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By Dr. Mohsen M Saleh:

Historically, the legitimate representation of the Palestinian people was partial, suspended or invaded. In most cases it could not – and was not allowed – to express itself in a democratic manner. Moreover, it was not permitted to take a legitimate path because of the occupation, massive Palestinian Diaspora and / or the policies and behavior of Arab and western regimes.

Besides, the Palestinian leadership bears a huge responsibility because of its failure to develop and / or to respect the democratic institutions, which it intentionally marginalized or suspended.

The period 1917 – 1948

The first representative body of the Palestinian people was the Arab – Palestinian Congress, which held seven sessions during the period 1919 – 1928. Since the Palestinians were then subjected to colonial rule and deprived of their political rights, this national body was tantamount to a quasi parliament that roots the higher “executive committee”. The latter represented politically the Palestinian peoples.

Musa Kazim al-Husayni, the President of the “executive committee” had become the acknowledged leader of the national Palestinian movement until his death in 1934. Though this leadership was almost unanimously accepted, the intra-family disputes, particularly between the Husayni-yyah and Nashashibi-yyah that continued until the 1948 war, weakened it and inflicted on the more general national project.

Palestinian political parties emerged as early as 1932, of which the first was the independent party that was followed by others like the Nashashibi-yyah Defence party and the Arab party. However, on the death of Musa Kazim, the Arab Congress had effectively vanished, and the rival political parties superseded in the leadership of the Palestinian national movement.

On the outbreak of the grand Palestinian revolution in 1936, the Arab parties formed in 25 April 1936 “the Supreme Arab Committee” under the presidency of al-Haj Amin al-Husayni, who came to the forefront and openly assumed the direct leadership of the national struggle.

Being the spokesman of the Palestinian national aspirations, this Committee supported the revolution but at a very high cost, namely the migration of al-Haj Amin to Lebanon, and the exile of a number of its members to Seychelles Islands.

Following the Second World War, to be exact on 11th June 1946, the Palestinians reorganized themselves in the “Arab higher committee” under the presidency of al-Haj Amin al-Husayni. This committee commanded massive popular support and was recognized by the Arab states as the representative of the Palestinian peoples.

But this committee was unable to perform to meet the demanding task of that critical period inside Palestine, as the British colonial authorities refused to allow a number of its leaders to enter Palestine, especially al-Haj Amin himself.

Besides, the committee and its leader had their own problems with Arab regimes, especially those of Jordan and Iraq, which, on their part, imposed their will on the committee and bypassed and ignored its leadership on the pretext that the Palestinian issue and the entire liberation of Palestine is a collective Arab responsibility.

Even after their entry in Palestine in May 1948, the Arab armies denied al-Haj Amin entry in the country or presence in the places that they controlled. Hence, al-Haj Amin and his colleagues were unable to assume the organization and leadership of the Palestinian peoples in the liberated areas; the Arab armies had even disarmed the Palestinian fighters and peoples.

Meanwhile, the Arab higher committee decided to form a Palestinian government to fill the vacuum that resulted from the withdrawal of Britain from Palestine. Throughout the period from March to mid May 1948, the committee tried to convince Arab governments to endorse this project, but to no avail.

However, in 23 September 1948, the committee declared in Gaza “the government of all Palestine” under the presidency Ahmed Hilmi Abdul Baqi, which was recognized by all Arab governments except that of Jordan.

To demonstrate its legitimacy, the “government of all Palestine” convened in Gaza in October 1948 a national Palestinian council under the presidency of al-Haj Amin al-Husayni. Attended by many prominent Palestinian personalities, this council announced the legitimacy of the government as well as the independence of Palestine.

The Annexation of the West Bank to Jordan

Conversely, the Jordanian King Abdullah claimed to be the representative of the Palestinian peoples. Hence, on his initiative, a counter congress was held in 1st October, 1948 in Amman, whichrefused the decision of Gaza’s Congress to be the spokesman of the Palestinian peoples.

Though the position of Jordan was widely opposed by official and popular Arab and Palestinian quarters, the fact that the Jordanian forces were in control of what remains of Palestine, namely the West Bank, rendered the government of all Palestine ineffective, even crippled. The West Bank was finally united with east Jordan in April 1950.

Gaza Strip under the Egyptian Aministration

To block the attempt of the government of all Palestine to exercise authority on Gaza, the Egyptian authorities forcefully transferred al-Haj Amin al-Husayni to Cairo, and subsequently compelled the president and the members of the government of all Palestine to move to Egypt. Hence, Gaza was placed under direct Egyptian administration.

Meanwhile, the government of all Palestine remained in Egypt, and was thus unable to exercise its functions, particularly in the political arena. al-Haj Amin was placed under strict surveillance that deprived him the right of movement and travel.

Eventually, the government of all Palestine became a mere figurehead, and Haj Amin moved in 1958 from Cairo to Lebanon. Practically, the role of the Higher Arab Committee ended by the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)

When considering in its 40th session of 1963 the appointment of a Palestinian representative in the Arab League, the organization totally ignored the view of the Higher Arab Committee and the government of all Palestine. It directly appointed Ahmed al-Shuqairi, who was actively supported to this post by Jamal Abdul Nasser.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian arena was actively engaged in forming various organizations to strive towards the liberation of Palestine, of which the most prominent was Fatah, the Arab regimes were seriously concerned by their loss of control over the Palestinian issue. Hence, during the first Arab summit of 13th January1964, they decided to form a Palestinian entity that voices the will of the Palestinian peoples.

Taking advantage of the Egyptian support and the enthusiasm of the Palestinians to have their own entity, Ahmed al-Shuqairi held a general Palestinian congress in Jerusalem during the period 28th May – 2nd June 1964. Known as the first national council, this institution declared the formation of the “Palestinian Liberation Organization” under the presidency of al-Shuqairi. Hence, the PLO became the representative of the Palestinian national aspirations.

However, by the formation of the PLO, the “controversy” on who has right to represent the Palestinians had once more emerged. This issue was particularly so sensitive to Jordan that al-Shuqairi was obliged to repeatedly allay the concerns of King Hussein by assuring him that the PLO will concentrate on the Liberation of the land “west” of the West bank, i.e. the 1948 occupied Palestine.

Meanwhile, Fatah and other fedayeen organizations viewed the P.L.O. with considerable doubt and suspicion. They considered it as an outcome of Arab weakness and disarray, and were concerned that it becomes a mechanism for imposing the dominance of the Arab regimes on the Palestinian issue. Thus, these organizations did not amalgamate or participate in the PLO, except for Fatah, which in the pretext of having an access to the deliberations and activities of the national council, had unilateral but symbolic representation in this body.

Fatah’s dominance over the PLO

The catastrophic war of June 1967 was indeed a watershed in the history of the Palestinian liberation struggle, for it led to the loss of the rest of Palestine (West Bank and Gaza Strip), revealed the Arab weakness and convinced the Palestinians that they should take up the initiative and get rid of Arab dominance and paternalism. 

The Arab regimes were compelled to reluctantly allow the military operations of the Palestinian fedayeen in order to air the peoples’ massive frustration and fury, which, they hoped, would be channeled away from them towards the Zionist enemy

Fatah and most of the resistance movements joined the PLO. Fatah specifically has dominated over the organization’s executive committee and leadership since the fifth national council, held in Cairo in February 1969. Yasser Arafat had since then became the Chairman of the P.L.O.

Fatah and the leadership of the PLO strove to maintain “the independent Palestinian decision”, but this was at a high cost and versus enormous internal, Arab and international predicaments. However, the PLO managed to extract from the Rabat (Morocco) Arab summit of October 1974 recognition that it be the sole legitimate representative of the peoples. A month later, the PLO  also managed to be a supervisory member of the United Nations.

The unilateral declaration of the PLO in November 1948 of the independence of Palestine was recognized by more than 120 states, and the offices of the PLO in many of them were elevated to embassies, though, in reality, there was no Palestinian state on the ground.

Arab regimes and the United Nations still recognize the right of the PLO to represent the Palestinians. But the capacity of the Organization to do so is, indeed, quite relative because of many practical problems that it often faces amongst which include the following:

1. The inability of the PLO to exercise legitimacy over the Palestinian lands because of the occupation, the enormous Palestinian Diaspora and the many predicaments placed by the Arab regimes and the international community.

2. The inability of the PLO to form a democratically elected and widely representative Palestinian council because the Arab countries prohibited this exercise. Besides is the long ineffectiveness of the existing council and the failure of the Organization to elect a successor and an executive committee. This means that these long existing organs continued to have no legitimacy for a long time.

3. The existence of a number of Palestinian resistance movements acting as satellite to some Arab regimes. Being so, their relationship with the PLO had inevitably fluctuated from one extreme to the other in accordance with the interests and wishes of their mentors or masters. Amongst those movements were “al-Sa‘iqah” and the “Arab Liberation Front” that were correspondingly affiliated with the Syrian Ba‘th party and its Iraqi counterpart.

4. The emergence of widely popular Palestinian Islamic forces, like Hamas and al-Jihad al-Islami, whichrefused to join the ranks of the PLO unless and until it re-structure itself on new basis.   

5. The grave loss of the important PLO bases in Jordan and Lebanon, the former after the 1970 – 1971 events in Jordan and the latter following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Besides is the weakness of the capacity of the PLO to interact with the daily life of the Palestinians in the Diaspora.

6. The authoritative style of the leadership of the “Chairman” and the concentration of power in his hands crippled the institutions of the PLO and rendered them largely ineffective. Hence, the Organization has become void in content and message.

7. The acceptance by the PLO of the peace path and its signature of Oslo agreements of 1993 led to a serious schism in the Palestinian street, of which large sectors came to the conclusion that the PLO does no more represent their concerns and ambitious.

8. The formation of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip eroded the power of the PLO, particularly so as the former gained a measure of representation through the legislative elections of 1996 and 2006 and the presidential elections of 1996 and 2005, in which the Palestinian people exercised for the first time political electoral rights. Thus, power had since been focused in the self-governing authority, which, consequently, marginalized the PLO and greatly weakened its institutions. In effect, the PLO was, so to speak, placed in the “intensive care unit”, and its role was reduced to a rubber-stamp of treaties and measures undertaken solely by the leaderships of the Authority and the PLO.

The accumulated negative performance of the Palestinian legitimate leadership led to dominance and monopoly of power by a single Palestinian faction, which, simultaneously, weakened and marginalized the legitimate Palestinian institution itself.

The leadership of this faction was no longer able or willing to descend from the “top of the tree”. This engendered internal congestion which was particularly reflected in the failure of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO to understand and accommodate the ascendancy of Hamas and its victory in the general elections, and, consequently, to try to fail and overthrow its government.

Notwithstanding the abundant fuss to reform the PLO and the March 2005 Cairo agreement in this respect, no serious effort had been taken in this direction, which had profoundly discredited the Organization in the eyes of many Palestinians and others.

The conflict between Fatah and Hamas on who is eligible to administer the Palestinian Authority is one of the tragic factors that delayed and invaded the Palestinian “legitimacy”, for which all the Palestinian sides are basically responsible.

Before advising others to stop invading or monopolizing the Palestinian legitimacy, the leaders of the Palestinian factions themselves should, first and foremost, do so. They should, moreover, advocate and exercise practical measures that would establish a real and effective legitimacy that would be up to the formidable challenge of performing its duty towards the liberation project.

This article is a translation of the arabic article published by Dr. Mohsen Moh’d Saleh on Aljazeera.Net on 18-10-2008