Thirty years ago or more, when the Palestinian left organisations were still influential within the PLO, they argued that Palestinians had three enemies: Zionism, imperialism and Arab reaction This slogan has been little heard in recent years, but the latest developments throw a revealing light on this partnership of interests, and on the need for a strategy to combat all three.
In the course of the great uprising which has swept from one end to the other of the Arab world, the voice of Palestine has been strangely silent. There are, of course, objective reasons for this. Palestinians live either under vicious military occupation, in exile, or as third-class citizens in the state of Israel; they are exhausted by decades of struggle against oppression; many of them live in such poverty that all of their energy needs to be saved for daily living.
But none of this is sufficient to explain why, at such a potentially revolutionary moment, there has been relatively little movement in Palestine, which had at one time been seen as the heart of the “Arab revolution”. In the 1960s and 70s, European intellectuals, including Jean Genet and Jean-Luc Godard, produced work inspired by their stays in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and Marxist revolutionary guerrilla Leila Khaled’s image was as ubiquitous as posters of Che Guevara. During 1987-9, the first Palestinian intifada inspired protests which shook reactionary regimes across the Middle East. Eventually, it was only possible for Israel to crush this by bringing back the exiled Palestinian “leadership” in order to act as their sub-contractors in repression. This deal helped maintain threatened Arab regimes in power, and they responded gratefully through a policy of “normalisation of relations” with Israel.
These regimes are either now overthrown, or under strong pressure, and Israel’s strategy of the past 25 years is fatally damaged. But so far, its principal ally, the discredited Palestine National Authority, does not appear to be facing a significant threat, despite the revelations in documents leaked to Al-Jazeera, that the PNA has been actively collaborating with Israel to suppress Palestinian dissidents. These documents reveal the duplicity of both partners in the “peace negotiations”. The PNA, while publicly maintaining long-standing Palestinian demands, secretly agreed to renounce the right of Palestinian refugees to return, and to give occupied East Jerusalem to Israel; while Israel, despite these and other major Palestinian concessions, continued to claim publicly that there was “no partner for peace”.
Israeli propaganda has always attempted to portray the Zionist state as “the only democracy in the Middle East” – and, as one blogger recently noted “they will move heaven and earth to ensure that they remain so”. Democratisation in the Arab world has always been a greater threat to Israel than the military capability of the regimes, and Israel has quietly lined up in support of the beleaguered despots. With Mubarak on his way out, Israel desperately appealed to the US to prop him up: Thomas Friedman commented in the New York Times on Israel’s “ironic” message to Obama: “We are your only reliable ally because we are a democracy and whatever you do don’t abandon Mubarak and open the way there for democracy.”
The emergence of democratic regimes in the Middle East, responsive to the needs and demands of their people rather than those of capitalist bosses and imperialist sponsors, will give the lie to this Israeli propaganda tactic. More than this, it will establish the possibility of genuine mass solidarity across the region for the ongoing Palestinian struggle. As Palestinian political scientist Rashid Khalidi noted back in 1982: ”Until the Arab world produces leaders who are more prepared to confront Israel than they are to confront their own people, there will be no freedom for Palestine”.
The leaked Palestine papers show once again the bankruptcy of the “two-state” approach. Israel has clearly never had any intention of granting even minimal Palestinian autonomy, and the whole “peace process” is seen to be a mere distraction, while Israel continues its expropriation of Palestinian land and property.
The Arab uprisings have both been inspired by, and are themselves inspiring, the Palestinian struggle. And as the Israeli state identifies its interests more closely with those of the Arab despotisms, new alliances are also being formed among their opponents. The mass struggle continues throughout Palestine, In weekly protests against the apartheid wall at the West Bank villages of Ni’lin and Bil’in, and against evictions and theft of homes in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, Palestinians are joined by growing numbers of Israelis, particularly younger activists. By respecting the need for autonomous Palestinian leadership of these struggles, these Israeli activists – many of them draft refusers – are demonstrating their willingness and ability to integrate into the region.
The Israeli state has intensified its repression against not only its Palestinian subjects, but also Israeli citizens. New laws making their way through the Knesset will criminalise both commemoration of the Nakba (the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948) and advocacy of a boycott. And according to recent reports, Israeli police are starting to adopt the same tactics towards Jewish demonstrators that they have long used against Palestinians. If current trends continue, by next year we may be able to describe Israel as “the only non-democracy in the Middle East”.
The Arab uprisings represent a significant shift in the relation of forces across the region. The Israeli state, together with its reactionary Arab allies, has been weakened. This opens the space for a revolutionary movement which will work to transform the Middle East, to exploit is natural resources for the benefits of its people rather than those of the capitalist exploiters, and to create a society in which all national, cultural and religious communities will be able live and develop freely.