It’s Time to Reclaim UNRWA

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) recently launched an appeal for $14 million in anticipation of a coronavirus outbreak in Palestinian refugee camps. It’s an indication of the dire financial straits the agency is in, particularly since the US – once its major donor – cut its annual $360 million donation in August 2018.  

No account can truly capture the increasing suffering those cuts brought on. In the Gaza Strip, for instance – one of the most densely populated places in the world – some 1.4 million out of 2 million people are refugees, and 80% of them depend on humanitarian assistance for their sustenance and livelihood. The cuts have reduced key services, from healthcare to education, accelerating Gaza’s descent into a terrifying dystopia. 

New Cuts, Same Policy

Though the 2018 US decision caused an “historical shortfall” in UNRWA’s budget, it did not signal a fundamental shift in US policy. Rather, it represented an upsurge in an ongoing US-Israeli strategy to weaken and ultimately dismantle the agency. Instead of serving as a means to integrate refugees, as was originally intended by Western powers, over the decades UNRWA emerged as a symbol of the Palestinian refugee predicament and a substitute welfare state-in-exile. This is why the agency’s wings are being clipped and its programs targeted. 

Over time, and particularly since the Oslo Accords, Israel and the US have aimed to destroy UNRWA’s cultural ethos as it pertains to a collective sense of Palestinian national belonging. They have also worked to drive a wedge between the refugees and the agency, expand monitoring mechanisms to scrutinize and control the agency’s programs as well as its staff, and diminish its standing regionally and internationally. 

For years, Israeli lobby groups have pushed Western states to suspend their funding to UNRWA, accusing the agency of anti-Semitism, corruption, and having links to terrorism. 1 Donor states such as Canada have responded by conditioning funding on “reform” programs and stricter monitoring procedures. UNRWA usually complies with such demands to secure funding. 

Also in response to these pressures, UNRWA has increasingly highlighted concepts such as neutrality, human rights, human development, protection, and gender to emphasize individual and social rights while prohibiting expressions of what it defines as “political.” Former employees of the agency have relayed to this author that warnings and layoffs have occurred in recent years due to employees not expressing themselves “neutrally.” Staff have also been asked to remove pre-1948 Palestinian maps from textbooks and UNRWA facilities, and have experienced monitoring over programs to ensure they contain no criticism of Israel or Zionism.

Palestinians whose voices have been marginalized for too long, especially refugees and the poor, must be encouraged to participate in efforts to reclaim UNRWA
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The separation of the individual from the collective, and defining Palestinian national belonging as a political act that transgresses the agency’s humanitarian mandate, mutes demands for Palestinians’ collective rights. The agency also stresses infrastructural camp improvements and microfinance programs, which are even more clearly linked to a long-term strategy to integrate and resettle refugees rather than empower them and ultimately enable them to implement the right of return.

In Jordan, for example, effective, community-based, and genuinely participatory programs, especially those from the mid-to-late 1980s, have fizzled out and their remnants handed over to the Jordanian state or even contracted out to international organizations. These include the Women’s Program Centers, Youth Programs, and the Community-Based Rehabilitation Program for Persons with Disabilities. These centers served local communities while fostering and protecting Palestinian cultural life and collective identity. 

Pushing Back 

The US’s defunding of UNRWA and the agency’s disempowering “reforms” reflect the political environment shored up by the Trump administration’s policies, including the “Deal of the Century” and support for Israel’s illegal annexation of Jerusalem, much of the West Bank, and Syria’s Golan Heights. Trump has even decided there are no Palestinians in Jerusalem, only “Arabs” and non-Israelis. This has implications for UNRWA’s operations, because if there are no Palestinians in Jerusalem, there are no Palestinian refugees for whom to provide services. Such a narrative creates a situation more conducive to the threat of a US and Israeli campaign, likely backed by supporters such as Saudi Arabia, to annul UN Resolution 194 (III)

Yet such imperialist outcomes are not inevitable; they can be defeated if there is a strategy. In particular, those Palestinians whose voices have been marginalized and silenced for too long, especially refugees and the poor, must be encouraged to participate in collective efforts to reclaim UNRWA: 

  • Palestinians in civil society organizations, political parties, and right of return committees must take UNRWA back from those who attempt to instrumentalize it as a mechanism for integration or resettlement. This means mobilizing refugees and UNRWA’s refugee-employees to better coordinate campaigns calling attention to the fact that the agency’s mandate is to provide refugees with humanitarian services until such a time as a just durable political solution has been reached that includes repatriation as an option.
  • Legal centers and experts in international law should develop a unified strategy to intervene in international fora to preempt anti-UNRWA campaigns. 
  • Palestinian progressive forces and right of return committees and campaigns must consolidate efforts to counter malicious rumors and ideas about UNRWA. 
  • Palestinians should oppose donor-imposed conditions on UNRWA that violate refugee rights, such as the rights of refugee children to learn in UNRWA-run schools about their pre-1948 histories and about their inalienable rights, such as the right of return. 
  • Palestinians must also question more thoroughly why so much UNRWA funding goes into “neutrality” or “human rights” workshops, as well as “monitoring,” and should work to change this use of funding to address the fact that many refugee families are in dire need of such resources for basic health or relief services. 


  1. See, for example, one of the more recent attempts by B’nai B’rith Canada calling for suspending funding to the agency due to “corruption.”

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Israeli demolitions and police raids on Palestinian towns ‘threaten public health’ as coronavirus cases soar

The Palestinian newlyweds were first worried about where they were going to live when the Israeli authorities made them demolish their home in East Jerusalem earlier this month. Now, amid a surge in cases of the coronavirus, Mohamed, 26, and his bride fear they cannot protect themselves against the spread of the deadly disease. The family was given a deadline of the first week in March to demolish their new home or pay 120,000 shekels (£27,000) for the Israeli authorities to do it, which they could not afford. And so, Mohamed spent thousands of dollars hiring a bulldozer to hack down the flat he had just built a few weeks ago.

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Radical Futures: When Palestinians Imagine

We must tell stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe…
Remember this: another world is not only possible, she is on her way.”

