By Dawoud Abu Lebdeh
It’s been over a year since the start of a wave of revolutions that brought down the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, one after another. In Syria dozens die by the day, hoping to achieve the same goals of freedom and dignity under a democratic regime. Many Palestinians are now wondering what effect this past year’s developments in the Arab world will have on their own struggle for independence.
After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which marked the dissolution of a pan-Arab identity, many Palestinians came to feel that their struggle was theirs alone. A recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion (PCPO) shows that Palestinians have not changed their perceptions of how their cause is viewed by the greater Arab world. Of those polled, most (65 per cent) feel that the Arab Spring will have a negative impact on the Palestinian cause. Dr Nabil Kukali, President of the PCPO, says that most Palestinians view the Arab Spring as the “Palestinian Fall”. Kukali explains that the new Arab regimes and their peoples are now concerned more with internal issues than with the Palestinians’ future.
Of course the internal situation in Arab Spring countries is still one of turmoil, and it is to be expected that each country is trying to put its own house in order, giving priority to domestic affairs like the economy and security.
But for Palestinians this has meant that their leaders’ bid to gain recognition for a Palestinian state in the UN last fall was virtually ignored by the Arab street. Had the Arab street raised its voice and called on the world to recognise the Palestinian state as a member of the UN, it might have influenced the larger players, such as Britain and the United States, to think more favourably about admitting Palestine – particularly as these countries have relationships with the Arab world based on vital interests.
It will take time for the dust of revolution to settle and for the Arab countries in transition to arrive at a point where they can attend to restructuring their foreign policy and diplomatic relations. One only has to look to Egypt to understand how its standing in the region has been affected by the revolution. Prior to it, Egypt was arguably the major Arab power in the Middle East, playing an important role in mediating between the Arab world and the West. This was the reason US President Barack Obama chose Egypt as the platform from which to deliver his first speech to the Muslim world as president in June 2009.
But today the role played by Egypt in the political arena is marginal because Egypt’s internal affairs are in flux. When dozens can die in a football match in Egypt, there is not much room to attend to foreign policy.
The Palestinians don’t have time to wait for the Arab street to take a greater interest in their affairs, and must push forward and build the foundations of their future state. Self-reliance at this time is key for the future of an independent Palestinian state. One only needs to look at the steps the Zionists took to found the state of Israel. They did not wait for the world to wake up. Decades before 1948 they were working hard to build the infrastructure for their state. It is only once the main components of a state were in place that the world gave its support.
The young generations of Palestinians have the potential to do the same. The Arab youth who initiated the Arab Spring may have drawn their inspiration from the Palestinian struggle, particularly the first intifada and the nonviolent movement of recent years. I believe that young Palestinians now have the potential to bring about their own Spring.
Of course Arab support, were it to come soon, would no doubt strengthen the Palestinian position and create more favourable conditions for negotiations with the Israeli government. Diplomatic pressure from these countries – particularly from the Gulf states but also from Jordan and Egypt, who have economic and military agreements with larger world powers – could change the rules of the game sooner. This would be particularly effective if Arab countries were to formulate a unified approach to the Palestinian cause.
But even without the support of the Arab world, one can take hope in the enormous potential of young Palestinians to effect change on the ground and achieve freedom for their people.
Dawoud Abu Lebdeh is a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem. He is currently an MA student for Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is also one of the founders of the Watan student movement, and writes about the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a Palestinian perspective.