Away from the headlines, a revolution is taking place in the Middle East. On the last two days of August 2012, the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement will take place in Tehran, Iran. The encounter, which happens once every three years, will bring together key figures from Palestine, Egypt and Iran. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was invited today, July 8, by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s behalf. The meeting took place in Jordan, and Abbas agreed to participate. Earlier, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh visited Tehran for the celebration of 33 years to the Islamic Revolution there. It seems that Iran is making efforts to achieve reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions. No less relevant is the fact that the newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi—Egypt’s first Islamist president—will preside over the Non-Aligned Movement Summit. For the first time in a generation Egypt may be righteously called a “non-aligned country.” These two countries, Sunni Egypt and Shi’ite Iran, are among the biggest and most influential countries in the Middle East. They haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1980, following Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, but after the recent Egyptian elections, the countries became closer. The upcoming summit will be the perfect place to cement a new reality in the Middle East; a realignment of the non-aligned, a coalition of Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Israel’s worst nightmare.
In its internal and external policies, Israel always favored the “Divide and Conquer” doctrine. The Palestinian society had been a main target of it, having been divided into several segments. The clearest divide is between Palestinians who are Israeli citizens and those who are denizens of the Palestinian Authority or refugees; Israel forbids marriages between them. Subtler manipulations include political polarization of the Palestinian society. The main result of the latter is the Hamas-led Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank. This divide was created after Arafat’s assassination and has created an obstacle for Palestinian independence. The situation on the ground is of two completely different administrations; there isn’t even territorial contiguity between them.
It is clear even to the Palestinians that under these circumstances they can’t expect to get formal recognition as a unique state. Maybe this is the reason why Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas gave up so quickly after Israel demanded from him to stop the independence efforts at the UN last year (see Israel Hits Back at UN, Palestine and Germany and Palestine awarded first UNESCO World Heritage Site). If Palestine is not unified at the independence declaration moment then two micro-states would be formed.
The unification task is not simple. The Palestinian Authority is in fact one of several similar (though much smaller) organizations owned by the State of Israel. Its budget is provided by the State of Israel and it has military and political limitations, but towards its population, the PA is almost the sovereign. The PA is in fact run by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is recognized as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” by the United Nations and over 100 states; it holds a permanent observer seat in the United Nations General Assembly. The PLO is an organization of political parties; the largest among them is Fatah, which had been founded and led by Yasser Arafat. Hamas—the party leading Gaza—doesn’t belong to the PLO. Founded in 1987, Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, defeating Fatah. Israel, the USA and Europe imposed sanctions on the Palestinians in an attempt to block the rightfully elected party. Eventually, the Palestinian Authority was split between the PLO-run West Bank and the Hamas in Gaza. In the current situation there aren’t suitable political tools allowing the unification of the Palestinians. In order to achieve that, Hamas must be made member of the PLO. Israel will oppose. Moreover, both Palestinian sides will oppose—each one for different reasons—unless a unifying leader appears.
Fatah Poster | Yasser Arafat and Marwan Barghouti
Given the circumstances, the combined Iranian-Egyptian pressure on the Palestinians may not be enough. There is a growing estrangement between the Palestinian enclaves. In Gaza, Palestinians face an enemy who lives beyond a clear border, while in the West Bank there is little separation between settlers and Palestinians. It is difficult to see how a unifying leader can emerge under such conditions. Unless he already exists.
Former Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is now jailed in Israel. Regarded as a leader of the First and Second Intifadas, Barghouti supported the peace process, but in 2000 he became disillusioned. He became the main figure behind the Second Intifada—also known as Al-Aqsa Intifada—in the West Bank. In 2002 Barghouti was arrested in Ramallah by the IDF and Israeli authorities accused him of murder of Israeli civilians and attacks on Israeli soldiers. He was tried and convicted on charges of murder, and sentenced to five life sentences. Marwan Barghouti refused to present a defense to the charges brought against him, maintaining throughout that the trial was illegal and illegitimate. In jail since then, he has not been part of the Palestinian Authority split. Barghouti is remarkable not only in the eyes of the Palestinains. He occupies a place of honor in the memory of all Israelis, due to things said by one of his lawyers. Shamai Leibowitz is an Israeli lawyer, better known for being the son of the polemic Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz (see Diskotel). During his defense of Barghouti, he compared Barghouti to Moses. He said in the Israeli court: “According to some lawyers, he should be called a terrorist, but according to Exodus, he is a freedom fighter.” Mr. Leibowitz argued that Moses killed an Egyptian not because he hated Egyptians but because the man was beating a fellow Jew. While the Israeli audience was shocked, Barghouti smiled. He may not be Moses, but many consider him the Palestinian Mandela, the only leader capable of amalgamating Palestinians into unity.
As of now, Barghouti is still in jail while holding a seat at the Palestinian Parliament, seat that he won while in jail. Palestinians are desperately waiting for an earthly Messiah capable of liberating them from a generations-long oppression. Meanwhile, Egypt and Iran show all the signs that an alliance between them was born. Both countries have common interests in the newly discovered gas fields of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and in solving the Palestinian issue. Both may find Barghouti a suitable candidate for leading Palestinians into a new era. Even in jail, he can serve as an efficient political figurehead. Next month, the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran may witness a dramatic realignment in Middle Eastern politics. Away from the headlines, a revolution is taking place in the Middle East.
“I have been to Palestine where I’ve witnessed the racially segregated housing and the humiliation of Palestinians at military roadblocks. I can’t help but remember the conditions we experienced in South Africa under apartheid. We could not have achieved our freedom without the help of people around the world using the nonviolent means of boycotts and divestment to compel governments and institutions to withdraw their support for the apartheid regime.” —Archbishop Desmond Tutu