Palestinian politics after annexation: Palestinian Authority critic Abdul Sattar Kassem on what comes next

Political Science professor Abdul Sattar Kassem says Mahmoud Abbas's announcement to abandon agreements with Israel and the U.S. was "a show for the media"
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The head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, announced on May 19, 2020 that the PA “is no longer abiding by agreements with Israel and the US” and asked Israel to “carry all its obligations as an occupying power of Palestinian lands” in response to Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

Reactions have been split following the PA statement. Several Palestinian and Israeli journalists expressed their doubts about the impact of such an announcement while other political analysts saw it as a dramatic turning point, and possibly the death of the Oslo Accords, which has been in place for 27 years although they were originally understood as a transitional period of five years. 

Mahmoud Abbas has failed on several previous occasions to follow through on similar threats — will it be different this time? 

I brought this question to Palestinian political science professor Abdul Sattar Kassem, who’s based in the West Bank city of Nablus. Kassem has a long history of challenging both Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Kassem worked as political science professor at Jordan University when he was fired for political reasons and deported to the West Bank. Since then, he has been facing a Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli travel ban. He has spent a total of two years in Israeli prisons for his activism. Since the Oslo Accords, he’s been a critic of the Palestinian Authority for which he has been detained seven times. He was the first Palestinian figure to announce he would run against the head of the PA, Yasser Arafat, in 2002.

I spoke with Professor Kassem about this potential change in the Palestinian political approach, and what the future of the Palestinian struggle looks like as we face Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. 

Israel is set to announce the official annexation of some West Bank settlements. Is this the beginning of the implementation of the U.S.-Israeli ‘Deal of the Century’? 

Abdul Sattar Kassem: Not necessarily, because Israel has been working on the Judaization of the West Bank for more than 20 years. Since the beginning of the implementation of the Oslo Accords, the Israelis have used the agreement to turn the West Bank into Judea and Samaria, and to annex it to Israel. They have been working hard on that. They have been imposing their political will on the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority knows that pretty well. Even naive people understand where the Israelis are going. But the Palestinian Authority did not alter its political orientation because there have been personal interests for those who signed the Oslo Accords. So, with the “Deal of the Century” or without it, Israel has been heading towards such an end. But the deal does represent an accumulation of external support for the Israelis, so they will take the opportunity to speed up their actions.

Annexation is illegal under all circumstances while occupation can be legal if it meets certain conditions. Why would Israel make such a risky legal move when it has already gained a de facto annexation reality in the West Bank, as some academics argue? 

The matter of legality and illegality doesn’t matter. In the international arena, if you are strong enough, what you do is legal. If you are weak, what you do is illegal. This is not a matter of principle; it’s a matter of power. So, don’t think of this in terms of legality and illegality. Even the United States that has been talking about international legitimacy does not honor international legitimacy. This is what we call the de facto legality. If you have the power, what you are doing is legal and acceptable. And besides, international legality is not important [to the Israelis]. What’s important is the legality of the Palestinians. 

The Palestinians have offered legality to the Israeli occupation. Why? Because the Palestinian Authority has been resisting the Palestinian resistance in favor of the Israeli security at the expense of the Palestinian security. So, instead of talking about the United States, Saudi Arabia, or other Arab states or European States, we better push the Palestinian Authority into the corner, who has been the true criminal against the Palestinian cause. 

What is called the international community is interested in having the Palestinian Authority. They look at it as a state, or as an independent Palestinian entity. They think there are two entities in mandatory Palestine: Israel and Palestine. They believe that since the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords and recognized Israel that they gave up their rights in their land occupied in 1948. As for the Palestinians, the perspective is different because we are here and we see that the Palestinian Authority is not actually an independent entity at all.

The Palestinian Authority was expected to react to Israeli annexation plans by either withdrawing from its agreements with the Israeli government, or giving up the autonomy and reviving the revolutionary PLO. Abbas preferred for the first option. Can he apply that on the ground?

They will not do any of these things. They will not. I don’t think Abbas will apply what he announced. He can’t. The agreement that he’s cancelling is exactly the reason for the existence in his position. He is tied from the neck to the Israelis, and his population is as well, due to his policies. This announcement was just a repeat of the Palestinian Authority’s usual reaction against American policies toward the Palestinian cause. Trump moved the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority did not do anything. Trump recognized the right of the Israelis to settle in the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority did not do anything. Besides that, the Israelis have been settling in the land for more than 50 years, since 1967. 

