The Palestinian Authority and the Unity Intifada
Two Alternate Visions for Palestinian Liberation
December 10, 2021
THIS PAST SUMMER, a Palestinian uprising against continual attempts to forcibly dispossess families in East Jerusalem, police repression, and settler encroachment at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the bombardment of Gaza sparked a global outpouring of solidarity and protest. These protests surged forward without direction, support, or supervision from the Palestinian Authority—the so-called “self-government” of the Palestinian people. This piece attempts to explain the gulf between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the popular movement.
We make three arguments. First, the PA is an impediment to the liberation movement and functions primarily as a combination of an NGO and a police department. Second, the PA functions as a manager of the Israeli occupation. We discuss the history of how this came to be, especially as a conjunction of the class politics of Fatah and its turn towards achievement of a Palestinian mini-state achieved through catering favor with bourgeois states, imperialism, and the Zionist state itself. Lastly, the way forward, we argue, is through the intifada from below and mass resistance against Israeli settler colonialism that is in antagonism with, and in struggle against, bourgeois nationalism and the nascent Palestinian capitalist class.
The State of Play
In the wake of this summer’s uprising, the current situation in Palestine illustrates the stark contrast between the activity of the Palestinian Authority and that of popular Palestinian struggle from below. Since the summer, the West Bank town of Beita has organized nearly nightly protests from dusk until dawn. Each night, the darkness vibrates with flame and smoke. These “nightly confusion” actions protest the construction of an illegal settlement outpost on a nearby hilltop. Tires are burnt in large piles; dancing beams of laser pointers refract the billowing smoke. Loudspeakers blare resistance songs. Fireworks crack. Alarms sound. Horns join the cacophony.
Paired with more traditional nonviolent protest, the Palestinians of Beita aim to demoralize and confuse settlers attempting to take possession of a strategic hill that they have already twice attempted—and twice failed—to build settlements upon.1 Shatha Hammad, “How Beita Became a Model of Palestinian Resistance against Israel,” Middle East Eye, August 31, 2021. Since May seven Palestinians have been murdered by Israelis for participating in these protests.
Musa Hamayel, the deputy mayor of Beita, described the protests as inspired by similar demonstrations in Gaza. Hamayel explained that it was the youth of Beita who took the lead independent of “support of any parties … The events are funded by the young people themselves and not directed by the municipality, the Palestinian Authority or any other party.”2 Ahmed Melhem “West Bank Town Draws Inspiration from Gaza ‘Night Confusion Activities to Confront Settlers,” Al-Monitor, June 25, 2021.
At the barrier fence encircling Gaza, similar demonstrations have been met with intense violence by Israel.3 Just days before writing this piece, Israel shot and killed twelve-year-old Omar Hassan Abu al-Nile at the Gaza barrier fence. “The occupation will not enjoy calm unless the siege on our beloved land is lifted,” said Abu Omar, a spokesperson for the mobilization.4 “Gaza Protesters Clash With Israeli Troops Near the Border,” NPR, August 28, 2021. The protests in Gaza—that echo the year-long Great March of Return demonstrations of 2018–19—were precipitated by the brutal bombing that shook Gaza in May 2021, flattening residential buildings, destroying schools and clinics, and murdering at least 256 Palestinians, sixty-six of them children.
The context for Israel’s fifteen-day bombardment of Gaza, its most recent escalation in the ongoing war on the open-air prison, was the eruption of an uprising—dubbed the Unity Intifada. Protests spread over the entirety of historic Palestine and culminated in a one-day general strike, the likes of which had not occurred since the First Intifada.5 brian bean, “For a Free Palestine,” Tempest Magazine, May 13, 2021; Riya Al-Sanah, interview by Laura and Charan, “Report on the General Strike in Palestine,” Notes From Below, May 26, 2021. Spurred on in defense of the resistance to the forcible expulsion of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, the uprising of Palestinians from the river to the sea inspired massive solidarity demonstrations worldwide—of a size not seen in at least a decade, with over 100,000 filling the streets of London, for example. The uprising in historic Palestine was largely youth-led and mobilized not just independently of, but in opposition to, the entrenched political factions, especially that of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority that they control.
The uprising has sidelined the PA and the traditional Palestinian political parties. In fact, it has led to outspoken critique and protest against the Palestinian Authority and its leadership. The PA responded to this defiance with a wave of repression, arrests, and brutality that have drawn more attention to their pattern of authoritarian methods and torture.6 For one example, see “Palestine: Authorities Crush Dissent,” Human Rights Watch, October 23, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/10/23/palestine-authorities-crush-dissent. This came to a peak with the killing of Nizar Banat, an activist openly critical of the PA. In late June, PA security forces dragged Banat from his home and beat him to death.7 Bethan McKernan, “Nizar Banat’s Death Highlights Brutality of Palestinian Authority,” The Guardian, August 31, 2021. His murder sparked a series of demonstrations against the PA and president Mahmoud Abbas, bringing out hundreds of protestors primarily in Ramallah and Hebron (Al-Khalil). The protests continued steadily into the second week of July, and intermittently through August. On August 21 and 22, the PA arrested twenty-eight activists demanding justice for Banat. They deployed riot police to intimidate protesters and they prevented documentation by confiscating phones and cameras. Two of those arrested that weekend began a hunger strike.
While the PA first neglected the most significant Palestinian uprising in decades, it then intensified police repression, with Abbas himself doubling down on coordination with the Israeli regime. At the end of August, he invited Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz to Ramallah for a rare in-person meeting.8 Ironically, most of the details of this meeting come from the Israeli press release as the official report from the PA is almost comically terse for such a rare meeting. See “الشيخ: الرئيس يلتقي بني جانتس” WAFA News Agency, August 30, 2021. In addition to security coordination between the PA and Israeli security forces, Gantz came bearing the gift of a $155 million loan to the PA. This is a cheap gift considering that Israel routinely withholds tax payments from the PA. In 2020, the PA was unable to pay salaries for roughly six months because Israel was withholding money. In July of 2021, Israel again withheld $180 million in tax payments.
Gantz was very clear about what motivated the visit and loan: “We want to strengthen moderate forces in the area,” he said in a statement.9Aaron Boxerman, “Gantz Defends his Meeting with Abbas, Says It had Bennett’s Backing,” The Times of Israel, September 3, 2021. This is yet another reflection of the political deterioration that Palestinian leftist, Hani Khalil, described when he called the meeting the “transference of the Palestinian national project from a liberation project to a humanitarian and livelihood project … that strengthens the influence of the PA and its security arm in exchange for economic deals, the main beneficiaries being the influential clique who controls the Authority.”’10 “هاني خليل: لقاء «عباس-غانتس» تدهور جديد في الخط السياسي الذي تنتهجه الس,,” PFLP.ps, August 31, 2021.
These developments have made ever more audible the voices arguing that the PA serves as a repressive apparatus, a manager, and sub-contractor of the occupation, and is a hurdle to Palestinian liberation.11 Anjuman Rahman, “The PA is an Obstacle to Freedom,” Middle East Monitor, August 27, 2021.
But far from this being the consequence of corruption or mismanagement, we see it as the natural extension of the very notion of a “peace process” based on negotiation with Israel and on the mirage of a two-state solution. Moving the struggle for decolonization of Palestine forward will require the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, the final cancelation of the Oslo accords, and a return to resistance based on mass struggle from below. The recent uprising offers a glimmer of what this might look like. New leadership and organization will need to grow organically from the politics of this youthful resistance—leadership that is aware of the political failures of the past and eager to chart a new course for the liberation of Palestine.
Rules of the Game: The Opening Gambit
The character of the PA is structured not merely by the political decisions of its actors. The argument for its abolition is rooted in an understanding that its failure as a vehicle for national liberation, its increasingly authoritarian behavior, and its partnership with the occupation are products of a political perspective moored to a strategy of winning two states in historic Palestine through negotiations in a “peace process” with Israel. This political perspective originates from a segment of Palestinians whose class interests diverge from that of the vast majority of Palestinians. Knowing how to proceed requires some reflection on how we got here.
After the disaster of 1948 turned 70 percent of Palestinians into refugees, the resistance movement worked to regroup itself. It did so at first in opposition to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which was initially set up by the regimes of the Arab League and famously described by Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) activist Leila Khaled as, “the remnants of a dead social class.” Khaled continued, “Its leaders were given their positions in recognition of their loyalties to the various summit conferences. The PLO was a skeleton put on display at the Arab League headquarters.”12 Leila Khaled, My People Will Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary (London: Hodder and Staughton, 1973), 38. Rather than pursuing a negotiated settlement driven by the neighboring states, groups like Fatah distinguished themselves initially with active resistance against Israel.
Fatah, along with the other major political factions within the PLO, initially declared their goal as the creation of one democratic state in all of historic Palestine without discrimination based on race or religion.13 Fatah’s 1964 constitution decreed that “the struggle shall not cease unless the Zionist state is demolished, and Palestine is completely liberated.” A strategy of armed struggle was adopted at first as the primary tool. After the 1967 Naksa—when Israel took control over the West Bank and Gaza—refugee camps, especially in Jordan and Lebanon were seen as bases for the fedayeen.14 Fedayeen is the Arabic name for guerilla fighters of the resistance. Fatah’s victory in the 1968 Battle of Karameh in particular led to its massive popularity and pushed it into leadership of the PLO. The national liberation factions drew direct inspiration from the successful Algerian and Vietnamese armed anticolonial struggles.15The Palestinian factions were influenced by both Arab nationalism and by the “Marxist-Leninist” and Maoist thinking that had propelled these struggles. In the years that followed, however, the contradictory influences within the Palestinian movement were resolved in favor of bourgeois nationalism. “We must learn to emulate our Algerian brethren,” was how Leila Khaled described the path to Palestinian liberation. The PLFP also argued that the Vietnamese National Liberation Front “proved that [it] is only with such a formula [of guerilla people’s war] that we are able to face imperialism with its technological, economic and military superiority.16Khaled, My People, 27; Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP Information Department, February 1969), 31.Thus the strategy was adopted to make Amman, Jordan, an “Arab Hanoi.”17Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on the People’s War(1969), 5.
The events of Black September in 1970 proved a turning point. Palestinian refugee political factions, with a substantial armed wing, posed a threat to the Jordanian regime in what prominent Fatah leader, Salah Khalaf, described as a “dual power” situation.18 Abu Iyad, My Home, My Land: A Narrative of the Palestinian Struggle (New York: Times Books, 1978), 77. King Hussein unleashed a massive wave of reaction and repression against the Palestinian organizations, killing thousands of Palestinian activists, crushing the resistance bases, and driving the organizations to Lebanon.19 Mostafa Omar, “The National Liberation Struggle: A Socialist Analysis,” in Palestine: A Socialist Introduction, Sumaya Awad and brian bean, eds. (Chicago: Haymarket, 2021), 61.
