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.”
New organizing models also emerged from the Palestinian solidarity movement. Shehata says the Egyptian Popular Committee for the Support of the Palestinian Intifada was the model adopted in 2004–05 by Egypt’s Kifaya (Enough!) and similar movements when they began to organize on national issues. The common approach is cross-ideological, horizontal and highly decentralized, and it brings people together in their individual capacity rather than as representatives of elites or political parties. This enables new groups to organize outside the established order.
Palestinians in Israel, the territories and the diaspora are now, in turn, implementing aspects of this model. According to Palestinian human rights attorney Noura Erakat, in the wake of the Arab uprisings young Palestinian citizens of Israel decided to organize Land Day demonstrations independently, limiting the role of traditional Arab political parties. Rami Zurayk noted a similar dramatic change among Palestinians in Lebanon during preparations for the May 15 Return to Palestine march. Independents, he said, played as great a role in organizing and leading that march as the traditional parties. Palestinian social scientist and author Jamil Hilal echoes this point. “Palestinians are very politicized, and political factions play a much larger role than they do in Arab states. The really new thing brought by the Arab uprisings is that the youth feel they have a statement to make that doesn’t follow the factions.”
The Arab world uprisings have been an inspiration, of course, but the new style has other roots that predate them; one of the most important is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which began six years ago. All key political and civil society forces are represented on the BDS National Committee (BNC), but only as individuals, not as factions or parties.
The determination to steer clear of foreign government funding is another strategy shared by Palestinians and other activists in the Arab world. A recent conference in Amman that brought together Palestinian, Tunisian and Egyptian youth was locally funded, Palestinian youth activist Fadi Quran says, because “we refuse any foreign funding, influence or even training. It’s often abused and loses you credibility. We are not anti-Western—we’re in touch with the youth who organized the revolution against Milosevic, for example—but these are grassroots youth, not sponsored by USAID or the State Department.”
The extent of shared learning is impressive. Halla Shoaibi, a recent Palestinian university graduate and activist who works in a law office in Ramallah, says Palestinian youth are emulating their Egyptian counterparts. “Young men from the Egyptian revolution recently organized a learning session for us,” she says. “They clearly read extensively, studying different revolutions and discussing different tactics, including the first intifada. I was surprised by how much they know about Palestinian politics—much more than I do about Egypt.”
The Egyptians advised the Palestinians to study the work of people like Gene Sharp, the American theorist of nonviolent insurrection. Palestinian youth are also thinking about ways to adapt and expand the tactics of the six-year popular struggle of West Bank villages against Israel’s separation wall, and they’re devoting renewed study to the massive, overwhelmingly nonviolent civil resistance of the first intifada (1987–93). “We focus on nonviolence because we studied Palestinian history since 1936 and saw that the biggest successes were achieved through nonviolence,” explains Fadi Quran. Indeed, the Arab Awakening has helped revalidate nonviolent resistance not only for many Palestinians but throughout the Arab world.
Not all segments of the Palestinian people have been similarly invigorated. In Gaza, although young people organized marches and protests in the spring, youth activist Yousef Al Jamal says the predominant feeling now is passivity: “People are tweeting and Facebooking, but there is no action on the ground. All youth groups agree on ending division and the occupation, but they still have different tactics and strategies.” One unwelcome effect of the regional unrest has been to redirect the spotlight away from Gaza, even though the situation there is still dire. “The press is no longer interested, and there is no work for journalists,” says Palestinian journalist and Gaza native Mohammed Omer. “Before the revolutions, editors were interested in three or four stories a week; now it’s hardly one a month. The press wants to focus on Egypt and Tunisia, and no one cares about Gaza.”
Sameeha Elwan, a recent graduate working as a teaching assistant at Gaza University, says, “Most of us were expecting more from the Egyptian government. We appreciate the revolution but don’t idealize it; 1.5 million people are still living here in prison, not only by the Israeli occupation but also by Arabs. We know it will take time, but the situation at the Rafah border is horrible. My mother had to wait three days to cross, even though she had a medical report. This is no way to treat human beings.”
The democratic spirit of the Arab Awakening has spread to the Palestinian people, where the call for elections to the Palestinian National Council, the parliament-in-exile, has become more insistent within and outside Palestine. Independent Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabbani calls this a crisis of political representation. People are not calling for the downfall of Hamas or Fatah leaders, he says, “but simply for representation in the political system. However, the system is incapable of responding, because once you respond you’re sowing seeds of your own destruction.”
Moreover, both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, in different ways, have repressed demonstrations. “The youth used to be very organized,” says Omer, “but now they can’t go out, they can’t breathe. As for unity, there are promises that [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas and [Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled] Meshaal will meet, but everyone is waiting for September,” when the PLO/PA plans to apply for United Nations membership for the state of Palestine.
Joseph Dana, an Israeli-American journalist who reports extensively on the region, says that the Ramallah-based PA is still harshly cracking down on activists who organized this year’s March 15 unity day protests, an early Palestinian expression of the spirit of the Arab revolutions that demanded an end to the Hamas-Fatah division. “They’re monitored, and their activities are checked. Many have been going to join Nabi Saleh demonstrations [against the separation wall] on Fridays, but they have been stopped by the PA or by the Israelis—who would have had to be tipped off to know they were on the way.” In the West Bank, the June 5 Naksa Day (day of the “setback,” which commemorates the occupation and displacement that accompanied the 1967 war) demonstrations reportedly failed to mobilize even half the number of protesters as on May 15, undermining the March 15 strategy to gradually escalate demonstrations on key anniversaries.
Criticism of the PA is widespread in the West Bank, but there is nothing like the us-versus-them hatred and distance between ruler and ruled that is so common in other Arab nations. Many PA officials in the West Bank and Gaza are in close contact with critics and even share views on key issues. One West Bank youth activist described the PA and Israel as representing the same system of oppression, but added, “Most people in the PA and in the factions agree with me.” Seen in this light, the PLO/PA decision to apply for UN recognition of the state of Palestine is a way to push the question of internal reform to one side and shore up popular support during a period of revolutionary upheaval—and not just a frustrated response to the Israeli refusal to freeze settlements and negotiate in good faith.
The greatest promise of the Arab Awakening is that Arabs will reclaim the vision of a larger body within which they can operate, an Arab region built not on ethnic or religious purity but bound by a common striving for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
For Palestinians, perhaps the most significant inspiration of the Awakening has been the way in which it has restored hope and their vision that through struggle they can win self-determination and human rights. The PLO worked hard to forge and uphold that vision after its founding in the 1960s, but contributed to its geographic, demographic and political dismemberment by Israel during the Oslo peace process. As Adam Shatz observed in a recent London Review of Books essay, the Arab revolutions made “Palestinians…re-examine what had been one of their most disabling convictions: the belief that the US controls the Middle Eastern chessboard, and that the Arab world is powerless against America and Israel.”
If the revolutions bring about democratically elected governments in even a handful of Arab countries, this will energize the Palestinian cause, given the strength of popular Arab support for it. The United States will find it increasingly difficult to make the PA or Arab governments toe its line, and its grip on the region will weaken. As the Awakening continues, more and more Palestinians are expanding their vision beyond the search for statehood and finding ways to re-establish core principles of the struggle such as self-determination, the right of return, freedom and equality. Israel, which through its steady settlement expansion has made the creation of an independent Palestinian state almost impossible, may see this as a mortal threat, but the consequences are clear: as the two-state solution recedes, a single state in which all citizens are equal looms ever larger.