Abu Mazen, by the way, is an illegal president of the Palestinian Authority. His mandate ended in 2009 and he’s still there. He has been violating the Palestinian basic law and the revolutionary law of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. So, what will he do? I believe they will do nothing. This was just a media show in which they say much rhetoric against the United States and against Israel. They have personal interests in staying here in authority. Mahmoud Abbas and the gangsters around him are tied to the Israelis. He is there as a president of the authority now because the Israelis and Americans insist on having him. They will not discard him. They want him there and if he doesn’t stay there, I think they have enough tools to depose him and threaten all his interests and the interests of his sons. It is very well known that his sons have been accumulating much wealth at the expense of the Palestinians.

Do you mean that the Palestinian Authority can’t stay alive without the agreements?   

The Palestinian Authority only exists because of these agreements.  He will lose the justification of his position if he applies what he announced yesterday. Israel will run the West Bank again and there will be no need to have the PA anymore. Abbas realizes that very well and that’s why he’s not serious.

And by the way, in his speech, he expressed he wants to keep on the negotiation track. How can you do that after withdrawing from the agreements? He also said, “we don’t accept the U.S. as the only mediator.” What does that mean? It means that the U.S. could be one of many in the future. Abbas plans to continue on his path and this just was for media consumption which is what happens every time. The PA has given many “historic speeches” in recent years but none of their announcements have been carried out. Everyday, the Israeli military raids area ‘A’ in the West Bank and the PA doesn’t stop them, including yesterday. What does that tell us?

What should the Palestinian Authority have prepared before announcing such a step? 

Well, this question is a bit late now. After 27 years of the Oslo Accords, we have arrived at a stage in which cancelling the agreements doesn’t mean anything, and killing them means killing the PA itself. What can Abbas apply? Nothing. Israel occupies everywhere in the West Bank. Abbas has no real authority over the Jordan valley, or even areas A and B. 

The important questions are the following: Assuming that the agreements with the Zionists were canceled, what have we prepared as alternative plans? Does the PA have financial sustainability considering that 70% of their monthly income is controlled by the Israelis upon the agreements? Where are the economic measures that need to be in place so that we are able to feed our children? Have Palestinian political and social divisions ended so that we can unite and unify our efforts to face the Israelis? In Abbas’s speech yesterday, he addressed none of these essential questions. 

The local press reported that some representatives of leftist parties, including the PFLP, left the PA meeting yesterday, and were arguing with Abbas who asked his security men to intervene and silence them. Do they have similar concerns to the ones you are raising? 

Yes. He kept highlighting his commitment to the negotiations, relying on the international community, and the two-state solution framework without mentioning Palestinian unity, fighting corruption, and being transparent with the Palestinian themselves. His speech was not logical. If you follow his speech, there were no proposed plans. The cancellation of agreements requires the preparation of advanced programs, and the provision of mechanisms, means, and methods that can be followed to achieve results, or to form a deterrent that could confront the enemy. As for the current aggression against the rights of people, the absence of legitimacy, the rupture of identity, social and economic weakness, economic and financial weakness, and the decline of the national culture, it is difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Do you expect a wave of popular Palestinian protests in reaction to the Israeli move? 

No, I don’t think so. There will be a few demonstrations here are there in the centers of cities, like in Ramallah and Nablus, and figures from the Palestinian factions will participate in these demonstrations but they will be so tiny and so weak that they cannot force any kind of change on the Palestinian Authority. The national identification within the Palestinian ranks has gone down a lot. It’s a very dangerous situation. 

For over more than 26 years, since the Oslo Accords, I mean, Palestinian young people got used to the security cooperation with the Israelis. Our whole national identity has collapsed and we don’t have a real national orientation now. People don’t know exactly who they are. The Palestinian identity has fragmented into so many entities: West Bankers, Gazans, 48’s people, Hamsawi, Fatahawi, and so on. The whole ethical and national fabric of the Palestinians has been exposed to so much damage. That’s why we don’t currently have a popular movement. To have a popular movement, you should have an incentive. The biggest incentive now is not what the Israelis are doing but it’s the loaf of bread.

How can Palestinian change our internal reality?

First, we should use the vehicle of elections. There should be elections in the West Bank and Gaza. We were supposed to have elections in 2009 and 2010 but Mahmoud Abbas, supported by the Israelis and the Americans, didn’t hold any elections and finally, he dissolved the legislative council. The legislative council was illegitimate, and Mahmoud Abbas is illegitimate. So we are operating in a vacuum of legitimacy. There is no legitimacy here so we should have elections. That would be an opportunity for us to rearrange our situation. 

If Abbas lost that election, it is possible Palestinians could reach the poverty line by losing the U.S. and E.U. financial aid. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t have enough financial resources to pay its salaries, and that would get the Palestinians out to the streets. They would insist on developing the economic and financial situation, and hence, the political one. So, the economic and financial problems might get the Palestinians to move again and get active. 

Currently, the only reason that the Palestinian Authority is alive is because it is supported by both the Israelis and Americans. They need this authority for security purposes. That authority is defending Israeli security at the expense of Palestinian security. That is why these two states think that Mahmoud Abbas is the best Palestinian figure to stay in power as he will be responsive to all Israeli demands, but this will not last for a long time.

Let’s suppose that the PA was serious about the announcement to leave the agreements. Would Israel stay silent about an administrative body running the Palestinian enclaves which is rebellious to the Israeli control?

No, the Israelis will not accept that. And as I said, if Abbas wants to abandon the security cooperation with the Israelis, he will lose the justification for his role as a Palestinian president. So, the Israelis will act against him. They will do something. They will take over that administration. So, he can’t apply the cancellation of the agreements. He promised to do that several times particularly when he gave a speech in the United Nations. He is not honest, not trustworthy, not a statesman.

Since you are not expecting Palestinian leadership to follow through with Abbas’s announcement, what will life look like for West Bank Palestinians following annexation?

More and more humiliation for Palestinians. More and more troubles for Palestinians. We have been experiencing so many troubles since the creation of the Oslo Accords, and this is one of the troubles. Expulsion, land loss, and a corrupted Palestinian autonomy that is not interested in changing facts on the ground.

Can you tell me what an ideal Palestinian reaction to Israel annexation would look like?

Well, the ideal situation for me is to see the whole Palestinian Authority disappearing with all of its political personalities and leaders. I would like to see them in jail, in Palestinian jails, because they have been committing so many crimes against the Palestinians; economic crimes, political crimes, even ethical crimes and so on. They have been very destructive for the Palestinian society. 

The whole ethical formula here in the Palestinian society has collapsed so the Palestinian society that we used to know before the Oslo Accords is completely different from the society that exists now. We are powerless. We are unable to do anything. So, if the Palestinian Authority disappears, we might rise up again. We might. We have to try hard again, and we have to strengthen our cooperation with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. These are the forces that have been most effective at facing Israel. Hezbollah recorded a victory against Israel in 2006 and Israel could not infiltrate Gaza in its continuous wars against it. We have strong resistance in southern Lebanon and Southern Palestine. We have to cooperate and benefit from the situation.

Assuming Israel does take back administration and directly runs the Palestinian enclaves again, what should the Palestinian response be? Do Palestinians want to live under a military rule forever?

I think we will be back to a period of armed resistance but in a different way. It’s not the armed resistance of Yasser Arafat which was not serious and it ended with the Oslo Accords. I think it will be different. We will adopt the resistance methodology of Hezbollah and Hamas. That will be more efficient for us and we will decrease the volume of Israeli infiltration with our ranks. Now, we are infiltrated by the Israelis everywhere; in the municipalities, in the hospitals, in the streets, in the government, everywhere. The Israelis have had a good opportunity to exert control over Palestinian institutions and Palestinian society. So, we will work in a different way and that will take years. It is in our interest to have the Palestinian Authority disappear.

In such a scenario, what would the international response to the Palestinian cause look like?  

Yes. We will be back to the era before the Oslo Accords. We will be labeled as terrorists. We will not have passports. There will be so many obstacles for those who want to travel around and so on, but that’s the price of being occupied. Once you are occupied, you have to pay the price and we have been paying the price for more than 50 years. 

How can such a dire reality be seen as a positive turning point for the Palestinians?

It would be a positive turning point because the Palestinians would start looking at their cause as a serious cause that requires the accumulation of power and requires Palestinian unity. That will do us something good. It’s true that we will suffer more from the international community but that’s the only way to liberate our land and it’s the only way for those who want to liberate Palestine. But for those who think that Israel should be recognized, it’s just something different.

Based on what you’ve just said, would the PA’s two-state solution be replaced with a demand for a one-state solution, for instance

The only proposal should be the liberation of Palestine. Our problem is not the state. Our problem is the refugees. We have millions of refugees in the refugee camps scattered around the world particularly in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Our main problem is to return these people back to their homes and property in Palestine occupied in 1948. 

The second problem is the right to self-determination. Once we retain the right to self-determination, we will establish the state we wish. It is not the right time to talk about a Palestinian state, because once you gain a Palestinian state while the occupation is there then it will be a state according to the measurements of the Israeli occupation and that will not be a state. It would remain an Israeli creation. If we liberate our land, we will have the refugees back and we will establish the state we wish.

What would your proposal for the Israeli population be?

