|Poster of Yasser Arafat Photo: Reuters|
The next Palestinian crisis
Right of return constitutes one of the biggest disputes within Palestinian society
I recall one image in particular from the period of the PLO's arrival in the West Bank in the winter of 1995. Amid the feeling of national euphoria and sense of "the armed struggle's victory" and "liberation" of the West Bank by the Palestinian army, one could see a small number of slogans that were quickly drawn up by masked men on walls in Jenin, Tulkarem, and Bethlehem.
The slogans read: "Sumud" (steadfastness,) which until that time had meant objection to the Israeli occupation. Yet this time the slogans were interpreted as a firm stand by residents of the territories vis-à-vis the "PLO outsiders."
The anonymous writers, who dared challenged Chairman Arafat and the people who returned from exile with him in Tunisia, in fact demanded not to forget that the main struggle by residents of the territories is against the occupation, settlements, and for the sake of "regaining the stolen land."
Indeed, the struggle between the "PLO outsiders," who since the organization's establishment more than 40 years ago espoused the right of return as a top priority, and the "domestic PLO," which viewed the essence of the struggle as a battle against the occupation in the territories and an ongoing confrontation over land ownership in the West Bank, already entered an advanced stage back then.
It is not hard to contend with the claim that Palestinian society is one solid entity. The Palestinians include residents who hail from the coastal plain as well as villagers from the mountain region, and the Arabs themselves admit that nothing connects those two groups. On the one hand we see permanent residents, and on the other hand we see nomads who have no tribal or clan connection.
This society includes Palestinians who reside in luxury homes in Ramallah and Hebron, while on the other hand we see hundreds of thousands of refugees who live in miserable refugee camps and enjoys one of the lowest standards of living in the world, with one group shying away from the other. If we refer to this society as "a solid entity," then the common thread connecting it is its weakness.
Arafat's dream to create a reality where the West Bank and Gaza Strip will become "one geographical unit," as written in the Palestinian convention, has shattered thunderously in recent months. In its first serious national test, two parts comprising Palestinian society distanced from each other to the point that it's doubtful whether they can be brought back together.
Palestinian society has undergone its first split, a little too early and against a rather surprising backdrop – the separation of religion from state. The result: The Gaza Strip decided to adopt a radical religious regime headed by Hamas, while the West Bank seemingly continues to back Mahmoud Abbas, the pragmatic Fatah man, in the hopes of establishing an independent and secular Palestinian state in the area between Jenin and Hebron.
The renewal of international debate on the issues of refugees and their right to return to the region will no doubt create the next big crisis, with the previous crisis paling in comparison to it.
In the West Bank, unlike Gaza, there are two Palestinians societies rather than one, and similarly there are two leaderships rather than one. Marwan Barghouti who was born and raised in Ramallah, Jibril Rajoub who was born in the Hebron region, Saeb Erekat who was born in Jericho, and Abu Alaa who was born in Abu Dis never placed the "right of return" at the top of their agenda.
The local leadership in the territories, better known as the "domestic PLO," always attempted to methodically advance the question of ending the occupation, eliminating the settlements, and regaining the land of Arab villages. This struggle was headlined by one word – Sumud. On the other hand, senior "PLO outsiders," who are refugees and the sons of refugees from the Land of Israel's coastal plain, were very dominant over the years in their demand to return the refugees to "the homes they were expelled from," as they argued.
Yassar Arafat was not born in the coastal plain, yet his close aides Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad – a Ramle native,) Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad – a Jaffa native) and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen – a Safed native) were the ones who carried the refugee badge on their backs over the years. They were the ones who pressed Arafat to position the "return question" as a clear and incisive issue that would not be subjected to any kind of "plea bargain" with Israel, and they were the ones who sacrificed the quality of life of refugee camp residents for the sake of the noble goal – the return.
The apparent "moderation" being conveyed from sources around Mahmoud Abbas regarding the right of return, just like tendentious leaks aimed at pointing to "Palestinian flexibility" after long years of traditional toughness come from the direction of the "domestic PLO-Fatah," from residents of the mountain area, and from those who never espoused the right of return.
This leadership, which views the right of return as no more than a slogan, will lead a tendency of "moderation" over the refugee matter in exchange for great Israeli concessions when it comes to land: The wide-scale evacuation of settlements and minimization of Israeli control in the West Bank to a necessary minimum.
I once asked a senior refugee in Jenin, "Why don't you get out of this hole, improve your quality of life, and live just like any other person in the world?" He replied: "If you ask the residents, they would tell you that they're willing to be evacuated right now. Yet the PLO wishes to perpetuate this camp as a living monument…it forbids the removal of even one stone from here, as the moment there is no longer a camp,
there would no longer be a Palestinian problem…it cares less about the victims."
How will the third generation of Palestinian refugees, "the victims," respond to such development? Certainly not by merely writing slogans on walls.
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