Palestinians and the dilemmas of solidarity
This article appeared on 14 May 2015 on the Electronic Intifada.
Solidarity with the Palestinian people retreated internationally since the early 1990s in view of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) collaboration with the US and Israel to liquidate the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle through the Oslo accords. In recent years, however, this solidarity has made a comeback with the expanding endorsement of the Palestinian campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, or BDS.
As international support of the Palestinians ebbed after 1991 at the level of states and civil societies, the tide has turned again in the last 10 years, with the realization on the part of many initial endorsers of Oslo that the accords were a ruse to deepen Israeli colonization. This is especially so in the civil societies of Western Europe and North America, but also and increasingly at the level of European government policy, with recent murmurings in the Obama administration that its policy might also change in view of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent electoral victory and the latter’s frank declaration that no Palestinian state would be established during his tenure. Recapping this ebb and flow in pro-Palestinian solidarity is necessary in order to understand and analyze the more recent solidarity strategies and the anti-Palestinian counter strategies devised by Israel and its friends to defeat them.
The post-1990 “peace process,” beginning with the 1991 conference at Madrid, brought about major transformations in global solidarity with the Palestinians. While the world had until that moment supported the Palestinian people’s right of return to their homeland in a UN resolution that continues to be reaffirmed annually, much of the world now seems to support some form of compensation, if anything. While much of the world supported the dismantling of Israel as a racist settler colony, evidenced by the 1975 UN resolution that identified Zionism as “a form of racism and racial discrimination,” by 1991, much of the world repealed that very same resolution. While much of the world was then decided on isolating Israel diplomatically as one of three pariah states (apartheid South Africa and Taiwan being the others), now most of them have established diplomatic relations with it.
The only Palestinian right that most of the world seems to still support is the right of some West Bank and Gaza Palestinians (but not Jerusalemites) to self-determination and the end of Israeli occupation in parts of the West Bank and Gaza (but not East Jerusalem). The right of the Palestinians to resist the occupation, which had much global support previously, was supported after Oslo by a only few. This loss of support was not confined to states and governments but included political movements, activists and individuals.
Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, the PLO expressed a clear vision of what liberation from Zionist colonialism meant. This was articulated by Yasser Arafat at the United Nations in his famous speech in 1974 and in other PLO statements. The diagnosis of Zionism was clear: Zionism is a racist colonial movement that discriminates against Jews themselves and allies itself with imperialism; Israel is a racist colonial state that discriminates against its Palestinian citizens and prevents those Palestinians it expelled from returning; and Israel is a settler colony intent on territorial expansion and the occupation of the lands of neighboring countries.
The solution was also clear (although in need of refinement): the establishment of a secular democratic state in all of Mandatory Palestine, where Arabs and Jews would have equal rights. It was in this context that international support and solidarity at the official and unofficial levels declared Zionism to be racist, tirelessly reaffirmed the right of expelled Palestinians to return to their homes and lands and affirmed the legitimate rights of Palestinians under Israeli occupation to resist their occupier.
The Palestinian guerrilla struggle attracted huge international support and included volunteers who joined the fidayyin fighters in Jordan and Lebanon in the late 1960s and the 1970s. They came from the four corners of the globe — from Japan, Spain, Italy, Germany, Argentina and Colombia, to Nicaragua, Iran, South Africa and Turkey and from across the Arab world. Though most of the supporters came from the Third World, many West Europeans showed other forms of solidarity with the Palestinians, demonstrating and writing on their behalf in their home countries and opposing their own countries’ support for Israel. Even France was represented by no less a figure than Jean Genet who came to Amman to document the Palestinian struggle.
Arab solidarity with the Palestinians goes back much earlier to 1917 and onwards. That Izz al-Din al-Qassam, the first Palestinian fidai or guerrilla, whose death at the hand of the British occupiers inaugurated the Great Palestinian Revolt of 1936-1939 against the British and Zionist colonization, came from what is today considered Syria was hardly exceptional, as Arab volunteers would also join the Palestinian struggle after the December 1947 Zionist onslaught and invasion of the country which brought about the expulsion of most Palestinians. That the Arab states intervened in mid-May 1948 officially to put a stop to the Zionist expulsion (by 14 May 1948, the invading Zionist army had already expelled approximately 400,000 Palestinians) and the establishment of the Jewish settler-colony came as a result of massive popular pressure across the Arab world is true enough even if the principal concerns of the intervening countries was their regimes’ own ambitions for regional hegemony.
Since the PLO began to waver in its vision and mission and embarked on a path that recognized Israel’s right to be a racist Jewish state and began to negotiate under US sponsorship in Madrid in 1991, the international friends of the Palestinian people were thrown into a state of utter uncertainty. The first major concession that the PLO had to make in the context of Oslo was to allow the repeal of the international consensus on Zionism-as-racism and substitute for it the US and Israeli consensus, namely that Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, was locked in a land dispute with its neighbors.