– Arundhati Roy 1


Facing a constant process of erasure, Palestinians find themselves in a situation in which their past and their futures are denied. They are locked in a continuous present in which the settler colonial power, Israel, determines temporal and spatial boundaries. Palestinians often refer to this as the Nakba al mustamirrah, or the continuous Nakba, in which displacement, dispossession, and destruction occur on a never-ending continuum. It is this continuity of Nakba that has rendered it difficult for Palestinians to think about the future: Surviving the ever-deteriorating present, particularly in Palestine itself, takes priority. 

This commentary highlights scholarship on colonialism and imagining radical futures, and then traces articulations of the future that suppress Palestinians. It concludes with examples of how Palestinians, despite their subjugation, continue to radically imagine, and calls for a future built from Palestinians’ collective

Colonialism and Perceptions of Reality  

Frantz Fanon wrote that French colonialism in Algeria “always developed on the assumption that it would last forever,” noting that “the structures built, the port facilities, the airdromes, [and] the prohibition of the Arab language” all gave the impression that a rupture in the colonial time was impossible. Indeed, “every manifestation of the French presence expressed a continuous rooting in time and in the Algerian future, and could always be read as a token of an indefinite oppression.” visions.

Similarly, the Israeli regime creates “facts on the ground” through continued settlement building in the West Bank and the appropriation of land across the Green Line, constantly moving the boundaries of what is accepted as Israeli land in favor of the settler colonial regime.

Settler colonial and colonial projects thus seek to control perceptions of reality in order to bind Indigenous and colonized people in a seemingly perpetual state of being, or normalized stasis. Imagining a future beyond this state is thus a rebellious and radical act, and is by no means an easy one. 

Settler colonial and colonial projects seek to control perceptions of reality in order to bind Indigenous and colonized people in a seemingly perpetual state of being
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Indigenous scholar and thinker Waziyatawin, writing on settler colonialism in Turtle Island (the US and Canada), explains how life beyond colonialism is especially difficult to perceive in the context of the “world’s greatest and last superpower.” For Palestinians, it is also challenging to imagine a future in which the continuous Nakba is not a feature of daily life. For example, many Palestinians find it difficult to conceive of a future in which the right of return is fulfilled and the refugees and all Palestinians are given full rights in their historic homeland. Waziyatawin’s call to Indigenous people to think beyond the spatial and temporal confines speaks to this difficulty:

As Indigenous Peoples, it is essential that we understand the direness of the global situation, recognize the fallacy of industrial civilization’s invulnerability, and begin to imagine a future beyond empire and beyond the colonial nation-states that have kept us subjugated.

Arjun Appadurai describes imagination as “an organized field of social practices, a form of work…and a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility.” In other words, imagination is an amalgamation of individualized and socialized perceptions of what is possible. It is this collective element that makes imagining distinct from fantasy. Appadurai makes the distinction:

The idea of fantasy carries with it the inescapable connotation of thought divorced from projects and actions, and it also has a private, even individualistic sound about it. The imagination, on the other hand, has a projective sense about it…especially when collective, [it] can become the fuel for action. It is the imagination, in its collective forms, that creates ideas of neighborhood and nationhood, of moral economies and unjust rule, of higher wages and foreign labor prospects. The imagination is today a staging ground for action, and not only for escape.

This distinction places imagination beyond the abstract and in the realm of possibility and (radical) action. It is also important to note that imagining beyond empire is not a return to a pre-invasion past or, in the case of Palestine, a return to before 1948. Rather, it is a process in which ways to dismantle colonialism and its oppression are explored, as well as ways to rebuild after dismantlement. This is decolonial work, which must accompany the anti-colonial work that challenges and confronts the colonial regime.

Suppressive Visions of the Future 

Not all articulations of the future can be described as radical or decolonial imagining. Palestinian futures have long been discussed either without Palestinians’ input or with limited and foreign frameworks, many of which are inherently tied to the nation state. Today, many mainstream political ideas and imaginations of the future place the containment of the Indigenous Palestinians and security for the settler state as the primary concern. 

Indeed, the framing of Israel/Palestine as two warring national groups rather than a settler colonial project has helped privilege the idea of “two states along the 1967 borders” as the most appropriate and feasible future for Israelis and Palestinians. The hegemony of this two-state idea was further cemented when the Palestinian leadership implicitly endorsed it in the PLO’s Ten Point Plan of 1974, officially becoming its champion in the early 1990s with the Oslo Accords, which laid out a supposed timetable for achieving Palestinian statehood. 2

Oslo concretely shifted the PLO’s discourse and policies from liberation and anti-colonialism to that of state-building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This shift also transformed Palestinian civil society, which became largely reliant on external donor patronage. Such a change within both the political representation and civil society rendered much of the Palestinian collective imaginative process bound by a specific political agenda. Salamanca and his co-authors pose important rhetorical questions with regard to this shift: 

When did the ongoing struggle over land and for return become a “postconflict” situation? When did Israel become a “post-Zionist” society? When did indigenous Palestinians in the Galilee (for example) become an “ethnic minority?” And when did the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the consequent fortification of Palestinian reserves become “state-building?

The political framing of anti-colonial struggle was turned on its head, with the focus on collective liberation shifting to one of individual success, and particularly capital gain. Moreover, the limitation of Palestine and Palestinians to the West Bank and Gaza Strip continues to marginalize refugees, those in the diaspora, and the Palestinian citizens of Israel, effectively relegating them to issues of minor or no concern. Imaginations of the future within this framework not only exclude the majority of the Palestinian people; they are also contingent on the terms of the settler colonial entity and its imagined eternity. This façade of permanency, common to all colonial and settler colonial projects, sets the future within colonial borders. 

Many mainstream political ideas and imaginations of the future place the containment of Palestinians and security for the settler state as the primary concern
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One of the main arguments supporting this future is that of feasibility. Those in positions of power determine feasibility through what they view as possible, rational, and practical. For example, Palestinians are consistently told that the two-state solution is the only possible outcome and that they must therefore concede on certain rights, including the right of return. Indeed, epistemic violence in the academy, the media, and the political sphere, in which Palestinians are forced to accept certain “truths” that negate the legitimacy of their own voices and rights, is widespread. 

