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Palestinians Fight For Civil Rights And Reject Old Leadership

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. On January 23, Al Jazeera began releasing the Palestine Papers, and much of it has discredited the Palestinian Authority and its negotiations with Israel, showing it as playing more than a weak hand. Now joining us to talk about what new types of leadership or forms of leadership might be arising in Palestine is Amjad Atallah. He’s the codirector of the Middle East task force at the New America Foundation. From 2000 to 2003 he served as one of the legal advisors for the Palestinian negotiating team. Thanks for joining us, Amjad.

AMJAD ATALLAH, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION, MID EAST TASK FORCE: Thanks, Paul.

JAY: When I was in the Middle East and in the West Bank a few months ago, most Palestinians I talked to were already more than cynical about the peace process and more than cynical about the Palestinian Authority, but still there was a sort of–somewhat of a hope of a kind of a grudging well, maybe if they work something out, we can go along with it; it would be better than the status quo. If the Palestine Papers have kind of put a nail in the coffin of any credence this process still had, what’s next for the Palestinians? Are there other forms, other leaders, another motion, movement developing in Palestine?

ATALLAH: Well, the Achilles heel of the Palestinian struggle for freedom has always been its leadership. It’s been the lack of a Palestinian national leadership, at least in the last 15 or 20 years, that could claim to speak on behalf of all Palestinians. The leadership of the Palestinian people historically came from the diaspora, it came from Palestinians who were outside, it came from Palestinians who were inside Israel and who could speak Hebrew fluently and Arabic and English, and from Palestinians who were in Europe and in the United States. That all shifted to the West Bank after the PLO made a decision to sign the Oslo Accords and begin to administer the occupation on behalf of Israel. Once that decision was made, the leadership began to dismantle. And, in fact, I would argue that the Palestinian leadership at the time, led by Yasser Arafat, actually went out of its way to begin dismantling the leadership structure on the assumption that they’d already won. And so what ended up happening is that you end up having a fractured Palestinian polity that doesn’t have any national leaders anymore. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t leadership, but it means that now it has to come from civil society. And it’s coming from inside the occupied territory, and it’s coming from inside Israel, and it’s coming from outside, in the diaspora, from Palestinians who have been engaged in everything from the boycotts, divestment, and sanctions movement to people who have been involved with the flotillas that have been trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip. It’s been based with Palestinians who have attempted to charge Israelis who have been involved in war crimes with crimes when they travel to London or when they travel to other European countries. And this has actually had an impact. In fact, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has belatedly attempted to follow along and endorse a lot of these efforts by civil society. And Hamas in the Gaza Strip, in fact, has belatedly tried to endorse the peaceful attempts of the flotilla blockade breakers. In fact, I think one Hamas official said that they’ve accomplished more to bring attention to our cause of the blockade than everything that we’ve done, and it’s absolutely true. And so, you know, in many ways, Fatah and Hamas have ceded creativity, they’ve ceded the initiative on leadership to a lot of very local grassroots efforts.

JAY: Now, do you think the Palestine Papers and this–the more full-scale discreditation of the PA, does it lead to any more support for Hamas?

ATALLAH: I think Hamas will want to capitalize on it, but I don’t think that they will be able to, because for Hamas to be able to capitalize on it, they will have to have said that they have a better way or that they could be trusted to have handled this better. But in many ways Hamas’s position, especially over the last two years, hasn’t actually been different than Fatah’s. Hamas has kept a ceasefire with Israel. It has tried to crack down on any groups that are operating in the Gaza Strip that are trying to attack Israel, just like the Palestinian security services in the West Bank have attempted to stop people from attacking Israel from the West Bank. There they support the 1967 borders, they support a two-state solution, and they’ve been concentrating on whether they can run a good Ministry of Education instead of whether Palestinians are free throughout the entire territory. So it’s not that they have a radically different program that they could take advantage of and say, "Well, you see? Theirs failed. Now you have to follow ours." Everybody will say, "Yeah, but what’s yours?" And so the only ones who can say "I have a radically different program" are in fact the civil society groups, are in fact some of the third-party groups, like Mubadara, the initiative led by Moustafa Barghouti, and others, which have argued specifically for nonviolent resistance. They’ve argued for a very active, non-passive, very active resistance to the occupation, but at the same time a respect for international law–no attacks on civilians, no attacks on noncombatants. And I think that those are the people that might be able to capitalize over the coming months on this, assuming that neither Fatah nor Hamas attempt to actually present something new.

JAY: When Prime Minister Olmert left office, he said the biggest fear he had for the future of Israel is that if there wasn’t a two-state solution, sooner or later Palestinians are going to say, okay, well, if there’s only one state, then we should have a vote. And the issue of–. Is there some motion towards that amongst the Palestinian civil society, and that there should be a one person, one vote part of this movement?

ATALLAH: Well, you have to remember that the one person, one vote was in fact the original PLO position, and it was the Palestinian position from 1964 until 1988. So generations of Palestinians grew up with the idea that their struggle was exactly like South Africa’s: they were fighting for equality; they were fighting for full participation in all the territory that used to be historic Palestine. The question is really whether people will go back to that default position. And I think that, you know, it’s conceivable, certainly emotionally, the majority of Palestinians probably don’t have a disagreement with that position. The idea of two states was always a compromise. Remember, it was never aspirational for Palestinians to say that we want to have 22 percent of what was historic Palestine and we want to crowd all the Palestinians into that 22 percent. That was never considered, you know, a noble goal. It was considered a pragmatic recognition of power politics and the power of Israel and the power of the United States. So, in many ways it was a concession of defeat, it was a recognition of defeat. And now, I think, if people realize that, oh my God, even when we were willing to accept only 22 percent, and even when the Palestinian negotiators were prepared to give Israel every imaginable concession, Israel still didn’t want two states. Israel still won’t end the occupation. What are the alternatives? And I think that that’s a debate and a question that is going to be very active. It’s already active in the diaspora, of course. People who grew up in the West tend to, obviously, support Western models of government. They support multiethnic, pluralistic states and one person, one vote type systems. But for Palestinians who live under the occupation, there’s been almost this desperate need: just give us independence and we might be willing to sacrifice the rights of other Palestinians who aren’t in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I think that after–it’s going to be much harder to do that in lieu of all of these revelations.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.

ATALLAH: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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