As noted, one of the earlier accomplishments of the new consensus was the US- and Israeli-sponsored repeal of the 1975 resolution, which was carried out in 1991. The same states that had supported the resolution in 1975 supported its repeal in 1991. Whereas in 1975 UN Resolution 3379 was supported by 72 countries (35 voted against and 32 abstained), the 1991 repeal was supported by 111 countries (25 voted against, 13 abstained). Evidently, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc was a major loss for the Palestinian cause at the UN. However, the transformation of the views of Third World friends and allies, and of movements and individuals around the world, was brought about more by PLO concessions and transformations than by any other factor.
As I argued more than 12 years ago in an article discussing post-Oslo solidarity, Zionism had remained as racist in its ideology and practices as it has always been; it was the PLO that no longer wished to condemn it for such racism. Allies of the Palestinians, some argued, could not be expected to be more pro-Palestinian than the PLO. Since the Madrid conference, and especially after Oslo, Arafat and his cronies began to circulate proposals and ideas that conceded the Palestinian people’s right of return. It is in this context that the majority of the world that supported the Palestinian right of return (including the US until the mid-1990s) began to waver. As for the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance to occupation and racism, in the late 1980s and as a condition for a dialogue with the US that never materialized, Arafat had identified it, on US orders, as “terrorism” and “renounced” it.
In light of Oslo, Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (which was created under the Oslo accords) put a stop to the first intifada and would diligently undertake the suppression of the second. Allies and friends, as a result, began to waver in their support for Palestinian resistance. Moreover, when Arafat negotiated the Oslo deal and transformed the PLO from a liberation movement into an instrument of the Israeli occupation dubbed the Palestinian Authority, all those countries that had diplomatic boycotts of Israel wondered why they should continue with them when the PLO and Arafat had established diplomatic contacts with a colonial state that practices institutionalized and legal racism. Israel’s international diplomatic isolation was thus ended thanks to Arafat’s deal.
The reversal of these important achievements, which had kept Israel, in the eyes of much of the world, a racist colonial outpost, was not only felt at the official level but also at the level of political movements and individuals for whom the PLO and Arafat were symbols of struggle against colonialism and racism. These same people were to join the international chorus of support for Oslo as the way to resolve what increasingly came to be called the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” rather than ending Zionist colonialism and racism.
When we look at the history of international solidarity with oppressed peoples we find many examples of compromised national leaderships. As I argued in my 2003 article, the collaborationist South Vietnamese government of Nguyen Van Thieu, for example, did not sway those in the international arena who supported the Vietnamese struggle for liberation. A collaborationist Mangosuthu Buthelezi, chief minister of the KwaZulu bantustan under apartheid, did not sway those who supported the South African struggle either. Those who supported the end of the settler-colony of Rhodesia did not reverse their positions as a result of the triumph of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU over Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU. Similarly, those who supported the Iranian revolution did not change their minds about the nature of the Shah’s regime and the need to overthrow him when Khomeini took over, anymore than those who supported the revolution against Haile Selassie in Ethiopia changed theirs when the Derg — the ruling military council — took over under Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Yet, the fact that Arafat and the PLO dropped their opposition to a racist Israel and transformed themselves, under the guise of the Palestinian Authority, into enforcers of the occupation while basking in the shadow of their earlier anti-colonial history tricked many among those who comprised international solidarity into supporting this transformation. Israel’s continued indecision about Arafat as the most suitable leader of Palestinian surrender was based on his refusal to cooperate fully with all of Israel’s demands, not on account of his struggling against Israeli racism and colonialism. Those countries, groups and individuals that constituted international solidarity, however, did not, or refused to, make such distinctions.
This confusion and failure on the part of international supporters, it has been argued, was the outcome of the absence of a cohesive Palestinian movement or leadership that could provide an alternative to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, as Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress had provided to Buthelezi or the Viet Minh provided to Thieu.
But while this is an important part of the analysis, it is a not a sufficient or fully persuasive argument, as it does not account for the fact that it is as a result of Arafat’s and Israel’s policies that Arafat and his successors remained the only available leaders of the Palestinians. Israel had been assassinating Palestinian leaders around the world for the previous five decades, while it was Arafat’s leadership and his monopoly on power that had prevented alternative leaderships from emerging.
Re-emergence of solidarity
Despite the confusion and disarray in which Arafat’s concessions had thrown the friends and allies of the Palestinians, the latter continue to command much support across the world and inspire solidarity everywhere. If states that supported the Palestinians before Oslo came to be intimidated by US and Israeli power after Oslo, not all political movements, intellectuals and activists were so easily silenced.
Many people from around the world began to come to the West Bank and Gaza after 2001 to help fight the occupation and protect Palestinian lives. The founding of the Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in 2001, at the height of the second intifada, would bring a large number of white West Europeans, white Americans and white Australians to the occupied territories who would engage in nonviolent activism to help defend Palestinians against Israeli soldiers — especially in cases of colonial evictions, home demolitions, land confiscation and other forms of daily Israeli military and Jewish colonists’ violence. In addition, ISM activists sought to document the daily oppression of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
ISM would be targeted by the Israelis, and its activists killed, injured and harassed. Indeed, the Israelis would accuse it of collaborating with “terrorism” and would expel many of its volunteers and bar them from re-entry.
The ISM rationale was that international white volunteers could protect the darker Palestinians whom the racist Israeli military had and has less qualms shooting than it did white Europeans and Euro-Americans. ISM did not realize then that white privilege is not sustainable when a white person goes against the white European and Euro-American consensus. ISM would learn that lesson the hard way when the Israeli military showed little hesitation in shooting and killing these white American, European and Australian volunteers in cold blood, with hardly a whisper of protest from their own governments.
The American Rachel Corrie’s case is perhaps the most famous, but there are others like UK citizen Tom Hurndall, not to mention those who were severely injured, such as American Tristan Anderson. The Israeli military’s attack in 2012 on dozens of ISM cyclists who were riding in solidarity with Palestinians led to more injuries and showed Israel’s willingness to defeat international solidarity at all costs.
In addition to the ISM, many others wrote and spoke on behalf of the Palestinians in publications and forums around the world. Still, many more marched in demonstrations protesting Israeli violence in the capitals of Europe and the cities of North America, not to mention the Arab world, while others began campaigns to divest from Israel and to boycott the country or US or European companies that sell it equipment used in its colonial policies. This was an important body of support that was looking for direction. It would find it in the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, or PACBI, which was founded in the West Bank in 2004, and with the establishment of the Boycott National Committee (BNC) and the July 2005 call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions.
In addition to PACBI, Ali Abunimah and a number of colleagues established their important online publication The Electronic Intifada in 2001 to inform allies of the Palestinians about the Palestinians’ daily struggle against a savage occupation. They have become a principal source of information for international solidarity and Abunimah became a powerhouse, a veritable single-person lobby, tirelessly fighting misinformation about the Palestinians in the Western media.
In the meantime, the siege that Israel laid to the Gaza Strip since 2005 generated a new kind of solidarity with the besieged Palestinians there, in the forms of flotillas and convoys aiming to break the Israeli siege and the subsidiary Egyptian siege complicit with it. Recognizing the danger of such a violation of Israeli fiat, the Israeli military fought the flotillas, preventing them from reaching Gaza, to the point of commandeering in May 2010 all the boats in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and killing nine Turkish supporters on the largest of the ships, the Mavi Marmara, in a massacre in international waters.
With the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians intensifying on all fronts, support for BDS began to expand across Western universities, labor unions and among artists, writers and intellectuals. Some began to go on visits to Palestine to witness in person the effects of the Israeli occupation, thus unwittingly highlighting the struggle of West Bank Palestinians, and less so Gaza Palestinians, over that of the other two thirds of the Palestinian people in exile or living under Israeli colonial and racist laws in present-day Israel.
Whereas many of those who go on these visits are sincere and genuine in their support of the Palestinians, there is a worry that this amounts to no more or less than solidarity tourism for which western do-gooders have been known throughout the 20th century — from their tours of the Soviet Union in the 1920s to tours and sugar-harvesting in Cuba in the 1960s, and more so with coffee harvesting and house-building in Nicaragua in the 1980s — none of which had any real or lasting impact beyond the symbolic. While it is true that by witnessing the horrors of the occupation, visitors can and do write and agitate against Israeli policies with more authority, it remains of concern when this constitutes the maximal limit of their solidarity.
This form of solidarity tourism is quite different from the kind of solidarity many registered when they joined international brigades to support the Spanish during their civil war against the forces of fascism or those who flocked to join the Palestinian guerrillas in the 1930s and again in the late 1960s or the flotillas that sought to break the siege of Gaza. Indeed, there were no such tours of solidarity in the cases of Apartheid South Africa and racist Rhodesia, any more than there were tours of colonial Algeria before liberation, though Frantz Fanon and other international supporters joined the anti-colonial struggle in that French colony.
Unlike the post 9/11 pro-Palestinian solidarity visitors, supporters of Israeli racism and settler colonialism have been actively joining fighting units of the Israeli army since the 1947–1948 Zionist conquest to establish the colonial settlement and expel the native population. Whereas with the passage of time, the spate of solidarity with the Palestinians moved from joining their fighting units to supporting them diplomatically from afar, or writing on their behalf and organizing demonstrations in solidarity with them, to arriving in the occupied territories to defend Palestinians nonviolently against a violent occupation and in flotillas off the Gaza coast and finally in the form of solidarity tourism, supporters of Israeli colonial racism have never changed their forms of solidarity or their tactics.
Finally, and more recently, we have seen the highlighting of the question of law among some solidarity groups, specifically the question of international law and the Palestinians. This is not only being used with mixed (mostly unsuccessful) results by valiant Palestinian civil liberties lawyers who are citizens of Israel to defend the third-class Palestinian citizens of the Jewish settler-colony, but also is being adopted as one of the safest topics of discussions by liberal faculty in US universities.
Law has always been the most conservative of institutions, not to say of references. Discussing the merits and demerits of Israeli violations of international law and signed agreements has been and should continue to be an important tool for Palestinians and those who support them (I myself have written about the legal claims that Israel puts forth to justify itself). But this inordinate amount of emphasis on the question of international law smacks of a liberal safe approach that would not antagonize pro-Israel audiences, faculty and university administrators, and in so doing risks reducing the century-long Palestinian anti-colonial struggle against Zionism to a legal question, indeed to one where Israel need only practice its colonial policies in accordance with international law and not in violation of it. This overemphasis on the question of law, which has proliferated on university campuses, is a risky route, as it ignores the colonial history and nature of international law and aims to chip away at the important understanding and analysis of the Palestinian situation as a colonial one, an understanding that is now adopted by pro-Palestinian international solidarity in light of its commitment to BDS.
It is also true that PACBI and the BNC highlight the question of law and international law, which, as I already stressed, is an important tool for the Palestinian struggle, but unlike the safe liberal and reductionist approach, they do not and should not consider international law as the only tool for Palestinian resistance to the exclusion of others, but rather as one of many central issues that can aid Palestinian resistance.
The enormous success of BDS across Western universities and increasingly across European labor unions, academic associations and within the artistic field, is such a great achievement that international power brokers are attempting two simultaneous strategies to break it, with a third subsidiary strategy emerging that is complementary to both:
(1) Fighting BDS head on by denying pro-Palestinian faculty employment, denying already employed faculty, students and artists freedom of expression, and preventing or sabotaging the convening of conferences, exhibits, screenings and other related events. These forms of repression in the academic and cultural spheres are in parallel with a host of repressive government measures and legislative initiatives aimed at punishing or deterring other forms of BDS, especially the economic boycott of Israel;
(2) Co-opting BDS, as many European governments have recently been attempting to do, by claiming that BDS is something to be adopted exclusively to bring about some form of a two-state solution in accordance with the colonial agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority and Israel and which the Israelis refuse to abide by;
(3) A subsidiary strategy seeks to dilute the core issues of the colonial situation in Palestine to a question of law, and to replace Palestinian activism by an anodyne academic form of “Palestinian studies,” which would be helpful to either of the above two strategies: wherein (a) faculty and students can now be accused of practicing pro-Palestinian “activism” rather than academic forms of “Palestinian studies” and be barred from doing so in the name of strict academics, thus helping the first strategy, and (b) by offering “objective” legal academic assessments of the maximum that Palestinians could achieve in line with the second strategy. This subsidiary counterstrategy has co-opted a number of Palestinian-American and other scholars who are now in the business of marketing Palestinian studies and panels on Palestine and international law.
Those in solidarity with the Palestinians should be ever so vigilant and steer clear of these three counterstrategies. Powerful as the colonial enemy of the Palestinians is, the fate of the Palestinian struggle, including that of international solidarity, lies in the balance. This is why those in solidarity with the Palestinians should not tire of emphasizing the core principles of the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle — namely ending Israeli state racism inside present-day Israel in order to bring about both the equalization of the Palestinian citizens of Israel with their Jewish counterparts and allow the Palestinian refugees to return, and the ending of Israel’s colonial occupation of the West Bank including East Jerusalem and the siege of Gaza.
On this 67th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish settler colony on the ruins of Palestine, it should be emphasized yet again that it is not a pragmatic accommodation of different aspects of Israeli racism and colonialism that will bring about lasting justice and peace for the Palestinians, as international power brokers and their Palestinian and non-Palestinian liberal supporters insist. Rather, it is the end of the Zionist colonial venture, starting with the removal (and not the reform) of all the racist and colonial legal and institutional structures that it has erected that is the precondition for lasting justice and peace for all the inhabitants of historic Palestine. On that, those in solidarity with the Palestinians should brook no compromise.