The Great March of Return The Great March of Return. Photo: Hosny Salah

Michael Lavalette outlines the great range of ways in which Palestinians, today and historically, have resisted occupation and colonisation

For the last one hundred years, the Palestinians have resisted both British colonialism (from 1918 up until 1948) and Israeli colonial settlement, ethnic cleansing and displacement (from 1948 to the present). Palestinians have never acquiesced to their colonisation and have always been committed to the struggle for their rights and for the right to return to their homes and lands from which they have been forcefully displaced.

But what exactly do we mean by Palestinian resistance? How do Palestinians themselves see ‘resistance to the colonial occupation’? The answer to that question is perhaps not as straightforward as many would think.

In fact, it is possible to think about ‘resistance’ on four levels. First, there is what we might consider ‘individual resistance’. This is captured in a Palestinian phrase ‘samud’ and ‘sabr’ – which means ‘steadfastness and patience’. The Israelis want to displace and evict Palestinians. They want to make their lives hard and miserable to push them out and force them to consider a life elsewhere. They want to destroy their cultural sites and deny their history (think of the targeting of ancient churches and mosques in Gaza). They want to destroy any connection the Palestinians have with their land and place.

In the face of this, for many Palestinians, staying in Palestine, refusing to leave and making the most of life in difficult circumstances are acts of resistance. For example, the Israelis target universities and students, so in these circumstances, getting an education and going to university is a way of resisting. Laughing and joking, being with family and community are all ways of defying Israeli attempts to destroy social life. In a sense, then, the continuing Palestinian presence across Palestine48 is part of Palestinian steadfastness against Israeli oppression, a form of individual resistance.

A second form of resistance we might consider as ‘civil resistance’. Civil resistance is embodied in the range of collective social, civil, educational and welfare networks that sustain Palestinian life in the villages, towns and cities in Palestine48 and in the Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East. In Britain, these networks are sometimes referred to as ‘civil-society organisations’ and provide help and support to meet people’s needs in myriad ways. But unlike most ‘civil-society’ organisations in Britain, these networks have a clear political understanding that the problems that Palestinians have are caused by, and rooted in, the occupation. In this way, the work they do is clearly located within a more general sense of political resistance to the occupation.

For example, in all refugee camps there are youth projects which provide a range of educational, sporting and cultural projects that young people can engage with. But a central part of these organisation’s activities is to help young people understand their social circumstances: why they are refugees; where they are from; and why they have the right to return. To give an example, in the Balata refugee camp (just outside Nablus), the Yaffa Cultural Centre has facilities for young people to use art, drama and music to explore how their lives have been shaped by 75 years of the Nakba. The projects help young people to understand the occupation and to understand that the difficulties they face in life are rooted in the occupation. In this way these projects ‘socialise’ and ‘collectivise’ the problems of life that people face.

Popular resistance’

A third form of resistance is sometimes called ‘popular resistance’ by the Palestinians. This refers to the range of political networks that challenge the occupation and that organise the marches and strikes that regularly take place across the occupied territories, or that engage in various actions that we might understand as ‘civil disobedience’. For example, the regular marches and protests held at sites where the Israelis were extending the Apartheid Wall (for example the weekly protests that were held at the village of Bil’in, near Ramallah, from 2005 to 2015), or the weekly ‘Great March of Return’ protests that took place in Gaza from March 2018 to December 2019. These are ways of challenging the policies of the Apartheid regime and confronting the occupation by collective action.

Finally, there is the active armed resistance associated with the various Palestinian brigades, militias and guerilla fighters. The armed struggle against the occupation in Palestine has a long history. Various armed groups started to appear in the early 1960s and they undertook relatively small-scale operations against the Israeli state. However, the armed groups really grew after the Six-Day War of 1967.

Up until 1967, the dominant politics amongst the Palestinian refugee communities was a form of ‘Pan-Arab nationalism’. This was the hope and belief that the liberation of Palestine would come through a military invasion of Israel by the Arab nations (led by Egypt). The key figure in Pan-Arab nationalism was Gamel Abdel Nasser who came to power in 1954. In 1956, he humiliated the British, French and Israelis during the Suez Crisis. In 1958, he led the creation of the ‘United Arab Republic (when Syria and Egypt joined together for a period). However, the hold of Pan Arabism was dealt a significant blow in the Six-Day War when Israel defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan (taking the West Bank, Gaza, The Sinai and the Golan Heights in the process).