Richard Falk, writing on the Palestinian future, argues against the feasibility argument in the case of the two-state solution, maintaining that it consists of dead-end characteristics:

…horizons of feasibility limit Palestinian options to two: either agree to a further round of negotiations that are all but certain to fail, or refuse such negotiations and be held responsible for obstructing peace seeking efforts.

Falk argues for freeing the moral and political imagination by acknowledging the “necessities of a just peace with dignity, and by so doing, set our sights high above the horizons of desire.” However, breaking free of the confines of feasibility is not easy, especially when they have long been enshrined in the Palestinian lexicon and daily existence. 

Palestinian Radical Imagining 

Nonetheless, individuals and small groups of Palestinians from all the fragments of Palestinian society have been attempting to imagine a future in different and radical ways. It is no surprise that many of these imaginations center around the right of the return of the Palestinian refugees, regardless of whether they themselves are refugees. 

One of the leading Palestinian scholars in this regard is Salman Abu Sitta, whose cartographic work demonstrates the feasibility of return through an empirically spatial and demographic approach. Through an assessment of the land and people, Abu Sitta demonstrates that there is enough land for all the returning refugees as well as Israeli citizens. He organizes return into a staggered process of seven phases, based on regional distribution and a housing construction plan. Abu Sitta takes the notion of return, which has been utilized primarily discursively among Palestinians, and creates a tangible action plan. Although many may disagree with the process, it shows that there are ways in which it can be actualized.

Another spatially-orientated project that looks to the future is the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR), based in Beit Sahour, Bethlehem. Decolonizing Architecture is a collaboration between “locals and internationals, and between artists and architects” and considers decolonization in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from an architectural perspective, imagining the dismantling of the settlements and the return of the land to the Palestinians. 

The project’s scholars also focus on refugee return and argue that “return and decolonization are entangled concepts – we cannot think about return without decolonization, just as we cannot think about decolonization without return.” The work aims to intertwine architecture in the collective cultural imagination of the future. Although Decolonizing Architecture’s work is limited to the 1967 borders – more specifically, the West Bank and Gaza Strip – for reasons of focus, it is not ideologically reduced to the geographic limitations of the “Occupied Palestinian Territories;” rather, it understands Palestine in its historic entirety.

Various groups of young Palestinians descended from the internally displaced (the muhajjareen) in the 1948 Palestinian Territories are also taking part in radical imaginings of their destroyed villages. The internally displaced comprise a third of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and many of them live close to the villages from which their grandparents and parents were displaced in 1948. The Israeli state prevents them from returning to their ancestral lands through various legal mechanisms, including military orders. 

Palestinian radical imaginations of the future not only provide a counter narrative; brought together, they can provide a blueprint for liberation
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Some groups, for example, maintain a physical presence on the site of their destroyed villages by erecting shelters and tents, such as at Iqrith and Kufr Bir’am. The Israeli authorities constantly disrupt this presence and deem it “illegal” out of fear that the activists might set a precedent for other internally displaced Palestinians. Other internally displaced activists have rebuilt their villages through models and computerized simulations, factoring in not only their return but those of their relatives who fled to neighboring countries in 1948, building on Abu Sitta’s notion of creating a return action plan. 

These are only a few examples that embody radical imaginations of the future. They not only provide a counter narrative; brought together, they can provide a blueprint for liberation. Yet many of these projects and initiatives are disjointed and not continuous. One of the reasons for this is undoubtedly the geographic, social, and political fragmentation of the Palestinian people, which likewise hinders their ability to rally around a political consensus on liberation. The struggle is therefore not only to imagine, but to do so collectively. 

In his final piece for The Guardian, columnist Gary Younge wrote: “Imagine a world in which you might thrive, for which there is no evidence. And then fight for it. Today, where future visions continue to be written for Palestinians – the latest manifestation being that of the Trump administration – it is vital to fight for a future built out of Palestinians’ collective imaginations. 


  1. Arundhati Roy, War Talk (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2003), 127.
  2. It is important to note that the Oslo Accords did not happen in a vacuum; rather, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the PLO’s increasing isolation from Arab regimes as well as its exodus from Lebanon to Tunis contributed to setting the stage for this momentous shift in discourse and strategy.

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‘A hotbed for fake news’: How Palestinians are fighting coronavirus misinformation

The World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus a pandemic last Thursday. But in addition to combating the spread of the disease, health practitioners and governments are also battling an alarming spread of misinformation. “We’re fighting an infodemic,” declared WHO Director General Dr. Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

This was the case in the occupied Palestinian territories over the last week, after the virus infected more than 39 people, primarily in the city of Bethlehem. One message circulating on WhatsApp in Arabic promoted a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 is a form of biological warfare released by China. Another text message warns people to stay home after midnight because helicopters will be spraying disinfectants across different cities. A pharmacy near Jenin ran an online ad for a miracle drug, claiming it can cure coronavirus and malaria.

Recognizing the importance of busting myths about the virus, the WHO has partnered with social media companies such as FacebookTwitter, and TikTok to screen and remove false information.

Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub, who heads the WHO’s office in the Palestinian territories, said the organization is also working on a local level with the Bank of Palestine, using computer screens at their banking facilities to publish correct information, and with Paltel, the Palestinian telecommunications company, to send out text messages with important updates. Social media influencers have also been recruited to disseminate facts about the virus. For trustworthy information, said Rockenschaub, people should rely on messages put out by the government and UN agencies.

Misinformation is dangerous and can produce a false sense of security, said Marwa Fatafta, a Palestinian digital rights advocate and a policy analyst at the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka. Some reactions to the virus online have taken a patriotic tone, she said, reassuring people that, given the trials and tribulations Palestinians have historically endured, the coronavirus “will not defeat us.” Others, she continued, are referring to the pandemic as a test of God, telling people the virus can be staved off with prayers.

The coronavirus “has become another political issue to have an opinion on,” said Fatafta. “So, you can be sarcastic, you can disbelieve it.”

