The Battle for Justice in Palestine, by Ali Abunimah. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014. xiv + 279 pages. Index to p. 292. $17.00 paper.
REVIEWED BY RICHARD FALK
Although by now there are many fine, indispensable books devoted to the Palestinian ordeal and struggle, The Battle for Justice in Palestine would be my clear first choice if asked for a recommendation. Ali Abunimah is the founder of the widely used and appreciated Electronic Intifada and author of the excellent book One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestine Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006), which lays to rest the two-state mantra and lends plausibility to the advocacy of a single binational state.
Ali Abunimah is a superb partisan journalist (that is, no pretense of neutrality is present) with an eye for arresting facts and quotations, as well as great narrative talent and analytical skills. His book is filled with useful information, imparts a deep understanding of essential issues, and holds the reader’s attention as it was written in a lively style. Beyond this, Abunimah has an unusual capacity to focus conceptual and policy questions with clarity and precision. With just a tinge of embarrassment, I admit that despite my immersion in the Palestinian saga over the course of the past decade, I learned a great deal from the manner in which Abunimah analyzes the central dimensions of the current phase of the Palestinian national movement.
The book is actually a loosely linked set of illuminating in-depth treatments of such thorny issues as Israel’s entitlement to have a “Jewish state”; the debate surrounding a one-state solution; the Palestinian Authority’s reliance on neoliberal policy guideline (Abunimah provides a particularly devastating critique here); Israel’s tactical responses to the BDS campaign and what Israelis derisively call “the delegitimation project” of its adversaries; Zionists’ failing efforts to discredit the growing movements in American universities to seek divestment from companies and financial institutions doing business with settlements or in support of Israel’s military and security forces; a compelling call for Palestinians to insist on the full panoply of their right to self-determination, including a right of return for Palestinian refugees; and finally, a sharp attack on American-sponsored diplomacy, which pretends that the conflict can be reduced to a border dispute to be resolved by allocating to the two sides the territory comprising historic Palestine more or less to reflect the status quo.
What gives coherence to the book, and unity to its argument, is the peremptory dismissal of the Palestinian quest for peace through the kind of intergovernmental diplomacy that has proven futile since the Madrid Conference in 1991. This diplomacy led nowhere, and was perversely used by the Americans to commend Israel for its generosity and lambaste Palestinians for their supposed unwillingness to be content with a compromise. Worse than nowhere, it actually served to promote Israel’s expansionist agenda. Throughout this entire period, Israel has relentlessly expanded the settlements, constructed the barrier wall deep in occupied Palestine, and consolidated the permanence of its control over all of Jerusalem and most of Area C in the West Bank. In other words, diplomatic failure was beneficial for Israelis, punitive for the Palestinians.
Abunimah instead is a champion of peace from below, by a combination of Palestinian resistance and international solidarity. He explores creatively and with convincing detail the relevance of the peace processes in South Africa and Northern Ireland that succeeded under circumstances where the consensus view at the time was that there was no possible outcome for these conflict other than what could be achieved by long bloody armed struggles. In the spirit of Nelson Mandela, Abunimah never repudiates armed resistance, and supports the right of Palestinians to defend their people by all lawful means. Yet he places his hopes on the popular struggle inside of Palestine as complemented by an increasingly militant global movement of support.
The book announces its central conviction in the rather startling opening lines of the preface: “The Palestinians are winning. That might seem like hubris or even insensitivity. After all, in so many ways things have never looked worse.” (p. xi) What Abunimah is telling us is that the Palestinians are winning “the legitimacy war,” and that despite appearances to the contrary, this is the real war if measured by political outcomes in the last seventy years. If we consider how conflicts in the Global South have ended since the end of World War II we discover that the winners have only rarely been the militarily superior party, and mostly the party able to gain the commanding heights of morality and international law has prevailed, mainly through substituting the resilience of people for the destructiveness of weaponry. As the Afghans say, “you have the watches, we have the time.”
As if to close the circle of his argument, Abunimah’s final words draw tactical conclusions from this stunning demilitarization of recent historical experience: “There has never been a more opportune moment for Palestinians to put forward their demands for decolonization, equality, and justice in clear, principled, visionary, and inclusive terms” (p. 234). Why this is so is persuasively argued: “The tenacious resistance on the ground, in all its legitimate forms, and the growing global BDS solidarity movement need to be complemented by a program worthy of such efforts and sacrifices. Our energy should be invested in developing support for such a program rather than worrying about the minutiae of moribund negotiations which, long experience has shown, cannot result in the restoration of Palestinian rights” (p. 234).
It is to Abunimah’s credit that his approach was articulated before the confirming events of the collapse of the Kerry-prompted direct negotiations in April and the Israel Defense Force’s Protective Edge massacres carried out by Israel in Gaza for 50 days during July and August of 2014. Even more than it would have before the assault, this central message of Abunimah’s fine book will resonate with many people around the world to the effect that “the battle for justice in Palestine is now decisively shifting” onto the terrain of a legitimacy war, and away from the regressive sterility of a bankrupt peace process that never came close to upholding Palestinian rights or fashioning a just peace. It was not even able after more than two decades of diplomatic charade to secure Israel’s withdrawal from territory wrongly acquired in the first place.
Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University, and former UN special rapporteur for human rights in occupied Palestine. He is the author of Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope (2014).