The Challenges Posed by the Vacuum in Palestinian Political Leadership

Video and Edited Transcript 
Nadia Hijab
Transcript No. 428 (18 March 2015)




Zeina Azzam: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the Palestine Center and thank you for coming out today to this lecture with our guest, Nadia Hijab. 



“The Challenges Posed by the Vacuum in Palestinian Political Leadership” is the topic of today’s lecture. It is a timely topic indeed for everyone involved in Palestinian affairs, because as Nadia Hijab notes, the Palestinian national movement is experiencing serious fragmentation and paralysis. Some are uniting under the call for actions for BDS and students in civil society organizations continue to mobilize. Nevertheless, between the multiple visions and policies of actors such as the PA, Hamas, aid and development organizations, destructive Israeli policies and U.S. inaction, there are many factors that have had profound ramifications on the forms and viability of political leadership among the Palestinians.
Now it is my pleasure to introduce Nadia Hijab: she’s an old friend and former executive director of the Jerusalem Fund. So, welcome back! She’s also a much respected colleague and analyzes so many different aspects of Arab affairs and especially policies about Palestine. Currently Nadia Hijab is the Executive Director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, a global think tank established in 2009 to put a stronger Palestinian policy voice on the map. She has co-founded or participated in several campaigns for Palestinian human rights in the United States, including the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation – she was one of the co-founders. She is also a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. Nadia Hijab’s first book, Womanpower: The Arab debate on women at work was published by Cambridge University Press and she co-authored Citizens Apart: A Portrait of the Palestinians in Israel published by I.B. Tauris. She has held senior positions at the United Nations, including the UN Development Program, among other assignments. So please help me in welcoming Nadia Hijab.
Nadia Hijab: Thank you very much Zeina, it’s a real pleasure to be back here at the Palestine Center and Jerusalem Fund and to speak to you at what is a really pivotal time in our movement for Palestinian freedom. 
The Israeli elections have dominated the news cycle in the U.S. It’s almost as though the whole world’s attention was focused on Palestine-Israel. And in a way it was. The Europeans, U.S., and the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority were all desperately hoping that the Labor Party in Israel would win, would come out ahead at least so that they could revive the so-called peace process. Their disappointment must be huge. Although the Labor Party did much better than expected and had before, Netanyahu has come out ahead with thirty seats in the Knesset. The largely Arab Joint List largely performed very well, but still, it’s not yet in a position to shake the boat very much and Netanyahu looks in line to form the next Israeli government. 
Ironically, a Netanyahu government makes the job of Palestinian civil society easier although, of course, it makes the job of the PLO and PA and the U.S. and Europe much harder. And it’s going to make the life of Palestinians on the ground much, much harder. Let’s think about it: if Labor was in a position to form the next government, Palestinian civil society and the international solidarity movement would have faced a real challenge. We would have had to work very hard to prevent a deal that would inevitably undermine Palestinian rights. Because of the weakness and disarray of the Palestinian leadership, all that we could have expected or hoped from such a deal would maybe be a bit more autonomy than what exists now but no sovereignty of any kind. Actually the scholar, Camille Mansour wrote a paper for Al-Shabaka several years ago where he showed the maximum Israeli position and the minimum Palestinian position: there was still a huge gap on sovereignty. So that’s worth going back to and reading; things haven’t changed and in some ways have gotten much worse. So there would have been a bit more autonomy, a truncated state, and no right of return for any best-case outcome had there been a Labor leadership.
As it is, with Netanyahu’s win of 29 or 30 seats compared to Labor’s 24, Israel’s racism and colonialism is now on full display and the settler and army attacks on Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and the army attacks on Gaza will rise – and maybe these attacks will rise on Palestinian citizens of Israel. So now, Europe, the US, the PLO and the PA will have to take much more forceful action then they’ve been doing or wanting to against the settlements. We have a gap between the Democrats and Republicans now over Israel which is likely to grow providing potential opportunity for civil society activism. And the PLO/PA will have to make much more forceful use of the international instruments that they have signed.
Obviously there is no time for complacency; it’s not a good scene in any way. The Palestinian people and the international solidarity movement face many challenges. Israel is becoming increasingly ferocious as it moves inexorably to the right. Its leaders no longer bother to hide the core Zionist objective: to eliminate the majority of the Palestinian people from the entire land of Palestine and to reserve it almost exclusively for Jews. The coalition Netanyahu is likely to put together will be even more right-wing than the present one, difficult though that is to believe.
In Gaza, Israel has been overseeing effectively a slow genocide in Israel on the besieged Palestinians of the Strip. This summer’s attack was much more horrific than the previous three attacks not only in terms of the scale of the destruction of entire neighborhoods and more than 2,000 Palestinians killed, but also because it came after three other attacks after which there has been very little reconstruction in Gaza, with hundreds of families without shelter before this summer’s attack. Still, we see very little reconstruction underway. And people have had to try and survive one of the harshest winters in years. Since 2006, the Palestinians of Gaza have been losing access to safe water and sanitation, shelter, medical care, freedom of movement, and, increasingly, they are losing access to hope, the most important element for our survival and struggle for justice.
If we move on from Gaza to the rest of Palestine, we see that it has been open season against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. A few weeks ago the 50th Palestinian citizen of Israel was killed since the year 2000. As you know, the number of racist laws against Israel’s Palestinian citizens is also on the rise, with growing talk of withdrawal of nationality and expulsion. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem 50 Palestinians were killed in 2014 alone and many more wounded. Jerusalem is living on a tinderbox – it could explode at any time. There are many vicious and violent attacks, and counterattacks as well. Meanwhile Israel is pressing on with its ruthless ethnic cleansing campaign against the Palestinians through many bureaucratic procedures like if a Palestinian cannot prove that Jerusalem is the “center of life”, even though they are Jerusalemites, their families have been Jerusalemites for centuries and they can no longer live in Jerusalem. And, of course, we witness the heartbreaking situation of Palestinian refugees, and especially the refugees from Syria but also other Palestinian refugees.
I want to say that beyond the direct suffering that’s being imposed by Israel, the Palestinian people are now growing increasingly apart with different narratives taking root among different segments of the Palestinian people because of their geographic separation. This is awful to say but there is little knowledge and little love lost between Gaza and the West Bank. This is one of the biggest challenges we face in our movement. Clearly today, the Palestinians in each part of Palestine are left to fend for themselves, as best they can and in exile. There has been little or no help from the PLO/PA. Even worse, the PA has been for years the effective sub-contractor for Israel in maintaining security in the West Bank. Among other things, they often prevent demonstrations from getting too close to the Israelis; they get lists of suspects from the Israelis of people to arrest; and security and intelligence officials are now getting top jobs in government. This has been very well described by my colleagues at Al-Shabaka, Alaa Tartir and Sabrien Amrov (and I really recommend you read their piece, they also wrote an op-ed for the New York Times which was published a few months ago on the security sector.) We see little sign of a strategy to rebuild the PLO or to end the split between Fatah and Hamas, so as to put the work for Palestinian rights back on course.
Of course, we need to be fair. The PLO has taken several steps that are achievements for Palestinian rights, such as Palestine becoming recognized as a non-member observer state at the United Nations and, more recently, Palestine’s application to join the International Criminal Court which should go into effect in a couple of weeks on April 1 and which has already led the Court Prosecutor to open a preliminary examination into the Gaza conflict.
The problem here is that this doesn’t appear to be part of a Palestinian strategy to really use international instruments to best effect. For example, Palestinians had a fantastic win with the International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on the Wall in 2004, which was made very little use of the PLO, despite the fact that it was a major victory. After Palestine became a non-member observer state of the UN it joined UNESCO, but did not fully make use of everything UNESCO had to offer which actually could have helped the PLO and the PA establish sovereignty on land as well as on water.
This is why several Palestinian analysts, myself included, have viewed the ICC move with some skepticism, as yet another effort by the PLO/PA to get concessions from Israel at the negotiating table or actually to get Israel back to the negotiating table with the US. The real tragedy, I feel, is that the Palestinian leadership has been focused on negotiations with Israel without having sufficient power and organization to achieve Palestinian rights and this has been going on for decades, even before the Oslo Accords. But the Oslo Accords had a much more detrimental effect and made Palestine dependent on Israel for almost everything (including the tax revenues that Israel has now withheld) and still the leadership is sticking with it.
