Lorna Anderson has been on a recent visit to Palestine. In the first part of this article she reports on the growing realisation amongst the Palestinian liberation movement that they can not effectively deal with the Israeli occupation without taking on the Palestinian Authority. In the second part she assesses the possibilities of the Palestinian liberation movement adopting a wider transformation strategy.
1. THE PROBLEMS FACING THE PALESTINIAN LIBERATION MOVEMENT
This article looks at the development of the struggle in Palestine, the nature of the Palestinian Authority and the importance of the political economy of Israel’s occupation for the future of the ‘popular resistance’ movement. It draws on my observations during a recent visit to Palestine. On October 31, Khalida Jarrar, a member of the suspended Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and supporter of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was arrested in Ramallah by Israeli troops. Her detention was extended by an Israeli court on November 3, although no reasons for her arrest have been given by the authorities. Like many other Palestinian activists, Jarrar is no stranger to Israel’s jails: she has been arrested twice since 2015 and was only released from prison in February after serving 20 months. At the time of writing her fate remains unclear – will she be accused of a specific offence or simply held without charge in administrative detention? Jarrar’s prominence as a political figure and women’s rights campaigner has drawn international attention to her case, but in many ways what has happened to her is quite typical of the treatment of the over 5,000 Palestinians currently held by the Israeli state.
Khalida Jarrar’s case tells us a great deal about the nature of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the current state of politics on the West Bank. Jarrar was arrested in central Ramallah, effectively the capital of the Palestinian Authority. Ramallah lies in ‘Area A’, which under the terms of the Oslo accords is one of the three districts over which the PA has full civil and security control, but which Israeli troops enter at will to arrest activists, frequently with the collaboration and cooperation of the PA’s security forces.1 A central theme of the peace process from 1993 was the ‘two-state solution’: in return for recognising Israel, the emerging Palestinian Authority would be the basis for an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza. However, Jarrar’s detention, along with that of the hundreds of other Palestinian prisoners, shows where the real power lies in the West Bank. The ‘state’ that has developed during the peace process in no way fits the description of autonomy – much less that of the much-heralded stepping-stone to a fully independent state at some point in the future.2
My previous reports from Palestine outlined the political and economic power that the Israeli state exerts over the PA and the impact that this has on the everyday lives of the Palestinian people.3 In this report I would like to consider the nature of the PA and some themes that are emerging in the discussions amongst Palestinian militants about the way forward. It goes without saying that there is widespread cynicism about the PA and the political leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. Its collaboration with Israel – evident in cases like that of Khalida Jarrar – only adds to a sense that the PLO leadership has long since abandoned the struggle for the liberation of Palestine. To many activists, whose attitudes and militancy were forged from the first intifada onwards, the Abbas leadership is now exposed as a corrupt and self-seeking group of cronies, simply intent on holding on to power and feathering their own nests. It is no surprise that increasingly in discussions you hear the view from these militants that today the real enemy lies at home.
These criticisms of what one comrade described as the “sclerotic clientelism of the PA” are both widely expressed and easy to make. What is less clear is the strategy and tactics that should be adopted. For many the first intifada of 1987-93 remains a model of mass struggle that should be revived. Ideas of ‘popular resistance’ of this type remain strong, and discussions usually begin with ideas of how such a movement can be resuscitated. However, whilst it is recognised that local protests against ‘the wall’, the settlements and particular examples of Israeli state repression and arrests are still taking place throughout the West Bank, most agree that the extent and scale of these actions are somewhat more limited than even five years ago.4 These more sober assessments recognise that the conditions that gave rise to the first intifada cannot be repeated. For example, the geo-political context of the cold war and the widespread revolutionary confidence that sustained 1980s national liberation struggles globally have been replaced by the dominance of American imperialism and a series of defeats for revolutionary movements, from South Africa to Ireland. The revolutionary strength of the first intifada produced the peace process, which transmuted the goals of national liberation into the betrayals of the Oslo accords and the dead end of the ‘two-state solution’.
If the mass struggle of this period cannot simply be recreated by an act of will, it remains an inspiration of sacrifice and heroism, and a formative experience for contemporary activists. Significantly, in discussing how an intifada can be rebuilt the more important question of why it should it be built at all quickly comes to the fore. The Abbas and Fatah leadership have responded to these growing demands for change by promising new elections to the PLC and suggesting that, for the PA, ‘areas A, B and C’ were no longer in place.5 They have also attempted to co-opt demands to rebuild popular resistance by supporting protest actions against the settlements and the wall, although their definition of ‘the occupied area’ is clearly limited to the PA territory as defined by Oslo rather than “Palestine from the river to the sea” – in the words of the popular chant heard at demonstrations.
