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Putting Palestine on the Map

Vijay Prashad Courtesy: Jadaliyya

They want their homeland? They should fight for it. -- Ali Khaled, father of Leila Khaled, 1950s


With the US embroiled in Afghanistan’s endless theater, the debate around insurgencies has once more taken hold.

In 2007, Jeffery Record’s Beating Goliath detailed the story of how some insurgencies end up defeating their much more powerful adversaries. Three years later, the RAND Corporation published Ben Connable and Martin Libicki’s How Insurgencies End, which showed that such struggles last for ten years, giving the stubborn Goliath the best odds if they are able to quell public opinion in their own country and break the support networks for their David. The US War College’s Thomas Mockaitis’ 2011 study Resolving Insurgencies found that most rebellions degenerate into criminal organizations or small terrorist networks, both unable to sustain the political goals that initiated them. All this is salutary reading for tone-deaf policy makers, who would like to see the Afghan story follow this script: let it become a drug infeudated oligarchy and lose popular support. It is simply not what has happened.

None of these studies take seriously the Palestinian story, which has not followed the ten-year cut-off, nor degenerated into criminality and futility. It has in fact retained its political goals despite the prolonged occupation of its rump territories since 1967, and every attempt to shatter any hope of union of the many Palestinian political groups. The Israeli garrison state’s suffocation of Gaza and the neo-liberal and increasingly comprador leadership in the West Bank have not dented the remarkably coherent will of the Palestinian people. The brave hunger strikes that ran from December 2011 to May 2012 testify to this. The “war of empty stomachs” brought over two thousand Palestinians, held in Israeli prisons under “administrative detention,” to open the frontline inside the prisons with dignity; they were joined by non-violent mass struggles whose goals, according to the first striker, Khader Adnan, exceed the prisons: “The mass hunger strike is a signal to all oppressed and vulnerable people everywhere, not just Palestinians. It’s a message to everyone suffering from injustice, under the boot of oppression.”

How is it that such a small part of the world population has been able to take its considerable political message to the world stage, and to remain optimistic these sixty years despite Israel’s military control over it and despite the US vetoes against any attempt to bring justice to the Palestinians? The total population of Palestine is eleven million, with just about four million in the Occupied Territories, one million inside Israel and the remainder in the Diaspora (with three million of them in Jordan alone). The entire population of Palestine is less than that of the city of my birth, Calcutta, India (fourteen million). In 1972, the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli air strikes on Lebanon and Syria (the vote was thirteen to one). It was the first time the US exercised a lone veto in the chamber, and it would not be the last. The US has been the most frequent user of the veto, mainly to defend Israel (following what is known as the Negroponte Doctrine, the view that Israel must be shielded from international criticism). Israel, meanwhile, has justified its military posture towards the Palestinians with the view that they do not exist as a political project—from Israeli premier Golda Meir’s 1969 statement (“There is no such thing as Palestinians”) to Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan’s 1973 statement (“There is no more Palestine. Finished.”). US institutional and arms backing combined with Israel’s military force has done little to break the will of the Palestinian resistance, or to tarnish the sympathy it evokes across the world. How has this been so?

The answer is provided in a new book by the historian Paul Thomas Chamberlin, The Global Offensive: The United States, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order (Oxford, 2012). Chamberlin roots his story in the emergence of the Palestinians as political actors after 1967, drawing from the failure of the Arab states to push for a diplomatic (and military) solution to the injustice meted out to the Palestinians. Groups such as al-Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) revitalized the prone Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) by linking their local struggle to the “new political geography” of Third World Liberation that ran from Vietnam to Cuba, from Algeria to Guinea Bissau. The 1969 cover of the Fatah paper, Hisad al-‘Asifa indicated the shift: Refugees [al-‘aja’un] in 1948, but Revolutionaries [thuwar] in 1965. This shift was highlighted by Rosemary Sayigh in her 1979 book The Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries. Drawing from the more militant nationalism of the Arab National Movement, from the vital currents of Marxism and Maoism, and from the experience of the Algerian FLN, the new Palestinian groups sought to link themselves to the new currents of radicalism and to produce fedayeen units to conduct attacks against Israeli military and security targets. They sought an “Arab Hanoi” either in Amman (Jordan) or Beirut (Lebanon), and sought to create a new radical imagination through the work of their poets (such as Mahmoud Darwish) and their writers (such as Ghassan Kanafani).

New leaders such as Yasser Arafat and George Habash, both in their early forties, emerged as the figures of the new revolutionary spirit. They broke the yoke that tied them to the neighboring Arab states, notably Nasser’s Egypt. In November 1967, Arafat met Nasser, who mentioned that the Palestinian leader did not want to surrender his gun to Egyptian security. “Mr. President,” Arafat said as he removed his pistol, “your intelligence people are wrong. I offer you my freedom fighter’s gun as proof of that fact.” Nasser smiled, “No. You keep it. You need it, and more.” Armed incursions into the Occupied Territories raised the profile of the fedayeen and cemented the Palestinians as a political force—moving them from their status as refugees who need UN services to revolutionaries who want to end their colonial subjection and to create their own nation-state.

