Info-Palestine.eu : Alaa, can you introduce yourself and the al-Shabaka network (The Palestinian Policy Network) and its objectives ?
Alaa Tarir : My name is Alaa Tartir and I am the Program Director of Al-Shabaka : The Palestinian Policy Network. I am Palestinian, originally from Al-Lydd, but born and raised in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. After finishing my studies at Birzeit University in Palestine, I acquired my MSc. Degree in International Development Studies from the University of Manchester in the UK, and my PhD degree in International Development Studies from The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Since September 2015, I am conducting my post-doctorate research and lecturing at the Graduate Institute’s Center on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP) and The Department of Anthropology and Sociology of Development, in Geneva.
I have written and published numerous studies and academic articles, as well as op-eds and media articles, on the political economy of development processes in Palestine, security and state-building, Palestinian politics, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. My publications can be found on my website alaatartir.com and I can be followed at my Twitter account @alaatartir
I have worked with Al-Shabaka for the past four years. Al-Shabaka, literally translated as “the Network”, is a Palestinian policy think tank without walls or borders that aims to put a critical, creative and independent Palestinian policy voice on the map globally. Al-Shabaka is the only independent transnational think tank for Palestine with its nearly 150 policy analysts spread over six continents in more than twenty countries.
Our main objective is to strategize for Palestine and to provide the policy thinking for its national struggle and rights for self-determination and freedom. We produce cutting-edge and evidence-based policy briefs and commentaries, all in Arabic and English and recently translated to French and Italian, on issues related to the Palestinian civil society, economic development, refugees, politics and peace negotiation. All our publications are available on our website Al-shabaka.org.
Info-Palestine : We would ask you, first of all, on the issue of political organizations in occupied Palestine.
Regardless of their representativeness, how would you rank these organizations ? What are the relevant criteria to differentiate ?
Alaa Tarir : As of today, Palestinian political parties are mainly divided into three groups : religious, nationalist secular, and leftist progressive parties. In addition to the ideological differences, the criteria to differentiate between the different political parties also depend on their position on the future of Palestine, Oslo Peace Accords, role of the Palestinian Authority, resistance strategies, armed resistance and “peace” talks, role of religion in daily life, role of religion in state-building, law, and social contract, social and economic programs, role of women and social justice, and regional and global links. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, the “ruling party” was added to the list of categories which put Fatah, and later on Hamas, in an identity and national crises. The golden era for the Palestinian Left ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the First Intifada.
Since then the Palestinian Left continues to diminish, which is associated with political and social consequences. The diminishing of the Palestinian Left was countered by the rise of Political Islam and the emergence of Islamic Jihad and The Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. These Islamic movements transformed gradually from social groups and movements, to political parties and resistance factions with military wings. Their ideology underlines the centrality of religion in their strategies and daily behaviors, which extends to their regressive social program. Their armed resistance strategy at least until 2006 was a key characteristic that differentiated them from the nationalist secular Fatah party for instance.
Over the last 10 years though Hamas witnessed dramatic changes in its strategies and tools and became further away from its Charter which is something that Western policy circles generally ignore. Hamas of 2016 is different than the Hamas of 1996 at the political front. Finally, Fatah has shifted dramatically in its strategies and principles and moved from a revolutionary party to a “ruling party” dominated by its supreme leader. The overlap between Fatah and the Palestinian Authority harmed the party itself and the national Palestinian struggle. As a “ruling party”, it was impossible for Fatah to accept the electoral defeat in 2006 which resulted in an intra-Palestinian Divide that, by now, Fatah and Hamas are equally responsible for.
Info-Palestine : In the context of the Israeli occupation that lasts for decades, the Palestinian national movement has experienced several phases. But what is generally regarded as the secular movement, even marxist, which was strongly developed in the 60s and 70s, is it still represented in organizations such as Fatah and the PLO ?