The risks of misinformation are especially high for Palestinians, added Fatafta. “In the history of colonization and occupation, we have learned not to trust political powers.” As a result, their relationship to authority is not based on a healthy social contract. “We have our intuitive distrust to authorities because we don’t believe they will act in our interest,” she explained. Recent polls show that over 40 percent of Palestinians surveyed in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip lack trust in their current leadership, while 61 percent believe President Mahmoud Abbas should resign.

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In Palestine, injustice is also environmental

Adapting to climate change in Palestine is more of a political issue than a purely environmental one. How can we ensure the survival of a people that are both Stateless and deprived of their natural resources?

Alaa Tartir, Al-Shabaka Program Advisor,  interviews Michael Mason, Director of the Middle East Centre, The London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Palestine and U.S. Elections

The topic of Palestine is already proving to be divisive within the U.S. Democratic primaries, and it will undoubtedly remain a consistent question throughout the 2020 election season.

Where do leading presidential candidates stand, and what role does civil society play in influencing shifts in political discourse and policy positions? Al-Shabaka analysts Halah Ahmad and Zaha Hassan weigh in on these questions and more in our Super Tuesday policy lab, hosted by Nur Arafeh.

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The US Democratic Candidates on Racial Justice and Palestine: Divergence or Convergence?


Leading US Democratic presidential candidates have chosen to address, among other progressive platforms, the rising demand for racial justice reforms, from prison reform to school funding and reparations. In particular, candidates have embraced reforms that respond to grassroots movements against police brutality and a host of criminal justice issues, and have sought to counter racism directed at refugees and immigrants. 

Yet the moral and visionary high ground presumed by these domestic positions does not translate into parallel positions on inequality beyond US borders. Indeed, Democratic candidates’ views on Palestine and human rights often reflect an inconsistency in their commitment to tackling inequality and racism. While foreign policy issues have rarely differentiated presidential candidates in the past, in this election they are a key litmus test for candidates’ sincerity vis-à-vis their commitment to justice and civil and human rights. 

As many vocal civil rights activists and scholars have argued, the struggle for equality for Black communities in the US has significant parallels with the Palestinian struggle for basic rights and dignity. In Palestine/Israel, Palestinians face brutality at the hands of Israeli soldiers who are rarely, if ever, held accountable; Palestinian children are arbitrarily detained and arrested in the West Bank; and unequal sentencing practices in Israeli courts ensure mass imprisonment and detention of Palestinians without charge or trial. Palestinian citizens of Israel as well as those living under Israeli occupation, similar to Black Americans in the US, face severe and systemic discrimination, oppression, and institutionalized economic disadvantage.

Trump’s recent executive order on the definition of anti-Semitism, effectively labeling critique of Israel as anti-Semitic, constrains those advocating for Palestinian rights. As activists for racial justice in the US know well, government stances on legality and licit or illicit speech have often historically silenced critics of systemic inequality. Meanwhile, as Israel continues to receive an annual $3 billion in unconditional aid from US taxpayers, Palestinians experience apartheid and face further annexation of their land. As Israel enjoys impunity, the issue of Palestinian oppression, as an extension of the same principles underlying racial justice in the US, is crucial for US presidential candidates to address. 

This commentary traces the three top Democratic candidates’ rhetoric and policy positions on Palestine and assesses those positions relative to candidates’ stances on racial justice in the US. 1 The piece then discusses ways Palestinian civil society and its allies have been successful in creating a context for candidates to oppose racism and inequality across borders. It ultimately proposes strategies through which the public can demand that candidates place Palestinian rights alongside the other progressive causes they champion, including racial justice and criminal justice reform. 

Tracking Candidates’ Positions on Palestine 

The 2020 race features perhaps the most progressive candidates the US has seen in decades, particularly in the figures of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Yet even an establishment candidate such as Joe Biden has shifted his rhetoric leftward when it comes to issues of racial justice. Every major Democratic candidate has called attention to the historic disadvantage faced by Black Americans, with varied plans to counter it through such proposals as prison reform, bail reform, debt relief, and equitable access to healthcare. 

The common thread across all of the candidates’ racial justice agendas is an acknowledgement that US policies have been harmful and have not followed standards of racial equity, and that this is fundamentally at odds with the values of freedom, equal opportunity, and fairness. When compared to their positions on the rights of Palestinians, such progressive values generally come up short, with the candidates repeating one-sided rhetoric on Israel’s right to exist in security and nominally supporting a defunct two-state solution and “peace process” that allows Israel to continue its colonization of Palestinian land and displacement of Palestinians. However, this election has also seen the development of further accountability for Israel and support for Palestinian self-determination – language that departs from the status quo and mirrors the shift in opinions among the Democratic Party’s electorate.  

Elizabeth Warren

Warren decried historic discrimination against Black Americans in her opening speech to declare her candidacy. She aims to work toward ending mass incarceration and claims her housing plan will reverse decades of redlining that have segregated and disadvantaged Black communities in US cities. 

Yet on de jure apartheid policies in Palestine/Israel, Warren has reiterated establishment politics. Alongside her fellow Democratic candidates, she has backed a two-state solution. She has also said that the “bearing down” of Israel’s demographic realities require action. This reference to the faster growth rate of Palestinian families is a troubling suggestion that Palestinian birth is undesirable or problematic. The comment also ignores the historic displacement of Palestinians and reaffirms a false idea that Jews came to an empty land, populated it, and are only now, by happenstance and not displacement, being surpassed in population. 

The Democratic candidates’ views on Palestine and human rights often reflect an inconsistency in their commitment to tackling inequality and racism
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In November 2019 the Israeli Air Force carried out a strike near Gaza City that killed 34 Palestinians. Though Warren welcomed the subsequent ceasefire and decried both rocket attacks on Israel and the humanitarian plight in Gaza, she stopped short of implicating Israel in the deaths. As Israel faces charges in the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Gaza in 2014 (an offensive that killed over 2,000 Palestinians, a third of them women and children) as well as ongoing war crimes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Warren’s language grants Israel continuing impunity. 

