The political challenges
 of Palestinian liberation

In February 1945, nearing the end of World War II, the World Federation of Trade Unions held its founding conference in County Hall, London. A successor to the International Federation of Trade Unions, WFTU included delegates from both the colonized world (Nigeria, West Indies, and India among others) and industrial nations, many of them colonizing states. At the meeting, delegates resolved unanimously to guarantee rights of “all the Trade Unions of free countries, on a basis of equality, regardless of race, creed or political faith.” Toward the meeting’s end a resolution was put forward calling for support for a “Jewish homeland” in the territory of Palestine as part of the coming postwar peace settlement.

Representing the Palestinian Arab Workers Society at the WFTU was Hana Asfour, a lawyer and landowner. When the resolution came to the floor, Asfour rose to speak against it: 

Are the Arabs, now that this war against tyranny and despotism is coming to an end, going to be treated in the same way as after the last war, and is the Arab working-class going to be deserted by their comrades. . . . Are the Arabs in Palestine going to be left under the serious threat of being ousted from their land, merely to satisfy the Zionist reactionary movement, based on fantastic ideas and false claims? Now, comrades, leaders of the liberation movements and liberators of the oppressed nations, let us think as free people, as people of goodwill, as people who have set themselves the task of relieving all the nations of the world from oppression and despotism, as people struggling to remove all class, racial, and color discrimination—let us think and examine whether or not this movement threatening us in not only reactionary but also destructive of the fundamental ideas and principles for which we are struggling and which we are hoping to realize and secure for all mankind. 

Despite Asfour’s appeal, the resolution passed with only six negative votes from among thirty-five nations. The nays came from Arab Palestine, the Indian Federation of Labor, the All-India Trade Union Congress, South Africa, Nigeria, and Gambia. Among nations supporting the resolution was Stalin’s Soviet Union. Two years later, Soviet bloc countries voted to support the United Nations partition plan for Palestine, which effectively ended all hopes for Palestinian self-determination. On May 17, 1948, three days after Israel declared its independence, the Soviet Union granted Israel de jure recognition, just the second nation to do so. Soviet support for Israel further damaged credibility to its erratic efforts to build Arab Communist parties under the slogan of “Arabization plus Bolshevization.” 

Events of 1945–1948 helped generate two immediate effects on the world’s working classes. Within Palestine, they produced a labor nakba: As Musa Budeiri has written, “The collapse of Arab society and the mass exodus of 1948 led to the destruction of the labor movement and the disintegration of the Arab working class.” Internationally, the vote drove another wedge between workers in the colonized and non-colonized worlds. Ten years after the WFTU meeting, at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia (a meeting of decolonizing African and Asian nations), Arab states would successfully argue for the exclusion of Israel, rightly seen as an oppressor state.

In his important new book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Palestinian activist and Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abunimah shows us why the need to dismantle Zionism and the Israeli occupation of Palestine remains an incomplete twentieth-century project of liberation made even more urgent by its role in propping up twenty-first century capitalism and racism. Abunimah provides the most complete description to date of what the writer John Collins has called a “Palestine that is becoming globalized and a globe that is becoming Palestinized.” Israeli apartheid, he argues, is a vanguard project of settler-colonial racism whose disciplinary apparatus provides a “prophetic index” for disempowered communities all over the world. At the same time, the Israeli occupation is a laboratory of neoliberal brutalism. Palestinians, he writes,

have become guinea pigs for practices that the global financial crisis laid bare all over the world: neoliberal economic policies pushed by the United States, the European Union, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). All this has been done with the active collusion of countries that claimed to champion Palestinian aspirations, and, of course, of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. 

The dialectical interrelationship between these factors is the subject of Abunimah’s book. His central thesis is that despite a deck stacked heavily against them, “the Palestinians are winning,” largely through the exceptional success of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. His book serves as a critical up-to-the-minute handbook for activists seeking to build a stronger BDS movement. More broadly, the book helps readers understand that the fight against the Israeli occupation is crucial to the fight against both US imperialism and Arab capitalist states who are now important partners in Palestinian subjugation.

