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Palestinian Secular, Liberal Movement in the Making

Palestinian Secular, Liberal Movement in the Making

Activists holding a broad dialogue ahead of ambitious effort to reform society

Leading independent Palestinian activists launched the Civil Democratic Dialogue Forum on social media last week, to share ideas ahead of establishing a democratic civil movement that is politically independent and aimed at advancing Palestinian society politically, economically and socially.

The group already has more than 1,000 participants.

“We are interested in establishing a national, societal and democratic movement that calls for building a civil society, in every sense of the word ‘civil,’” Dr. Ghassan Toubasi, co-founder of the movement and a Ramallah-based political analyst and writer, told The Media Line.

“The movement [to-be-formed] will seek to achieve a society based on the sovereignty of the judiciary and the separation of the three powers [executive, legislative and judicial], in order to build a secular, liberal, advanced, civilized society in Palestine, regardless of whether we establish a state in the near term, or if the conflict [with Israel] continues for many years,” he said.

Toubasi, whose critiques of the Palestinian political and social situation can be found at outlets such as Ahewar.org and AlHadath.net, as well as in his own social media accounts, started the initiative with Jamal Zaqout, the head of the Institute for Palestine Studies think tank in Ramallah and a member of the Palestine National Council − the highest legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Toubasi shared with The Media Line that they were both surprised by the large response to the proposal, which clearly indicated the existence of a vacuum and unhappiness with the “quota system,” wherein the two big parties (Fatah and Hamas) “share control over the homeland between them.”

The common denominator was dissatisfaction with the situation and the administration of the country politically, socially, economically and ethically, he said.

“We want to change things for the better,” Toubasi said. “Also, because there has been a shift from the correct ideology on which the PLO, and the Fatah movement specifically, was founded, in particular with regard to the social aspects.”

The movement for reform started before the announcement that Palestinian elections will be held later this year, and was not directly related to them, he added.

They seek to return Palestinian society to what it was 80 years ago, when it had a human and civilizational dimension that allowed for freedom of expression, democracy, pluralism and equality, and the formation of a Palestinian identity, “which is still absent, overwhelmed by religious identity,” Toubasi said.

The first draft of the reform proposal will be released within a week, he said, after a complete set of ideas from all group members was gathered and six meetings were conducted via Zoom between the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, in which about 150 people participated.

“The draft will consist of two parts, one related to general principles, and one dealing with the intellectual and social program of the movement, to be presented to the larger group that includes a thousand people, in order to finalize the discussion,” Toubasi clarified.

Two or three weeks later, the final draft will be published and the movement officially launched, he added.

The principal difficulty facing the group thus far was the difference in interests between youth in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, Toubasi stressed. “In Gaza, the concern is about living conditions and livelihoods; in the West Bank, it’s different: they discuss the need for civil liberties, democracy and equality.

He clarified that the group included many young people, out of the belief that their generation was no longer concerned with old, vague slogans and clichés that were endlessly repeated.

“The younger generation has a different view, but no one asks or knows about their vision. They feel lost. Therefore, the youth had to be involved with our group, which includes a large number of them,” Toubasi said.

The administration of the group is divided into three teams. The main team represented by Toubasi and Zaqout currently supervises the webpage and monitors the daily work.

Sari Irshaid, 26, a Ramallah-based organizer of the initiative, told The Media Line the emergence of a movement that calls for a democratic, civil dialogue was reflective of the Palestinian street’s yearning for dialogue, as the socio-political situation had continued to deteriorate.

“The past and current conventional players in the political sphere over the past 15 years are no longer in sync with the Palestinian reality, and their inability to connect with and represent people created a void which a democratic dialogue must begin to fill,” he said.

Irshaid explained that in all previous efforts toward achieving real change, a civil, democratic dialogue was the key and initial step, and due to the nature of Palestinian demographics, where more than half of the people were young, “any dialogue must include the youth’s interests and aspirations.”

Palestinian youth had been missing from the political arena for so long that they no longer thought they could have any influence, Irshaid added.

“The political players in the entire region operate in a way that fails to reflect the youth’s interests. Their way of ‘including the youth’ can be summed up in the conventional question: ‘How will the youth react?’ rather than in ‘How and where can the youth act?’ And the latter is what a democratic, civil dialogue does naturally,” he said.

The movement was a chance for the Palestinians to reclaim their voice amid a failed state, a deteriorating economy and social decline toward religious extremism, Irshaid said.

Dalal Iriqat, a leading Palestinian academic and a columnist for the Al-Quds newspaper, is part of the movement’s Facebook group. She told The Media Line that such initiatives were extremely important for the country, as new directions were needed.

“I have great respect for Dr. Toubasi and his way of thinking and how he views matters, in addition to his objectivity. As soon as he sent me the invitation on Facebook I accepted it,” Iriqat said.

She added, however, that the aims and methods of the initiative need to be better defined.

“He [Toubasi] is trying to bring together objective persons who are …   loyal to Palestine, which is very nice, but the goals and tools aren’t very clear. He initiated it, but he needs to lead and guide in a clear way in order to succeed. It needs clear leadership and guidelines,” Iriqat said.

She indicated that part of Toubasi’s strategy might be to provide more room for people to share their thoughts and join in.

The internal Palestinian situation requires a civil movement because the political parties form one of the main obstacles to solving most issues, especially the political ones, Iriqat said.

“The existence of the factions and political parties, in the way they operate now, deviated from the level of being political parties. Same people, same faces, same places,” she said. Based on this reality, a civil movement was badly needed, Iriqat said. “We need people to think and to feel a sense of belonging to Palestine and to their individual duties to the country.”

Iriqat said she supported the initiative based on her belief that citizens should take responsibility for the community and the country, “but things have to be made clearer for the initiative to succeed.”

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