Five Palestinian factions and civil society coalitions announced the founding of the Palestinian Democratic Group on Jan. 3, presenting itself as an alternative to Fatah and Hamas. As a potential third stream in Palestinian politics, the new group's founding document calls for opposition to the peace plan expected to be released by the United States, reconciliation among the Palestinians and concerted action to preserve democratic values and practices.
The new group consists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA) the People's Party and Al-Mubadara (Palestinian National Initiative). Among the civil society coalitions are the Palestinian Non-governmental Organizations Network (Al Shabkeh), Nationalists against the Split and a number of human rights organizations and others.
Zahira Kamal, secretary-general of FIDA, told Al-Monitor that Palestinian unity is a major aim of the new coalition. "Our goal is to produce a unified front under the PLO umbrella in order to end attempts by one faction to make all the crucial decisions, such as the latest decision to dissolve the Palestinian Legislative Council." President Mahmoud Abbas announced in December that the Palestinian Constitutional Court had ruled that the term of the legislature elected in 2006 to a four-year term had long expired and required parliamentary elections within six months. Many analyst believe the court had acted at Abbas' behest.
Kamal said that although talk of unity among the leftist factions had been ongoing for years, what makes the current coalition unique is its inclusion of groups other than political parties, noting, "We have included in this new body the network of non-governmental organizations, human rights organizations, and independent personalities."
Mamdouh al-Aker, a prominent independent Palestinian and former secretary-general of the Independence Commission for Human Rights, was chosen to serve as the group's first coordinator. Kamal said that a nine-person steering committee will be established and the rotating coordinator will be charged with day-to-day decisions. "We are thinking of short periods for the coordinator, anywhere from one month to a maximum of three months," she said.
Jamil Mizher, a Gaza-based member of the PFLP's political bureau, told Al-Monitor that the new group is necessary due to the ongoing split between the two major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, and the retrenching of individual rights.
"Our goals include the need to stand up to the biased US attempts to railroad the [US] 'deal of the century,'" Mizher said. "And at the same time, we are seeing an erosion of Palestinian rights, with the PLO leadership taking unilateral decisions without consultations with anyone."
Mizher denied that the Democratic Group was formed with an eye toward possible new legislative elections and refused to confirm or deny whether the group might participate in them if they are held.
"It is too early to make a decision on the issue of the elections. This requires national dialogue," he said. "We need to know if the elections will be only legislative or also presidential and for the Palestine National Council."
Meanwhile, Arab News on Jan. 6 reported Qais Abu Layla, deputy-secretary of the DFLP, as saying, "[One of the group's most important goals is to] unify the various Palestinian factions under a single umbrella in order to increase resistance to the occupation and to oppose the policies that aim to weaken Palestinian democracy and increase splits. Our position is not only opposed to the PLO leadership but also to Hamas. We feel both are responsible for the split and the negative results that it has produced."
Contrary to Mizher, however, Abu Layla hinted at the possibility of the new group contesting in legislative elections. "While we oppose the dissolution of the PLC, we believe that the idea of elections within six months could be a way out of the impasse regarding reconciliation," Abu Layla said. She also warned however that the "elections must include Gaza and Jerusalem and that they take place within political consensus and that they be based on proportional representation."
Hamadeh Faraneh, a member of the Palestinian National Council based in Amman, told Al-Monitor that for the new group to succeed it needs to have a realistic plan and ensure that the public sees the benefit of its efforts. "People will be doubting this new coalition unless it can deliver some practical accomplishments that the average Palestinian can experience," he said.
Skepticism about the new group is already evident in both the West Bank and Gaza. Hamadeh Kamal, an activist in Gaza who works with former prisoners, acknowledged that the organization says the right things on paper, but he also noted that the reality on the ground is much more complicated.
"I hope that they succeed, but in Gaza these days, it is almost impossible to take an independent position," Kamal told Al-Monitor. "You are either with Fatah or Hamas, and there is no room for a third way."
The inclusion of five small factions as well as civil society members and independents could prove to be a good approach for getting a third stream of Palestinian politics off the ground. That said, egos will need to be put in check. The movement must take positions genuinely independent of the leading factions and have the courage to defend them.
Courageous leadership is required along with the support of the broader public if this experiment has a chance of succeeding.