Abunimah’s opening chapter is a tour de force exposé of what journalist Max Blumenthal has called the “Israelification” of global policing, demonstrating the close relationship between the US and Israel not just in terms of the $3 billion in aid that the US gives to Israel, but also in the increasingly militarized and racist policing and surveillance techniques the United States “borrows” from Israel. Cooperation between Israeli and US police departments coupled with Israel’s emergence as a leader in US-supported security technologies, he argues, has made the Israeli occupation a model for what Michelle Alexander has called “the New Jim Crow.” The revelations in 2011 that the New York Police Department had systematically spied on and infiltrated Muslim communities came four years after the NYPD set up a post in Israel, what police commissioner Raymond Kelly called an “early warning system on terrorism.” CIA agent Larry Sanchez, sent to the NYPD to help create a Demographics Unit (police speak for “racial profiling”), told colleagues “he had borrowed the idea from Israeli methods of controlling the military-occupied West Bank.” After 9/11, Boston airport hired as a security consultant the former security chief of Ben-Gurion Airport who said his system of profiling took into consideration “where somebody comes from” and “if somebody’s home address is Gaza we should be paying more attention to details compared, for example, to a Holocaust survivor from Tel Aviv.” That these tactics are now commonplace and face legal and political challenges in the United States from antiracist activists is also, for Abunimah, part of the global “battle” for justice in Palestine.

Abunimah’s riveting account of what he calls “The War on Campus” over the white hot BDS movement correctly allows us to see the conflict between Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters and an expansive Israeli hasbara, or propaganda machine, as the sharpest campus political conflict since the civil rights, Black Power, and Vietnam antiwar movements. PACBI (the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) was launched by Palestinian civil society in 2004. On July 9, 2005, the Palestinian BDS movement was born. Support for it surged with public outrage after Israeli soldiers murdered 1,400 people during the 2008–09 Operation Cast Lead invasion of Gaza, and more recently when the American Studies Association became the third, and largest, academic organization in the world to endorse the academic boycott. In 2010, the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, helped recast Israel’s “war against its enemies away from actual battlefields” and against a BDS campaign it called a “Delegitimization Network” meant to destroy Israel. In 2012, the David Project, a $4-million-dollar-per-year organization focusing on Zionist advocacy on campus, released A Burning Campus: Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges. The report coined the term “anti-Israelism” to describe an emerging trend among a “global left” to sanction a “form of bigotry targeted against the modern state of Israel.” 

Along with partners like AIPAC and Hillel, The David Project manufactured a dirty war dedicated to attacking professors and students for criticizing Israel. The Project advised Israel loyalists to accuse critics of “academic malpractice” and targeted faculty like Columbia professor of modern Arab politics Joseph Massad. Abunimah rightly compares these attacks to McCarthy era witchhunts and notes they should be seen “in the broader context of the Bush administration’s assault on the independence of universities in the years following the September 11, 2001 attacks.” More ruthless yet has been the criminalization of anti-Israel student protest. In 2011, ten University of California students were convicted of violations of the California Penal Code for staging a nonviolent protest at a campus appearance at UC Irvine by Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States and spokesperson for the Israeli army during the 2006 invasion of Lebanon that killed 1,200. In 2012, the California House passed Resolution HR 35 broadly defining anti-Semitism to include political criticism of Israel. These events may now be seen as precursors of recent attempts by the Maryland, New York, and Illinois legislatures and Congress to punish academic organizations and faculty for supporting the Israel boycott by stripping their funds. Beyond these formal measures, Israel has used pinkwashing—boasting of feminist and gay-friendly policies—and appeals to African American and Chicano students to divert attention from its horrendous crimes against Palestinians. The relentless growth of SJP chapters to more than 130 nationally, their increasing boldness, and militancy, and the flashmob-like support they attract when their democratic right to protest is violated (thousands signed a petition when Northeastern University’s SJP was recently banned from campus) are the most visible signs of the widening BDS movement.

The remaining chapters of The Battle for Justice show Abunimah wrestling to reconcile a Palestinian drive for self-determination with the formidable realities of the occupation as an engine of global capitalist profiteering. As in his 2006 book One Country, Abunimah argues against the shibboleth of a “two-state” solution used by the United States and Israel as cover for further Israeli annexation of West Bank lands and settlement expansion. In his chapter “Israeli Jews and the One-State Solution,” Abunimah rightly argues,

A two-state solution, in whatever form it might be realized, would simply ratify and legitimize the massive inequalities between Israel, on the one hand, with its First World economy, and on the other, the destitution in Gaza and much of the West Bank that is the direct result of years of Israeli usurpation of Palestinian land, resources, and rights.

In a companion chapter titled “Does Israel Have a Right to Exist as a Jewish State?” Abunimah points out that, especially since the ascent of the Netanyahu government, an exacerbated Zionist rhetoric of Jewish supremacy and ethnonationalism should call into question whether any state—Israel or otherwise—has a “right” to exist if that right is predicated on expulsion and discrimination. As Abunimah pithily puts it, “There is no right to be racist.” This point is meant to underscore the abuse and mistreatment not only of the more than 1.6 million Arabs living as citizens in “democratic” Israel, but also of African immigrants and other minorities, like Bedouins, routinely brutalized by the Israeli state. 

The biggest obstacle since 2006 to demolition of Israeli rule, Abunimah makes clear, is neoliberal profiteering generated by the occupation. Since the 1967 war, which resulted in Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, Israel has kept the Palestinian economy in a state of permanent dependency, controlling flows of labor, production, taxation, land, and resource use. The 1993 Oslo Accord “codified” this dependency by giving Israel full control over customs and trade in areas supposedly under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Accord also opened the door to foreign capital, causing Joseph Massad to write that the PLO would go down in history as “the only Third World liberation movement who has sought liberation through selling the resources it expects to ‘liberate’ to international capital before it even ‘liberated’ them.” With exceptional analytical insight, Abunimah writes that “Palestine has been a dystopian model for how international powers have reacted to the financial crisis” dating not just to 2007, but to the 1970s. 

Abunimah compares the US and EU insistence that “technocratic” IMF official Salam Fayyad be appointed PA prime minister in 2007, to IMF and European Central Bank imposition of unelected “technocratic” administrations in Greece and Italy. Fayyad’s appointment effectively made the PA the official comprador class for the “financialization” of Palestine in the form of US, EU, and Arab capitalist state investments, massive austerity measures, and increasingly ruthless exploitation of both indigenous and imported labor by Palestinian elites and Israeli companies—all touted by IMF officials and western apologists like Thomas Friedman as a Palestinian economic “miracle.” In a particularly riveting section of the book, Abunimah describes the construction of “Rawabi” by Bayti, a development company operated by Palestinian-American property developer Bashar Masri. Rawabi endeavors to be an “affordable housing” complex modeled on American-style suburbs catering to Palestine’s cell phone smart class. Bayti’s partners in development are the US government and Gulf Arab capital. Abunimah describes Rawabi as a “city on a hill” constructed, like Israel itself, on the ruins of Palestinian dispossession: Masri builds on land taken from Palestinian villages while the PA acts as his “enforcement arm.” Here settler colonialism and neoliberalism merge into a ghastly historical double.

Given this “exploitative economic system that is already deeply entrenched,” Abunimah rightly cautions that even the achievement of a Palestinian state would not necessarily buffer Palestinians from the ravages of neoliberalism—nor would a two-state solution necessarily buffer Israeli’s. As Abunimah explains:

 [W]e must make economic justice an integral part of the Palestinian struggle for liberation from Zionism. This includes a frank discussion of how decolonization will cost Israeli Jews economic, social, and political privileges they have unfairly enjoyed for decades at grievous expense to Palestinians. . . . At a time when the sovereignty of states is less of a guarantee of economic security for their populations than ever and the possibility of democracy is negated by the overwhelming power of international capital, Palestinians must look beyond visions—whether in one state or two—that have been too focused on idealized notions of statehood.

