By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
The efforts launched by a group of Palestinian figures and organizations abroad to convene a Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad is worthy of appreciation and encouragement.
The activation of Palestinian grassroots action in all frameworks, at trade-union, women’s, and youth levels… has become an urgent necessity, especially abroad, in light of the terrible deterioration in the work of these institutions sponsored by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), on the one hand; and on the other hand, because this issue can no longer bear to wait factional reconciliations and arrangements that have taken far too long to materialize.
Indeed, grassroots action must no longer remain on hold, disrupting the energies of the Palestinian people, pending political accords between Palestinian political leaders. Rather, it must be stepped up to bring pressure on these leaders, towards expediting the rearrangement of the Palestinian home front.
The Oslo Accords and Marginalizing the Role of Palestinians Abroad
Since the leadership of the PLO, which is the same as the leadership of Fatah, signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, the center of Palestinian political action moved from abroad to the interior. A number of repercussions began to emerge, for which the Palestinian people have paid heavy prices throughout the past 24 years, including:
1. Decline in the interest extended by the Palestinian leadership in Palestinians abroad and their issues, in favor of increasing focus on the West Bank (WB) and Gaza Strip (GS), and efforts to turn self-rule and the Palestinian Authority (PA) there into a Palestinian state.
2. The rapid inflation of the PA, its agencies and institutions, at the expense of the PLO, amid a dangerous decline in the structures and institutions of the latter, which have practically become as if it is one of the “departments” of the PA. As a result, Palestinians abroad lost a lot of political and institutional power and representation, that carried their concerns and issues.
3. Many of the PLO institutions were kept as skeletons, while their substance, vitality, and ability to operate and interact with the issues and concerns of its members were removed. At the same time, any trade union activity or grassroots initiatives to activate these institutions were suppressed in the name of “Palestinian legitimacy.” Thus, weakening and paralyzing these institutions and the Palestinian grassroots work abroad.
4. This reality has had a huge negative effect on Palestinians abroad, whose role declined as a result of official Palestinian absence and the disruption of grassroots institutions and action.
Palestinian communities abroad were thus significantly harmed: first in relation to their protection and defense of civil rights and the provision of a decent life; and second in terms of their role in political partnership and the Palestinian national decision. Thirdly, this development had a negative impact on the right of return and the rights of Palestinian refugees, and in relation to the risks of the peace process that aims to abolish refugee rights and implement re-settlement programs and so on.
Furthermore, and fourthly, the disruption of grassroots and union action has weakened the possibility of producing new Palestinian competent cadres and leaders who can continue the path of Palestinian national action.
Thus we found ourselves witnessing a “surreal” Palestinian scene: The representatives of students and youths in the Palestinian National Council are all more than sixty years old, while the average age of the members of the National Council (which has not convened in over 20 years) is more than 70.
Based on estimates by the Palestinian Central Bureau for Statistics in Ramallah, the Palestinian population across the world (in Palestine and abroad) was 12.7 million at the end of 2016 (early 2017). Around 6.29 million live outside of Palestine, or nearly half of the Palestinian population (49.5%).
Around 5.59 million live in the Arab countries (89%). Most of them live in Palestine’s “surrounding countries,” primarily in Jordan (around 4 million most of whom are Jordanian citizens), while 600 thousand in Syria and more than 500 thousand in Lebanon are registered with UNRWA.
However, the immense suffering of the Palestinians in Syria were subjected to in the past few years has forced more than 120 thousand to leave, while 280 thousand Palestinians became internally displaced persons inside Syria. In Lebanon, the real number of Palestinians does not exceed 300 thousand, as many were forced to emigrate while maintaining their documents and registrations with UNRWA.
At any rate, nearly 70 years after the 1948 catastrophe, more than three quarters of Palestinians continue to live in Palestine’s surrounding countries.
Regardless of the estimates of the number of Palestinians abroad, Palestinians everywhere are bound to their land, and yearn to return and refuse to waive their rights there. They have immense potentials and skills, but which unfortunately lack the leadership to organize, invest, and launch them in the best form in all areas of national work.
This applies to both Palestinians in the surrounding countries, and Palestinians in the Gulf, Europe, North and South America, and Australia, etc.
In the past twenty years, with the increasing risks that the rights of Palestinian refugees would be squandered in the wake of the Oslo Accords, societies, organizations and popular associations abroad became increasingly active in the defense and promotion of the right of return, amid a remarkable absence by the PLO.
The Palestinians in Europe Conference (which will convene its 16th session this year) was one success story in relation to the movement of return. This conference brings together around 15 thousand Palestinians, making it one of the largest Palestinian popular congregation abroad.
