By Ibrahim Shikaki
In recent years, and for various ecological reasons, Palestinians have been witnessing a “two-seasoned” year. Each year more noticeably than the one before, two seasons prevail: a colder-than-average winter and hotter-than-average summer. This means that two lovely seasons have begun to disappear. This brings us to the questions posed in this article, i.e. is there really “no Palestinian spring”, and if so, will we need to import our spring from neighboring Arab countries?
Looking back on political events in 2011, there is no doubt that the series of Arab revolutions stands out. These revolutions are correlated with Palestine not only because they have frequently asserted as a model the first Palestinian intifada at the end of 1987. But also, these revolutions have influenced the Palestinian approach toward change. Firstly, they have restored faith in the possibility of critical change, and secondly (and more importantly), they created a belief that youth in society are able to play a key role in such change.
The question that relates to this discussion, and one of the most popular inquiries facing the “Arab spring”, is how have these series of revolutions affected the conflict with Israel, and how have they affected Palestinians?
There are quite a few voices who believe priorities will shift in Arab countries from catering to Israel and the US to the more authentic forces of internal political change. Proponents of this view assert that the Palestinian issue has been used to divert reforms and keep dictators in power, even by these leaders themselves.
This is similar to the manner in which many countries emphasize security in order to avoid internal reform. Most recently, the peoples of the US and Israel have also realized that and begun imitating people of the Arab world in protesting against economic injustice and the general manipulation of discourse.
A different pattern is evident now, a pattern of solidarity. The Egyptian revolution is a good example of increasing acts of solidarity. This is not merely anecdotal, i.e., not only the occasional Palestinian flag-waving or pro-Palestinian chants. It was not merely seen in the Egyptian protesters who stormed the Israeli embassy and raised the Palestinian flag. The political sphere has been shaken, and even before elections, Egypt’s military has discussed renegotiating several economic and non-economic aspects of the Israeli-Egyptian agreement. The centrality of the Palestinian cause is largely born from self-interest, as powers acknowledge that no other conflict has a similar ability to mobilize Arabs and Muslims around the world.
Another issue surfaces regarding the application of the Arab spring in Palestine. Here, the Palestinian “leadership” has been trying, with the unintentional help of international media, to show that applying for member state status at the United Nations is the Palestinian version of the Arab spring (or fall, for that matter).
The Palestine Liberation Organization initially justified this by saying that membership in the UN is the ultimate manifestation of Palestinian self-determination, and that popular protests would erupt in response. In reality, that was not the case. Concerns over representation and the right of return grew about the move’s repercussions and, while thousands of Palestinians gathered inside their “Area A” (Palestinian-controlled) cities and squares, clapping in support of the Palestinian president, later on they went back home.
The UN bid was merely attractive to the media, and gave a bit of support and popularity back to Mahmoud Abbas (popularity that he appears to have lost after Hamas agreed to release captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in return for the freedom of 1,027 Palestinian political prisoners). Other developments throughout the year gave us a stronger sense of deja vu, among them “Return to Palestine” marches on May 15 and June 5, marches that truly reminded us of the grassroots flavor of Palestinian resistance of the first intifada .
The protests on May 15 resembled the Arab spring in shape (more than 40,000 gathered in the southern Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras alone) and brutality (13 protestors were killed in Lebanon and in the occupied Golan Heights and another 23 Palestinians and Syrians were killed in the June events). But more importantly, they included an intrinsic change in demands. This was a breakthrough for many Palestinians who had been demanding a settlement freeze, the transfer of tax monies, and similar partial demands. These events shifted attention to core demands such as the right of return of all Palestinians around the world.
Is Israel in the equation? Yes, Israel is the equation. It is bluntly obvious that one of the most important aspects of focus on the Arab spring is its impact on Israel. As Quartet envoy Tony Blair stated: “It is a great thing that people are wanting democracy, but in the short term there is reduced stability in the region so that can pose problems for Israel and the peace process.”
Lilia Labidi, Tunisian minister of women’s affairs since the revolution, also witnessed this at the UN. She told a reporter that the questions she was asked the most had little bearing on women’s issues, but rather focused on Tunisian attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
History is crucial for reading the future. The Palestinian street has proved to be much more powerful than Palestinian diplomacy (the street was a driving factor in the reconciliation talks between Fateh and Hamas). The ultimate benefit of the Arab spring is making the impossible possible, something self-proclaimed pragmatists and “experts” in the Palestinian conflict still cannot fathom.
Still, much more is needed, and there aren’t any shortcuts. The Palestinian youth movement; the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; civil society; popular committees and — most important — Palestinians all around the world will be needed for the ultimate Arab spring, one that cannot become a reality without a democratically-elected representative for Palestinians across the globe.
Ultimately, it is the Palestinian street that will move, revolt and resist (whether it is against Israeli oppression, Palestinian repression, or both), not the politicians, not the diplomats, and certainly not people writing articles about revolutions.
Ibrahim Shikaki is a researcher at the International Humanitarian Law Program at Diakonia and teaches economics at the Al-Quds Bard Honors College in Abu Dis. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.