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50 years of the PLO: Where to now?

The organization’s face has changed significantly since 1964, most dramatically in the past 20 years since Oslo. The PLO must find a way to include the diaspora, empower grass roots activism and keep alive its founding spirit as a national liberation movement.

By Samer Badawi

Take one look at the website of the Palestine Poster Project, and you’ll get a glimpse of another era, when the iconography of the Palestinian struggle came in bold hues attached to even bolder slogans.

Among the collection is a gold-tinted composition by the renowned Palestinian artist and art historian Kamal Boullata. The caption is a quote from none other than Che Guevara:

Palestinian solidarity poster by Kamal Boullata/PPP

Palestinian solidarity poster by Kamal Boullata/PPP

“Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome if our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear and another hand reaches out to take up our arms.”

That was 1969, and the Palestinians’ institutionalized struggle—insofar as it coalesced around the Palestine Liberation Organization—was barely five years old. In such a short time, the Palestinians had succeeded in making their cause an international one, celebrated among the non-aligned countries of the Cold War and memorialized in the languages and slogans of anti-imperialist movements worldwide.

That was then. More than four decades later, on the fiftieth anniversary of the PLO, the organization once entrusted with sustaining the Palestinian struggle—and broadening both its financial and moral support base—is virtually unrecognizable. Where once it boasted a vibrant national council drawing from within historic Palestine and the diaspora—among whose luminaries were intellectual powerhouses like the late Edward Said—it is today but a backdrop to the Palestinian Authority, rubber-stamping the stateless government, whose president is also the PLO chairman.

If that sounds confusing, it is.

Like any nationalist liberation movement, the PLO was forged from chaos. And the Palestinians’ was no ordinary catastrophe: Israel and the Zionist militias that predated it displaced the majority of historic Palestine’s population—as shown in a series of maps, described here, by Salman Abu Sitta—and all with the express sanction of the world’s great powers. With no army, no currency, and no recourse in the newly formed post-war order, it’s little wonder that it took 16 years for the stateless Palestinians to come together under a single banner.

That they did is a testament to their resilience. But with the 1993 launch of the U.S.-backed Oslo negotiating process and the subsequent formation of the Palestinian Authority, what was once a nationalist movement became a government-in-name-only, trading liberation for the politics of incrementalism. The Palestinian right of return, for example, was gradually subsumed by so-called “redeployments,” which gave the Palestinians “authority” over civil services—like trash collection and school administration—while limiting that authority to non-contiguous enclaves subject to military incursions at Israel’s whim.

Two decades in, this is by now an old story. Still, it’s important to remember that the Oslo era, now representing fully two-fifths of the PLO’s history, also sounded the death knell of that once-vibrant liberation movement. In its place is a bloated kleptocracy, kept afloat by foreign aid and retarded by an ongoing Israeli occupation.

What, then, are we to make of recent pronouncements—recent, perhaps, only to those who haven’t been paying attention—that Oslo is dead? If the framework that created the Palestinian Authority has indeed come tumbling down, can we expect the same of the PA itself? And, if so, what will take its place?

Many have called for a rejuvenation of the PLO, a prospect recently buoyed by the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, which includes a call for PLO-level elections, ostensibly by year’s end. But even if these elections do to take place as planned, key questions remain unanswered. Among these are how to enfranchise the worldwide Palestinian diaspora.

At the very least, the modalities of such an election should be made public and transparent, with enough lead time to allow a new generation of leaders—most of whom have cut their political teeth in the era of an emasculated PLO—to consider whether running would be worth their while. Many of the finest will likely (and justifiably) balk at the idea, preferring to continue pushing the movement at the grassroots.

That, ultimately, may be more effective, too. After all, Palestinian activists and their supporters—not the PLO—have been behind the extraordinary growth of, say, the BDS movement or the so-far successful calls to exclude Israel from a U.S. visa waiver program.

But if the PLO’s early history is any guide, grassroots activism need not be contrary to the organization’s agenda. At the very least, a 21st century PLO can do its part to support, not hinder, activists on the front lines. After all, through their insistence upon justice, upon liberation over adjudication, they have kept alive the founding spirit of the Palestinian national movement.

More on 50 years of the PLO:
How three Israeli journalists brought Arafat into Israeli homes

Samer Badawi is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. He is the former DC correspondent for Middle East International. 

Read this article in Hebrew on Local Call.

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    1. Tomer

      The solution for the PLO is to officially dismantle itself. This will allow the “p people” to transmute themselves back to their original Jordanian identity.

      All other options / gimmicks / tricks etc just represent a hopeless nonsense.

      Reply to Comment
      • tod

        Tomer, Jordan was never Palestine.

        The National, 2 April, 2014:

        “Israel opposes the establishment of an additional Palestinian state in the Gaza district and in the area between Israel and Jordan.” These words were included in the “peace initiative” presented in May 1989 by Israel’s Labour-Likud national unity government. Twenty-five years later, the “Jordan option” is back and being increasingly mentioned in the media.

        Whenever there is a concrete effort to push forward the peace process, talk about “a substitute homeland” for the Palestinians re-emerges. Most of those supporting this scheme claim that well before the partition suggested by the UN General Assembly in 1947, the Zionist movement suffered a mutilation of territory following the unilateral British decision in 1922 to separate Transjordan from the rest of the land subject to the Mandate for Palestine. They argued that the Palestinians already had a sovereign state – Jordan – and that, therefore, Israel, even by incorporating today’s West Bank and Gaza Strip, would comprise only 22 per cent of the whole “historic Palestine”.

        These claims are problematic. The Mandate for Palestine had direct, complete and explicit jurisdiction over the area that, in 1922, became the Emirate of Transjordan for eight months: from July 1920, when King Faisal was thrown out of Damascus, to March 12, 1921, the day of the Conference of Cairo which, in Winston Churchill’s words, sanctioned “the policy to be adopted with regard to Trans Jordania”.

        It was a “partially legal” time lapse even from the juridical perspective imposed by European powers, given that the Mandate for Palestine was formally assigned to London by the League of Nations on July 24, 1922, becoming operative in September 1923. Transjordan was thus part of the Mandate for Palestine with the proviso that Britain might administer it separately and for a period which at best may be considered scarcely relevant.

        Transjordan, unlike Palestine, was never occupied by British troops and during the mandatory period there was no “overlapping”, either at a legal or practical level, between the two areas. A citizen of Transjordan was required to ask for official permission before being admitted to Palestine.

        However, to better understand why the “Jordan is Palestine” thesis is based on wrong assumptions it is necessary to go back further.

        A memorandum written in January 24, 1919 by William Ormsby-Gore, British under-secretary of state for the colonies from 1922, pointed out that “the historic Palestine from Dan to Bersheba comprises Galilee, Samaria and Judaea, and consists of a strip of land lying between the Mediterrean and the Jordan river”. In a meeting 10 months later, British prime minister Lloyd George resorted to Adam Smith’s The Historical Geography of the Holy Land and relied on the advice of a Protestant missionary organisation, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

        Some influential Zionists, including Nahum Sokolow, said that the eastern border of “Erets-Yisra’el” was represented by the Jordan river. Many others claimed a much vaster area. Their positions were justified through arguments linked to security and economic aspects, despite the fact that, as noted by Arnold Toynbee in 1918, “Jordan forms a good natural frontier. Nor are there any Jewish agricultural colonies east of the river”.

        The Ottoman authorities used in their official correspondence the expression “Arz-i Filistin ve Suriye”, meaning the area to the west of the Jordan. For its large Muslim majority, “Filastan” was a land even easier to circumscribe. Many classical Islamic sources identified it as “Al Ard al Muqaddasa” (the Holy Land).

        The awareness that Palestine was distinct from Syria and Lebanon is said to have always been present in the Arab and Muslim consciousness.

        The 10th century Persian geographer Al Istakhri noted that Palestine stretched “from Rafh (Rafah) to the edge of Al Lajjûn” and “from Yâfâ (Jaffa) to Rîhâ (Jericho)”.

        Zionism certainly accelerated the general development of the region and the process of self-identification of the local majority, but never did the land beyond the Jordan have a religious, social or cultural value comparable to the land between the river and the Mediterranean Sea.

        It is correct to claim that the boundaries of the states in the Eastern Mediterranean area are often “alien” to the region’s history. It is also accurate to note that the river’s course began to be exploited by local nationalists in the period following the First World War. It is, however, misleading to equate the Jordan river to the artificial borders drawn immediately after that war. The river represented an important factor for a general geographical “distinction” – which does not mean a political border – between Palestine and Jordan: “The Jordan,” noted Professor Henry van Dyke (1852-1933) “is not a little river to be loved; it is a barrier to be passed over.”

        Should it be necessary to indicate the “less contrived” or “less colonial” border in the region, that of the Jordan river appears to be the most appropriate. Transjordan was certainly an artificial creation implemented by London to strengthen its own imperial strategies. It cannot be imposed on the Arab Palestinians as a valid surrogate to that which in their eyes was the only possible “natural home”: “‘Ard Filastin”, or, as Islamic lawyer Khayr al-Din al-Ramli (1585-1671) defined it, “Filastin biladuna” (“Palestine our homeland”).

        Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Lightbown

      Tod: ‘Most of those supporting this scheme claim that well before the partition suggested by the UN General Assembly in 1947, the Zionist movement suffered a mutilation of territory following the unilateral British decision in 1922 to separate Transjordan from the rest of the land subject to the Mandate for Palestine.’

      These claims are not ‘problematic’. They are false. The preamble to the Palestinian Mandate states that the victorious powers agree that Britain shall put into effect the Balfour Declaration. Considering it is only 59 words, of which every word had been carefully considered during the previous months it is amazing how Zionists still try to twist the meaning of this document. The phrase ‘establishment IN Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ [my emphasis] does not in any way state or even imply that Transjordan should be part of a Jewish state, nor does it automatically allocate the whole of Palestine west of the Jordan to a Jewish national home, far less a Jewish state.

      Reply to Comment