After the Fall: Palestinian Communist Journalism in the Post-Cold War World

Orayb Aref Najjar. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 19, Issue 3. 2007.

No one was more surprised than Hamas when the results that combined proportional and district votes for the Palestinian Legislative Council elections of January 2006 gave the Change and Reform Party (Hamas) 74 out of 132 seats to Fateh’s 45 seats. Fateh was beset by accusations of corruption, and hobbled by its inability to end the Israeli occupation after ten years of fruitless negotiations.

Leftist and independent parties got 13 out of 132 votes. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, more militant than its other leftist rivals, netted three seats; while the Alternative Coalition, which consists of the Palestinian People’s Party, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA), and independents, jointly netted only two seats, one of which will be occupied by the secretary general of the People’s Party, Bassam al-Salihi. Mustapha Barghouthi and the Palestinian National Initiative got two seats (Palestinian People’s Party 2005b). Analyst Mohammad Masharkah wrote that the former Communist Party did badly because it strayed away from its Marxist roots and neglected the championing of workers and peasants. What hurt it most, he said, was its alliance with Fateh, making people regard it as a small appendage to a corrupt ruling party when it should have been in the opposition (Masharkah 2006, 1). That analysis dovetails with the way many People’s Party members see themselves as they urge the party to return to the Marxist roots it partly abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Third Way (Salam al-Fayed, former minister of finance, legislator Hanan Ashrawi and others) got two seats, while Independents and others got four seats.

Among the 132 elected representatives are six Christians who have a reserved quota of six seats, and 17 women who represent 13 percent of the total number of legislators. The women come from the right and left of the Palestinian ideological spectrum (Central Elections Commission-Palestine 2006). Hamas’s attempt to extend its hand to other groups, including the leftists among them, was initially unsuccessful after intense coalition talks ending 17 March 2006. Fateh wants Hamas to accept all its agreements with Israel while Hamas and others think that agreements that allowed Israel to continue building settlements, confiscating land, and imprisoning Palestinians within a wall, unilaterally, are not in the national interest. By March 17, 2007, the People’s Party, Fateh, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and independents had joined the cabinet, but The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was the only holdout (Wikipedia 2007). A PFLP leader explained that the political program of Hamas did not include a fundamental point for the PFLP: that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The PFLP became the last Palestinian faction to turn down Hamas’s offer to form a coalition government (Gulf Times 2006). Analysts note that independents could have amassed more votes had they entered the elections united. Many Palestinians who did not want to fritter away their votes on small parties would have voted for them as a block (al-Masri 2006, 2). So how did Hamas come to dominate the Palestinian political scene in 2006 when the party did not come into being until the end of 1987? What role did the Communist Party play in Palestinian political life and how did that role change over time, especially after the dissolution of the Soviet Union? What is the projected role of the former Communist Party in Palestinian politics now that Hamas is in charge?

This study examines how the Palestinian Communist Party conceptualized and played out its new role in Palestinian politics with the knowledge that it could not depend on the three pillars that supported Palestinian aspirations and policies in the past (the local Palestinian, the Arab, and the international pillars). The paper describes how the Palestinian Communist Party, which gained some legitimacy in Palestinian politics from having a world-class power on its side, dealt with the fall of its former ally, the Soviet Union, and how it coped with the rise of Islamists and their formal entry into government for the first time.

After a historical introduction on the role played by the Communist Party and other leftist Palestinian organizations in an earlier era, I describe the changes in the People’s Party’s program and practice by examining the Party’s documents and its press. I comment on changes in party structure and ideology as discussed in the weekly newspaper Attalia (The Forward), established in 1978, then follow the same discussion on-line in Sawt al-Wattan magazine (Voice of the Homeland), in 2001-6, to update my information on party politics. I chose those publications because they are the only two remaining communist or former Communist Party publications after the demise of the Party’s literary and political journal, al-Kateb (The Writer) in the mid-1990s.

The late Bashir Bargouthi, founder of the Palestinian Communist Party in the West Bank in 1982, told Birzeit University students that the Palestinian question has always rested on three pillars of support: the international pillar, the Arab pillar, and the local Palestinian pillar. He added that despite the “great and stormy changes” that have shaken those pillars, “some of us are still addressing the world using the political language that still rests on the existence of the pillars in their previous effectiveness, powers and potential. Reality has changed” (Attalia 1994d). Indeed it had. Bargouthi’s speech represented the Communist Party’s attempt to acknowledge and face a reality that left Palestinians weaker than they had been in years. Furthermore, the new reality left the Communist Party without allies in the face of the changing international power balance in favor of the United States.

The fall of the Soviet Union was not the only historical development that weakened the Palestinians, and especially the former Communist Party. The local Palestinian pillar was weakened during the first uprising against Israel in late 1987 when Yasser Arafat’s organization, Fateh, was challenged by the rising power of the Islamic movement. The local pillar was shaken when some Palestinian groups created “the Rejection Front” to oppose the Oslo Accords he negotiated with Israel in 1993, fracturing the Left and leading to international pressure on Palestinians. The local pillar was further weakened when, with the acquiescence of the People’s Party (the former Communist Party), the Palestinian National Authority marginalized the PLO by accepting the appointment of Yasser Arafat as president of the Authority as well as the PLO, creating a concentration of power that prevented Palestinians from forming strong institutions at a later date (Hamdan 2005).

