Palestinian protester in Gaza Palestinian protester in Gaza. Photo: Pixabay

The current wave of Palestinian revolt is especially threatening to Israel because it is characterised by a high level of mobilisation, including a general strike, by Palestinians in Israel, explains Alex Snowdon

Recent developments in relation to Palestine have involved three main strands, closely interconnected. There has been an intensification of Israel’s assault on the Palestinians. This has included the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, the storming of Al Aqsa, the brutal crackdowns on protesters in East Jerusalem, the wave of repression inside Israel and in the West Bank, and above all the deadly, 11-day military assault on Gaza.

The second strand is the revival of mass resistance by the Palestinians themselves, stretching across the divides between Israel, the Occupied Territories and the wider diaspora, stimulating a new-found spirit of unity and hope. The final strand is the resurgence of mass solidarity movements elsewhere in the world, illustrated in the UK with dozens of local protests as well as two huge London demonstrations.

Oslo and after

The Palestinian community is divided and disparate. There are those in the occupied territories in West Bank and Gaza (cut off from each other by the siege of Gaza) and in the annexed territory of East Jerusalem. There are the second-class Palestinian citizens of Israel (sometimes referred to as ‘48 Palestine’ in reference to the establishment of Israel, through the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, in 1948). There is the Palestinian diaspora in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere.

Political, diplomatic and media discussion of ‘Israel/Palestine’ has, for a long time, primarily focused on the occupied territories. A consensus developed – crystallising in the Oslo process of the 1990s – that there was a ‘conflict’ between two sides (Israel and Palestine) that began in 1967, involving a dispute over the occupied territories, and that it could be solved by the establishment of an independent Palestinian state covering at least part of that disputed territory. According to this view, there was peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, while the refugees were frankly irrelevant because the Palestinian right of return was not even part of the discussion.

This was always an inaccurate and inadequate picture. It ran into an impasse during the 1990s, as Israel expanded its illegal settlements while engaging in the charade of ‘peace talks’. It was the instigation of the ‘peace process’ that ended the Palestinians’ First Intifada (1987-93) and it was the effective collapse of those talks that laid the basis for the Second Intifada, beginning in September 2000.

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at the Oslo Accords signing

However, the Palestinian resistance of those years failed to roll back the settlement building or have any major effect on Israeli policies. This was partly because it was hobbled with an official leadership, in the form of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (established as part of the Oslo process), that was hopelessly compromised: attached to an increasingly moribund ‘two states’ vision, complicit in the Israeli occupation, and largely limited to a West Bank that was more and more estranged from the wider Palestinian community.

A new development during the Second Intifada was the emergence of mass international solidarity. This was the period in which a global anti-war movement developed in response to the so-called War on Terror. Just as Israel sought to justify its violence against Palestinians through the framework of countering terrorism – aligning itself closely with the US-led military interventions – the anti-war movements worldwide made the same link from the opposite perspective.

The slogan ‘Freedom for Palestine’ was raised on protests against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as major protests taking place in response to Israel’s offensive against Jenin (and other targets in the West Bank) in 2002. Large pro-Palestine demonstrations took place in many European capitals and significant numbers of Muslims became active in the anti-war movement. There were also anti-war and pro-Palestine street protests in many Arab cities, providing a glimpse of what would happen in the Arab uprisings of 2011.

In 2005, as the Second Intifada exhausted itself, a new front opened up. 170 Palestinian civil society organisations launched a unified call for global boycott, divestment and sanctions. This orientation on the global movement reflected the upsurge of pro-Palestine solidarity protests, and the global anti-war movement more widely, in the previous few years. The initial impact was limited, but over time this has galvanised international solidarity. It has also represented a shift in Palestinian organising, from the old Palestine Liberation Organisation leadership (compromised by Israel’s outsourcing of elements of the occupation to the Palestinian Authority) to more grassroots initiatives.

Since 2005 we have also seen periodic returns to mass mobilisation for Palestine in the wider world. There were big demonstrations in 2006 when Israel attacked Lebanon, in 2009, 2012 and again in 2014 when Gaza was under assault, and we have seen huge demonstrations again in recent weeks. Solidarity with Palestine was often raised in the revolts across the Arab world in early 2011.