In addition, there are several active institutions such as the Palestinian Return Centre, Aidoun, Palestinian Diaspora in Europe and others.
In the area of activating the role of Palestinians abroad, several events took place in the past years that have succeeded in attracting a lot of attention from Palestinian national symbols and forces, such as the Palestinian Consultative Meeting on the Right of Return and Rebuilding the PLO, held in Beirut in May 2007; and the Arab International Forum for the Right of Return in Damascus on 23–24 November 2008, attended by nearly five thousand figures from 54 countries.
However, these conferences represented temporary popular events, and did not become a sustained working program that launched the energies and capacities of Palestinians abroad.
The Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad
The Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad will convene on 25–26 February 2017, under the slogan “The National Project… The Path of Our Return” in Istanbul, Turkey. It seems that the circumstances and complications that our region suffers from, do not allow it to be successfully convened and broadly attended in any Arab country. However, the organizers are expecting wide Palestinian participation from around the world.
According to the conference organizers, the event seeks to reaffirm the right of the Palestinian people to liberate and return to their land, and to self-determination. It also seeks to affirm the role of Diaspora Palestinians in national action, political participation, and decision-making in Palestine.
Furthermore, it aims to develop the capacities of the Palestinian people abroad and the mechanisms of their action, to promote their awareness, steadfastness, and effectiveness, and secure their rights in their host countries, as well as address their issues and concerns. It also seeks to activate the roles of youths, women, and children, and trade unions.
The Five Challenges
There are five challenges faced by the popular conference and the prospects of its success
1. Continuity: This conference must be a starting point and a platform to launch events and capacities, so that they can escalate and grow over time. The conference must not be a mere celebration that ends when the participants go home.
2. Representation: The conference must truly represent the Palestinian people and their various segments and components. While we are aware that our people are politicized and pluralistic, this conference must overcome polarization and factionalism, and to deal with diversity as a source of strength, creativity, and integration brought together by the national concern.
3. Adaptability: The Palestinians abroad live in different conditions, under different political systems, and within varying degrees of freedom and economic potentials… All this needs flexibility and creativity to allow the Palestinians to work in the most appropriate ways in their environments, without being weakened or losing direction.
4. The challenge of dealing with the “Oslo Accords guards”: Some parties will attempt to disrupt the conference, because it is not under their supervision. They will claim that the conference violates “legitimate” and “official” frameworks of the PLO… and undermines “national unity.”
In short, the “Oslo Accords guards,” who “killed” Palestinian grassroots action abroad and weakened its institutions, and washed their hands clean from protecting, caring for, and promoting the role of Palestinians abroad… they neither want to do anything nor would they let anyone else do anything either!!
They want to pay their dues under Oslo Accords, the key tenets of which requires weakening and marginalizing Palestinians abroad, while keeping their “official and exclusive” right to “represent them, but against their will”!! These figures could use intimidation and propaganda widely against the conference.
On the other hand, the conference members must remain patient and persistent, and insist that serving the people is the criteria for all their actions.
5. Dealing with “obsolete” groups: Numerous Palestinian institutions and grassroots organizations were active in the 1960s and 1970s, but today they are weak, dead, or obsolete. Most of these entities have been dominated by one Palestinian faction that has sought to monopolize them and close the door on any real participation by the rest of Palestinians.
Those turned grassroots activism into narrow personal vanity projects or “obsolete dead entities,” killing trade union, disrupting work, and undermining all creativity… Those will suddenly wake from their slumber and threaten those who dared to take the initiative, and try to thwart their work before going back to their sleep.
Once again, the conference organizers must affirm they are not trying to compete with these groups, but are dedicated to serve their cause and people.
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The Palestinians in the Diaspora are the second wing of the Palestinian phoenix, which cannot fly except with both its wings. No Palestinian national action can succeed and be whole without both its constituent parts, the Palestinians of the interior and the Palestinians of the Diaspora.
Finally, the message that must be affirmed by the conference is that it does not seek to supplant the PLO or advance a factional agenda. They must assert that the conference aims to positively search for Palestinian “common ground,” and unleash the potential of the Palestinians abroad.
At the same time, the conference must express a true Palestinian will that there is no more room for obstruction, in a climate under which the Israeli occupation and its allies continue to dramatically coerce the Palestinian people, confiscate their lands and holy sites, and press attempts to abolish their rights to freedom, return, and independence. Those who do not work and do not want to work must then clear the way for others.
The Arabic version of this article appeared on Al Jazeera.net on 25/1/2017.