by Orouba Othman, Al-Akhbar English
The Palestinian left is hostage to the bipolar political division in Palestine. The left has been unable to become a sizeable force compared to other factions, or develop an independent identity in the political equation post-Oslo.
We shed light on the reality of the left in Palestine in light of the dominance of Fatah and Hamas over the political landscape, and the fact that their policy choices of negotiations and resistance respectively, have reached an impasse or a state of uncertainty coupled with limited options.
Gaza – The new generation in the Arab region almost knows no other players in Palestine other than Fatah and Hamas, the two constantly sparring factions, while the name of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad comes to the fore from time to time during Israeli wars and retaliations. Beyond these three names, there is almost no voice for the Palestinian left-wing factions, though they had initiated resistance against Israeli occupation, long before the Islamists.
In light of the dichotomy between Fatah and Hamas, the following equation has been cemented for the past eight years: In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority subsumed Fatah, and subjected the cities of the West Bank to security and economic ‘domestication’. In Gaza, Hamas is suffering from clear confusion as a result of its problematic regional links, after Hamas chose – based on its ideological identity – to align itself with a camp that was recently besieged. This prevented Hamas from reaping any fruits after the recent war, despite the impressive performance of all resistance factions.
Despite the current crisis, left-wing factions of various backgrounds failed to draft new programs and solutions, whether in relation to the struggle and liberation, or services and growing socioeconomic problems. The primary reason for this is that most of these groups were absorbed into the “Oslo regime,” while others have reduced themselves to spawning NGOs after NGOs that abide by the ceiling of donor countries and their conditions, countries that are mostly Western.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the role of the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), in the Gaza war. The Brigades’ operations and rocket units went against the overall decline of the Palestinian left, specially as it follows a dispute at the PLO between the PFLP and the Palestinian Authority/Fatah, with threats to cut off the PLO budget allocations to the group.
The PFLP’s resurgent operational role in the context of resistance against Israel made a ripple in otherwise stagnant waters. But it also raised a number of questions regarding whether it can take advantage of it to conduct a comprehensive review of its military and political approach, and whether it can develop a unified identity since the movement is divided between a pro-Hamas wing and a pro-Palestinian Authority one. Even as the left played a mediation role between Fatah and Hamas recently, it remained largely absent, as the two main factions proceeded to reach reconciliation without consulting other factions.
Factors behind the decline
It would be unfair to say that the decline of the Palestinian left is solely the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are both subjective and objective factors predating and following the Gorbachev era.
Left-wing groups had imported ready-made Soviet, Maoist, and Guevaran theories and projected them on the Palestinian reality without trying to factor in its specific characteristics. Furthermore, their ideological identity often vacillated between Marxist nationalism and communism, as most Palestinian leftist groups had their roots in pan-Arab nationalist movements with the exception of the Palestinian Communist Party (the People’s Party currently), which has its roots in the Syrian Communist Party.
This ideological dilemma produced a sharp split between Palestinian nationalists and communists following the position declared by the Communist International (Comintern) during the Stalinist era regarding the Zionist movement and its endorsement of the partition plan of 1947, while recognizing the state of Israel. Organizational divisions also played a pivotal role in breaking up the unity of leftist forces, especially after the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) split from the Popular Front. This is in addition to the inability of the left-wing movements to pair social struggle and the rigidity of their central organizational structure that created a chasm between the leadership and the popular base.
Adel Samara, writer, explains this further. He said, “The Palestinian left, from the beginning, was exposed to attempts at marginalization through the massive funding of the right-wing to absorb the majority of Palestinian youths, specifically as concerns the PFLP, which was hit by fragmentation due to early defections (Ahmed Zaarour’s group, Ahmed Jibril, the DFLP, and Abu Shihab’s revolutionary front).”
This in turn led to the decline of the left, which had shined in the 1960s and 1970s and staged formidable operations. The decline deepened in the 1980s with the rise of religious sentiment and Islamist forces (Islamic Jihad then Hamas), in addition to major events in the region such as the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, the Iranian revolution, the Gulf wars, and the PLO’s exit from Lebanon.
All the above aggravated division of the Arab region, creating left-wing factions attached to the ruling authorities in the Arab countries that were drawn to the US sphere. It is possible here to place the decline of the Palestinian left in the context of the decline of the Arab left. However, characteristics specific to the Palestinian situation made this decline have a twofold impact for the left-wing factions that are part of the PLO, as the latter became involved in the Lebanese civil war, and as the inflation of its apparatuses pushed it away from the masses. The faction most affected was none other than the PFLP.
The PLO’s position supporting the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait also drove another wedge in the already weakened leftist body. Gulf financial assistance that supported the Palestinian National Fund – of which the left benefited – stopped, something that the Palestinian Authority would use later to blackmail the left.
In this regard, Rabah Muhanna, a member of the PFLP political bureau, says, “Financial assistance is not charity from anyone. It is the right of the PFLP, especially as it is not subordinate to any Arab regime or regional interests.” He adds, “Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat) and Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) used this issue to put pressure [on the PFLP].”
Ever since the first two years of the first intifada, it has been evident that the left’s presence declined greatly. Left-wing factions could not formulate strategies that can dislodge the dominant right-wing ‘comprador’ segments in the PLO. Immediately after the end of Soviet financial and logistical support for the PLO, the Palestinian People’s Party (formerly the Communist Party) changed its name and started wooing Fatah, until it became a carbon copy of the latter seeking to insert itself in every government lineup in Ramallah.
