The Arab Spring Reinvigorates the Palestinian Question

For the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, the aim of their revolts was clear: To topple the autocratic regimes that had oppressed them for so long. But for Palestinians – widely dispersed across the Middle East for more than six decades, their homeland occupied and carved up by borders, walls and checkpoints – the meaning of the “Arab Spring” is much less obvious. What is the Palestinians’ relationship to the wider upheavals taking place across the Middle East? How can a Palestinian revolt be realized? And who is included in the process of liberation?

The first tentative answers suggest that the political and diplomatic landscape that has dominated Israeli-Palestinian relations for the past two decades of the Oslo process may be about to change radically.

The nature of the change is of particular concern to Israel’s leaders, all of whom are determined to prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, prefers to deny the Palestinians even the barest trappings of statehood, as he all but declared to the U.S. Congress in late May.

But even the so-called center-left – comprising Ehud Barak, the defense minister, and Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader – advocate the creation of a tiny Palestinian state entirely dependent on Israel’s goodwill. They want a demilitarized state on non-contiguous parts of the West Bank; continuing Israeli control of the long fertile Jordan Valley, the agricultural backbone of the West Bank and the sole Palestinian border to an Arab neighbor, Jordan; a capital in East Jerusalem crisscrossed by Israeli settlements; and strict Israeli control over travel movement between the West Bank and Gaza.

Since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death seven years ago, the Palestinian leadership has found itself desperately trying to navigate its way out of this political cul-de-sac. The Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, opted for a strategy of cooperation, endlessly making concessions in the hope that it would eventually win a commitment from Washington to statehood as a reward for good behavior. The rival Palestinian faction of Hamas, on the other hand, pursued armed resistance, assessing that Israel and the Western powers would not concede even limited statehood unless the Palestinians made too much of a nuisance of themselves to be ignored.

Neither strategy made an obvious contribution to moving forward the Palestinian case for statehood – let alone for justice. Among Washington policymakers, Israel’s “security needs” trumped Palestinian demands for self-determination every time.

Furthermore, Israel exploited Palestinian ideological divisions to further its interests, entrenching the geographical split between the Fatah-run West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. It made Abbas’ Palestinian Authority dependent on Israeli and American assistance in training the PA’s security forces to prevent a Hamas takeover of the West Bank; and Israel isolated Hamas in Gaza, and attacked the enclave in winter 2008-09, with the tacit consent of Fatah. All the while, Israel argued that Abbas was too weak, or too extreme, to make peace with.

Quite how thankless Abbas’ task had become was revealed this year with the leaking of the “Palestine Papers.” The documents showed the Palestinian Authority making endless compromises through 2007 and 2008 to the government of Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, which, unlike Netanyahu’s, was supposedly committed to negotiations leading to Palestinian statehood. Abbas made no headway at all.

In a sign of the PA’s desperation in September 2010, as Netanyahu refused to give the peace process even a semblance of plausibility by renewing a partial settlement freeze in the West Bank, Abbas threatened to declare Palestinian statehood unilaterally and then seek recognition at the United Nations. Most analysts interpreted Abbas’ stance as a ploy to pressure the U.S. into forcing Israel to return to the negotiating table. Israel appeared ready to call Abbas’ bluff , however, aware that the PA president’s electoral mandate had run out two years ago and that he had no control over Gaza or its elected Hamas rulers. In such circumstances, the PA’s U.N. strategy lacked credibility.

But the Arab Spring forces a revision of all these calculations.

The first indication of the dramatic changes afoot was the unexpected announcement by Hamas and Fatah in late April that they were setting aside their differences to form an interim unity government. The catalyst for the reconciliation was the new government in Cairo.

Although there is no certainty yet that the Egyptians have secured a full-fl edged democratic revolution, the interim government in Cairo has rapidly distanced itself from the policies toward Israel of the recently ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak. The most significant move has been promises (still only partially implemented) to end Egypt’s role in the siege of Gaza, along the one short border the two share at Rafah.

For the past five years, Israel and the U.S. have made a land, air and sea blockade of Gaza a central plank of their strategy to isolate and weaken Hamas. As a by-product – intended or otherwise – the siege has led to grave suffering among the 1.5 million inhabitants of Gaza. Mubarak had supported the blockade for two main reasons. First, he did not want to lose U.S. aid of $1.3 billion – beaten only by the $3 billion donated to Israel. And second, Mubarak himself wanted Hamas weak because he feared it might ally with his own Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, thereby strengthening the threat to his regime.

