Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Problems of the Palestinian Legitimacy

Palestinian legitimacy
Palestinian lawmakers sit during the first session of the new Palestinian parliament in Gaza City, 18 February 2006. MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

Majed Kayali

There are four legitimacies in the Palestinian sphere. The first one is revolutionary legitimacy. This one originates back to the Era of the Masses during the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s. Its source was the public opinion born amidst the emergence of the armed struggle, sacrifices, and heroic deeds of the Fedayeen, attempting to remedy its soul, its fictional entities, and realizing its hopes. The problem is that this legitimacy still relies on a factional quotas’ system despite becoming ineffective and devoid of its meanings and despite its obsolescence and the disappearance of its major political entities.

The second is representative legitimacy, which originates from the people and the ballot boxes. This legitimacy took shape after the establishment of the Palestinian entity through Oslo Accords in 1993. However, this legitimacy is incomplete and partial like the accords. Indeed, it is a legitimacy derived from only a part of the people living on a portion of the Palestinian land with restricted rights. The timeframes of this legitimacy have also expired from the legal point of view. As more than ten years have passed since the last elections, the legacies of the president and the Legislative Council have become invalid. In this domain, it is worth mentioning that this legitimacy was imposed from the outside, meaning that it did not originate from the Palestinian national movement or its political thought.

The third legitimacy emanates from the Palestinian leadership. Despite not being elected by the people, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation forms bodies that give it a certain legitimacy. Moreover, the PLO exploits its position and draws strength from its international and Arab legitimacy. The same thing applies to the presidency that follows the same process. The presidency does that in light of a legal vacuum and the absence of Palestinian legislative frameworks (the National Council and the Legislative Council). By this, we live in a situation where the Palestinian leadership appears to be electing its voters or determining voters. In turn, those voters renew its legitimacy! An example of this is the Palestinian Central Council, which replaced the National Council.

The fourth and final legitimacy is the factional one. This legitimacy originated after the decline of the PLO’s position as a reference for all Palestinians. Indeed, it came as a consequence of the division in the Palestinian national liberation movement between the two major factions Fatah and Hamas and the division of the political system between the West Bank and Gaza authorities. These two factions have a conflict over the status of legitimacy, power and leadership among the Palestinians. However, every Palestinian faction clings to the quota system, regardless of its size, shape, and role. On top of that, they claim that they have legitimacy and speak in the name of the Palestinian people. The list includes the General Command, Fatah al-Intifada, Jabhat Annidal, Jabhat Attahrir, Al Jabha AlRarabiya, the two Sha’ab parties, and FIDA!

On top of all that, we have two political systems in the Palestinian sphere. The PLO, or what remained from it, represent the first political system. It is supposed to represent all the Palestinian people and symbolizes the unity of the Palestinian cause. The second system is the Palestinian Authority in the occupied territories (1967). This system is allocated to the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. The problem with the first system is that it is still functioning despite the marginalization of the PLO and the failure to renovate its legislative structure represented by the National Council. For three decades, this council has only held a meeting twice, the first in 1996 (the 21st session) and the second in 2018 (the 23rd session). It is worth mentioning that the 22nd session of 2009 was devoted to filling the void in the Executive Committee. More importantly, the PLO did not become the reference for the Palestinian Authority. Instead, the opposite happened. Nowadays, the PLO depends on its financial resources on the PA. Even the president derives his power from the PA more than being the head of the PLO. An example of that is the decision taken by the Central Council in March 2015 to stop security coordination with Israel. This decision remained a dead letter for five years until its activation last May in response to the Deal of the Century. The same applies to another decision issued by the same council seven years ago (2009) to organize legislative elections in the Palestinian territories, which did not happen so far.

The authorities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip exemplify the 2nd system. Due to disagreement and conflict between Fatah and Hamas, this system is divided between the West Bank and Gaza. The problem with this system lies in operating according to Israeli restrictions or standards, especially those specified in the Oslo Accords. The list includes security coordination and economic relations, noting that sovereignty is still in the hands of Israel. Tel Aviv has control over land, water, electricity, currency, commercial and financial exchanges, border crossings, airspace, and regional waters. Even the head of the Authority needs coordination in his movements inside Palestine. He has also to coordinate his movement from outside to inside the Palestinian territories and vice versa.

However, that the dilemma of the Palestinians legitimacy does not stop there. What exacerbates the problem is its link to the decline of the Palestinian national project and the failure of the political options that their national movement took upon themselves. Nowadays, Palestinians have increasing feeling of loss and the lack of a reference in everything related to the conditions of their societies in the occupied territories (1948 and 1967), in countries of asylum in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and in countries of diaspora.

From all this, it is fair to say that there is a dilemma in Palestinian legitimacy. This dilemma applies to its purpose and structure. For about half a century, the Palestinian leadership, or the ruling political class, showed that it has been acting while not being aware of the dangers of this dilemma. It appears that this leadership did not take into consideration risks arising from the erosion of the Palestinian revolutionary, representative, and factional legitimacies, with the end of the armed struggle and factional era, and the transformation of the liberation movement into an authority, and with the failure to renovate the National and Legislative Councils.

The question now is, will the legislative elections open, or will they pave the way for legitimate leadership? Or will we keep struggling with shaky and eroded legitimacies?


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our bloggers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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