What Palestinians can teach us about popular resistance
The people of Gaza rose up not because of Palestinian political factions, but despite them.
The ongoing popular mobilisation on the Gaza border is a reminder of previous historical events where the Palestinian people rose in unison to challenge oppression and demand freedom.
Palestinian popular resistance is neither a new phenomenon nor is it an alien one. General mass strikes and civil disobedience, challenging British imperialism and Zionist settlements in Palestine, started nearly a century ago, culminating in the six-month-long general strike of 1936.
Since then, popular resistance has been a staple in Palestinian history, and it was a prominent feature of the First Intifada, the popular uprising of 1987.
It goes without saying that Palestinians need no lectures on how to resist the Israeli occupation, combat racism and defeat apartheid. They, and only they, are capable of developing the proper strategy and the tools that will eventually lead them to freedom.
Today the need for that strategy is more urgent than any other time, and there is a reason for that.
Gaza is being suffocated. Israel’s decade-long blockade, combined with Arab neglect and a prolonged feud between Palestinian factions, have all served to drive Palestinians to the brink of starvation and political despair. Something had to give.
On Friday, March 30, tens of thousands of Palestinians massed at Gaza’s eastern border to begin a series of protests and vigils that are expected to last until May 15.
On that date, 70 years ago, Israel declared its independence, forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into exile. For most Palestinians, Israel’s declaration of independence, which resulted in the destruction of their homeland, was an unforgivable crime. For Israelis, May 15 is a celebration; for the Palestinian people, it is our “Nakba”, our catastrophe.
But the ongoing act of mass mobilisation is not just about underscoring the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees (as enshrined in international law), nor is it just about commemorating Land Day, an event that has united all Palestinians since the bloody protests of 1976. The protest is about reclaiming the agenda, transcending political infighting and giving voice back to the people.
There are many historical similarities between this act of mobilisation and the context that preceded the first Intifada of 1987.
Back then, Arab governments in the wider region had largely relegated the Palestinian cause to the status of “someone else’s problem”. By the end of 1982, having already been exiled to Lebanon, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) along with thousands of Palestinian fighters, were pushed even further away, to Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and various other countries. This geographic isolation left the traditional leadership of Palestine irrelevant to what was happening on the ground, back home.
With little pressure on Israel to end its illegal occupation of East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, the Israeli military occupation slowly became the status quo. Palestinians had become little more than inmates in a series of sprawling, urban prisons – checked at every major street corner, subjected to house raids on a predictably irregular basis, and watched day and night from land, air and, in the case of Gaza, sea.
But, in that moment of apparent hopelessness, something snapped. In December 1987, people (mostly children and teenagers) took to the streets in a largely non-violent mobilisation that lasted over six years. But the Palestinian leadership failed to harness its people’s massive energy. Worse, it exploited it, leading to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
Today, the Palestinian leadership is in a similar state of increasing irrelevance. Isolated again by geography (Fatah holding the West Bank and Hamas holding Gaza), but also by ideological division.
It is true, of course, that political and ideological divisions are par for the course of any anti-colonial struggle. From India to Algeria to South Africa, internal division was the norm, not the exception, in mass movements fighting for liberation.
But never before has this internal division been weaponised so effectively by the cause’s opponents, and used as an argument against the original cause, to delegitimise an entire people’s claim for basic human rights: “The Palestinians are divided, so they must stay imprisoned”.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah is rapidly losing its credibility among Palestinians, thanks to long-standing accusations of corruption, with many calling for PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to resign (his mandate having technically expired in 2009).
Last December, the new US President Donald Trump compounded the isolation of the PA, recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in defiance of international law and UN consensus. Many see this as only the first in a series of steps designed to further marginalise the PA.
The Authority is not the only Palestinian faction that is becoming increasingly more isolated.
Hamas – originally a grassroots movement born out of the refugee camps in Gaza during the first Intifada – is now similarly weakened by political isolation.
For over a decade, since its bloody takeover of Gaza in 2007, the Hamas leadership has made countless political manoeuvres to break the siege on Gaza but repeatedly failed. Eventually, it began to acknowledge that it could not serve that cause in political isolation and started taking initiatives towards reconciliation with Fatah. Most recently, the two parties signed a reconciliation deal in Cairo in October last year.
Like previous attempts, this attempt at reconciliation began to falter almost immediately. The main hurdle came on March 13, when the convoy of PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah was the target of an apparent assassination attempt. Hamdallah was on his way to Gaza through an Israeli border crossing. The PA quickly blamed Hamas for the attack. The latter vehemently denied it. Palestinian politics went back to square one.
But then, March 30 happened. As thousands of Palestinians walked into the deadly “buffer zone” along the Gaza border, that is to say, walked peacefully and knowingly into the sights of Israeli snipers, their intention was clear: to be seen by the world as ordinary citizens, who until now have been unseen behind the politicians.
Gazans pitched tents, conversed, sang together and waved Palestinian flags – not the banners of the various factions. Families gathered, children played, even circus clowns turned up and entertained. It was a rare moment of unity.
The Israeli army’s response was, shall we say, “in character”. By shooting dead 17 unarmed protesters and wounding thousands of people in a single day, using the latest technology in exploding bullets, they thought they could teach the Palestinians a lesson. It was prison guard handbook 101: beat them, beat them again. Kill them. Kill them again. Even journalists who merely attempted to convey that heroic but tragic moment to the world were shot, wounded and killed.
Condemnations of this massacre flooded in from respected figures around the world like Pope Francis and organisations like Human Rights Watch. This glimmer of attention may have provided Palestinians with an opportunity to elevate the injustice of the siege up the global political agenda, but it will be little consolation to the families of the dead.
Aware of the international spotlight, Fatah jumped at the opportunity to take credit for this spontaneous act of popular resistance. Deputy chairman, Mahmoud al-Aloul, said that the protesters mobilised to support the PA “in the face of pressure and conspiracies concocted against our cause,” referring no doubt to Trump’s strategy of isolation towards the Fatah-dominated PA. Hamas has similarly tried to take credit.
But nothing could be further from the truth. This time, it is the Palestinian people, the brave boys and girls of Gaza who are fashioning their own strategy, independent from the factions, in fact, in spite of factionalism. And this time, we must listen, quit lecturing, and perhaps learn from these young men and women as they stand bare-chested before snipers and murderers with only their chants for freedom and their faith in certain victory.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.