For more than sixty years, the Palestinian struggle for liberation has inflamed and inspired Arab peoples around a common goal, however maddening the divisions or unattainable the end might at times have appeared, and despite the high cost in lives and resources.
Lebanese agronomist Rami Zurayk, who travels widely in the Arab world and is the author of the recently published Food, Farming, and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring, observes that a common culture has persevered even during times of political enmity. “Cultural genes are passed on. The issue of Palestine is always present, an integral part of the way Arab regimes failed the people and failed the Arab nation. Was I around in 1948? Of course I wasn’t. Do I cry for the Nakba? Of course I do,” he says, referring to Israel’s dispossession and exile of the Palestinians in 1948.
Given these sentiments, it’s reasonable to ask whether the Palestinian struggle has influenced today’s Arab Awakening—and whether the Arab Awakening has, in turn, energized the Palestinian struggle. The answer to both questions is yes; inspiration has flowed in both directions.
The May 15 Return to Palestine marches, undertaken by Palestinians and their supporters in neighboring countries and within both the occupied territories and Israel, were clearly inspired by the uprisings elsewhere, and they marked the first time the Nakba has been commemorated in this way since Israel dispossessed and exiled the Palestinians in 1948. They have not only given visible public expression to the refugees’ demand to exercise their right of return but are also reclaiming the vision of a Palestinian people united by a struggle that goes beyond the so-far fruitless quest for a sovereign, independent state.
For their part, Egyptian activists and analysts squarely situate the roots of their present revolution in the second Palestinian intifada, which erupted in September 2000. According to blogger and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy in a presentation at the American University in Cairo in early June, the intifada “was the rock that was thrown in the still water.” For the first time since 1977, Hamalawy wrote this past spring in the Guardian, after the intifada broke out tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in demonstrations that began in support of the Palestinians but “soon gained an anti-regime dimension.”
Dina Shehata, a senior researcher at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, identifies the intifada, along with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, as a crucial stage in popular Egyptian mobilization leading to the 2011 uprising. The protests and organizing over those earlier conflicts socialized the new generation of young activists. She says, “I would use the term ‘intifada generation’ to describe our generation.”
Cairo-based political analyst and journalist Issandr El Amrani, who edits the influential blog The Arabist, concurs, pointing out that the Palestinian cause contributed to the Egyptian movement by “creating a space for activism, which the regime tolerated so long as it was targeted toward Israel.” He adds that it was at demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq that he first heard “direct public criticism of Mubarak and his [US-aligned] foreign policy, with people tearing down his image.”