Any grassroots movement built from both the existing popular resistance committees and the new ad hoc groups that have emerged from specific local protests in the West Bank must be clearly independent from the PA and the Fatah leadership. Despite the recent ‘militant’ words of Abbas, the PA continues to play an openly counterrevolutionary role, both in its open cooperation with Israel and in upholding a ‘two-state solution’. Clarity on this is an essential starting point for any new movement. Popular resistance should be directed at two linked enemies – the occupation by the Israeli state and their PA collaborators.
In the discussions now taking place amongst Palestinian militants, strategy and tactics must also be linked to a revolutionary programme. This is still, understandably, at a very early stage. Given the defeats that the labour and national liberation movements have suffered internationally since the late 1980s – not to mention the bloody stalemate following American imperialism’s interventions in Iraq and Syria, combined with the failure of the Arab Spring – it is no surprise that many activists remain sceptical that a revolutionary movement can be rebuilt at all.
The experience of the PA and the disillusioning failure of the ‘peace process’ to secure even modest gains for Palestinians only reinforces such moods. It is in this light that two interrelated strands in the discussions attempting to chart a way forward for the popular resistance movement need to be viewed. Both attempt to internationalise the Palestinian struggle by drawing on the ‘South African model’ and the importance of ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions’ in mobilising support. The ‘South African model’ correctly understands the importance of mass struggle by the black working class through strikes and protests in ending apartheid. The nature of the PA which functions as a series of Bantustans adds further credibility to this comparison, as do the obvious similarities between the white minority regime in South Africa and the Zionist project in Israel. But, if a real revolutionary movement is going to emerge in Palestine, it needs to understand the differences in the contemporary situation and that of South Africa in the 1980s, as well as assessing the results of that struggle.
The political economy of the PA and its relationship with Israel is not the same as apartheid South Africa. For example, around 100,000 Palestinians either work in Israel or in West Bank settlements; Israeli policy has been to reduce dependence on Palestinian labour, both on ideological and security grounds. Whilst Zionism’s ‘Jewish labour’ policy was weakened after 1967, Palestinian workers do not have the same decisive role in the Israeli economy that the black working class did under the apartheid regime. Indeed, in the last 20 years Israel has actively encouraged immigration from China, Africa and the Philippines to substitute for Palestinian labour in its economy.6 Although an important asset for Israeli capitalists, the exploitation of Palestinian workers is not a key factor in the occupation. Indeed, many Israelis debate whether the costs of the occupation and its impact on Israeli society make it any kind of asset at all, much less a profitable source of economic advantage.7
It is these implications of the political economy of the occupation and its impact on the possible evolution of the Palestinian struggle that I will discuss further in my next article.
- Weekly Worker October 3 and 10 2019.↩︎
- For some examples of recent protests in the Jordan Valley see https://imemc.org/article/peaceful-protesters-suffocate-as-israeli-soldiers-attack-demonstration-in-jordan-valley; and https://electronicintifada.net/content/palestine-pictures-october-2019/28806.
- https://mondoweiss.net/2019/10/palestinian-general-elections-more-empty-promises-from-abbas. For Abbas’s position on Areas A, B and C, see www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-07/26/c_138258279.htm.↩︎
- S Hever, The political economy of Israel’s occupation, London 2010.
(first published at https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1274/given-up-on-liberation/)
2. WIDER TRANSFORMATION
My initial aim was to give readers an impression of what I saw and what I heard during my time in Palestine. In this concluding article I hope to outline what I have learnt from my discussions with activists and discuss how they see the way forward. These observations must be, by their very nature, somewhat limited, but I hope that other comrades, both within Palestine and further afield, will respond to my report and contribute to the necessary discussion amongst Marxists about future perspectives for the Middle East.
This international context is central to any discussion amongst Palestinian militants about their struggle. On the one hand, this is a realistic appreciation of the wider geopolitical situation: the historical and contemporary role of the great powers in the Middle East and the strong grip of the Israeli state upon the West Bank. On the other, it reflects an understandable sense of isolation and weakness amongst many Palestinians. The role of the Arab states and the collaboration of the Palestine Liberation Organisation leadership and Palestinian Authority (PA) in containing the revolutionary struggle reinforce these moods and encourage the hope that either forms of diplomatic manoeuvre or direct international solidarity can break the deadlock.
There are few illusions that the United States – even under the most ‘liberal’ of Democratic presidents – will shift its strategy away from support for Israel. However, there is a belief that some European states might be induced, through internal political campaigns, to support the Palestinian cause and apply some form of moral persuasion on the ‘international community’. Hence the hopes invested in Jeremy Corbyn, seen as the most pro-Palestinian political leader in Europe, and the anticipation that his election could mark the beginning of a decisive turn in the attitude of European states towards Palestinian rights.
The calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions are central to this diplomatic strategy. These demands provide a focus for Palestinian solidarity movements to apply pressure on governments internationally by mobilising support for the campaign and, of course, such international protest is important in drawing attention to the occupation and the demands for Palestinian self-determination. From my own experience, the visits by ‘internationals’ to Palestine and social media coverage of protests in other countries are genuinely welcomed as tangible signs of support. Direct links of this type between the international workers’ movement and activists in Palestine represent real solidarity, based on common interests and joint action in struggle rather than humanitarian gestures or diplomatic calculations.
It is important that this type of solidarity, which links struggles globally against the common enemy – imperialism and capitalism – is clearly distinguished from the politics of compromise and capitulation which produced the peace process, the Oslo accords and the collaborationist PA. In my discussions with activists, these international dynamics, alongside the experience of other struggles, were eagerly followed and increasingly understood. Above all, for many Palestinian militants, as for all revolutionaries, the real enemy is at home: their central task is to build a movement based on a revolutionary programme that challenges both the occupation and the existing Palestinian leadership.
As my previous articles have indicated, there is plenty of raw material and discontent to draw upon. The PA is a ‘failed state’. The leadership under Mahmoud Abbas survives through a combination of clientelism, cronyism and the repression of opposition. It is a partner in the occupation, acting as a mediator between, on the one side, American imperialism and the Israeli state and, on the other, the Palestinian population, through the distribution of aid, the management of economic resources and maintaining access to political influence in its own hands. Although the Fatah leadership promises fresh elections or appears to support ‘popular resistance’ to the occupation, these are simply responses to pressure and blatant attempts to manage growing calls for change and real action.
The PA is preparing for life after Abbas and it is already evident that a younger generation of Fatah politicians is being lined up to step into the old guard’s shoes. Whilst refreshing the line-up at the top, and making radical speeches pledging that the struggle will continue until final victory, may buy some more, albeit limited, time for the leadership, the fundamental contradictions and instabilities in the PA remain. For younger militants the ‘two-state solution’ is dead: it has failed to deliver either a sustainable economic ‘peace dividend’ or a viable Palestinian state, free from occupation. It can only survive as an oligarchy beholden to Israel and propped up by aid from capitalist states. However, if there is understandably widespread cynicism about the Abbas regime, how important is the opposition and what does it propose to do about it?
There are a number of ‘left’ and opposition parties that are formally organised and have contested PA elections, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Palestinian People’s Party, the Palestinian Democratic Union (Fida) and the Palestinian National Initiative. Whilst all are critical of the PA and the Fatah leadership to some degree, many of these groups have something of the status of a tolerated and licensed opposition. The PFLP has been the most critical of the Abbas regime and subject to both Israeli and PA repression, but the nature of its opposition to the ‘two-state solution’ and its attitude towards rapprochement with Hamas remains unclear. These groups have an historical base in the West Bank and can draw on established networks of militants for elections or agitation.
Some of the militants I met were loosely affiliated to these organisations, either through family or other local connections, but the depth of their ideological commitment to the stated positions of, say, the DFLP, was less than clear. What brought these militants together was their opposition to the status quo – both the occupation and the PA (which many saw as the same thing) and their activity in the various protests and ‘popular resistance’ against settlements and the Wall. They are organising local committees and linking up various districts to generalise their struggles.
However, whilst it is clear what they are against, they have yet to develop a positive programme of their own. At this stage the focus is on ‘action’ and forms of protest that draw on the model of the first intifada. These activists correctly see that those forms of mass action and deep-rooted resistance posed a real challenge to Israel’s occupation in the late 1980s. They can see how the strength of that uprising was turned back against the Palestinian masses by the collaboration of the PLO leadership with Israel during the peace process. Above all they can see the endless cul-de-sac that Oslo has produced. As long as this ‘stable instability’ of occupation and repression continues, so will protests. But, as long as the PA remains in existence, it too will repress and act as a brake on the Palestinian struggle.
A programme and an organisation for real revolutionary struggle can emerge from these currents if the experiences of the past 30 years of the peace process and the failures of the existing Palestinian left are fully explored and discussed. Central to building these new revolutionary politics is to look beyond the West Bank and to see how the struggles against the PA and the Israeli occupation are intimately connected to other movements and dynamics in Israel and throughout the Middle East. If a ‘two-state solution’ is impossible, a ‘one-state solution’ is equally utopian.
The Palestinian revolution can only ultimately succeed as part of a wider revolutionary transformation of the Middle East and the Arab world. Despite the apparent strength of the United States and its Israeli allies and the disarray of the forces in opposition to imperialism, the future of the region remains one of instability and turmoil. The historical experience of the masses generally throughout the Middle East has been one of struggle and a heroic willingness to resist feudal reaction and imperialism. Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than by the Palestinian workers and peasants.
It is only in these traditions and in this revolutionary programme that a way ahead can be found for the next, emerging phase of the Palestinian struggle.
(first published at https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1275/wider-transformation/)