Moreover, Warren refers to Israel as a “liberal democracy,” a misnomer now more than ever. In 2018, the Israeli Knesset passed the nation-state law proclaiming Israel as a state for Jews, affirming the legality of preferential policies toward its Jewish population. As Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, reports, this is one of over 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel, from Jewish-only neighborhood laws (much like historically racist redlining in the US) to restrictions on marriage. In 2017, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia released a report confirming an apartheid system in the West Bank. In addition, Netanyahu has been charged with corruption and incitement against members of the Palestinian Joint List, the Israeli party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

Warren’s critique of Netanyahu as a corrupt leader aligned with Trump does not mean that she stands against decades of race-based and systemic discrimination and violence experienced by Palestinians. Rather, Warren shies of criticizing Israel’s abuse of Palestinian human rights. Coupled, then, with her legislative record, such as supporting a bill that gave Israel emergency aid in 2014 during its onslaught on Gaza, Warren’s calls for justice reflect inconsistency on justice for Palestinians.  

However, Warren has increased her rhetoric in favor of Palestinian self-determination and against the occupation, and was the first candidate to say she would skip the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference this year, something that has been a tradition for all major candidates. Warren has also said that “everything is on the table” when it comes to halting Israel’s expansion of settlements, including US aid. This stance is an unprecedented push for accountability, and was first raised by Sanders. 

Bernie Sanders

Sanders has built his campaign around a critique of dramatic wealth inequality and healthcare for all. Within that platform are several positions he has explicitly called out as a response to racial inequality, mass incarceration, and criminal justice reform. 

On Palestinian rights, Sanders has expressly mentioned tangible ways to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations. He was the first to say he would use aid to Israel as leverage in facilitating peace in the region. Sanders has openly criticized Netanyahu, as well as other heads of state and dictators complicit in human rights abuses globally. His lens on inequality lends to some consistency in foreign policy, as he has criticized Saudi Arabia and others for brutality, corruption, and dictatorship. 

Moreover, Sanders was the only candidate in 2016 to miss the AIPAC annual conference, and is missing it again this year, tweeting that the decision stems from his concern “about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” Sanders is also the only candidate to repeatedly invoke Palestinian rights, dignity, and justice as a logical extension of critiques of human rights abuses by other countries, stating, “It is no longer good enough for us simply to be pro-Israel. I am pro-Israel. But we must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity that they deserve.” 

As he still glosses over the history of the Israeli state, focusing on the far-right Israel of Netanyahu, he misses the broader issue – and broader inequality – within the Zionist vision of a Jewish state that Israel represents and for which it advocates. Yet his invocation of Palestinian rights has pushed Democratic candidates to discuss the issue of Palestinian equality in a way it rarely has before. 

Joe Biden

On criminal justice reform, Biden has endorsed a host of baseline policies common to all the Democratic candidates, such as ending mandatory minimums in sentencing, closing private prisons, discontinuing juveniles in adult prisons, reforming the bail system, and decriminalizing marijuana. Notably, however, Biden has been unable to account for his historic involvement in “the war on crime” and its policies that resulted in mass incarceration and criminalization of Black Americans. Thus, while one can critique his lack of cohesive principles on racial justice outside the US, it is necessary to note that his changes of position are strictly rhetorical at this stage, with his record much less progressive than his current campaign language implies. 

A racial justice and equality-oriented agenda that excludes Palestinians reinforces the decline of accountability to human rights around the world
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On Palestine/Israel, Biden is a self-described Zionist who has long touted the need to preserve and protect “a Jewish Democratic state.” He has repeatedly affirmed his support for a two-state solution as the “only solution” that can work given “demographic realities,” repeating some of the same pitfalls as Warren in affirming this without corollary promises to hold Israel accountable for undermining such a solution repeatedly. 2 Moreover, while Warren and Sanders have referenced the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and opposed bans on boycotts of Israel, Biden makes no mention of abuse of Palestinian rights. Instead, he consistently commits to upholding a blanket notion of Israel’s right to defend itself against those it oppresses that gives no regard to the necessity of accountability.

Even as former US President Barack Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu soured toward the end of his presidency, Biden remained on good terms with him. He has called Netanyahu a friend despite other Democrats, such as Warren and Sanders, decrying his extreme politics, aggressive settlement expansion, and corruption scandals. Biden represents establishment Democrats’ longstanding complicity with Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, never holding it to account for its violations of human rights and international law and sanctifying Israeli “security” over any concerns about Palestinians’ systematic subjugation.

As chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 12 years, Biden maintained a steadfastly pro-Israel position. However, as vice president, he condemned Israel’s announcement of 1,600 new settlements in East Jerusalem in 2010. Biden appears to understand that Israel has consistently undermined the preconditions to good-faith negotiations with Palestinians. However, he never doubts the undergirding racism of a “Jewish state” that undermines the rights of non-Jews not as an aberration, but as its very manifestation.

De-Exceptionalizing Palestine and Empowering Platforms that Respect Palestinian Rights

As Biden and even Warren continue to repeat the tired discourse of blind support for Israel, and even Sanders appeals to views of Israel’s Zionist colonial project as a valid expression of Jewish self-determination despite it being at Palestinians’ expense, their platforms for justice prove weaker and more limited than their rhetoric may imply. A racial justice and equality-oriented agenda that excludes Palestinians only reinforces the decline of accountability to human rights around the world. 

If the International Criminal Court found enough evidence, as it has, to raise a case against Israel for war crimes against Palestinians in not only Gaza but East Jerusalem and the West Bank, US presidential candidates can no longer make Palestine the exception to their progressive stances on equality, justice, and dignity. Voters find in this election a more real choice in foreign policy than they have seen in a long time: establishment policies from Biden and even Warren (although less so in her more recent rhetoric), or a more consistent doctrine of human rights from Sanders. 

