The Palestinian Cause at a Moment of Transition

On the eve of the Biden administration, after the manifest failure of Oslo, four Palestinian thinkers ask: Where do we go from here?

Palestinians protest Israeli violations against the al-Aqsa Mosque in Nablus, West Bank, July 25th, 2017. Photo: Mohammed Turabi/ImagesLive/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

Over the last four years, the Trump administration has pursued a relentlessly anti-Palestinian agenda in the Middle East. Indeed, while Trump’s impact on domestic US policy may turn out to be fleeting, the impact of his administration’s Middle East policies will be felt by the people of Israel/Palestine for many years to come. President-elect Joe Biden will likely not reverse the US embassy’s move to Jerusalem, US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Trump’s executive order designating anti-Zionism as antisemitism, or the normalization deals between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. And in addition to enabling unfettered Israeli settlement construction, the Trump administration gave a greenlight to Israeli annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank. As Trump prepares to leave office, the existence of a one-state reality in Israel/Palestine is undeniable. But what that means for the movement for Palestinian freedom is more unclear than ever before.

Jewish Currents reached out to a group of leading Palestinian intellectuals, analysts, and activists to discuss the future of the movement for Palestinian liberation during the current moment of political transition. All in their 30s, Dana El-Kurd, Inès Abdel Razek, Salem Barahmeh, and Fadi Quran represent a new generation of Palestinian thinkers. They are among the sharpest critics of the political impasse the Palestinian cause faces, both within historical Palestine and in the diaspora, and they are consistently unafraid to raise big, fundamental questions—for instance, about the limits of the nation-state. That boldness and incisiveness is on display in this roundtable discussion, conducted in early December. 

This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Dana El Kurd: Let’s start with a broad question: Has the struggle for Palestinian freedom undergone a paradigm shift since the Second Intifada?

Salem Barahmeh: We are in a moment of transition, away from the Oslo paradigm that’s been dominant for the last three decades. The point of departure for our analysis must be the one-state reality: Israel controls everything and everybody from the river to the sea. If you’re a Jewish Israeli, you get a full set of rights. If you’re a Palestinian, you get put into one of several categories: you’re either unfree, unequal, or both. That is the paradigm of apartheid, but it’s not mutually exclusive with the paradigm of occupation or colonialism.

Inès Abdel Razek: To take a step back, we’re all in our 30s. We’ve grown up with the discourse of occupation, the peace process, Oslo, the two-state solution, and the reality on the ground that it has created: increased fragmentation of the territory, the permit regime, the annexation of Jerusalem. But our parents and grandparents grew up in a reality where not all of that existed. The way they lived their reality under colonization and discrimination and dispossession was very different, socially and geographically.

We’re used to being caught in short-term considerations: When is the next political opportunity? When are the next Israeli elections? When is the next round of negotiations? But things are moving, and we should be aware that we are able to shift the paradigms imposed on us. If we think about when the PLO was created in the 1960s and how the struggle for liberation started, the situation was so different; we’re in a new era. Our framing should be around apartheid. It’s still a struggle for liberation, but it’s framed differently, because the reality—demographic, social, and political—has changed.

DEK: I agree. We need to be fully emboldened to use the framing that is best-suited not only to reflect reality, but to push for the objectives that we want. I do hesitate not to use the terminology of occupation or refer to the Israelis as occupiers, because that designation means they have a responsibility to us, as occupied people, which they’re not meeting by the standards of international law.

Fadi Quran: There’s this theory called the agenda setting theory, about how media outlets set the agenda on issues of salience in any public debate. The power to set the agenda for any conversation is the optimal power. If you’re the person setting the agenda of conversation for the UN, for instance, then no matter how the conversation goes, you’ve already set the terms of the conversation. On Palestine, the agenda has not been set by Palestinians or formulated globally around freedom and justice and dignity. The agenda has been set by Israel, focused on Israel’s security, or the peace process. If we can’t set the agenda, we’re consistently disempowered. We end up in conversations that are vicious and circular. There’s a real sustained effort to suppress Palestinian voices seeking to change the agenda. It’s not just that we haven’t been good enough; others have proactively tried to silence us.

SB: I agree. We’re the generation that was promised a state but never got one. Public opinion pollsters focus on the question of how many states. But when you ask younger Palestinians today what they want, the answer isn’t one-state or two-state. The answer is always, “I want to be free, and I want my full rights.” We haven’t had a political system that allows for public debate about what a new paradigm might look like. We need to open up the space for conversation, and open up the political system to be representative of all Palestinians around the world.

IAR: The problem we need to extract ourselves from today is that the Palestinian Authority is convinced that their dependency and servitude to Israeli control is, in a patronizing way, good for the Palestinians. The PA doesn’t have sovereignty or control over the economy or borders. Their financial survival depends on Israel’s goodwill. When the PA does exhibit minimal political agency, they’re automatically cut out, and the world says, “Well, this is bad for the Palestinians. You won’t get a penny.” The same dynamic can be seen with Palestinian workers. They go to work in settlements, often because salaries are a little bit higher; they don’t have another choice because the economy is dominated by Israel, it’s basically a colonial economy. They’re told they’re lucky to have jobs in the settlements. This whole system has become a sort of voluntary servitude. It’s not going to be easy to extract ourselves from that.

DEK: Where does the Palestinian cause go from here? We agree that the old way of doing things doesn’t work. What does that mean for how we conduct our advocacy campaigns? For example, a lot of polling shows that Palestinians are quite divided about what strategies they want to pursue in the future, and it’s not just over one-state versus two-state, but over, say, local resistance versus advocacy at the international level. Then there is the pervasive feeling of despair over the setbacks the cause has suffered. For instance, most Palestinians are completely cut off from Jerusalem for the first time in our history because of the Israeli separation barrier, and the Oslo paradigm, which cemented the differences in legal status between Palestinians across the territories. Where are we finding the most effective avenues for resistance given how stuck Palestinians feel?

SB: People are extremely frustrated and angry, and many are also extremely apathetic, because they know that they don’t have any agency in shaping a political vision or strategy. They have been disenfranchised by the Oslo project, which led the national movement to its deathbed. I don’t want to romanticize the PLO’s past, but the PLO in its heyday was able to inspire, mobilize, and offer representation to Palestinians all over the world. Look at where the PLO is today: It’s a hollowed-out institution with no decision-making power or form of representation.

The single most critical thing moving forward is to reassert our agency by either building or reforming the political system and the national movement. We have one-party rule in the West Bank, and we have one-party rule in Gaza. Opposing perspectives haven’t had room to grow anywhere, because there’s no political system to participate in that might break through the apathy and tap into the frustration and anger.

DEK: I think one way to empower Palestinians—to break through the psychological limitations that have been imposed on them by the conditions they’ve lived through—is to highlight successes, like what happened in Jerusalem when people mobilized against surveillance in 2017. What tactics are working? Can that be a starting point for people who want to figure out how to move forward at the local level?

FQ: I agree that there’s a sense of frustration or malaise. But the moment is coming where all of those feelings are just going to blossom onto the surface. The water that will allow this grassroots movement to bloom is going to be, first and foremost, experimentation. The Jerusalem surveillance case you mentioned was a beautiful experiment in civil resistance, and it taught us a lot. It taught us about the role of religious figures, and how those figures can be unifying actors. It taught us about what types of indignities are really red lines. And it taught us how Israel seeks to silence those types of tactics. The more we can strategically experiment with forms of civil resistance, the quicker we can move to ensuring that the frustration turns into agency, and that agency turns into victories. 

Unfortunately, we have to work hard to protect our experiments in civil resistance not only from the malign attacks of the occupation and its stooges, but also from being destroyed internationally by heavily-funded Israeli hasbara efforts. This often results in even the most inspiring acts of Palestinian defiance being tainted with misinformation, which in turn deters the international support needed as protective cover against the occupation’s brutality. It’s a malicious cycle, but one I’m confident we can break. 

DEK: Let’s talk about the regional context. The shared mechanisms of authoritarian repression between Israel, the UAE, and other undemocratic regimes seem to threaten possibilities for greater political openness that will be necessary to achieving equality in the region. But we should also be aware of how events that we see as huge blows to our national struggle, like the Abraham Accords between Israel and the Gulf States, are actually mobilizing people against these regimes, and this helps them build the tools and repertoires necessary for a broader movement. We saw something like this happen in Egypt prior to the Arab Spring: pro-Palestine groups were the precursor to the pro-democracy movements that challenged the Mubarak regime. Just like the authoritarian regimes that share technologies of state repression, we should be sharing strategies of resistance with movements that are cropping up due to the anger that’s being stoked across the region.

FQ: The dominant political force in the region right now is militarized, dictatorial ethnonationalism. This is how the UAE, the Sudanese military government, and Bahrain operate against their people, and how Israel operates vis-a-vis the Palestinians. They’re creating these besieged “crusader-like” kingdoms that also have immense power across the region because of their economic strength and alliance with the United States.

But there is an alternative vision for the future held by the people of the region: One can imagine one day taking a train from Casablanca all the way to Dubai, an open space built on regional cooperation, where all people have freedom, justice, and dignity. There is bigger thinking that’s happening across the region on this front, yet it’s all being attacked and killed. Those who want to think in this way are being targeted. Some of them are literally being chopped up in embassies!

IAR: As Fadi said, experimentation is very important, because we don’t know where we’re going. We’ve been fed the idea that the world can only work with nation-states. But now we see that model has led to authoritarian militarized regimes. We’re constantly told that we have to be pragmatic, and that means we need a nation-state. We need to push back against this, but it’s difficult when we don’t know where we’re going; it’s scary and also very exciting at the same time, because we get to reinvent something. And that reinvention will need to happen with Jewish allies.

Right now, the failure of the separation paradigm in Israel and Palestine also presents an opportunity for designing and experimenting with a new vision for how we live together and govern ourselves—a microcosm of something that can be replicated in other nations in the future. The social contract that we need to be thinking about is something that doesn’t necessarily exist anywhere, in which issues of governance and economics take into account local needs while ensuring equity among different social and national groups, where there is a broad reckoning with the colonial past and present, and where various racial and religious identities are integrated into a broader framework of equality. We must defend values and principles that a lot of other peoples around the world, including in fairly homogenous nation-states that seem better defined, are also struggling with, even in America and Europe.

DEK: In the context of Palestine, the statehood objective is not serving us. But I hesitate to generalize from that to the broader region. You have to start by establishing some shared system of governance before we can move on to address broader regional or international systems of oppression. With some Palestinians of the older generation, if you tell them, “Think broader than a state,” they might be upset about that. You’re telling them their dream will never come true. They’ll never have a system that supports them, or represents them.

SB: Absolutely. The question is, how do you dismantle so that you can rebuild? We need a few different variables to fall into place. How do we challenge the idea that you can’t hold Israel accountable, whether it’s through boycotts or different forms of protest that align with democratic values, or by cutting funding to the Israeli military? We need more Jewish Americans to embrace this kind of politics. There needs to be a mass movement on the ground of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis who believe not just in coexistence, but also in co-resistance, and there needs to be a mass movement all over the world, with Jewish Americans on the frontlines.

DEK: But are there actually allies to co-resistance in Israel/Palestine, especially considering how right-wing the Israeli population has become?

SB: They’re a super minority: 62–65% of Jewish Israelis vote for right-wing and extreme-right-wing parties. The rhetoric during the elections, for example, is racist and dehumanizes Palestinians. The Labor Party no longer supports a two-state solution; Meretz recently voted against becoming a Arab-Jewish party. Many progressives now actually vote for the Joint List, but there are not a lot of them.

IAR: This whole evolving reality is really redefining the fault lines. It’s not just Palestinians versus Israelis, it’s those who have privileges versus those who don’t. It’s those who have rights versus those who don’t. It’s those who are religious versus those who are not. It’s rich versus poor. It’s becoming more complex, both within Jewish Israeli society and within Palestinian society. Liberation is liberation from all forms of oppression. Oppression runs along ethnonational lines here, but it also means that if you’re a poor Jew of color, you will be discriminated against. Whereas if you are, for example, a rich Palestinian businessman who is actually profiting from the occupation, you might align more with some of the Israelis who want to maintain that system.

We need to redefine who our allies are based on those values, and we really shouldn’t discard the economic aspect. We need to think how we can rebuild Palestinian political agency, but also economic agency, how to liberate ourselves from this dependence on the colonial economy. 

FQ: I think that for those in the audience who care about what Jewish identity means, and where it goes, the question is whether Bibism and Trumpism are going to define the future of Israel and America. It’s unfair that those who are oppressed are forced to liberate their oppressor from the victimhood mindset, and to make them recognize the pain they’re causing others. It’s an unfair burden on us. But even if it is unfair, I think it’s our responsibility now as Palestinians not just to liberate ourselves from these shackles of oppression, but also to liberate and heal a very significant segment of Jewish society that has fallen into the quagmire of hate, fear-mongering, and toxic victimhood.

DEK: The one silver lining of the Trump years is that Trump crassly made clear his objectives and his political ideology. We’re hearing a lot more conversations about how you can’t be progressive except on Palestine—that’s no longer acceptable in some circles. And while this may be fragmenting certain communities, it is also enabling more self-criticism and forward movement that wasn’t happening under Democratic administrations.

FQ: With Biden, one of my big fears is that he will return us to old status-quo policies that were just as harmful, and that allowed Israel to do the same things it later did under Trump, but with less “publicity”. The same policies have existed for decades, if maybe in less visible ways. President-elect Biden’s choice for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has a strong record of being committed to international law and the values of freedom and democracy, but as we know, most US leaders turn a blind eye when it comes to Israel, even when doing so goes against their most basic moral values.  

SB: There’s a real danger in trying to go back to the Oslo paradigm because it is detached from what’s happening on the ground. Trump was not a deviation from American policy; he was a culmination of it. His “Deal of the Century” just recognized the one-state reality: Israel controls everything, and Palestinians are left to these Bantustans without any sovereignty. So we can’t be afraid of using the term “apartheid.” And we have to ask ourselves, “What does it really mean to dismantle it?” That’s the biggest ask I have at the moment, for both the Jewish Israeli community and the Jewish American community: Let’s recognize the reality of apartheid, and let’s start working together to dismantle it. Without that, I think we’re going to continue in this form of purgatory.

IAR: I think the main question for allies to ask is, “Does what I do enable Palestinian agency? Does it remove the obstacles for Palestinians to decide for themselves?” It’s an impediment that so many Palestinians are apathetic. They don’t want to talk, they don’t want to act, they don’t want to mobilize. Or they can’t. And if they do, they’re repressed. Every single intervention needs to ask, “Is what I’m doing enabling their empowerment?”

FQ: There are basically a few possible futures for Israel/Palestine right now. One is the continuation of apartheid. This could also include what I would call political slavery, where it may not always be too violent, but where one group is consistently oppressed. Kind of like a Black Mirror episode: One group devises a technological way to continuously oppress another group forever, and the other group just learns to live with it quietly. And then there’s the complete transformation of the region: freedom, justice, and dignity for all. Everyone who wants that just future needs to take a step back and ask themselves, “Within my community, within my network of friends and colleagues, how can I ensure that they first understand that the status quo is wrong, that it is a violation of human dignity?”

DEK: That the status quo is killing people.

FQ: From there we can ask, “How can we collectively act to put an end to it?”

Inès Abdel Razek is advocacy director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, a policy member of Al-Shabaka, and a board member of BuildPalestine.

Salem Barahmeh is the executive director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy/Rābet.

Dana El Kurd is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Richmond. She is the author of the book Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine (Oxford University Press, 2020). El Kurd is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington and a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Fadi Quran is campaigns director at Avaaz.