The Arab pillar of support was shaken by the 1990-1 Gulf War divisions in which Syria, Egypt, and the Gulf States fought alongside the United States to free Kuwait, while Arafat was photographed kissing Saddam Hussein on both cheeks before the war started. Approximately 350,000 Palestinians working in Kuwait and sending remittances to their relatives in the West Bank or Jordan were deported from Kuwait, weakening Palestinians politically and financially (BESA Publications 1997).

The international pillar that supported Palestinians fell after the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was not so much the financial support to the Palestinians that was important, but the fact that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the paralysis of the nonaligned countries turned the international pillar from a source of support for Palestinians to a source of pressure on them due to the enhanced role of the United States in international politics. The Communist newspaper Attalia feared that U.S. domination of the United Nations would adversely affect resolutions on the occupied territories now that the Soviet Union no longer functioned as a counterweight to the United States in that international body (Bargouthi 1994).


I use a text by Stuart Hall (1975), 11-24), written for a project published as Paper Voices: The Popular Press and Social Change 1935-1965, as a template for this study because he describes methods designed to “catch the press responding to new, complicated social forces” (13). In a similar vein, I examine how two Palestinian publications interpreted social change in the West Bank and Gaza after the demise of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Islamic movement. Stuart Hall observes that the working hypothesis of Paper Voices research was that “every significant stylistic, visual, linguistic, presentational, rhetorical feature was a sort of silent witness, a ‘meaningful disguised communication,’ about how the ‘messages’ (items) should be understood.” Similarly, he says, “every shift in tone and rhetoric, every change in the balance of content, every move in the implied logic in the newspaper signified something more than a mere stylistic shift” (24). Put another way, every newspaper “is a discourse” (17).

The methodology used by Paper Voices reversed the traditional emphasis of research on making “inventories of content or overt appeals, opinions and biases” (16). It concentrated instead on “issues given less prominence in Berelson’s paradigm which studies manifest content: why-the-content-is-like-that.” The researchers wanted to know “what image of the readers the newspaper was taking for granted when it assumed it could write in that way about politics and society” (16). As Hall explained, “Matters of presentation are forms of address to an audience, requiring reciprocal confirmation, and continually underwritten by a structure of informed and informal assumptions” (22-3).

Every single issue of the weekly Attalia published in the period from 22 August 1991 to 23 March 1995 was examined. Both news items and editorials were included because news items are rarely presented without an open evaluation of the event being discussed. The study also pays attention to the Party’s relations with the Islamic movement as these are reflected in the Party’s publications.

In my analysis, I identify the issues that were prominently displayed in both publications; I search for topics that were repeatedly brought up by the columnists and register changes in content and language use. I pay attention to the absence or presence of ads as well as to discussions of and changes in paper size and quality, believing that those changes signal deeper changes in the outlook of the party, as Paper Voices contends. Where appropriate, I count the number of times the paper discussed democracy in a given time period. This type of counting falls under what Paper Voices finds useful for research that does not suffer from social science envy (16). I examine People’s Party documents posted on the Internet in preparation for the Fourth Conference because the suggestions of various members on how to strengthen the party through redefining its political program and mission sheds light on areas of discontent with some of the changes made after the fall of the Soviet Union. Finally, I evaluate the prospects of the Communist Party in a government controlled by Hamas.

Below, I provide the historical background to the Communist Party and other Palestinian groups in order to place the role of the party in the Palestinian political context over time and to show that it was influential in Palestinian life despite its size.

The Communist Party in Palestine and Jordan

From the beginning, Arab nationalism and Jewish nationalism exerted a strong influence on Palestinian-Israeli politics. Both continue to play a role in the political programs of Israelis and Palestinians. The Communist Party of Palestine was established by Russian Jews in 1922. Its anti-Zionist stance weakened it and led to splits within the party. The Comintern pressured the party into recruiting Arabs in 1930s, but tension over Zionism split the party in two in 1943. The Arab branch was called the National Liberation League (Usbat Attahrir al-Watani) while the Jewish branch was called The Communist Party of Palestine. Arabs and Jews gave coexistence another try and united under Makai (Communist Party of Israel) on 22 October 1948, after the establishment of the new state (Gresh and Vidal 1988, 72).

The experience of communists in Arab countries was different. The 1948 population of the East Bank of Jordan was about 340,000. The 1950 Jordanian annexation of the West Bank to the East Bank of Jordan, unsuccessfully resisted by communists, increased Jordan’s population by about 900,000. This increase included about 450,000 refugees from those areas of Palestine that became Israel in 1948 (Rinehart et al. 1980). Communists were now ruled by and were subject to the laws of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, whose regime was hostile to the Soviet Union.

The refugees from Palestine established the Jordanian Communist Party in 1951 in cooperation with Jordanian communists. The Palestinian Communist Party was established in 1953 in Gaza, then ruled by Egypt.

Initially, the Communist Party was viewed with suspicion because the Soviet Union had been an early supporter of Israel due to left-wing Zionist influence on Soviet policy (Krammer 1973, 107). Arab communists, however, had accepted the Soviet position that the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had to come from “international legitimacy,” defined as respect for United Nations resolutions that recognized Israel but gave Palestinians the right of compensation or return. The Communist Party was the only Palestinian party that accepted UN Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947, which partitioned Palestine into two states, Arab and Jewish (Al-Ashhab 2000, 1). Other Palestinians at that time considered the partition an act of treason.

During the Cold War, however, communists gained credibility when they, along with Arab nationalists, were at the forefront of resisting what they considered British and American designs on the Middle East. Communists and others organized against a British-Jordanian treaty that allowed the continued presence of British troops in Jordan after formal British rule ended. They thwarted the “Baghdad Pact” of 1955 by making it impossible for Jordan and Syria to join Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan in a pro-Western alliance whose goal was to weaken the Soviet Union (Butt 2003).

The Jordanian regime rejected communist ideology and tied its fortunes to the United States. In 1953, the Jordanian government enacted the “Law to Combat Communism No. 91 (1953)” that curbed the communist press in the East and West Banks of Jordan. Despite those restrictions and the imprisonment of many Communist Party cadres, journalists, and leaders, communists in 1956 won three out of forty parliament seats in Jordan (Middle East Journal 1956).

The PLO Takes Center Stage in Palestinian Politics

In comparison to the organizations founded by communists and Arab nationalists, the PLO was a latecomer on the political scene. The 1967 Arab defeat discredited both Arab regimes and the old Palestinian guard who led the PLO because their verbal excesses on what they would do to Israel did not match their passive actions (Quandt, Jabber, and Lesch 1973, 50). In 1969, Yasser Arafat forged an agreement that gave commandos half the seats in a new 100-seat National Council (Hamid 1975). He became chairman of the PLO in 1969. In that same year, the Palestine National Council, dubbed the Palestinian parliament in exile, declared that its goal was the establishment of a democratic state in all of Palestine, free from all forms of discrimination.

In the 1960s, younger members of political organizations found leftist ways of organizing society attractive. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, established as an offshoot of the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), had an internal struggle among its members. The majority of the members of the administrative committee called for adoption of Marxism-Leninism as the guiding theoretical and practical doctrine for Arab revolutionaries. On the organizational level, they preached democratic centralism. Eventually, the Marxists split and formed their own group, the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) in 1969 (Kazziha 1975, 70, 87).

The Effect of Various Leftist Ideas on the PLO and the National Movement

Secularism developed in the Palestinian political revolutionary culture as a deliberate and conscious policy, in part as a reaction to some leaders of the Zionist movement’s invoking Jewish Biblical ties to ancient Israel, and later, to some Israeli leaders’ tying modern political land claims to religious Biblical claims, or, as sociologist Hilal put it, they “elevated religious identity to bolster their claim to Palestine” (1992, 2). Initially, Palestinian demands for the right of self-determination, the right of return, and the right to an independent state (formulated by the PLO) remained separate from any religious or mythical bent (2) but was grounded in secular nationalism.

The PLO strategy was influenced by various leftist groups and by contacts with the Soviet Union and China. In 1965, China was the first major power to accord diplomatic recognition and aid to the PLO (Harris 1977, 133). Until the October 1973 war, Soviet aid was described by Palestinians as “half-hearted” (130). In fact, while the Chinese promoted people’s revolutionary war, they did not interfere in how that slogan was played out in daily Palestinian life, “in contrast to the regular consultations between Palestinians and the representatives of the Soviet Union” (125).

The publication of a document clearly not intended for publication illustrates the extent to which the Soviet theoreticians and politicians were involved in editing documents describing the policy of the Syrian Communist Party on Palestine (Special Document 1972, 187-212). It is clear from the notes written in the margins that the Soviet Union, like the Communist Party of the West Bank, wanted a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, wanted it approached in the spirit of internationalism, and wanted the communist parties to pay more attention to class inequalities. One statement reads, “The exclusive concern of communists with the problems of the world liberation movement does not exempt them from concern with the local, national and class problems of their people, and cannot justify their neglect of these problems, and their failure to participate seriously in attempts to find the correct solutions for them” (210).

Palestinian leaders used a nationalist secular idiom rather than a religious idiom in calling for revolution. Observers have pointed to the similarity of revolutionary language between some Palestinian and Chinese slogans, to demonstrate similar beliefs or profound Chinese influence (Harris 1977, 127-8). An examination of a collection of Palestinian revolutionary posters (Radwan 1992, 308-80) reveals that captions called for revolution not in the name of the holy places, although those were sometimes depicted in the background, but with a heavy reliance on the folkloric symbolism expressed in the flower embroidery on women’s national dresses or with a stress on the connectedness to the land through the imagery of farming. For example, one poster shows a commando holding a giant wheat stalk the way one holds an upright gun (326).

Communist internationalism provided a link between Palestinian communists of the West Bank and Gaza and Israeli communists. The first meeting between Arafat and leaders of the Israeli Communist Party in the 1970s was arranged by West Bank communists who had good relations with their Israeli counterparts, thanks to Moscow. The meetings, however, were kept secret for years (Amirah 2003). When the PLO called for the establishment of a secular, democratic state in Palestine in the 1970s, that call was influenced by its contacts with the Communist Party and other leftist organizations—namely, the Democratic Front of the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).

Communists were leaders in organizing the Palestinian National Front (PNF) in the West Bank in the 1970s, a move that shifted the location of Palestinian power to the occupied territories from the Diaspora. The nation-building activities they encouraged were designed to make the occupied West Bank less dependent on services provided by Israel or Jordan (Matthews 1998, 21). Communists helped engineer the 1974 shift of power from Jordan to the PLO. The latter was recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people at the Rabat conference in Morocco in 1974 (Toubasi 2000). Nationalist figures put up by the PNF for the municipal elections of 1976 won even though Israel extended registration for twelve days to persuade pro-Jordanian figures to run, and deported the Communist candidate for mayor of Hebron two weeks before the elections. A combination of factors weakened the PNF, among them the weakening Soviet position in the Arab world in the face of a more assertive American regional diplomacy since 1973, and Arab states’ pressure during the Fourteenth Palestinian National Council to remove leftists from key PLO posts in order to win U.S. recognition of the PLO (Asshab 1979, 57-9). PNF activist and communist Abd al-Jawad Salih charged that Arafat miscalculated by gambling on the American government (MERIP Reports 1983, 27). Furthermore, Israeli settlers planted bombs in the cars of three newly elected Palestinian mayors in 1980, maiming two (Matthews 1998). Despite their treatment by a PLO intent on gaining American recognition, leftists were behind two important shifts in Palestinian society; the first dealt with who represents Palestinians—Jordan or the emerging PLO; and the second dealt with whether to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through negotiations or armed struggle.

The name change from the Jordanian to the Palestinian Communist Party in 1982 was long overdue and signaled both the start of a separation from Jordan and the “creative combination between class struggle and national struggle,” as Naim Nasser put it (2004). Translation: nationalism was at work. Some members thought the party concentrated too much on class struggle and labor issues and not enough on the national struggle, and they wanted to rectify the balance in keeping up with what other groups were doing. The nationalist issue plagued the discussions of the role of the party then and still haunts it today every time the party tries to redefine itself. The Gaza Palestinian Party joined the West Bank Party in 1983. Yet, at the same time, the Communist Party remained independent from the PLO, especially in its insistence on keeping what it liked to call its “realistic policy on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” which later became the policy of the PLO. The Communist Party finally joined the PLO in 1987. The secular and leftist nature of political slogans of the period, however, should not obscure the fact that Palestinian society, which was mostly agrarian and rural, tended to be more religious than its leaders (Palestinian Center for Public Opinion 2005). When religious alternatives to organizing society came along in the late 1980s, recruiters found a fertile ground for spreading their message.

Graham Fuller, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, predicted that after the demise of the Soviet Union, the “new ideological claimants” who emerged would seek to fill the vacuum that appeared along a permanent ideological spectrum. The “next” ideology, he said, is likely to represent an amalgam of opposition to Western values and institutions (Fuller 1995, 145-6). The next ideology was not liberal secular, but Muslim.

The Idea of Jihad Takes Hold in Palestinian Society

An examination of the rise and weakening or fall of various Palestinian groups suggests that the willingness physically to fight for Palestine was the way to gain instant legitimacy on the political scene. Some members of the Communist Party outside the West Bank established an armed wing in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan like other Palestinian groups. Armed struggle had little success in the occupied territories, despite some attempts that led to the arrest of “tens” of its members in 1974 (Nasser 2004, 7). Under the leadership of Attalia editor-in-chief Bashir Bargouthi, however, the Communist Party discussed whether to engage in armed struggle by studying the examples of various armed struggles. Members concluded that armed struggle, “despite the halo accorded to it,” was not the best way to deal with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (Hamdan 2003, 1-5).

Until 1987, the Islamic movement was not involved in the national struggle but was working on strengthening Islamic thought at various institutions, chief among them universities. Burson (2006) reminds Israeli readers shocked at the success of Hamas in the Legislative Council elections that it was “the diligent efforts of a generation of Israeli military and political officials that fostered the rise of Hamas in the first place,” when the Israeli “Civil Administration” and intelligence services in the 1970s and 1980s aided the Hamas precursor, the Muslim Brotherhood, as a hoped-for, apolitical counterweight to what the Israelis considered the radical Popular Front, Democratic Front, and militias of Arafat’s Fateh.

After Hamas joined the uprising against the Israeli occupation in 1987, its resistance to occupation combined with its well-funded social work enabled it to challenge Fateh. In contrast to the secular nationalist discourse that considered the liberation of Palestine a nationalist political issue, the Islamic discourse of Hamas in its founding document of August 1988 considers the liberation of Palestine “a religious duty,” and sees the land of Palestine as a “Muslim Trust” whose liberation is “obligatory” (Hamas Charter, in Hroub 2000, 273, 276). This rhetoric is identical to the Jewish fundamentalist discourse of settlers. In fact, Hamas’s charter chides Fateh for its “secularist line” and attributes that lapse to “the ideological invasion which has swept the Arab world since the defeat of the Crusades and the ongoing consolidation of orientalism, missionary work, and imperialism” (Hroub 2000, 284). One of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdallah Azzam, admitted that his organization “had fallen short in putting off jihad, which made it possible for secular, nationalist, and communist organizations to get ahead of it … it was the absence of the Islamic movement from the field that allowed revolutionary organizations to outstrip it” (31). But the fall of the Soviet Union weakened the Communist Party, which despite its protestations to the contrary, became defensive about its previous association with the Soviet Union.

