The Palestine Papers: the view from the ground

So, the Palestine Papers. Egypt. Lebanon. The Middle East’s on fire again I joked with my Turkish mechanic, at the risk of perpetuating stereotypes. “Unfortunately, sometimes we need fires in order for things to be fixed” he replied.

As I stated in the Guardian earlier today, the Palestine papers may have sent shockwaves around the world, but they came as no surprise to most Palestinians, particularly those living out the horrific reality on the ground that has been “non-negotiated” over in the occupied territories, like my own family – or in refugee camps outside the occupied territories, like my husband’s family in the sidelined camps of Lebanon. Ultimately though I think they will mean very little unless they translate into change on the ground-if Palestinians demand for change of the status quo. I should also remind people that Palestinians have been fed up with the situation for a while-and did vote for change in 2006. The rest, as they say, is history (though in Gaza’s case, the “rest” continues to be painfully and punitively enforced).

More than anything, the details in the Palestine papers show just how out of touch with this reality the negotiators were, and how they chose to ignore this reality. It is this revelation – or reminder – that has most angered and distressed many Palestinians.

In Gaza, which has been blockaded with western backing and regional complicity since democratic elections five years ago, friends and family tell me the response is a mixture of anger, suspicion and uncertainty about the future. Fellow blogger Mohammed Suliman told me he found the revelations, chief among them that Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority offered to concede almost all of East Jerusalem, “shocking but not unpredictable”, referring to them as a “tragicomedy”. “I just can’t understand who on earth nominated this man to speak for the Palestinians? When he says, ‘WE’ who the hell are we? Working 20 years in the field never gives him the right to give up on one metre of the land, to divide, bargain and sell.”

The willingness to give up more than 10% of the West Bank and large portions of East Jerusalem, from where his family originally hails, is the most painfully startling part, he added.

The papers also confirm the intransigence of Israel in the face of the most compromising of Palestinians positions. What the Palestinians would appallingly propose to give up, the Israelis would continue not only to withhold, but retreat even further by way of increased land theft and colonization, all while the Americans stood by. It is a searing indictment not just of the Palestinian Authority and their collaboration and ineffectualness, but more pertinently of Israel and its arrogance and intractability. Karma Nabsli describes them as revelatory of the mechanism of negotiations themselves-how colonial they were, as well as a long evolution of de-democratization.

Lina al-Sharif, a friend and author of the blog “360 Km2 of Chaos”, told me she was irritated by the western media focus on Palestinian desperation and incompetency, rather than Israeli and American intransigence. “This shouldn’t just be an exposé of the PA, but also of Israel. And the US was witnessing all this and calling itself ‘an honest broker’! This is just yet another hit to the already dead peace process.”

Evidence has never been more compelling that the Israelis have always had their “partner for peace” – they have simply chosen to neglect them, and propose an alternative fiction in which there was none, irrespective of which Palestinian party was in power.

Because of this, some believe that the papers may actually be bolstering support for Mahmoud Abbas and his posse, whom they see as victims. True, the papers lay out the extent of the Palestinian Authority’s complicity and capitulation. But journalist Fares Ghoul says they also serve to undermine what little credibility Mahmoud Abbas’s Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority has, and questions the motives and timing behind their release. “We should focus on the day: what is going on today? The PA is doing well by resisting pressure to resume negotiations while settlement construction goes on.”

In a bitter irony, and a stark reminder of the conditions many Palestinians in Gaza continue to live under, some cousins and friends there were not yet even aware of the revelations when I spoke with them, because they had no electricity.

“This might make you laugh or cry – or maybe both – but some people didn’t hear about these documents yet because of the continuous power cuts in the Gaza Strip,” my cousin told me.

Gaza continues to suffer from extended power outages since Israel bombed the only power plant there in the summer of 2006. Two years after Israel’s brutal assault, the Strip remains under intense blockade, stifling development, prosperity, and freedoms (the subject, reportedly, of tonight’s latest reveal).

And although Palestine papers was a trending topic on Twitter, 25-year-old computer engineer Ola Anan says not everybody in Gaza cared to tune in. “Last night during al-Jazeera’s broadcast, my father and I were the only ones interested in watching the whole program, my mother was rambling that it’s not breaking news that the PA heads are traitors, and my brother asked me to put the volume down so that he could study for his exam!”

We are unlikely to ever learn who leaked the documents. An insider, an outsider … a combination? Some members of Fateh were quick to point fingers at one-time Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, who is rumoured to be out of favour with Mahmoud Abbas (and who, incidentally, was curiously absent from the Papers). But there are enough disgruntled Palestinian negotiators with motives. One former negotiator with the PLO’s British-Scandinavian backed Negotiations Support Unit (NSU), from where the leak is rumoured to have originated, told me “we always ‘knew’ but didn’t really know the intimate details and the inside jokes. It is a level of unparalleled desperation.” Another confided that several years ago they were fed up with the cronyism, incompetence and lack of leadership within the Palestinian Authority, saying: “I can’t handle losing when my side doesn’t even try.”