The shocking and swift defeat of the Arab states in the June 1967 War marked a turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict. For the Palestinians, who had placed their hopes for return in these Arab states, the war was a wake-up call. Palestinian guerilla factions sprang up across the diaspora, united in the belief that only the Palestinians themselves could reclaim Palestine. Their revolution revitalized the Palestinian national movement, which had been largely dormant since 1948.
But, 50 years later, the Palestinian national movement is again in crisis. The Oslo process, which the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had hoped would bring about a Palestinian state, has only resulted in more Israeli settlements. Palestinian political division between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is compounding this national stagnation.
Marking this fifty-year anniversary, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has published a compelling appraisal of the current state of the Palestinian national movement, entitled “Revitalizing Palestinian Nationalism: Opinions Versus Realities.”
The analysis, authored by Carnegie’s Perry Cammack and Marwan Muasher and George Washington University professor of political science Nathan J. Brown, draws on surveys of 58 Palestinian leaders from various fields. This group “included scholars, journalists, human rights lawyers, activists, student leaders, former senior officials, entrepreneurs, and others” from “the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Israel, and the diaspora.” The project also includes commentary from a number of these respondents.
The bulk of the analysis deals with the viability of the two-state solution and its possible alternatives. 30 out of 54 respondents doubted that the solution was still possible. The main alternatives given were a single binational state, “rights-based approaches” that focus on achieving Palestinian human and civil rights rather than a sovereign state, and armed resistance.
The survey also questioned participants on the role of various Palestinian institutions in any national revival. Many respondents saw the PLO as central: “While the PLO is weak, it retains important symbolic capital. Palestinian interlocutors consistently view the entity as vital, if only as a vessel to be reconstituted at a later date.”
But the division between Hamas (which is not a PLO member) and Fatah is hampering any such renewal:
Essentially, the two factions have agreed, with Western support, to a de facto partition of Palestine, which has allowed each to become deeply entrenched in its respective territory. Thus, despite the obvious benefits of power sharing to the Palestinian national movement—including the possibility of revitalizing both the PLO and PA—repeated negotiations to reunify Palestine’s two halves have failed, with neither side demonstrating a genuine willingness to compromise.
The analysis points out, however, that the continued prominence of these two factions depends on the incorporation of younger generations. Importantly, youth political outlooks are diverging from these traditional structures:
What is remarkable about the comments of many younger Palestinians is their focus on long-term social and demographic trends rather than national structures, goals, and history, which are more frequently discussed by older Palestinians… Many students and youth activists seem to believe in a different tomorrow, citing the effects of birth rates, strong (if vague) national identity, and the unsustainability of Israeli security practices. In that sense, they seem to place their bets on long-term trends rather than organized decision-making.
The result is a demonstrable lack of faith in the traditional parties amongst young Palestinians. In 2015, only 1.4% of Palestinians aged between 15 and 29 were affiliated with a political party or movement. But, as Nur Arafeh argues in her commentary, “political alienation is not the same as political apathy. Some young Palestinians are seeking new political spaces in which to express themselves and a new and authentic leadership better able to represent them.”
Therefore, the real prospects for Palestinian national renewal may not be with Hamas-Fatah reconciliation or reconstitution of the PLO or PA. Revitalization may instead depend on these new political spaces created by Palestinian youth.
The entire project can be read here.