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Palestinians have a chance to turn the page on Trump's 'deal of the century'

The March of Return offers a great opportunity to rebuild the Palestinian national movement and stop the normalisation process between Israel and Arab states

Once again, Palestinians have taken the world by surprise - just as they did in the first and second intifadas, when everyone believed they had given up. 

Despite the ongoing siege, the disintegration of Arab support, the collapse of the balance of power, and the subjugation of influential Arab states to US will, little Gaza rose to the challenge. 

On the first Friday of the "marches of return and breaking the siege", many thought it was just a moment of rage that would soon dissipate. By the second Friday, it became clear that a new generation of young Palestinians was ready to bear the burden of this conflict, no matter how heavy. 

Path opened by the people

With dozens martyred and thousands wounded, the marches will continue until the middle of May, and perhaps even beyond. But in order for the wave of protests to achieve its objective, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) must emerge from its current state of confusion and incapacity to see the path that has been opened by the people.

The marches were not the project of a certain Palestinian organisation, nor the idea of a certain political leader. They were an expression of the people’s conscience at a time when Palestinians find themselves, as on previous occasions, with their backs to the wall. But Hamas will undoubtedly benefit from the marches, not just because it has been the main target of the siege, but also because it has - right from the beginning - chosen to be on the side of the people. 

Abbas should lift the restrictions he and his security agencies have imposed on the people of the West Bank and allow the young men and women of Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm to join their brothers and sisters in Gaza

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has not yet said much on the marches. The significance of his role stems not only from his position, but also from the fact that he has become the sole embodiment of the Palestinian national leadership. Palestinians have never previously experienced such a situation, not even during the time of Mufti al-Husseini, the years of Ahmad Shukeiri, or Yasser Arafat’s protracted era as PLO leader.

With Abbas, all voices have disappeared, except that of the president. No one is left in the PA or Palestine Liberation Organisation institutions who is able to express an opinion that differs even slightly from that of Abbas.

The Palestinian situation was certainly not good before Donald Trump moved into the White House. Peace negotiations had already stopped, and successive governments of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had embraced a policy of settlement expansion on a scale not seen since the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. 

A thread of hope

Abbas did not know exactly how to react, since he had made negotiations his sole and strategic option right from the moment he led the negotiations that ended with the Oslo Accords.

The president adopted a negative stance towards national reconciliation efforts and chose to maintain Palestinian division, without convincing reasons, instead of reaching a compromise with Hamas. At the same time, the counterrevolutionary movement was dragging the Arab world into a sea of blood and a series of civil wars. 

Former US President Barack Obama - even as his secretary of state, John Kerry, attempted to revive the peace process - did not want to be entangled in the complexities of the Palestinian problem.

On the other hand, Europe was unable to intervene, and Russia had no influential role to play, since Palestinian negotiators had already agreed to exclude it from the peace process. In the end, Kerry’s effort was a political sedative, which kept Abbas clinging to as a thread of hope or drowning in a depressing period of waiting. 

Demonstrators young and old flash the victory sign during Gaza marches April, 2018 (MEE/Mohammed al-Hajjar)
With Trump’s ascendance to power, things became much clearer - and at the same time, much worse. Trump had not been president for long when he announced his decision to move the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem. Even more dangerous were leaked reports about the Trump administration's project to devise a final settlement for the conflict over Palestine, in what has become known as the "deal of the century".

Trapped between the lack of an Israeli partner and the blatant partiality of the world power sponsoring the negotiations process, Abbas became desperate. 

The state of Palestinian confusion was exacerbated by the discovery that major Arab states had been embroiled in Trump's project, putting pressure on Abbas to accept what would be impossible for any Palestinian to accept. It would have been logical in such a situation for Abbas to take steps towards reuniting his people and seeking to crystallise a new strategic vision. He did none of this. 

A legitimacy crisis

Acting nervously and using inappropriate language, the Palestinian president tried to use the assassination attempt on the life of his prime minister - an incident that is still shrouded in suspicion - to declare that he was giving up on his people in the Gaza Strip and the national reconciliation effort. In essence, Abbas was demanding complete capitulation from Hamas. 

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It is worth noting that Abbas has, for some time, been illegitimately occupying the position of the presidency and enjoying a lot more power than he is constitutionally entitled to. Abbas's term in office expired years ago, and he has refused to call for new elections ever since. The irony is that he accuses the de facto authority of Hamas in Gaza of lacking legitimacy.

The truth is that the only legitimate Palestinian institution at the moment is the legislative council, in which Hamas enjoys a clear majority, and which was suspended by the president himself. 

The return marches offer a great opportunity to rebuild the Palestinian national movement on new foundations. Abbas should lift the restrictions he and his security agencies have imposed on the people of the West Bank and allow the young men and women of Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm to join their brothers and sisters in Gaza. 

There is a real chance to undermine the international standing of the Israeli state, to stop the normalisation process that is going on, both overtly and covertly, between Israel and Arab states, and to turn, once and for all, the page on the deal of the century. 

- Basheer Nafi is a historian of Islam and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Palestinians hold their national flag on 10 April, 2018 at the site of protests on the Israel-Gaza border east of Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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