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Does the Palestinian leadership represent all Palestinians?

By Khaled Abu Toameh
web posted July 8, 2024

Palestinians who live abroad are calling for a voice in Palestinian decision-making, arguing that neither the Palestinian Authority nor the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have the right to speak for all Palestinians.

PCPAIn 2017, a portion of the Palestinian population residing outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip announced the formation of a group called the "Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad." The group, which claims to represent 6-7 million Palestinians dispersed throughout more than 50 countries, is fiercely opposed to the Oslo Accords, signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993, and supports the "resistance" against Israel.

The group's leaders say that the primary impetus behind its formation is the "marginalization" of Palestinians abroad since the signing of the Oslo Accords.

Prior to the agreement, there was a semi-consensus among the Palestinians that the PLO is the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." After the signing of the Oslo Accords, however, the PLO leadership moved from Tunis and other Arab countries to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As the PLO began concentrating the majority of its efforts on the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the organization's ties with the Palestinians abroad increasingly deteriorated.

In the past three decades, the PLO Executive Committee, a crucial decision-making body, and other institutions associated with the organization have met regularly in Ramallah. The PLO no longer has offices in most Arab countries.

PA/PLO Leaders Reject the Outsiders

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who also chairs the PLO Executive Committee, and several PLO leaders are incensed over the formation of the Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad. They see the PLO's status as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" as directly threatened by the group. They are also concerned about the group's extreme stances that it has adopted since its founding, particularly its opposition to recognizing Israel's right to exist and commitment to the "armed struggle" against Israel.

The representatives of the Palestinian expatriates maintain that former PLO leader Yasser Arafat was not entitled to "give up 80% of the lands of Palestine" when he recognized Israel's right to exist. Furthermore, they contend that Arafat had no right to abandon the "armed struggle" by purportedly amending the PLO's Charter shortly after the signing of the Oslo Accords. They further state that the PLO leadership is not authorized to surrender Palestinian refugees' and their descendants' "right of return" to their former homes within Israel.

Accusing Abbas of "hijacking" and "weakening" the PLO, the Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad has demanded extensive reforms in the PLO, but to no avail.

Two of the group's declared objectives are "engaging the Zionist enterprise" and "supporting the resistance" inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A standard definition of "resistance" is the use of violence by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups against Israel. Abbas claims he favors only peaceful "popular resistance" against Israel and therefore views the group's commitment to the "armed struggle" as a challenge to him personally.   

Given that the Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad was established in Istanbul, PA officials surmise that Turkey, together with Qatar, is its primary backer. Qatar and Turkey have supported and encouraged Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood Organization, for a considerable amount of time.

Currently, the offices of the Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad are located at the Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultation in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where the Iran-backed Hizbullah terrorist militia exists as a state-within-a-state.

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, the Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad has voiced support for the Palestinian "resistance" in the Gaza Strip and called on the Palestinians to utilize the worldwide support for the Palestinians, especially on U.S. college campuses, to intensify the diplomatic and legal campaign against Israel in the international arena.

For now, it does not seem that the representatives of the Palestinians abroad are interested in taking on any role in overseeing the affairs of the Gaza Strip after the war. Instead, they believe the Palestinians should invest their energies and resources in pursuing an international campaign to delegitimize and isolate Israel.

In addition, they demand a complete overhaul of the Palestinian political structure, which would involve the ouster of the 88-year-old Abbas and the majority of his associates.  

On June 28, 2024, some 200 representatives of the Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad convened in Istanbul to engage in a symposium centered on the aftermath of Hamas's October 7, 2023, attack on Israel. Speakers at the parley agreed that the attack catalyzed "achievements" gained by the Palestinians, including anti-Israel student demonstrations in the United States, a rise in international attention to the Palestinian cause, a "schism" that has split Israeli society over the war, and the issue of the 120 Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip.

It is difficult to see how Abbas or any other Palestinian leader can ignore the voices of Palestinian expatriates. These Palestinians are sending a message to Abbas and other Palestinian leaders that they are not authorized to sign any peace agreement or make any concessions to Israel on behalf of millions of Palestinians abroad whose views seem to be more aggressive towards Israel. ESR

Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning Israeli Arab journalist, lecturer, and documentary filmmaker specializing in Palestinian affairs. A Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, he has also worked as a senior producer for NBC in the Middle East and has reported on events in the West Bank and Gaza for several media outlets.

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