In what is now a viral clip from an obscure 1986 congressional debate, Joe Biden proclaimed: “It’s about time we stop … apologizing for our support for Israel. There’s no apology to be made. None. It is the best $3 billion investment we make. Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.” He proudly repeated this again in 2022 when meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
Joe Biden loves Israel, and he expressed his love on October 13, with more than two thousand Palestinians dead, the State Department released an internal memo directing diplomats to not use the words or issue press pieces using the terms “ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed,” “restoring calm,” and “de-escalation/ceasefire.”
Ten days later with more than five thousand dead, and thousands injured, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said, “[W]e don’t believe that this is the time for a ceasefire.” Two days ago, with ten thousand dead, Biden was asked about a possible ceasefire, and his response was “None. No possibility.”
Five hundred and eighteen out of the 535 sitting members of Congress oppose a ceasefire. But it is not just that they oppose a ceasefire. They actively aid and abet Israel’s ongoing genocide of Palestinians with the various bills moving through Congress, including the $14.5 billion supplemental funding for refilling Israel’s weapons that passed in the House, loyalty oaths in proclaiming support for Israel aggression, Senate bills condemning of all things campus Student for Justice in Palestine organizing, amending policy to allow Israel greater access to U.S. weapons, and the racist censuring of Rashida Tlaib for saying “from the river to the sea.”
I think it is only mildly stating it to say that the U.S. state, largely incapable of doing anything to provide anything in the form of services and support that people in this country need, is currently basically functioning only as an arms trader and booster and facilitator of mass murder and genocide. Every one of them who oppose a ceasefire, and every member of Biden’s administration, is, in my opinion, a war criminal. That includes Bernie Sanders, who once was thought of as the savior of the socialist movement by many and now functions as the champion of the bullshit language of “humanitarian pause”—the perverse neologism that Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu cooked up to try to cover the fact that they have no regard for a single of the 2.3 million lives crammed into the concentration camp of Gaza.
I am also glad that there are 17 congresspeople who are calling for a ceasefire [as of December 2, sixty members support a ceasfire], but I think we should also not forget that many of them, including Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), voted in 2021 in favor of the $4.3 billion in direct military aid to Israel, the largest amount given in at least forty years, which is a number to be dwarfed should the $14 billion increase that Biden has asked for pass through Congress.
But it is important that we ground our understanding of why what is happening apart from the personal failings or beliefs of Genocide Joe. While I think that Congress is generally a racist institution, it is not just simple racism that motivates the support for Israel and the abetting of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Rather the fact that support for Israel has been one of solemn bipartisan agreement since at least the 1960s. From Democrat John F. Kennedy to Republican Donald Trump, every U.S. president has avowed the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel. What motivates this is U.S. imperialism and the fact that Israel is a central pole in the competition of the U.S. ruling class with the ruling classes of other states. And it feels a bit strange in the midst of the crisis to then shift in my presentation to talking about history and theory, but I think painting a picture of imperialism’s motivating role is essential for understanding what is happening and also what is required of us.
Israel for most of its existence has been the military outpost for the United States—Netanyahu in 2017 described Israel as the “mighty aircraft carrier.” Direct military funding to Israel makes up 59 percent of all the foreign military funding spent by the United States. And twenty percent of Israel’s defense budget—Israel spends a greater percentage of its gross domestic product on defense than most countries in the world—is paid by the United States. The United States and Israel have a memorandum of understanding in which this amount was guaranteed for a decade.
While the military angle is the clearest expression of U.S. support, imperialism is not exerted through the threat of war power alone, but by economic and political power. The U.S. government’s use of its veto in the Security Council in the court of pointless pageantry of the United Nations, used more than thirty times in support of Israel, and its shielding of Israel against the International Criminal Court [The United States and Israel, along with Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria are not state parties to the Rome Statue treaty that established the ICC] are examples of this. The United States also expresses its dominance not in just backing Israel as the rabid watchdog of its interests, but in “holding the leash” as the dominant power and through its political and economic activity to integrate Israel into the global order.
Ensuring the stability and dominance of Israel in the region has meant the sacrifice of Palestinians to the gods of imperialism. This historical feature has deepened even further in the past few years. After the end of the Cold War, the United States worked to draw the entire region into a single economic zone characterized by free trade and investment flows under the thumb of U.S. economic power. The question of Palestine was a fly in the ointment of this project because the cause of Palestine is tremendously popular among the Arab masses. So implementing some kind of “peace process” was necessary to give cover for the despots of the Arab states. But the “peace process” was purely a white rag of surrender forced into the mouths of Palestinians. This peace process was only the first step of a decades-long move to integrate the markets and circuits of capital in the region between Israel and the Arab states.
One year after Oslo, en route to a Middle East and North African joint economic summit, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state proclaimed, “The Middle East is open for business.” While this has been the bipartisan strategy of successive presidents since Clinton brokered Oslo, it was Donald Trump who rapidly accelerated this process with the official normalization efforts that came out of the Bahrain Conference and his so-called Deal of the Century, or what some call the Abraham Accords. And Biden has picked up where Trump left off. In order to compete with China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative to connect up Chinese economic and political spheres of influence, Biden is launching projects like his announcement of the new IMEC trade corridor connecting India with the European Union via the Middle East. That includes the construction of transport infrastructure culminating in Israel.
Securing stable control of the Middle East is key for the exertion of U.S. capitalist power. This has fueled the normalization of diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and the states of the region. Israel is increasingly being integrated into the region through trade deals, security cooperation, transport, and beyond. The goal, to quote the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, is “to truly tap into the major potential of these markets.” This process of normalization with settler-colonial Israel strengthens the investment of the United States and regional powers in maintaining the Israeli state.
Normalization looks like everything from the symbolic—the Israeli flag has been hoisted over regional sporting events, yet the Palestinian soccer team is refused travel visits—to the $28 billion in trade between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Israel, to the existence of qualified industrial zones (QIZ) that pay off duty-free access to U.S. markets in exchange for a percentage of inputs being sourced from Israel. These makeup huge sectors of the economies, with seventy percent of Jordanian exports coming from QIZ’s and one-third of Egypt’s total exports to the United States, as well.
The normalization advances in the past couple of years—literally paid off with trade and arms deals—have meant that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco have all normalized relations and more will follow. Saudi Arabia’s normalization process with Israel, the golden goose for U.S. imperialism, has started, though the current events in Palestine have temporarily put it on pause. What drives this is the competition between the capitalist class of the United States and that of China. The economic rivalry between these two countries profoundly shapes the global geopolitical framework.
All this is because the Middle East region is of prime global importance. It is rich in capitalism’s favorite fuel—oil. And here the U.S. interest is not just access to oil—the United States is a fossil fuel exporter—but because it wants to control a natural resource that is essential to China’s economic engine. The Middle East is geographically positioned at the axis of global shipping. Ships carry not only the essential fuel to the factories of the world, but are also the waypoint of the shipping of goods through the Suez Canal and via Dubai’s Jabra Ali port in what Laleh Khalili calls a “maritime silk road.” The massive oil monies reaped by the Gulf States have been a boon for a new finance sector and new flows of investment.
One example of this is the 2016 joint Saudi-Japanese venture to launch the world’s largest private equity fund with the creation of the $100 billion dollar SoftBank Vision PE firm, a sum larger than the total amount that U.S. venture firms made over a two and a half year period. Israel being integrated politically and economically into regional trade and capital flows only deepens the connection already established by its military role. And this directly invests regional states and capital in the maintenance and support of the stability of Israel. The stability of Israel in turn means the continued erasure of Palestinians and the furtherance of the settler-colonial project, which has been expressed in the dramatic escalation in settler violence and ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and Israel’s stranglehold over Gaza.
Additionally, the role that the Oslo Accords have established the Palestinian Authority (PA) in managing the occupation in the West Bank actually integrates the burgeoning Palestinian capitalist class and PA bureaucracy into a regional economic relationship with their occupiers and oppressors in the Israeli state. The PA largely functions as an NGO siphon for aid money from the major Western capitalist countries and a police force (largely funded by the United States) collaborating with Israel to repress Palestinian resistance and anger.
This picture hopefully paints a clear picture of the current situation. U.S. imperialism has been so far successful in building up Israel and backing it with the full force of the world’s most powerful military, defanging the Palestinian resistance by establishing a client in the PA, and further isolating Palestinians by integrating settler-colonial Israel with its Arab neighbors. But October 7 was a massive blow to Israel’s mythological invulnerability. The “Iron Dome” was punctured, and the wall briefly fell. That represented a massive threat to this core pillar of U.S. interest in the region, which is why Biden has leaped to Israel’s defense and sent two aircraft carriers to the Eastern Mediterranean to join the other aircraft carrier based there—the State of Israel. It also explains why the Arab regimes surrounding Israel have given at best lip-service to the Palestinian cause, hoping to deflect mass sentiment in solidarity with Palestine held by the Arab working classes. While Bahrain has withdrawn ambassadors and Saudi Arabia has paused the normalization process, the response has been useless to Palestinians.
A whole month after the escalation of October 7, the Saudi’s convened an emergency conference of the Arab League that was attended by the Iranian president. They passed some verbose rhetoric but nothing will come of it, and a conference is not what the Palestinians need right now. Egypt, Gaza’s other jailer, criminally allows their border to Gaza to be mostly closed, and the trickle of aid allowed in is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi carried out a wave of arrests of those who demonstrated in solidarity with Palestine weeks ago, and Jordanian police physically beat protesters attempting to get to the border.
What drives all of this is the regional economic and political connections facilitated by U.S. imperialism. This is also why regional actors like Iran and Hezbollah have similarly carried out a small number of rocket attacks that, despite Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s boasts of “exhausting Israel’s defense systems,” are more akin to what Israeli journalist Zvi Ba’rel described as a “measured and precise … campaign of mutual responses.”
China has also taken a measured position of neutrality in its appeal to international law and a precise “violence on both sides line” with its own imperialist interests in mind. Israel’s largest trade partner after the United States is China, and China is invested in the illegal settlements, has defended the Jewish-only nature of the Israeli state, and has its own security/surveillance state interconnections with Israel, such as the Chinese corporation Hikvision’s development of the facial recognition cameras that cover the West Bank, which were tested on China’s oppressed Muslim Uyghar minority.
While the endgame in Gaza is unclear, the United States, as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has indicated, has a clear desire to facilitate some sort of transfer of whatever is left of Gaza to its loyal Palestinian Authority and to apply the model of Area B of the West Bank, where Israel maintains a strong security presence, to Gaza. Internal Ministry of Intelligence documents show, on the other hand, that Israel is entertaining the idea of moving the entirety of Gazan Palestinians to Egypt’s Sinai. I say this not to speculate about the likely outcome, but to underline that what will happen to Palestinians is not being determined by Palestinians but jointly by the United States and Israel.
To close, I think it is important to understand that the forces that drive this current bloodshed— and the conditions that led to it—are rooted in global imperialism. The staunch U.S. support for the State of Israel is because it is in the interest of the U.S. capitalist class to secure the U.S. political and economic sphere of influence in the strategically important Middle East. Increasing competition with Chinese imperialism has already and will further sharpen that. This means that if we are going to build a movement in the United States to support Palestine, we need to be clear that challenging U.S. support for Israel means challenging a key plank of U.S. capitalist interest, and thus building a movement for Palestine needs to challenge capitalism if we want it to win.
This means challenging both the Republicans and the Democrats—the two parties of capitalism. If the “lesser evil” of Biden means genocide, then maybe this is a political calculus we should abandon. More importantly, it means we need to seize this current moment to build the mass movement, build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), and cohere a Left that is clear on the challenges ahead. The friends and allies of the Palestinian people are not with the capitalist states and their shadow play of international institutions and conferences, but with the people of the world who have filled the streets in the millions since Israel’s most recent bloody campaign commenced.
The hope lies in the streets with the people who chant “Free Palestine, from the river to the sea!” Who chant, “Long live the intifada!” The hope is there, in intifada and resistance. To quote from an old slogan in the movement, “We need revolution until victory.”
I want to address three questions
- Does Israel have a right to defend itself?
- Is the rallying cry “From the river to the sea” tantamount to calling for driving the Jews into the sea?
- Is Israel a global bulwark against antisemitism?
Does Israel have a right to defend itself?
The rallying cry of virtually every U.S. politician from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders is that Israel has the right to defend itself. It’s screamed from the podiums of Congress and the Israeli Knesset in the face of an unprecedented global upheaval for Palestine. Every mainstream U.S. media news outlet repeats this line ad nauseam, as if the mantra “Israel has a right to defend itself” were a rhetorical slam dunk, irrefutable to anyone who isn’t an antisemite.
But what does it even mean to say Israel has a right to defend itself? What Zionists would like us to think it means is that Israel is the embodiment of Jewish national aspirations and the survival of Jewish people and our history is tied to the project of Zionism. Academics would say this assertion is, at best, historically inaccurate. I just call it bullshit.
Zionism is not some “2,000-year-old yearning” of the Jewish people. Israel isn’t the product of a national liberation movement. Israel is the product of European society in the age of imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century. Israel is a colonial-settler state that is unapologetically racist in its legal system and denies basic human rights to its Arab population. And, of course, Israel is openly engaged in acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
That begs the question: What state has the “right” to genocide and ethnic cleansing? What state has the right to racial apartheid and dispossession? None.
Zionism’s founders at least were honest about what they stood for. Over and over in their charters and statements and correspondence the same word appears: not national “liberation,” but “colonization.” Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the founding fathers of the Zionist movement, wrote in 1923, “Zionism is a colonizing adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force. It is important to build, it is important to speak Hebrew, but, unfortunately, it is even more important to be able to shoot—or else I am through with playing at colonization.”
They were unapologetic about their colonial aspirations. The first bank was the Jewish Colonial Fund managed by the Jewish Colonization Association.
Early Zionists, rather than seeking to break free from imperialism, sought out patronage from imperialist powers. Rather than promising self-determination to the people of Palestine—almost all of whom were Arab—Zionists expelled them. And rather than representing a widely popular expression of the fight against Jewish oppression, early on Zionism represented little more than a tiny upper-class sect for most of its existence prior to the Second World War and the Holocaust. There were, as has often been repeated, more Jewish members of the Lower East Side New York Socialist Party branches than the World Zionist Organization in the early twentieth century.
Zionists speak of the sanctity and inviolability of Israel, of its supposedly ancient Biblical roots. But the planning for the modern State of Israel was declared at the corner of 43rd and Madison in the old Biltmore Hotel at a Zionist conference of six hundred people in 1942. Israel isn’t the legacy of an ancient yearning. It’s the concoction of a layer of Jewish separatists who received the backing of the world’s most powerful empires because there was a convergence of needs. Britain and later the United States needed an outpost in the Middle East, where the oil was, and Zionists sought a separate homeland and were fully prepared to become an aircraft carrier for empire, populated by loyal white European Jews who would act as a bulwark against the region’s Arab and Muslim populations.
Is the rallying cry: From the river to the sea tantamount to calling for driving the Jews into the sea?
James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, wrote on Twitter, “On the ‘the river to the sea’ controversy: 7 yrs ago we polled Israelis & Palestinians. A strong plurality in both favored 1 state. When asked how that would look: Israelis said it meant expelling all Palestinians; Palestinians said it meant equal rights in 1 state. Just sayin’.”
Yousef Munayyer explained it this way in The Nation after Congressperson Rashida Tlaib was disciplined for using this phrase:
Today between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there is effectively one state, the state of Israel, and it rules over millions of Palestinians who are denied justice and equality. When we call for freedom from the river to the sea, it is this context we are responding to. We are calling for an end to Israeli domination, not for destruction of anyone but for the dismantling of unjust laws, systems, and practices. But to those who want to undermine our calls for freedom and support this system of injustice, it does not matter what we say our words mean.
I agree with Yousef. Israel is a colonial-settler state governed by an ethno-racial legal system. Its Law of Return allows a Jew like me born in Brooklyn to become a citizen while Palestinians whose families have lived on the land for generations have their homes bulldozed and their lives destroyed.
The claim that Zionists make about “from the river to the sea” being a call to genocide for Jews instead of a call for a democratic secular state where Jews, Arabs, and everyone else live together is the projection of a “mirror world.” Naomi Klein writes about this in her brilliant new book, Doppelganger. The Right is adopting concepts and realities from the Left to concoct a victim narrative for themselves.
In the “mirror world,” college students fighting against the bombing of refugee camps are recast as Nazis and the Biden administration compares those marching for a ceasefire and a free Palestine to the fascist thugs of Charlottesville.
The simple fact is no organization or mass of people on the Left is calling for “Jewish genocide” at these protests. And anyone arguing otherwise is lying.
I live in New York City, an archipelago of islands inhabited from the river to the sea, one might say, by 1.5 million Jews, at least 800,000 Muslims and millions of others who live together in a democratic secular state. The demand itself is not even that radical.
Is Israel a global bulwark against antisemitism?
My short answer: No!
Zionism’s reason for existing, from its founding through today, rests on the contention that antisemitism is inevitable. Zionists drew the conclusion that Jews must have a national home of our own in order to never again face a Holocaust. Zionists unapologetically accept the racialized understanding of Jews that, perversely, was most fully developed under Naziism. To them, Jews constitute a separate race of people.
Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl, after covering the trial of a Jewish-French officer Albert Dreyfuss in the 1890s, wrongly accused of treason, wrote, “In Paris … I achieved a freer attitude toward antisemitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to ‘combat’ anti-Semitism.”
By contrast to their acceptance of antisemitism, the broader swath of worldwide Jewry supported a different vision: socialism. Socialists defended Jews who faced persecution. Socialists combated anti-Jewish racism as a poison to the workers’ movement. Socialists fought for multiethnic societies and democracy. In this period, August Bebel, a leader of the German Social Democratic Party, famously denounced antisemitism as “the socialism of fools” for diverting workers’ rage away from their true enemy, the ruling class, onto Jewish scapegoats. In contrast, socialists connected the fight against antisemitism to the fight for workers’ power.
Because socialists stressed the need to fight—not accept—antisemitism in the countries where most Jews lived, the socialist movement recruited Jews in huge numbers. The Russian tsar’s finance minister once complained to Herzl that Jews “comprise about 50 percent of the membership of the revolutionary parties,” while constituting only five percent of the Russian Empire’s population.