Alaa Tarir : Indeed up until the First Intifada, secular, progressive, socialist and Marxist principles were dominant in the Palestinian political life and sphere. Nowadays, they are not. Now, the Marxist principles acquire very, very little popularity, despite the fact that few Palestinian leftist parties are still led by them. As for Fatah, it is led by a hybrid set of principles that change according to the phase and political moment. The PLO, which is in theory but not in reality, the sole legitimate representative body of the Palestinians, is led by the leadership of the secular nationalistic Fatah leadership. Neither Hamas nor the Islamic Jihad are represented in the PLO, and the representation of the Palestinian left and other small parties in the PLO is rather cosmetic one with almost zero influence on its real decisions. The style of governance within the PLO and in the overall Palestinian political system remains personal and dominated by few of the political élite.
So in short, neither Fatah nor the PLO is defined by secular or Marxist principles. The reality is that their de facto principles are set by the “fashion” in the political scene and it changes according to the regional and global condition and conditionality. Regardless of the set of principles, what is clear that they have been a major disappointment for the Palestinian people over the last few decades.
Info-Palestine : The emergence of a politically structured Islamic component dates from the first Palestinian intifada. To what extent do you consider the Hamas and Islamic Jihad (to stick to the two main components) as political organizations ? What would be the originality and the part of the religious factor in their charter or program ?
Alaa Tarir : As of today, of course Hamas and Islamic Jihad are political organizations and parties. Indeed they started as providers for social services and some public goods with a clear ideological agenda. But they have transformed from social organs to political parties that run armed groups and military wings, and later on government institutions (in the case of Hamas). While the Islamic Jihad stood for their principles and refused to enter the Palestinian official political game, Hamas is completely entrenched within it by now.
Islamic Jihad remains close to its founding principles and charter, but not Hamas. Especially by 2006, Hamas bitterly/happily accepted the key rules of the political game, and even declared its acceptance to a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, which is a fundamental shift in Hamas’ position.
As for the role of religion, both parties are defined through religious principles as well as their struggle to realize the Palestinian right. So religion is key pillar to their political and social program, to their understanding of the society, the governing rules, and the role of religion in politics. This does not mean though that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are merely religious groups, but they are political groups with religious agenda and national goals. Since 2006, these parties are the most popular ones within the West Bank and Gaza as testified by the elections of 2006.
Info-Palestine : It is widely agreed that the Oslo process has impacted the homogeneity of the Palestinians, dividing them between those who refuse and those who accept the project of "delegation" of the burden of the occupation on the Palestinians themselves and donors internationally. Is this drift in the heart of the division that exists today between the Palestinian organizations ?
Alaa Tarir : Indeed, the Oslo Accords and processes are main reasons to blame for the Palestinian fragmentation. They created a fundamental divide in the Palestinian political system and society, and it was even seen by critical scholars as the “beginning of the end of the Palestinian national struggle”. The creation of a new political organ, security agent and employer in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority, had detrimental consequences on the Palestinian struggle for rights and freedom as it effectively coopted, marginalized and replaced the PLO. This meant major shifts in the political program and representation of the Palestinian people.
However, the internal Palestinian division that exists today is not because of the Oslo process per se, but rather because of the competition on the “phantom” authority that was created as a result of the Oslo process. The intra-Palestinian division today is entrenched by the “joy of power” Fatah and Hamas are exercising as well and the economic benefits they are acquiring in addition to the regional dynamics they are part of. The division between Fatah and Hamas is not due to differences in ideology or even political or resistance strategies, but rather it is due to narrow factional and personal calculations that harm the Palestinian people in Palestine and exile.
Info-Palestine : By their more radical strategy, in conjunction with different resistance tactics, including the use of weapons, can we consider that the Islamic resistance organizations have saved, in the context of Oslo, the famous "constants" Palestinian, with for example the right of return for all refugees ?
