Palestine’s disastrous political leadership

By Lorenzo

I recently read Mark S. Weiner’s The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom. I heartily recommend the book, which includes various case studies–the comparison of the largely contemporaneous consolidation of state power against claims of kin, clan and lineage in Anglo-Saxon England with Arabia under Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphs was particularly striking. Though Weiner seems to have largely missed the role of the Catholic Church’s family revolution (such as banning cousin marriage) in the fading of clan in Latin Christendom.

One of Weiner’s case studies is Palestine where, once again, we learn what a disaster Yasser Arafat was. Because Western colonial authorities came from liberal (in the broad sense) societies where clans were things of the distant past, their rule often had unfortunate effects on existing clan structures. (Though Afghanistan shows that the lack of colonial rule hardly improve matters.) Either way, the 2004 Arab Human Development Report (pdf) identifies “clannism” as both a problem and a response to weak states. As in the rest of the Arab world, Weiner notes that:

Traditionally, social and political power among Palestinians has been rooted in systems of lineage. These kinship systems include not only those of nomadic Bedouin tribesmen and the elite families who served as intermediaries between the Palestinian population and government administrators under the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate, but also hundreds of extended family groups of hamula, tracing their patrilineal descent to a common ancestor (loc 1342).

Such hamula:

… continue to play an important part in Palestinian politics and the administration of justice.

In particular, clans possess their own tribunals for resolving disputes within their lineage groups, and they abide by time-honored practices for reaching reconciliation and renewal  (islah) between disputing groups under recognised principles of customary law (‘urn). They also observe a strict code of honour (mithaq al-sharaf) that requires members to take revenge (tha’r) against those who have injured their kin (loc 1342).

As Weiner points out:

The viability of a free and independent Palestinian state will depend not only on Israeli political will, but also whether these traditional systems of justice can be replaced with state institutions under democratic public control (loc 1355).

The first Intifada (1987-93) pushed Palestine in the direction of state building:

… it gave rise to a new generation of leaders known as the intifada elite, university-educated activists committed not to the interests of their kin groups but to the principles of nationalism. The intifada elite sought to advance the cause of Palestinian independent by developing the institutional structures of government and civil society. Their deep, grassroots connections gave them the authority and legitimacy to construct a modern, albeit revolutionary, state (loc 1355).

But then Arafat returned from his Tunisian exile in 1994, in the wake of the Oslo Accords. Anyone familiar with the history of the Palestinians as, in Abba Eban’s words, the people who “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” can guess what happens next:

To bolster his own power, Arafat undermined the institutions forged by the intifada elite and strengthened the power of the clans, which he could control directly through patronage (loc 1355).

Including an election law which, in the words of one scholar:

produced what is was designed to produce: a parliament of clan leaders, largely pliant to the wishes of Arafat and his cabinet (loc 1368).

The second Intifada (2000-2005) (including the Israeli response) then largely completed the process with the result that, as Weiner writes:

… clans now pose a major obstacle to practical institution builders seeking to establish the rule of law in the Palestinian Authority (loc 1368).

A problem that extends to Gaza:

The obstacle has been as vexing to the Islamists of Hamas in Gaza as it has been to the nationalists of Fatah in the West Bank. Although Islam has historically accommodated clan groups, at its heart it sets religious identity against tribal loyalty. Hamas is philosophically committed to this anticlan ideology, which regularly brings it into violent conflict with powerful Gazan families (loc 1382).

Choosing violence and hatred

But both Arafat and Hamas found conflict much easier than peace-building. Especially as it is such an excellent revenue source: the Hamas leadership appears to have become seriously wealthy from its anti-Zionist intransigence.

But choosing violence and hatred because it offers easier political returns goes back to the origins of the Palestinian “struggle”. When Jewish settlers first started coming to Palestine at the time of the Ottoman Empire, they brought capital (physical, financial, human), raising local wages and expanding economic activity. Which then attracted migrants from other areas of the Middle East. (A proportion of Palestinians are also descendants of settlers: hence the UN definition of a Palestinian refugee only requires residence in Mandatory Palestine from 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948.)