Abunimah here seems to punch through the limits of narrow nationalist politics under neoliberalism and its possible implications even for the “one country” paradigm advocated in his 2006 book. In a related passage, he argues that “an economic agenda in a democratic state of all its citizens, one that puts people’s basic needs for housing, education, work, and health first, has the potential to create new political and social coalitions across boundaries that today seem unthinkable.” 

Yet his concluding chapter points in a slightly different direction, or at least one where these objectives are made secondary. Titled “Reclaiming Self-Determination,” Abunimah argues that a positive outcome in Palestine would mean the formation of a new political entity founded on principles set out in the 2007 One State Declaration inspired by the South African Freedom Charter and the 1998 Belfast Agreement. That Declaration insisted that “[a] system of government must be founded on the principle of equality in civil, political, social and cultural rights for all citizens.” Within this framework, Israeli Jews would be allowed to “participate in self-determination not as a distinct national group, but only to the extent that they become legitimate residents in the context of complete decolonization.” Abunimah calls this decolonization “inclusive and rights-based, not ethnic or religious.” While the shape of this decolonized state is unclear, it affirms the widely endorsed demands of the BDS campaign: that Israel recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and uphold international law by ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands; dismantling the apartheid wall in the West Bank; recognizing fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of present-day Israel; respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated by UN Resolution 194.

Abunimah’s conclusion to The Battle For Justice in Palestine is an admittedly open-ended one. Like the BDS movement, it asserts a future Palestine based on equal rights, inclusion and civic justice, while leaving aside difficult questions about transfers of political power, resource redistribution, and actual sovereignty. Among the political challenges this resolution presents is foreshortened attention to economic inequalities that are bound to persist even after decolonization. Abunimah does say decolonization must include “protection to all,” but offers limited analysis of what that might mean for Palestinian (or Israeli) workers. Indeed, Abunimah’s primary “case study” for Palestinian decolonization—South Africa—he notes repeatedly, has become an economic abyss for Black South African workers since apartheid’s end; the National Union of Metalworkers, the largest affiliate of COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) just cut ties with the neoliberal African National Congress, responsible for, among other things, the murder of forty-four striking Marikana mineworkers in 2012. 

Abunimah’s affirmative prescriptions for current attempts to resist the economic dirge of neoliberalism in Palestine also do not portend fundamental challenges to social relations. He cites examples of a “resistance economy” in Palestine including taxation of foreign consultancies in order to favor local expertise, the Canaan Fair Trade initiative in the West Bank, and grassroots initiatives towards economic self-sufficiency, like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Finally, he cites Cuban ecological and organic farming techniques in the wake of an end of Soviet subsidies to argue that “Palestinians could learn from such experiences and insist that international aid be redirected to support such efforts.”

Here, the contradictions of Abunimah’s “Palestinized globe” come home to roost for global justice activists everywhere. The limited horizon of “small c” capitalism and self-determination in the face of the continuous capitalist onslaught on workers, farmers, and commoners across the world is brought into sharp relief by examples from outside the frame of his important study. 

In his recent book Lineages of Revolt, Adam Hanieh locates the occupation of Palestine between “two poles of imperialist power in the region—Israel and the Gulf Arab states” supported by US economic and political partnership. Hanieh describes Palestinian and Arab workers as trapped within a regional capitalist revolution across the Middle East that has decimated wages, living conditions, and safety conditions while obliterating virtually all standards for workers’ protections. “In this sense,” he writes, “there is very little that is unique in the types of economic policies that are today being implemented by the PA—they have been standard fare of governments across the Middle East for at least two decades.” Thus, Hanieh writes, “One of the central conclusions that can be drawn from this is that the Palestinian struggle holds immense strategic weight in the political struggles of the region as a whole. Confronting Western domination of the region must necessarily pass through the question of Palestine.”