Palestine demonstration, London 2014. Photo: Ricardo Esteban Pinera / Counterfire

The BDS call also heralded a broadening of the focus and demands of both the Palestinian movement and of international solidarity efforts. The three demands of BDS cover not just an end to the occupation, but also equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return for refugees. This moves the focus beyond the paradigm of occupation and the two-states solution.

More recently, the Gaza Great Return March of 2018 helped push the right of return up the political agenda. The extremely draconian Nationality Law, passed by the Israeli Knesset in 2018, drew wider attention to the inequality and discrimination faced by Palestinians inside Israel.

BDS promotes a narrative that can unite the Palestinians: the dispossession began in 1948, it covers the entirety of Palestine, and it is rooted in a settler-colonial project that is not limited to its impact on the occupied territories. It does not formally advocate a one-state solution, i.e. a single, secular state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, but it opens up space for discussion of alternatives that go well beyond the beleaguered vision of a separate Palestinian state.

Oslo was a defeat for the Palestinians – it greatly strengthened division and fragmentation. The Palestinian Authority became the institutional expression of narrowing horizons and meagre aspirations. The international solidarity protests during (and since) the Second Intifada and the emergence of global BDS were both vital steps towards reversing the defeat.

Palestinians in Apartheid Israel

It is the Palestinians inside Israel who have been most overlooked in discussions about Palestine, especially since the Oslo process firmly reduced the officially-approved horizons for Palestinian advance to the occupied territories. They have often been perceived as passive and quiescent; it has even been suggested that they have been successfully incorporated into Israeli politics and neutered as a source of opposition through a process of ‘Israelisation’. Passivity has never been the whole picture, however, and it was certainly never true that Palestinians in Israel had become entirely cut off from the Palestinian struggle.

In a recent article for the Guardian, Nimer Sultany (now based in London) wrote of his own experiences as a Palestinian inside Israel. He recalled being educated in separate Arab schools (from kindergarten to high school), being blocked from renting a flat while at university due to his Palestinian background, needing medical attention after an assault by Israeli police officers when he was a young lawyer, and the routine nature of being racially profiled at the airport whenever he travelled abroad. All of these experiences are testament to the systemic nature of inequality, discrimination and racism in Israel.

Sultany wrote that ‘coexistence is a fiction that conceals a reality of separate and unequal lives’. In hundreds of Jewish Israeli communities there are neighbourhood committees that can – and do – legitimately deny Palestinians permission to move there. The notion of Israel as a Jewish state is enshrined in Israeli law and in the constitution. Israeli courts routinely sanction the transfer of Palestinian land to Jews. Nearly half of Palestinians live below the poverty line, while unemployment for the Palestinian minority is around 25%.

Diana Buttu, Palestinian lawyer and citizen of Israel, recently wrote in a New York Times piece (‘The Myth of Coexistence in Israel’):

‘We Palestinians living in Israel “sub-exist,” living under a system of discrimination and racism with laws that enshrine our second-class status and with policies that ensure we are never equals.’

Palestinians are 20% of Israel’s population of around nine million, yet over 60 discriminatory laws have been enacted to enforce Palestinians’ second-class status.  

The recent Human Rights Watch report, which garnered attention because it referred to Israel as being guilty of apartheid, highlighted the concerted Judaisation of the Negev and Galilee regions of Israel. Evictions, house demolitions and legal manoeuvring are used to displace Palestinians. Even in supposedly ‘mixed’ communities, the reality is that Jewish Israelis and Palestinians overwhelmingly live apart. Many Jewish Israelis view Palestinians negatively – an inevitable consequence of such a divided, unequal society – and the recent spate of racist mob violence directed at Palestinian citizens should not be surprising.

Recent events have inspired a stronger recognition of the ties that bind all Palestinians. In Sultany’s words:

‘Palestinians inside Israel are protesting against Israeli policies in Sheikh Jarrah and the bombardment of the heavily populated refugee prison camp that is Gaza because they see the unity and continuity in the colonial system of oppression over all Palestinians. Our protest is asserting the unity of an anti-colonial struggle for equality and freedom.’

The general strike and popular mobilisation

This is the background to the remarkable upsurge of Palestinian mobilisation in recent weeks. There have been different elements to Palestinian opposition to Israel’s actions, from the armed struggle conducted by Hamas in Gaza to the street protests in East Jerusalem, from demonstrations in the cities and major towns of the West Bank to the border demonstrations by Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. But the activities of Palestinians inside Israel have been particularly notable, partly because they appear to represent a startling break from an era of relative passivity.