The election also provides notable lessons for Palestinian rights activists and their allies. Sanders’ position on Israel and Palestine would not have been possible for a leading presidential candidate without the work of grassroots, academic, and cross-movement solidarity activists. Palestine activists, including members of National Students for Justice in Palestine, set out to make Palestine a priority among progressives, and particularly for Sanders, in his first presidential campaign. In 2015, a group of activists at a campaign rally raised a large banner stating, “Will Ya Feel the Bern for Palestine?,” using the popular slogan of his supporters. After a staffer forced them to leave, the campaign apologized, causing a national media storm about allowing pro-Palestinian discourse a place in a progressive Democratic campaign. 

No candidate can profess as much consistency across progressive policies as Bernie Sanders
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While this event was just one of many initiatives of pro-Palestinian rights activists to push the establishment to include Palestine in the question of a progressive agenda, it modeled effective direct action that can raise mainstream media attention, much like the more recent direct action of groups like IfNotNow, who have forced candidates to respond on issues of Israeli military aid, the occupation, and illegal settlements.  

Meanwhile, while the work of such activists certainly played a role in bolstering a national conversation about Palestine, the shift in discourse among Jewish Americans is crucial given the number of influential groups that claim to represent their views, such as AIPAC. The shift of Jewish Americans, especially youth, to be critical of Israel has relied on, among other things, post-Zionist scholarship increasingly available to English readers since the 1990s. 

Moreover, intersectional, anti-racism solidarity has advanced the cause of Palestinian human rights. In 2015, protests against police brutality in Ferguson found natural solidarity among Palestinian protestors in Palestine, who advised on methods of dealing with tear gas from the police – police who are often trained by Israeli occupation forces. With the founding of Black Lives Matter, solidarity with Palestinians was re-inscribed in a national progressive agenda on justice, as the published stances of the Movement for Black Lives in 2016 called out Israeli apartheid policies, a move that drew criticism but forced progressives-except-for-Palestine (“PEPs”) to grapple with the inconsistency of their stances on Israel. Black-Palestine solidarity is in no way new, however. Figures in the black civil rights movement such as Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Cornel West, and Michelle Alexander have all decried the circumstances of Palestinians and the systematic racism of the Israeli state. 

A growing discourse that criticizes Israeli policies and advocates for Palestinian rights, built on student activist and academic work on campuses across the country and the world, has likewise raised awareness of Israeli rights violations, despite campaigns to repress that work. Israeli Apartheid Week, for example, has become an annual event at many universities that aims to deepen the analysis of Israel as committing the crime of apartheid. In 2017, Professors Virginia Tilley and Richard Falk produced their report on Israeli apartheid, using international law and human rights conventions to assess, and ultimately affirm, the existence of an apartheid system in the West Bank. The popularization of this discourse for the better half of a decade has helped push a candidate like Sanders, critical of Israeli policy, to receive the support he has. No candidate can profess as much consistency across progressive policies as Sanders. 

A number of lessons and actions inform this history and the growing demand for racial justice and Palestinian rights across any legitimate progressive platform:   

  • Supporters of any of the Democratic presidential candidates should demand more than establishment stances on Israel. Just as direct action can hold institutions and individuals accountable to their expressed principles and values, civil society advocates should push progressive campaigns and their champions, such as those of Sanders and Warren, to support Palestinian human rights and self-determination not only in rhetoric but also in policies that hold Israel accountable for its violations of Palestinian rights.
  • Activists who seek to push candidates to de-exceptionalize Palestine in their progressive agendas must continue to connect the struggles of Black Americans and Palestinians, as well as other groups struggling against systematic oppression. Such solidarity comes from deepening learning on issues of oppression beyond Palestine and taking action as allies in advocating for justice, equality, and dignity; the past decade has seen effective examples in direct action, joint demonstrations and statements, and even collective, mass petitions led by major figures from allied movements.  
  • As campus activism and academia has proven influential in creating an increasingly informed electorate on Palestinians’ historic and current oppression, it must continue to be a space for uplifting unbiased, inclusive studies and discourse on Israel and Palestine. As student activists and academics continue to highlight Palestinian indigenous history and ongoing injustice, supporters of racial justice and broader progressive values should demand greater protections for freedom of expression and the right to organize.


  1. At the time of writing, Michael Bloomberg and Amy Klobuchar have fewer delegates than the three candidates discussed in this piece. Furthermore, Bloomberg may be seen as a noncontender on the issue of racial justice and Palestine; on both issues, he strays from the rest of the candidates with a centrist and even right-wing stance that many have critiqued for complicity with racism in the criminal justice system and with oppression in Palestine/Israel.
  2. Biden’s speeches to J Street and AIPAC in 2019 reiterate this stance.

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Israel elections: amid polling fatigue, can Arab list make gains in third vote?

Israelis go to the polls on Monday for the third time in less than a year, with Palestinian citizens hoping to shake up the political system as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fights to stay in power and out of prison.

In the months since Israelis last voted in September, Washington has released its long-awaited Middle East peace plan and Mr Netanyahu has been indicted on corruption charges.

But despite such developments and weeks of campaigning, further political deadlock seems likely as polls show few Israelis will switch allegiances although the growing political fatigue means turnout is expected to drop.

Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party is set to again come out tied with the centrist Blue and White party, led by former army chief Benny Gantz, with each winning 33 or 34 seats according to polls published Friday.

Both would need to link up with smaller parties in the 120-member Knesset to form a government, but neither leader is expected to gain the necessary support of 61 lawmakers.

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz have rejected the Arab-led Joint List as a possible coalition partner, despite expectations it will be the third-largest alliance with 13 or 14 seats.

The September election saw an uptick in turnout among Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel, also called Arab Israelis, widely seen as a reaction to Mr Netanyahu’s vilification of the community. If the momentum continues, the Joint List could get a further boost at the polls.

“There is a great feeling of change in the street, they feel that they might create or introduce a big change in Israeli politics at large,” said Arik Rudnitzky, a researcher in Arab-Jewish relations at the Israel Democracy Institute.

The alliance has pledged to tackle issues such as violent crime in Arab neighbourhoods, while also reaching out to other communities with adverts in Yiddish and Amharic.

“I think this time the Joint List, the components were not busy with their own dividing lines and past rivalries, they were very clear and conveyed a message of unity,” Mr Rudnitzky told The National.