Jewish settlers 1880s

The existing Palestinian elite had a choice: come to some mutually beneficial arrangement with the new settlers (Palestine was hardly crowded at the time) or play the ethno-religious hatred game. Some of the Palestinian elite was willing to do the former, even if it was just selling land to the newcomers.

Enter the new Grand Mufti (1921-1937) of Jerusalem, Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini. Already implicated in anti-Jewish violence, he propagated an Arab nationalism that excluded the Jews–yet Jews had been residents of the region longer than Arabs. Hatred and violence pushed the Jews towards creating their own institutions, while defining a new Palestinian identity against Jews. Zionism was based on the principle that Jews were not safe in Europe (which turned out to be true), el-Husseini’s approach made state-Zionism seem an increasingly necessary refuge in the Middle East as well. The 1929 Riots and even more the 1936-39 Arab Revolt further accelerated both processes.

Husseini saluting Muslim Waffen SS

Fleeing a British arrest warrant, el-Husseini ended up in Nazi Germany, actively supporting the Nazi war effort and a policy of expelling all Jews from Muslim countries (including Palestine). His continuing policy of no-compromise and no-place-for-Jews failed to build effective Palestinian institutions but greatly helped motivate the creation of Jewish ones. Culminating in the creation of Israel, the 1947-48 Israeli War of Independence and the fleeing or expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians (events known to Palestinians as the nabka, the catastrophe). It was record of utter disaster, which lost el-Husseini any credible leadership but never seems to have led to serious reconsideration among Palestinians–it was all the Jews’ fault. His post-nabka All-Palestine Government was a shadow, lasting as long as it was convenient to Egypt and no longer.

Arafat’s disastrous choices

In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed. By 1969, Arafat became Chairman, a position he held until his death in November 2004. His only real achievement was survival. The War of Attrition (1967-1970) led Arafat’s PLO to disastrous conflict with Jordan. Fleeing to Lebanon, the Palestinian military presence helped destabilise the weak Lebanese state, leading to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Once again, the PLO was driven out, this time to Tunisia in 1982.

Arafat at the UN 1974

The adoption of the PLO’s Ten Point Program neither reassured the Israelis that negotiations could be serious nor united Palestinians, since the Rejectionist Front objected to any implied recognition of Israel. Based in Tunisia, Arafat was far from Palestine and seemed increasingly irrelevant.

Arafat was rescued by the First Intifada, which he seems to had nothing to do with. He negotiated the Oslo Accords, which allowed him to return to Palestine and proceeded, as noted above, to undo the best hope for an effective Palestinian state. Confronted with the consequences of sacrificing state-building for his own personal power, and his own inability to agree to any plausible peace deal with Israel, Arafat unleashed the Second Intifada which, as with all Arafat’s resorts to violence, led to dead Palestinians (and rather fewer dead Israelis) and the Palestinian cause (yet again) going backwards, since it (including the Israeli responses) largely completed the process of reversing the building of effective Palestinian institutions.

Having rejected Israeli Premier Ehud Barak’s peace offer without making any serious counter-offer of his own, it is no wonder that it became bipartisan US policy to wait for Arafat to die. Said death (November 2004) finally allowing the Second Intifada to end.

And so it continues

With an effective Palestinian state even further away, and Arafat’s politics of patronage and corruption having rotted away Fatah‘s credibility, the openly genocidal Hamas decisively won the 2006 Palestinian elections. Which led to the further division of Palestine between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Fatah-dominated West Bank. With Hamas continuing the Arafat strategy of disastrous “victories”.

A case can be made that the Palestinians have disastrous political leadership because they get the leadership they deserve. (In the words of a prominent Egyptian historian “they don’t want to resolve their own problems”.) But that same leadership either tolerates or approves religious preaching and educational materials that make it that much harder to reach any sort of agreement with Israel–both because it makes Israelis all that much more suspicious and fosters revanchist delusions among Palestinians.  Including making the Palestinian right of return an apparently untouchable totem of Palestinian politics while also clearly a terminal block to any peace agreement. Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, declared that:

… it’s better [that Palestinians] die in Syria than give up their right of return.

Yet the current spectacle of ethnic, clan and other mayhem and massacre in Libya, Syria and Iraq (and the fragility of Lebanon) provides a daily grim spectacle of why Israeli Jews would be mad to agree to any state where they became the minority. That even without the memory of what happened to Jewish minorities in the rest of the Middle East.

