The Palestinians, a Divided People

The Palestinians, a Divided People


More than twenty years after the Oslo Accords were signed between the Palestinians and Israel, the Palestinians’ political defeats are more conspicuous than their successes. Palestinian policy is also marked by contradictions that appear insurmountable. But even against the backdrop of war in Gaza , the year 2014 may offer a more unified Palestinian policy.

  • How have the Palestinians gotten into the situation they are in?
  • What internal contradictions divide the Palestinians?
  • How does the donor country group relate to the Palestinians?
  • What are the latest developments on the Palestinian side?

2: Internal Palestinian contradictions

The differences between the Palestinians can be divided into three deep divisions : Between

  • refugees and non-refugees
  • secular (non-religious) Palestinians and Islamist Palestinians
  • between Gaza and the West Bank, with two different governments.

All these internal contradictions can be traced back to a fundamental crisis in Palestinian politics: the crisis in political representation , ie in who is to represent whom, according to what rules and with what right and legitimacy. In this situation, Palestinian resistance groups have played a special role. The Secular Resistance Movement ( PLO ) and the Islamist Resistance Movement ( Hamas ) have been at odds since 2007 . Despite this division, Palestinian resistance has been central to Palestinian nation-building. The resistance struggle has helped to shape the Palestinians as one people even though they live in different countries.

Today, creating internal reconciliation is one of the Palestinians’ greatest challenges. For this to happen, relations between the Palestinians and the Western world must change.

3: The Palestinian refugee catastrophe is created

1948 has entered Palestinian history as the year when the catastrophe hit them. Not because of the creation of Israel on May 14, 1948, or the defeat of the Arab neighbors that attacked Israel the following day, but because of the result: Al-Nakba , the catastrophe, refers to the fact that in the wake of the creation of Israel and the first Israeli-Arab war, the Palestinian refugee problem was created. Of the 900,000 Palestinians, just over 100,000 remained within what became the state of Israel’s border when a final ceasefire was signed between Israel and neighboring states in 1949.

In the first part of 1948 , Palestinians fled for fear of war. During the time around and after the creation of Israel, most were expelled . After the war, Israel refused to allow the refugees to return (repatriation). The Palestinian refugees have therefore been in forced exile since 1948, and today constitute the world’s most persistent refugee problem (see map).

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established in 1949 with an annual budget of $ 27 per refugee. This was to cover expenses for food, housing, clothing and medicine in camps composed of tents or flat-bottomed oil jugs. Gradually, the material conditions for the refugees have gradually improved. About a third of the UN-registered Palestinian refugees still live in refugee camps, which today in appearance differ little from other poor urban slums in the Middle East. It was here, in the Palestinian refugee camps, that the Palestinian resistance movement emerged. It came to have great significance for the way the Palestinians defined themselves as a separate people.

4: PLO and belief in armed struggle

The Palestinian Liberation Movement ( PLO) was first formed in 1964. The PLO is an umbrella organization , that is, a joint organization of the largest Palestinian armed groups that had been formed by Palestinians in exile. The largest and strongest group in the PLO was – and still is – Fatah . In the first decades after the PLO was founded, the organization’s leaders praised the armed struggle. Armed resistance to the state of Israel was to wake the displaced refugees from their bitter resignation. The PLO knew that they would not be able to liberate Palestine on their own. As PLO strategists saw it, the Palestinian people were at the center of a series of circles of great size: the Arab masses, the Arab governments, the international community (fig., P. 3).

Through armed actions against Israel, the PLO wanted to force reactions from Israel against the Palestinians. These would be mobilized to take part in hostilities against Israel. In this struggle, the peoples of the Arab world would support the Palestinians. This in turn would force Arab regimes to take a stand for or against the Palestinian liberation movement. The opposing Arab leaders wanted to distance themselves from the Arab masses. The masses could then be mobilized to actively support the Palestinian struggle according to this idea. The awakening of the Arab masses would finally force Arab armies to become involved in the struggle on the Palestinian side.

