The Rise and Fall Of the Palestinian Left

A book by Palestinian writer Jamil Hilal charts the rise and fall of leftist forces in Palestine, and asks what the future holds for them, writes Hazem Balousha.

al-monitor Palestinian youths throw stones during clashes with Israeli security forces near al-Aqsa mosque on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, Oct. 5, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

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palestinian authority, palestinian, plo, leftists, left, hamas, fatah, arab spring

Feb 22, 2013

Leftist and independent Palestinian forces failed to seize a golden opportunity to establish themselves in the Palestinian street during the recent row between Fatah and Hamas. Instead, Palestinian politics has become more entrenched than ever before in the bipartisan party system.

In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, secularist Fatah and Islamist Hamas have managed again to monopolize power politically, financially and on the ground. This stems from the inability of other groups, especially the leftists, to create a movement capable of challenging these two parties’ grasp on power in Palestine.

Former leftist leaders failed in their attempts to form a third power base in Palestine and mobilize public support to become a formidable presence on the ground.

George Giacaman, a lecturer at Birzeit University, said that a third force hasn't emerged in Palestine because of an inability to mobilize the masses, despite the attempts made in this regard by well-known leaders among the Palestinian people. "People are distancing themselves from political parties in Palestine," he said. "Party affiliates are no longer convinced of the effectiveness of the parties and their ability to influence events. Party failures in matters of national importance have led many to leave the parties and other political organizations."

With the absence of verifiable elections it is difficult to determine the level of support for these two parties. Opinion polls from various research centers show that the popularity of both Fatah and Hamas is wavering. According to the polls, only 50 to 60 percent of the population in the two Palestinian communities support the two parties, but they remain far and away the largest political groups in terms of members, participation and influence.

Since the partition of Palestine, the left’s clout in mediation and unification efforts between the rival parties has waned. Its role has become limited to condemning and criticizing, and it no longer pursues initiatives to create a viable alternative to Fatah and Hamas.

Palestinian writer Jamil Hilal said, "The left has not succeeded in presenting itself as the group most willing to heal national division, protect the homeland and address the concerns and advance the interests of the largest swathe of the Palestinian people."

In his book Palestinian Left: Where To?, Hilal reveals that leftist forces have been fixated on appearing neutral in the conflict between the two parties, which has not been well-received by the Palestinian public.

During the 1970s, Palestinian leftists were the most prominent force in Palestinian politics, but their influence began to ebb with the fall of the Soviet Union, which had provided them with political, ideological and financial support. During the latter half of the last century, Fatah managed to absorb much of the leftist current. Not until the present moment had the leftists been able to emerge from under Fatah’s large umbrella of influence, which also encompasses the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

In his book, Hilal says that PLO institutions were the first victims of the Oslo Accords and the subsequent establishment of the Palestinian Authority, which in turn severely stymied leftist influence. This confounded the left and sowed seeds of dissension among its members. Unlike Fatah and Hamas, the left found itself without any media, material or political assets at the regional and international levels.

"Hamas’ efforts to Islamize society were highly successful and met little resistance from the left," Hilal said. "Hamas likewise succeeded in building its popular base of support and military presence, while the Fatah leadership were preoccupied with securing positions of power in the institutions of the Palestinian Authority."

Independent and leftist voting lists were formed during the parliamentary elections of 2006 with a few of the candidates receiving seats in parliament; however, Hamas and Fatah obtained the vast majority of seats.

Following the revolutions of the Arab Spring, youth-led movements emerged that did not conform to the traditional Palestinian political party model. They began operating on the ground, but their fleeting success in rallying Palestinians to take to the streets quickly disappeared.

Through coaxing, intimidation and arbitrary detention, the two parties of partition subverted the emerging youth-led movement, which rallied against the political division of Palestine. The two parties feared the youth-led movement’s burgeoning clout, especially after thousands took to the streets on Mar. 15, 2011, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the largest party-neutral rallies in modern Palestinian history.

Giacaman played down the ability of the youth movements to rise as a third force in Palestine, citing their lack of organized leadership, union support and financial backing — not to mention that Fatah and Hamas would prevent them from operating freely.

Given the frailty of the leftist forces and the failed attempts to create an influential political force in the Palestinian arena, Fatah — with its international backers and resources from the Palestinian Authority — and Hamas — with its Islamist supporters and formidable arsenal of weaponry — are destined to remain the politically and popularly dominant forces in Palestine.

Hazem Balousha is a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza City.

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