Despite the vote at the United Nations in support of Palestinian statehood, this non-violent effort by the Palestinian leadership is facing an uphill battle. Another narrative is competing for the hearts and minds of Palestinians. Prime minister Salam Fayyad spoke of this narrative in simple terms. Referring to the perceived success of Hamas, especially after Gaza, Mr. Fayyad admitted: “Hamas has delivered, we have not.”
The Hamas narrative follows the same one tried by the founders of the Palestine Liberation Organization: the military/resistance one. The Palestinian guerrilla factions, starting with Fatah in 1965, argued that the only way to liberate Palestine was through armed struggle. Fatah began before the 1967 Israeli occupation with an armed operation from southern Lebanon and, after occupation, used Jordan to initiate attacks. In March, 1968, when a joint Palestinian-Jordanian force repulsed an Israel incursion in the Jordanian town of Karameh (the word means dignity), the PLO was able to get volunteers and support throughout the Arab world.
Over the years, the various PLO factions used force against what would be considered legitimate military targets, as well as what many in the world would consider illegitimate civilian targets, be they in Israel, the occupied territories or abroad. This has brought both attention and scorn to the Palestinians. The struggle for liberation was tainted by the use of the term “terrorism,” which made gaining worldwide support difficult.
The relatively non-violent Palestinian intifada that began in 1987 encouraged the PLO to put aside its guns and attempt the political track. In 1993, Yasser Arafat set down his gun, raised the olive branch and shook hands with the Palestinians’ archenemy, Yitzhak Rabin. The Oslo peace process brought hope, which was partially dashed by Mr. Rabin’s assassination by a radical Jewish settler and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.
While the PLO temporarily put down its guns, others never believed in the peace process and continued following the argument popularized by the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. After the 1967 defeat, he said: “What was taken by force can only be retaken by force.”
Military opposition carried out by Hamas began with suicide bombings and then moved to the use of rockets, especially after the evacuation of Israeli settlers and the Israeli army’s redeployment from populated Gaza areas. The Israeli withdrawal was considered a victory for Hamas, even though it brought a crippling siege that’s now in its sixth year.
The use of force was not restricted to Islamists. Seven years after the famous White House handshake between Mr. Arafat and Mr. Rabin, Palestinians were still under occupation; they had some of the trappings of state without any sovereignty. Secular Palestinian nationalists and, at times, even members of the Palestinian police took part in the second intifada, which was much more violent and costly in human terms and that deepened the hatred on both sides.
The death of Mr. Arafat while trying to walk both peaceful and military tracks led to a new phase in the Palestinian struggle. Mahmoud Abbas, who campaigned under the slogan of “No to the militarization of the intifada” and publicly scorning the Hamas rockets, brought to the conflict one of the longest periods of relative calm.
Israelis reacted to the military and political narratives with different arguments, but with the same result: refusal to end their occupation. In response to the military acts, Israelis delegitimized the Palestinians as terrorists whose aim is the destruction of Israel and, therefore, not qualified to be partners for peace. The Israeli public response to the Palestinian political narrative was much more nuanced. Palestinians had to prove that they unequivocally recognized Israel as the state of the Jewish people, that they teach their kids to love Israelis, and that everything can be resolved through negotiations that one Israeli leader said would drag for tens of years.
Hence, Israel’s demands for the amendment of the PLO charter, the continuous demands for changes in the Palestinian curriculum and incitement. This was never quid pro quo. It was an excuse to cover the real Israeli attitude, which is not to give up land. Foreign powers unable to press Israelis often bought these silly arguments even while Israel was building exclusive settlements and transferring its citizens to the occupied territories, in contradiction of international humanitarian law.
We now witness manifestations of both narratives. The war on Gaza, which saw the assassination of a Hamas leader and rockets from Gaza reaching southern Israel, Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem, brought back international players who have abandoned Palestine for some time. On the other hand, the vote at the UN General Assembly for Palestine to acquire non-member observer state status brought back memories of when Zionists celebrated the partition plan issued by the same General Assembly exactly 65 years earlier.
Proponents of both the military and political narrative can claim relative victory now, even though the occupation and settlements continue to deny Palestine’s independence. As warring Palestinians from Fatah and Hamas are now set to reconcile, the looming question will be which method they agree on which to base their unified strategy. After decades of repeated failures, the Palestinian people are looking for a path that would lead to freedom. While the military track will test the wills of Israelis and Palestinians, the non-violent strategy will only work if there’s a concerted international will supporting it. Will the world support this non-violent track for statehood or will they force Palestinians to go back to using arms to reach their goals?
Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.
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