The Palestinian general strike of Tuesday 18 May was the first strike on such a large scale since the general strike at the start of the First Intifada in 1987. It had a very strong grassroots impulse, primarily coming from below, and was political in nature: it was an expression of solidarity (and common interest) with the families of Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinian protests in East Jerusalem, and the Palestinians under attack in Gaza.

Save Sheikh Jarrah banner in East Jerusalem. Photo: Osps7 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

It grew out of a huge number of street protests already taking place, was organised very quickly – in a matter of a few days – and was observed very widely. The dynamic appears – surprisingly perhaps – to have been that the strike call began in Israel, spread to Jerusalem and then to the West Bank.

Fatah and Hamas both supported the strike call, but they certainly didn’t initiate it. It originated inside Israel and its spread to the West Bank was primarily through grassroots momentum. Fatah is in a highly contradictory position: while compromised by running the Palestinian Authority, it is desperate to retain a degree of popular support, especially as it feels threatened by growing support for Hamas in the West Bank (bolstered further by its relative success against Israel in the latest conflict).

One of the spurs to strike action was the Israeli violence faced by Palestinians inside Israel. This was both the official violence of the Israeli state apparatus and the unofficial violence of racist, far-right gangs. The former either sanctioned or turned a blind eye to the latter. This violence was one aspect that connected Palestinians in Israel to their sisters and brothers in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank, strengthening a sense of shared purpose and common identity.

Israeli police in Lod following protests, May 2021. Photo: Israel Police / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The strike in Israel was a startling development because Palestinian workers in Israel do not have independent unions. They are either non-unionised or they belong to Israeli unions. It was the Higher Follow-up Committee of Arab Citizens in Israel, a nationwide extra-parliamentary organisation, that formally called the strike, though under massive pressure from below and as part of a growing popular momentum. The strikes grew out of community self-organising by Palestinians – most obviously in response to police abuses and racist violence – not out of union activity.

Let’s look briefly at one centre of struggle from where reports of the strike are available. In Haifa, Israel’s third largest city after Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the movement emerged on Sunday 9 May with a demonstration in solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah that was repressed by the police.

Protests continued, however, and on Tuesday 11 May there was the first of a series of attacks by violent far-right groups (protected by the security apparatus). These galvanised further Palestinian mobilisation and community self-defence organising over the following days, out of which discussions arose about how to advance and generalise the struggle further.

The call for a general strike developed in this context, culminating in the decision by the Higher Follow-up Committee on Sunday 16 May – exactly one week after the first major solidarity protests with Sheikh Jarrah – to formally issue a general strike call. This was complemented, significantly, by the same body publishing an appeal for global solidarity by trade unions and solidarity movements. While this official endorsement was vitally important, reports indicate that the momentum came from the streets, with established organisations largely sidelined.

Monday 17 May was a frenzy of organising. Meetings were taking place everywhere. Activists visited schools to urge teachers and pupils to strike, only to find that they were already planning to do exactly that.

On the day itself – Tuesday 18 May – a great many Arab shops and small businesses were closed for the day. But it went further than that: many Palestinian workers with Israeli employers courageously refused to work. Major Israeli companies were forced to make embarrassing announcements about disruption to their business or services due to the strike. Stories about Israeli employers threatening workers with the sack proliferated.

The strike action was accompanied by a great deal of community activity and collective organising to support each other. Singers and musicians gave impromptu performances for crowds, creative activities were arranged for children, and people flew Palestinian flags.

The strike fed back into – and merged with – the street movement. Tal’at, the Palestinian feminist organisation, called a demonstration for the Tuesday evening, attracting a large and predominantly youthful turnout, protesting in support of the strike, flying Palestinian flags and singing freedom songs. Confidence grew and an impromptu march was held, greeted by shouts, chants and V signs in solidarity from motorists, with the police deciding not to interfere (almost certainly intimidated by the strength of the movement).

