Professor Sari Nusseibeh, former president of Al Quds University and respected Palestinian intifada leader, thinker, and philosopher, was asked once to explain Palestinian decision making. Most people plan things for a long time and then they execute, he said, but Palestinian leaders use the “Fatah way.” They make decisions first and then find ways to implement them later. If they face problems, they adjust along the way.
That appears to be the decision-making process that was announced on May 20. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held a previously unscheduled meeting with the “Palestinian leadership” — senior Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee members, Fatah Central Council members, and key advisors and cabinet ministers. After the closed-door meeting, Abbas went on Palestine TV and announced that a decision had been made to end all agreements and understandings, including security coordination, with Israel and the U.S. In the ensuing days, various lower level meetings were quickly organized and solutions were suggested as to how this dramatic decision would be implemented.
Naser Lahham, editor-in-chief of the semi-independent pro-PLO Maan News agency, in a clarification of Abbas’s decision posted on YouTube, explained that officials would need to come up with solutions that do not involve the Israelis or require coordination with them. Palestinian security and administrative officials were told that this was a “strategic” decision, not a tactical one. In the case of problems or emergencies that required external intervention, they were instructed to call the Red Cross. No aggressive action was to be taken by Palestinian security, but Palestinian officers and administrative personnel would have to stand their ground.
This haphazard and reversed form of decision making was common during the reign of Yasser Arafat, the revolutionary PLO leader who refused to shed his khaki guerrilla suit and the fedayeen keffiyeh. But when Abbas took over after Arafat, the revolutionary attire and atmosphere were replaced by business suits and regular working hours.
A watershed announcement
The announcement on May 20 is therefore something of a watershed, in which Palestinian decision-makers appear to have chosen to leave behind the professionalism of President Abbas and Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and instead adopt the Fatah revolutionary way of making strategic decisions and then implementing them on an ad hoc basis while making adjustments along the way. This is not to say that many earlier decisions were not carried out in the same ad hoc fashion, but this is perhaps the most significant one in terms of its direct consequences for the Palestinian security apparatus in particular and the Palestinian public in general. Abbas had threatened this move many times before, but this is the first time it is actually being carried out, albeit carefully so it doesn’t explode in their faces, but rather sends a clear signal that this time they’re serious.
Ever since the Oslo Accords, Israel has come to negotiations after pocketing whatever is to its advantage and then negotiating the rest. This could be the first time that Palestinians try something similar, pocketing the physical control over small, but populated areas of Palestine while attempting to renegotiate from a slightly better position. The question remains how much support the slightly more revolutionary Abbas will get versus how much the professional Abbas will lose by making this risky move.
The most prominent faction within the PLO, Fatah (Arabic for “Conquest” or “Opening”) is an inverted acronym of Ḥarakat al-Taḥrīr al-Waṭanī al-Filasṭīnī (“Palestine National Liberation Movement”).
When I interviewed Arafat in Tunis in the spring of 1994 shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in Washington, I asked the Palestinian revolutionary leader if the guerrilla movement he headed planned to become a political party once the PLO returned to Gaza and the West Bank. Arafat got angry, ended the interview, and went on a lengthy rant about how Fatah is a national movement that represented the Palestinian struggle and that it would never become a party because its role would end once its mission of liberation had been accomplished.
Clearly, therefore, the current leader in the Muqata — the presidential complex in Ramallah — is quietly and metaphorically shedding the business attire. But unlike Arafat, who allowed the offensive use of firearms as the second intifada raged on, Abbas and his Fatah leaders have made it clear that armed Palestinian officers will not make any aggressive moves toward the Israelis but would defend themselves if need be. “We will continue to contribute to regional stability and global security,” senior Fatah leader Jibril Rajoub told Arab News.
We are therefore witnessing a new paradigm in which conflicting parties resort to unilateral actions. Palestinians insist that Israel has initiated this through its repeated incursions into sovereign Palestinian areas — those designated as Area A in the Oslo Accords — as well as the new Israeli coalition’s decision to annex parts of the occupied territories in clear violation of all agreements and international norms.
Since 1969, when the Fatah guerillas led by Arafat took over the Arab League-created PLO, the PLO has been a tool of Fatah. An often-circulated joke held that all those who were independent, i.e. didn’t belong to a recognized Palestinian faction, were automatically Fatah delegates because of the broad nature of Fatah as a movement, which was focused on one issue: liberation.
What happens next?
This strategic decision by the Palestinian leadership will require a number of factors to be implemented and sustained. While the idea of clinging to the status quo is the least bad of the two difficult scenarios before it — either an uptick in violence or an acceptance of continued Israeli dictates — new arrangements vis-à-vis Israelis will need to be made. Life will have to go on in the occupied Palestinian territories, and if there is no clear reference point this new legal black hole could cause lots of trouble and pain for ordinary Palestinians. In the absence of coordination with Israelis, local, regional, and international travel, economic issues, bank interactions, the movement of goods, and many other issues must still be regulated. The idea that the Red Cross can solve any and all emergencies is not a well-thought-out policy, but rather another semi-revolutionary act indicative of the Fatah way.
If the new policy does not lead to a major rise in anti-Israeli violence, the Israelis might be willing to take a temporary pass on things. But more important to the survival of this new normal in the occupied territories will be how the international community reacts. Will the EU continue to financially support Palestine? Will the U.S. banking system allow Palestinian banks to operate? And will regional powers like Israel and Jordan find ways to deal with the new reality that will emerge as a result of this unprecedented unilateral decision by Palestinian leaders? The answers to all of these questions are anything but clear.
The Fatah way might have allowed Palestinian leaders at times to “wing it,” but with so much at stake, they need the legitimacy of elections and the effectiveness of a well-thought-plan with realistic goals and public support.
Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on twitter @daoudkuttab. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images