Arab states once created the PLO. Its successor could be shaped at the Manama summit.

With millions of Palestinians under threat from the far-right Israeli government, now is not the time to disagree on representation. Arab states need to step in, just like they did before.

Bahrain King’s Representative for Humanitarian Work and Youth Affairs, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa receives Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas upon his arrival to attend the 33rd Arab Summit, in Manama, Bahrain, May 15, 2024
Bahrain King’s Representative for Humanitarian Work and Youth Affairs, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa receives Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas upon his arrival to attend the 33rd Arab Summit, in Manama, Bahrain, May 15, 2024

Arab states once created the PLO. Its successor could be shaped at the Manama summit.

Whenever and however the war ends in Gaza, it will never be the same again. For this small coastal strip of land measuring just 41km long and 12km wide, profound change is on its way. Conversations are currently taking place as to what that change looks like.

The end shape has not yet emerged, but the big international powers and Arab states will all have their thoughts, and most will be involved in the talks. Yet this is not just about Gaza. It is about the future of Palestinian representation.

At stake is the trajectory of the Palestinian national movement, the structure of any Palestinian political-national entity, and ultimately, the lives of millions, including more than two million living hand-to-mouth in this battered enclave.

For Palestine, its people, and its politics, this is a critical juncture. The summit of the Arab League in Bahrain today (16 May) could help define that post-war framework for millions of Palestinians who are today profoundly vulnerable.

Unrepresented and alone

In Gaza, the devastation is unprecedented. Most buildings have been razed, cultural heritage has been decimated, and 3% of the population has been killed. The scale of the destruction is overwhelming.

Homes are gone, jobs are no more, prospects are pipe dreams, and essential resources are hard to come by, yet the nightmare is not yet over as the Israelis push on into Rafah despite their allies urging them not to.

REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Palestinians travel in an animal-drawn cart as they flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of Rafah on May 9, 2024.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been displaced multiple times within Gaza, but in the Occupied West Bank, Palestinians also face significant threats from armed settlers, who increasingly act like an ideological militia operating with state backing.

Israel’s interactions with the Arab world are now a factor in what happens next, in part because several Arab states have made their peace with Tel Aviv, while others want to. This could help with any new Palestinian framework that is put together.

Palestinians who live within Israel—often referred to as the ‘1948 Palestinians’—are recognised as Israeli citizens, but their rights are coming under attack from the radical policies of Israel’s extreme nationalist and religious right-wing government.

Over the past few months, it has become clear that Israel’s government is using the Hamas attacks of 7 October as a pretext to subjugate the Palestinian people from the river to the sea, imposing its hegemony over them once and for all.

Israel’s far-right ministers see an opportunity to completely deconstruct the very concept of a Palestinian state, further, divide the Occupied West Bank from Gaza and Occupied East Jerusalem, and undo the last remnants of the Oslo Accords from 1993.

Israel's far-right ministers see an opportunity to completely deconstruct the very concept of a Palestinian state.

Considering the options

Palestinian political entities are now working in a completely different environment, given that Hamas, as both a movement and an authority, has had its structure, status, and authority badly damaged. What it looks like in the future remains to be seen, but most Arab and international actors do not want to see it anywhere near the forefront of Palestinian politics.

Unfortunately, the alternatives do not look appealing. The credibility and popularity of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have all been greatly diminished. For the Palestinians who do not earn a living through them, few have any faith or trust in them, yet these groups need to quickly rehabilitate themselves and adapt to the post-war reality if they are to avoid creating a political vacuum in Palestine.

Read more: PA rule in Gaza is the most realistic way forward

Among the rare points of agreement between all parties when considering the future is the need to prevent Israel from deepening its involvement in the Gaza Strip, curbing any aspirations to re-occupy it under the guise of removing Hamas. The latest idea is to form a technocratic Palestinian government based on outlines suggested by international and Arab leaders, yet it is not clear whether such a body operating to such parameters would have the support of Palestinians.

Credibility and legitimacy

Representing the Palestinian people to the international community has been a challenge for decades. Only in the mid-1970s was it successfully addressed, with both Arab and wider international recognition of the PLO. Today, there is the same age-old problem, but the urgency to resolve it is now far greater.

The lesson many draw from the PLO recognition is that alignment with Arab and international actors is important, with legitimacy conferred by the endorsement of a Palestinian state within the territories occupied in 1967. To establish credible representation today, any political body or movement needs both popular legitimacy as well as wider international recognition. In other words, it needs to be seen as valid both domestically and abroad.

Among the rare points of agreement between all parties is the need to curb Israel from re-occupying Gaza.

Gaining clarity on the political and geographical boundaries of any future Palestine is fraught, yet it is now more important than it was even in the mid-1970s. Although agreement will be difficult, continued political division and feuding among representatives will make it virtually impossible for Arab and international actors to coalesce behind one strategy and work towards the goal of a Palestinian state.