This crushing defeat brought a reassessment of strategy. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP)—a Marxist organization that had called most forcefully for the overthrow of the Jordanian regime and had attempted to organize soviets during the events of 1970, raising the slogan “all power to the resistance”—made a theoretical turn. In 1973, they developed a Transitional Program that argued for the “independent combatant national authority” in the area stolen by Israel in 1967.20 Nayef Hawatmeh, “The Revolution, The Right of Self Determination, and an Independent State,” Interview by the Central Information Bureau of the DFLP in The Revolution, The Right of Self Determination, and an Independent State (Beirut: DFLP Department of International Relations, 1977), 22. This essentially was the birth of the two-state solution, with their advocating for a mini-state in the West Bank and Gaza as a new base from which to work to liberate the whole of historic Palestine.
At first, Fatah and the other major left faction—the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—disagreed with this position. However, mistakenly believing that this mini-state could be granted by negotiations in the wake of the Egypt/Israel war of 1973, it was adopted as official policy at the 1974 program of the Palestinian National Council.21 This mistaken belief was based on a dramatic overestimation of both Egypt president Anwar Sadat’s commitment to Palestine and strength at the negotiation table. The result of these negotiations actually resulted in the first Arab state to normalize relations with Israel. This laid the tracks for the two-state solution that came to final fruition at Oslo. Fatah and the PLO had become “a state apparatus without a state looking for a state at the least cost.”22alah Jabar [Gilbert Achcar], “The Resistance: Degeneration and Perspectives,” Inprecor, no. 19 (February 1975), 22.
The “state apparatus” was a now Fatah-dominated PLO with a massive bureaucracy of functionaries subsidized by donations from the Arab regimes. Essentially, with adoption of the 1974 program, they formally and “consciously agree[ed] to play the role of an instrument of diplomatic pressure.”23Ibid. This strategy of obtaining a mini-state dependent on international diplomacy required the appeasement of Israel and recognition from US imperialism. It was further concretized in 1982, when another “state-within-a-state”—this time in Lebanon—was forced into exile by Israeli invasion.24 Salah Jabar [Gilbert Achcar], “Where is the PLO Going? The Long March Backwards,” International Viewpoint, no. 156 (February 6, 1989), 11. In 1978, Salah Khalaf, who was one of the founders of Fatah, wrote, “It is with profound bitterness that I must admit our situation today is much worse than it was in 1958 when we were led to found our movement. I greatly fear that all must be started from scratch.”25 Abu Iyad, My Home, 219.
And yet, hope did come; not from the resistance in exile abroad, but from the masses of Palestinians living under occupation. On December 9, 1987, an Israeli truck rammed into a car of Palestinian migrant day laborers waiting to pass through a roadblock returning to Gaza, killing four. This was a moment in history when conditions and experience come to a breaking point. Barricades of burning tires spewed smoke over Gaza. Rather than guerilla forces leading the way, youth began resisting Israeli Occupation Forces soldiers and tanks with stones. The very ground they were fighting for became the weapon with which they fought. The First Intifada had begun.
Palestinians in the occupied territories, in tremendously unified fashion, launched a near constant wave of resistance that creatively encompassed a wide variety of tactics. These ranged from barricades to nonviolent resistance, from general strikes to boycotts, and from mutual aid to street demonstrations, and cultural expression. The community-wide uprising lasted for nearly five years. A grassroots mobilization depending on a clandestine network of underground local committees organized the resistance. It was even argued in one of the Intifada communiques (public pronouncements issued to raise slogans and coordinate activity) that this network should “build the apparatus of the people’s self-government through the popular committees.”26 United National Command of the Uprising, “Communique #18,” May 28, 1988, in Speaking Stones: Communiques from the Intifada Underground, Shaul Mishal and Reuben Aharoni, eds. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994), 98.
The resistance in exile was unprepared for the uprising and had to rush to catch up. Additionally, much of theorganizing of trade unionists, women, students, and prisoners—described in Joost Hiltermann’s essential work Behind the Intifada—that in many ways anticipated and laid the groundwork for the Intifada was independent of the resistance in exile. The only current that played a substantial role before the mid-1970s was the Palestinian Communist Party, despite Fatah having made a sectarian point to marginalize it.27 Joost R. Hiltermann, Behind the Intifada(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 46–49. Around 1974, the other political factions attempted to step up organizing in the occupied territories with the left factions—the DFLP especially—playing more of a role.28 Ibid., 51–52.
Though the people led, the Fatah leadership caught up. The energy and space to maneuver was cashed in and transferred into the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian National Authority. At the time of Oslo, the PLO was almost politically and financially bankrupt and thus the negotiated settlement with Israel and the United States was achieved within a power differential; to call it grossly unequal would be an understatement.29Toufic Haddad, “The Price of ‘Peace’ on Their Terms,” in Palestine, Awad and bean, eds., 102. However, believing the fantasy of the “good intentions” of Israel and its primary international backer, the PLO’s concerns for their very survival and return from exile overrode any concerns and considerations about what the movement could best achieve at that moment.30 Ibid., 104–05.
“First of all,” the late, great Edward Said would write directly after the signing of the first of the accords, “let us call the agreement by its real name: an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles.”31Edward Said, “The Morning After,” London Review of Books15, no. 20 (October 21, 1993). Thus, the Palestinian National Authority is a “state”—both spatially and temporally—of surrender.
In laying out a case against the Palestinian Authority, reflecting on the historical trajectory that brought us to Oslo is instructive for two reasons. First, insofar as Oslo was a “mistake,” it was one that was built by a political perspective and strategy that had been set in place long before by the PLO. The Palestinian left factions, as principled as these comrades are, were largely pulled along as a loyal opposition to this strategy, or in the case of the two-state solution, to actually help formulate the perspective. So, while they opposed Oslo, they were, and thus far have continued to be, unable to construct any alternative to it. Second, it shows how many of the PA’s failures can be traced to the political DNA of the Fatah-dominated PLO long before Arafat and Yitzak Rabin grinned and shook hands under the patronizing smile of Bill Clinton.
Rules of the Game: Endgame
Oslo divided the occupied territories of the West Bank (Gaza as well) into three administrative areas (A, B, and C) entirely devised with the goal of what Toufic Haddad calls “separation and control” of the Palestinian population.32 Haddad, “The Price,” 107. Area A (18 percent of the West Bank) comprises urban areas that are administered by the PA; Area B (21 percent) comprises Palestinian villages in which the PA manages health, education, and the economy (while Israel and the PA oversee “security”); and Area C (61 percent) comprises the remaining area, home to 300,000 Palestinians and 400,000 Jewish settlers, and is administered by Israel. The effect of this is that 90 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank are confined to a patchwork of isolated enclaves akin to the Bantustans of South African apartheid.33 Adam Hanieh, Lineages of Revolt(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 108.
However, whatever Palestinian “control” is allowed takes place within the greater system of Israeli domination. Palestinians must adopt Israel’s policy of closed “borders” while exercising zero economic sovereignty (including the inability to directly collect taxes) and enduring the entire region being transected by Jewish-only roads, the massive apartheid wall, watchtowers and IOF bases, as well as the continual encroachment of the building of illegal settlements and threat of annexation. The managers of this arrangement were set up as a five-year interim government in the form of the Palestinian National Authority.
Under Mahmoud Abbas, the PA has managed administratively, with basically no democratic mandate. After Hamas won the 2006 election of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC, the legislative body of the PA), Abbas attempted a coup against Hamas and declared a state of emergency, suspending the laws that mandate the government of the PA requires approval from the PLC. No elections have occurred since then, and Abbas continues as president despite his legal term limits having elapsed.
Administratively managing an Israeli-controlled patchwork of urban areas with no democratic mandate, the PA can’t really be described as a “state” or a “government.” It can hardly be argued that it is any way an organ of resistance for Palestinian liberation. Rather, it functions more like the hybrid of an NGO and a police department. We will explore each of these functions in turn.
With the complete lack of economic sovereignty, the PA is nearly totally reliant on external sources of aid and loans to ensure its operation. Sixty-five percent of the PA’s total revenue comes from a “clearance tax,” which is the Israeli collection of tariffs from goods imported to the occupied territories.34 Ibid., 110. Thirty percent of the PA expenditure comes from international aid. The West Bank and Gaza is the most aid-dependent region in the world as determined by aid as percentage of gross national income.35 Anas Iqait, “Economic Desperation and Dependence are Driving the Palestinian Authority’s Political Decisions,” Middle East Institute, December 2, 2020. Hanieh, Lineages, 104. This makes the PA totally reliant on appeasing Israel—who routinely and arbitrarily withholds tax monies and also sets the rate of taxation—and international donors. The latter has tremendously fallen off with overall budgetary support from international donors declining by 67 percent over the past six year,36Ibid. plunging the PA into a chronic and unbridgeable deficit.
The consequences of the PA’s economic dependency are especially sharp because of how much of the economy is connected to its massive bureaucracy. Roughly 25 percent of total employment is in the public sector. Salaries to these workers account for roughly half of PA expenditure and PA spending accounts for 27 percent of the total GDP.37Ibid., 109. This means that the economy is very reliant on sources of external funding that flow through the PA. These sources dramatically condition the PA in the political decisions its leaders make; they avoid biting the hand that feeds them in the case of Israel, and are forced to appeal to international sources, thus conforming to the standards of what international capital deems politically “permissible.”
One example of what this looks like in practice is the creation of the Palestine Development Plan for 2008–2010 and the National Development Plan 2010–2013 that were devised with the World Bank by ex-IMF official and PA president Salam Fayyad.38 Toufic Haddad, Palestine LTD (London: I.B. Taurus, 2018), 211. These neoliberal austerity plans were the conditions for achieving aid and “investment” in the West Bank. The conditions included wage freezes, cuts to utilities subsidies, and high unemployment—36 percent of people in the West Bank lives below the poverty line, and almost a quarter of the population is deemed food insecure.39 The Question of Palestine,” United Nations, https://www.un.org/unispal/in-facts-and-figures/. In short, the situation in Gaza is nearly catastrophic.
In addition, international aid has been used to defang the resistance. The army of NGOs that have set up camp post-Oslo, as described by Toufic Haddad, “professionalize[d]” their previous community work and service provision in “above ground,” transparent, audited activity that made these entities accountable to donors and not to their bases.”40 Haddad, “The Price,” 108. This materially shifts the parameters away from mobilization and activism.
The economic policies both foisted upon and accepted by the PA reflect that mass poverty and a humanitarian crisis, while primarily the cause of Israeli occupation, are buttressed by the PA. However, there is one class of Palestinians whose interest the PA does serve, and that is the fledging Palestinian capitalist class. Composed of “returnee” Palestinians who emerged in the diaspora—local landowners, and a nouveau riche—this class has done relatively well in the post-Oslo arrangement.41 Tariq Dana, “The Palestinian Capitalists That Have Gone Too Far,” Al-Shabaka, January 14, 2014. Hanieh, Lineages, 11. Benefiting from PA-protected monopolies, close proximity to the PA for external funding streams, and the neoliberal policies they booster, this class has an interest in the current setup which provides a stable environment for business.42Ibid.
This stability for them—damning instability for the average Palestinian—is also premised on integration with Israeli and regional capital. While Palestinian civil society has made the call internationally to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel, this “national bourgeoisie” has invested in the Israeli occupation. From the contracting of Israeli firms in the construction of the Rawabi development project, to Qualified Industrial Zones integrated with Israel, to direct Palestinian investment in settlement construction, to joint Israeli-Palestinian partnership in tech ventures, Palestinian capitalists are enriching themselves by cooperating and collaborating with the occupier.43 Ibid., 36. This integration explains their interest in maintaining their privileged position and using their leverage and relationships with international capital to play an outsized role in determining the actions of the Palestinian Authority.