It should also be noted that the strike movement spread to Jerusalem and the West Bank too. In the West Bank there were many sizeable demonstrations on the day, with Ramallah (site of the Palestinian Authority administration) having its biggest protest in many years. It was a very active strike, with strikers and their supporters holding street demonstrations and collectively confronting Israeli forces at checkpoints (there were a number of Palestinian deaths in consequence). The strike day – the strike itself and also the attendant demonstrations and other public activities – had a big political impact inside Israel and in annexed East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

There was some direct economic effect too. Israel’s construction sector relies upon Palestinian labour: around 90,000 Palestinian workers who live in Israel, plus about 65,000 Palestinians travelling daily, via the military checkpoints, from the West Bank. It is reported that on the general strike day no more than 150 Palestinians crossed the checkpoints to work on the construction sites. A high proportion of Palestinian workers inside the borders struck too, despite threats of dismissal (and this is against the background of mass unemployment). There was clearly a sense of workers rediscovering collective economic power.

Repression in Israel

Israel has unleashed a wave of repression to counter the popular insurgency among Palestinians. The unusual scale of repression – unusual inside Israel’s official borders, at least – is directly related to the scale, scope and social depth of the Palestinian mobilisation to which it is responding.

A Haaretz report by two activists in Jaffa, a small coastal city with a two thirds Jewish and one third Palestinian population, claimed that ‘what we are witnessing now is a revolutionary spark calling for profound change’. The Israeli state response must be understood, they write, as ‘an institutional counter-reaction aimed at suppressing Jaffa’s indigenous population’.

In Jaffa, interestingly, it was threatened evictions of local Palestinian families (there are currently 300 eviction orders in the city) that fuelled the latest protest wave – a reminder that the problems faced elsewhere can also be found inside Israel. Sheikh Jarrah had powerful resonance. Starting on 10 May, Jaffa’s Palestinians have endured police tactics that have been compared to a military occupation – another reason for Palestinians there to identify strongly with their sisters and brothers in the West Bank. Brutal attacks on protests have been reinforced by oppressive stop-and-search operations, routine arrests, racial profiling and the use of checkpoints.

What is happening in Jaffa can be seen everywhere in Israel. The Gaza ceasefire announced on Thursday 20 May was followed by a crackdown on Palestinians who dared to continue protesting and organising. Inside Israel, there were reportedly over 250 arrests of Palestinians in just two days – on Monday 24 and Tuesday 25 May. Hassan Jabree, head of the Adalah legal centre, referred to it as ‘terrorising’ of Palestinian citizens by the state. This was accompanied by continuing violent attacks by groups of Jewish supremacists, generally without any repercussions from the official forces of law and order.

There had already been 1,550 arrests of Palestinian protesters in the previous two weeks. Overall this has been estimated to be the largest wave of arrests and repression against Israel’s Palestinian population in history. It is thought to have been even bigger than the crackdown of October 2000, responding to the start of the Second Intifada when many protests took place inside Israel. The operation launched on 24 May was evidently designed to restore the prestige and authority of the Israeli police, which had been surprised by the scale of protests over the previous two weeks – and humiliated by the strength of Palestinian mobilisation in Israel’s cities and towns.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has been aiding Israel in its repression, further deepening its crisis of legitimacy among Palestinians. On 28 May, Al Jazeera’s website published an article – called ‘Why is the Palestinian Authority arresting West Bank activists?’ – that contained the shocking account of the mistreatment of a 22-year-old activist, Tariq al-Khudeiri, by Palestinian security personnel.

This was no isolated example: Al Jazeera reported that ‘Al-Khudeiri’s case is one of the dozens of recent arrests of Palestinian activists and university students by Palestinian Authority security forces in the occupied West Bank’. This expresses the deeply compromised role of the PA in managing Israel’s occupation. It starkly illustrates the gulf between the official leadership of the Palestinians and the activists and organisers who are driving resistance on the ground.

The way ahead

What does all this mean for the Palestinian struggle? The first thing to note is that Palestinians – wherever they may be – are fighting back against the injustices, violence and racism of Israeli apartheid. There is a revival of mass struggle – and, with it, hope and confidence.

The failures of leadership in recent years are only part of the story; the flipside is the renewed popular struggle from below. There is more to the movement for Palestinian liberation than the rift between Fatah and Hamas, or the diplomatic manoeuvres of the Palestinian Authority. A new generation is rising: as an Al Jazeera piece put it, ‘Generation Z will free Palestine’. What is not yet clear is how this hugely impressive upsurge of mobilising and organising will affect the political landscape among the Palestinians: what level of coordination can be achieved, whether durable new organisations can be established, and whether the political dominance of Fatah and Hamas can be challenged.

The second observation is that the Palestinian struggle is happening across the entire Palestinian community, building bridges across the divides (geographical and political) that divide Palestinians and achieving a degree of unity in action that not long ago seemed like a pipe dream. This expansiveness and solidarity is broadening political horizons too. It reinforces trends away from the bankrupt ‘peace process’ model of an independent state consisting of little more than a loose network of bantustans, towards a vision of liberation that encompasses the whole of historic Palestine. Above all, this includes the Palestinians inside Israel. This is key.

Thirdly, the rising of the Palestinians acts as a spur to the global movement. The recent demonstrations in the UK – and I imagine it was the same elsewhere in the world – were electrified by the reality that Palestinians themselves are rising in revolt. The fact that the Gaza offensive had poor outcomes for Israel’s military – and is widely perceived as a strategic failure for Israel – accentuates this.

Palestine demonstration, London May 2021. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

It felt somewhat different to the summer of 2014, when demonstrations were infused with raw anger at the terrible devastation wrought upon Gaza, but there wasn’t the same inspiration that came from mass Palestinian resistance. This inspires global solidarity efforts, provides desperately-needed hope, and further shifts the focus towards a broad vision for Palestinian freedom rather than forlorn pining for the chimera of ‘two states’.

There is a reawakening of active solidarity with Palestine in many Arab states – a powerful antidote to the growing ‘normalisation’ efforts of their leaders. This is one of the great unknown factors in the current context: it is impossible to predict whether we will see a substantial return to street protest in the wider Arab world, whether galvanised by Palestine solidarity or relating to other issues. The memory of 2011 should serve as a corrective to fatalism – it has happened before. A number of countries, notably Iraq and Lebanon, have had mass popular movements more recently.

The fresh wave of solidarity demonstrations is giving new impetus to the BDS movement – with statements from artists, academics and others being issued – and is pulling in new layers, for example through student-led actions in many schools. This inevitably generates a backlash from political elites, especially through the cynical weaponising of antisemitism. But the resurgence of Palestine solidarity has rolled back much of the slanders and abuse of the last few years, re-centring Palestinian voices and experiences. The mass movement has shifted the terrain of political debate, with a growing understanding (especially among younger people) that Palestine is the centrally important anti-colonial, anti-war and anti-racist cause of our times.

What’s needed to sustain this – and to decisively tilt the balance away from Israel and its Western backers – is three things. Firstly, the Palestinians’ own resistance must be sustained, with the connections strengthened across the divides that Israel has spent decades engineering. New generations of activists must carry the lessons of recent weeks, including the power of collective methods like strikes and demonstrations, into the next stage of struggle, and build organisations and movements that bypass the Palestinian Authority.

Secondly, we need to strengthen the global solidarity movement. That means directing our fire at Israel but also (for people in the Arab world) at their leaders’ ‘normalisation’ process and (for people in the West) at our own governments’ direct complicity in Israeli apartheid. Palestine is a frontline of anti-imperialist politics for us. The tactics of BDS, together with further street protests, are central here. Our challenge is to build a mass anti-apartheid movement with comparable impact to the international solidarity movement supporting black South Africans during the apartheid era.

The question of what role the Arab streets can play in the next phase is a crucial one. The Arab Spring offered hope to Palestine; the counter-revolution in the Arab world, backed by the US and its allies, eroded those hopes. The relationships between Israel and several Arab states have become closer in recent years, but that can inspire strong popular opposition among the working classes of the Arab states.

Palestinian flags in Tahrir Square, 2011. Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Finally, we need a radically different political vision to the impoverished pleading of the Palestinian Authority leaders. The new generation of Palestinians taking to the streets is making bolder demands, insisting on meaningful unity, and broadening the horizons of the Palestinian struggle. The global movement is increasingly doing likewise.

Within the broad movement we should push for an understanding of the settler-colonial roots of Palestinian oppression and the consequent need for an all-encompassing alternative across Palestine. Only a single, secular and democratic state can offer justice, freedom and equality for all.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).