No other party is making serious efforts to win the support of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up around 20 per cent of the population.

Towards the end of the latest campaign, Mr Netanyahu made an appearance in an Arab constituency in northern Israel. But the meeting was met with protest, while an interview with Arabic-language media appears to have fallen flat.

Yara Hawari, a senior fellow at the Al Shabaka Palestinian policy network, said Arabs are driven to vote for the Joint List despite knowing it will not be in government.

“There’s a glass ceiling that Palestinians can’t smash through and I think that deep down a lot of people know that, but Palestinians hope they can achieve the best they can within this [political] structure,” she told The National.

The prime minister has long courted the pro-settlement camp and in February announced thousands of new settler homes in occupied East Jerusalem, which are viewed as illegal by most of the international community.

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Democracy in the West Bank and Gaza: More than Elections


Last September, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas renewed his pledge to hold parliamentary elections and called for an international presence to monitor the process. Abbas has spoken sporadically of elections since the beginning of 2019, and many of his critics argue that he is simply paying lip service to the voices calling for democratization in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Indeed, when Abbas became president in 2005, he had a four-year presidential term. At the time of writing, he has exceeded his electoral mandate by over a decade, and his strategy of governing by presidential decree as well as the PA’s increasing authoritarianism have left many questioning his sincerity when he speaks of Palestinian democracy.

One can argue that the calls for elections are the PA’s attempt to renew its legitimacy at a time when its approval ratings are abysmal and its position on the global diplomatic stage the most vulnerable it has ever been. Certainly, the internal and external pressure for an electoral process is at an all-time high. Yet whilst international actors are keen for elections to forge ahead, various Palestinian political factions have called on Abbas to hold a national meeting to agree on a variety of issues before setting a date. Abbas, however, has thus far rejected this call, and rather ironically will likely go ahead with elections through presidential decree. Crucially, and surprising many within Fatah, Hamas has approved holding both legislative and presidential elections. The remaining obstacle is the issue of holding elections in East Jerusalem. 

Abbas has stated that elections will not take place unless they do so in the Palestinian capital, and the PA submitted an official request to the Israeli authorities in this regard. The Israelis have not yet responded, but in general Israel represses PA political activity in Jerusalem, citing the claim of Israeli sovereignty over the entire city. This repression extends beyond the PA to the arrest of political figures and activists as well as closures of Palestinian cultural institutions. It is unlikely that any Israeli government would permit Palestinian elections in Jerusalem, as to do so would acknowledge legitimate Palestinian presence in the city and therefore challenge the Israeli claim of sovereignty over the entire metropolis. Abbas and other officials, including Saeb Erekat, have said that the issue of Jerusalem could prevent the elections from taking place.

The above political theatrics overshadow a wider discussion on Palestinian democracy. Whilst elections may seem like an important democratic process, holding elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip given the current status quo would be antithetical to democracy. Indeed, they would simply prop up a system that does not allow for democratic space and that does not seek to produce a democratic and representative leadership. 

This commentary considers the elements of meaningful democracy and traces Palestinians’ history of democratic leadership and practice. It argues that Palestinians, without idealizing the past, must draw from earlier experiences to achieve liberation – a process that far surpasses the proposed elections. 

Palestinian Elections: Antithetical to Democracy

Democracy is usually defined as a form of governance with a representative and accountable leadership. Schmitter and Karl define it in the following terms:  “Modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives.”

Notably this definition highlights “citizenship” as an essential part of democracy, as it dictates who can take part in the system. Thus citizenship serves simultaneously as a mechanism of inclusion and exclusion. There are many types of democracies with practices that vary in accordance with the particular social, political, historical, and economic conditions characterizing the state. The regulation and collective ownership of property typify socialist approaches to democracy, whilst liberal approaches “advocate circumscribing the public realm as narrowly as possible.” 

Holding elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip given the current status quo would be antithetical to democracy
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Democracies are also expected to promote democratic practice, including political plurality, not only in governmental institutions but in all areas of society. This is an important point because many make the dangerous assumption, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza, that elections are interchangeable with democracy. This is not the case: Whilst elections are a technical practice  or procedure that may well be a product of a meaningful democratic process and culture, they may also be part of a society in which democratic characteristics are lacking or absent. Indeed, democratic elections must be part of a larger package in which democratic accountability exists across society and where political plurality is accepted and encouraged. A cursory overview of the West Bank and Gaza reveals this not to be the case: rather, two authorities operate increasingly as authoritarian police states in the context of an increasingly militarized settler colonial regime. 

A History of Palestinian Leadership and Democratic Practice

Palestinians have never had a space truly free of external intervention to practice democracy. From the Ottoman Empire to the British Mandate to the state of Israel, imperial and colonial regimes have imposed repressive measures against Palestinian politics and democratic expression. Despite these circumstances, Palestinians have consistently tried to reclaim their political agency. Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 was one of the first major Palestinian exercises in democratic action. The Arab states had established the PLO largely in an attempt to co-opt the Palestinian liberation struggle. The takeover brought in an era of political pluralism and incorporated not just political parties but also unions and other groups. At the same time, whilst an increase in democratic practice occurred, there was dissatisfaction with Yasser Arafat’s increasingly authoritarian methods of appointing and confirming representatives as well as an overrepresentation of diaspora elites – although this was perhaps an inevitable occurrence considering that the PLO was mostly a manifestation of refugees in exile. 