With no ability to set policy, the PA plays a role less like that of a government than that of an NGO that jockeys for grants and aid money with which it attempts to negotiate and provide basic humanitarian services for a captured population. To do so, it depends on the two main enemies of Palestinian freedom: Israel and the US. This works in the interest of Israel which no longer has to play the role of being “responsible” for the Palestinians they drove off their land and now keep under near-complete external control and occupation. This is the reality of the “separate and control” logic that drove Israeli interests at Oslo.
The other main function that the PA plays, in addition to managing the humanitarian consequences of occupation, is to subcontract the policing of Palestinians to protect settler colonialism. The magnitude of PA commitment to playing this collaborationist role is sizable and reflects how central this is to its strong backing by Israel, the US, and the European Union. Thirty-one percent of the national budget goes to security, which is more than it spends on “health, education, and agriculture combined.”44 Tariq Dana, “The Beginning of the End of Palestinian Security Cooperation With Israel,” Jadaliyya, July 4, 2014. Half of all PA employees are employed by the security sector and around 30 percent of total aid given to Palestinians is devoted to security.45 laa Tartir, “The Palestinian Authority Security Forces: Whose Security?” Al-Shabaka, May 15, 2017. The nine thousand recruits in the “strong police force” laid out in the 1994 Cairo Agreement with Israel became nearly fifty thousand security personnel by 1999, and is now over eighty-three thousand.46Ibid.
Since the Second Intifada, PA security forces have been rebuilt under the close supervision of the US and the European Union through the European Union Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support (EUPOL COPPS) and the United States Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Training for all PA cops is done through US subcontractors and both external agencies provide logistical support.47 Mark Perry, “Dayton’s Mission: A Reader’s Guide,” Al-Jazeera, January 25, 2011. The goal is to construct a force that can ensure the stability of Israeli interests.
PA security forces maintain stability via a criminalization of resistance per set agreements with Israel to “make visible efforts” to arrest individuals and groups determined by Israel to be a threat.48 Established in the post-Second Intifada Road Map agreement. George W. Bush, “A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Economic Cooperation Foundation (2003), https://ecf.org.il/media_items/577. These activities are carried out in close collaboration with Israel, and it is common practice—as one top Palestinian security officer explained—that the PA would “get lists with names” from the Israelis. They “need someone, and [the PA] are tasked to get that person for them.”49 Quoted in Sabrien Amrov and Alaa Tartir, “Subcontracting Repression in the West Bank and Gaza,” The New York Times, November 26, 2014. Increasingly, the PA has undergone what Yazid Sayigh calls an “authoritarian transformation” as evidenced by the increasing predominance of arrests of those who speak out publicly against PA policy and practice.50 Yezid Sayyigh, “Policing the People, Building the State,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2011, https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep12747?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. Torture, and as the recent case of Nizar Banat shows, even assassination is commonplace.
Protests and demonstrations are also routinely banned or repressed in the West Bank. Indeed, in 2008, when the entire world was protesting one of Israel’s most ferocious bombardments of Gaza, one of the few places in the world where there was zero protest was in the West Bank, due to PA bans.51 Jeff Halper, “Abolishing the Palestinian Authority is an Urgent Prerequisite to Liberation,” Canadian Dimension, February 27, 2012. The PA explicitly works to prevent a situation in which, as former PA minister Ghassan Khatib acknowledged, “if the protests get out of control,” the result would be “a new intifada.”52 Quoted in Jonathan Cook, “Abbas in Firing Line over Security Cooperation with Israel,” Middle East Eye, July 10, 2014. The PA has contingencies for the outbreak of uprisings. One example of this is a report that in the event of mass protests against Israel’s planned annexation of the West Bank, the PA plans to turn over a stockpile of thousands of guns and armored vehicles—which they have under license from Israel—to an Israeli military base in an illegal settlement outside of Ramallah.53 Adnan Abu Amar, “Israel’s Nightmare: The Dissolution of the Palestinian Authority,” Al-Jazeera, July 27, 2020.
These repressive functions are designed entirely to protect Israel. With Palestinians in the West Bank facing the daily violence of apartheid—home demolitions, bulldozing of orchards, forcible displacement, harassment, and aggression of IDF soldiers at checkpoints, and mass arrests, like Operation Brother’s Keeper in 2014—the Palestinian Authority security does not lift a finger to protect them. But should Palestinians come out to protest or resist these actions, to throw a stone in defense of their land, the PA sweeps in to arrest, beat, and perhaps torture those responsible. “There is no reciprocal security arrangement to protect Palestinians.” Noura Erakat writes: “In its futile attempt to demonstrate its capacity to govern, the Palestinian leadership has relieved Israel of at least a portion of its military burden as an occupying power and aided it in controlling the native population.”54 Noura Erakat, Justice For Some: Law and the Question of Palestine, (Stanford: Stanford University Press; 2019), 218.
The role the PA plays is one of reaction. Both of its functions, as a belabored NGO lobbying for grants and aid to fulfill some humanitarian tasks and as a security contractor for Israel, reduce it to a subcontracted manager for Israeli settler colonialism. While relieving some of Israel’s burden in maintaining the racist order, it also puts a Palestinian face on apartheid and wraps the grim reality of life under occupation with the tawdry veil of an illusory autonomy. Meaningful reform seems out of the question because its primary functions are an impediment to the tasks of liberation.
While our argument largely concerns that of the PA, we think it important to at least mention parallels we see with Hamas. Hamas has faced specific conditions that have shaped its relationship with Israel differently than the PA. After winning the democratic leadership of the Palestinian Legislative Council and then being confined to administrative control of Gaza, Hamas faces a situation of a multipronged vise of near-complete Israeli blockade punctuated by regular military assault, concentrated de-development of its economy, international political isolation spearheaded by the US’s designation of it as a “terrorist organization,” and the Islamophobic demonization that shapes its public image.
Nonetheless, Hamas’s shift to “governance” of Gaza has tempered its viability as a vehicle for resistance. This is shaped by the similar petty bourgeois class base they share with Fatah in its leadership and activist ranks.55 See Paola Caridi, Hamas: From Resistance To Government (New York: Seven Stories, 2012), 217. Similar to Fatah, this has resulted in adaptation to an acceptance of a two-state solution within the 1967 borders in its 2017 Charter. Like Fatah, the motivation of self-preservation—albeit in the conditions of Gaza—has meant that Gaza’s security forces play a repressive role in quashing political dissent. As Gaza-based Haidar Eid writes: “After the 2006 election, Hamas took on the role of prison warden, entrenching itself and regulating the lives of two million prisoners. Day by day, we have seen this authority shift from a stage of resistance to the siege, to coexisting with it, and finally reaching a stage of taking advantage of it.”56 Haidar Eid, “Palestinian Elections: Reconstructing the Status Quo,” Mondoweiss, February 11, 2021. Additionally, similar to the strategy of Fatah, Hamas pursues sponsorship of other regimes for diplomacy and secures donor and aid funding. This has meant that it strives, to quote Toufic Haddad, to “insert itself within the regional order, rather than being a part of fundamentally transforming it.”57 Toufic Haddad, “Leaked Hamas Charter Illustrates Movement Maturation as a Political Actor,” Mondoweiss, April 3, 2017.
Flipping the Tables: the Unity Intifada as the Way Forward
This May’s “Unity Intifada” illustrated an alternative to the PA’s version of symbolic “resistance,” top-down rule, and NGO-ization of the Palestinian liberation struggle. The uprising displayed instead the potential for creativity in action and tactics, widespread mobilization in defiance of any and all authoritarianism, and a political determination and antagonism that has been building up over the past several years. It began with the grassroots campaign in defense of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Youth activists from East Jerusalem—most famously, Muna and Mohammed El-Kurd who themselves hail from Sheikh Jarrah, and whose family has faced displacement from the area for decades—refused mounting Zionist harassment and highlighted their town’s longstanding struggle against ethnic cleansing.
It should be noted that East Jerusalem, while part of the occupied territories, has been effectively annexed by Israel. While it faces some of the most egregious aspects of Israeli military occupation, its special status paradoxically has assisted in cohering effective grassroots efforts for two main reasons. The first is that its status allows East Jerusalemites to travel into Israel and allows Palestinians from inside Israel to travel to East Jerusalem more easily, while those from the West Bank are far more curtailed in their freedom of movement.
The second is that the Palestinian Authority and its security forces are not allowed to operate in any part of Jerusalem. Thus, these youth organizers in East Jerusalem were able to coordinate much more directly with Palestinians inside Israel, and they organized and brought Palestinian citizens of Israel to protests, sit-ins, and large outdoor iftars in Sheikh Jarrah in shows of defiance against the occupier and its violence and threat of displacement. Protests even shut down a major highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—an act that would have been necessarily ineffective against Israel within the West Bank and without the connections across Israel’s fragmentation.
The years of recent protest in East Jerusalem, from 2014 to 2017, have built up an organizational memory and practice in the city, allowing it to blossom without the interference of the PA and its security forces. This has allowed the protests and campaigns to retain independence from political parties, and, of course, to act without intervention of Israel’s oppressive puppet regime clamping down on Palestinian resistance before Israel is able to. Recent protests have therefore brought together longtime Palestinian organizers and activists, while activating many new, younger Palestinians, across the East Jerusalem–Israel divide. Protests against Israeli forces’ and settler organizations’ encroachment at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, too—such as the protest campaign in 2017 against Israeli security measures there, and once again during the May uprising—have only been possible due to the absence of PA forces, which have managed to clamp down on attempts at mass demonstrations within the West Bank. For example, the PA regularly represses Land Day protests in West Bank cities, preventing Palestinians from marching to mark the anniversary of the 1976 protests and preventing a show of solidarity with their fellow Palestinians inside Israel.
In fact, it was Palestinians inside Israel who waged some of the fiercest resistance during the May uprising. In cities like Haifa, Yaffa, and Lydd, thousands demonstrated, rejecting Israel’s rhetoric that Palestinians and Israelis live in “mixed cities” inside Israel. Indeed, Palestinians inside Israel are ghettoized, prevented from completing their studies in their own language, excluded from most housing and work opportunities, and face racist policing. In the town of Lydd in particular, Palestinian resistance had an insurrectionary character, including raising the Palestinian flag, prompting an Israeli state crackdown in which a state of emergency was declared and a curfew imposed.
Other elements that marked the Unity Intifada, and the potential path forward, included the general strike and massive global solidarity. On May 18, Palestinians waged a general strike across both the occupied territories and inside Israel, the first of such magnitude since the First Intifada of 1987. The call came from the grassroots, with the PA only signing on at the last minute. The return to the general strike must be applauded. While a one-day strike marks symbolic strength and unity in the face of Israel, we would do well to remember that Palestinians have used the strike weapon even before the state of Israel was established. In 1936, when Palestinians fought both the British and the encroaching Zionist movement in a three-year long revolt, Palestinians waged a six-month-long general strike. Looking to Palestinian history before the creation of the PA, whether in the 1987 Intifada or the 1936 Revolt, can remind us of the militancy and effective strategies that Palestinians have used in the not-too-distant past before the creation of the PA.
