Fateh, Hamas, PFLP, DFLP, Jihad Islami – these are some of the names of guerrilla movements that have dominated the Palestinian political scene.
The modern Palestinian liberation movement began with various PLO factions; en route, it picked up Islamic anti-occupation movements. Each of these groupings has a military and a political wing. The public at large is often unable to distinguish between individuals and positions of the military and political wings.
Since the Oslo process unfolded, a number of new, non-militaristic movements have appeared. FIDA was a spinoff of the DFLP and the People’s Party replaced the old Palestinian Communist Party. Palestinian member of parliament Mustafa Barghouthi, who challenged Mahmoud Abbas for the presidency (and gained a respected 20 per cent of the vote), created Al Mubadara (the initiative) movement and Salam Fayyad succeeded in gaining three seats (one for Hanan Ashrawi) in the last parliamentary elections for the Third Party, a now defunct group.
But despite this large number of factions, movements and parties, the general political scene in Palestine seems to be focused on two major groupings: the PLO, led by Fateh, and the Islamists, led by Hamas. No other independent group has shown any serious threat to these two major blocks.
The Arab uprisings and the news on youth, shown most vividly in the over 100 youth groupings on Facebook reflect the possibility of a new, untapped power source: the youth.
Young Palestinians constitute the majority of the population. Even though only those over 18 can vote, this segment of society still represents a major voting block that can make a huge difference if, in fact, it is energised and if its members take the responsibility of voting seriously.
The question that begs to be answered is who will all those thousands of active young people vote for? Will they vote for the traditional movements/parties or create or follow a new movement/party?
Elections are a perfect opportunity to test changes in society. Palestinian municipal elections are slated for July 4, and it is likely that by fall or winter of this year, we will see presidential and parliamentary elections. Such an opportunity can help activists who are keen on flexing their political muscle and showing that they indeed can produce votes and not just empty rhetoric.
In addition to the exhilaration felt by young people in the Arab world, Palestine’s youth have a number of other advantages. The major existing parties have failed to capture the public’s imagination. Fateh and its smaller PLO factions have not shown any substantive changes. Even the holding of the sixth Fateh General Assembly failed to produce any concrete changes in both content and personalities. No new ideas, initiatives or leaders have emerged despite the big promises of a youth-filled new Fateh.
Some argue that no change is possible until the number one leader is no longer around. President Mahmoud Abbas’ public declaration that he will not run for president again has not resulted in any serious frontrunner yet, with the exception of Barghouthi, who is still held by Israel for a possible exchange. His chances of challenging Abbas’ position is dependent on the success of an exchange for Gilad Shalit, unless Israel removes his name from the list of prisoners it will agree to release.
Hamas is not doing much better. In fact, Hamas is expected to do much worse in the coming elections because of its bad record in Gaza. All polls conducted since Hamas’ electoral victory have shown the Islamist movement on a decline, but still holding a steady number of core supporters.
Smaller parties are not expected to show dramatically improved results compared to previous elections.
On the content side, the upcoming nominees for elections, whether individuals or as lists, must come up with programmes that are not focused on the one issue of fighting the occupation. Palestinians are not going to be swayed on this issue for which the armed resistance has suffered since nonviolent protests have not been properly adopted.
The public, and especially the youth, will need to be convinced by a much more comprehensive programme that needs to address some of the issues that have been highlighted by them, such as practical ways to end the split between Gaza and Ramallah.
New programmes must also include a position on social and economic issues. From women’s rights to free enterprise, programmes cannot use flowery language and generalities. They must give the public substantive positions that can be translated into budget allocations, legislative initiatives and practical applications.
If the coming year will witness the birth of the state of Palestine, we need to see from now what kind of state it will be. Programmes that can give concrete answers to this question will undoubtedly do better than generalities.