The Palestinian movement has reached a strategic impasse. Finding a way out requires coming to terms with the lessons of the last four decades, writes Wael Elasady, in an article for the US website SocialistWorker.org.
A paradox confronts the movement for Palestinian liberation.
On the one hand, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has mobilised unprecedented support for the struggle of the Palestinians internationally, placing real economic and political pressure on the state of Israel. It has helped put the rights of Palestinian refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel back at the centre of the movement’s demands, after two decades of the “peace process” that reduced the Palestinian struggle to a question of statehood in the West Bank and Gaza.
The BDS call – co-signed by more than 170 civil society organisations, trade unions and women’s organisations – has filled an important vacuum left by the traditional political parties, providing direction to the international solidarity movement by a representative Palestinian leadership, in the form of the BDS National Committee.
On the other hand, conditions in Palestine are among the worst faced since 1948. The historic leadership of the Palestinian movement is now collaborating with Israel’s occupation, through the mechanism of the Palestinian Authority (PA). In Gaza, Hamas’ resistance has failed to cohere in a form capable of advancing the liberation struggle. Gaza has suffered three devastating assaults by Israel since 2008 – which according to a recent UN report will render the strip uninhabitable within five years.
Meanwhile, settlement expansion continues in the West Bank, and Israeli settler violence has reached obscene levels, with 130 Israeli attacks on Palestinians just in the first week of October.
As a consequence, Palestinians are more desperate than ever, with individuals lashing out with the limited means available to them to resist their daily misery. The protests of Palestinian youth are spontaneous expressions of anger, but lack sufficient organisation and strategic direction, sparking debates about whether the demonstrations can be sustained.
So how can we unravel this paradox?
Put simply, the Palestinian movement has reached an impasse.
In purely military terms, Israel is far superior, with the most advanced weaponry and the backing of the world’s most powerful empire, the US But if a direct military confrontation is bound to fail, what can succeed?
The PA has opted for negotiations – negotiations that have led nowhere. Worse, they have provided cover for a deteriorating situation.
But the early months of the Arab Spring provided a glimpse of the potential to conceive of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a different way. Instead of a narrow effort to carve out a Palestinian state within parameters established by decades of defeat, it raised the possibility of a regional uprising – a social movement comprising the working classes of the Middle East that could connect solidarity with Palestinian dispossession with the grievances of the Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian and Lebanese working classes.
The PA has spent the last 20 years running away from such a strategy – and for good reason. This article examines the last 40 years of the Palestinian struggle to demonstrate that the PA is the outcome of a historical process by which the interests of a tiny minority of Palestinians – namely the Palestinian bourgeoisie – has come to predominate at the expense of other sections of the Palestinian population and even the project of national liberation itself. These interests constrain the vision, strategies and practice of the current Palestinian leadership.
The Palestinian Bourgeoisie
In the aftermath of the Nakba in 1948, the Palestinian elite fared much better than the rest of Palestinian society. On the strength of the oil boom in the Gulf following the Second World War, many who fled were able to rebuild their companies from abroad with capital transferred from Palestine before the defeat, or with assets recovered soon afterward.
By the mid-1960s, their companies formed what Pamela Ann Smith described in her classic text Palestine and the Palestinians, 1876-1983 as “a formidable financial and trading empire which specialised in construction, contracting, transport, banking and real estate management throughout the Middle East”.
Palestinian capitalists, although wealthy, soon found themselves vulnerable to the policies of other Arab states that privileged their native bourgeoisie over the Palestinians. By the late 1960s, a wave of increased state intervention in the economy stifled the growth of many Palestinian companies, restricting their activities and even confiscating their assets as a result of nationalisation.
As Smith explains, Palestinian businessmen drew the conclusion that “the creation of a place where economic influence could be secured and maintained by political power, namely through the establishment of a state of their own,” was the only way they could avoid being forced to “share their profits with their Arab rivals”.
Palestinian capitalists could not accomplish this task on their own. They needed to employ the power of a different social force whose interests were very different from their own – the mass of impoverished Palestinians – in order to mobilise sufficient social weight to fight for a Palestinian state.
