In the first of three articles by members of the Tempest Collective in the US on Palestinian solidarity and resistance against imperialism, Shireen Akram-Boshar discusses the history of Palestinian anti-colonial struggles.
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 the First World War. 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 neighbouring anti-colonial struggle.
The six-month strike in Palestine was one of (if not the) longest strikes 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 cancelled 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 neighbouring 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 labourers 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, defence, 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 manoeuvred 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. It was founded as a critique of secular Fatah and the PLO and out of the need to turn an Islamic movement towards 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 US-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. In the US 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 unliveable. 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 labour 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.
This article is based upon a talk given at the “75 years of colonialism, imperialism, and resistance” event and was first published on the Tempest website.