It is not a misrepresentation to say that the history of Palestine in the 20th century was a history of resistance to both British imperialism and Israeli colonialism. It is, however, also a history of counter-revolutions. Because Palestinian history has always been written from above, we were never told that the absence of a successful revolution was due, among other things, to elite’s counter-revolutions. This is true of the 1936-’39 great revolution, and of the 1987-’93 Intifada.
The late Ghassan Kanafani had initiated a vast intellectual project, shattered by his assassination, that would have reexamined Palestinian history and outlined the basis for a Palestinian liberation strategy. Kanafani’s seminal work on the 1936-’39 period in Palestine illuminates both the uprising and the counter-revolution. Such a ground-up understanding was excised from popular memory, however, and another counter-revolution therefore took place in 1993.
We must learn from past experience in formulating future strategies. The Palestinian experience in the past nine years confirms, once again, the necessity of a paradigm shift. Two things make a new strategic approach to the Palestine question imperative: together, the structural defects of the contemporary Palestinian revolution and the new global political economy have led to the string of bitter defeats embodied in the Oslo “peace” process.
First, the PLO’s failure should not be attributed simplistically to political mistakes made by individuals. Of course, certain people bear responsibility, but this must be understood as part of the larger socio-political role they have been playing. An assessment of the PLO’s history would reveal serious structural defects in the ideology, policies, and social makeup (i.e., class origin) of the Palestinian leadership. Even the Marxist Palestinian parties adhere to an antiquated 18th-century liberal model of democracy based on the highly elitist principle of separation of power between branches of government. At this point, such a conception of democracy is mainly a theoretical error, but it is important to know that this separation of powers is not only undemocratic but also socially biased. It is principally designed to stifle the democratic will of the people. Indeed, the PLO agenda as a whole — self-determination, state, sovereignty and political rights — is limited to the elite’s needs and systematically excludes those of the masses.
Another important issue is the class composition of the Palestinian leadership. At this point, we may only judge this matter on the basis of orientation. The Palestinian groups representing the different social forces and interests at work fought out the political debates Oslo had initiated in the customary way — i.e., in real life and in practice. In a sense, the Intifada is settling the debate not only against the Oslo forces and their narrow agenda, but also against the built-in biases of all the Palestinian factions.
Any future Palestinian strategy needs to draw its principles from the pressing needs of the people, and must carefully prevent elitism from taking over its practice and agenda yet again. The refugee problem, for instance, can only be solved within a framework that captures the refugees’ real living conditions. What is necessary is not merely a new leadership or a new agenda, but a new leadership based on a new structure of roles, and a new agenda with a new social orientation.
Global transformations have long been associated with developments in the Arab-Israeli struggle, as the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration, post-World War II arrangements involving the creation of Israel, and the socialist bloc’s collapse in the run-up to Oslo all demonstrate. Until the mid-1970s, profits from military industries worldwide exceeded those from all other sectors, in part because of Middle East arms imports. With the end of the Cold War and the global expansion of trade, the “peace market model” became the guiding principle of Arab-Israeli negotiations.
The new course of global capitalism makes the exploitative and oppressive character of the system easier to see, but has also brought forth its own antithesis, in the form of a global resistance movement. In the Middle East, two forms of resistance to the global system have developed and must be at the core of any Palestinian liberation strategy. First, the popular anti-normalisation movement is a form of Arab resistance to the new manifestations of global capital in the region. Second, the Intifada, as a revolt against Oslo, is also implicitly a site of the ongoing anti-globalisation protest. The Palestinian flags waving in Quebec and Gutenburg are not just symbolic: rather, they show how the Palestinian struggle against Israel can be seen in the larger context of the struggle to bring human dignity and social justice to the world. To fulfill this new global potential, the Palestinian liberation strategy must advance the real needs of the Palestinian masses.
The Arab-Israeli struggle, in other words, is not merely between the Arabs and Israel. With a social composition that is genuinely representative of the Palestinian masses and a strategy that links the regional and global faces of the conflict, the liberation movement will be in a better position to mobilise the internal and external support necessary to realise the goal of human freedom.
The writer is assistant professor of sociology at DePaul University, Chicago.