During that intifada, the PFLP was closer to Hamas, but it paid a price for this through stalled financial support from the PLO. After the West Bank and Gaza came under the control of the Palestinian Authority (Oslo 1993), armed left-wing groups were thrown into the prisons of the Palestinian Authority as leftist groups saw the Oslo accords as surrendering the cause. Nevertheless, these groups could not maintain that position for long, and soon joined the Oslo regime and dealt with it as a fait accompli, after which many left-wing figures joined the Palestinian security apparatus in return for privileges, albeit they, on the surface, are in the opposition and ostensibly mediate between Fatah and Hamas.
Not only this, but the left followed in the footsteps of Fatah in running in the legislative election and pumping conditional Western money in its NGOs and bodies, currently saturating the West Bank and Gaza. But the surprise was that Hamas won by a landslide in the 2006 parliamentary election, while leftist forces obtained only 2 percent of the seats because of their alignment with Fatah. These forces did not accept that small proportion, and called at the time for re-running the election based on the proportional system rather than the district-based system.
A year later, the Palestinian split occurred and Hamas took over Gaza, in 2007. Leftist factions sided with Fatah implicitly, and the former Assistant Secretary-General of the PFLP Abdel-Rahim Mallouh blamed Hamas for everything that happened in Gaza.
While the Palestinian Authority pursued the two-state program, which cedes more than 70 percent of historic Palestine to the Occupation, the leftist factions affiliated to Fatah did not form any real bloc to oppose negotiations and security coordination with Israel. Some leftist figures even took part in normalization meetings; for instance, DFLP central committee member Qais Abdel-Karim was present at one of the infamous normalization meetings between President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli students.
Despite the gloomy state of the Palestinian left, there are other voices outside the mainstream, whose positions have cost them in terms of their financial allocations. One example involves MP Khalida Jarrar in the Legislative Council, who pulled out from one of the sessions of the PLO Executive Committee to protest negotiations and corruption at the PLO. At the time, tensions rose dramatically between the PFLP and Mahmoud Abbas, who proceeded to sever ties with the PFLP and suspend its financial allocations.
In parallel, the positions of left-wing youths and students in universities in opposition to the negotiations and the Oslo program have become a real concern for the Palestinian Authority and the leftist groups that support it. Adel Samara, commenting on this, says, “The PFLP has an internal struggle between the revolutionary generation and the right-wing leadership, pushing many to split from the group despite the attempts of the martyred Abu Ali Mustafa to set things straight with the return of some leaders to the West Bank and Gaza – which is something that…George Habash was opposed to.” Samara added, “The revolutionary national and socialist spirit did not die in the PFLP. When there was a chance to return to armed struggle, like in the recent war, the PFLP fighters did their best despite the lack of weapons and cash.”
To return to the issue of participation in the political process, a leftist source who requested anonymity told Al-Akhbar, “True, the PFLP running in the legislative election was an example of ideological weakness, but despite our weakness inside the PLO and outside, we are a source of permanent anxiety for the Palestinian Authority, specially after the seventh national conference, where there were clear signs of strong opposition to the Palestinian Authority’s policies and practices, and of noticeable convergence with Hamas’ positions.”
The source continued, “The People’s Party, for example, has become more right-wing and liberal than Fatah. Its political bureau member Nafez Ghoneim serves as director in one of the Palestinian Authority’s agencies and is paid 8,000 shekels ($2,200) per month for adopting Abbas’ rhetoric and defending the president against left-wing dissidents.” He added, “The Popular Struggle Front, led by former Labor Minister Ahmed al-Majdalani even demanded at a meeting of the Executive Committee to cut salaries and cancel treatment abroad for the people of Gaza to punish them because they did not rise up against Hamas.”
It is no secret that other prominent figures are subjugated using the same tactics. For example, Yasser Abed Rabbo was appointed secretary of the Executive Committee, while Abdul-Rahim Mallouh receives a monthly salary between $ 4,000 and $6,000 and other privileges, as he is accused by some leaders, in return for thwarting decisions made by the PFLP from within in the course of opposing Oslo, Palestinian Authority policies, and seeking to withdraw from the PLO Executive Committee.
Armed struggle: PFLP as a model
Most left-wing factions have laid down their arms, though they were the pioneers of armed resistance from the early 1960s. However, the PFLP’s alignment with the armed resistance was demonstrated clearly in the recent war on Gaza. Years had passed since its attempt to assassinate Israeli Tourism Minister Reham Zeevi (October 17, 2001), but the PFLP was the first to break the truce and respond to the Occupation’s assaults, with al-Quds Brigades (Islamic Jihad), before the outbreak of war.
Rabah Muhanna explains that that the PFLP in the recent round took part in resistance using appropriate tactics commensurate with its limited financial capabilities, saying these need to be expanded as the PFLP has proven it had not abandoned armed resistance. Muhanna recalled that the seventh national conference had stressed the rejection of the Oslo regime, its repercussions, and current political polarization.
Regarding the absence of the left, Muhanna attributes this to the lack of a unified leftist framework with a clear vision versus the bipolarity of Fatah and Hamas as well as other factors. He continued, “As is known, the influential leaders of the left are in the prisons of the occupation. But internal change is happening, albeit slowly.”