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Why we need elections to the Palestinian National Council

Frustrated by the failure of their leadership to push back against Israeli apartheid, Palestinians are signing a petition to give themselves a stronger voice
The Palestinian flag is waved during a protest in Tel Aviv over Israeli annexation on 6 June (AFP)

As possible annexation of more Palestinian land looms, and frustrated with the continuing divisions between Fatah and Hamas and no visible strategy to reshape the Palestinian project for liberation, a group of Palestinian figures recently launched a petition calling for elections to the Palestinian National Council (PNC). 

The PNC is the highest representative body for Palestinians everywhere. I write here as a member of the group of Palestinians who drafted the petition.

The petition comes from “the Palestinian people, in historic Palestine, in the countries of asylum and in diaspora”. It demands “the election of a new Palestinian National Council, as the first step towards rebuilding the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), in order to restore its role as a political entity that reflects the Palestinian people, in all their places of residence and as the leader of their struggle, in all its forms, be they national, institutional, or representation”.

Rebuilding the PLO

The petition affirms that the call “stems from the collective and indisputable assertion of adhering to the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of our Palestinian people”. It draws on provisions of the Basic Law of the PLO, including articles 4 and 5, which state that “all Palestinians are natural members” of the PLO and that members of the PNC are “elected by the Palestinian people by direct ballot”. 

The petition argues that “the election base is the norm and that the system of factional quotas … is the exception, and not the other way around”.

The petition reframes the struggle as one that should shift from 'the struggle for part of the land only, to the struggle for the whole land and the struggle for Palestinian national rights, both individual and collective'

The other reason given for the call is “the necessity of rebuilding the PLO on the basis of a comprehensive national vision that restores the congruence between the question of Palestine, its land, its people and its cause, starting from the unity of the people of Palestine in all their places of residence”. 

The petition reframes the struggle as one that should shift from “the struggle for part of the land only, to the struggle for the whole land and the struggle for Palestinian national rights, both individual and collective”. This refers to rejecting the failed notion of two states, which Zionism and Israel have never accepted, and finding a solution that responds to the connection of Palestinians to the whole land from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, accommodating all who live on the land now and Palestinian refugees.

The call to elect a new PNC emphasises “functional and administrative separation between the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA), thus restoring our national movement to its original character as a national liberation movement, starting from the unity of the people of Palestine, and restoring the congruence between the people, the land and the cause”.

Internal divisions

It cites the failure of reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas, which has meant them tightening their grips on the West Bank and Gaza, respectively. This has left signatories with no option “except to refer the whole matter back to the Palestinian people, and to the provisions of the PLO Charter through the electoral mechanism, which is the necessary entry point to get out of this impasse and to streamline the internal balance of Palestinian politics in a democratic manner”.

Signatories argue that electing the PNC would “release all the energies of the Palestinian people, consolidate the institutional work, and strengthen collective leadership and democracy in the Palestinian national endeavour”. 

The petition ends with a call to the Palestinian people “to unite in one voice for inclusive elections, in which Palestinians everywhere would participate, paving the way for rebuilding the all-embracing Palestinian entity of the Palestine Liberation Organisation”. 

PNC chairman Salim Zanoun is pictured in Amman on 8 February (AFP)
PNC chairman Salim Zanoun is pictured in Amman on 8 February (AFP)

The petition was developed by a group of independent Palestinian intellectuals, academics and journalists called the Palestine Forum, formed in 2018 to provide space for a Palestinian discussion about the future of the national project, without the baggage of factions. On its website, the forum has laid out its own vision and ideas for rebuilding the PLO. But the forum simply provides the initiative: the petition is owned by those who sign it, the Palestinian people.

Since its launch on 16 June on the forum’s various platforms and the Avaaz petitions site, it has garnered hundreds of signatures from Palestinians of all backgrounds and walks of life around the world.

Vigorous debate

The petition follows, though is not connected to, an exchange of letters between PNC member Salman Abu Sitta and the the council’s chairman, Salim Zanoun, in which the former called for elections but the latter nixed the idea, emphasising the need to unite behind the Palestinian leadership at this dangerous juncture, with Palestinians facing potential annexation of wide swathes of their land under the US “deal of the century”.

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Abu Sitta reminded Zanoun in his letter that the last “legitimate” meeting of the PNC was in 1988 in Algeria. Since then, a number of members of the PNC have passed away; the council’s own website does not provide a list of current members, either since the last acknowledged elections or even those who replaced them after a hastily held meeting in Ramallah in 2018 whose legitimacy was questioned by many. 

The petition’s launch has undoubtedly triggered a vigorous debate among Palestinians over where we are heading. Whether annexation happens, or what its scope may be, facts on the ground already show an entrenchment of a one-state reality in which Israel claims to be “Jewish and democratic” but has instead come to be seen as a 21st-century apartheid state

While support for Palestinians among Arab governments dwindles and normalisation with Israel increases, Palestinians are rethinking their national project. The petition for PNC elections provides a rallying cry for reform. 

Ramping up the pressure

After all the sacrifices the Palestinian people have made since their homeland was taken from them through Zionist terror and Israeli aggression, it is not acceptable to be asked to simply rally behind a leadership that has failed to deliver liberation, either of the whole land or of a state on 1967 borders.

The Palestinian people want to reform, not replace, their institutions. They are repeatedly told that the PLO is their sole, legitimate representative, and it is recognised by the world as such. But many say that the current incarnation of the PLO does not represent them, from Chile to Australia, and from Iceland to South Africa. They want a PLO that truly represents them, arguing that elections to the PNC would be an important first step on the road to achieving this.

Palestinians everywhere now have an initiative to get behind - one for which many have been calling for decades

In the coming days, there will be accusations that those behind the petition have hidden agendas or are driven by various factions. They will be accused of trying to set up alternative bodies to the PLO or its institutions. Individuals will be attacked by those who benefit from the continuation of the status quo. 

But Palestinians everywhere now have an initiative to get behind - one for which many have been calling for decades. The more who join this call, the greater the pressure will be on those who have become very comfortable in seats they have occupied for decades.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Kamel Hawwash
Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham. He is the Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and a founding member of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC).