On Wed., Sept. 15, Progressive Democrats of
The Pledge of Resistance will go to Rep. John Sarbanes’ office,
Karma Nabulsi, a fellow of St Edmund Hall,
Nowadays, when Palestinian activists in their twenties and thirties meet up with veterans of the Palestinian struggle, they show an unexpected thoughtfulness towards the older, revolutionary generation, to which I belong. This is nothing like the courtesy extended as a matter of course to older people in our part of the world: it is more intimate and more poignant. What brings us together is always the need to discuss the options before us, and to see if a plan can be made. Everyone argues, laughs, shouts and tells black jokes. But whenever a proper discussion begins, the suddenly lowered voices of our frustrated young people, many of them at the heart of the fierce protests on university campuses and in rights campaigns elsewhere, have the same tone I used to hear in the voices of our young ambulance workers in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s: an elegiac gentleness towards the hopelessly wounded, towards those who were already beyond repair.
The way Palestinians see things, the fragmentation of the body politic – externally engineered, and increasingly internally driven – has now been achieved. This summer, even the liberal Israeli press began to notice that the key people in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s capital in the
The feeling of paralysis doesn’t only affect the Palestinians. It is found too among the hundreds of international institutions and less formal groups involved in the thriving carpet-bagging industry of the
The predicament is understood and widely accepted, yet Palestinians and non-Palestinians appear equally baffled. Protest and denunciation have achieved very little. How are we to respond in a way that will allow us to prevail? The vocabulary required to form a policy is entirely absent both nationally and internationally. Palestinians are currently trapped in a historical moment that – as the contemporary world sees it – belongs to the past. The language the situation demands had life only inside an ideology which has now disappeared.
Everyone else has moved on. In a world whose intellectual framework is derived from university courses in postcolonial or cultural studies, from the discourse of post-nationalism, or human rights, or global governance, from post-conflict and security literature, the Palestinians are stuck fast in historical amber. They can’t move on, and the language that could assist them to do so is as extinct as Aramaic. No one cares any longer for talk of liberation: in fact, people flinch at the sound of it – it is unfashionable, embarrassing, reactionary even to speak of revolution today. Twenty-first-century eyes read revolutionary engagement as the first stage on the road to the guillotine or the Gulag. Advanced now well beyond the epic and heroic stages of its history, the West views its own revolutionary roots through the decadent backward gaze of Carl Schmitt. Seen through that prism, Palestinians remain stubbornly – one could almost say, wilfully – in the anti-colonial, revolutionary phase of their history.
So the questions debated by Palestinians are the same now as they ever were: how to organise, how to mobilise, how to unify? There remains a constant sense of emergency, but Palestinians with long memories agree that we are at a nadir in our history of resistance. The only sign of forward movement lies in the tide of revulsion at
Exactly 50 years ago, Palestinians were at a similar stage of social and political fragmentation brought about by defeat and dispossession and the anomie that followed the Nakba of 1948. Without a country or the protection of a sovereign state, they were confronting, on the one hand, Israel, and on the other, sundry Arab regimes: between them they controlled every aspect of Palestinians’ social and civic lives as well as their physical space. They lived deep in the dust and disease of tent cities, without personal papers or property. In 1955, a young Palestinian writer, Ghassan Kanafani, moved to
But what appeared to Kanafani to be the collective end was in fact its extraordinary beginning. By the end of the decade, the revolution had found a language and a form. For the first time in a century of rebellions and uprisings against foreign rule, Palestinians could mount a collective challenge to international, Israeli and Arab coercion, and unify sufficiently to represent themselves. Even a cursory study of the history of revolutions over the last 300 years reveals three elements essential to their origins. First, a plethora of revolutionary pamphlets, declarations and discussions issuing from different factions together begin to shape a shared understanding of the injustices that have to be overturned. A call to arms requires a convincing appraisal of the balance of forces if enough people are to be persuaded to embark on such a risky enterprise. The history of Palestinian attempts to achieve freedom would give anyone pause: two generations who tried lie buried in the cemeteries of more than two dozen countries.
Second, it is revolutionaries who make revolutions, and not the other way around. During the national mobilisation of the 1960s and 1970s, some joined the party, others the movement, but most simply joined the Palestinian revolution. It was taken for granted that one belonged to one of the parties, which were themselves embedded in the broader national liberation movement under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, a formal institution set up in 1964 by Arab states, which was captured from the Palestinian elite by the resistance groups a few years later. Empowered by becoming part of a fast-moving popular revolution, Palestinians – exiled, scattered and defeated as they were – achieved the two elusive things they have constantly sought: representation and unity.