Even when the leadership takes, what seems to be a very brave and definitive decision, such as the PLO Central Council decision, at the beginning of this month to end security cooperation with Israel, it is hard to get excited. Firstly, it is simply a recommendation to Mahmoud Abbas, and secondly, it is such a symbol of how far the Palestinian cause has plummeted, especially when you are talking about ending security cooperation with your occupier; I mean how did we get there? It really is a tragic situation. It will be interesting to see if the Israeli elections have the same effect on the PLO and PA that they had on the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The joint-list was formed because the racist, right-wing Israeli politician, Avigdor Lieberman pushed to get the electoral threshold changed from 2% to 3.5%, for parties to make it into the Knesset, which would have wiped out all the Arab parties – which was his goal. So, the Palestinian political parties came together, pushed by that, and had a very good result. The threats of losing any voice in the Knesset and being completely at the mercy of the Israeli right, helped get their act together. As a result they have strengthened their hand and have already brought much more exposure to the rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, through the election campaign. In fact, I think one of the videos by Ayman Odeh, head of the joint list, went viral when he was contrasting the joint list with all the other Israeli parties. 
So, just as the joint list had to get their act together, maybe the PLO and PA, now that they have to face Netanyahu again without the hope of rescue from a Labor-led government, they may be finally forced to patch up the break between Fatah and Hamas. They may also be forced to move ahead to really end security cooperation with Israel at long last, and to really use international instruments very seriously against Israel. Regardless of how things develop with the Palestinian leadership, Palestinian civil society and the international solidarity movement are likely to be functioning in a leadership vacuum and will have to continue to organize their own goals and strategies to address the challenges facing the Palestinian people. The good news is that there are also many ways in which Palestinian civil society is organizing effectively to deal with these challenges, and these areas, I find, are full of hope for the future.
On the ground, Israel is strong – very strong. And the Palestinians are unprotected. But, and here’s the irony, the stronger Israel is on the ground, the weaker it is internationally. And, disastrously for Israel, the very idea of Israel is eroding. The notion and the concept that you can have a Jewish state that privileges some of its people at the expense of other people, which is racist, really (and which has been at the core of the Zionist enterprise) – the racism at the core of Israel’s foundation had been hidden for decades from Western eyes, but today it is in full view. It is simply not acceptable in the 21st century. 
We sometimes forget that 1948 was not just the year when Palestine was lost. It was also the year when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted and began to be translated into international law. Of course the law is one thing and its implementation is another. People have to keep working for the application of the law – it doesn’t just apply itself. But the law is there and it’s there for us to use. In fact, one of the challenges for Palestinian civil society is to prevent Israel from doing away with the whole framework of international law, altogether, so that it can get away with what it does. For example, it tried to get Western countries to defund the International Criminal Court (ICC), so that it wouldn’t be able to work on the question of Palestine. I was at a workshop last year, [at] which there were several European diplomats there. One European diplomat from a Scandinavian country said to the workshop, “The reason we support the Palestinians, is because it is in our interest to have the law upheld. We want a system based on the rule of law.” That’s why the rule of law is so crucial and so important.
Israel’s now open racism and discrimination is shining a sharp spotlight on the racist and colonial nature of the Zionist enterprise as a whole.  Throughout Europe and the United States, unprecedentedly large numbers of civil society activists and even politicians are opposing Israel’s behavior and calling into question the notion of a Jewish state. This is giving strength to the Palestinian struggle in unexpected ways and it is bringing new allies into the movement. Even in the U.S., as a result of the active education campaigns by pro-Palestinian groups there has been a change in the discourse. And each time Israel has attacked Gaza, the number of people who support Palestinian human rights has tripled and doubled and grown enormously. 
Across U.S. university campuses Students for Justice in Palestine are a real rainbow coalition that include Palestinian American, Black, Asian, Latino Americans. The number of groups has greatly increased to 160 in universities across the U.S. and I understand that half the members of Students for Justice in Palestine are now Jews. The importance of these figures is that these students from all these diverse backgrounds are America’s future political and economic leaders. And, by the way, they all support the Palestinian led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Perhaps the most unexpected and most welcome new allies are the large and rapidly growing number of Jews who now support Palestinian human rights, in the U.S. and around the world. They are sickened by the Israeli policies that are so clearly racist and colonialist. And they are outraged that Israel claims to be speaking and acting in the name of the Jews.  
I was just at the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) National Meeting last weekend in Baltimore, which was a very energized gathering of activists from across the U.S., not only Jews but also Palestinians, Presbyterians and other Christian denominations. People had poured in and the energy of the strategic thinking was very impressive. JVP, and other groups like it, plays an important role in the movement for human rights in Palestine and in Israel and here’s just one reason why. Israel is now exploiting the terrorist attacks in Paris to push the idea that criticism of Israel and its policies equals anti-Semitism. Of course it has been doing this for years to stop pro-Palestinian groups organizing BDS actions and to prevent the Palestinian voice from being heard in the public sphere. Already, because of Israel’s actions, a recent British government report describes the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as “anti-Jewish” and “anti-Semitic”. Recently the student associations at UCLA and U.C. Berkeley adopted resolutions conflating criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. After the Paris attacks, Israel is redoubling its efforts to prevent criticism of Israel and to shut down the discourse. This is very dangerous to our cause and is something we have to organize against. Criticizing Israel’s policies does not mean attacking Jews. And one way to easily undermine this argument, is by pointing to the now tens of thousands of Jews, including in JVP, who are working for Palestinian rights. Not half right or quarter rights; JVP recently issued a statement putting its full weight behind BDS, and that means behind the right of return. So, that is something quite powerful that JVP is doing. 
