Is the PLO facing a legitimacy crisis?
As violence continues to grip the occupied West Bank, many say the Palestinian leadership has lost its relevance.
Ramallah, occupied West Bank – The demonstration against the Israeli occupation had been going on for hours, and these teenage boys wanted a break.
On a recent afternoon, they passed around soft drinks outside a convenience shop near Ramallah, huddling in the chilly air.
“We’re not with any political party,” said Ehab, 17, loosening the keffiyah wrapped around his face. “We don’t support any of the political parties. We are Palestinian, and that’s it.”
But when asked whether they placed any hope in the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), one of the young men, Mohammed, 18, tutted in disapproval.
“We don’t support what the leaders are doing,” he told Al Jazeera. “They aren’t doing anything for the people. We support the time when Abu Ammar was in control, but not now. They are just talking, talking, talking.”
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In recent weeks, young men and women across the West Bank have taken to the streets in anger against the Israeli occupation. But the Palestinian nationalist organisation that Abu Ammar – better known as Yasser Arafat – led from the 1960s to 2004 is currently facing a crisis of legitimacy, analysts say.
Last week, Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces reportedly beat Palestinian demonstrators who were marching towards a checkpoint in Ramallah for a protest. Journalists present at the scene told Al Jazeera that undercover Palestinian security personnel pushed reporters away and even confiscated or deleted data from photographers’ memory cards – just the latest example of the PA’s recent crackdown on press freedom.
Since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, the PLO has remained committed to finding a two-state solution through negotiations with the Israelis. The latest round of US-brokered talks with Israel ended in acrimony in April 2014, and the Obama administration declared earlier this month that it had given up hope on a solution before the end of the US president’s term next year.
The failure of the 2013-14 talks was absolute, according to Nathan Thrall, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
They failed on all accounts, and there's no dispute about that. I think that most people didn't have much faith that those talks would succeed…they understand that the PLO doesn't have much power.
“They failed on all accounts, and there’s no dispute about that,” Thrall told Al Jazeera. “I think that most people didn’t have much faith that those talks would succeed. The fact that they weren’t able to get [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to agree to a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem – I think most people don’t blame the PLO for that … they understand that the PLO doesn’t have much power to change that.”
Regardless of where the blame lies for the talks’ failure, the fiasco made the PLO look weak. While the PLO has persisted with the fruitless talks over the years, successive Israeli governments have approved new, illegal settlements in the West Bank and expanded those that already exist, encroaching on the land that the PLO wants as part of a future Palestinian state.
Nadia Hijab, the executive director of Palestinian policy network al-Shabaka, told Al Jazeera that the PLO leadership should have called off the “farcical” process a long time ago.
“They ran out of steam,” she said. “They thought with the Oslo accords that they got the state, and they set about state-building, and incredibly they seem to have trusted the Israelis to actually move towards a state. In fact, all the documents Israel signed don’t speak of occupation, don’t speak of statehood, sovereignty or rights. So, I don’t know on what they were basing their assessments.”
The charge that the PLO has lost its way and needs refreshing is common among Palestinian factions outside the organisation, but recently, the same noises have been coming from within.
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Hanan Ashrawi, who sits on the PLO’s executive committee, says the committee’s members are preparing to resign en masse at the next meeting of the Palestinian National Council, the PLO’s legislative body – although they could still run for their seats again after resigning. The meeting was initially scheduled to take place in December but will most likely be delayed until January, Ashrawi told Al Jazeera.
“We have to practise what we preach,” she said. “We should have elections and make room for the new generation, for younger people and women to participate.
“There is a lot of pressure from civil society. There are a lot of people who know what needs to be done and are pushing for these changes,” Ashrawi added. “Also, we need to remind all the parties and factions that are part of the PLO that they also have to empower their own younger generation and women, to bring them to the fore and present them for elections.”
A spokesperson for the PA did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment for this article.
Before the Oslo Accords were signed, the PLO had been a uniting force among Palestinians, and it remains the only internationally recognised representative of the Palestinian people. But Palestinian Islamist movements such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have become more popular over the past two decades, and the PLO has refused their requests to join.
Hamas swept to victory in Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and took control of the Gaza Strip. Its strong showing signified that the PLO’s political programme had lost much of its popular support. Nevertheless, Hamas remains outside the PLO’s central structure.
“It’s a problem for the Palestinian issue, for the Palestinian national parties,” said Ayman Daraghmeh, a Hamas-affiliated member of the Palestinian legislative council. “If there’s no unity, you can’t represent all the Palestinians. To be able to represent Palestinians, it should include all the Palestinian factions.”
While the PLO has made some moves towards potentially including Hamas in the future, there are few signs that this could happen any time soon. Indeed, its inclusion would come with major risks to the PLO’s international credibility and acceptance, according to Ghassan Khatib, a political analyst at Birzeit University.
“Including Hamas in the PLO would jeopardise the international recognition of the PLO as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, which might be one of the most significant achievements of the PLO,” he said.
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Critics add that since the Oslo Accords were signed and the PA established, the PLO has ignored the Palestinian diaspora and instead focused on state-building. “After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, the PLO focused mainly on its interim duties and the duties of the PA… at the expense of its attention to the rest of the Palestinians, the Palestinians outside, the diaspora,” Khatib told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, a number of civil society movements have emerged in the occupied territories and in the diaspora, including Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) – helping to build new power bases for the Palestinian cause, Hijab said.
“Palestinian civil society has revived, very forcefully so,” Hijab said. “One way of doing so has been the BDS movement… Groups represent more than 170 civil society organisations, but there’s also representation of political parties in the BNC, the BDS national committee. So that revived the international solidarity movement, and that’s a source of power for the Palestinians.”
Still, while such movements show the potential strength of the Palestinian cause, they wield very little hard political power, which remains in the hands of the PLO. And amid dwindling support from the people it represents, the current leadership will likely need unprecedented reforms and serious political will to avert the crisis and unify Palestinians once again.