With Mubarak gone and elections looming, the Egyptian political class – generally tainted by its involvement with the former regime – is keen to prove its popular legitimacy. In addition, the new government in Cairo appears to believe that the U.S. will not risk withdrawing its largesse at a time when it needs to buy as much influence in Cairo as it can. In fact, Washington has already announced that it is preparing to increase aid to Egypt, presumably in an effort to curb an “excess” of democracy.

Under Mubarak, Egypt was charged with overseeing talks between Abbas and Israel and between Fatah and Hamas. In the two roles, it was a far from honest broker, siding with U.S. interests that weakened Abbas in negotiations with Israel, while strengthening him in talks with Hamas.

The big change post-Mubarak is a much greater even-handedness in Egyptian policy toward Fatah and Hamas – combined with a new caution toward Israel – that for the first time made reconciliation between the rival factions possible.

Both are in desperate need of Egypt’s support.

Abbas needs the new Egypt as an Arab sponsor because he has lost his former patrons: Mubarak and the Arab League, whose leaders are now consumed with their own domestic troubles. Abbas’ only current strategy, given Israeli obduracy, is to internationalize the conflict by taking his case to the U.N. But a plausible bid for Palestinian statehood, one that will win over Europe in particular, requires Palestinian unity. The only guarantor of that is Egypt.

In the case of Hamas, meanwhile, both carrot and stick have driven it into the arms of Fatah. The stick has been the sudden loss of a stable base in Damascus for Hamas’ exiled leadership under Khaled Meshaal. Protests are rocking the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, pushing Hamas, like Fatah, to seek out a new protector. But Egypt also had to offer Hamas carrots – in this case, in the form of the blockade’s easing. This should shore up Hamas’ position in Gaza and allow it to better arm itself against future Israeli attacks.

Both Fatah and Hamas have been forced to make sacrifices to what were once considered their vital interests. Abbas and Fatah have eroded their status as the Palestinian “good guys” in Western power games, leading to possible threats both to their aid and to Israeli and U.S. cooperation on strengthening their security role. Israel is also using Hamas’ participation in the unity government as a pretext to refuse to restart talks, with Netanyahu claiming that the unity pact is a “victory for terrorism.”

But Hamas has made significant compromises too, not least in shelving, for the time being at least, its program of armed resistance. Meshaal has fudged the issue, as one might have expected, but recent statements suggest he has agreed to subordinate the armed struggle to Fatah’s more conciliatory approach. In short, he has given Abbas a veto on armed operations.

Hamas has also offered clues that it is prepared to forgo its traditional platform of liberating all of historic Palestine and adopt Fatah’s much more limited goal of securing statehood on the 1967 borders – the West Bank and Gaza. That appears to reflect an assessment by Hamas that it is best throwing its weight behind Abbas’ bid at the U.N. Its own armed strategy has hit a dead end within the confines of Gaza, with sustained rocket fire likely only to provoke further atrocities “in retaliation” from Israel, lose Hamas popular support and alienate Egypt.

Nonetheless, the reconciliation is on shaky ground. Already splits are emerging over who will run the interim “technocrat” government before elections can be held next year. And behind the scenes, Israel and the U.S. are turning the screws on Abbas to renounce the agreement.

Should it hold, however, it will commit Fatah and Hamas to a high-risk path: a joint strategy of defying and bypassing Israel and the U.S. to make a bid for statehood at the U.N. on 22 percent of historic Palestine. Even in the unlikely event that the Palestinians can win most of Europe over to their cause, it is unclear how – without the support of Israel and Washington – such a state can function. That has been the repeated assessment of the PA’s negotiations unit, according to leaked PLO documents seen by the Israeli Haaretz newspaper.

But the Arab Spring has further ramifications that may transform even these dramatic new realities.

The first signs of this second wave of change came May 15, Nakba Day, when Palestinians traditionally stage commemorative protests over the loss of their homeland in 1948. This year, however, Nakba Day grew. Palestinians under Israeli rule – in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the significant minority of 1.5 million inside Israel – were joined in large non-violent protests by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria. Palestinians in both Arab states converged on Israel’s northern border, and in the case of the Syrian protesters, managed to break through the heavily fortified fences there into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Fourteen demonstrators were shot dead and dozens wounded as Israeli soldiers tried to hold back the stampede along the northern borders. In Gaza, a youth was shot dead and more than 100 people were injured when Palestinians massed at two crossing points into Israel. More than 40 protesters were seriously wounded during rallies at Qalandiya, the main checkpoint that prevents West Bank Palestinians from reaching Jerusalem.

