Free Palestine

The horrific violence against civilians, both Palestinian and Israeli, are overwhelmingly the product of Israel’s occupation and siege. But we can and must condemn all of it, while steadfastly opposing Israeli apartheid.

Barrier 2: Fading homage to Delacroix. Credit hjl via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed.

On the 7th of October, the sight of a bulldozer ripping through the steel of the border fence imprisoning Gaza, rather than demolishing yet another Palestinian’s home, could only amaze those of us in solidarity. Around two miles from the wall, Israelis and international tourists participated in a “desert rave.” It is one of the most staggering aspects of Israeli society that such events can take place without the participants giving thought to the millions of prisoners nearby. These prisoners are people almost entirely at the mercy of an occupier who claims they have no right to be there. Yet, the thousands of attendants at the Supernova music festival did not deserve what came to them. Kibbutz Be’eri and Kfar Aza were massacres, and this violence must be condemned. The left, within and beyond the international Palestine solidarity movement, is doomed if we abandon our long-standing principles.

Anyone who has participated in Palestine solidarity, in demanding they be afforded equal rights, has been told to “condemn Hamas.” And in our call to condemn the murders of hundreds of civilians, this is implicit. But to be preoccupied with condemnation of Hamas is entirely futile. The violence against civilians perpetrated by Hamas is overwhelmingly a product of Israel’s actions. Hamas did not exist for the first 30 years of the conflict. It is an open secret that Israel facilitated the creation of Hamas to deliberately destabilize the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The PLO’s leader at the time, Yasser Arafat, referred to Hamas as “a creature of Israel.” In the first Oslo Accords, the peace deal negotiated by Arafat and then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, the PLO acknowledged Israel as a sovereign state. But Oslo was a trap. And if Hamas could supplant the PLO in Gaza (which they did through a mix of intimidation and elections), Israel could continue the siege indefinitely. As recently as 2019, Israeli Prime Minister told Likud Knesset members that “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas.” They assumed their symbiotic relationship with Hamas could be maintained from a position of safety as homemade rockets could be responded to with guided missiles. That assumption has been brutally put down.

Perhaps Israel will achieve the seemingly impossible task of wiping out Hamas. But something else will take their place. One can be assured of this. Even as their homes collapse around them, crushing their loved ones, the Palestinians continue to reiterate that they will never leave. Whatever replaces Hamas will have the same options available to them to fight back and secure their rule over Gaza. There are only two entities in the world that can end the violence. Only Israel can end the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, and only the US can stop arming the garrison state and giving it diplomatic cover internationally. All pressure must remain on the apartheid regime and the US, and our solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Yet this solidarity cannot extend to those who would kill the innocent. The principle of rejecting violence against civilians should not need to be stated. However, there has been some questionable prevarication from parts of the left. Indeed, principled opposition to the massacre of civilians originates in our objection to the foundational violence of the settler-colonial project, which cheapens human life and transforms everything into a hopeless, zero-sum binary—“us or them.” Two wrongs, don’t make a right. Many are favorably citing Frantz Fanon’s theory of political violence, on how it can be a cathartic and dignifying exercise for the oppressed. But Fanon was clear to distinguish between revolutionary violence, which was a conscious and strategic act aimed at dismantling the repressive apparatus of the colonial system, and reactive or spontaneous violence, which was a more immediate and emotional response to the oppressor, governed by the logic of vengeance. In his words, “hatred is not an agenda,” and armed struggle must be connected to a broader program of social transformation. As Yair Wallach pointed out, Hamas’s operation, confined to military targets, was already a spectacular achievement—civilian casualties were needless and unjustified. And, it is unclear whether these attacks were by design in the first place.

There are clearly highly divergent accounts coming from Israeli civilians and Gazan militants. Contrary stories, such as Israelis being unharmed in their homes or released at the border fence, to the war propaganda machine’s unverified claims of baby beheadings and mass rape, suggest some degree of mission creep. But this only makes it all the more confounding when parts of the international left condone violence against civilians. Violence must be contextualized, of course, but making resistance synonymous with the murder of the defenseless is indefensible. It in fact reifies an enduring Zionist trope that Palestinian liberation means Jewish annihilation.

And while the principle of non-violence against civilians does not rest on its strategic value, strategic value it does have. The notion that true solidarity means refraining from opining on the methods and tactics of resistance employed by an oppressed group is ridiculous and ahistorical. To treat solidarity as a posture of complete deference to an oppressed group is lazy and dehumanizing, robbing that group of agency and complexity. In this context, it is ironically orientalist. Palestinians are by no means compelled to take heed of what outsiders say, but they are no monolithic hivemind. Unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian people can be complemented with deeper support for specific political formations (and implicit rejection of others). As Tareq Baconi helpfully puts it:

[Hamas] still doesn’t speak on behalf of all Palestinians. Palestinians are not all Islamists. The bigger issue here is that the Palestinian political project, which was the PLO, which was actually more in line with anti-colonial movements in the seventies and the eighties, was equally treated as a terrorist organization by the West until it was decimated both institutionally and through the assassination and imprisonment of Palestinian political leaders.

Ultimately, what supporters of Palestine must come to grips with is that neither the Algerian or South African cases offer a perfectly replicable pathway to ending apartheid in Israel. For some, decolonization is starting to mean something akin to what the Front de libération nationale (FLN) achieved in colonial Algeria, driving the pieds-noirs back to metropolitan France. The Jews of Israel have no parent or colonizer country to return to, and even if they did—expelling all seven million of them would require an unthinkable, reprehensible policy of mass deportation. It is not morally desirable, and nor is it possible. Notwithstanding last weekend’s failure, Israel’s military superiority—backed by the US, UK and EU—is nigh unassailable. As Edward Said wrote in 1999, “There can be no reconciliation unless both peoples, two communities of suffering, resolve that their existence is a secular fact, and that it has to be dealt with as such.” This is the only legitimate starting point—neither Palestinians nor Israelis are leaving.

The South African model holds immense power. Certainly the success of the BDS movement has been modeled on the international anti-apartheid movement and anti-apartheid activists have repeatedly affirmed the apartheid characterization of Israel—both internally and in the occupied territories. International solidarity and united internal resistance remains essential. However, it is the horrific genius of Israel’s founders that the nation was built on the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian majority. They have also illegally settled over 500,000 settlers in the West Bank to ensure its effective annexation. Palestinian internal resistance absolutely can, and will need to, make the occupation as difficult and expensive as possible. But doing so will come with brutal consequences, and the loss of the basic privileges they currently have.

Unfortunately, the South African model has a severe limitation in the Palestinian context. There are no prospects for a mass labor movement to shake the foundations of the Israeli economy, as black South African workers did. Unlike the South African case, Israeli apartheid will only be defeated if a significant portion of Israelis join the project for universal rights for all who live in whatever political communities come out of a meaningful peace process (and in advocating a secular, democratic Palestine—Fatah acknowledged this in 1970). In this respect, the massacre on Saturday could set this project back. Aided and abetted by the West and its anti-Palestinian media, Israelis have largely rallied behind the state’s bloodthirsty, genocidal reprisal involving a total blockade of Gaza, its relentless bombardment and the imminent prospect of a ground invasion.

We are in a period of unbearable uncertainty. Nonetheless, the events of the past week must be harnessed toward building a united liberation project based on our common humanity. Palestinians and their leaders who argue for “peaceful coexistence” are so often jailed by Israel precisely because of the threat they pose to the continuation of apartheid. But this is exactly why such calls must be amplified. They pressure Israel, empower popular democratic politics in Palestine, and strengthen international solidarity. The past year has also presented a possible opening in Israel (and groups like Standing Together, which has shades of apartheid South Africa’s United Democratic Front, must be credited for mobilizing a not insignificant pro-Palestine presence at judicial reform protests).

There are already indications that Israelis blame their government. And for whatever our condemnation of the violence, Netanyahu’s fantasy of a low-cost, low-effort occupation has been irrevocably shattered. Israelis have been reminded of what is on their backdoor—as in Gideon Levy’s sober assessment for Haaretz, “Israel Can’t Imprison Two Million Gazans Without Paying a Cruel Price.” Escalation is the current trajectory, but what is now in clearer view, is the alternative: ending the occupation. Israelis must continue to be reminded that their society is built upon the subordination of another. That this is what produces the violence and that only they can strike the final blow against apartheid.

As the Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani puts it in Neither Settler Nor Native, “Only when the political system is decolonized—that is, when identities are uncoupled from permanent majority and minority status—will it be able to secure equity.” And this leads to our responsibility: to ensure that Israelis know that ending apartheid does not ensure their demise, but their true freedom.

From the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea, the land belongs to all who live in it. No government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people, but since 1948 it is the will of the Palestinians that has been entirely absent.

Further Reading

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Whose democracy?

In Israel, tens of thousands have demonstrated against the new right-wing government’s plans for judicial reform. But what of the Palestinian question? In this episode of the podcast, we discuss.