Zionism’s most powerful claim to legitimacy is that the State of Israel is necessary to prevent another Holocaust. The legacy of the Holocaust is invoked, and in fact weaponized, to justify every atrocity committed by Israel. But the actual record of how the Jewish Agency, the Zionist leadership governing Jewish settlements in Palestine before the establishment of Israel in 1948, responded to the Holocaust provides the most damning evidence against Zionism.
To the leaders of the Jewish Agency, the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s had a definite upside. One leader, Menahem Ussishkin, argued, “There is something positive in their tragedy and that is that Hitler oppressed them as a race and not as a religion. Had he done the latter, half the Jews in Germany would simply have converted to Christianity.”
During World War II, the Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency wrote a private memorandum about the prospects for their work. At the time this was written, it still could have been possible to save millions of Jews from Hitler’s Final Solution. But they didn’t even try.
Whom to save: Should we help everyone in need, without regard to the quality of the people? Should we not give this activity a Zionist national character and try foremost to save those who can be of use to the Land of Israel and to Jewry? I understand that it seems cruel to put the question in this form, but unfortunately we must state that if we are able to save only 10,000 people from among 50,000 who can contribute to build the country … as against saving a million Jews who will be a burden, or at best an apathetic element, we must restrain ourselves and save the 10,000 that can be saved from among the 50,000—despite the accusations and pleas of a million. (See Sumaya Awad and Annie Levin, “Roots of the Nakba,” in Palestine: A Socialist Introduction.)
Rudolph Kastner, a top official in the Israeli Labor Party and the person in charge of the Rescue Committee in Hungary during the war, had actively collaborated with the Nazis. Kastner negotiated with Nazi official Adolph Eichmann (one of the architects of the Holocaust) to get approval for a “VIP train” of 1,685 Hungarian Jews to leave Hungary safely. Kastner personally selected the passengers for the train, which included several hundred people from his hometown and a dozen members of his family. He worked with SS officer Kurt Becher to make the financial arrangements. In exchange for the safe passage of the train, Kastner agreed not to warn the Jews of Hungary about Hitler’s plans for their extermination and not to take any action to protect them. Worse, he helped to deceive Hungarian Jews, convincing them that they were simply being relocated. After the war, it became clear that Kastner had not acted alone but that his plan for the VIP train had the support of the highest leaders of the Jewish Agency.
It’s not simply that anti-Zionism is not at all the same as antisemitism, but Zionism actually fuels antisemitism by fusing its project to ethnic cleansing. Israel’s need to expel, oppress, and eliminate Palestinians in order to first create and now maintain an ethnic Jewish majority absolutely guarantees that hatred toward the perpetrators, who insist their actions are in the name of Judaism, will create blowback against Jews—including those of us who abhor Zionism.
And those in government and university administrators stifling dissent who say that calling for a ceasefire is antisemitic implicitly portray Jews as bloodthirsty savages and racism as a Jewish value. In the name of my ancestors who fled pogroms, I reject this nonsense completely.
In sum, if Israel’s reason for being is to create a national home where all Jews of the world can be safe, it has failed. I will take my chances on the B39 bus in Brooklyn any day over a bus in Tel Aviv. Nowhere in the world are Jews in greater danger of being harmed, including by their own government if they dare to dissent, than in Israel. Even by its own claims to Jewish sanctuary, Israel is a dismal failure.
What we are witnessing today is a second Nakba: the unprecedented destruction of Gaza, an outright genocide of its population, and forced ethnic cleansing at a scale not seen since 1948.
Since 1948, Palestinians have waged various forms of resistance, all of which have been viciously attacked by Israel, and all forms of which have been condemned and vilified by Israel and the United States. Nonetheless, a historical account of various forms of Palestinian resistance is necessary to assess strategies that have worked and those that have not, and to understand the current moment.
Palestinian resistance predates the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and dates back to when the British Mandate controlled Palestine after World War I. The 1920s and 1930s witnessed protests and strikes against the British and its policies, including against Britain’s efforts to resettle Jews in Palestine according to its Balfour Declaration and the land grabs that process entailed. These protests and strikes culminated in a six-month-long general strike in 1936. The strike was inspired by the Syrian general strike of earlier that year, which had won a promise from France to give Syria its independence, thus giving inspiration to its neighboring anti-colonial struggle.
The six-month strike in Palestine was one of if not the longest strike in anticolonial movement history, and marked the start of the 1936 to 1939 Great Arab Revolt in Palestine. This three-year movement has been described by some as the closest Palestine came to liberation. It had a strong class character as well as divide: initially, port workers and urban Palestinians were involved in the strike, but it later became a largely rural peasant revolt. Peasants canceled debts and rents on apartments, for example, and called for everyone to wear the clothes of rural peasants, which included the keffiyeh instead of the fez, so that the colonial authorities could not tell who was a peasant fighter and who was not.
This revolt was repressed by both the British and the new Zionist militias that the British encouraged to attack Palestinians, but in the end, the Palestinian and Arab elites called it to an end, an act that would become a pattern in terms of Palestinian elites betraying the liberation struggle. In fact, these were the very elites that included large absentee landowners who sold land to Zionists, displacing Palestinian workers and farmers. This was only the first of such class-based betrayals.
In 1948 and 1967, Palestinians experienced massive forced transfer and ethnic cleansing, land grabs by Israel, massacres, displacement, and new occupations as Israel established itself and moved forward with its colonial project. These transformed and of course, drastically weakened the possibilities for Palestinian resistance. In 1968, Palestinians attempted to organize guerrilla warfare from the neighboring countries where they had been forcibly displaced and lived in refugee camps. This was a tactic perhaps of desperation, of defeat after 1967, of loss of faith in Arab nationalism and the surrounding states, and also was inspired by anticolonial revolts globally. Fatah, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, had just been founded in the diaspora, and a few years later, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which has since its inception been dominated by Fatah, was established.
While Fatah originally had guerrilla struggle tactics and was inspired by third-world revolutions, its character and how it developed was also related to the fact that it was created in exile, and by Palestinians who had accumulated wealth in the Gulf, in places such as Saudi Arabia. They became a nationalist bourgeoisie that would end up making numerous concessions to Israel, even making decisions from afar that went against the wishes of the Palestinian people. But from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Fatah and the PLO organized and attempted to wage guerrilla struggle outside of Palestine, in Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia, each time facing brutal repression and massacres from Israel and from the Arab regimes, as in Sabra and Shatila in 1982.
Twenty years after Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the First Intifada, or uprising, began in Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, lasting from 1987 into the early 1990s. Beginning with mass daily protests in the tens of thousands in the refugee camps of Gaza and then in refugee camps in the West Bank, Salim Tamari has characterized this phase as an uprising “of the urban poor…against their class and national oppression.” This phase has also been called the “War of the Camps,” composed mostly of migrant day laborers who worked inside Israel and the unemployed. Israel responded to the nonviolent protests by killing tens of protestors and imposing harsh curfews.
The First Intifada is known for its grassroots, largely nonviolent character and mass participation, with the emergence of educational, defense, medical, and central committees, and then an underground leadership. Israel responded with the “breaking bones” policy, literally beating and breaking the bones of Palestinian protesters, with curfews, deportations, forced closures of most Palestinian schools, and assassinations and killings. But the uprising that started with a mass popular character and caught the Palestinian leadership by surprise was eventually eclipsed by this traditional Palestinian party leadership, which was increasingly dominated by the pressures and pull of Fatah and the PLO in exile.
After a period of tension where the grassroots had all but established a situation of dual power on the ground, the external Palestinian leadership maneuvered to take control of the uprising, and brought about negotiations with Israel that led to the 1993 Oslo Accords, which set up the Palestinian Authority, allowed for the growth of Israeli settlements, increasingly fractured the West Bank into enclaves or bantustans, brought free market capitalism into Palestine, increasing the wealth disparity in Palestinian society, and so on. These concessions were made by Fatah and the PLO, the secular, bourgeois leadership in exile, who then came back to Palestine to fulfill their state-building process, which has been recognized as a farce by the majority of the Palestinian population.
In 1988, during the First Intifada, Hamas was created in the Gaza Strip, founded as a critique of secular Fatah and the PLO and as a need to turn an Islamic movement in the direction of resistance against Israel. At the time, Fatah and the PLO were already moving away from the strategy of guerrilla struggle and toward diplomatic relationships and negotiations.
In September 2000, the Second Intifada broke out. It can be understood as a rejection of Oslo and a recognition of the failure of (or the farce of) the state-building project. The Second Intifada also began with mass popular protests, but Israel’s immediate massive repression and shoot-to-kill policy, at a level not seen in the prior uprising, helped push it into a more violent armed conflict. The Second Intifada lasted until 2005. During this period, Israel began to build its apartheid wall, which snaked through the West Bank and grabbed more land for Israel while shrinking Palestinian freedom of movement. Israel increasingly cut off and isolated Gaza, and cut off East Jerusalem from the West Bank.
In early 2002, Israel invaded the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, claiming it was necessary to root out resistance fighters, and flattened over a third of the camp and killed dozens. Israel blocked humanitarian assistance from getting to the camp and denied the wounded medical assistance. This raid and repression foreshadowed the repression of the refugee camp that we are seeing this year, and also, according to Naseer Aruri, reflected the fact that the new U.S.-led War on Terror was already giving Israel more of a green light to ramp up violent repression.
In 2005, hundreds of Palestinian civil organizations put forward the call for global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), to pressure Israel to end the occupation, allow for the right of return to the villages Palestinians were displaced from in 1948 and 1967, and to end apartheid policies against Palestinians inside Israel proper. This clearly nonviolent form of resistance has been demonized and smeared, and in the United States alone there are numerous laws against support of BDS. In many states, one has to sign an anti-BDS clause when starting a job, for example.
In 2006, Hamas was elected, in democratic and moderated elections, as the leadership of both the West Bank and Gaza. This was due to exasperation with Fatah—which continues to this day—over their concessions with and willingness to work with Israel and the lack of secular alternatives that had not conceded to the two-state solution model, which meant giving up 78 percent of historic Palestine, as even the left-wing parties, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, had accepted such concessions. Hamas had also been successful in its use of charity, typical of bourgeois Muslim Brotherhood organizations, which also distinguished it from the more obviously neoliberal capitalist Fatah.
But Israel responded to these elections by encircling and besieging Gaza, invading and attacking sites within it, and stoking a civil war between Hamas and Fatah. As a result, Hamas became the leadership of Gaza, while Fatah and the Palestinian Authority remained the leadership in the West Bank. Israel’s siege and blockade of Gaza has lasted until today, making Gaza increasingly unlivable. It has seen five wars on Gaza, each of which has been increasingly genocidal and murderous.
While groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad have continued to be active in Gaza, propelled in large part by the horrific conditions of the siege and blockade, Gaza has also seen popular nonviolent movements—in the First Intifada and most recently in the Great March of Return, which took place in Gaza from March 2018 through December 2019. Largely youth-based and unaffiliated with any political faction, Palestinians organized weekly Friday mass protests and peaceful marches to the separation barrier cutting off Gaza, calling for dignity, the right to return—70 percent of Gazans are refugees from elsewhere inside historic Palestine—and freedom of movement in the face of the crushing blockade. Israel responded by shooting to maim, aiming to render Palestinians disabled and unable to walk. Further, the Western media almost completely ignored this popular movement for freedom and dignity, turning a potentially hopeful movement into a more obviously desperate situation for Gazans. The United Nations had already predicted that Gaza would be unlivable by 2020, and the options for Palestinian resistance seemed to become more and more narrow.
In 2021, some hope emerged with protests that came out of the struggle to protect the East Jerusalem town of Sheikh Jarrah. These generalized and were taken up by Palestinians inside Israel proper, and then in the West Bank and Gaza, too. It became known as the Unity Intifada, and was an unprecedented unified action not seen in decades, using anticolonial frameworks and progressive and largely secular and nonviolent means. But it also faced increasing Israeli settler violence and an increasingly right-wing and fascist Israeli government. The Unity Intifada, like the Great Return March, was largely independent of the political parties, and even included a revolt within it against the Palestinian Authority, and witnessed a nascent young Palestinian leadership, not yet organized enough, however.
Another era of resistance is worth recalling. In 2011, the Arab Spring revolutions broke out in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Bahrain, and beyond. These protests held Palestinian liberation as a central tenet. The region’s masses—just about everyone except the elites—were in solidarity with Palestine and saw the oppression of Palestinians as a reflection of their own oppression by imperialism and their own authoritarian regimes. On May 15, 2011, thousands of protestors from Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan marched to the border, and some entered into Palestine. This was more than a glimmer of hope for Palestinians and broader liberation. Solidarity with Palestine has always been a demand of the region’s peoples to their reactionary regimes, and each Palestinian Intifada has inspired protests and even protest movements in surrounding countries.
While other anti-settler-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles, like in South Africa, have relied on workers’ strike movements to defeat their apartheid system, Israel has learned from the case of South Africa and largely marginalized Palestinians from its labor force. This means that an outside force is all the more important—in this case, the working classes across the region, which must pressure their regimes to end normalization with Israel and demand a change in the balance of power regionally.
Unfortunately, the 2011 revolutions have faced a decade of defeat by regional and international actors, giving even less hope to Palestinians and Gazans in particular, and making their options for struggle all the more narrow. So when mainstream voices say, “Why have Palestinians not tried nonviolence?” or ask, “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?”—we should remember Gaza’s Great Return March, the First Intifada, BDS, and the 1936 general strike.
After the prepared remarks were delivered by brian, Sherry, and Shireen, a private discussion for those in attendance took place. A question regarding the viability of a two-state solution and a question about electoralism was asked. We have decided to include here the responses given to these questions from brian and Shireen.
Jumping off of what Sherry and Shireen said—relating back to the question about the so-called two-state solution, the demographics on the ground, and the imposed geographical separation of Palestinians, which has been the project of settler-colonialism—the two-state solution is impossible.
Rather than two-state as a possibility, what we’re looking at is two possible one-state solutions. The first is a racist one in which settler-colonialism is completed. That is the explicit articulation of the Zionist right, who want to annex the occupied territories. These are the people who are burning down villages in the West Bank with settler militias backed by the IOF (Israeli Occupation Forces), at the same time that Israel razes Gaza. This is their explicit project and they are very clear about this. They want one state, a Jewish-only ethnostate.
And so I think the question is not one state or two states. The question is do you want a racist one-state with the complete expulsion, demolishment, and extinguishing of the memory of Palestinians? Or do you want a single secular democratic state in which everyone can live with equal democratic rights for all, and Palestinians have the right to return? I think that that is the main juncture.
The whole notion of the two-state solution is an antiquated idea that politicians of the United States like to trot around because they stridently support Israel and want to pretend to care about an illusory image of a Palestinian state that comes to be without any altering of Israel’s racist, settler colonial core. It’s pure fantasy, cynically applied. I think that we need to reframe the whole “debate” about two states or one quite militantly and sharply.
That relates to the question of: What movement do we have to build? And for me, the central question is the question of social, and class power.
It is really, really inspiring to go to these massive demonstrations. This past week, we blocked traffic in front of a politician’s home for three hours, and people all over the place are taking initiative and taking part in a seriously amazing level of civil disobedience and disruptive action. It’s really inspiring to see the global solidarity that is so palpable. It is also notable that despite a million in the streets of London; despite protests here, multiple days a week, pretty much every city, oftentimes quite sizable, Biden has not changed his tune at all. And so that raises the question of social power. What will it take? Would it take something like a general strike that could actually stop production? What would it take to actually challenge imperialism at its center? What would it take to get there? I think that question of social power is one that is essential.
An example: We had this fantastic, really militant protest in Chicago just this past week. Genocide Joe Biden himself was in town and people were angry, fired up, and furious. Chants of “intifada, revolution” rang out outside of his fundraiser. And still part of the political framing in some of the speeches focused on the threat that “You’re not going to get our vote.” But we don’t really live in a democracy. They don’t care about our votes. Their power is not rooted in that of democracy but in a class dictatorship of capitalism.
The moment is so dire. I think that our task is really big. But the potential is there because the people are there, active, moving, struggling, fighting, and so politically trying to orient on that and develop the movement is crucially important. It feels like a very heavy, but important weight on all of our shoulders. And I hope we take that seriousness out of this meeting and find whatever we can do to organize, because so much is at stake.
We have to have more people break out of electoralism. There’s a rejection of Biden, and likely to the extent that he won’t be able to run again, but is there the understanding that this is the Democratic Party’s fundamental relationship to Israel based on imperialism?
I have a lot of hope for the movement here, in spite of the repression. The first few days were frightening. But we’re seeing the rebuilding of anti-war organizing, the creation of organizations like Moms for Ceasefire, the fact that organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace are transitioning from a partially paper membership into having to figure out actions on the ground.
The situation in Gaza is horrific, and as Sherry said we are seeing Israeli fascism as it confronts Gaza and the West Bank with its aim to ethnically cleanse and complete its ethno-state project. Israel is attempting to take over and completely flatten northern Gaza, pushing everyone who survives into the southern half of Gaza, in the hopes of kicking them all out to Egypt. Israeli violence is also rearing its head in the West Bank, and the future is really terrifying.
While the movement in Palestine is perhaps at its weakest, and there is a loss of faith in the traditional leaderships still, the Unity Intifada was a positive shift in popular Palestinian consciousness. But the movement did not create a new organized leadership. The strength is more in the protests in Egypt and Jordan.
I think the demand for a ceasefire can be combined with and is being combined with more radical demands like an end to the Israeli siege, occupation, and apartheid. I also think it reveals starkly how the Democratic Party stands, with Bernie and Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi refusing to give it an inch. It makes clear what side they’re on.
I think one weakness in our movement that I would bring up is Stalinism, or uncritical support of regimes and other imperialist or reactionary states, movements, and parties. This extends to the idea that armed struggle is the solution for Palestine, rather than popular protest and rejection and popular overthrow of the region’s regimes.
Featured image credit: Picryl; modified by Tempest.
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brian bean is a socialist organizer and writer based in Chicago, a member of the Tempest Collective, a part of the Rampant Magazine editorial collective, and an editor and contributor to the book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction from Haymarket Books.
Sherry Wolf, the author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), who was a member of ACT UP NY from 1988 to 1992 and the International Socialist Organization from 1983 to 2019. Today, Wolf is a trade union organizer and socialist living in Brooklyn and is a member of the Tempest Collective.
Shireen Akram-Boshar is a socialist activist, writer, and editor on the editorial board of Spectre Journal. She is a member of the Tempest Collective.