If Palestinian leaders only knew how extraneous their endless rounds of “unity” talks have become, they might cease enthusiastic declarations to world media about their meetings. At this point, few Palestinians are left with hope that their “leadership” has their best interests in mind. Factional interests reign supreme and personal agendas continue to define Palestine’s political landscape.
Fatah and Hamas are the two major Palestinian political factions. Despite Hamas’ election victory in 2006, Fatah has the upper hand. Both parties continue to play the numbers game, flexing their muscles in frivolous rallies where Palestinian flags are overshadowed with green and yellow banners, the symbols of Hamas and Fatah respectively.
Historically, there has been a leadership deficit in Palestine and it is not because Palestinians are incapable of producing upright men and women capable of guiding the decades-long resistance towards astounding victory against Israel’s military occupation and apartheid. This is because for a Palestinian leadership to be acknowledged by regional and international players, it has to excel in the art of “compromise”. These carefully molded leaders often cater to the interests of their Arab and Western benefactors, at the expense of their own people. Not a single popular faction has resolutely escaped this.
This reality has permeated Palestinian politics for decades. However, in the last two decades the distance between the Palestinian leadership and the people has grown by a once unimaginable distance, to the point where some Palestinians have become a jailor, a peddling politician or even a security coordinator working hand in hand with Israel. Perks of the 1994 Oslo Accord have over the years created a Palestinian elite, whose interests and that of the Israeli occupation overlap beyond recognition of where the first starts and the other ends.
While Hamas remained largely immune from the Oslo disease – Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and his men enjoy its numerous political and economic perks – it too is becoming enthralled by the prospects of regional acceptance and international validation. Its strictly factional agenda and closeness to some corrupt Arab countries raise more than question marks and there is the prospect of it heading in the same direction as Fatah leaders did over two decades ago.
If one was to judge by rhetoric and rival claims, the chasm continues to grow, despite the supposedly sober fact that earlier this month, on January 4 Hamas allowed Fatah to celebrate the anniversary of its birth in Gaza, while the latter did the same in the West Bank. Supporters of both parties brazenly used their parades – which took place under the watchful eyes of Israeli drones – to exhibit their strengths. This was not in relations to the Israeli military occupation, but to their own pitiful factional propaganda.
Oddly enough, if the calculations of Palestinian factions are accurate regarding the attendees of their rallies, the population of Gaza may have suddenly morphed to exceed 4 million, a remarkable jump from the 1.6 million of a few weeks ago. This is the actual number of the Gaza population per United Nations statistics.
This miserable legacy of Palestinian factionalism can be seen against the backdrop of a slowly brewing movement in Israeli jails. Palestinian political prisoners continue to place their faith in their own ability to endure hunger, gaining international solidarity with their cause. Samer Issawi, a Palestinian prisoner who as of January 10 completed 168 days of a hunger strike in protest of his unlawful detention by Israel, is hardly a unique phenomenon. He is an expression of the very much present but snubbed Palestinian collective, whose fate doesn’t fall into the political agenda of any faction.
Issawi is one of seven brothers, six of whom spent time in Israeli prisons for their political beliefs. One of the brothers, Fadi, was killed by Israeli soldiers in 1994, a few days after celebrating his 16th birthday. Even their sister, Shireen, was arrested by Israeli soldiers during a hearing concerning her brother Samer on December 18. On that day, “Samer was publicly beaten in the Jerusalem Magistrates Court after he tried to greet his family,” reported the Palestine Monitor. “He was dragged from his wheelchair and carried away, repeatedly crying out as he was hit on his chest by the guards around him.”
The Issawi family and the entire neighborhood of Issawiya in East Jerusalem is now a target for the Israeli army and police. The aim is to break the will of a single man who at present is incapable of standing on his own feet. It may be legendary, but Samer Issawi’s will of steel is not an alien notion for Palestinians. According to the Adameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, over 650,000 Palestinians have been detained by the Israeli military and police since its occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.
“Considering the fact that the majority of those detained are male, the number of Palestinians detained forms approximately 40% of the total male Palestinian population in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories],” the organization wrote in a June 2012 fact-sheet. But Palestinian resistance is yet to be quelled.
“It is estimated that around 10,000 Palestinian women have been arrested by Israel since 1967. They include young girls and the elderly; some … were the mothers of male long-term prisoners,” wrote Nabil Sahli in January in the Middle East Monitor. The author has also called for an internationalization of the prisoners issue.
In a special session held on January 6 to discuss the plight of Palestinian and Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, the Arab League echoed similar demands. In a statement it called for the treatment of detainees as “prisoners of war” and called for active international efforts to secure their release.
However, serious efforts on the issue seem absent despite the repeated cries for attention by Palestinian prisoners. On April 17, 2012, at least 1,200 prisoners participated in a hunger strike to alert the world of their plight and maltreatment in Israeli jails. Despite the fact that the collective strike ended on May 14, Palestinian prisoners continue to stage hunger strikes of their own, breaking records of steadfastness unprecedented not just in Palestine, but the world over.
While calls for a change of tactics are warranted, if not urgent, there is another pressing change that must also be realized. There ought to be a change of Palestinian political culture, away from the repellent factional manipulation and towards a return to the basic values of the Palestinian struggle. It is the likes of Issawi, not Abbas that must define the new era of Palestinian resistance.
An Intifada has already been launched by thousands of Palestinian prisoners, some of whom are shackled to their hospital beds. It offers little in the way of perks aside from a chance at dignity and a leap of faith towards freedom. This is the dichotomy with which Palestinians must now wrangle. The path they will finally seek shall define this generation and demarcate the nature of the Palestinian struggle for generations to follow.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).
(Copyright 2013 Ramzy Baroud)