The array of challenges facing the Palestinian capitalist class shaped its political approach and ultimately set the strategy adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which the Palestinian elite would come to dominate. There were three essential elements to this:
1) The primary aim of the Palestinian capitalist class was capturing control of its own state in order to protect and expand its capital. Despite rhetorical support for the demand of “full liberation and return” that was required to win the support of the majority of Palestinians, Palestinian capitalists were always willing to subordinate the demands of various sectors of the Palestinian population to achieving this primary objective.
2) Palestinian capital developed as an “interlocking” component of Arab capital generally. Therefore, it was opposed to any challenge to the regional Arab states, where its own wealth and industries were based, and advocated for a policy of “non-interference” in the affairs of these states.
This approach, while it protected the assets of Palestinian capitalists, simultaneously isolated the Palestinian movement from the only social forces with the potential power to challenge Israel and the imperial order on which it rested – namely, the workers and oppressed who suffered under the same regional order.
3) The Palestinian capitalists and their Arab partners feared the political mobilisation of the Palestinian masses out of concern that their political activation could lead their struggle beyond the narrow concerns of the capitalists. They therefore tried to limit the democratic participation of the Palestinians masses in their own struggle by confining their role to support for the armed resistance groups and obedience to a top-down revolutionary leadership.
In the long run, this approach has proven fatal in the face of an enemy that enjoys the military backing of the world’s largest imperial power and is a regional superpower in its own right.
Fatah and the PLO: Vehicles of Palestinian Capital
Fatah, the leading political party of the PLO in this early era, was the vehicle by which the Palestinian bourgeoisie sought to put this strategy into effect.
In March 1968, not long after the crushing defeat of the Syrian and Egyptian armies by Israel in the 1967 war, a group of Palestinian guerrilla fighters held off a cross-border raid by Israeli forces on their bases in Jordan. This stunning triumph by irregular guerrillas resulted in thousands of Palestinians rushing to join the new groups, inspired by the potential they seemed to hold for resistance to Israel’s colonisation and the realisation of the right to return to their homes.
Fatah emerged as the most important of the guerrilla formations. It had a leadership comprised of the privileged layers of the Palestinian diaspora, many of whom had become wealthy in Kuwait, where Fatah was founded in 1964.
It emphasised the common interests of Palestinians and asked them to set aside their class differences for the sake of “national unity” in the struggle for the liberation of the whole of Palestine and the establishment of a democratic secular state where all citizens, regardless of religion, would enjoy equal rights.
Fatah rejected any political struggle – what it called “interference” – against Arab regimes, raising to a point of principle the idea that “armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine,” and thereby encouraging the top-down discipline of guerrilla groups over mass popular participation.
Fatah’s rejection of class struggle and its willingness to limit the fight to the territory of Palestine won it massive financial support from the Palestinian bourgeoisie, as well as Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which helped Fatah solidify its dominance over the PLO and gain hegemony over leftist challengers, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The strategy of the PLO would cost the Palestinian movement dearly, resulting in huge missed opportunities and defeats over the coming years.
In September 1971, when the PLO was at the height of its power in Jordan, fighting broke out between left wing Palestinian factions – in particular, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – and King Hussein.
The PLO at the time enjoyed the support of the majority of Jordan’s Palestinians, who made up 70 percent of the population – and even the backing of significant numbers of Jordanians, including government officials, as well as sections of the Jordanian armed forces.
The Palestinian left called for King Hussein’s overthrow and replacement by a revolutionary government that could then wage a struggle on a stronger basis for the liberation of Palestine and the wider region from imperialism.
In his 1989 book Intifada: Zionism, Imperialism and Palestinian Resistance, Phil Marshall highlights the significance of what taking power could have meant: “The fall of Hussein would have had an electrifying effect in the region. The PLO would have found itself in power at a time when it enjoyed real mass support and during a period of significant radicalisation and mobilisation. The Arab rulers would have immediately been placed in a position of showing their true colours either supporting the Palestinians or Hussein and his Western backers”.
The significance of this critical juncture is further highlighted when we consider that in the wake of Israel’s victory in the 1967 war and the rightward shift of the Arab nationalist movement, the revolutionary impulses of the region’s masses were swinging behind the Palestinian guerrillas, who were seen as a more radical alternative to the timid and sclerotic Arab states.
