Multiple Leaderships and Political Vacuum: The Gap between Palestinian Leadership and Youth, and the Challenges of Non-Partisan Organising

Author ········· Mira Nabulsi
Published ······ Online, March 2013
Section ·······  Current Affairs

At the time when the Palestinian Central Elections Commission continues updating its voters’ records in the West Bank and Gaza, what do Palestinians, whether in the rest of historic Palestine, part of the diaspora, and the refugee camps think of yet another election, potentially happening without them taking part? What do the younger generations of Palestinians think of their political leadership, as broad and convoluted this term may be, and is there a gap between the political and economic elite and the active Palestinian youth?

All these are valid questions that many of us engaged in Palestinian political work often think of, and just as often fail to answer. It is hard enough to ask these questions to Palestinian youth in historic Palestine, but posing these questions to Palestinians in the diaspora makes the responses more complex.

Palestinian youth, inside Palestine and in the camps, have had more contact with the Palestinian political parties and therefore, their political consciousness was in one way or another influenced by partisan politics. The mobilisation that was inaugurated on 15 March 2011 indicates that many of these politicised youth in Palestine view the deadlock between Fateh and Hamas as the primary challenge and a major obstacle facing Palestinian politics and resistance against Israeli occupation. Those feelings might be less shared by their counterparts in the Western diaspora, whose politicisation resulted from personal experiences of discrimination, Islamophobia, family history of oppression inflicted upon them by Zionist forces, or those who align themselves with those forces. In that way, many of the politicised Palestinian youth in the West have not suffered the consequences of the Palestinian internal division in the way those in the Arab region, especially inside Palestine, did. Their concern remains primarily with settler colonialism in Palestine and challenging the ties between Israel and the political and economic elite in their respective countries. Hence, we should not forget that representation and the reform of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which once was the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, remains a concern for many, precisely in the lack of independent Palestinian bodies and platforms of political organising.

On 27 January 2013, I attended an open house event organised by the International League of People’s Struggle in San Francisco, California. I spoke with three young Palestinian women and asked them what they thought of the Palestinian leadership and whether they feel there is a gap or disconnect with the leadership. Nadia, a 27-year old Palestinian from Berkeley, California, posed a different question, “Which Palestinian leadership? Which one of them?” I explained Palestinian leadership as a whole, to which she said “We don’t have one.”

I repeated the same question to 32-year old Jackie Husary from San Francisco, California, who agreed and added “it’s inherently flawed to say we have a Palestinian leadership, because our leadership doesn’t have any power, we do not have any leverage against Israel.” She added, “it is problematic, but the question needs to be looked at in the context of settler-colonial situation in which it is operating, it needs to be looked at in the neo-colonial policies that are forcefully implemented and are not giving the Palestinians on the ground their will nor the Palestinians in the diaspora any sort of representation or political power.”

Maisa Morrar, a 23-year old Palestinian from San Leandro, California said, “There is definitely a gap especially between the leadership in Palestine and youth in the diaspora. [A] lot of youth here, my age and younger, don’t really know much about what’s going on or who those people are” she explains. “Our biggest obstacle remains Israel mostly because if they sense an ounce of leadership in our youth, they know how to dismember them, dismantle them right away. [They] put us in jail, hit us where it hurts. Another obstacle for us is staying connected and staying in touch, not only with our roots but with other Palestinians to let them know we’re still here and we can still rise. We still exist.”

It would be inaccurate to homogenise the views of all Palestinian youth including those politically involved. Regardless, Palestinian leadership, whether the de-facto leadership led by Fateh in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, or what is left of the PLO, do not spend much time or energy in engaging youth in constructive activism, political organising or training. When it is done, it is for the sake of indoctrination or adding numbers to enlarge existing bases within a framework that does not challenge the status quo or the inner structures of power within—primarily dominated by older men. That, however, does not mean there are no young cadres in those parties who mostly labour when it comes to popular rallies and community work on the ground. Thus, to identify one type of relationship between “youth” and the Palestinian political elite is rather hard and unrealistic. To further understand this we must ask which Palestinian youth are we talking about, and are all Palestinian youth unified in the way they view their political role or movement building nowadays?

While recognising the different experiences and circumstances of Palestinian communities inside and overseas, and even the plethora of political views, my experience organising with Palestinian youth in the West Bank and in the US certainly indicates the large gap between Palestinian leadership (as broad this term is) and Palestinian youth, especially in the wake of the growing wave of non-partisan youth activism. Most of these youth do not believe the Palestinian leadership, primarily Fateh and Hamas, represent their national interests nor are they able to put together a political project that is both inclusive to all Palestinians and grounded to principles of justice, liberation and self-determination. The frustration that stems from the political elite’s obsession with power, party-loyalty, personal interests, and alliances with external political forces, lead many in the young generation to de-associate themselves from those parties and rather exercise their national role through quasi-organised youth formations or work within the Palestine-solidarity spaces that are often times characterised by Western liberal views. Such experiences are rewarding in that they motivate and train youth to speak up and address the world, and create wide networks of connections, which help young Palestinians play multiple roles, such as activist, journalist, photographer, filmmaker, and sometimes even representatives in international forums. Still, the lack of independent Palestinian spaces means that solid political and historical education, including the training for revolutionary resistance in its different capacities, have been missing from our activism for about two decades now. As a result, the sporadic Palestinian actions were wrapped around demands of recognition, humanitarian work and appealing to the international mainstream media, rather than a discourse of liberation, an independent and steadfast economy and society, and coordinated work with the camps and the farther diaspora.

Despite that, in the last the last two to three years, youth have been able to voice dissent to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, Gaza and beyond. Since 15 March 2011 and on, youth activists—especially in the West Bank and Gaza—faced censorship, arrests and harassment by the security forces of both parties; yet they did not stop making clear demands for unity and social and economic justice. One of the biggest mobilisations was in light of the announced visit of Shaul Mofaz, former Israeli Defence Minister, to Al Muqata’ in Ramallah last summer. Youth mobilised online and offline, and a large protest took place in Ramallah where protestors were assaulted by the PA forces. The multiple challenges of local politics and the larger resistance against Israeli occupation and its allies make it truly difficult for those youth to build large bases of committed organisers. But the reaction of the PA and the multiple attempts to contain this popular anger indeed indicates this leadership worries of a larger internal intifada (uprising). This is good news for young activists to not lose faith in their power. At the same time, the leadership’s response has the potential to harm the larger movement if it continues with empty diplomatic manoeuvres like the United Nations statehood bid and the charade that accompanied it. These attempts by the Palestinian leadership are nothing more than distractions that pose a growing threat to our plea as a people.

As our prisoners in Israeli jails go through extraordinary repression and injustice, they continue to give us lessons of what it means to be selfless, free and true to the cause. Palestinians all over the world are humbled by their struggle, thus it is our obligation as youth to get involved, to break the systematic de-politicisation of our people and help put together our national project, one that is inclusive to all Palestinians and that brings back the principles of our early anti-colonial movement.

Mira Nabulsi is a Palestinian born and raised in Nablus and currently based in San Francisco. She is currently a graduate student at SF State University, a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement, and a Graduate Assistant at the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative.