Bethlehem is a buzz with security preparations for the Fatah conference on Tuesday. The local people I talked to either were indifferent or were worried about inability to reach school or work or do shopping during the days of the conference. The Fatah people I talked to are unsure of how this will go and what will happen. A big segment of the Fatah cadres who are real resistance fighters from abroad or underground will not be able to attend. It is suspicious that Israel is allowing so many others to enter and even facilitated a few to come from Gaza across the green lines to the consternation of Hamas which wanted Fatah to release its political prisoners from West Bank jails before allowing Fatah officials from Gaza to travel to Bethlehem. Fatah, the biggest and most well financed of the Palestinian factions, is certainly at a crossroads. In the time of Arafat, he managed by his sheer personality and charisma to keep the various political factions and trends together under one umbrella (even those supportive of violent resistance and those against it). When Arafat was president and Abu Mazen was prime minister, they did not get along. Farouk Kaddoumi recently dropped a bombshell by releasing a transcript he claimed showed Abu Mazen at a meeting in which Dahlan and Israeli leaders discussed assassinating Arafat. But rumers and stories of the past aside, the future is far harder to shape.
I have no way of predicting what will happen at the meeting Tuesday. I onoy wish peopel in power believe in the power of ordinary citizens and create more accountable and democratic forums. I had a fantasy that attendees would do what the first conventiuon of Palestinian women did in 1929: go the streets, challenge the occupation and demand self determination. Most of the people I talk to (of various political leansings) believe that this convention will instead likely validate the negotiations track taken during Oslo (many opposed these talks that are not based on human rights and International Law). In the unlikely event that this conference reinvigorates the resistance plank of Fatah, there are implicit and explicit Israeli threats which are taken seriously since Bethlehem and all its visitors are under Israeli brutal military occupation. If the convention tries to straddle the fences and to come up with an arrangement that attempts to satisfy everyone, then it will likely fail. But while Fatah is a core segment of our society, it is not all. And we must remember that Palestine is bigger than any of us. We Palestinians are in Lebanon, in the US, inside Palestine 1948, inside the West Bank, in Gaza, and everywhere. Palestine is in us regardless of political leanings (or even courage). Collectively, we are diverse, dynamic, and able to resurrect hope in the land where it is believed that Jesus was resurrected from the death. It is this larger Palestine that gives us hope.
The original Zionist blueprints are for control of the area between the Euphrates and the Nile. Here we are 130 years later and even the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is roughly at parity between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. 30 years ago, Zionists had convinced most of the world that there was no such thing as Palestinians. Today most of the world and even Zionists themselves recognize that not only are there Palestinians but that indeed there is such a thing as Palestine. The Palestinian flag now flies around Palestine even inside the Green line. But no one denies that we are perhaps at the most dangerous turn since 1948 and history has not decided yet what will transpire. We can shape the future if we believe in ourselves and our people.
I am completing a book on history of civil resistance in Palestine. What is notable is that resistance has been sporadic with periodicity of 10-15 years between uprisings (beginning in 1891) . Further, the biggest challenges came not because of external factors but from within (especially our infighting and drive for dictatorial control). Similarly the biggest successes (and there have been many) were achieved from grass root movements when Palestinians joined hands and worked together (e.g. the beginning of the 1987 uprising). The net of our strengths and weaknesses has overall resulted in stalemate. This is miraculous considering that we were facing perhaps the best organized, best financed, and most ruthless colonization effort in the past three centuries.
We as Palestinians have unique advantages and disadvantages in our struggles for liberation. We must analyze these scientifically and act accordingly. For example we need to leverage the tremendous sympathy and solidarity of people around the world to produce power (e.g. through better managed campaigns of boycotts, divestments and sanctions). And as the geopolitical landscape shifts around us (e.g. due to the failure and shedding of militarism or the mistakes of Israel with Turkey), we do need to take advantage in strengthening our position? In my upcoming book I show by hundreds of examples that we were/are able to seize these opportunities in timely manner when we had/have a dynamic responsive society that can adapt without bureaucracy or dictatorship. For example, this happened when clan relations were shed in favor of political party affiliation or when younger generations took leadership on the ground during the 1987-1991 Intifada.
We Palestinians can indeed shape our future with choices we make everyday even in the context of existing power structures (and those are changing). Neither reckless bravado and useless 1960s rhetoric nor supine begging for endless negotiations will help us at this critical junction. These are times that demand new ways of thinking. Accountability need not mean immediate punishment of those who harmed or profited from our cause but as a minimum unleashing new blood to take new initiatives unencumbered by old baggage. We would do well (at the Fatah Convention or outside) to begin by working with younger and newly empowered generations on such ideas as one state for all its people (the original PLO consensus) or at least the Civil Society Call to Action of 2005. It won't be easy but our history has not been easy. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote (and thsi is applicable to all of us including those who will attend teh convention Tuesday): "Cowardice asks the question - is it safe? Expediency asks the question - is it politic? Vanity asks the question - is it popular? But conscience asks the question - is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right."
Those of you who would like to visit us in the Bethlehem are most welcome. Despite all, it is still the city of the prince of peace. And our change for peace begins with ourselves as individuals and communities.