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat refused this historic opportunity, steadfastly sticking with the policy of “non-interference” under pressure from his Arab “allies”. He instead restrained his forces and attempted to mediate between the Palestinian left and King Hussein.
In the meantime, Hussein was gathering his forces for an all-out assault on the Palestinian movement. Fatah eventually had no option but to fight, but by that point, the military and political momentum had shifted in favour of the King, which led to a crushing defeat of the entire resistance movement and its ouster from Jordan to Lebanon – which became known as Black September.
The debacle of Black September would not be the last missed opportunity of this kind for the Palestinian movement. In a more drawn-out manner, the dynamic played out in Lebanon next. Fatah continued its commitment to non-interference and maintained a neutral position in the sharpening struggle, starting in 1975 between left and right within Lebanon.
Eventually, the PLO joined the fight on the side of Lebanon’s leftists, organised under the banner of the Lebanese National Movement. But they were defeated again – this time by a combination of right wing Phalangist militias, a treacherous Syrian regime that sided with the Lebanese right to ensure its position of power in the country, and ultimately by an Israeli invasion.
The failure of the PLO strategy was now revealed. It gained dominance thanks to the financial and military assistance from Arab states for its commitment to “non-interference” and limiting its goals to the Palestinian arena. But it had proven woefully inadequate in challenging the military power of the Israeli state, and it fatally tied the hands of the Palestinian movement at the most crucial points of its struggles, undermining any potential challenge to the wider imperial order upon which Israel’s power rested.
If the PLO’s commitment to “non-interference” had left the Palestinians isolated by the 1980s, then its primary class objective of creating a Palestinian state to secure Palestinian capital would result in the narrowing of the horizons of the project of liberation.
Fatah was already moving in the direction of creating a mini-state in the West Bank and Gaza as early as 1974 when the PLO altered its program, stating that it would establish “a national, independent and fighting government in any liberated part of Palestinian territory”.
By the 1980s, the PLO was militarily defeated – as well as politically and geographically isolated, having been forced to flee Lebanon for Tunis in 1982.
The regional balance of power had also changed. Israel, with US military support, had emerged as a regional military superpower, and the US-allied reactionary Gulf States, lifted by rising oil prices, became the economically dominant drivers of Arab affairs. The largest Arab state, Egypt, was pulled into the neoliberal economic order and signed a peace treaty with Israel.
The weakened PLO was now casting about for a way to regain its influence. One approach was to seek out US contacts in the hope of a negotiated settlement that would lead to a mini-state in the West Bank and Gaza. In return, it was willing to recognise the Israel and to renounce armed struggle. This in practice meant abandoning resistance to Israel’s colonial project, betraying its pledge to “full liberation,” and forsaking millions of Palestinian refugees and Palestinians living as second-class citizens in Israel.
The First Intifada: springboard to Oslo
At first, the US and Israel had no need for the PLO and preferred to negotiate with Jordan instead – at least until the start of the First Intifada in 1987, which was the greatest mass challenge to Zionism since the 1936 Arab revolt in Palestine.
But Fatah and the PLO leadership would yet again transform victory into a defeat for the Palestinians. Rather than work to deepen the mass uprising and encourage its connection to a revolt in Jordan against the effects of neoliberalism, Arafat instead used the uprising as a springboard to win recognition from the US and Israel for himself and the PLO as the “sole representatives of the Palestinian people”.
As Gilbert Achcar argued in his 2004 book Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan and Palestine in the Mirror of Marxism, the US and Israel now came to consider Arafat indispensable in the project to wind down the Intifada and help cement the US-led neoliberal reordering of the region.
If the Camp David agreement with Egypt allowed Israel to remove the largest and most important Arab adversary from the equation, then the Oslo “peace process” allowed it to break out of its isolation, integrate itself into the emerging neoliberal economic order, and normalise its relations with the Arab world.
The negotiated return of the PLO leadership and thousands of its cadre to Palestine and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Gaza also brought with it the return of exiled Palestinian capital. The Oslo Accords seemed to finally provide the Palestinian elite with the opportunity to fulfil the long-held goal of an independent state capable of protecting and expanding its profit-seeking enterprises. Through the 1990s and 2000s, this class would come to dominate the Palestinian economy through its relationship with the PA.
But as Adam Hanieh explains in his 2013 book Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, the PA was far from an independent state: “In the context of the PA’s fully subordinated position, the ability to accumulate was always tied to Israeli consent and thus came with a political price – one designed to buy compliance with the ongoing colonisation. It also meant that the key components of the Palestinian elite, the wealthiest businessmen, the PA state bureaucracy, and the remnants of the PLO itself came to share a common interest with Israel’s political project”.
Palestinian capital, which in the wake of the Nakba had developed as an “interlocking” junior partner of Arab capital, had now returned to become a subordinate partner of the Israeli occupation and the European and American neoliberal order in the Middle East.
Thus, in the past 20 years, the main political organisations inside the PLO have been transformed from vehicles of resistance against Israel to an indigenous gear in the machinery of Israel’s revamped system of apartheid.
This shift was not automatic or preordained. It was the result of cooptation, in the form of employment in the European-funded PA bureaucracy or the US-trained PA security forces, and repression, most decisively the suppression of the Second Intifada in the mid-2000s. Those elements most willing to reconcile themselves with Israel now predominate.
In practical terms, this means that those thousands of activists affiliated with the various Palestinian factions who may have in the past helped organise and give political cohesiveness to Palestinian resistance are today either dead, in jail or employed by the Palestinian security forces that actively suppress rather than assist any popular mobilisations by Palestinians.
Hamas: an alternative?
As frustration with the PA’s failures and collaboration mounted, the Islamist party Hamas won popular support for its refusal to capitulate to the Oslo Accords and its continued resistance to Israel’s occupation.
Hamas and the people of Gaza have been met with vicious attacks and a deadly siege by Israel as a result of their refusal to bow to the diktats of Israel and the US. But while Hamas has not become an appendage of Israel’s colonisation drive, it suffers from many of the same weaknesses that the PLO did.
First, Hamas, like Fatah, rejects any notion of class struggle in its struggle against Israel and the West. Instead, as Khalid Hroub explains in his book Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide, “its membership includes merchants, business people and the rich,” and “wealthy Muslims from the Gulf represent the main source of Hama’s funding”. Similarly, Hamas like the PLO before it, allies itself with various capitalist regimes in the region, from Iran to Qatar, instead of the masses who suffer under these regimes.
The regional upheavals over the past four years have clearly exposed these weaknesses. The spread of the Arab Spring rebellions of 2011 to Syria exposed the limits of the so-called “anti-imperialist” resistance that Hamas tied itself to.
Syria, Hezbollah and Iran viciously repressed the democratic uprising of the Syrian people to maintain their rule, including over the Palestinians of Syria, who they starved in Yarmouk. In so doing, they and their defenders counterpose struggles for democracy and social justice to the struggle against imperialism.
This has the regrettable effect of simultaneously discrediting the idea of anti-imperialist resistance, while opening the door to imperial appeals to those sectors fighting for democratic demands – all while physically annihilating the working class and other oppressed groups whose political activity is required to challenge the power of imperialism.
Hamas did break with its main backers – the Syrian and Iranian regimes – only to move its headquarters to Qatar and hitch its wagon to a new patron.
Instead of forging ties of solidarity with the mass movement challenging Egypt’s relationship with Israel, it looked to the rising star of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had come to power, but set down its own red lines, asserting that “the Egyptian revolution had to settle its own problems before dealing with ‘foreign policy’”. This led the Muslim Brotherhood to oppose protests like those that targeted the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, while affirming its commitment to honouring the Camp David peace accords with Israel.
Later, the Egyptian military was able to use mass discontent with Morsi’s continuation of neoliberal economic policies and repression of popular protests to stage a coup and place Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi in power. With the Muslim Brotherhood out of power, Hamas has found itself isolated. At first, it attempted to forge a unity deal with the PA – today, it appears to be flirting with the idea of reconciling with Saudi Arabia, which is looking to shore up a “Sunni alliance” to confront its regional Shia rival Iran.
This would again box the Palestinians within limits acceptable to another regional sponsor, while isolating the Palestinian people by throwing their lot in with the same rulers who use sectarian divisions to terrorise and subjugate their Arab brothers and sisters.
Hamas also takes a top-down approach to the Palestinian struggle by confining its strategy to armed struggle on the one hand and diplomacy on the other – while repressing demonstrations in Gaza that it finds threatening to its own hold on power.
In this regard, Hamas has been subject to similar pressures since winning legislative elections in 2006 and, in response to an attempted putsch sponsored by Fatah and the US in 2007, taking power in Gaza. Hamas’ own cadre have been absorbed into the formal state institutions that govern the open-air prison of Gaza. They are only slightly less allergic to popular mobilisations, which are also viewed as a threat to their rule.
Furthermore, the isolation of Hamas following the reversal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s fortunes in the Arab Spring – as well as their need to consolidate their rule in Gaza – has created significant pressures inside Hamas and divisions within its leadership. Some now favour reconciliation with the US and Israel by ending resistance activities – in return for political recognition and a lifting of the siege in order to spur economic growth and stabilise Gaza’s reeling economy.
If the defeats of the PLO in Lebanon had left it desperate for Oslo, years of war on Gaza and regional isolation are pushing Hamas in a similar direction.
Charting a new course
As this history shows, the situation that Palestinians are facing today is not simply the result of “corruption” or a “strategic mistake” by the Palestinian leadership. This impasse is the result of a strategy that best fits the goals of the Palestinian bourgeoisie.
At best, Palestinian capitalists and their political representatives will manoeuvre to gain better terms for themselves or ensure that they do not lose all credibility among Palestinians. But they are incapable of carrying out a strategy that can truly win Palestinian liberation for the majority of Palestinians.
This is because such a strategy would entail the mobilisation and democratic empowerment of the mass of the Palestinian people as well as the development and deepening of solidarity with workers regionally and internationally to take on the forces that oppress the Palestinians.
Carrying out such mobilisations would unravel the lucrative economic and political relationships of the Palestinian capitalists with American, European, Arab and Israeli capital. These relationships come at the cost of political subservience, not to mention the demobilisation of social forces necessary to challenge Israel.
A genuine strategy for Palestinian liberation must be based on a different social force: the vast majority of Palestinian workers – in the West Bank and Gaza, within Israel’s borders, and in the diaspora. Unlike Palestinian capitalists, the Palestinian working class is not hamstrung by regional and international alliances. It is not afraid of the democratic self-activity necessary for liberation. Nor is it driven by the narrow goal of establishing state power on any piece of land Israel is willing to cut loose.
The Palestinian working class may be geographically fragmented, and it may not embody in and of itself the social power necessary to take on the state of Israel. But its interests lie in attempting to unite all the oppressed sectors of Palestinian society behind it. It can only benefit from the deepening of solidarity with the struggles of other workers regionally and internationally – which, taken together, can challenge Israel and the regional order on which it stands.
Finally, the Palestinian working class, which today suffers worsening inequality as a result of the neoliberal policies of the PA and years of expropriation at the hands of a vicious settler-colonial society, has every reason to carry out the most democratic and transformative struggle it possibly can.
The outlines for such a strategy already exist and must be built upon.
The BDS movement has already galvanised international solidarity with the Palestinian people, and it has been central to undoing the damage caused by the “peace process”. It is currently the greatest source of strength for the Palestinian movement, and its victories must be built upon.
While the tide of counterrevolution has set back popular struggles from Egypt to Syria to Libya, this will not last forever, as the recent anti-government protests in Beirut and textile show. The resistance of the Arab masses will return. When it does, we know that the people of the region see in the state of Israel not only the butcher of their Palestinian brothers and sisters, but also a symbol of their own oppression – and their rulers’ complicity in the subjugation and humiliation of the region.
The road to Jerusalem still lies through Cairo, Damascus and Riyadh. Today, the BDS movement shows us that it also winds its way through Paris, London and New York. More than ever, it’s clear that this road will only run through these cities’ streets, and not through their presidential palaces.
[First published at SocialistWorker.org.]