Well, I’m not required to give them a proposal. Once, I had a discussion with an Israeli military general. I asked him if he cared where the Palestinians would go after he carried out all of these pogroms against the Palestinians? He said “no.” Then I told him, “why should I care about you?” And actually I don’t care where they will go.

Can’t a one-state solution that includes Palestinian refugees and Israelis be a choice, when everybody between the river and the sea shares equal rights?

How would you regain your rights while there are around seven million Jews in Palestine? They have taken our homes and they have taken our lands. For the sake of peace, we might consider what you are referring to, that Palestine will be an open area for Palestinians and for Jews who are here. But for the time being what I say and what most people who think the same way say: we should concentrate on the liberation of Palestine and we believe that Israel as a state is not going to stay long here in this area.

What gives you such a belief? 

I trust the strength of the Arab resistance in both southern Lebanon and southern Palestine. In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is a deterrent force for the Israelis and once there is a war against Hezbollah, I strongly believe Hezbollah will win the war and will achieve victory. 

As for Hamas, Israel has tried several times to infiltrate with its army inside Gaza but couldn’t because the resistance in Gaza is very fierce and it has been accumulating power. If Hezbollah and Hamas cooperate, and I believe they will, they will be able to defeat Israel, and the United States will be unable to do anything for the Israelis. The United States can offer assistance against armies, regular armies, but cannot do a lot against armed resistance, and these armed actors in both Lebanon and Palestine are supported by Iran which has been achieving very big advances in the military sphere. The United States recognizes that and they know pretty well that the Iranians are ready for any kind of armed confrontation in the area. 

An average American reader may notice that in your answers you insisted many times on armed resistance. Why is that?

Because Israel is armed to the teeth. Why is Israel allowed to be armed to the teeth while practicing the occupation and applying all of that pressure on Palestinians, while Palestinians do not have the right to carry a bullet? Why? Particularly, the United States has been feeding Israel with all of its sophisticated arms, so as to subdue the Palestinians. Why does Israel have the right to acquire all of those destructive weapons while Palestinians do not have the right to carry a gun? This is not just. If you want to be a strong card on the diplomatic table you have to be strong also. If you are weak, nobody listens to you and nobody cares about you. Israeli violence is drawing the Palestinian violence. This is the answer. 

I cannot allow you to keep killing me all the time and I just wait until somebody takes care of me. That’s illogical and it’s a historical. History is a history of power. If Americans do not believe in violence, why have they waged a war against Afghanistan, against Iraq, against Vietnam, and they have been working hard to dismantle the Republic of Yemen? They have been supporting the Saudis and they have been promoting wars everywhere. The last people who should talk about violence are Americans because they are the most violent. 

If we want to talk about terrorism, Americans are the biggest terrorists. The Israeli occupation is terrorist, it’s an occupation, by definition it’s terrorist, and Americans have been supporting terrorism, which is Israel. The Americans are the last people who have the right to talk about terrorism and about violence because they are the most violent. 

Editor’s Note: The writing published on Mondoweiss represents the views of its authors and interview subjects, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the site or its editors. We share a diversity of opinion on important questions regarding the Israeli occupation, giving special attention to the discourse and debate within Palestinian society.

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Unfortunately, violent Palestinian resistance is like mothers milk to the Israeli right, it’s exactly what they want. Better that every Palestinian man, woman and child march with Israeli flags and demand a vote in the only country there is between Jordan and the sea.

An interesting interview. The first part is very agreeable, the second part not. Armed resistance is the one thing that will strengthen Israel and weaken Palestinians, because the battle is not on the military battlefield, it’s on the moral battlefield. Of course Hamas and Hezbollah will never be able to defeat the Israeli army. And if they try, they will cause a lot of international support for Israel. If on the other hand Palestinians unite… Read more »

“How would you regain your rights while there are around seven million Jews in Palestine? They have taken our homes and they have taken our lands.” –Abdul Sattar Kassem How would you regain your rights while there are around 5 million whites in South Africa? They have taken our homes and they have taken our lands. The Palestinian ethnic sovereignty Abdul Sattar Kassem is advocating here is the mirror image of the Jewish ethnic sovereignty… Read more »

I’d like to know more about how he thinks Hamas, allied with Hezbollah, would defeat Israel. Unfortunately, this sounds more like baseless bravado than a well-considered, strategic plan for the Palestinians prevailing in the conflict.

I’m failing to see anything other than the growth of the BDS movement as a way to gain, at least, political freedom for the Palestinians.

What foolishness. Imagine Kassem calling the shots. There was a lesson to be drawn from Palestinian citizens preferring in high numbers to remain Israeli. Its really pretty simple, Jews will move to mature Zionism after Palestinians under occupation choose equal rights as citizens to rocks.