The following year, the Israelis set out to break what they thought were the last remnants of Palestinian resistance by destroying the small armed Palestinian brigades that were holed up in the village of El Karameh on the Jordanian side of the River Jordan. The Israelis sent tanks, aircraft and paratroopers against the guerilla forces (the fedayeen). The Jordanian army advised them to leave, but Yasser Arafat drew the forces together and urged them to stay and fight. The main Palestinian fedayeen were members of Fatah (Arafat’s organisation) with crucial support provided by fighters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In a fifteen-hour battle, the Palestinian forces fought heroically and forced the Israelis back. It was the first time the Israelis had faced defeat since 1948.

In the aftermath, young men and women in Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East flocked to join the fedayeen. Fatah became the largest of the groups, the PFLP and the more radical Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) also grew significantly. By 1969,Arafat had become leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Fatah the largest organisation within the PLO umbrella network.

The growth of the fedayeen movement meant they were able to engage in more actions against Israel. They engaged in attacks on Israel and Israeli forces, whilst the PFLP engaged in a series of spectacular aircraft hijackings to bring the plight of Palestine to the world’s attention.

From fedayeen to intifada

However, the growth of the fedayeen also caused tensions with other Arab states. Arafat and Fatah adopted a position of ‘non-interference’ in the politics of other Arab states (though in practice they were often involved). However, the more radical PFLP and DFLP called for a broader revolutionary struggle against imperialism, the Zionist entity in the region and the corrupt rulers of the Arab states. The PFLP and the DFLP saw themselves as part of a global anti-colonial movement that stretched from Algeria to Vietnam and from Cuba to the Congo. 

This came to a head in Jordan during ‘Black September’ 1971 when the Jordanian forces launched an attack on the Palestinian fighters (whose main bases were in Jordan). The outcome was that the leadership of the Palestinian movement had to relocate to Lebanon and set up their headquarters in Beirut.

Between 1971 and 1982, Beirut was the main headquarters of the Palestinian fedayeen movement. There, they led their campaign against Israel, but also became embroiled in the long Lebanese civil war that started in 1975.

The fedayeen were eventually expelled from Lebanon as a result of the Israeli invasion of 1982. After a two-month Israeli siege of Beirut, the US negotiated a settlement that would see the fedayeen leave the city to move to various Arab countries. The US promised that the Palestinian refugees remaining in Beirut would be safe – but no sooner had the fedayeen left than Israel facilitated the entry of Lebanese fascists into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila, where they carried out the most horrific massacre of the refugees.

The events in Beirut in 1982 represented a significant defeat for the Palestinians, but the revival of the Palestinian movement was not long in coming. This time it was in the shape of a truly spectacular mass movement, known as the First Intifada.

The First Intifada started in December 1987 in Gaza, but quickly spread across the West Bank and into Palestine48. It involved old and young, men and women in a range of mass protests, strikes, demonstrations and all manner of civil disobedience. It was a clear example of ‘popular resistance’. The Israelis responded with their usual viciousness, but the movement forced the Israelis to the negotiating table and the Intifada was a central element forcing Israel to offer concessions (which became the Oslo Accords).

It was Israeli intransigence and their failure to abide by the terms of the Oslo Accords that prepared the ground for the Second Intifada which began in 2000. The Second Intifada was much more militarised with Palestinian Brigades playing a far more prominent role. Further, many of the new brigades (those of Hamas and the Party of Islamic Jihad, for example) were not part of the PLO umbrella and were critical of the Palestinian Authority and its collusion with Israel that it identified as a consequence of the Oslo process.

The Second Intifada witnessed the growth of Hamas. In the elections of 2006 they won the elections, but found their path to government blocked by the PLO leadership. The result was a division between Gaza, run by Hamas, and the West Bank where the Palestinians Authority was run by the PLO – a situation which remains in place up to the present.

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