Finally, the Unity Intifada was supported by massive global solidarity. First at the borders of Jordan and Lebanon, refugees, and those in solidarity with Palestine, protested and demanded their right of return. While the PA and the old Palestinian political parties have effectively dissuaded popular solidarity from across the region, or any action in defiance of the region’s regimes, Palestinians in reality depend upon these forces for their liberation. A return to mass resistance would mean engaging with those Palestinian refugees as well as the millions in solidarity across the region in defiance of their ruling classes. The Unity Intifada also saw Palestinians call for union solidarity efforts, like the blocking of the Zim ship as it tried to dock in ports across the US. This was another escalation in solidarity with Palestine. With the rise in global solidarity and change in narrative worldwide in support of Palestine, we can imagine further support for Palestinian grassroots movements and uprisings in the near future with even greater momentum and effect.
Along with the organizing cohering over the past few years in Palestine is the Tal’aat movement. Formed in 2019 through feminist protest, Tal’aat is a radical feminist group that has been instrumental in pointing out the connection between settler colonialism and sexist violence. It has mobilized against the occupation under a feminist banner and has also been instrumental in shedding light upon the PA’s use of gender-based violence, in particular against recent protests in the wake of Nizar Bana’s assassination. It is no coincidence that the situation for women in Palestine has deteriorated since the Oslo Accords, as economic inequality and NGO-ization pushed aside previous grassroots women’s efforts like those of the First Intifada. Tal’aat represents an alternative to the NGO-ization of women’s issues that has taken center stage in the West Bank since the 1990s and 2000s. It espouses a revolutionary feminism rather than a feminism reliant on European or American funding.
Just as global revolt has shaped consciousness over the past few years and sharpened a global understanding of capitalism, colonialism, and racism, the Unity Uprising also represents a sharpened understanding of settler colonialism and the struggle against it throughout Palestine. The Uprising recognized the unity of Palestinians across Israel’s regime of fragmentation and demanded an end to colonial subjugation in its entirety. To quote activist and commentator Yara Hawari:
Something has indeed changed: Palestinians are reclaiming a shared narrative and struggle from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. In doing so, they are recognizing that they face one single regime of oppression, even if it manifests in different ways throughout the fragmented Palestinian communities. Ultimately, just as the ones before it, this uprising has reiterated that the people are the locus of power through which Palestinian liberation must and will be achieved.58 Yara Hawari, “Defying Fragmentation and the Significance of Unity: A New Palestinian Uprising,” Al-Shabaka, June 29, 2021.
As the Palestine Economic Week this past June showed, this includes an analysis of how Israel’s occupation and colonialism is intertwined with economic domination. In many circles, this has included an analysis of capitalism as a central problem, too.
These are the first steps for the coherence of a new left in Palestine. “The greatest accomplishment thus far,” writes Budour Hassan, “has been to demonstrate the actuality of liberation … a severance with despair [that] shows that liberation is closer than we had thought.”59 Budour Hassan, “Palestine’s Uprising and the Actuality of Liberation,” Madamasr, May 24, 2021. This is happening largely independent of the PA and the traditional factions, and mobilizing both against the Israeli settler colonialism and its junior partners in the Palestinian Authority. The PA has got to go, and its abolition can create space for this creative, unified, youthful movement fighting with new spirit. But we cannot get ahead of ourselves.
There is still an uphill battle ahead to cohere a new, cohesive leadership that allows the voice and participation of Palestinians across all of historic Palestine, and in opposition to the projects of the Palestinian elite. Leaderless movements can no longer be seen as good enough. One lesson from the First Intifada is that while the grassroots popular mobilizations led local struggle, they could not be sustained or lead the movement without a centralized leadership. And when the new grassroots movements emerged without strong organizational components, they were pushed aside by the older, more conservative political factions of a class composition that shaped the political trajectory of the struggle.
The long history of the Palestinian liberation struggle should remind us that class politics are central to the struggle for freedom. Without a class-conscious liberation movement, a bourgeois layer of the oppressed nationality is likely to emerge that will co-opt the liberation struggle and collaborate with oppressive regimes, imperialism, and settler colonialism. Without learning this historical lesson, we may be doomed to repeat it.
- Shatha Hammad, “How Beita Became a Model of Palestinian Resistance against Israel,” Middle East Eye, August 31, 2021.
- Ahmed Melhem “West Bank Town Draws Inspiration from Gaza ‘Night Confusion Activities to Confront Settlers,” Al-Monitor, June 25, 2021.
- Just days before writing this piece, Israel shot and killed twelve-year-old Omar Hassan Abu al-Nile at the Gaza barrier fence.
- “Gaza Protesters Clash With Israeli Troops Near the Border,” NPR, August 28, 2021.
- brian bean, “For a Free Palestine,” Tempest Magazine, May 13, 2021; Riya Al-Sanah, interview by Laura and Charan, “Report on the General Strike in Palestine,” Notes From Below, May 26, 2021.
- For one example, see “Palestine: Authorities Crush Dissent,” Human Rights Watch, October 23, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/10/23/palestine-authorities-crush-dissent.
- Bethan McKernan, “Nizar Banat’s Death Highlights Brutality of Palestinian Authority,” The Guardian, August 31, 2021.
- Ironically, most of the details of this meeting come from the Israeli press release as the official report from the PA is almost comically terse for such a rare meeting. See “الشيخ: الرئيس يلتقي بني جانتس” WAFA News Agency, August 30, 2021.
