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The rhetorical abuse of unarmed Palestinian resistance by Mahmoud Abbas

Media at a Qalandia checkpoint demonstration on 17 September 2011. Photo by Oren Ziv/activestills.org

Media at a Qalandia checkpoint demonstration on 17 September 2011. Photo by Oren Ziv/activestills.org

My colleague, Dahlia Scheindlin, in her thoughtful analysis of PA president Mahmoud Abbas’s major speech on the Palestine statehood bid, notes,

The non-violent approach [Abbas] emphasized in his speech is the revolution of political, cultural and moral identity the Palestinians have undertaken. Many have asked if they are inspired by the Arab Spring and I think the answer is a resounding and joyful yes. And if the victims of Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen inspired the Palestinians to save lives by avoiding violence – while contributing to the creation of a peaceful Palestinian state – the tragedy of their deaths will have a sacred meaning far beyond their borders.

Yes. Dahlia’s point is a powerful one.  Non-violent Palestinian resistance is a real thing which has the transformative power to radically challenge the established narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the proliferation of social media, Palestinian activists have a clear opportunity to change the way we understand the conflict. They are able to reformulate our understanding from a peace/security narrative to one which highlights the struggle for human rights in a situation in which those rights are deprived.

Based on his public rhetoric among Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas is not interested in pushing this narrative. As I reported last week, the PA president recently ridiculed popular unarmed resistance movements such as those in Bil’in and Nabi Saleh as nothing more than a ‘festival.’ His argument was that the unarmed resistance is helpful but it is ultimately within the political arena, the arena where the PA and PLO reign supreme, that real change can take place. He might be logically correct but the track record of his Palestinian Authority in negotiating with an Israeli government that harbours little regard for international law has not bode well for the rights of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation

To add insult to injury, Abbas directly attacked one of the core components of contemporary Palestinian unarmed resistance, the global campaign to boycott Israel, in his recent statehood address. He stated in clear language that the PA, under his leadership, is not out to ‘delegitimize Israel,’rather it was working to ‘delegitimize’ Israel’s occupation. Leaders of the popular non-violent movements in the West Bank would likely take issue with such a stance for the simple reason that they operate under the assumption that one can’t separate Israel from its occupation, or the incredible inequality alive within the official Israeli position vis-a-vis Palestinian citizens of the Jewish state. Thus, any attempt to ‘delegitmize’ Israel’s occupation ultimately targets the legitimacy of Israel as a whole.

The Palestinian Authority is the middle of a crisis. It’s statehood attempt is understood by a growing number of Palestinians as a last ditch effort to shore up what little legitimacy the PA still has (remember the Palestine Papers, they still play heavily in people’s minds in Ramallah and Bethlehem). Abbas’s speech, which clearly pandered to an international community worried about the Palestinian leadership’s latest efforts, will likely hurt the PA’s image inside the areas that it (barely) controls. But the speech did make a lot of American Jews and Israelis feel better about the statehood bid.

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    1. directrob

      “any attempt to ‘delegitmize’ Israel’s occupation ultimately targets the legitimacy of Israel as a whole”
      Are those also your words? Anyhow in that case the key message should probably become “equal rights for all” instead of “the occupation must end”.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Those are not my words. I am analyzing the arguments put forth by supporters of the boycott. I think the second half of your point is close to the feelings of many Palestinians in the West Bank and beyond

      Reply to Comment
    3. Philos

      I think Joseph Dana’s analysis of Abbas’ position is too harsh. The man is President of the PA and he has to be artful in his public declarations; look how much damage Arafat’s tactlessness accrued the Palestinian people. Abbas is demonstrating fine Machiavellian skills (and I mean that positively) in publicly declaring that he’s opposed to violence and opposed to “delegitimization of Israel.” He’s masterfully painted Israel into a corner where they are the recalcitrant’s. I think Abbas deserves praise. Israel is about to shot itself in the foot with a RPG come September, October and November; settlers are out for blood, the soldiers will be difficult to restrain and the government will no doubt make some very foolish statements.

      Reply to Comment
    4. I have a different view than Joseph Dana’s. His historical commentary on Abbas and the PA has been consistently condemnatory.

      I think that in contrast the Fayyad and Abbas approach of institutional building, and creating an undeniably credible Palestinian state in form, is the most effective civil disobedience possible.

      And, that he defines the relative importance of popular protest with the now firming institutions of state, accurately.

      I agree with Joseph Dana, that Israel has NOT indicated a sincere intent to negotiate in good faith, or to reconcile in any substantive manner.

      The credibility is more convincing than the resistance.

      There are grave dangers to even the successful statehood effort, even if it results in definitive legal entity at the green line.

      Absent a treaty with Israel and Jordan, Palestine is landlocked, isolated. It has severe internal budget problems, only moderate functioning intra-regional economy, and more limited inter-regional economy.

      In the event that once independent and sovereign, renegades undertake terror on Israeli civilians from Palestinian soil and there is any evidence of complicity on the part of even moderate level Palestinian officials, that that will create a condition of war between two states.

      For that reason it would be much much better for the world, if the formation of Palestinian sovereignty came as a result of mediated negotiation, agreement, consent, commitment to success.

      Which comes first is not consequential. That Abbas declares that viable Palestinian sovereignty depends on good neighbor relations, is extremely hopeful.

      Every subsequent issue can be resolved. I saw Bernard Avishai speak this week advocating for the acceptability of “right of return” (in the form of a “day in court”) and sense of inevitability long-term of some form of federal association (whether EU style, Belgium style, post-constitution US style is an open question).

      The language that different people use for the SAME THING is what seems to be argued about mostly. “Right of return” vs “day in court”. “Single-state” vs “federation of independently sovereign states”.

      The substantive one is the distinction between resistance and reconciliation. Resistance insists on victory over for the self-esteem, and the objective advantage. Reconciliation instead adopts the equilibrium game theory simulation of “I cut the cupcake, you get to choose which piece.”

      Reply to Comment
    5. Henry Weinstein

      Well, Joseph, the Activists’pic chosen showing “Media At Qualanda Chekpoint Demonstration On 17 September 2011” is a good example of what the PA president call a ridicule ‘festival’.
      It seems a great number of activists live in a parallel world – the activists circuit – where symbolic media performances and repetitive anti-Israel rituals are considered as the cream of political action, and that they spend their time arguing about the correct interpretation of their rituals like mediaeaval theologians!
      I don’t blame Mahmoud Abbas to be not interested in this narrative.
      And this pic!
      This kind of pic makes me think (again) about the images, the poor images coming from Iran since 2009 crackdown. I can tell you that when I first saw videos made by activists in Israel to denounce the brutality of police, I thought it was a joke really: photographers & cameramen free to cover the demos, to follow at close range the police officers… Kind of cultural choice really, compared to Iran.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Henry Weinstein

      Kind of cultural shock

      Reply to Comment