The Communist Party in Transition: A New Name, a New Mission

The former Communist Party changed its name to the “People’s Party” in 1991, and declared that it had placed itself on the path of renewal. The party relaxed conditions for membership, and deemed it adequate to abide by the broad guidelines of the party’s program (Palestinian People’s Party 2005). It no longer exacted blind obedience from its members, and started electing its leaders through secret ballots. The structural changes it introduced have increased its membership (Shukayr 1994), which grew by 18 percent in 1992-3 and 24 percent by 1993. That growth, however, came at a price. The party had attracted people with less firm commitment to the party’s principles, and the desire to keep them made it overlook their deficiencies, including absences from meetings and lack of serious commitment to the party (Amirah 1999, 81). Polls showed that support for the People’s Party declined from 7.3 percent in 1994 to 1.4 in 1998 (Hilal 1998, 231).

The demise of the Soviet Union and the apparent distancing of the People’s Party from it generated some discussion in the party press on what the Soviet Union had done for Palestinians. A reader railed against those who removed Lenin’s tomb from Red Square and reminded readers that before the October Revolution, only the Palestinian bourgeoisie graduated as doctors and engineers, but because of the Soviet Union, scholarships had been provided to the poor even in villages and refugee camps (Shkwara 1993). No one knows if the Soviet Union directly funded communist publications in the West Bank. The staff of Attalia made little money and was proud to note that everyone, including the editor-in-chief, was paid the same salary.

Graham Fuller observed that the essential Western vision that dominates the world almost unchallenged rests on three fundamental principles: capitalism and the free market, human rights and secular liberal democracy, and the nation-state framework of international relations (1995, 145). After the PLO opted for a peaceful settlement, the nation-state framework for Palestinians seemed farther away than ever. The Oslo Accords, according to Kimmerling and Migdal, “frontloaded benefits for Israel and backloaded them for Palestinians,” and did not create incentives for Israelis to arrive at a settlement quickly (2003, 361). But there were plenty of incentives for capitalism. Private sector monopolies were given the right to operate unopposed. The 1995 Law for the Encouragement of Investment required no taxes from companies that invested in any activity of importance to the Palestinian economy provided that the company invested at least a half-million dollars. That meant that people with capital were given preference over people who could do the job more cheaply (al-Naquib 1997, 88, 91).

Ironically, the torch for secular liberal democracy was not carried by the ruling party, Fateh, but by the People’s Party, whose members had a large number of people running or working for NGOs and human rights organizations. Attalia embraced the human rights and democracy movement in the occupied territories with enthusiasm (Attalia 1993b). As secretary general of the party, Bashir Bargouthi explained, “We need a common language with the world without which our situation becomes more difficult” (Attalia 1994c, 1, 7). The common language Bargouthi identified as necessary for communicating with the world was respect for international agreements and commitment to democracy and pluralism. Attalia covered human rights issues discussed in seminars, lectures, and teach-ins about democracy. A textual analysis of Attalia columns reveals, however, that the paper was at its best when it contrasted official Palestinian declarations about democracy with their daily practice (Mansur 1994a, 15), and monitored how the new authority dealt with freedom of the press (Mansur 1994b). An editorial in Attalia defended the right of a pro-Jordanian paper to publish when others remained silent. Attalia wrote, “Protection of the Palestinian Freedom of the Press is a holy right that should not be abridged by any quarter. We call with the top of our voices … stop those practices!” (Attalia 1994d, 3, 7). Jamil Salhut’s column summed up the paper’s attitude toward democracy: “Our people in the homeland and the Diaspora suffered from tyranny. We attributed that condition to the absence of a national authority that is supposed to respect rights and personal freedoms. No authority will be accepted, no matter what nationalist garb it puts on, if it does not respect those rights and freedoms” (1994, 10).

Hall suggests that in periods of rapid social change, the press “performs a significant role as a social educator. Through selection, emphasis, treatment and presentation, it actively interprets events for its readers” (1975, 11). A textual analysis of every instance of Attalia’s discussion of democracy reveals that it performed a didactic function akin to a teach-in on what democracy is and is not. The most sustained discussion of democracy came in a column called “Democracy, Welcome,” published thirty-three times between 23 June 1994 and 23 February 1995. Dr. Walid Mustapha lamented that “the role of the color khaki in the Palestinian Authority has begun to spread, not just in dress, but also in mentality” (1994, 8). He was referring to the lawlessness of uniformed, armed groups who settled personal disputes with the guns they carried and intimidated critics by their display of arms. Today, controlling those armed groups remains a major problem in the West Bank and Gaza.

Relations between the People’s Party and Hamas

The type of journalism described above was remarkable because it flourished while other publications were publishing fawning paid ads that featured Arafat’s photos. Ads were placed by people attempting to curry favor with the new authority, most of whose members had returned to the West Bank from their Tunisian exile in 1994.

Attalia was wary of getting into open conflict with fundamentalists, but it defended them when it felt a larger issue was at stake. When the Israeli government deported 415 Hamas activists to Lebanon on 17 December 1992, Attalia, unlike the Western media, refused to refer to the deportees as “Hamas” or “Islamic Jihad” activists, but insisted on calling them the “deportees,” “415 citizens,” “Palestinian citizens,” or “415 Palestinians.” It chose to stress the general principle that Israelis have no right to deport Palestinians from their homeland or turn them into refugees. By adopting the position that the deportation of Palestinians was unacceptable to all political groups, the paper placed nationalist concerns above its disagreement with Islamic groups on the efficacy and advisability of resorting to armed struggle in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Attalia was at the forefront of fighting for a pluralistic society that respects religion, but is not dominated by it. One article criticized Islamist attempts to control the social life of Gaza. For example, Attalia quoted a sympathetic Muslim cleric who criticized the harassment of couples by letting air out of the tires of parked cars and explained that going to the beach and singing are not against religion (Attalia 1994b). When Islamists held their first art exhibition ever in Gaza, Attalia called it a “qualitative leap in the thinking of the religious movement in Gaza by rethinking the point of view that places art in opposition to religion” (Attalia 1993a, 18).

