In coming weeks, we're going to hear quite a bit at the United Nations and in world capitals about Palestinian rights, unity, and statehood. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) -- the original organizational embodiment of Palestinian nationalism -- will either succeed in gaining new status as a nonmember U.N. observer state, or win a General Assembly resolution supporting Palestinian statehood.
But beneath the expressions of solidarity, celebration, and hoopla, a much darker reality looms: The Palestinian national movement has become a fractured Humpty Dumpty, with grave consequences for Israeli-Palestinian peace, regional stability, and Palestinians themselves.
The Palestinians are a people with a compelling and just cause; their nationalism and attachment to Palestine cannot be easily broken or undermined. Just consider the Jews in the diaspora, whose attachment and yearning for the Land of Israel survived centuries of rootlessness, persecution, and even genocide.
Still, geography, demography, and power politics drive history too, not just ethics, morality, and memory. And here the Palestinian story is much less compelling. Decentralized, dysfunctional, and divided, the Palestinian national movement has long lacked a coherent strategy for realizing its people's nationalist aspirations through either armed struggle or diplomacy. The Israeli occupation, the perfidy of the Arab states, and the Palestinians' own dysfunctional decision-making have left them adrift, without much hope of achieving meaningful statehood.
Over the years, centrifugal forces and history itself have broken the Palestinians into five very uneasy pieces. The current unity gambit between Fatah (the largest PLO faction, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) and Hamas (the organizational embodiment of a Palestinian Islamist nationalism) only highlights those divisions, which are not over seats in a legislature but over fundamentally different visions of what and where Palestine is. No U.N. resolution can overcome the reality that it will be hard to put the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty together again.
The first piece is Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians live in political and economic limbo. Here Hamas rules uneasily but supremely. The Israeli blockade, recurring war, restrictions on movement, and absence of real opportunity for economic growth have reinforced a sense of separateness and despair. Gazans are certainly part of the Palestinian family, and they will claim to lead its nationalist vanguard (the first Intifada started there, but Gazans are cut off and seen by West Bankers as less-sophisticated country cousins ill-suited for leading the national movement). How many Palestinians from Gaza have ever risen to positions of leadership in Palestinian national politics? Even Yasir Arafat, the world's most famous Palestinian -- and Gaza resident -- wanted it known that he was born in Jerusalem, whether it was true or not. As long as Hamas is in charge, Gaza will retain its provincial character and move in its own direction -- more traditionalist, more Islamist, and more oriented toward Egypt.
Second, in the West Bank, 2.6 million Palestinians comprise the closest thing to a Palestinian statelet. But here, the PLO doesn't so much rule as preside with the indulgence of the Israelis who still control a large portion of West Bank territory, expand settlements at will, and determine who and what gets in and out. Paradoxically, an improved security situation, some economic growth, and responsible governance and institution-building by Fatah's leadership have produced remarkable stability that has worked to preserve the status quo. The West Bank is hardly in a pre-revolutionary state, and both Abbas and the Israelis have a stake in keeping it that way. Still, tensions within Fatah -- driven by a generational divide, resentment over corruption, and opposition to the Palestinian Authority's (PA's) lack of respect for the rule of law -- abound; and Hamas waits patiently to increase its own leverage. Should Abbas resign or retire, Palestinians in the West Bank would be left with no recognizable national figure to guide the PA, further exacerbating division and dissension.