Part of the problem is that the Palestinian national movement was transformed by Oslo into an authority under occupation from their origins as liberation groups. The PLO's role in the PA has marginalised it among some Palestinians, diminishing it as a unifying force despite its claims to represent the wider cause.

Outsourcing independence

Furthermore, within the post-Oslo structure, the Palestinian national movement has effectively recognised Israel's security, economic, and administrative control over Palestinians "from the river to the sea". Israel can, therefore, more easily separate the West Bank and Gaza, either by attempting to impose Israeli administration on the Strip (with or without direct occupation) or by advocating for the establishment of a government that does its bidding.

After decades of seeking independence, Palestinian legitimacy has become entangled in external interventions, so the political movement has become marginalised, lacking both ambition and legitimacy, whether popular or constitutional.  The Palestinian Authority is now very weak in the West Bank (its supposed stronghold) and completely absent from Gaza, which has been rendered uninhabitable and where the people lack shelter, safety, services, infrastructure, and jobs.

A view of the massive destruction in Gaza.

Despite the slogans, desires, and claims, Palestinians are still subject to the policies, priorities, and interests of regional and international parties. They lack leadership, a clear idea of their territory, and any route to independence.  Palestinian society has become fragmented and dependent on foreigners for aid, and Palestinian politics has been marginalised and weakened.

That, in no small part, is by Israeli design. After all, it is contrary to Israeli interests for the Palestinians to find a unified political voice, one that makes clear—and argues credibly for—the national aspirations of its people.

Historic Arab involvement

As delegates make their way to the 33rd Arab Summit in Manama, some may consider that Arab involvement in Palestinian political representation dates back to the Arab Summit Conference in Anshas, Egypt, in May 1945. Here, an agreement was reached to form an entity—later named the Arab Supreme Commission—to represent and speak for Palestinians. It was officially announced at an Arab League conference in Bloudan, Syria, in June 1946.

Notably, this body was not established by the divided Palestinian factions of the day (including Al-Arabi, Defence, Independence, Reform, National Bloc, and Al-Dhabab) but rather through Arab intervention and pressure.

The context was intensifying disagreements after the 1936-39 revolution, in particular, between the Husseini (led by Haj Amin al-Husseini of the Arab Higher Committee, also known as the Arab Party), the Nashashibi (led by Ragheb al-Nashashibi of the Higher Arab Committee), and the Defence Party factions.

In July 1948, the League of Arab States declared a civil administration in Palestine, without the approval of the Palestinian leadership of the day (the Arab Higher Committee). This administration only lasted a matter of weeks.

Two months later, in September 1948, and again with Arab backing, the All-Palestine Government was formed following a National Conference held in Gaza. The was also short-lived due to disagreements among Arab governments and its inability to function effectively within the West Bank (annexed to Jordan) and Gaza Strip (under Egyptian administration).

Palestinian politics has been marginalised and weakened by Israeli design so that they don't have a unified voice.

Creating a representative

The PLO was established in June 1964 by a decision of the first Arab Summit Conference, in East Jerusalem, with Egypt playing a big role in forming its first executive committee. At the second Arab Summit Conference, in Alexandria in September 1964, its military wing (the Palestine Liberation Army) was announced.

Three years later, Cairo facilitated a leadership transition after the defeat by Israel in the war of June 1967, from Ahmed Al-Shukeiri (a lawyer and diplomat from the Arab Higher Committee) to the militant factions led by Yasser Arafat and his Fatah movement.

At the Rabat Summit in 1974, the PLO was further established, as delegated recognised it as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In the annex to the Charter of the League of Arab Nations (1945), a clause states that "in view of the special circumstances of Palestine, and until such time as this country shall enjoy de facto exercise of independence, the League Council shall take upon itself the responsibility of selecting an Arab delegate from Palestine to participate in its proceedings".

A year later, in March 1946, the League confirmed that "choosing delegates for Palestine is the right of the Council alone". This conferred a kind guardianship of Palestinian representation by the League, whether on paper or in practice.

Wider Arab backing from this established international diplomatic system remains a critical source of legitimacy for the Palestinian national movement and its political entity. It underscores the idea that choices over settlement, liberation, negotiation, resistance, and armed struggle are not exclusively Palestinian decisions.

Any credible Palestinian representation does not just need Arab input but also wider international acceptance. Indeed, as Palestinian political entities become weaker and more vulnerable, their need for external legitimacy only grows. Paradoxically, for any would-be Palestinian leaders, it becomes more important to win external support than it is to win the support of their own people.

Somewhere between the slogans and the reality, there is a line along which only the skilful dare walk.

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