A Call to Redefine the Conflict from a Palestinian Perspective

A Call to Redefine the Conflict from a Palestinian Perspective

Two comments are in place at the beginning of this essay: first, criticism presented here should not be interpreted as downplaying the historical role, work and activities of the Palestinian national movement amid an extremely adverse political climate; and, second, it is important to remember that the national movement, which has grown from the conflict, is a dynamic movement which has shaped the course of the conflict while being shaped by it. It has defined its position and place among the Palestinian people by adjusting and adapting to the varying circumstances.

  The Palestinian national movement developed in the 1920s, when Palestine was for the first time defined as one unified geopolitical entity separate from “Greater Syria.” In general, the national movement has since then viewed Palestine as a homeland threatened by a western colonialist campaign that denied, in a blatant manner, the desires and aspirations of the Palestinian people and their right to self-determination.


 In light of the above, the struggle of the Palestinian national movement has since then remained a struggle for legitimacy, with the Zionist movement representing its natural enemy. At the same time, the national movement has emphasized the need to distinguish between the confrontation with Zionism as a hostile, colonialist and racist movement, and respect for Judaism as a divine religion. The Palestinian left, moreover, in particular the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), went even further when it considered the liberation of Palestine as a process including Jewish masses victims of imperialism and Zionism.

 The above is the broad framework which has constituted the consensus and the basis of the Palestinian movement of liberation and state building. This broad framework, however, has remained vague and failed to provide clear answers to a number of questions which affect the development of a vision and strategy to respond to the conflict. The different, and sometimes even contradictory positions on these issues are indicators of a lack of a clearly formulated Palestinian vision and national consensus.

 Zionism and capitalism: who serves who?

 The political factions of the Palestinian national movement have regarded the relationship between Zionism and capitalism, including imperialism, as a functional relationship in which the former serves the latter, and – to a lesser extent – as one of converging interests. Irrespective of their specific intellectual, political, ideological beliefs and approaches, all Palestinian factions have described Zionism as “the long arm”, “launching point”, “human base”, or “spearhead” at the service of capitalism and imperialism and aiming to strike – depending on their ideological background - the “national liberation movements”, the “Islamic nation”, or the “Arab homeland.”

 The National Liberation League (a communist party during the British Mandate) defined Zionism in its political program of 1946 as “a hostile movement that serves imperialism, which is also hostile to the Arab nation and to the Jews themselves.” This idea was strongly embraced once again by the Palestinian left (the communist party and PFLP). The leading faction of the Palestinian left, the PFLP, stated that the “main goal of the Zionist invasion is to implant an armed human base to serve imperialism in its confrontation with the Arab liberation movement whose victory is deemed a threat to imperialist interests in this vital region of the world.” Therefore, the struggle of the PFLP was directed not only against Zionism, but at the whole system of imperialism. The Fatah Movement, on the other hand, was more reserved and vague. It considered Zionism as “a natural ally of world colonialism and imperialism”, a description which was adopted also in the Palestinian National Charter of 1968. The Islamic movements which emerged in the 1980s, including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, saw Zionism as the “spearhead of the western modern colonialist scheme in its all-out war against the Islamic nation.”

 In general, the Palestinian discourse has emphasized the major role of western imperialism in supporting the establishment of a Zionist state to the detriment of studies on the signification of the land of Palestine (Eretz Isra’el) to the Zionist ideology. In this context, inadequate attention was paid to the emergence and development of the Yeshuv, i.e. organized Zionist colonization in Palestine during the British Mandate, and Israel since 1948. The notion of independent Zionist activity was actually rejected by Palestinian studies. This explains in part why Palestinian factions discovered only at a later stage how Israel had exploited western capitalist regimes, in order to achieve its own Zionist objectives, and that great efforts were required to gain the support of western countries for the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian debate about this matter is not new but dates back to the period of the British Mandate. Thus, for example, when a group of Palestinians headed by Sheikh Izzaddin al-Qassam targeted the Mandate government, other Palestinian groups, including Haj Amin al-Husseini, repeatedly stressed the necessity to focus on the Zionist movement, rather than on the Mandate government. The latter believed that the Palestinian cause would be better served if the door remained open for negotiations with the Mandate regime.

 In short, Palestinian understanding of Zionism and its practices on the ground has remained largely implicit: discrimination and segregation are perceived as expressions of racism, and racism as one of the faces of colonialism. Therefore, the struggle for liberation is led by the call to confront colonialism, which is considered to be the root cause – rather than the result – of the problem. In line with this logic, Zionist racism is expected to disappear when colonialism ceases to exist.

 Arab unity: complementary to or a condition for the liberation of Palestine?

 Following the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, the majority of Palestinians hoped that salvation would come from Arab regimes. At that time, pan-Arab nationalism was widespread, and strategic efforts were focused on encouraging Arab regimes to engage in military confrontation with Israel.

 The rapid defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 War, however, led to a change of the Palestinian strategy and two new approaches emerged. The first approach was led by Fatah under the slogan of “Palestinization of the revolution.” It stipulated that there would no longer be any interference in the affairs of Arab countries and that the focus would be on liberating Palestine. This approach was subsequently adopted by the PLO, and the Palestinian National Charter stipulated that the relationship between the liberation of Palestine and Arab unity was interdependent and reciprocal. The second approach, led by the PFLP, viewed the conflict as organically linked with the autocratic, “reactionary” Arab regimes, whose change was a basic condition for the liberation of Palestine. The PFLP believed that the contradictions and differences with the Arab regimes were “fundamental and not secondary.”

 The Islamic Jihad and its slogan of “Palestine as the core of the contemporary Islamic project” led to the emergence, in the mid-1980s, of a religious stream alongside the Palestinian national movement. Although Islamic Jihad does not explicitly aspire to interfere in the affairs of Arab states, the logic of the “contemporary Islamic project” requires, to a large extent, a change in the existing ruling regimes.

 Strategy, theory and practice: a meddled discourse

 Confusion between strategy, theory and practice has meddled the Palestinian discourse and contributed to a lack of a clear and comprehensive vision. The history of the Palestinian national movement features frequent changes of ideological orientation, especially among the Palestinian left which struggled to situate itself among various intellectual trends and approaches. When pan-Arab nationalists turned to socialism, for example, they called themselves the “new left” and “nationalist Marxists,” in order to distinguish themselves from the communist parties. Each party or faction imported new ideologies, like fast food meals, and tried to apply them to the Palestinian reality. Much time and effort were thus consumed at the expense of work towards a practical approach, which – based on the various political and intellectual models of struggle - could have created a united vision, strategy and discourse. Numerous splits among factions, moreover, gave rise to alliances which did not necessarily stand for a common ideology or analysis of the conflict.

 Recent debate over the one-state and the two-state solution of the conflict stands out as an example of the confusion between strategy, i.e. goal and tactic. The program of liberation of the Palestinian national movement as developed in the 1950s and 1960s suggested a vision of one secular state under the umbrella of the PLO. The relationship between this vision and the project of establishing “a struggling national authority on any liberated part of Palestine” adopted as the so-called “interim program” in the early 1970s was never clarified, until the 1988 PLO Declaration of Independence, and later the 1993 Oslo Accords, which provided for recognition of the state of Israel and replaced the earlier strategic vision of a one-state solution.

 Islamic movements, such as Hamas, on the other hand, continue to promote the liberation of all of Palestine. At the same time, Hamas is not opposed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967. Currently the latter is presented as a condition for a long term truce with Israel, while the relationship between the Islamic movement and the PLO has remained unclear. As it stands, Hamas has adopted a course of action that does not reject the pragmatic policies of the PLO and its member factions, but opposes their method of dealing with the conflict and Palestinian society. In practice, Hamas does not explicitly accept the PLO’s leadership role; it continues to build its institutions and networks outside of the PLO, without, however, presenting itself as an alternative to the PLO.

 Armed struggle versus diplomacy

 The “political option” has been commonly defined by the Palestinian national movement as diplomacy and negotiations, while other possible political strategies and options were not considered. (Other definitions are, therefore, beyond the scope of this article). Since the national movement aimed at liberation, statehood and the right of return, and since neither armed struggle or diplomacy alone could achieve these aims, the question about the relationship between both has been a matter of much debate whose results have remained inconclusive.

 At the beginning of the British Mandate, the Palestinian leadership tried to influence the Mandate Government mainly by traditional peaceful means which failed to achieve results. Locally organized armed struggle replaced this approach in the 1930s, first with the uprising led by Sheikh Izzaddin al-Qassam and then by the “Great Revolt.” The Nakba of 1948 brought a dramatic change to the Palestinian political reality and gave rise to the idea that armed struggle provided the sole path to the liberation of Palestine. This idea was adopted by the majority of the newly emerging Palestinian factions, with the exception of Palestinian communists who had joined the Communist Party of Palestine before the Nakba. The latter were rapidly integrated into new political structures, mainly the Israeli Communist Party and the Jordanian Communist Party.

 Armed struggle was adopted by the majority of the Palestinian organizations as a strategy in line with their respective ideologies: the Palestinian left, such as the PFLP, adopted the principle of “revolutionary violence,” while Fatah termed it “armed popular revolution.” The political option – understood as peaceful diplomacy for a settlement of the conflict - was unable to compete and did not become a national priority until the 1980s. The assassination in 1983 of Issam al-Sartawi, Palestinian National Council (PNC) member and Fatah Revolutionary Council member, is illustrative of that period when mere support of dialogue with Israelis was considered to be treason.

 When political Islam, the Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas, joined the Palestinian struggle in the 1980s, another synonym for armed struggle - “Jihad” – was added to the Palestinian lexicon, not only in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territory, but also inside Israel, where the “Uusrat el Jihad” was established but rapidly repressed by the Israeli authorities.

 Prior to that, Islamic movements had rejected diplomacy and had refrained from armed struggle. The Muslim Brotherhood Movement had rather adopted the strategy of building a generation of liberation through the teaching of Islamic values and social change. It only established Hamas at the beginning of the first intifada, when it was blamed and accused – inside and outside of Palestine – of failing to struggle against the Israeli occupation. The Islamic Jihad Movement, on the other hand, adopted from the start an Islamic revolutionary approach that did not consider the teaching of Islamic values to a new generation as a condition for resistance against the occupation.

 Between national liberation and statehood

 Since the 1948 Nakba, the national liberation movement has been preoccupied with the difficult and complicated process of “state building.” The PLO emerged in the late 1960s as a “quasistate without territory,” or a “government in exile” as a result of major political, military and diplomatic efforts. While the PLO remained on many occasions supportive of the actions of the military wing, it contributed to confusion at other times between the two approaches it promoted. While most national movements pursued the goal of liberation from colonialism to engage in state-building once liberation is achieved, the Palestinian national movement (i.e., PLO) engaged in a dynamics of state-building before independence was achieved.

 The 1993 Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) constituted a critical juncture in the relationship between armed struggle and diplomacy. From the outset, and in the absence of an actual state, those in charge of the PNA emphasized the PNA’s elements and symbols of statehood in an exaggerated manner, giving the impression that the occupation had ended. Faced with the incompatibility of the development of the PNA and the national liberation discourse and armed struggle, priority was given to a process of rapid institutionalization; the concepts and culture of struggle were replaced by a system characteristic of post-conflict situations. New elites started to emerge and the political heritage was reformulated in a manner that avoided addressing the heart of the problem. The result was confusion, paralysis and widespread destruction among the national liberation movement.

 Fatah, which headed the Palestinian national liberation movement for decades, took on features of a ruling party (in the post-liberation era) more than of a national liberation movement. After having become intertwined with the PLO earlier on, it merged with the PNA subsequently. With both frameworks engaged in state-building, other Palestinian factions were pushed to join this process. Many Palestinian factions, including Hamas and the Palestinian left, adapted to a large extent to the “reality of PNA statehood” under the pretext of acting for the sake of national liberation.

 Conclusion: Time is serving who?

 This question is of interest to both Palestinians and Zionist Israel, and it has remained open. The Palestinian national movement has failed to provide a well-founded and convincing answer. In light of the set-backs and achievements that have accumulated in this protracted conflict, analysis of whose project is advancing and whose is loosing ground remains inconclusive.

 Available answers reflect respective wishes and prejudices more than objective assessment and analysis. Palestinian (and Arab) assessments thus range between a view of Israel which magnifies its strength and power to the point of assuming total internal harmony on the one hand, and the expectation that Israel would fall apart in response to the slightest pressure on the other hand. In general, the question whom time is serving more can be answered only if the Palestinian national movement is able to tackle all of the above core issues and provide for clarity of vision, goals and discourse.

 Nihad Boqai’ is the Coordinator of the Research and Information Unit at Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.