June 15, 2011 / 1:16 PM / 8 years ago

Palestinians seek to redefine national struggle

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Freedom, justice, dignity and equality are the demands of a new generation of Palestinians seeking to redefine their national struggle in a way that could threaten both Israel and their own leadership.

Palestinian protesters gesture in front of Israeli soldiers during clashes near the West Bank village of Deir al Hatab June 5, 2011. REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini

They are neither Fatah or Hamas and care as little for the Palestinians’ factional politics as they do for the “two-state solution” which President Mahmoud Abbas has long presented as the only workable resolution to the conflict with Israel.

“As far as we are concerned, our issue is one of rights,” said Hazem Abu Hilal, an activist in a human rights-focussed movement which he says is gaining followers thanks to Arab uprisings across the region.

“It’s not that important if there is a state or not. What matters is securing these four demands,” he said, speaking as he recovered from the effects of a foul-smelling liquid sprayed by Israeli forces during a West Bank protest he helped organise.

“We suffer from racial discrimination, we suffer from restrictions, we don’t have the freedom to move,” Abu Hilal, 28, said. “We are talking about a human rights movement.”

His brand of activism opposes violence, even the stone-throwing that has characterised Palestinian protest since the first Intifada, or uprising, in 1987. However, attempts to stop it do not always succeed, if tear gas is flying.

The activists’ numbers are limited: only around 200 took part at one recent protest. However some observers believe their rights-based agenda could play a major role in shaping a new chapter in the Palestinian struggle, as the strategies of existing leaders appear to have failed.

TRANSITION PHASE

Two decades since it began, the “peace process” is widely discredited. Its critics argue that the expansion of Jewish settlement on the land where the Palestinians aim to found a state has rendered the “two-state solution” obsolete.

Negotiations have produced limited self government but no independence for the Palestinians living on land occupied by Israel in 1967. Except for one crossing between Gaza and Egypt, Palestinians do not control their borders or air space. Israel still has full civil control over 60 percent of the West Bank.

The search for new ideas is under way.

“We are in a very serious transition phase,” said Sam Bahour, a Palestinian businessman and blogger who once supported the two-state solution but doubts it is still possible.

“My kids are asking: ‘if my access and movement, my freedoms as an individual are going to remain hostage to some kind of political process that refuses to end, I’d rather drop the political process for statehood and focus on my rights today’.

“That is exactly what this younger generation is doing and it is fully in tune with the Arab Spring.”

The approach naturally edges the Palestinians closer towards an idea rejected by Israel but which appears to be gaining more support among Palestinians: that they seek full civil rights from Israel as part of the same political entity.

That implies abandoning the two-state approach in favour of one that would lead to a very different outcome: a single, binational state stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan valley.

Supporters of the idea say it could take decades to bring about, if at all. To Israel, the “one-state solution” is a non-starter. Giving citizenship to millions of Palestinians would undermine the Jewish character of Israel and end the Zionist dream.

The idea is also at odds with two decades of U.S.-led Middle East diplomacy and the strategy of the Palestine Liberation Organisation which is built around the idea of establishing a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But Palestinians who once advocated two states say there is now no alternative to a major strategy shift, towards a struggle for rights similar to that waged by South Africans against the apartheid system.

“There is no other way,” said Jammal Hammad, an official in Abbas’s Fatah movement who no longer believes a Palestinian state next to Israel can be achieved.

Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority which was set up under the Oslo peace process as an interim government, says opinion polls show a majority of Palestinians still support the two-state solution.

“However, this might be changing, as a result of the fact that Israeli practices are making the possibility of two states less and less,” he said.

“A LONG WAY TO GO”

That is a challenge to the path taken by the PLO, which began negotiating with Israel two decades ago with the aim of founding a state in the West Bank and Gaza.

With talks now at a standstill, Abbas plans to seek full U.N. membership for a state of Palestine in those territories in September, even though the move is destined to fail due to opposition from major world powers including the United States.

Critics see it as another sign that Abbas is out of options.

The Islamist group Hamas, blockaded in its Gaza Strip enclave, faces similar criticism. Its strategy based on military confrontation with Israel has also failed to produce results against a far more powerful adversary.

A new path will offer no quick way to realising Palestinian aspirations, but more and more Palestinians are asking what alternative they have.

“We’ve tried everything else. We certainly gave Oslo the benefit of the doubt,” said Ahmad Aweidah, the chief executive officer of the Palestinian stock exchange.

“It’s not just the radical movement that is thinking in terms of the two-state solution being dead, that we need to focus on a one-state solution, civil rights, a South African-style liberation struggle. It’s people like me, the CEO of the stock exchange,” he said.

“But we don’t have a Nelson Mandela. We don’t even have a Desmond Tutu, so we have a long way to go.”

Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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