Solidarity Activism and Palestinian Agency

After a lot of reflection, discussion, and reading I feel myself coming to the conclusion that a key problem with Palestinian activism is the position of Palestinian agency within the movement. In order for activist groups to stand in solidarity with a revolutionary people, they must not simply stand against the oppression of that people but stand for the cause of that people, stand with the actions of that people, stand with that the agency of that people. So by Palestinian agency I do not mean simply the capacity of Palestinians to make choices, to act, to behave as agents, rather, I mean the ability of a revolutionary to point to emblematic actions, symbolic actions, characteristic actions, and stand in solidarity with those actions as examples of Palestinian agency. To be affirmed, to stand in solidarity with it, Palestinian agency must be identified with actions that affirm the conflict and affirm the cause of the Palestinians. Ideally, the action ought to express the “general will” of the Palestinian people.

Generally speaking, pro-Palestinian activist groups do not “stand with” Palestine nearly as much as they “stand against” Israel. They represent Palestinians as an “oppressed” people, and as an oppressed people demand that we stand with them against their oppression. We speak a lot about Israel, a little about Zionism, but most of all about human rights and the disastrous humanitarian situation that in which many Palestinians live. We speak about the inequality that Palestinians experience as a result of Israeli actions, and we speak about the need to cure Israel of its apartheid structure.

The problem with this discourse is not that it is overly critical of Israel, but rather that by focussing on Israel we treat Palestinians as neutral actors, as victims, as the oppressed and victimized. We do not treat Palestinians as a people, as a revolutionary people, as a people which distinguishes itself from many other indigenous colonized people by its steadfast decision to stand against its dispossession. What distinguishes Palestinians from other colonized peoples is not their unfulfilled rights or their difficult humanitarian situation, but their revolutionary spirit not to settle, not to accept their unending refugee situation, not to accept the loss of their homeland. Palestinians are not distinctive in the suffering that has been inflicted upon them, but in how much suffering they have endured and yet remain committed to their homeland, not only rhetoric but also in organized action and in personal sacrifice.

Of course, there are good reasons why we avoid treating Palestinians as agents. Because, as agents, they do all sorts of things which are not acceptable to western sentiments. They deny the right of Israel to exist on their homeland, and at many times they have engaged in and supported armed struggle against Israel. In 1988 the PLO tacitly recognized Israel’s existence within the ’67 borders, but this has never become a consensus issue for Palestinians, and even those who support the recognition of Israel at the same time insist on the right of return for the refugees which will give Palestinians the ability to destroy Israel through democratic means inside the Knesset. These are uncomfortable positions and actions for westerners to recognize, and certainly they are difficult for many to support. You certainly won’t make a lot of friends walking through downtown Toronto expressing solidarity with mainstream Palestinian convictions. 

And of course, it isn’t that we ignore Palestinian agents all together. We champion the non-violent resistance, the protestors at Bil’in and Nabi Saleh who stand week after week pointlessly chanting slogans while they breathe tear gas. And we become ecstatic when, partially as a result of one of these protests, the Israeli supreme court insists the apartheid wall be moved ten meters, restoring the access of a village to a few more of its trees (while the wall remains far east of the Green Line). We look at pictures of these protestors, we stand by their commitment to “non violent resistance”, but we don’t ask – do these Palestinian agents represent Palestinian agency? Are they supported by all or most Palestinians, and what is the relation of these protests to the larger cause? While getting a few trees back for a village is surely great for the village concern, it does little for the farmer who’s land is a good way west of the Green line, stolen in 1948 not ’67. Another problem with these protests is, well, they aren’t a problem. Israel isn’t bothered by them – soldiers do the same thing week after week, it doesn’t occupy the time of very many soldiers, it doesn’t interfere in settlement construction, it doesn’t produce Israeli casualties. Actually, I wonder sometimes in what sense are these protests “resistance” at all – doesn’t “resistance” presume that the actions of the oppressor are “resisted”, i.e. repelled, slowed, made more difficult? The ease with which these protests are kept at bay suggests there is very little “resistance” going on, although there may be a lot of “non violence”.

In reality, the international solidarity community’s obsession with “non violence” tells us a lot more about the values of activists than it does about Palestinian agency. Sure, you will find a “young, new generation of Palestinians who believe in non violent resistance”, but you know, there are a lot of Palestinians, the real question is not will you find some people who believe in some values, but rather why do some groups receive attention and others not, why do some groups receive support and others not? I have nothing against non-violence, in fact, I think for lots of reasons it might be the preferable way forward. But I am not under the illusion that most Palestinians agree with me, and, because I am not a Palestinian revolutionary, I think it is more important to stand with them than to be right. After all, this is what is meant to distinguish “solidarity” activism” from “regular” activism. Normally activism is about standing up for what you think is right, trying to convince others to agree with you. But solidarity activism is about standing with someone else, lending your voice to theirs, lending your strength to their direction. But if Palestine “solidarity” activism takes a stand on what counts as legitimate resistance, what counts as “fixing” Israel, what counts as a fair deal for the refugees, then it isn’t “solidarity” activism at all, but just regular activism.

How did this happen? How did activists who set out to be “solidarity” activists end up just promoting their own vision of the good? The answer, I think, lies in the human rights and humanitarian logic which encourage us to see Palestinians as “victims” of an Israeli aggressor. Victims are not agents, and in our desire to paint Israel as the terrible aggressor, we also painted Israel as the only agent around. The Palestinian was reduced to the passive victim, that we speak for but to whom we do not listen. Of course, we can listen to the Palestinian “agent”, but only in its sanitized form – as the non-violent protestor.

But the non-violent protestor is not the hero of the resistance. The Palestinian nationalist movement is bathed in the blood of its martyrs. The sacrifice of the fedayeen over the last 64 years is the centre of the fight. The fighter is the paradigmatic Palestinian agent, the one who refuses to accept his or her dispossession, who refuses to accept the enemy’s rule over the homeland. The fighter is the hero of the resistance, the hero of a people at war for 64 years. The fighter is not simply a symbol of death and destruction, but also of strength and rebirth. The fighter is not only a symbol of the resistance, of the Palestinian’s revolutionary spirit, the fighter is the resistance, is the Revolution. Palestinians are a historically distinctive people because they fought back. Whatever version of the Palestinian “cause” you choose to focus on, whether the single democratic state, the partitioned west-bank-and-gaza state, or the Islamic state, it is the fighters who give that cause its content, who fought for that cause, who’s actions made it more than words on paper.

I do not pretend there is some easy solution to the problem I have described here. It is very attractive, from a tactical point of view, to focus only on the enemy and treat the Palestinians as innocent victims, as simply oppressed. But it is dishonest to do this – to pretend that the apartheid wall was not a response to the first armed insurrection ever to be based in the Palestinian territories, to pretend that that insurrection was not planned and carried out by the political movements, to pretend that Palestinians did not support the resistance.

The only honest approach to solidarity activism for the Palestinian people is to confront head-on the problem of violence – the rhetoric of “terrorism” must be undermined, and the right of colonized peoples to use force against their occupiers must be affirmed. This has nothing to do with supporting violence – if anything, this should be done while trying to encourage Palestinians not to use political violence. But the principle of solidarity, of “standing with”, means that the strategic decision is not up to you, your job is to support – and supporting only non-violent resistance is not neutral but rather opposition to the use of political violence. By only focussing on Bil’in and Nabi Saleh, we inadvertently become participants in the war on the legitimacy of the use of political violence by non-state actors. In other words, we become soldiers in the war on terror.

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