Changing PA’s name to ‘State of Palestine’ raises questions on where Gaza stands in PLO’s political vision

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A sticker bearing the slogan “State of Palestine,” part of a campaign to support the Palestinian UN bid for statehood, is seen on barbed wire at the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah on 22 September 2011. (Photo: Marco Longari/AFP /Al-Akhbar English)

What’s in a name?

On Friday the Palestinian Authority (PA) changed its name officially to “The State of Palestine,” through a presidential decree by Mahmoud Abbas. Although there was no notice that the civil administration established 20 years ago through the Oslo Accords with jurisdiction in the West Bank only would call itself a state, the change comes as the latest state-building endeavor following last fall’s bid as a non-member observer to the United Nations.

Materially, only passports, identification cards, and official PA letterhead will reflect the new name, but names have power and meaning beyond words themselves and the “State of Palestine” signals yet another failure to include Gaza in the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) political vision. More subtly the name creates confusion as to which political body is the leader of the Palestinian people.

On paper, the only official representative for the Palestinians is the PLO which represents the people — diaspora and refugees included — and is not territorially bound. This was affirmed in 1974 at the Arab Summit in Morocco through a resolution that famously states the PLO is “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” However, the lesser-known second half of that quotes continues that the PLO has jurisdiction “in any Palestinian territory that is liberated.” Since at the time there was no liberated Palestinian territory, this meant the PLO represented the people, but was not an official a government on the ground. Strategically this decision to establish a representative body but not a government was the political parallel to nakba refugees living in tents for almost a decade rather then move into UN built temporary housing — by pushing back the establishment of a government the PLO was able to frame their cause as a liberation movement and therefore did not normalize the Israeli occupation by creating a government under foreign rule. Today, the PLO still exists but it is reduced to consular-like services and a negotiations affairs office. By contrast the PA has ballooned to include a number of civil ministries. This was achieved in the 1990s simultaneous to disbanding the international unions that formerly had voting positions in the PLO.

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An elderly Palestinian refugee holds his old ID card in the Shatila refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Beirut. (Photo: AFP/Al-Akhbar English)

Since the PA was established the liberation elements of the PLO have been eroded and exchanged for the doctrine of state-building under occupation, directed in recent years by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The idea is simple: create a state, and once it is constructed it will be free. However Prime Minister Fayyad has never put forth a plan to explain how the occupation will end after a state is created. Today the PA is both a “state” in name and international recognition, but the occupation continues undeterred. In fact the only change to daily life that have come about as a result of establishing a state under occupation is the Israeli freezing of VAT taxes owed to the PA, which is estimates to reach about $400 million in total.

With diaspora Palestinians cut out of the political system for nearly the past two decades, Fatah has shifted focus to plucking out challengers inside of occupied Palestine. In 2010 the PA conducted a mass firing for all government workers, including teacher, thought to be affiliated with Hamas. Through this purge Fatah was able to secure full political control over the West Bank, stamping out any inkling of a rival. Policy and political projects are now made by Fatah and exercised through the PA and the PLO. The arrangement is not unlike the relationship between the Communist Party of China and the government of China where the political party trumps the government as the policy making body. And Fatah’s landslide victory in the last round of municipal elections in 2012 shows that to be a politician in the West Bank is to be a member of Fatah. 

Despite Fatah’s growth in power, there is no legal ground for the party, or the PA, to be a new representative body for the Palestinian people internationally. But there is a loophole that allows for the PA to remain in power beyond its tenure as a temporary civil administration, as it was originally decreed. Because there is no foundational PLO document that forbids a civil administration from forming and governing an “unliberated territory,” the PA is still within the bounds of the PLO bylaws by representing the West Bank alone.

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A Palestinian woman holds up a sticker which reads: “UN 194 Palestinian State” during a rally in support of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ bid for statehood recognition in the UN, at Mar Elias camp in Beirut. (Photo: Sharif Karim/Reuters/Al-Akhbar English)

But the West Bank was never intended to be the center Palestinian political life, and was not even where the international representatives met until after the Oslo Accords. Prior to the 1990s the PLO was a government in exile, chased out of Lebanon and Tunisia before returning to occupied Palestine. Now that there is an “state” under occupation in the West Bank, what of Gaza, the diaspora and the refugees? How do they figure into the new political arrangement that is more focused on legitimacy then undoing Israel’s military and settler presence?

Crudely, there is no place in Fateh’s new political chessboard for Gaza and the refugees. Even at Fatah’s 48th anniversary festivities in Ramallah last Wednesday Gaza was conspicuously left out of the program. In one of the musical performances that played a folkloric national song, the singer called himself the son of several different Palestinian cities. What was noteworthy was he only mentioned West Bank cities—cities in Area A.

But being left behind does not mean disappearing from the picture altogether. Over the past few months Hamas has forged new political alliances, which include more visits from unlikely Arab diplomats. Most notably a delegation of Lebanese officials with the March 14 Coalition came to Gaza in November 2012. The March 14 Coalition represents the Lebanese political parties that are in opposition to Hizbollah, and cooperated with the Israeli military during the massacres in Sabra and Shatilla.

Superficially in the past two weeks there was displays of reconciliation through anniversary celebrations for Hamas in the West Bank, and Fatah in Gaza. However the PA’s name change to the “State of Palestine,” is a much more significant gesture, showing that when it comes to political projects the West Bank is flying solo. 

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