It’s time for all Palestinians to be heard

Palestinian leaders lack electoral legitimacy, partly because the Palestinian diaspora has no say.

Palestinian flag

The Oslo Accords concentrated power in the hands of Palestinians based in the West Bank and Gaza [EPA]

The Palestinians have big decisions to make. Their national movement has followed a singular trajectory for decades but now they are at a historic juncture. Yet they lack representative leaders who are capable of steering them ably into the future. That is because no Palestinian currently commands the weighty authority of electoral legitimacy.

Consequently, the Palestinians must conduct new Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections at the soonest practicable date. Furthermore, those elections must be conducted across the Palestinian communities around the world.

1948 witnessed the creation of one of the world’s few scattered national movements. The Nakba – Arabic for “catastrophe” – was orchestrated by Jewish paramilitaries and resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. More than 750,000 native refugees fled and were dispersed from their homes when the Jewish state was established.

The Palestinians quickly overcame their geographical isolation from one another to begin rebuilding their national institutions. Representation for all Palestinians – both internally and externally displaced refugees, along with the Palestinians who remained in their villages – was one of their earliest goals. All agreed that the Palestinians everywhere ought to have a say in how their collective struggle to reclaim their homes and lands would be conducted.

The PNC was formed to represent the isolated Palestinian communities around the world. As the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was created in 1964, it continues to be responsible for electing the members of the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee, in turn, is the leadership of the Palestinian people both in Palestine and in the Diaspora.
The PLO’s broad status as the sole, legitimate leadership of the Palestinian people began to change with the Oslo process. The Accords concentrated power in the hands of a few who took the West Bank and Gaza as their geographical locus.

Over time, the Palestinian Authority, which was one of Oslo’s outgrowths, supplanted the PLO as the decision-making body. By doing so, it effectively severed vast segments of the Palestinian people from their sole form of representation. Negotiators learned to stop thinking about the rights and needs of the Palestinians in the refugee camps in Lebanon and in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel and around the world. Instead, they focused solely on the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. A kind of parochialism took root.

The current Palestinian national leadership is far from representative, and the decisions it takes are taken blindly. In Ramallah, 5 million roaring Diaspora voices barely make an audible register. There are no consequences for ignoring their demands.  

Presently, there is an overwhelming desire for the reformation of the PLO, beginning with a demand for PNC elections. Significantly, the demand is not a new one. Activists and scholars, like Oxford academic Karma Nabulsi, have been organising around the issue for more than a decade. Oslo’s welcome dirge has combined with the Arab Spring to heighten the urgency of their call, but the core demand has not changed: The Palestinians must reinvigorate their democratic institutions. This is eminently doable, even in the current hostile environment.

While the PNC was once considered to be representative, the process by which members were nominated hasn’t been democratic for a long time. This mostly had to do with the difficult logistics of polling refugees in distant places. Today, advances in telecommunications technology and the extensive demographic data compiled by scholars and the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) have made many of these obstacles surmountable.

The Iraqi experience shows how effective motivated organisers can be at capturing the views of a scattered people. After the US invasion in 2003, there was a general consensus that the Iraqi people around the world ought to have a say in their country’s future. The elections in 2005 were structured to enable roughly 1 million Iraqis in the Diaspora to vote. Voters from eleven countries participated in a poll conducted by the International Organisation for Migration. Significantly, two of those countries – Jordan and Syria – are home to large numbers of Palestinian refugees.

The benefits of holding PNC elections are obvious. The Palestinian issue, which is fundamentally about redressing a historical injustice (the ethnic cleansing of Palestine), cannot be properly settled without a deep understanding of what the Palestinian people want. Their voices everywhere must be heard if a just solution is to emerge. Moreover, any solution that does not accurately reflect the views of the Palestinians will unfurl; top-down decision-making won’t work. Two Intifadas have shown us that.

Palestinian leaders have long made decisions about the future of their people without knowing what they want. That needs to change. The basis for a strong, vibrant, and resilient Palestinian national movement – democratic representation – must be reinvigorated. It’s time for the Palestinians – all of them – to be heard. It is time for new PNC elections.

Ahmed Moor is a Master in Public Policy candidate at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.