This line of thinking has characterized militant Palestinian groups to this day, although it never really held true: the Arab masses were never fully awakened as the PLO had hoped. And on the battlefield, it was defeat rather than success that characterized the PLO’s struggle. After the war in 1967 and the subsequent Israeli occupation, Israel eliminated PLO cells in the West Bank and Gaza. In 1970, the PLO had to evacuate its main base in Jordan , after forcing an armed confrontation with the Jordanian regime. The PLO then sought refuge in Lebanon , which was invaded by Israel in 1982. Thus, the PLO was forced out of the country and then had to evacuate to Tunisia . When PLO member groups gathered after leaving Lebanon, it was reacted to that someone portrayed the period in Lebanon as a victory. “Another such victory, and we will have our next meeting in the Seychelles,” said one of the meeting participants.

In one area, however, the PLO had succeeded: the mobilization of the Palestinian refugees. PLO member groups were unable to absorb all the refugees who flocked to their offices in the refugee camps to take part in the armed struggle. The PLO’s most important function was therefore not military, but to create a new national Palestinian hero image where the resistance struggle and Palestinian national identity merged. And although the PLO leadership has never been democratically elected, it enjoyed great trust among the Palestinians no matter how much the PLO was branded as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the West.

It was because of this internal trust, especially in Fatah and the PLO leader Yassir Arafa t , that the PLO was able to completely change its strategic thinking in 1993 with the Oslo agreement. With the Oslo process, the PLO distanced itself from violence, recognized Israel as a state, and was able to return to the West Bank and Gaza. This meant that the center of Palestinian politics was moved from the refugees to the areas that had been under Israeli occupation since the Six-Day War in 1967: the West Bank and Gaza.

5: The Oslo agreement and internal criticism

When the PLO in 1994 returned to the West Bank and Gaza, a new political institution, subject to the PLO, established: the Palestinian Authority (PA, Palestinian Authority ). Although the PLO was formally the Palestinian Authority’s top leadership – which negotiated a lasting peace agreement with Israel – the governance of the largest cities in the West Bank and Gaza through the autonomous authorities became the priority of the Palestinian leadership. The leader ( Yassir Arafat ) and the leadership of Fatah, PLO, and PA were the same anyway . Autonomy led to dramatic changes in Palestinian policy.

The self-governing authorities needed revenue for the Palestinians themselves to take responsibility for health, education, infrastructure and internal security. For this purpose, the international community formed a separate donor country group for which Norway was given leadership. The donors financed the majority of the expenses of the Palestinian Authority, of which 80 percent went to the salaries of around 170,000 Palestinian public employees. Before the Oslo agreement, (financial) independence had been of central importance to the PLO management. The PLO’s main source of income had been taxes Palestinians who worked in the Gulf countries paid to the organization. With autonomy, Western donor lands became the Palestinian Authority’s main source of revenue.

In order to receive aid, the donor countries demanded that the PLO negotiate with Israel on the fate of the refugees and on the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. They had to negotiate even though the negotiations hit the wall because the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories increased and increased while the negotiations were going on. During 20 years of negotiations, from 1993 to 2013, the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank tripled (see figure). As long as Israel settled its own inhabitants in the area where a Palestinian state was to be, it was difficult to imagine that the area could ever become Palestinian.

In addition, the settlement was illegal under international law. “You can not negotiate the sharing of a pizza while the other party eats it,” said a Palestinian negotiator. But that was exactly what the PLO did. They were forced to participate in negotiations they learned that Israel did not mean anything by – why else would they constantly expand the Jewish settlements?

But the PLO was forced by donor countries to continue negotiations to maintain funding for the Palestinian Authority. This situation has led to growing criticism from the Palestinians themselves. Critics claimed that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority were in the pockets of Israel and Western donors. The PLO appeared more as an aid client than as a liberation movement.

