Highs and lows of Palestinian exceptionalism


On April 22, Israeli forces entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem and injured roughly 30 Palestinians. The Palestinians had been throwing stones at the Israeli police. The police say the Palestinians caused a fire in the compound by throwing fireworks around. The Palestinians blame the police for the fire, alleging that they set a tree alight.

It’s an all-too familiar narrative and it’s a shame it continues pretty much unchanged in 2022.

This is the dismal context in which it is pertinent to look at how the Palestinian national movement developed. The point is, if it once rode high, it could do so again.

Here is a crystallisation of some of the issues explored:

The Palestinian national movement was once defined by Yasser Arafat and his idea of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Equally, Arafat’s PLO marked the high point of Palestinian distinctiveness.

As Haifa University’s Professor As’ad Ghanem has noted, the Six-Day War (in July 1967) proved pretty decisive for Palestinians because it  “undermined the status of the Arab regimes”. Armed fighters for Palestinian rights started to garner more support than before and in 1969, the five-year-old PLO made a great leap forward.

Read more here: The PLO broadens, deepens and becomes truly representative

In February 1969, the Palestinian national movement took two decisive steps:

It emphasized Palestinian distinctiveness “as part of the Arab nation.”

And it elected Fatah spokesman Yasser Arafat as chairman of the PLO’s executive committee.

Support for the PLO was high because it was seen as a broad structure that enfolded distinct groups within.

Read more here: Arafat’s PLO and the high point of Palestinian distinctiveness

Arafat remained PLO chairman until his death on November 11, 2004. He made the PLO and the Palestinian national movement what it was and then, what it was not.

It led the “Palestinian revolution” and the struggle for self-determination but it wasn’t pragmatic enough to manoevre the Palestinians into statehood, howsoever inadequate. This has caused the PLO to become more of an irrelevance than anyone might have expected back in 1969 when Arafat was elected chairman and Palestinian exceptionalism fired up self-belief.

Read more here: Arafat and Palestinian exceptionalism

As the situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories deteriorates, it’s worth noting the distance the PLO has travelled from that heady moment in January 1964 when an Arab summit authorised its creation.

In February 2022, for instance, hardly anyone noticed that a shrunken PLO was holding a rare meeting of its 124-member Central Committee. Key vacancies were filled with people loyal to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Several groups boycotted the event altogether and many Palestinians expressed indifference to the goings-on within the PLO.

As Ghassan Khatib, a political scientist at Birzeit University on the West Bank, has noted, there are “very significant questions about the legitimacy” of the PLO.

It does seem as if the PLO, once the catalyst and the driver of the Palestinian national movement, is nearly dead. What comes to replace it is yet to be determined.

Read more here: The PLO’s situation is darker but that doesn’t represent Palestinian prospects