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Building democracy: Public Achievement and the Palestinian divide

March 30, 2010

 A University of Minnesota senior majoring in economics conducted a series of interviews and Public Achievement site visits in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip over the course of summer 2009. Below are excerpts from her final report.

Since the American Friends Service Committee’s adoption of Public Achievement (PA)* as the centerpiece of its Palestinian youth program in 2003, more than 4,000 young people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have participated.

PA was established there as a means to awaken Palestinian youth to their ability to act constructively in the midst of what is seen as a deeply powerless situation. The results have been extraordinary. Past examples of projects led by youth in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (WBG) have included job creation for community members in critical need, awareness campaigns to reduce violence in schools, educational and cultural initiatives to promote Palestinian identity and improve student performance in core courses, and the creation of libraries and secure places for playing. It is clear that PA provides the tools, training, and structure necessary for youth to become active in resolving issues within their communities.

Today, one of the most prominent issues is the conflict between Fatah and Hamas. Since 2006, civil war has inflicted severe damage on both the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and prospects for the peace process as a whole. Though the PA program has no affiliation with Palestinian political factions and aims to operate outside of politics, the nature of PA is nevertheless deeply entwined with the political situation. I would argue that that the PA program in WBG fosters a neutral political space free of the often violent and emotion-driven clashes that characterize the current divide between Fatah and Hamas. It is this free space that allows young people to practice a more democratic brand of politics and turn away from actions that perpetuate conflict.

*In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Public Achievement is called Popular Achievement.

Recent History and Context of Palestinian Internal Conflict

Second only to the Israeli occupation, the issue of most concern cited by PA groups in WBG is the divide between Fatah and Hamas. The Palestinian internal conflict is a formidable impediment to the two-state solution. Currently, the West Bank is under control of Fatah, while the Gaza Strip is governed by Hamas. A political and geographic split of this scope is unprecedented in WBG, as both territories are characterized as a single entity under the administrative control of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).

The current conflict stems from the history and development of the Palestinian political system. Yasser Arafat, venerated for his role in putting Palestine on the map as a world issue and leading the Palestinian national movement, served as the founder and leader of Fatah, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and first president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). In this way, Fatah has been dominant in most aspects of Palestinian political life since the early 1960s and was considered to be practically synonymous with the Palestinian political structures until very recently.

Fatah’s dominance ended abruptly in January 2006 when Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, won a majority of the seats on the legislative body of the PNA. Hamas grew in popularity by providing social services that Fatah lacked: funding mosques, schools, community centers, and soup kitchens. Fatah’s fall from grace reflected a very real dissatisfaction with the state of its governance that only intensified after the death of Yasser Arafat. Issues such as widespread corruption, failure to deliver a Palestinian state during the Oslo period, autocratic leadership, resistance to change, and internal disputes within the party all set the stage for Hamas’s usurp. For the first time, Palestinians were denying that the PLO was the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

After Hamas’s surprise victory in the 2006 parliamentary election, a Hamas/Fatah unity government was established. Clashes between both sides spurred by Fatah began not long afterward and continued through the remainder of the year. Hamas forcefully crushed Fatah’s attempted takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. After its expulsion from Gaza, Fatah won the battle for the West Bank, establishing an administrative center in Ramallah. This split was characterized by rampant violence on both sides that lasted through the end of 2007.  Though tensions have cooled slightly, the situation continues to worsen as the two factions grow further apart.

Additional factors have served to exacerbate the conflict. Hamas has been tacitly supported by the Israeli government as a counterweight to Fatah since its inception. Israel’s support of Hamas is one fragment of a larger divide and rule strategy. As long as the Palestinians are occupied fighting each other, attention is partially diverted from Israel’s continued settlement of the West Bank. Additionally, Hamas is not recognized as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people by the international community as a result of its refusal to recognize Israel and the activities of its militant wing. It was not long after the Fatah/Hamas split that Israel instituted a blockade of the Gaza Strip. In contrast, Israel and the U.S. have engaged Fatah as the sole legitimate Palestinian leadership. This has had the effect of intensifying the split and sewing the seeds for prolonged civil war.

Though the Palestinians have very little control over outside pressures from the U.S. and Israel, internal issues can and must be resolved. This is where Public Achievement comes into play. The mechanism of PA creates the necessary conditions for participants to internalize the idea that they are not only capable of influencing the situation around them, but responsible for the well-being of their surrounding community. Youth accepting responsibility for the local situation and having confidence in their ability to change it is an ideal first step in the complex process of resolving the internal conflict.

Addressing the Leadership Deficiency

The conflict between Fatah and Hamas is one aspect in a much larger issue: a deficiency in reliable leadership. Both Hamas and Fatah operate with little responsiveness to their constituents.  For instance, Fatah’s highest ranking positions are still dominated by the same generation that founded the party 45 years ago and enjoy a security that places little need on them to be truly representative of Palestinian society. With the end of his presidential term in January 2009, Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas unilaterally extended his presidency and is still in office today. As the effects of the Gaza blockade intensify, Hamas has strengthened its efforts to move the culture of Gaza toward one of religious conservatism through actions that are by no means supported by the majority of those who voted the party into office.