More recently, Sameh Naguib of Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists has used Hanieh’s analysis to explain the interdependency of the Israeli occupation with the current Egyptian counterrevolution. In a recent article originally published at the Revolutionary Socialists website, Naguib writes that “military rule in Egypt today does not only represent the Egyptian ruling class, but a regional ruling class, in which the larger component is Gulf capital” seeking “to continue its participation in the looting of the Egyptian people and the exploitation of the working class.” The occupation, writes Naguib, provides connective political and economic tissue between Cairo, Riyadh, and the West. “The Egyptian-American relationship is based on clear and shared interests, which are a commitment from the Egyptian side to provide military and intelligence services to the Pentagon and to preserve the peace treaty with the Zionists. This is the red line for Washington—a line that [Egyptian army General] Sisi will respect at all costs, not only for the sake of US financial and military aid, but also because it is in line with the interests of the Egyptian-Saudi ruling class.”

Several points from Ali Abunimah’s exceptional book can be extrapolated from Hanieh and Naguib’s supplemental analysis of the Israeli occupation. First, support for Palestinian self-determination and decolonization, while absolutely essential for revolutionaries, progressives, and activists, should also be linked to struggles for worker’s rights and workers’ power elsewhere in the world. This is not an easy task given the relatively weak condition of labor in Palestine, but failing to perceive this challenge will only delay and diminish visions for a post-occupation society. Second, frameworks for analysis of the occupation must be unremittingly internationalist. The occupation is, as Abunimah writes, a litmus test of global neoliberalism, not just Israeli settler-colonialism. In the case of BDS, currently the most effective global strategy against the occupation, this means not just working to “delegitimize” Israeli apartheid, but mobilizing trade unions and workplaces internationally to boycott and divest from Israel in order to inflict damage on Western and Gulf capitalist states. 

These steps alone are not likely to bring down either the occupation or capitalism in the Middle East, but they may help remove one “brick” in the apartheid wall they have constructed together. Third, the Israeli occupation must remain a flashpoint for activists organizing against US imperialism. In combination, Abunimah and Hanieh’s books make a clear case that neoliberalism has “conquered” the Middle East region by rerouting nationalist movements, atomizing workers, and producing new elites dedicated to exploitation, expropriation, and heavily militarized state-rule, all of it beholden to US political interests. Neoliberalism has merely strengthened those interests by including new global partners. 

Finally, the current “battle for Palestine” should revive our analysis and discussion of history in order to connect it to the political present. To return to my beginning, in 1947, writing in the last year before Israeli statehood, Tony Cliff identified Israeli Zionism as a threat not just to Arab workers and the future of Arab national movements, but to workers in both colonized and non-colonized countries. He urged working classes of the West especially to “support the struggle of the millions of Arab toilers for the independence of the Arab countries, for the lodging of the fate of the country in the hands of its inhabitants, and for liberation from the yoke of imperialism, feudalism, and capitalism.” Cliff’s prescient words call our attention forward to events of our time like the Egyptian Revolution. It is worth remembering that the 1977 Egyptian “bread intifada” was a critical first step in Middle East resistance to neoliberal rule of the kind that today holds the Palestinians in a vice grip. Mass solidarity with Palestinians among Egypt’s rebelling classes in the 2011 Arab Spring helped to motivate anti-austerity demonstrations in the streets of the West Bank. Popular support for Egyptian protests worldwide, in turn, helped bring the BDS movement to its current simmering state. Indeed, who can forget the signs—“Occupy Wall Street Not Palestine.” Here, Ali Abunimah is also most hopeful and most correct. A victory over Zionism and Israeli apartheid can be a crucial step in building wider struggles for human freedom.

Other Works Consulted

Musa Buderi. The Palestine Communist Party 1919–1948: Arab and Jew in the Struggle for Internationalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010.

Tony Cliff. “On the Irresponsible Handling of the Palestine Question.”

Adam Hanieh. Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013.

Sameh Naguib. “The King and the Field Marshal.”

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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