Feeling betrayed by UAE, Palestinians seek to redefine struggle

Ammar Awad/Reuters
People tear a picture depicting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed during a Palestinian protest against the United Arab Emirates in front of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City, Aug. 14, 2020.

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A deal to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates upends decades of Arab consensus to withhold ties with Israel until an agreement is reached on a Palestinian state. For Palestinians, it looms as more than just a blow to Arab unity and their quest for statehood, but as a reckoning for their leadership.

Feeling alienated by Arab allies and the international community, Palestinians are seeking to redefine their struggle with a renewed sense of urgency. The deal has accelerated an evolving shift in thought on the two-state solution and a peace process many now say was dictated to them.

Why We Wrote This

For the Palestinian people, the brewing UAE-Israel normalization deal represents more than a diplomatic setback. It’s the collapse of a conceptual framework for identifying and achieving their aspirations.

What is percolating up from the grassroots is a desire for a dramatic move away from conventional demands. Instead of “peace,” or even “statehood,” the rising buzzwords among Palestinians on the street and among activists are “rights” and “resistance.”

“The peace process is a failed framework. The [Palestinian Authority] under Mahmoud Abbas has solely focused on negotiations and more negotiations when it was clear he should have changed strategy a long time ago,” says Diana Buttu, a former PLO spokeswoman. “Negotiations were simply a tactic, never a true strategy, and now they do not even have the Arabs with them. They have nothing.”

Betrayal, tragedy, a stab in the back – Palestinians have used many anguished phrases over the past week to describe the brewing normalization deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, but one clearly defines where they find themselves: a crossroads.

For Palestinians, the UAE-Israel agreement looms as more than just a blow to Arab unity and their quest for statehood, but as a reckoning for their leadership and a final nail in the coffin of the Oslo peace process.

Feeling alienated by Arab allies, the United States, and the international community, Palestinians are seeking to redefine their struggle with a renewed sense of urgency.

Why We Wrote This

For the Palestinian people, the brewing UAE-Israel normalization deal represents more than a diplomatic setback. It’s the collapse of a conceptual framework for identifying and achieving their aspirations.

What is percolating up from the grassroots also is a desire for a dramatic move away from conventional demands and diplomacy and a reliance on their political leadership. Instead of “peace,” or even “statehood,” the rising buzzwords among Palestinians on the street and among activists are “rights” and “resistance.”

The UAE-Israel deal upended decades of Arab consensus that Arab states would withhold normalization with Israel – and its associated economic and diplomatic benefits – until after a comprehensive peace deal for an independent Palestinian state that included Israel’s withdrawal from lands it captured in 1967.

The consensus, formalized by Saudi Arabia in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, was used by Arabs and Palestinians as an incentive for Israel and the international community to stick to the peace process and the two-state solution.  

With the UAE, a regional heavyweight and one of the wealthiest Arab states, now violating that consensus, observers and officials say the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinians are diplomatically and politically isolated.

Further, the deal is evidence that the Palestinians’ tactic of “shaming” Arab players who attempt normalization – previously successful in constraining Israel’s peace with Jordan and Egypt and pushing Israel-Gulf cooperation behind closed doors – no longer works.

Anger at leadership

Predictably, the announcement last week ignited protests in Gaza, Jerusalem, and Ramallah, with protesters accusing the UAE of “treason” and burning photos of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. On the streets and on social media, slogans echoed one call: “normalization is betrayal.”

It is also seen as a mortal wound to the Palestinian Authority, which is faulted for its costly pursuit of a now moribund peace process and which, after being snubbed by the Trump administration, had clung to Arab support as its strongest remaining card.

“Simply, the peace process is a failed framework. The PA under [President] Mahmoud Abbas has solely focused on negotiations and more negotiations when it was clear he should have changed strategy a long time ago,” says activist Diana Buttu, a former PLO spokeswoman.

“Negotiations were simply a tactic, never a true strategy, and now they do not even have the Arabs with them. They have nothing.”

Saeb Erakat, negotiator and secretary general of the PLO Executive Committee, addressed the internal Palestinian debate in an email interview.

“Not all Palestinians think the same, and that’s a good thing. [But] there is an overwhelming consensus when it comes to ending the Israeli occupation,” he says. Is the Oslo peace process “taking us from occupation to independence or is it being used to perpetuate the status quo of occupation and apartheid? This is the real question that has to be answered.”

Mohamad Torokman/AP
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures in a meeting with Palestinian leadership to discuss the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel to normalize relations, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Aug. 18, 2020.

Even before the UAE deal, Palestinians’ support for their leaders was in decline.

According to a late June survey by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 81% of Palestinians perceived the PA as corrupt, 52% saw it as a “burden,” and 62% demanded the resignation of the aging Mr. Abbas, whose mandate ended in 2009.

On social media and on the street, Palestinians also point to their leadership’s refusal to reform or include a younger generation.

The last legislative elections for the Palestinian Authority were held in 2006; the PLO itself has not had internal elections since the 1990s.

“We are in a place where we can no longer say that the strategy pursued by the PLO 27 years ago in Oslo is legitimate, and it is impossible for people to say that this Palestinian leadership is legitimate,” says Ms. Buttu.

Abandoning Oslo … and statehood?

For a generation that has grown up in a post-Oslo era of restrictions, security walls, expanding settlements, and home demolitions, the Israel-UAE deal has accelerated an evolving shift in thought on the two-state solution and a peace process many now say was dictated to them.

According to the June survey, nearly two out of three Palestinians, 63%, believe the two-state solution is no longer practical or feasible, and half oppose it. Only 45% expressed support for two states.

Additional surveys show one-third of Palestinians supporting one-state with equal rights, despite not a single Palestinian faction promoting the concept.

“The discourse is becoming less about this standard vision of a purely Palestinian state with particular borders, and more about pushing for self-determination and sovereignty, whatever form that takes,” says Dana El Kurd, an assistant professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

“It could be a binational state or a federation, there are different potential versions,” she adds. “But having sovereignty and self-determination at the crux of your demands means” rejecting carving up Palestine into isolated islands inside Israeli-controlled territory. That’s true “no matter if the international community is playing a role or not.”

Palestinian activists and observers say they will increasingly turn to “popular resistance” to express their demands.  

Such resistance would go beyond economic boycotts and could include general strikes, mass demonstrations, and disruptions to daily life in Israel and the Palestinian territories to put the media spotlight on their struggle.

“Palestinians have learned a lot from popular resistance as a tool to convince the international community that they are the ones who want change and should be addressed, not other Arab states or undemocratic bodies such as the PA who no longer represent them,” says Nijmeh Ali, a Palestinian researcher and analyst.

A recent precedent would be the mass mobilization of Palestinians in Jerusalem in 2017, which prompted Israel to walk back a move to place security cameras at the entrances to the Al Aqsa Mosque. Activists say such coordination harks back to the first intifada in 1988.

On social media, Palestinians have pledged to physically prevent Emiratis from entering Jerusalem’s Old City or to pray in Al Aqsa, one of Islam’s holiest sites. Palestinians are also reaching out to activists in the Gulf to organize joint action to pressure other Arab states not to follow the UAE’s lead.

Some Palestinian institutions have read the anger and are racing to get out in front.

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhamed Ahmed Hussein, warned Arabs Tuesday that “it is not permissible … for any Muslim to come through normalization processes to visit Al Aqsa.”

Regional clout

Nevertheless, the UAE’s clout in the region is already being felt.  

On Wednesday, a Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Khartoum, heavily influenced by Abu Dhabi, is open to entering into peace talks with Israel, and rumors rumble in some Arab capitals that Bahrain will soon follow.

The Arab League has refused to hold an emergency session or even issue a statement on the UAE-Israel deal despite several petitions by the Palestinian Authority, reportedly due to Emirati pressure.  

Arab states allied with the UAE have been urged to repress any domestic public criticism of Abu Dhabi and Israel in their home countries – despite their own citizens’ outrage and personal misgivings.

Arab and Palestinian officials privately admit another weakness: the presence of over 200,000 Palestinians who live and work in the UAE and a further 200,000 across the Gulf.

Palestinian leaders and commentators are wary that strong words or protests could lead to the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the Gulf, a blow to families and the economy. Gulf Palestinians’ remittances back home account for 16% of the Palestinian territories’ GDP.

“Today the UAE has mobilized all its propaganda tools, including some vicious anti-Palestinian comments and censorship of anti-agreement voices, including ours that they are supposed to be ‘helping,’” Mr. Erakat says, noting that the Palestinian leadership has been reassured by other Arab states that they will not follow Abu Dhabi’s lead.

Wednesday evening, Fatah and its rivals Hamas and Islamic Jihad began discussions for coordinated mass protests to keep up with grassroots calls for mobilization.

In this new phase, without the support of Arab states or the international community, Palestinians say they are increasingly ready to take matters into their own hands.

“Palestinians on the ground feel like they are stuck and backed into a corner by every party,” says Dr. Ali, the analyst. “The only response will be to push back and act, and this time it will come from the grassroots and not from above.” 

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