Israel considered this reformed PLO, headed by Arafat, a serious threat, and attempted to marginalize and undermine it. In 1976, for example, the Israeli authorities imposed municipal elections across the West Bank to create autonomous administrative areas that would negotiate directly with the occupation authorities. The Israeli occupation administration hoped to install local leaders who would substitute and undermine the authority of the still-in-exile PLO as the representative of the Palestinians. The Popular Front for the Liberation for Palestine’s weekly magazine, Al Hadaf, noted that the Israeli regime was giving Palestinians the façade of autonomy within the framework of the Israeli state. Yet these elections did the opposite of what the Israeli regime had hoped: They resulted in the election of PLO-friendly representatives, consolidating the PLO’s legitimacy in the eyes of the people on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian political democracy reached its peak in the 1980s and early 1990s during the First Intifada. George Bisharat describes it as 

[t]he Palestinian people’s most democratic movement – a true upswelling of grassroots sentiment and activism that momentarily shifted the political initiative out of the hands of the diaspora elders and political fixers and into the hands of a youthful decentralized leadership in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

A unified leadership of civil society groups and others working to disrupt the Israeli regime led the mobilization during this period. Various unions, student groups, cooperatives, and popular committees consolidated a revolutionary consensus to form a “people’s authority.” Linda Tabar explains that this “Palestinian people’s power centered on creating new structures that could provide an alternative to capitalist economic exploitation and patriarchal domination.” The First Intifada was also a period in which women intensified their work of forcing their way into political and mobilizing spaces previously dominated by men. Yet whilst the period showed promising signs of a practiced revolutionary democracy, it quickly unravelled with the onset of the Oslo Accords. The quelling of the First Intifada and the ushering in of negotiations between the PLO and Israel began a process of de-politicization of the Palestinian struggle.

Oslo saw the establishment of the PA, which was to serve as an interim government and the embryo of a Palestinian state in the making. With meager ability to raise its own funds, the PA was largely financed through donor aid, which flooded the West Bank and Gaza under the auspices of institution building and the promotion of democracy. Yet the aid’s real focus – consolidating neoliberal policies and strengthening the PA’s security apparatus – not only revealed a deeply entrenched donor agenda, but also illustrated what Leila Farsakh describes as a “de-democratization” process. Farsakh argues that this process is a result of the deliberate sidelining of “political parties, the parliamentary institutions, trade unions, [and] popular committees” in favor of NGOs as well as the pursuit of a “neo-liberal agenda that makes the market the central agent of change.” 

Palestinians have never had a space truly free of external intervention to practice democracy
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The international/donor prioritization of the PA over the PLO, as well as internal political factors that contributed to the marginalization of the PLO, meant that the former supplanted the latter. Yet unlike the PLO, which gained popular legitimacy as the representative of the Palestinian people in all their geographic, social, and political fragments, the PA is only responsible for Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In other words, the creation of the PA led to the deliberate limiting of Palestine and the Palestinians to the West Bank and Gaza, which has led to the disenfranchisement of Palestinians elsewhere. Yet Fatah’s increasing control over the PA, as well as its mismanagement, corruption, and systematic erosion of democratic rights have also amplified feelings of political exclusion within the areas it supposedly administers.  

The victory of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections was a reaction to the untenable situation created by the Oslo regime. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza expressed their dissatisfaction with the Fatah-controlled PA through the ballot box. This expression was immediately  rejected by the international community, who imposed sanctions on the PA that extended to the thorough suspension of aid to Palestinians. The subsequent battle between Fatah and Hamas ensued, resulting in Fatah being expelled from Gaza and a military siege imposed on the coastal strip that continues to this day. 

Building Real Democracy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip 

The space for democratic and political practice in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been shrinking. Fatah’s monopolization of the PA and the PLO in the West Bank (and Hamas’s parallel monopolization in Gaza), as well as the consolidation of power by Abbas and his closest allies have led to the entrenchment of a one-party system. To maintain this monopoly on political power, the PA has become increasingly authoritarian by frequently repressing political opposition, including journalists and student activists. In 2018 Human Rights Watch, putting forth analysis similar to that of local human rights organizations, published a report explaining how the Palestinian authorities 

…in recent years carried out scores of arbitrary arrests for peaceful criticism of the authorities, particularly on social media, among independent journalists, on university campuses, and at demonstrations. As the Fatah-Hamas feud deepened despite attempts at reconciliation, PA security services have targeted supporters of Hamas and vice versa. Relying primarily on overly broad laws that criminalize activity such as causing “sectarian strife” or insulting “higher authorities,” the PA and Hamas use detention to punish critics and deter them and others from further activism.

The international community’s criminalization of other political parties, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), has also contributed to the atmosphere of political repression. It is in within this context of limited democratic and political space that we must consider elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Elections could be held and conducted in a technically free and fair manner, passing the standards of international observers. Yet the lack of political competition and plurality means that the elections would not reflect true democratic practice. As Tariq Dana has commented

For the electoral process to be meaningful and productive, it must take place in a healthy environment where basic democratic criteria are integrated into the structure of national institutions, the political party system, civil society, the education system, and the general cultural framework.

In other words, democracy must be exercised in a more holistic manner for elections to constitute as real democratic practice; otherwise, they simply reinforce the ruling regime.

For many Palestinians the reaction to the 2006 elections showed what happens when they decide on a leadership that challenges the political agenda of the Israeli regime and the international donor community. Further, the aftermath led to a seemingly impenetrable divide between Hamas and Fatah. Elections without reconciliation will only supply each side with opportunities to blame the other for failings. 

Palestinians must build on collective experiences of democratic expression and practices that go beyond the current limited framework of elections
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It is thus unsurprising that Palestinians have little confidence in an electoral process. This requires us to think about what kind of democracy is possible under occupation. The Israeli regime has demonstrated that it will crush Palestinian expressions of democracy that challenge the occupation and the status quo, which relies on a subordinate Palestinian leadership. Moreover, within this context it is clear that the PA will not achieve Palestinian liberation, nor will it establish any kind of Palestinian sovereignty. 

The only possibility for meaningful democracy for Palestinians is a return to a revolutionary consensus achieved through plurality and reconciliation of political groups, geographic fragments, and collectives that mobilize around a political agenda of liberation. Without romanticizing or idealizing the past, Palestinians must build on collective experiences of democratic expression and practices that go beyond the current limited framework of elections. 

This commentary is based on an article published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in December 2019.    

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After Trump’s Deal: What’s Next for Palestinians

Al-Shabaka’s Senior Policy Fellow, Yara Hawari, joined Adalah Justice Project, alongside Fayrouz Sharqawi from Grassroots Al-Quds, for an informative webinar on Trump’s plan to further Israel’s colonial project. Watch the discussion in full at the link below:

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