- Aaron Boxerman, “Gantz Defends his Meeting with Abbas, Says It had Bennett’s Backing,” The Times of Israel, September 3, 2021.
- “هاني خليل: لقاء «عباس-غانتس» تدهور جديد في الخط السياسي الذي تنتهجه الس,,” ps, August 31, 2021.
- Anjuman Rahman, “The PA is an Obstacle to Freedom,” Middle East Monitor, August 27, 2021.
- Leila Khaled, My People Will Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary (London: Hodder and Staughton, 1973), 38.
- Fatah’s 1964 constitution decreed that “the struggle shall not cease unless the Zionist state is demolished, and Palestine is completely liberated.”
- Fedayeen is the Arabic name for guerilla fighters of the resistance. Fatah’s victory in the 1968 Battle of Karameh in particular led to its massive popularity and pushed it into leadership of the PLO.
- The Palestinian factions were influenced by both Arab nationalism and by the “Marxist-Leninist” and Maoist thinking that had propelled these struggles. In the years that followed, however, the contradictory influences within the Palestinian movement were resolved in favor of bourgeois nationalism.
- Khaled, My People, 27; Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP Information Department, February 1969), 31.
- Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on the People’s War (1969), 5.
- Abu Iyad, My Home, My Land: A Narrative of the Palestinian Struggle (New York: Times Books, 1978), 77.
- Mostafa Omar, “The National Liberation Struggle: A Socialist Analysis,” in Palestine: A Socialist Introduction, Sumaya Awad and brian bean, eds. (Chicago: Haymarket, 2021), 61.
- Nayef Hawatmeh, “The Revolution, The Right of Self Determination, and an Independent State,” Interview by the Central Information Bureau of the DFLP in The Revolution, The Right of Self Determination, and an Independent State (Beirut: DFLP Department of International Relations, 1977), 22.
- This mistaken belief was based on a dramatic overestimation of both Egypt president Anwar Sadat’s commitment to Palestine and strength at the negotiation table. The result of these negotiations actually resulted in the first Arab state to normalize relations with Israel.
- Salah Jabar [Gilbert Achcar], “The Resistance: Degeneration and Perspectives,” Inprecor, 19 (February 1975), 22.
- Salah Jabar [Gilbert Achcar], “Where is the PLO Going? The Long March Backwards,” International Viewpoint, no. 156 (February 6, 1989), 11.
- Abu Iyad, My Home,
- United National Command of the Uprising, “Communique #18,” May 28, 1988, in Speaking Stones: Communiques from the Intifada Underground, Shaul Mishal and Reuben Aharoni, eds. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994), 98.
- Joost R. Hiltermann, Behind the Intifada (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 46–49.
- Ibid., 51–52.
- Toufic Haddad, “The Price of ‘Peace’ on Their Terms,” in Palestine, Awad and bean, eds., 102.
- Ibid., 104–05.
- Edward Said, “The Morning After,” London Review of Books 15, no. 20 (October 21, 1993).
- Haddad, “The Price,” 107.
- Adam Hanieh, Lineages of Revolt (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 108.
- Ibid., 110.
- Anas Iqait, “Economic Desperation and Dependence are Driving the Palestinian Authority’s Political Decisions,” Middle East Institute, December 2, 2020. Hanieh, Lineages, 104.
- Ibid., 109.
- Toufic Haddad, Palestine LTD (London: I.B. Taurus, 2018), 211.
- “The Question of Palestine,” United Nations, https://www.un.org/unispal/in-facts-and-figures/.
- Haddad, “The Price,” 108.
- Tariq Dana, “The Palestinian Capitalists That Have Gone Too Far,” Al-Shabaka, January 14, 2014. Hanieh, Lineages, 11.
- Ibid., 36.
- Tariq Dana, “The Beginning of the End of Palestinian Security Cooperation With Israel,” Jadaliyya, July 4, 2014.
- Alaa Tartir, “The Palestinian Authority Security Forces: Whose Security?” Al-Shabaka, May 15, 2017.
- Mark Perry, “Dayton’s Mission: A Reader’s Guide,” Al-Jazeera, January 25, 2011.
- Established in the post-Second Intifada Road Map agreement. George W. Bush, “A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Economic Cooperation Foundation (2003), https://ecf.org.il/media_items/577.
- Quoted in Sabrien Amrov and Alaa Tartir, “Subcontracting Repression in the West Bank and Gaza,” The New York Times,November 26, 2014.
- Yezid Sayyigh, “Policing the People, Building the State,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2011, https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep12747?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.
- Jeff Halper, “Abolishing the Palestinian Authority is an Urgent Prerequisite to Liberation,” Canadian Dimension, February 27, 2012.
- Quoted in Jonathan Cook, “Abbas in Firing Line over Security Cooperation with Israel,” Middle East Eye, July 10, 2014.
- Adnan Abu Amar, “Israel’s Nightmare: The Dissolution of the Palestinian Authority,” Al-Jazeera, July 27, 2020.
- Noura Erakat, Justice For Some: Law and the Question of Palestine, (Stanford: Stanford University Press; 2019), 218.
- See Paola Caridi, Hamas: From Resistance To Government (New York: Seven Stories, 2012), 217.
- Haidar Eid, “Palestinian Elections: Reconstructing the Status Quo,” Mondoweiss, February 11, 2021.
- Toufic Haddad, “Leaked Hamas Charter Illustrates Movement Maturation as a Political Actor,” Mondoweiss, April 3, 2017.
- Yara Hawari, “Defying Fragmentation and the Significance of Unity: A New Palestinian Uprising,” Al-Shabaka, June 29, 2021.
- Budour Hassan, “Palestine’s Uprising and the Actuality of Liberation,” Madamasr, May 24, 2021.