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Palestinian Liberation: “We Teach Life”

An Interview with Rafeef Ziadah

May 1, 2024

For months now we have witnessed unrelenting genocidal destruction by Israel in Gaza alongside new waves of violence in the occupied West Bank. The scale of killing and displacement has shocked people around the world, even in official circles. Do you believe we have reached an inflection point in Israel’s colonial project? What should we expect in the coming period?

The ongoing genocide in Gaza and intensification of Israeli military and settler violence in the occupied West Bank has indeed shocked many. In the face of unimaginable calculated cruelty unleashed by Israel and its sponsors, even Palestinians who have endured decades of Israel’s colonial violence find the current moment inconceivable. This brutality by Israel was unleashed and cheered by the US government, the British government, and the European Union—the same states that have consistently given Israel diplomatic cover and military aid to continue its settler colonial project over the entirety of the Palestinian people.

However, rather than an isolated moment or “escalation,” what is happening is the culmination of Israel’s settler colonialism, which has long been predicated on the dispossession and erasure of the Palestinian people. The denial of Palestinian existence as a people is inherent to this colonial project.

In the face of this, it is challenging to predict what the future holds for Gaza or where Palestinian politics will move from this. This should indeed be a turning point for the Palestinian national movement to rethink priorities, but this is fundamentally tied to the broader politics within the region as well. The 1993 Oslo Accords—signed by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Israel—have had a detrimental impact on Palestinian politics, exacerbating division and fostering the economic dependency of the West Bank and Gaza Strip on the Israeli economy. Palestinian political economists have aptly described this situation as a “captive economy,” wherein Palestinian life is stifled by Israeli control.1Tariq Dana, “Dominate and Pacify: Contextualizing the Political Economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 1967,” in Political Economy of Palestine: Critical, Interdisciplinary, and Decolonial Perspectives, Alaa Tartir, Tariq Dana and Timothy Seidel, eds. (New York: Palgrave McMillan Cham, 2021), 25–47; Ibrahim Shikaki, “The Political Economy of Dependency and Class Formation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories Since 1967,” in ibid., 49–80

In the 1990s, under the auspices of the Oslo Accords, Israel’s control was entrenched in a complex bureaucratic framework involving permits, checkpoints, and zoning laws. In short, Israel’s control over Palestinian land and labor intensified. The West Bank was divided into Areas A, B, and C, with the Palestinian Authority (PA) granted limited self-rule in Area A, encompassing 20 percent of the Palestinian population. In Area B, the PA and Israeli authorities shared control, while Israel fully governed Area C, covering more than 70 percent of the territory. Illegal settlements doubled post-Oslo, interconnected by Israeli-only roads, restricting movement for the 90 percent of Palestinians who live in Areas A and B.

This intricate system manages the movement of people and goods across the patchwork of territories in the West Bank, with Gaza existing as its own self-contained fragment. The military orders that have governed Palestinian life are still very much in play. Israel’s control thus extends over water, airspace, and underground resources. The Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements essentially transferred frontline responsibility for Israeli security to a Palestinian face, in this case the Palestinian Authority, while all strategic levers, particularly economic ones, remained in Israeli hands.

This economic control, established under the Oslo Accords, is a crucial aspect to contend with if we are to move from the current crisis of Palestinian politics. The Paris Protocol of 1994 gave Israel control over external borders, impacting trade with other countries. Most goods (70 to 80 percent of GDP) were imported, with Israel as the major source. The PA’s income came from taxes collected by Israel on goods bound for the occupied territories, foreign aid, and loans, making the West Bank and Gaza highly dependent on external financial flows. Because Israel controls the disbursement of the taxes it collects, it can easily withhold these financial flows at any point.

In short, the Palestinian economy is fundamentally shaped by dependence on Israel. Today, this system regulates essential goods entering the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), with the oPt serving as a key market for Israeli goods. Foreign aid essentially benefits Israeli firms as Palestinian consumption is dependent on the Israeli market.

Decades of de-development policies, military attacks, and geographic and economic fragmentation have devastated the productive base of the oPt. Gaza’s economy in particular was kept in a state of controlled collapse under siege, with soaring female and youth unemployment rates.2Adam Hanieh, Riya Al Sanah and Rafeef Ziadah, Working Palestine: Covid–19, Labour, and Trade Unions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: Palestine and Jordan, September 11, 2022.

Economic strangulation policies, exemplified by the withholding of Palestinian tax revenue, not only affect the internal dynamics of the oPt but also have broader implications for Palestinian refugees outside the oPt, particularly in Lebanon. This economic strangulation is part and parcel of Israel’s settler colonial project. Addressing these fundamental issues is essential for the Palestinian national movement to progress. Often these economic realities are lost in conversations about Palestine, although they fundamentally shape the potential for reviving the Palestinian liberation project.

Of course, Israel’s character as a settler colony is intimately connected with US dominance in the Middle East. In other words, the dispossession of Palestinians is intrinsically tied to the trajectory of US imperialism in the region. In recent years, there has been a dangerous US-sponsored normalization project between Gulf States and Israel, aimed at sidelining the Palestinian issue altogether. While this ongoing genocide has cast doubt on the viability of that project, it is likely to be revived or repackaged in the near future.

To ensure that this moment indeed becomes a true turning point, we must take the geopolitical realities of the region seriously in our organizing efforts and not see Palestine in isolation. As we anticipate attempts to revive the failed Oslo Accords and empty promises of a two-state solution, we must remain aware of the pitfalls of such rhetoric.

The Oslo Accords were an attempt to shift the ‘Palestinian question’ to a state-building project in the West Bank and Gaza; today the space has opened for renewing an analysis of Israel as a colonial, settler state.

The Oslo Accords were an attempt to shift the “Palestinian question” to a state-building project in the West Bank and Gaza; today the space has opened for renewing an analysis of Israel as a colonial, settler state.3Adam Hanieh, “The Oslo Illusion.” Jacobin, April 4, 2013. We cannot afford to return to the status quo for Palestinians anymore. Instead, we must confront complicity head-on and advocate for real justice and liberation.


Israel’s violence in Gaza has been met by an outpouring of solidarity with the people of Palestine. In London, where you are living, there have been marches of more than half a million. Do you think we are watching a new stage in the movement of global solidarity with Palestine? What are the greatest challenges we face in building this movement?

Internationally, the mass protests and solidarity from the majority world signal a growing global awareness to the plight of Palestinians. The immense protests witnessed on the streets of cities worldwide is a testament to the urgency of the moment. Even where demonstrations have been suppressed, such as in major Arab cities, it speaks volumes about the political landscape and the fear that Palestine still holds the potential to ignite the streets of the region.

However, it is imperative that we harness this mass anger into sustained and organized action. We hope to build a mass movement not just for a ceasefire now but for lasting change. This means our workplaces, unions, and social spaces should become hubs for organizing around Palestine, mobilizing support, and challenging complicity.

For years, Palestinians and supporters have been steadily building a movement to raise awareness about Israel’s settler colonial nature, apartheid policies, and the imperative to end international complicity. Within Palestine, recurrent cycles of actions, such as the March of Return in Gaza—which saw thousands of youth in Gaza marching towards Israel’s military barriers, defying the siege, and walking to their original villages—have persistently highlighted the Palestinian cause. Internationally, campaigns have targeted specific corporations complicit in the military occupation: activists have passed motions within unions, developed pension fund divestment projects, and most significantly, worked to build solidarity with other justice movements worldwide.

The large demonstrations we witness today are not just a response to the current genocide; they are the culmination of years of grassroots organizing, education, and advocacy. They represent an outpouring of anger and solidarity, built on the foundation of sustained activism both within Palestine and internationally. This moment signifies a new stage in the global solidarity movement with Palestine, in which the momentum generated by years of tireless work is finally being recognized and amplified on a massive scale.

Moving from mass rallies to sustained organizing that can have a lasting impact, however, presents both opportunities and challenges. While mass rallies serve an important purpose in raising awareness and mobilizing support, transitioning to sustained organizing requires a thoughtful and strategic approach to political education and action. Too often, we become stuck in unproductive debates about the relative importance of large demonstrations, direct action, lobbying, or educational outreach.

However, our movements are strongest when these elements all coexist in advancing a common goal and work in tandem rather than being framed as oppositional. Individuals and groups can contribute to and shape the movement according to their specific constituencies and tactics. This collaborative approach can only be fully realized when organizations set aside sectarian differences.

Moreover, we need a deliberate and open approach to movement-building that does not overlook those who are new to the Palestinian struggle. Not everyone coming to demonstrations today knows every detail of Palestinian history, and we need to build the spaces that allow people to ask questions. At times those who have been in the movement for years are impatient with newcomers, and that’s understandable under current circumstances.

However, political education, which is essential for sustaining lifelong activism, must be conducted intentionally—it doesn’t happen automatically or by osmosis. If we fail to nurture these skills or to provide support to new activists, our movements will struggle to endure in the long term.

Another challenge we face in building a mass movement is dealing with efforts to suppress dissent and undermine the legitimacy of pro-Palestinian voices. It’s crucial that these attempts to silence or divert attention don’t overshadow our primary objective of advocating for Palestinian rights and liberation. Often, we find ourselves caught up in defensive campaigns, which can detract from our broader goals.

Instead, we should use these campaigns strategically to maintain momentum in raising awareness about Palestine and mobilizing support. It’s essential to prevent them from draining our movement’s resources and diverting our attention.


You have been extremely active in organizing trade union solidarity with Palestine. What is the strategic importance of that work, and how can it be deepened internationally?

As Israel persists in its genocidal actions in Gaza, Palestinian organizers are actively engaged in raising awareness, mobilizing support, and advocating for concrete actions to halt Israel’s military aggression. A strategic focus must be on transitioning international workers and trade union support from symbolic gestures of solidarity and motions to tangible actions capable of effectively challenging and halting Israel’s war machine.

Focus must be on transitioning international workers’ support from symbolic gestures to tangible actions capable of effectively challenging and halting Israel’s war machine.

Trade unions have a rich history of supporting liberation movements worldwide through solidarity actions. This solidarity becomes especially significant when governments ignore public opinion and publicly support Israel’s actions. Direct action by workers has the potential to slow down supply chains, including arms supply chains, that are crucial for Israel’s economy.

In an urgent plea on October 16, 2023, Palestinian trade unions and professional associations appealed to international unions to “Stop Arming Israel.”4“An Urgent Call from Palestinian Trade Unions: End All Complicity, Stop Arming Israel,” Workers in Palestine, October 16, 2023.  The call was prompted by the substantial military trade and diplomatic backing provided to Israel especially by the United States and the European Union. To give a brief indication of the level of the arms trade, the current US agreement runs from 2019 to 2028 and is worth $3.8 billion per year.

Since the start of Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza, the US government approved the provision of an extra $14.5 billion in military aid to Israel as part of a $106 billion national security package. Germany, on the other hand, finalized 218 export licenses to Israel in 2023. Of these, 85 percent were issued and finalized after October 7, 2023. Meanwhile, the stock value of the top five US weapons manufacturing companies—Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, all of which supply the Israeli Occupation Forces to varying degrees—has increased by more than $24.7 billion since October 7.5“Factsheet: New Arms to Israel,” Workers in Palestine, n.d.,

This Palestinian workers’ initiative holds particular significance at present, given the marginalization of Palestinian workers’ voices and lack of knowledge of their conditions, despite their courageous frontline efforts in Gaza to save lives and assist communities amidst relentless bombardment. The appeal urged workers and trade unions worldwide to abstain from involvement in the production, transportation, and handling of weapons and surveillance technology destined for Israel. Workers in Palestine, a coalition of Palestinian trade unionists and international supporters, which came out of the October 16 call, has been rallying support and building worker-to-worker solidarity for the Stop Arming Israel campaign.

Taking direct action within workplaces to disrupt the production and distribution of arms is a potent strategy in combating Israeli oppression of Palestinians. These actions are most effective when workers themselves get involved and refuse to handle arms (or other products) going to or coming from Israel. However, building support among workers in unions and workplaces less familiar with Palestine activism requires significant effort.

Numerous unions worldwide have responded to the Palestinian workers’ call, with actions ranging from workers at the Port of Barcelona refusing to transport weapons to Israel, to dockworkers in Italy blockading cargo movement onto an Israeli-operated ship. In India, union federations representing one hundred million workers strongly oppose talks to send construction workers to replace Palestinians, emphasizing the dehumanization and commodification of workers involved.

In Canada, Indigenous activists, and rank-and-file union organizers boldly shut down arms factories selling weapons to Israel, while in the UK, organisers have blocked entrances to factories involved in the arms supply chain. On December 7, 2023, workers across several countries blockaded arms factories to halt production of components for the F–35 fighter jet.

Within the context of the United States, the United Auto Workers, one of the largest unions in North America, has advocated for a ceasefire. Additionally, a grassroots working group within the union is actively rallying support for the Palestinian Trade Union’s appeal for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).

While much work remains to be done, these actions point to the potential workers’ actions and trade unions can have. These grassroots initiatives serve to revive a tradition of labor internationalism that eschews reliance on governmental authorities and trade union bureaucracies, but rather builds from below with rank-and-file organizers. In turn, this means that solidarity efforts with Palestine have a transformative potential to reconstruct the trade union movement itself, grounding it in the proactive actions of workers.

In their call for solidarity, Palestinian unions found inspiration in historical struggles within the global trade union movement, such as the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the fight against injustice in Ethiopia and Chile. While the initial emphasis was on addressing the arms trade, the overarching goal extends far beyond this singular focus; it aims to cultivate enduring support for Palestinian workers within the international trade union movement.

One challenging aspect to this organizing is balancing the imperative of building sustainable, long-term support within trade unions with the immediate urgency of advocating for a ceasefire. Establishing enduring solidarity within unions requires strategic engagement and commitment to cultivating understanding among members. Simultaneously, the pressing crisis in Gaza demands swift action to halt the arms trade with Israel (and multiple forms of complicity). Balancing these priorities requires careful coordination to both address immediate needs and to build rank-and-file networks that will carry and develop this work in the future.

Deepening this organizing involves reassessing the approach of the Palestine solidarity movement to union motions. Instead of motions that merely “endorse” a position or “broadly support” Palestine, there’s a need to craft actionable motions that are specific and empower workers to take tangible steps, such as refraining from handling Israeli goods. Despite potential legal obstacles in a generally hostile legislative environment, it’s crucial to find creative ways to utilize motions as a mechanism to support worker-led actions.

Moreover, it’s essential to view motions as educational opportunities in themselves. They serve as a platform to build support and educate workers on the key issues facing Palestinian workers. The significance lies not only in passing the motion but also in actively building alliances and advocating for its implementation. Even if motions fail, the groundwork laid in organizing and advocating for them persists and often re-emerges.

Thus far the movement has focused on passing general motions, and this is important because it does form a basis for union policy. However, there is scope at the moment to organize for motions that support sustained organizing efforts. This has been a vital lesson from the past five months, highlighting those motions of support alone may not necessarily translate into meaningful actions.

Of course, while motions serve as a catalyst for worker-to-worker solidarity, they are not the sole means of fostering such connections. It is equally vital to prioritize day-to-day relationship-building with trade unionists, fostering mutual support and solidarity beyond the confines of formal motions.

