Looking for new answers
Lorna Anderson completes her report of a recent visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Driving through the West Bank, I saw plenty of evidence of political activity in the form of party flags, posters, slogans and graffiti - and the more formal memorials for activists killed by the Israeli state.
Whilst Fatah flags were in the majority (reflecting their political dominance in the Palestinian Authority), the red flags of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine or the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine were also visible, especially in the universities. There were few Hamas flags and little open evidence of the influence of Islamist ideology, but it was reported to me that these currents had grown to a certain extent in the recent past, because of the failure of both the Palestinian Authority and more militant politics. The Palestinians I spoke to did not formally identify themselves with existing groups, reflecting the way in which patterns of political allegiance and organisation seemed more informal and localised - certainly in the rural areas. Thus, whilst particular villages might be identified with a particular political tendency, this was usually a product of the history of the area, the political record and reputation of individuals and groups within those villages, and the nature of the relationship with the Palestinian Authority.
Central to my conversations with different groups of activists were criticisms of the PA. These ran along predictable lines, ranging from examples of both its impotence and collaboration with Israel in containing militant opposition to the occupation, through to the way that clientelism and favouritism operated to politically favour Fatah and maintain a support base for the leadership. The failure to call fresh parliamentary elections since 2006 (when Hamas gained 44% of the vote to Fatah’s 41%) and other measures to stifle opposition were also seen as evidence that the leadership of Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas now lacked legitimacy.1 Given Hamas’s record in Gaza and the growing criticism of Fatah’s hold on power in the West Bank, one activist quipped that in any future election “Fatah would win in Gaza, while Hamas would take the West Bank!”
More significant than these specific criticisms of the conduct of the Fatah leadership and the way it dominated the PA was a strong antipathy towards the idea of a two-state solution. Interestingly, many of these activists had critically supported two states in the past as a type of stepping stone towards an independent Palestine. However, the way things had turned out in practice had made many of them question their previous position. This criticism was not simply based on disquiet about clientelism and corruption, but reflected an understanding that the ‘Palestinian state’ represented a cover for the continuing Israeli occupation.
The ‘stepping stone’ argument also seemed to these comrades to be further discredited by the PA’s inability to make any headway internationally. Whilst recognising that the Abbas leadership had been dealt a bad hand, some activists acknowledged that the real problem lay with its decision to sign up to the two-state solution. These criticisms of the leadership had recently grown, it was suggested, in the era of Trump and Netanyahu. Whilst no-one had any illusions in the good offices of the United States - or indeed much confidence in other international bodies, such as the ‘Quartet’ and Mr Tony Blair - they still hoped there might be possibilities of geo-political pressures working in their favour.
The mood of the groups that I spoke to, in both the West Bank and Israel, was very realistic about the difficulties they now faced. If the two-state ‘solution’ had proved next to useless and, indeed, had only strengthened the occupation and the control of the Israelis over the West Bank, what was to be done? It was clear that most of the activists who were still focused on opposition to the two-state solution were countering it with a ‘one Palestinian state’ solution. Furthermore, it was widely believed that the political and economic dynamics of the occupation, the close economic relationship between Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the shifting demographic balance all pointed towards the need for a single state. The only issue was the nature of that state: a Greater Israel with adjacent rump Bantustans or a democratic Palestine, in which both Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Arabs could achieve self-determination. However, most people realised that these decisions were not in their gift and they needed to develop external international support to achieve their aims.
It was here that comparisons with South Africa seemed to some to offer a degree of comfort. They argued - paradoxically, it seemed - that Israel’s policy of creating de facto Bantustans in the Palestinian territories, and the economic and political stranglehold that the Israeli state has over the West Bank, could actually help them achieve their political objectives. Their obvious disadvantage would be compensated for by gaining the moral high ground in the eyes of international opinion. The experience of the international struggle against apartheid was frequently compared to the growing boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaigns in the USA and Europe. Likewise, there were hopes that political pressure in the US and Europe by pro-Palestinian campaigners could exert influence over governments and policymakers.
