPt in the mid 1990s. This further weakened the PLO’s connection to the refugee camps and exile communities outside occupied West Bank and Gaza, and further eroded the associational and institutional fabric that had previously served Palestinian civic needs. By 2005, in many places where Palestinians communities existed, the PLO could hardly be felt, the gap between citizen and representative was stark,
The absence of the institution is the cause of the problem. There is no Palestinian institution that works for me as a human being, as a Palestinian citizen. I do exist, and the germ exists inside me – and either I water it to let it grow, or I forget it and it will wilt. Before the peace treaties, Palestinian political parties were more effective, and we had a voice: we worked properly! We made our voice heard to the entire world. But the world now only hears the voice of the Palestinian President, and his Prime Minister. As a citizen, I no longer have a voice. His voice is enough. But before the peace process my voice was heard. If this peace will silence me then I don’t want it!
(Participant, Women’s Preparatory Meeting, Amman, Jordan, p. 37)
The inadequacy of the institutions established through the Oslo Accords and their inability to represent Palestinians, in particular those outside the West Bank and Gaza are reflected in the concerns and dissatisfaction of Palestinians themselves. A sense of being ‘lost between authorities’ resonated in meetings across Palestinian communities. The creation of the PNA had been at the expense of the PLO, the former increasingly became the de facto Palestinian leadership as the institution’s of the latter faced growing neglect and marginalization. One participant in a public meeting in Greece described the experience of Palestinians in his community:
I think that the reason for the apathy amongst community members during the last ten years is the presence of the Palestinian Authority, which diminished the influence of the Palestinian federations and unions abroad, abandoning a great number of these federations, and paralyzing the activities of other federations. Even the relationship between the Palestinian unions and committees and attachments abroad to the PLO is almost severed in most places. The Authority now feels that it has no interest in these federations, and it used to feel that they are extensions to it, so it communicated with them. But the Authority has no interest with them so it shrunk these federations and limited their effectiveness.
(Participant, Public Meeting, Thessalonica, Greece, p.46)
One of the major tests of the failure of Palestinian national institutions to fulfill their representative role has been the leadership’s stance on the Right of Return and the consequent fears amongst refugees that their rights are being made subject to compromise. For many, the release of the Palestine Papers has only served to confirm the validity of these fears. The intimate connection between the Right of Return and self-determination is therefore very clear, not only is the former an individual right but it is also remains the collectively held position of Palestinian refugee communities everywhere. Its defense therefore depends on the strength of the mechanisms designed to represent the concerns of those communities. Detached from these communities, Palestinian representatives lose touch with the priorities of their people. Palestinians want to shape the course of negotiations with Israel,
What really concerns me is that they are negotiating without taking our opinions; they are negotiating in our absence, and as Palestinians, whether refugees or not, those who consider themselves refugees or not are negotiating in our name, as if we don’t have an opinion and as if we are not concerned. Are they talking about the right of return or compensation, or compensation and the right of return? We don’t know what they are negotiating about.
(Participant, Public meeting, Montreal, Canada, p. 47)
Demands for Change
The crisis of representation and its symptoms, including the threat to the Right of Return, was something each Palestinian refugee and exile community could testify to since they had experienced the exclusion, marginalization and fears for the future struggle for their rights. The collective will driving the campaign for direct elections to the PNC can be found in the determination of Palestinians to be treated with dignity and as equals in the shaping of their national movement. Nothing less than enacting the principle of one Palestinian, one vote, could restore legitimacy to the institutions claiming to represent the Palestinian people. As a participant in ‘A’ideen Camp in Syria described:
I shall start with the PLO and the need to restore its dignity on the basis that it is the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. We have felt that its institutions have been dismantled, and that some of its representatives don’t represent us any more… I have the right as Palestinian, to vote in order to choose the person who will represent me, so that I can guarantee that the rights of the Palestinian people, endorsed by the United Nations’ resolutions, will not be lost or renounced, especially the right of return to our country and properties.
(Participant, Preparatory Workshop, Homs (‘A’ideen) camp, Syria, p.57)
The insistence on participation and democratic accountability has targeted every level of Palestinian civic life, from the local associations and popular committees to the restoration of the PLO through elections to the Palestinian National Council, the latter identified as the only legitimate body that could restore the role of Palestinians living outside the homeland as equal members of the Palestinian body politic. As a participant in a worker’s meeting in Beddawi camp in Lebanon argues:
Among the rights we badly need are: the right to express ourselves politically, structuring national Palestinian institutions; the right to participate in local elections; and of course the Popular Committee issue etc. Also the right to participate in the Palestinian National Council elections because it represents us. It is not an obligatory thing, for I heard someone saying we must do so. And all this talk about the presidential elections and why we didn’t participate only reveals unawareness of our status as refugees. We say that we, as refugees abroad, have nothing to do with the Authority or the presidential and legislative elections. Those who are involved are our nation in Gaza Strip and the West Bank and Jerusalem, but who represents us abroad is the PLO and its first institution: the Palestinian National Council. We are interested in conducting elections to reactivate the Palestinian National Council in a way which reflects all Palestinian refugees, and the Palestinian National Authority is one of the PLO’s tools, but the PLO is not one of the Authority’s tools.
(Participant, Worker’s meeting, Beddawi camp, Lebanon, p.60)
The message from Palestinians today is clear, no higher authority exists than that of the people, sovereignty lies with them. And this is where the mobilizing strength of the campaign lies. Since Oslo, Palestinians outside the homeland have been reduced to a ‘diaspora’ whose only role was to provide solidarity with their Palestinian brothers and sisters in the West Bank and Gaza. Campaigning for the right of all Palestinians to elect their representatives to the PNC is premised on the principle that each Palestinian matters and has an equal stake in their national institutions. This also means, as articulated in the third principle of the campaign, that no authority other than a democratically elected one has the legitimacy to decide on and implement the reforms that the PLO urgently needs. In this sense, the principles of the campaign are its strategy.
The extreme geographic fragmentation that characterizes our experience as a people means that a Palestinian Medan il-Tahrir does not physically exist, and therefore our common public space has to be created across borders, and all together working as one. Now is the time to rebuild our own public square, one that includes us all, so that the cry ‘the people want!’ will rise again, and be answered.
* ‘Palestinians Register: Laying Foundations and Setting Directions’, the report of the Civitas project can be found online in Arabic and English.
This article was first published in BADIL's quarterly magazine Al-Majdal.