Alaa Tarir : From people’s perspective, it could be argued that the Islamic resistance organizations did a better job that the Fatah ruling party in persevering and blocking a national sell-out. This is mainly due to the resistance strategy adopted by the Islamic resistance organization, and it is testified by the 2006 elections results and many public opinion polls. But still, both parties Fatah and Hamas, did major harm to the famous Palestinian "constants" by dividing the Palestinian people and weaken their capabilities to resist, negotiate, and realize their rights.
So it should not only be about saving the “constants”, but also building on these “constants” to achieve the Palestinian rights. And for that we can conclude with confidence that both parties have failed. As for the right of return for all refugees, neither Fatah nor Hamas are doing anything practical to ensure the realization of this right. Indeed, they do so in their rhetoric but not in their real actions. It can be even argued that due to their divide over the last ten years, Palestinian refugees are further away from returning to their homes.
Info-Palestine : Is it realistic to consider that in the context of an occupation - particularly brutal, predatory and incapacitating - to hold elections ? To organize a democratic life within which political organizations can play their role ?
Alaa Tarir : The main problem with the elections that took place in West Bank and Gaza in 1996 and 2006 is that they completely ignored and dismissed more than half of the Palestinian people living in the Diaspora and exile, as well as the ones living in Israel. So the existing parameters, especially since Oslo Accords, are not conducive to the creation of a representative and accountable political system or structures.
And these elections will entrench the “superior” role of the Palestinian Authority over the role of the PLO, unless simultaneous elections with different parameters take place for the PLO institutions and the different unions’ bodies and well as the Palestinian communities in the Diaspora. Only through a bottom up revival of representation can the Palestinian political system and structures be beneficial to the Palestinians to realize their political and civil rights.
Info-Palestine : Are we witnessing a crisis of representativeness of these organizations in Palestinian society ? Are they in a situation of failure with the youth, who pays a so high price in the current uprising ? Should we expect the next appearance of new leaders, in a different organizational framework ?
Alaa Tarir : Yes we are witnessing a crisis of representativeness and a legitimacy gap. It is not particularly new but it is widening over time and the current wave of anger that started in October 2015 is exposing the different political parties and their leadership. As I argued in a recent op-ed that I wrote “the last few months [of the wave of anger] showed how weak and illegitimate the Palestinian political parties are from across the entire political spectrum. These “historical” political parties have failed to provide the needed institutional representation and political support for the Palestinian youth revolting in a wave of anger against the multiple sources of oppression.
They have failed to mobilise the masses, failed to equip the revolting youth with much needed political education and hope for the future, and failed to challenge the security apparatuses and political decisions of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Some parties even seem uninterested in resuming the national struggle for political and civil rights and appear instead more keen on sustaining the status quo of persistent military occupation. These multiple failures are not only because these political parties are dysfunctional or ineffective, but also because they lack the political will, and because their leadership and possibly their political programmes are deemed illegitimate and irrelevant by the Palestinian people.
The weakness of the traditional political parties is not an exogenous factor, but rather an outcome of a home-grown transformation that occurred in the Palestinian political structures, programme and styles of governance. In particular, these transformations have been taking place since 2007 in the aftermath of the intra-Palestinian divide and as a consequence of the state-building project in the occupied West Bank and the consolidation of power in besieged and occupied Gaza Strip.” As for the emergence of new leaders, and as I argued in another recent op-ed, indeed “a new and different Palestinian generation is emerging.
This generation carries new visions, objectives, and tools. While a segment of this generation is revolting in the streets of Palestine, another segment (although less visible than the revolting youth) is strategizing for the struggle and operationalizing these strategies, locally and internationally…This generation is not only fed-up with the Israeli occupation and its colonial policies, but also it is fed-up with the existing illegitimate and unrepresentative Palestinian leadership. They are sick and tired of the continuous failures, and they are thinking and acting to ensure that they get closer to the realization of their rights.”
Info-Palestine : The PLO could it again and on what conditions play a unifying role between the political currents in Palestine ? Or is it a complete paradigm shift that is required ?