If you raise the painful subject of this earlier time among Palestinians today, the usual effect is to revive the over-theoretical debate about when exactly the revolution died. (A discussion of its strengths and weaknesses would be more useful.) Some say it ended after Black September in
Unity and representation are the common goods Palestinians must realise in order to advance their cause, and these clearly can’t be achieved via any of the options currently being suggested to us: not the distribution of the PA’s power between Hamas and Fatah (since the only representative institutional structure for all Palestinians is the Palestinian National Council, the parliament-in-exile of the PLO); not a US-sponsored peace process; and not the plan for Palestinian statehood proposed by the prime minister, Salam Fayyad, according to which the institutions of an independent state will be built in the face of a still expanding military occupation. Already by the 1970s, thanks to its fluid institutional architecture, the revolution was able to overcome national borders, protect its independence from the Arab regimes and convey its demands to the solidarity movements who supported it and exerted pressure on its behalf. Other national liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s – the FLN, ANC, Swapo, the Sandinistas – had to operate with their leaders underground and in exile, developing their strategy outside the country while the population remained rooted in the land they hoped to liberate. For Palestinians, whose national politics were undone in an instant over a single year in 1948, it took the concerted actions of tens of thousands of cadres across the region to hold the people together while at the same time putting sufficient pressure on those governments, both Western and Arab, that would have preferred to see us capitulate to Israel. The mood of that short period, as I remember it, was profoundly popular and democratic: pluralist, multi-party, universalist, secular and highly progressive. Palestinians who dared not join in – businessmen, academics, the money-grubbing classes – were carried along in its wake, and obeyed its mandate. Today we could not be further from that fleeting moment of unity the revolution once afforded.
The experience of revolutionary life is difficult to describe. It is as much metaphysical as imaginative, combining urgency, purposefulness, seriousness and hard work, with a near celebratory sense of adventure and overriding optimism – a sort of carnival atmosphere of citizens’ rule. Key to its success is that this heightened state is consciously and collectively maintained by tens of thousands of people at the same time. If you get tired for a few hours or days, you know others are holding the ring.
The third, counterintuitive feature of revolutions is that they are usually launched by astonishingly small groups of individuals. The Palestinian revolution was no exception. Young Palestinians today, caught in the grind of their daily struggle, feel unable to make contact with their own past: its stories are like fairytales, out of their reach. The appropriate model for the emergence of the Palestinian movement of the 1960s and 1970s isn’t the Leninist vanguard party but the revolutions that established democracies in 19th-century Europe, where the acts of a few were matched, and then rapidly overtaken, by an entire nation, all of whose members considered themselves leaders. No one here waits around for instructions.
What usually goes unmentioned in the history books is the dangerous and seemingly interminable slog that is required to build up to any revolution’s launch: it may take years, even decades, once the match is lit, for it to ignite a mobilisation large enough to create a truly national initiative.
One of the individuals who still keeps the revolutionary spirit alive in these bleak times phoned me this week, and this time I rang him back. (Often I can’t face talking to him because his situation is so terrible.) Ziyad was a key activist in the first Intifada when he was a student at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, and for the last 20 years he has dedicated his life in Gaza to what is commonly known as ‘mobilising from below’. Ziyad is, or was, head of the Rafah refugee camp’s popular committee, the local elected body, legendary now for its history of civic resistance to Israeli rule. Ziyad is like an artist, restlessly exploring ways to preserve people’s humanity amid the oppression and misery of southern
Ziyad spent much of last year in prison in Gaza, and, as it turned out when I returned his call, some of this year’s Ramadan as well. ‘Oh no!’ I said, ‘What happened this time?’ He said that he’d been trying to organise in the elementary schools. This struck me as one of the funniest things I had heard in a long time: Ziyad laughed, too, when he began telling me about it. He had tried to organise a prize-giving in the camp for some of the students, but the current administration in
What the administration in Gaza does not like, Ziyad said, is the idea of movement, of freedom, of opening things up from below, of bringing people together for any common purpose at all. I told him I had spoken to Adnan in
Just over a year ago Kamal was assassinated by a car bomb in south
I went to his funeral; we all walked the familiar path to the Palestinian cemetery, accompanied by thousands of refugees, clapping and singing and shouting revolutionary slogans. After the 40 days of mourning I returned to
His family, with whom I was staying, had asked me to speak about him, as Kamal had been an early teacher of mine. Afterwards, in the foyer, a stream of young people came up to me. They wanted me to know exactly what he had meant to them: ‘Kamal was the only one who spoke up for us’; ‘Kamal listened to us, he stood with us’; ‘He fought for us’; ‘He encouraged us.’ One after another, they told me stories of what he did. Each had recognised his revolutionary spirit, I thought, as I watched them wander away afterwards into the streets of
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs