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How can Palestine be free?

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Palestinians have bravely fought Israel through both armed struggle and mass mobilisations. But, argues Nick Clark, it will take revolution in the Middle East to win liberation
Issue 2605
Palestinian Liberation Organisation fighters in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1979
Palestinian Liberation Organisation fighters in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1979 (Pic: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

While most people across the world reacted in horror at the slaughter in Gaza, supporters of Israel began working out a narrative to vilify the dead.

Defenders of Israel condemned those who were killed as “violent terrorists”, who had hijacked peaceful protests.

In fact there is no clear-cut division between “peaceful” protests and violent resistance.

The history of the Palestinian struggle has always involved mass mobilisations. It has also involved some heroic armed struggle waged by guerrilla organisations, which focussed on Israel’s military defeat and enjoyed popular support.

There’s a complicated and contradictory relationship between the two. Most Palestinian revolts have involved elements of both.

Between 1936 and 1939 a great Palestinian revolt involving mass strikes, riots and demonstrations, and guerrilla struggle rocked the British Empire.

Bloody Balfour’s century of oppression in Palestine
Bloody Balfour’s century of oppression in Palestine
  Read More

British rulers in Palestine blamed the “official” Palestinian leaders for the uprising. In fact it was organised and coordinated by local popular committees.

The revolt was so widespread that the British army had to fight to reoccupy Palestinian cities, towns and villages. Palestinians in the countryside formed armed groups to fend off the British.

There was already mass support for guerrilla fighters. Months before in 1935 the Arab guerrilla leader Izz al-Din al-Qassam was killed fighting in a courageous last stand against the British.

His death resonated across Palestine. More than 3,000 Palestinians—mostly workers and peasants—turned his funeral into a demonstration that was followed by strikes in several Palestinian cities.

A revival in armed struggle took control of much of the countryside. And then the cities Jaffa, Beersheba, Gaza, Jericho, Bethlehem, Ramallah and the Old City in Jerusalem fell.

Yet the revolt was defeated, largely down to the shocking brutality used by the British with the help of the Zionist colonisers. But it was also held back by the Palestinian “official” leadership of rich landowning families.

The first Palestinian guerrilla groups were formed among ordinary Palestinians frustrated at this official leadership’s weakness.

During the revolt the committees threatened the authority and interests of the landowners, who used their “official” positions to control and shut the movement down.

That same problem has faced every Palestinian resistance movement ever since.

After Israel was created a new national liberation movement emerged among a section of Palestinian refugees.

Fatah was formed by wealthier middle class Palestinians who became business owners, government officials and professionals in Gulf Arab states. From neighbouring Arab countries they tried to build a movement of “mass revolutionary violence” against Israel.

As the leading group in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Fatah fought some heroic battles.

The idea was to inspire support for Palestine that would pressure the Arab leaders into war on their behalf.

The goal was to become the ruling class of a new Palestinian state in partnership with other Arab countries. So Fatah’s leaders depended on the support of Arab rulers—and that meant keeping tight control over the movement.

Palestinians in refugee camps in Arab countries were poor and marginalised. But Fatah wouldn’t organise the type of resistance from below—strikes and protests—that would challenge the Arab leaders.


In the 1930s guerrilla struggle had been a challenge to the Arab ruling class. Now it was used by the Palestinian leadership to keep the movement in check.

For their part the Arab rulers hoped to use the Palestinian resistance through the PLO. But none of them were committed to a direct challenge to imperialism. Jordan, where the PLO was based, was propped up by the British.

In 1970 the PLO had grown so powerful that the Jordanian regime launched a war to crush it. It slaughtered thousands of Palestinians in what became known as Black September.

The leadership’s insistence on not challenging Arab rulers meant they refused to take action until it was too late.

Their focus on guerrilla struggle also meant that when Palestinians in Palestine rose up in mass revolt, the factions of the PLO were caught out.

The First Intifada in 1987 saw protests, riots and strikes sweep across Palestine—again organised by local activists’ committees.

This huge popular revolt shook the Israeli occupation much more than the PLO’s limited guerrilla attacks. And it inspired large protests across the Middle East.

The First Intifada—30 years since Palestinians rose up against Israel
The First Intifada—30 years since Palestinians rose up against Israel
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More than 40 years after Palestinians were expelled, the mass revolt of the Intifada forced Israel into talks with the PLO leadership.

Yet the start of the “peace process”, beginning with the Oslo accords in 1993, led the PLO to give up resistance and make major concessions.

The peace process offered the PLO the chance to lead a Palestinian Authority (PA), under the thumb of Israel, with partial control of the West Bank and Gaza.

The hope of even semi-statehood saw the PLO give up its claim to the rest of Palestine. That meant effectively abandoning the right of refugees to return to their homes.

It also saw the PLO renounce armed struggle and agree to police the Palestinian population in coordination with Israel. It was transformed from an organisation of resistance into a tool of the occupation.

Despite the fate of the PLO, new resistance groups make the same mistake.

Hamas and other Islamist groups emerged as an alternative to the nationalist PLO during the First Intifada. Hamas’s rejection of the peace process meant it played a leading role in the Second Intifada, which erupted in 2000 and had much greater focus on armed struggle.

Because of its refusal to give up resistance, Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006. Fatah led a coup attempt against Hamas in Gaza—orchestrated by the US and backed by Israel—the following year.

The siege of Gaza properly began after Fatah was defeated.

It shouldn’t be surprising if claims that most of the Palestinians killed on the border protests were Hamas members turn out to be true. Its resistance has made it a beacon to young Palestinians who have grown up under siege.


But like Fatah, Hamas also looked to support from other Middle Eastern regimes rather than struggle from below. It had the backing of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Yet more than a decade of attempting to govern the Gaza Strip under siege has weakened it—made worse by the defeat of the Arab revolutions of 2011.

The revolutions that spread across the Middle East shook Arab regimes to their core. The Egyptian revolution toppled Hosni Mubarak, whose dictatorship was instrumental in maintaining the Gaza siege.

Revolutionaries in Egypt also took up the slogans of the Palestinian resistance, stormed the Israeli embassy and demanded an end to the siege.

Hamas’s parent organisation the Muslim Brotherhood took part in the revolution. Its leader Mohammed Morsi was elected Egyptian president.

Hamas also refused to back Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against an uprising, breaking its relationship with Iran.

Arm yourselves with the arguments about why it’s right to oppose Israel
Arm yourselves with the arguments about why it’s right to oppose Israel
  Read More

Yet when the military overthrew Morsi and the Syrian regime began winning, Hamas became isolated.

Recently it has cut deals with the new Egyptian regime—a close ally of Israel and the US—that have seen it move away from armed resistance.

The turn to mass protests is a new tactic for Hamas. But Hamas’s leader Yahya Sinwar also reached an agreement with Egypt to stop the protests escalating into a new conflict with Israel.

Egyptian dictator Mohammed el-Sisi is right to be worried. Palestinians’ resistance has inspired protests across the Middle East that threatened repressive regimes like his.

Palestinians have also been closest to liberation when their struggle has been part of mass resistance across the region.

And Palestinian leaders not looking to the power of the Arab working class has often left resistance isolated and led to compromises with Israel.

This isn’t about counter posing ‘peaceful’ protest to violent resistance—or condemning armed struggle. But it is about saying there is a different vision for Palestinian freedom.

The return of the revolutionary process across the Middle East—and mass resistance from below—is the only way for Palestinians to be free.


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