These events repeated three weeks later on Naksa Day, which marks the start of the 1967 Six Day War. More than 20 protesters from Syria were shot dead and hundreds wounded as they stormed the fences again.

The significance of these events may not have fully registered yet with Israel. This burst of pan-Palestinian defiance, offering a brief moment of unity of purpose to the much-dispersed Palestinian people, mirrored – and transcended – the reconciliation efforts of their leaders. In particular, this year’s Nakba Day was not – as with previous years – just a symbolic remembrance of past lost. Instead it became a rallying cry for current and future action to redress historic injustice. For the first time in living memory, Palestinians collectively confronted and challenged the walls, fences and checkpoints Israel erected precisely to keep them confined and apart. This moment offered Palestinians an imagined future in which they might begin to reverse a system of fragmentation – both of their identity and their tattered national liberation movement – that Israel has engineered for decades.

In short, Palestinians were given a taste of what their own revolution might look like.

Israel claimed both that the moving spirit behind the protests was Iran and that, more precisely, Syria had encouraged the demonstrations at the border to distract attention from its own domestic troubles. In reality, however, the protests – like those in Tunisia and Egypt – had been organized through social media such as Facebook, allowing Palestinians to organize collectively despite their confinement and dispersion.

There was another lesson from the Arab Spring, however. In previous years, Syria had actively contained demonstrations by its own Palestinian refugees, fearing a confrontation with Israel that might dangerously escalate. But, it seems, Assad’s tottering regime could not afford at this time to open up another front with its domestic population. It had little choice but to let the protests take place unhindered. Just as the new Egyptian government dared not to be seen colluding with the blockade of Gaza, a Syria on the brink could not be seen trampling its own Palestinians’ rights against Israel.

The date causing most concern to Israel and the U.S. is September, when Abbas is expected to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood at the U.N. September may prove a turning-point in the protest movement if Washington vetoes the Palestinian move, or if recognition produces no practical changes to the Israeli occupation. In those circumstances, a senior Israeli commander warned, the Syrian demonstrators’ storming of the border may look like a “warm-up” for what is to come.

In late May, Netanyahu visited Washington on what had been billed, at least privately, as his chance to set out to the American Congress his vision of peace. Instead, the trip degenerated into a diplomatic storm as Obama and Netanyahu crossed swords over whether the 1967 borders – outlining just 22 percent of historic Palestine – should form the basis of negotiations for a future Palestinian state. Netanyahu termed such borders “indefensible,” in effect conceding that, despite promises to Obama, he had no intention of allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Instead, Netanyahu has put at the forefront of his rejectionist program not the issues of 1967 – chiefly borders and Jerusalem – but those raised by Israel’s very creation in 1948. Before negotiations can even begin, the Israeli prime minister wants the Palestinian leadership to concede the rights, enshrined in international law, of millions of refugees. And, as a further precondition, he demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, in effect requiring that they deny their history of loss and dispossession. It would be the equivalent of the Palestinians demanding as a condition of talks that Israeli leaders admit the Holocaust was a myth.

Strangely, in highlighting the plight of the refugees and Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state, Netanyahu has aligned himself with the undercurrents of the Arab Spring. The Arab revolts have begun to empower ordinary Palestinians long marginalized by Palestinian leaders and Arab potentates who pursued only their own narrow self-interests. The refugees, in particular, may finally be in a position to reclaim their rightful place at the heart of the conflict and its resolution.

Peace was never going to emerge when the combined forces ranged against the Palestinian cause were so great: a garrison Israeli state backed explicitly by the U.S. superpower and implicitly by the profoundly compromised Arab regimes. That imbalance of power is beginning to be redressed as Israel grows ever more isolated, the U.S. declines as a hegemonic power and the Arab autocracies teeter.

Recent events have demonstrated all too clearly that the Israeli occupation is entirely sustained through U.S. support. That fact – as well as the transparent dishonesty of Washington’s role as a peace broker – had been masked chiefly through the acquiescence of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. Now that neither is cooperating, the mask has been ripped off . It is doubtful the charade can be maintained much longer.

Jonathan Cook is a journalist and writer living in Nazareth, Israel. He won this year’s Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism.

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