Alaa Tarir : If the PLO would like to resume its role as a sole representative of the Palestinian people, a number of prerequisites need to be in place which indeed makes it necessary to have a complete paradigm shift. The current leadership is neither interested nor willing to revive the role of the PLO, as the current arrangements and rules of the game works well for them. So in theory yes the PLO could play a major role if it is reinvented and reformed dramatically to revisit its political program and also its governance structures and the parties involved.
The domination of one party on the PLO is a must-to-avoid as well as the undemocratic traditions that have governed this body for decades. Palestinians are in desperate need of an umbrella body that represents them and is inclusive, legitimate and effective. But the current structures and institutions of the PLO could not serve these objectives. A serious workshop is needed to reform the Palestinian political system in order to enable the PLO to have a leading and constructive role.
Info-Palestine : For people of Palestine, we understand the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, the Diaspora - that is to say the survivors and descendants of ethnic cleansing which have taken place since 1948 - and the Palestinians with a nationality Israeli. Is it conceivable, realistic, desirable that in future this spatial division is overpassed by one or several forms of common organizations ?
Alaa Tarir : This is a must. Historically and contemporarily, the fragmentation of the Palestinian people is one of the key reasons for the Palestinian weakness. It is a key element that Israel utilized very well in its favor to sustain its colonial occupation and domination. If the Palestinians want to achieve their rights, then acting collectively is the key. This will also preserve their identity and strengthen their position in any future rounds of “peace” talks.
To be legitimate and effective, any new leadership must act on behalf of the 12 million Palestinians, and not only of a fraction of that. Bridging the gaps between the Palestinians everywhere is also linked to the revived role of the PLO. Only through functional and real links between Palestinians all over the world, then they could become closer to practice their right of return and achieve their rights.
Info-Palestine : Is the BDS campaign as central in Palestine then it tends to become in the international movement of solidarity ? Could we think - and hope - that one day soon, a Palestinian unified national movement will relay on an federated international solidarity movement ?
Alaa Tarir : As I argued elsewhere, the Palestinian civil society-led BDS movement sets the parameters, and puts the Palestinians in the “driver seat” as far as their national struggle and civil and political rights are concerned. It gains its legitimacy and popularity through its real successes and actions, not through a glowing but empty rhetoric such as that of the Palestinian Authority’s. The BDS movement brings back the real meaning and value to the notions of political agency and collective actions.
The sense and reality of popular ownership of one of the tools for the self-determination struggle, is a key factor that explains the success, legitimacy, and influential role of the BDS. As I argued, “the influential role of the BDS and the successes it achieved were not only because of the organic formation of the movement’s leadership or because of its unifying and comprehensive principles and objectives, but also because of the sense of ownership to one of the tools for the self-determination struggle, the existing historical evidence regarding the effectiveness of such tools in ensuring justice, and the shifts and transformations in the global public opinion about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The growth of the international solidarity movement that works in harmony with the Palestinian civil society priorities and calls is an inspiring example of global collaboration for universal rights realization”. The BDS movement believes in the power of people and acts accordingly. The BDS movement is a key example of how the relationship between the occupied and the occupier should be : a relationship based on continuous confrontation to realise rights. This is why it constitutes a major source of hope for Palestinians at home and in exile.
* Alaa Tartir is the Program Director of Al-Shabaka : The Palestinian Policy Network. Tartir is also a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland. Tartir previously served as Researcher in International Development Studies at the London School of Economics (LSE), where he earned his PhD.
From the same author :
La Palestine en 2016 : des raisons d’espérer ? - 22 février 2016
Le soulèvement de la jeunesse palestinienne et le rôle des organisations politiques - 18 décembre 2015
Le départ d’Abbas changerait-il quoi que ce soit ? - 8 septembre 2015
April 11, 2016 - Interview and translation to french by : Info-Palestine.eu - MJB, CZ