The leaders in Fatah and Hamas lack accountability to the people they serve. When Palestinians vote in political leaders, they have much less influence over their leaders’ actions than in countries like the U.S. Instances of corruption in Fatah hint at a party culture that nurtures individuals who are not in government as public servants, but for their own gains and ideologies.

In contrast, PA fosters leadership that is fundamentally different, derived from young people’s commitment to a specific issue in their community and accountability to those affected by the issue. PA youth act autonomously as leaders in their localities by taking initiative to address these issues. They are leading for a tangible purpose: to mitigate an issue in which they have a personal stake. Yet in working to address a problem that they care about, they lead in service to others as opposed to other shallower aims. PA fosters a more democratic brand of leadership than that seen in Fatah and Hamas by training leaders whose actions are derived from the needs of their “constituents.”

Though Hamas was elected as a new alternative to Fatah, now is the first time Hamas has moved into the political sphere. The inexperience of Hamas is clearly reflected in the party’s disorganized governance and lack of internal cohesiveness. Fatah and especially Hamas exhibit incompetence and disorganization in many of their activities in the instances where their energies are focused on governance instead of conflict and divisiveness.

As is the quintessential challenge with government, it is difficult for public servants to carry out effective agendas that address issues facing constituents. PA is a process that provides the skills necessary for youth to act competently as public servants. Because youth act on issues in their communities, they are innately aware of the dynamics of factors necessary for successful implementation of the projects. Youth in PA act democratically and in an organized manner in planning and implementing projects by using full community input. The projects are feasible, precise, and effective. Working multilaterally and innovatively with many other parties, though difficult, is essential to competent governance with policies that are most effective in addressing needs.

Eliminating the Potential for Conflict

When Hamas and Fatah clash over who is the rightful governing party, they are missing the point of their leadership. Political parties are a means to an end: responsible governance that serves constituents. Fatah and Hamas are caught in politics instead of focusing on the management of their respective governments. PA in WBG reaches the “end” of government (serving the needs of constituents) through bypassing the impulsive and power-based politics that that characterize the uproar between Fatah and Hamas and fostering a new brand of democratic politics in their place. PA projects such as building libraries and maintaining public spaces are often in line with the social services that would fall under the activities of a well-run government. The process of implementing these projects brings youth from across political divides into contact.

It is certain that most youth in the PA program have loyalties to one of the political factions. However, PA aims to act outside of politics, and participants are instructed to leave their political affiliations at the door.

In WBG, it is not possible to abstract any situation from politics and PA remains political nonetheless. Youth learn to deal with people from other factions constructively without the immediate branding that comes with knowing where their political loyalties lie. In effect, a free political space allows youth to associate with people who have different views as a necessity to reaching the goal of carrying out their project. Youth who have had interactions of this nature possess a fundamental respect for differences and a basis of reference for resolving conflicts in a constructive manner, as opposed to jumping into violent situations. They have in effect been transformed from potential instigators in the conflict into social entrepreneurs with constructive actions.

Concluding Remarks

The fixation of Fatah and Hamas on politics leads to violent conflict that obstructs them from carrying out the purpose of government. With more democratic leadership derived from service to their constituents, there would be no clashes Palestinian factions. The current divide is damaging to the extent that it is clearly not in the interest of the wider Palestinian population. In Public Achievement, youth operate above the political fray in that they are forced to be respectful of each others’ differences to successfully implement their project. PA does work that competent governments carry out while teaching youth to harness differences constructively and achieve broader aims. Much of the fighting between Fatah and Hamas stems from loyalty as opposed to appreciation for any substantive policies associated with one faction or the other. Public Achievement creates resilient youth who will not be blindly pulled into conflict, youth with the skills and knowledge to contribute positively to Palestinian society and politics in the long run.

Please contact this student through Dennis Donovan at for further information about her research and experience in WBG.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2010 7:49 pm

    Bravo! Your analysis and application of PA in the Palestinian context provides an apt analogy to our similarly divided political context here in the U.S. (albeit thus far without the extreme implications that have faced many Palestinians). PA provides U.S. youth with the same skills and opportunities to be transformed into “social entrepreneurs with constructive actions” and to address our leadership gaps with young people who “address a problem they care about” and “lead in service to others.”
    Thank you for being an inspiration yourself by pursuing a senior project where you exemplified my favorite definition of leadership: taking responsibility for what matters to you!

  2. Dani Fisher permalink
    April 28, 2010 3:54 pm

    Well done. Too often, Palestinian leaders fall into the “blame Israel” trap, artfully deflecting attention away from their own misuse of power and failure to provide for the Palestinian people. Your research highlights the potential – and the responsibility – of the Palestinian people. If “Popular Achievement” work continues, there is hope that Palestinians can build the infrastructure of a future country, one recognized internationally and at peace with its neighbors.

    This gives us all hope for the future!


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