Form and Content: The Redesign of Attalia

Paper Voices tackled the important issue of how a publication “maintains through time something like a collective identity,” a persona achieved through appearance (Hall 1975, 21).

The fall of the Soviet Union and the resultant changes in the party structure created an opening for those who wanted to adopt the capitalist model of journalism that the former Communist Party frowned on. Those supporting the change argued that the revenue from ads coupled with lively content would draw noncommunist readers and enlarge the party’s readership base. The opportunity came when editor-in-chief Bargouthi urged Mahmoud Shukayr, a respected writer who had just returned from an eighteen-year Israeli deportation for nonviolent resistance to the occupation, to take over the paper (Shukayr 1994). What followed was a burst of color and a variety of opinion.

The paper experimented heavily with size, style, and content. It went from a sober black, with an occasional red headline, in a twelve-page paper (12×16-1/2 inches) in 1991, to full color printed on polished paper (13-3/4×19 inches) in its September 1993 issue. Between December 1993 and April 1994, the paper with few commercial ads suddenly appeared with three-quarters of its January 1994 front page devoted to ads for CompuServe, electronic appliances, a restaurant, and a “Madonna Jewelry” store. Full-page ads began to appear in its twenty color pages.

Attalia also attempted to involve others in varying its contents when it solicited the Islamist view on the fall of the Soviet Union. Sheikh Bassam Jarrar told the paper that the Islamic movement understood the futility of betting on the Soviet Union or the United States and was consistent in depending on the Islamic civilization (Attalia 1994, 2, 16).

Paper Voices researchers wanted to know “why-the-content-is-like-that,” and “what image of the readers the newspaper was taking for granted when it assumed it could write in that way about politics and society” (Hall 1975, 16). The changes in Attalia tell a great deal about its conception of its identity during that period. After the changes it introduced, Attalia ended up with a curious mix of its usual serious staples and fluff. For example, the 21-7 April 1994 issue listed forty-five names of female Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails on page fifteen, but published on the opposite page an item about a woman who left her fiancé because he bought her a falafel sandwich. At the same time, the paper could not resist devoting a half-page to an article about Derrida (Sharif 1994a, 9), and two-thirds of a page to Samuel Huntington (Sharif 1994b, 4). Silvester Stallone shared the 24 February 1994 issue with Noam Chomsky, but the article on Chomsky’s linguistics was given a half-page while Stallone was given only a few inches. In short, Attalia became as schizophrenic about its identify as the People’s Party was about its new identity. The paper continued to address an elite audience by publishing philosophical articles, a fact that guaranteed it would not become the National Enquirer of the Arab World. At the same time, it added some light items in the hope of attracting an audience from outside its ranks—an audience that never materialized. The fact that the new color version cost three times as much as the modest original, starting 24 February 1994, did not get it the type of readers Attalia was hoping would take a second look at its content.

Hall suggests that newspaper styles and identities are chosen and maintained with continual reference to some notion of who the readers are, what they will understand, what their social position is, what their state of knowledge is, and so on (1975, 23). Some of Attalia’s regular readers did not see themselves reflected in those changes and wrote that they were “repelled by” the color sections. By late 1994, the paper had reduced its size to the smallest it had ever been, and published only eight pages at its original price. Few ads remained, and the entertainment section disappeared for ideological and financial reasons.

The financial crisis of 1994 and 1995 forced the People’s Party to slash its budget in half, let go the paid staff members of Attalia, and cancel the printed version of the magazine, Sawt al-Wattan (Amirah 1999, 76). Thus, at a time when it most needed to confront the power of the well-funded Hamas, the People’s Party’s had too small a budget to spend on information.

The party did not fare better at the ballot box. All twenty-six People’s Party candidates who ran for the eighty-eight Legislative Council seats in 1996 lost. All candidates together netted only 2.9 percent of votes of the West Bank and Gaza combined, forcing the party to admit in its 1996 self-evaluation meeting that it had overestimated its own strength (Amirah 1999, 77). Hamas did not run in that election, so no one knew its real political strength on the ground.

Unable to do it alone because of its small membership and poor finances, the People’s Party in 2003 joined the Democratic Coalition “for those who refuse to sit on the sidewalk waiting for things to turn their way” (Dagher 2004, 15). Membership is individual or collective. But that alliance of like-minded leftist and independent people did not result in the formation of a strong political force mainly because of their small number, and their estrangement from other leftists like the more militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Joel Beinin also explains, “Most Arab Marxists embraced a strategy of stages: first the nationalist, anti-imperialist struggle, then the struggle for social progress and socialism.” But when the Soviet Union embraced the officers that overthrew the British and French colonial rulers of the Middle East “despite their refusal to adopt ‘scientific socialism,’ the Marxists reluctantly embraced them,” and submerged their Communist identity by accepting to defer class and labor issues to a later stage (Beinin 2001, 141).

This tactic did not serve the party well. The fear of coming out openly as communist due to repression made the party reluctant to claim some of its most progressive activities under its own name. The former Communist Party cadres pioneered the establishment of volunteer committees all over the occupied territories, the most important of which were the Agricultural Relief Committees and the Medical Relief Committees. The party assigned Mustapha Bargouthi, M.D., the task of running the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC) in 1979, both because of his medical expertise and because the party wanted to disguise the fact that he was hiding the party’s printing press (Hamdan 2004b). But Bargouthi and the medical professionals he worked with turned the organization into a powerhouse. The UPMRC revolutionized medical care in the West Bank by favoring preventative medicine located in villages over services located in city hospitals. Volunteers and professionals introduced dental, vision, and hearing screening for schoolchildren and pap smears for village women for the first time (Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees 1994). None of those services, however, were offered in the name of the Communist Party or the People’s Party even when Mustapha Bargouthi M.D. was a member of the executive committee of the latter. Furthermore, Bargouthi differed with the party on the extent of its supervision of NGO donor identity as well as on whether to restrict hiring to party members, which he rejected (Hamdan 2004b). In 2002, Bargouthi resigned from the party and established al-Mubadarah al-Wataniyyah (The Nationalist Initiative) with another veteran communist, Dr. Haidar Abdul-Shafi of Gaza, and with Columbia University professor Edward Said. When Bargouthi ran for president in 2005, he ran as an independent. The general population rewarded him for his services with 20 percent of the vote while only 1 percent of the People’s Party members voted for him (Birzeit University 2005; CEC 2005). The results of the elections illustrate two things. First, the party was hurt by not advertising its achievements as part of the philosophy of the People’s Party. Second, the inability of the Left to unite behind one candidate, despite entering negotiations to do so, continues to hurt leftists in national elections. On the other hand, while all leftists agree on labor and social issues, they disagree on policies toward Israel, which puts the People’s Party and others closer to Fateh and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine closer to Hamas.

The Party Attempts to Redefine Itself

In response to a 29 December 1993 critical article by leftist journalist Ali al-Khalili, columnist Mahmoud Shukayr, who became editor-in-chief of Attalia on 24 March 1994, wrote that the party did not change its name from the Communist Party to the People’s Party because it was ashamed of communism. After all, many sacrifices for the country occurred under the banner of the Palestinian Communist Party. Shukayr wrote, however, that the inertia and intellectual calcification that affected the international communist movement in the 1970s mandated the reexamination of all ideas critically. Over time, he said, Marxism-Leninism had changed “into what resembles religious dogma that had a ready explanation for everything.” The party in the West Bank and Gaza had to be restructured to make it more responsive to spontaneous popular initiatives and to find ways in which to organize them in a democratic manner (Shukayr 2004).

By 2004, however, the party was ready to reassess the way it had restructured itself after the fall of the Soviet Union. Abdel Majid Hamdan, a member of the executive committee of the People’s Party, traced the development of the party’s ideology and noted that in its first conference as the Palestinian Communist Party in 1982, the party was proud of being internationalist and of defending the interests of the working classes. Yet even then, says Hamdan, “The struggle against the occupation was considered to be the main contradiction, and we placed class issues right behind it” (Hamdan 2004c). When the second conference was held in 1991, the party was no longer defined as the party of the downtrodden classes and their interests, but as the party that defended all classes against the measures that result from the occupation. Under that definition, it became forbidden to publicly rail against the bourgeoisie on any level, commercial, agricultural or industrial. As a result, the party lost its social identity (Hamdan 2004c, 2).

Even though the party’s publications continued to discuss the social issues they had discussed in the past (such as workers’ rights and teachers’ strikes), they did not utilize a class analysis the way communists of the 1950s and 1960s did. In contrast, Hamas opened schools and provided healthcare under its own name and advertised its accomplishments.

Then, very shyly, the People’s Party reintroduced socialism but did not define it, perhaps as a way of distancing itself from the way socialism had been applied in the Eastern bloc. Hamdan explains, “We said it was a socialism that was in keeping with the traditions of the Palestinian people, and because that goal was in the very, very distant horizon, where liberation from occupation … lies, we did not stop and shed some light on what kind of socialism it was” (2004c, 2).

At the Third Conference in 1998, the party identified itself as an extension of the history of the Communist Party in Palestine, without actually identifying what that thought was. The ideological and intellectual content of the party was still shrouded in mystery. With the passage of time, with the absence of Marxist literature and Arab nationalist literature from the windows of bookstores, and in the absence of the study circles that had been prevalent in the past, whatever books were popular in the street replaced Marxist literature (Hamdan 2004a). Religious observance was also on the rise (Shaoul 2002). Hamdan noticed that “fundamentalist religious thought that was current started to seep into the party, and that strange concoction is reflected in the conduct of individuals and their relations with others” (2004a, 2). The party no longer had a uniform ideology. Furthermore, democratic centralism, as practiced in the past, was suitable for conditions of secrecy under occupation and had the advantage of spreading ideology; the loosening of that practice meant that party decisions were nothing more than verbal niceties that could be rejected without any consequences (4). To Hamdan, it appeared that the goal of building a socialist stage “had receded a great deal, and even more so the move to communism.” He called for rebuilding a special ideology that would return the party to its ideological coherence and unity. He concluded, “The party was wrong in abandoning the philosophy of dialectical materialism, and I think that Marxism is still intact … holding on to both would have meant holding on to our ideological as well as social identity” (5).

The People’s Party did much better on the local level than the national. Its candidates won forty seats in twenty-five local municipal councils (People’s Party 2005a). Those numbers have energized the demoralized party. Even though the party’s program, by its own admission, is unclear on what type of socialist state it wants, the party’s contributions (under whatever name) have left their mark on Palestinian society.

The minister of labor in 2004 for the Palestinian National Authority, Dr. Ghassan al-Khatib, is a member of the People’s Party. Dr. al-Khatib, a former Birzeit University professor, was appointed minister of planning in the Mahmoud Abbas government in 2005. Dr. Khatib has progressive views on labor as well as on education and media.

By far the most interesting development can be seen in the documents on the party’s Web site in preparation for the fourth conference to be held in September 2007. Collectively, the various suggestions by party members represent an attempt to return the party to its Marxist roots by redefining its mission and its political program, and making its identity distinct from other political groups on the political scene.

Hamas Wins Palestinian Elections: What It All Means

Hamas has tried to break the siege imposed on it by the United States by visiting Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both pledged financial support because neither wants the other to be the main influence in the area (Agence France Presse 2006; BBC 2006; Hageer 2006). Russia, which has not declared Hamas a terrorist organization the way the United States has, invited Hamas representatives to Moscow and tried to convince them to recognize Israel (Pravda 2006c). Analysts believe that Russia is attempting to regain the influence it used to have in the Middle East (Page 2006). China expressed a willingness to consider giving aid to Hamas, if asked (Pravda 2006b). It has gone farther than that. It invited the Palestinian foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar, to visit China as the first stop of a swing through Asia. Zahar announced the trip at a press conference along with the Chinese representative to the Palestinians, Yang Wei Guo (Haaretz 2006). These developments follow a historical pattern in which both Russia and China adapt themselves to Middle East power politics more easily than the United States, whose main tactic remains nonrecognition and boycott instead of constructive engagement.

Anti-U.S. sentiments make for strange bedfellows. Venezuela said it would welcome Hamas (Pravda 2006a). In the meantime, the United States, the European Union, and Israel are trying to undermine Hamas politically and financially. Yet internally, Palestinian groups are trying to find a way to live with it. A year after Hamas came to power, and after some hesitation and intense negotiations, the People’s Party has joined Hamas’s cabinet after finding itself in the role of peace maker between Hamas and Fateh. The head of the former Communist Party, Bassam Salihi is minister of culture in a Hamas government, while a Hamas official is Minister of education; a strange alliance, if there is one (Palestinian government, 2007).

The victory of Hamas promises to galvanize all other groups to work more diligently to regain the trust of the Palestinian people, lost, in part, by letting Israel disrespect Palestinians on a daily basis without fearing any political consequences, and by neglecting daily Palestinian needs.

An interview with Nayef Hawatmeh finds him railing against the ravages of “savage capitalism” disguised as “neo-liberalism.” Hawatmeh praises French and Scandinavian calls for “humanizing global capitalism.” After proudly enumerating the contributions of the Left, especially the DFLP, to Palestinian political thought, Hawatmeh asserts that the current situation in the occupied territories will act as a catalyst that will energize Palestinians “to reinvent themselves and reproduce progressivism” (Hawatmeh 2006).

That appears to be the case in a 43-page article placed on the Internet on May 12, 2007 by the secretary general of the People’s Party for discussion. Al-Salihi calls for the renewal of the Palestinian Left by describing it as being suited to Palestinians needs. The Left, he said, is modern, progressive, and democratic with its desire to separate religion from the state, while respecting the right of people to be religious. The Left wants to be active on behalf of women’s rights, education, and the labor movement. The People’s Party wants to tackle those issues both by asserting its independence on the one hand, and by cementing its alliances with local and international Leftist parties on the other (Al-Salihi, 2007). Several of those alliances were obvious when The Palestinian and Israeli Communist Parties issued a joint communiqué against American hegemony and continued Israeli occupation and called for peace (Joint Communiqué, 2007).

An important visitor, the Chinese ambassador to the Palestinian authority, paid a visit to the People’s Party headquarters in April 2007 and donated a number of computers to the party (Chinese Ambassador, 2007). So in some respects, the verbal and physical conflict between Hamas and Fateh has indirectly helped the former communist party. The party is now ready for joining the political arena. Al-Salihi admits that the Left was so busy with liberation it neglected dealing with the problems of the masses; it did not recruit them in sufficient numbers, and it did not defend their economic interests or deal with bread and olive oil issues, leading Palestinians to look for alternatives in the handouts and coupons of foreign donors, or by protest-voting for Hamas because neither Fateh nor the Left tackled the day-to-day problems of Palestinians under occupation. In that 43-page article, al-Salihi called for the creation of “an intellectual third political space” (p. 27) that is neither Fateh, with its ties to liberalism, individualism and exploitative practices, nor Hamas, with its ideology of political Islam, but a progressive third way that respects the separation of powers and believes in human rights. That is the type of Left the document is intent on revitalizing during the long-overdue conference of September 2007.

To succeed, the Left must understand that it cannot build its programs piecemeal, but needs to formulate and communicate a solid coherent revolutionary ideology without which change is impossible. Says al-Salihi, “A clear, courageous, modern Palestinian Left is up to the task” (al-Salihi, 2007, p. 34) and that task is to formulate “a clear Leftist vision” inspired by developments in Latin America, and expressed by “a leadership that firmly believes in it, and a progressive party able to create the mechanisms for building a new future based on that vision” (p. 43).