In this article, Carlos Sapir tracks the history of Palestinian resistance from the establishment of the PLO through to the 21st century, following the parallel development of political initiatives in the ’48 territories, the ’67 territories, and abroad.
Palestinian Resistance after 1948
By Carlos Sapir, 2021
Due to the Nakba, the population of Palestine has been dispersed, but the Palestinian diaspora has consistently played an important role in fighting for Palestinian liberation alongside their counterparts living in Palestine. This international character of the Palestinian resistance, as well as the inconsistent support from Arab states, means that the history of Palestinian liberation spans much of the history of the Middle East.
The PLO’s militant early years
In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organization was founded in Cairo. While the leadership of the PLO was historically dominated by the Fatah party, and the organization consistently had a bourgeois nationalist character, it also included the participation of a variety of other organizations, including both communist and islamist groups. Its original political program, although flawed, deserves praise for its commitment to the establishment of a secular, democratic and non-racist state, including provisions for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their former lands and for full rights for Israeli Jews who wished to remain in Palestine.
Following Jordan’s loss of the West Bank to Israel in 1967, Palestinian militants affiliated with PLO groups retreated across the river to Jordan, and continued military operations against Israel. The PLO’s popularity and influence in Jordan grew, and the PLO began to call for the overthrow of the Jordanian Hashemite monarchy in 1970. The Hashemite forces retaliated in what would become known as Black September by shelling refugee camps where militants were present. Syria intervened to support the PLO, and under international pressure the PLO fighters were allowed to evacuate to Lebanon, and set up operations among the Palestinian refugee populations in southern Lebanon. PLO forces participated in the Lebanese civil war, fighting against Maronite phalangist forces that had attacked the Palestinian refugee population. Israel intervened in 1978, invading Lebanon in a joint operation to eliminate the PLO’s forces. The PLO was forced to flee, and established a base of operations, now well and truly in exile, in Tunis.
Not long after the PLO’s military defeat in Lebanon, its diplomatic defeat was set in motion. As US influence expanded in the region, states that had previously supported the Palestinian cause were pressured to normalize relations with Israel, leaving Israel de facto in control of virtually all of historic Palestine in exchange for annexed Egyptian territories. The PLO leadership was isolated from the Palestinian people and increasingly entertained diplomatic negotiations with Israel and the US, eventually abandoning its demand for a unitary, democratic and secular Palestine in favor of accepting a US-mediated “two state solution”.
For Palestinians living in “Israel proper”, the territories that comprised the Israeli state since 1948, the 1950s-60s were a period characterized by martial law and disenfranchisement. Some Palestinians were granted citizenship as “Arab Israelis”, but they were not meaningfully integrated into Israeli civil society, and their right to vote in elections was insignificant considering that Palestinian parties were banned and political repression the norm. Instead, the Israeli ruling party, Mapai, and later its successor, Labor, mobilized Arabs to vote for “satellite parties” that were entirely subordinated to the ruling party; despite the election of token Palestinian MKs as early as 1949, these parties and their representatives had minimal influence on Israeli politics. Following the 1967 War, Israeli attempts to administer the newly occupied territories separately from their other territory led them to give more political freedoms to Arab citizens of Israel. Arab citizens of Israel in this period overwhelmingly supported Rakah, an anti-Zionist split from the Communist Party in 1965 which would soon eclipse its predecessor, and eventually usurp the title of Communist Party (also known as Maki, its Hebrew nickname) from the old party in 1989. Since the 1977, Rakah/Maki has primarily participated in Israeli politics as part of a coalition party known as Hadash (lit. “New”), together with small far-left Jewish groups, and as Hadash it is the only Israeli electoral party that does not self-define along religious or ethnically sectarian lines. Hadash’s position has historically been for equal rights for Palestinians in the ‘48 territories, and full Israeli evacuation from the territories occupied in ‘67 in order to allow for the formation of a Palestinian state, in addition to supporting the strengthening of workers’ rights and a reformist transition to a socialist economy.
A decade of stagnation for Palestinian resistance came to an end in 1987 with the beginning of the First Intifada. The Intifada was not a military campaign, but a spontaneous, mass, non-violent protest movement with no central leadership. Israel’s continued oppression of Palestinians, the increasing rate of settlement expansion, and the ineffectuality of the PLO’s diplomatic efforts led to mass protests and strikes in both Israel and the territories occupied in the 1967 War. While PLO-affiliated groups participated in the Intifada, leadership for the movement was primarily coordinated in community councils which organized education, medical care and food aid for Palestinians. Propaganda promoting the intifada demanded the complete withdrawal of Israel from the territories occupied in 1967, the lifting of curfews and checkpoints, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israel responded with severe repression, indiscriminately arresting, maiming, and killing protestors and strikers, as well as engaging in collective punishment methods, closing Palestinian universities, and arresting the leadership of Palestinian organizations without cause. Under the fierce repression, Palestinians defended their neighborhoods with rocks, barricades, and molotov cocktails.
The Intifada also saw Hamas engage in the Palestinian liberation movement for the first time. Prior to the 1980s, Hamas and its international organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, largely avoided explicitly political activity in favor of civic activism and religious outreach. This changed as the organization switched strategy to seek political power in general, and to support the Palestinian liberation struggle in particular, although it would remain a marginal force until the 21st century.
The Intifada was ultimately halted by Israel reaching an agreement with the PLO leadership in 1993 to engage in a process that was supposed to lead to the foundation of a Palestinian state in the territories of the West Bank and Gaza. While this fell short of the maximal demands of the historical movement for Palestinian liberation, it satisfied the demands of many who were involved in the Intifada. Any sense of victory that may have come from this, however, would soon disappear as Israel failed to make good even on its minimal promises, and the Palestinian bourgeois-nationalist leadership betrayed the cause of national liberation, with Fatah acting as willing accomplices to Israeli policing of the occupied territories.
Oslo and its aftermath
The Oslo plan saw the creation of the Palestinian Authority, a pseudo-governmental body that would jointly govern the Palestinians living in the occupied territories together with Israel, ostensibly in preparation for the formation of a Palestinian state. Although nominally separate from the PLO, both organizations were headed by Yasser Arafat and dominated by the Fatah. The 1993 agreement, however, did not address several key issues central to Palestinian liberation, such as the Palestinian right of return to Palestine or the exact borders of the future Palestinian state. Frustration with a lack of progress in 2000 led to the outbreak of a Second Intifada, which saw increased participation by Hamas, and devolved into a bitter terrorist campaign after facing severe repression and terrorist attacks by Israeli settlers. In 2005, following a victory for Hamas in the PA’s elections, Fatah collaborated with Israel and the US to stage a coup and remove Hamas from government. Hamas responded by seizing control of the Gaza Strip, a strong base of support, and expelling Fatah. Neither Hamas nor Fatah have held elections since then, although elections have been periodically called only to be cancelled. Gaza has been under siege and blockade by Israeli forces since then, with intermittent periods of fighting and ceasefires. Hamas and Fatah have made various attempts at reconciliation, but these have yet to produce lasting results. Meanwhile, in the ‘48 territories, additional Israeli-Arab reformist parties, such as Balad, Ta’al and Ra’am, were formed and allowed to participate in Israeli elections. While the exact positions of various Arab MKs and parties have varied over time, they have remained a very marginal player in Israeli politics, as Jewish-oriented parties have consistently refused to make any significant concessions when negotiating with their Arab counterparts. Nearly 30 years after Oslo, Fatah’s strategy of capitulation, Hamas’s strategy of military confrontation, and the reformist attempts to work within the Israeli electoral system have failed to secure any meaningful concessions for the Palestinian people.
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