Yazidi refugees

By contrast with the disastrous record of Palestinian political leadership, the open, argumentative, democratic politics of Israel have been much more successful at, well, just about everything. Including absorbing hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim country, when it has clearly been Arab policy to leave Palestinians as stateless sticks to beat Israel with. A policy the UN and EU have facilitated in various ways. (For example, Palestinians are the UN’s only hereditary refugees.)

Nothing Hamas ever does, and little Fatah ever does, seemed to be seriously aimed in any way at convincing the Israeli electorate that a peace agreement can be had. By contrast, Nelson Mandela never seems to have lost sight of the fact that South African whites would have to be included in any final settlement. Mandela grasped that true victory was when the whites were no longer the enemy: there is no sign that the Palestinian leadership has ever even remotely grasped that. That contrast says all one has to say about the disastrous Palestinian leadership.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. I am and will always
    Posted June 4, 2015 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I don’t disagree with a ot here but you miss out Israel deliberately not allowing Hamas to be a government. No chance of Hamas ding an IRA therefore so the moderate faction lost out to the murdering faction.

    I would be interested in your opinion on why Israel was so keen on wanting the murdering faction to keep control of Hamas.

  2. Posted June 4, 2015 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] (1) Israel was hardly the dominant player in the Hamas-Fatah conflict. (2) What moderate faction?

  3. I am and will always
    Posted June 4, 2015 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Israel never allowed Hamas to be the legitimate Government even after fair elections.
    Hamas were their creation.It isn’t just the Palestinians who prefer conflict,

    The moderate faction that preferred government to conflict. it was there.

  4. Posted June 4, 2015 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Hamas became the Palestinian Authority Government: that Israel refused to negotiate is a different issue.

    Yes, the Israelis did previously foster Hamas as a rival to Fatah: that was divide and rule rather than active promotion of conflict.

    Since Hamas seems to be “divided” between conflict now and possible 10 year truce for conflict later, I again ask, what moderate faction?

  5. I am and will always
    Posted June 5, 2015 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    firstly the Israeli secret service created Hamas .They did not foster it. It was created as a moderate force to Fatah. Highly ironic.

    I again state when Hamas won Government there was a chance the moderates would take charge via the political process alah IRA in northern Ireland albeit with a long time line. Israel chose conflict as they always do.
    Hamas and Fatah can be justly criticised for doing the same. ( The Amnesty International report is highly pertinent here.)
    Why is Israel beyond criticism.

    They cannot be harmed after all by either party or any country in the vicinity

  6. Posted June 6, 2015 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Assertion is not evidence.

    And of course Israel’s policy is not beyond criticism; it is just that Palestinian politics could do with more sceptical scrutiny.

  7. I am and will always
    Posted June 8, 2015 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    yes you are asserting and I am providing evidence! So?

    I am not disagreeing with you indeed the Amnesty International report is quite damning in this respect.

  8. Posted June 10, 2015 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Actually, you haven’t provided any evidence.

    Hamas was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Israel has signed various agreements with Egypt, the Palestinians; so it hardly always chooses conflict.

  9. I am and will always
    Posted June 11, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Provide what evidence
    Hams came out of the Israeli secret service trying to provide a ‘moderate ‘ answer to Fatah.

    It wasn’t an offshoot it was aligned. two vastly different things. Indeed when in government the Muslim Brotherhood were hardly cohesive with Hamas!

    If Israel had at least recognised Hamas as the Palestinian government we would be somewhere different now. As it is the Hamas military pretends to is harming Israeli and the Israeli Government pretends it is as well.

  10. Posted June 13, 2015 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] You keep saying Hamas was created by the Israeli secret service, but saying that is not evidence, of which you have cited none.

    As for Israeli recognition changing Hamas policy, there is also no evidence for that, and a lot of evidence against it (starting with the Hamas Covenant).

  11. I am and will always
    Posted June 13, 2015 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry I have never found anyone querying. it is like stating Hitler wasn’t aggressive in foreign policy.

    you are the only person who has ever queried it.
    not even israel denies it!

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