6: Hamas and the Palestinian split

A zero-sum game means that what one loses wins others. The popularity the PLO lost due to the failure of the negotiations with Israel was reaped by the Islamist resistance movement Hamas, founded in 1987. Until the Oslo process, the PLO and Hamas had fought side by side against Israel. The main difference between Hamas and the PLO was that the PLO was a non-religious, secular organization, while Hamas was Islamist . Until 1993, however, both organizations had the same goal: to liberate Palestine. The Oslo Accords came as a shock to Hamas, which did not recognize Israel as a state.

In February 1994, an Israeli settler in Hebron in the West Bank killed 29 praying Muslims inside a mosque, apparently in protest of the peace process between Israel and the PLO (the following year, another Israeli Jew killed his own prime minister, Rabin. Also in protest). It was this incident that Hamas first justified its suicide operations in Israel with. From April 1994 to 2000, Hamas carried out 16 suicide bombings in Israel that killed 150 Israeli civilians. In 2000, a Palestinian uprising broke out in which until 2005 another 1,000 Israelis and more than 3,000 Palestinians were killed.

In 2005, following the end of the Palestinian uprising and the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza , Hamas changed course . They abandoned the suicide bombings and decided to take part in the Palestinian parliamentary elections for the Palestinian Authority (not for the PLO, which had never held elections). The EU and Western countries welcomed the change of course and supported their turnout. All experience indicates that when radical groups that have operated underground are included in democratic political processes, this has a moderating effect on their most extreme elements. In order to win votes, they must apply towards the center and then in the gray zone between themselves and other parties.

However, when Hamas won the democratic elections in 2006 to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, a crisis arose between the autonomous authorities and the Western countries that financed them. The donor countries refused to have anything to do with Hamas . The PLO had to ensure that Hamas was kept out of the political system financed by the donor countries. This helped to confuse the takeover of power after Hamas’ election victory, and a violent conflict broke out between Fatah, the largest party in the PLO, and Hamas.

In the summer of 2007, Fatah was driven out of Gaza by Hamas . Since then, the Palestinians have had two governments , one in Gaza under Hamas, and one in the West Bank under Fatah / PLO.

According to, the advantage for the PLO was that aid from Western donor countries – to the West Bank – could continue. In the case of Gaza, a blockade was imposed by Israel , supported by Western countries, to force Hamas to relinquish power, even if it was achieved through democratic elections. One problem, however, was the 70,000 civil servants employed by the Palestinian Authority in Gaza before Hamas’ election victory. Western donor countries did not want them to serve under the Hamas regime in Gaza. It was therefore decided that they would continue to receive a salary – as long as they did not go to work in Gaza. Western aid funds were thus from 2007 paid to teachers, police and health personnel in Gaza, for not working. Critics of the donor group could argue that the policy towards Hamas meant that the donor countries maintained the Palestinian division, a precondition for maintaining the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

7: From division to reconciliation

The Palestinian division, with a government in the West Bank , one in Gaza and refugees in exile without its own real political representation, means, as mentioned in the introduction, that Palestinian politics is in a crisis: A legitimate (internally recognized) common political leadership is lacking . Theoretically, it is not so difficult to find a way out of this crisis: If elections to the self-governing authorities (both in the West Bank and in Gaza) and the PLO are held and recognized as democratically conducted by the international community, such elected leadership will have a mandate from all over the Palestinian people to represent them. And by April 2014, all Palestinian groups, including Fatah, Hamas and the PLO, agreed on such a democratic reconciliation process..

The challenges for the reconciliation process are, firstly, that Israel will prevent Hamas from participating in elections in the West Bank, and the Israelis will arrest their candidates if they stand for election. For the second Hamas has employed 40,000 own public employees in Gaza to replace the 70,000 that have been paid by the government in the West Bank not to go to work. Hamas does not want the workers it has hired to lose their jobs through reconciliation with Fatah and the PLO.

The question is whether a full Western boycott of a Palestinian government, which includes or is supported by Hamas, can continue, especially after the war in the summer of 2014 between Hamas and the resistance groups in Gaza on the one hand and Israel on the other. As long as the Palestinian people and Fatah, the PLO and Hamas themselves want reconciliation, this may force political change.

The Palestinians, a Divided People