Model Prisoners: The Emergence of an Alternative Palestinian Leadership

By Rebecca Granato
Submitted to Session P4684 (Palestine: Institutions, Alliances, Resistances, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The formal Palestinian leadership has long struggled to sustain its legitimacy in the eyes of those it claims to lead: Palestinians within the 1948 borders and the Occupied Territories. Today, dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority bubbles right below the surface of Palestinian society over a presumed failure to represent local interests, as well as the close security cooperation with the Israelis that, since Oslo, has stifled civil society and any democratic impulses. For many inside the West Bank and Jerusalem, the PA has rendered itself largely irrelevant, a placeholder in the absence of a viable alternative. Looking back at the 1980s, it is clear that this legitimacy vacuum was not inevitable. There was an alternative power structure that almost took root during the First Intifada: the Unified Leadership operating in the West Bank was a grassroots organization that responded to local needs and demands, rather than acting as representatives of the PLO’s vision and direction.

An almost entirely unexplored aspect of the Unified Leadership is its deep connection to the political prisoner population. This paper will argue that it was primarily in and through Israeli prisons that the leadership actually unified. Beginning in the 1970s, political prisoners worked within their factions to develop a highly organized, fully democratic, committee-based leadership for managing daily life and inter-faction relationships, as well as to liaise with the Israeli Prison Administration. The majority of those who constituted the Unified Leadership politically matured inside Israeli prisons, where many of the structures of the leadership itself were established. These individuals and structures developed in closer proximity to those they wished to represent, and so came to represent a viable and vibrant alternative to that waiting in the Diaspora’s wings. This paper will examine how and why these leaders were unable to transition the political approach learned inside the prisons into the formal, post-Intifada leadership structure. With the coming of Oslo, the Unified Leadership as a body was prevented from taking up the reins of government, although a number of the leaders were absorbed into the PA’s political system. Drawing on interviews with current members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, as well as archival sources produced inside the prisons, this paper will explore this under researched moment in Palestinian political history, when the political education learned inside the prison – and put into practice during the Intifada - failed to function in the West Bank.