Chamberlin turns his attention to the emerging alliance between Israel and the US, with the Nixon administration throwing its full support for an increasingly irrational Israeli military policy. Any peep from the Palestinians would be met with disproportionate force by the Israelis, armed and backed by the US. “We shall hit the enemy where and how we choose,” said the euphemistically named Israeli Defense Force (IDF), “even if the objective does not exactly match the enemy’s crime.” Israel’s arsenal of counter-insurgency was fairly straightforward: armored divisions and aircraft would bombard Palestinian camps (including civilians) and positions of neighboring Arab states which housed the Palestinians (Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria); the UN General Assembly would be neutered, and the US would exercise its Security Council veto to immunize Israel from criticism; an ideological campaign conducted by the Western media, helped along by the Israeli hasbara agency, would paint the Palestinians as equal parts illegitimate and terroristic and conscript the idea of anti-Semitism, and the blindness to Israeli state violence, in order to do so.

Boxed in by Israel-US and the paralysis of the Arab states, the PLO’s more militant factions decided to take the attack to the enemy at its weakest point. This is why the fedayeen began terrorist acts of commercial aircraft hijacking and armed attacks at Israeli sites (airports and embassies) and Israeli representatives (including athletes, as at Munich in 1972). The PFLP conducted the most spectacular hijackings, landing commercial aircrafts in Libya and Jordan, trying to barter hostages for Palestinian political prisoners, and in some cases, blowing up the empty aircraft to demonstrate the existence of the Palestinian political project. The most famous of all these hijackers was Leila Khaled, a PFLP cadre whose life has been wonderfully reconstructed by Sarah Irving in a new, short book, Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation (Pluto, 2012). Khaled was not the first or only woman among the fedayeen: the example of Rashida Obeida inspired her, as did Shadiah Abu Ghazaleh, and alongside her fought women such as Amina Dhahbour. In 1969, Khaled was part of the PFLP team that hijacked TWA Flight 840 to Damascus, flying first over her birth city of Haifa. Khaled recounted a few years later that from the sky she saw her city and “my father’s image appeared before my eyes and I could hear his voice saying, when shall we return home? My whole world came together.”

Part of Israeli state ideology has been to claim that the Palestinian attacks are remorseless and indiscriminate, a cognate of the imputed Oriental disregard for human life. This is negated by Irving’s carefully wrought portrait of the conflicts that plagued Khaled, who measured the scale the violence of her own hijackings against that of the enormity of Israeli state violence against her family and nation; the addresses of what Darwish called the “surplus value of the slaughter” can be found in the naqba of 1948, the invasion and occupation of 1967, and then the harsh bombardments of Jordan and Lebanon, the cries of the villagers of Hasabaya (21 June 1972) and the residents of Beirut (April 1973 to 1982). The Palestinian attacks were designed to bring visibility to the suffering, to break through the silence; they were politically motivated and not blood-thirsty, as far as Khaled intimates to Irving. This subjective interpretation is clarified by Chamberlin’s search through the Beirut archives, which show the debates in the PLO around the “external operations,” with the more moderate elements worried that the hijackings and the acts of terror would alienate international opinion from its emergent consideration of the Palestinian point of view. That is why General Vo Nguyen Giap told Arafat in the late 1960s to “turn your terror war into a struggle for human rights. Then you will have the American people eating out of your hand.” This is what drove a wedge first between Arafat’s Fatah and Habash’s PFLP, and then when the latter also decided against hijackings, between Habash’s PFLP and Wadi Haddad’s PFLP-EO and Sabri al-Banna’s Abu Nidal Organization.

The divides in the Palestinian freedom struggle moved Arafat to offer concessions to the Israeli regime. It was Arafat who came to the UN in November 1974 to say, “do not let the olive branch fall from my hand,” as he hinted toward a two-state solution as long as any deal did not invalidate the rights of the Palestinians as a nation. Backed to the hilt by the US, it was Israel that refused to meet Arafat’s outstretched hand. As the US Ambassador to Lebanon William Buffum wrote in a confidential cable in 1973, “Israel does not seem disposed to make minimal concessions essential for this plan [ending the guerrilla violence] to be implemented, despite its professed concern over fedayeen terrorism abroad and within [the] occupied territories.” US State Department officials such as Joseph Zurhellen and ambassadors such as William Stoltzfus (Kuwait) cautioned against the Israeli view that the Palestinians do not have a political project, with Zurhellen pointing out that the US needs to understand the use of terror for political ends, and Stolzfus pointing out that the Palestinians are “lost souls” whose fedayeen has broken the isolation to which their nation had been condemned. None of these views would influence US policy, which was tethered to the rightward drift of Tel Aviv. It is now a cliché that the Israelis have been willing to make peace, and it is the Palestinians who have been stubborn—forgetting that the terms of the discussion from Tel Aviv essentially call for the liquidation of the Palestinian national project.

The “global offensive” of the Palestinian national movement pushed its issues to the forefront from 1967. The dynamism of that wave crested by the time of Oslo, losing its steam when the PLO went into partnership with the Israeli government toward the pacification of its people, and when it adopted neoliberal policies in the West Bank to stem the broadest aspirations of the population. The furrows of the global offensive opened up after 1967 remain, now seeded by similar social forces that have an utterly different strategic understanding. For every Kōzō Okamoto and Lod Massacre (1972), there is a Rachel Corrie and the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) human shield. It is non-violent resistance against Israeli tanks and bulldozers that is the framework of action, not the use of firepower to sow terror. The new global offensive emerged in the wake of the second intifada of 2000, when on the Palestinian ground grew new social forms of their own, the Popular Resistance Committees and the prisoner activism, taking up the cudgels as the PLO factions and Hamas saw their own ability to strike effectively against Israel whittled down. The ISM, founded in 2001, brought a generation of young North Atlantic activists to bear witness to the Israeli colonial project, and to take this message home. Alongside ISM grew various Palestine solidarity formations for students and others in the North Atlantic states, whose growth in the 2000s was premised on events such as the murder of Rachel Corrie, the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in 2006 and of Gaza in 2009, and then the harsh reaction of the Israeli state to the attempts by international activists to break the blockade of Gaza through several flotilla campaigns.

It helped Israel’s public relations campaign naught to have a stream of conscious activists make their own kind of transit to the Holy Land, now not to see the ancient sights of oppression, but the modern ones. Reports by delegations of activists have flooded the Internet, as shelf-loads of books have poured into the hands of those who cannot themselves make the journey. Most recently, the US playwright Sarah Schulman’s Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (Duke, 2012) undermines the idea that Israel is the bastion of social freedom in the region. Her careful, analytical memoir of her 2010 visit to Palestine and Israel, and of the tour she organized for queer Palestinians around the US in 2011, bristles with the possibilities of genuine solidarity if patience allows various political agendas committed to freedom to find the common space for their differences and unities to find each other. Taking refuge in “homonationalism” does nothing to immunize the Israeli queer community from its participation in the Brand Israel mythology, as silence across the Wall on issues of sexual freedom does nothing to forward the Palestinian political project. The British writer Bidisha’s new memoir of her tour to Palestine, Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine (Seagull, 2012) reveals the suffocation of the Occupation. Both Schulman and Bidisha introduce us to the vibrancy of Palestinian cultural life, the world of activists such as Haneen Maikay of al Qaws: For Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society and of writers such as Suad Amiry (author of Sharon and My Mother in Law). Angela Davis and Yasser Arafat met at the World Festival of Youth in East Berlin in 1973, and now Noam Chomsky goes to the Islamic University in Gaza in 2012 for a conference on applied linguistic and literature and delivers a major address alongside leading Gazan politicians (such as Jamal Khudari of the People’s Committee Against the Siege) calling for an end to the blockade.

The spear of this new global offensive is the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement and the concomitant attempt to break the blockade of Gaza, the former wishing to put on notice the world’s complicity in the occupation of the Palestinians and the latter wishing to oxygenate the world’s largest open-air prison. BDS and the various flotillas remain controversial approaches, but the arguments for them (such as assembled by Audrea Lim in the new volume from Verso, The Case for Sanctions Against Israel) seem on balance to be far better than those against. BDS is part of an array of non-violent techniques developed to put moral and material pressure on the Israeli state and on its citizenry to reject their colonial domination of the Palestinians.

The Indian arm of the BDS campaign, the Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (InCACBI), has revived itself on a terrain that had slipped to the advantage of Israel—with arms sales and counterterrorism relations as the glue (as I documented in Namaste Sharon, 2003). Writings from the group have now entered the Indian media with a confidence little seen over the past decade, with most of the more energetic participants to contribute to a volume edited by the novelist Githa Hariharan, From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity (LeftWord, 2013). In New Delhi, on November 4, a small group gathered to protest the performance of The Cameri Theatre, whose director, Noam Semel, rather cagily said that InCACBI can “protest against politicians and soldiers. We are not the right people,” but then gingerly admitted that his Tel Aviv based group has performed in the Occupied Territories “as per directions of our government.” InCACBI members wore t-shirts that said “No to Israeli Apartheid,” and stood as silent sentinels near the entrance of the theater, handing out leaflets. “One woman said she supported us but did want to see the play,” reports the editor and actor Sudhanva Deshpande, “We gave her the t-shirt, which she wore inside. But then she came out again, saying she couldn’t possibly stay inside after having read the leaflet. Another couple refused to go in after reading the leaflet.” In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel’s fear was the international terror networks, from Japan to the US, that had given themselves over to the “external operations” of the PLO. Today, Israel’s “worst nightmare,” as the Palestinian intellectual Omar Barghouti put it, is the BDS campaign. It is today’s form of the global offensive, from New Delhi to Hampshire College, from Amman to Pink Floyd’s Roger Walters.


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