Again, this is difficult to do in the context of an ongoing genocide, when we need trade unions to act unequivocally—and to put serious actions and organizing resources behind motions calling for a ceasefire. It can certainly be an exhausting endeavor. However, if we think of the main goal as ultimately workers putting themselves and their jobs on the line to stop the production of military goods, it puts into perspective the type of long-term work that is still needed.

Workers in Palestine has created new resources to engage trade unionists. With an influx of newcomers joining the movement and organizing within their trade unions for the first time, there is a pressing need for patient education and the establishment of rank-and-file networks. Not everyone is well informed about the complexities of the Palestinian struggle, which can be frustrating, but it’s crucial to reach out to people where they are at. Long-term success in union organizing hinges on sustained efforts to engage the rank-and-file effectively. For those just starting, participating in local marches or demonstrations, and holding educational events can serve as effective entry points into the movement.

At the same time, seasoned trade unionists have an incredible set of skills and union expertise that can support Palestine solidarity networks that are just cohering within trade unions. Workers in Palestine has developed online resources, including guidance sheets for trade union activists and those organizing for the first time in their union, companion guides for community activists, and model motions.6“Guidance Sheet for Trade Unions on Building Solidarity with Palestine,” Workers in Palestine, n.d.  The comprehensive “Who Arms Israel?” toolkit provides actionable guidance and identifies key locations for advocacy efforts.7“Day of Action Toolkit,” Workers in Palestine, n.d. Major arms manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, BAE Systems, Leonardo, and Raytheon are highlighted as crucial players in supporting the Israeli military.


For more than a decade, you have written about the conversion of the Palestinian Authority into an agency for implementing neoliberalism and repression in Palestine. At the same time, new forms of grassroots popular struggle have broken out again and again in the occupied territories. We are thinking of movements such as the Great March of Return (2018–2019), the Tal’at feminist movement that erupted in 2019, and the uprising known as “the Unity Intifada” of 2021. To what extent do struggles like these represent possibilities for building new mass movements for liberation inside Palestine? 

Over decades, Israeli settler colonialism has been acting, with support from Western powers and their regional allies, to fragment the Palestinian people. It is a policy of purposeful disintegration of Palestinians, resulting in a set of disjointed and dispersed territories in the hope they would evolve as distinct social formations with separate trajectories.

Over decades, Israeli settler colonialism has been acting, with support from Western powers and their regional allies, to fragment the Palestinian people.

This stratification is reflected in the categories employed to delineate the Palestinian demographic landscape, including Palestinian refugees, those who retained their land in 1948 and subsequently assumed Israeli citizenship (the Palestinian citizens of Israel). It is also reflected in the compartmentalization of the West Bank into isolated cantons, the segregation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and presently, the de facto partition of East Jerusalem from the West Bank (which used to be its economic center).

In other words, Israeli power relies not only on the geographical fragmentation of the Palestinian nation but on assaulting its very history, dehistoricizing the Palestinian experience, and reducing it to accepting fragmentation as de facto and permanent. This makes it possible to speak of Gazans, for example, with no reference to how this category itself was constructed through the forcible fragmentation of the Palestinian people as a whole, first in 1948 and then through the separation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

This fragmentation has far-reaching consequences and contributes to a narrowing of political vision and radical imagination. Fragmentation weakens collective identity as the social horizon contracts to the confined borders of those cantons in which people happen to live. Countering this fragmentation requires a reassertion of an anticolonial framework, an imaginative redefinition of freedom, and a careful examination of the basis of solidarity with others. Zionism, from the perspective of its victims, has been a project to deny, erase, dispossess, and fragment Palestinians, so we need to upend this by insisting on history in the face of erasure.

In this sense, it has been nothing short of remarkable that the movements you name above did emerge. They represent Palestinian grassroots attempts to defy all efforts at destroying us as a people. It has taken generations, defiance, and hope—hope against hope—when the world’s most powerful governments lined up against us. Importantly these grassroots mobilizations have worked actively to counter the fragmentation, both geographic and economic, and insist on grounding their politics in the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the unity of Palestinians across geographies.