I have a sense that the movement for Palestinian rights has come of age in the U.S. The collaboration between different national organizations such as the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which has 400 groups in its coalition, JVP, Code Pink and American Muslims for Palestine is growing. It was seen, in the “Skip the Speech” movement that really took off and you saw the numbers. As hundreds of thousands of activists and grass-roots organizations wrote in to their congressional people – you saw the number of people who decided to skip the speech rise from twenty, to thirty, to forty, to fifty, and finally to sixty of congressional representatives who decided to skip the speech. Of course there were other factors as well but, I think the grass-roots activism was one of the main factors.
Just a few more things to say before we close today, let’s turn to the BDS topic. BDS is one of the major sources of strength of the movement for Palestinian human rights. And for me it is a source of pride that Palestinian civil society is capable of the kind of strategic thinking and creativity that led to the BDS call. I’m sure you all know the actions and the kind of impact BDS has had across the world. BDS actions across the world have pushed academics, artists, film makers and musicians to cancel partnerships with or visits to Israel, which is serving to isolate it internationally until it changes its policies. And contributing to the fact that some European governments are finally drawing a line between settlement products and Israel. Here’s the thing: it’s important to remember that BDS is a strategy and it’s a tactic. It’s a good strategy and a powerful one but it is not the goal. There are goals for the Palestinian movement and what is very important about the BDS call, [is that] it has set out those goals. Because for many Palestinians, for many in the solidarity movement, we had forgotten what our goals were. Ok, a state – If we get a state for half of Palestine, does that mean we succeeded, should we stop? What are our goals as a Palestinian National Movement? These are very clearly set out in the BDS call. How do we express our self-determination? 1. Freedom from occupation, 2. for equality for the citizens of Israel, 3. for justice for the Palestinian refugees – freedom, justice, equality. Those are the goals of the movement and it’s very important to educate around those goals. Because, otherwise, if there is another bad deal on the horizon, as Oslo was and the international solidarity movement [is] demobilized…. But if we are aware that these are the three goals we are working for and we do not stop work until it is achieved, then we will carry on. 
Another area where more work has been needed is in enabling Palestinian policy voices to engage in the policy debates in think tanks and academic institutions especially in the U.S. and Europe. In the U.S., the biggest battleground, Palestinian policy voices are largely missing or, worse, our policy message is distorted including by Palestinians eager to curry favor with the establishment. And that’s why a small group of us came together a few years ago in 2009 to establish Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, which was actually launched in April 2010. Al-Shabaka is a think tank without walls or borders. It turns one of our greatest weaknesses – our dispersal – into strength by using electronic tools to link Palestinian thinkers, analysts and activists from across the world. Al-Shabaka is about putting a stronger Palestinian policy voice on the map by tapping Palestinian expertise and experience. We are very happy that Al-Shabaka network includes established scholars as well as new emerging voices. Many authors have been young analysts and scholars. We are very happy that Al-Shabaka network includes established scholars as well as new emerging voices. We publish everything in English because it is important for American and European policy makers to understand that we will not accept anything less than our full rights. And we publish everything in Arabic because we believe it is important for the Palestinians themselves to engage in strategy development and to promote policies that address the challenges facing us. 
I want to encourage you all to join our email list at I have tried in this talk to describe some of the challenges that face us and some of the ways in which Palestinians are organizing and need to organize to address these challenges. This is a very well-informed group and I very much look forward to your ideas and suggestions. 



Nadia Hijab is the Executive Director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, a global think tank established in 2009 to put a stronger Palestinian policy voice on the map. Hijab has co-founded or participated in several campaigns for Palestinian human rights in the United States, including the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. She is also a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. Her first book, Womanpower: The Arab debate on women at work was published by Cambridge University Press and she co-authored Citizens Apart: A Portrait of the Palestinians in Israel (I.B. Tauris). She has held senior positions at the United Nations, among other assignments.