A significant argument here, of interest to British readers, was the enthusiasm evinced for Jeremy Corbyn and the pro-Palestinian positions adopted by the Labour Party conference. The success of Palestinian solidarity activities in raising awareness of the situation under the occupation, through demonstrations, interventions in political meetings and the media, was followed very closely. It was a reminder to me that even small-scale activities in provincial French towns or large metropolitan centres in the United States could be viewed and followed via social media in even the most remote parts of the West Bank. These forms of solidarity and the raising of the Palestinian question seemed to give great heart to the various groups I met.
South Africa was also an inspiration through its history of mass struggle and the mobilisation of the majority black working class, which resulted in the overthrow of apartheid. Political activists also seemed keen to draw lessons from their own mass struggles during the Intifada and in the way that the peace process had developed in the 1990s and 2000s. This thinking was driven by a need to make sense of their current position and work out where they should go in the future. Some were very pessimistic about this future, believing that the Palestinian cause was isolated and could not exert any powerful levers. They argued that the essentially pro-Israel policy of the US, combined with the geo-political interests of the neighbouring political regimes in the Middle East, pointed to a continuation of the status quo. Others argued that international solidarity along the lines of the campaign against apartheid could exert a counter-pressure. Whether optimistic or pessimistic about the future, all agreed that the current status quo had failed the Palestinian population and that a new mass movement was needed.
In one particular discussion with a group of activists who had come together during the Second Intifada and maintained a local resistance committee from that period onwards, I suggested that the successes of the South African struggle had other lessons apart from the international consumer boycott and diplomatic pressure. It was important to remember the very different geo-political context of the late 1980s: the USSR was still a restraining rival to the USA and its allies, and the defeats of the various national liberation movements internationally in the 1990s had yet to take place. Could these successes be replicated today in a world with one imperialist hegemon?
These comrades understood from their own activity during the Second Intifada and the subsequent opposition to the occupation that mass struggles of strikes, protests and boycotts could present a serious challenge to the Israeli state. They were, however, uncertain of how such a struggle could be reignited and pointed to the impact of collaboration and the repression of activists. They also suggested that the role of neighbouring Arab states was essentially counterrevolutionary and, along with the PA leadership, positively worked to prevent a new intifada. At this point in the discussion, having outlined all the negative factors and possibly deciding that it would be futile to even attempt to rebuild a new mass movement, one of the younger comrades said that ‘we’ (meaning this local group) had managed to keep going for nearly 20 years and that there were numerous other groups in neighbouring villages and nearby towns that were attempting to continue the struggle in the same way. He continued:
We are trying to find some answers about how we can take our struggle forward. And we know that what has worked in the past can work in the future … most of us have been in jail and we have seen many friends and comrades killed by the Israelis, yet we still keep on going.
I applauded their resistance and said that I felt honoured to be in the company of such comrades, who could teach socialists in other parts of the world how to maintain a struggle in such circumstances.
In offering solidarity, I observed that these local groups could be the basis for a renewal of the struggle at the grassroots in the occupied territories, but this movement could not be seen in isolation from other political and social struggles in the Arab world and Israel itself. The Arab regimes have proven to be treacherous allies, with their ruling classes more interested in their own geo-political interests and using the Palestinian cause as a way of mobilising and distracting their own populations. The creation of a democratic resolution of the Palestinian question would require revolution throughout the whole region - it is inextricably linked to the politics of the whole Middle East. The experience of the Arab spring showed these interconnections and the potential for revolutionary change, but, as they were well aware, the failure of those revolutions and the political stalemate throughout the Middle East continues to hold them in a bloody trap.
My meetings during this extended visit show that discussions such as these are going on throughout Palestine, as activists regroup to organise and to think how their struggle can be renewed and taken forward onto a higher, militant level.
It remains to be seen whether elections will be held following Abbas’s statement at the United Nations in September 2019 that he hopes for talks with Hamas and the promise of elections at some indefinite point in the near future - see www.timesofisrael.com/abbas-says-hell-discuss-elections-with-hamas-factions-but-provides-no-timeline.↩︎