I would distinguish, however, between the experiences of the Great March of Return, “the Unity Intifada,” and the Tal’at feminist movement. Each of these experiences pointed to distinct political openings and constituencies and should be analyzed separately in its own right. The emergence of these moments undoubtedly signifies important potential for building new mass movements for liberation within Palestine. However, it’s crucial to contextualize these developments within the broader political landscape I note above as well—in other words, to assess them in the context of a fractured political economy, increasing stark inequality among Palestinians, and ongoing factionalism.

Countering fragmentation requires an imaginative redefinition of freedom and a careful examination of the basis of solidarity with others.

Like many struggles internationally, the Palestinian movement grapples with the need to foster lasting momentum amid external pressures and internal divisions. These discussions of movement-building and sustainability are not unique to Palestine, and Palestinians have much to learn from other struggles for justice. While Palestinian youth in particular continue to strive for change as seen in these various mobilizations, these movements face obstacles, which demand that we build the longer-term infrastructures to sustain them.


As a spoken word artist, you are especially known for the phrase “We Teach Life,” which is the title of your 2015 album. The phrase feels particularly resonant right now. Could you discuss with us the political importance of this insistence—“We Teach Life”—in the struggle for Palestinian and global liberation?

Writing about Handala, the cartoon of the little Palestinian boy defiantly standing with his back turned to the world, the Palestinian artist Naji El Ali described him as “the arrow of the compass, pointing steadily towards Palestine,” adding, “not just Palestine in geographical terms, but Palestine in its humanitarian sense—the symbol of a just cause, whether it is located in Egypt, Vietnam or South Africa.”

In the face of a televised genocide and a barrage of racist rhetoric against Palestinians, “We Teach Life” hopefully serves as a humble, defiant assertion of our humanity—we are neither superhuman nor mythical creatures, but we share a common desire with others who face oppression: the urge to rebel, refusing to accept the role of silent victims. In this sense, Palestine, as Naji writes, is not a geographical location only, but a symbol for every just cause and a stand against every oppression.

In the face of ongoing violence, poetry serves as a powerful claim of our humanity, dignity, and unwavering commitment to life itself. Despite the attempts to dehumanize and silence us, we refuse to be defined solely by the narratives of suffering and victimhood.

In this particular moment, “We Teach Life” serves as a call to action. It’s a reminder that solidarity is not just about offering rhetorical support; it is about actively participating in struggle with others for justice and liberation. Ultimately, I hope that it serves as a reminder that even in the darkest of times, our voices, stories, and collective actions possess the transformative power to inspire change and shape a more just world. ×



Rafeef Ziadah is a member of Workers in Palestine. She is a Senior Lecturer in International Development (King’s College London).

  1. Tariq Dana, “Dominate and Pacify: Contextualizing the Political Economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 1967,” in Political Economy of Palestine: Critical, Interdisciplinary, and Decolonial Perspectives, Alaa Tartir, Tariq Dana and Timothy Seidel, eds. (New York: Palgrave McMillan Cham, 2021), 25–47; Ibrahim Shikaki, “The Political Economy of Dependency and Class Formation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories Since 1967,” in ibid., 49–80.
  2. Adam Hanieh, Riya Al Sanah and Rafeef Ziadah, Working Palestine: Covid–19, Labour, and Trade Unions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: Palestine and Jordan, September 11, 2022.
  3. Adam Hanieh, “The Oslo Illusion.” Jacobin, April 4, 2013.
  4. “An Urgent Call from Palestinian Trade Unions: End All Complicity, Stop Arming Israel,” Workers in Palestine, October 16, 2023.
  5. “Factsheet: New Arms to Israel,” Workers in Palestine, n.d.,
  6. “Guidance Sheet for Trade Unions on Building Solidarity with Palestine,” Workers in Palestine, n.d.
  7. “Day of Action Toolkit,” Workers in Palestine, n.d.

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