Not long ago I was having a discussion with a friend about Palestine. I was talking about the historical legacy of colonialism, the checkpoints and the apartheid wall. “I understand all that,” my friend replied, “It’s horrible. But why is it more horrible than everything else that’s going on in the world?” It’s true that the Palestinians suffer horribly under the Israeli occupation. But then, so do many others: dozens of conflicts go underreported. Not everyone who points this out is a raving Zionist. If we want socially conscious people to identify with the Palestinian struggle, where do we start?
Here follow a few suggestions:
Firstly, there is an ethical commitment to alleviate suffering. There are many other horrors, like the Congo’s 70,000 displaced persons and millions of war dead. But the Palestinians make a respectable showing in any ghoulish hierarchy of suffering – even before last year’s Gaza war that killed 1,400. The Palestinians face collective punishment: the Israeli blockade and continuing land and water grabs have created poverty and ill-health at astounding rates. Palestinians have to deal with daily humiliations: waiting hours at checkpoints to make a 10 minute trip, having hostile settlers implanted in the midst of their cities, having their houses bull-dozed. Some 1.5m Gaza residents suffered from malnutrition and food insecurity before the war; post-war, they suffer mass depression and anxiety, in addition to physical injury.
However, solidarity work does not just involve looking for the miserable and lending them a hand. If that were the case, we could just donate to World Vision and feel good about all the new wells. To address root causes, we have to leave liberalism behind and move from the effects of war and crises to their cause. The second reason the Palestinians matter is imperialism.
The Zionist project is about maintaining a state based on ethno-religious citizenship, and the history of Israel has been one long battle to clear Palestinians from the land. Rafael Eitan, the late Israeli general said in 1983, “When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.” This process continues today, as Israel expands its settlements in the West Bank and continues to annex portions of East Jerusalem. This is a systematic political campaign to dispossess a people. As such, it falls squarely in line with what leftists call imperialism, in which a state invades and occupies another to gain resources and political control. The chief culprit is the US, acting in the interests of transnational capitalist classes, into which the Israeli ruling class is firmly integrated. Far from denying this, Israel actively promotes its role as a defender of “western values and democracy”.
To help, the US gives Israel over $2.5bn (£1.6bn) per year in military aid (not including foreign aid), more than double the amount provided to Egypt, the next highest recipient. These staggering amounts show the Palestinian’s importance: lacking a pliant political leadership, they must be hemmed in and subdued. The US can maintain regional control in its ongoing battle with Iran and to fight proxy wars in Lebanon, while Israel gets the resources to carry out its asymmetric war of attrition.
Which is all about the third reason: capitalism. Palestinian resistance is the fly in the ointment of the strategic vision of American empire to dominate the Middle East, oil supplies and, further afield, define spheres of influence against rising power China. This is not about military domination per se, but about the US as global cop: maintaining the conditions for capital accumulation across the globe. There are local interests at play too: the Palestinian working class is either super-exploited as a source of cheap labour, or denied access to the labour market at all. Israeli capital profits from controlling all imports into the Occupied Territories, including confiscating aid to Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile major contractors like Caterpillar and Volvo profit from selling military gear to the Israeli Defence Force.
What these factors demonstrate is that the Palestinian struggle is political. Changing power relations in Palestine – working for the creation of a single democratic-secular state – would have ripple effects across the world. Challenging Zionism throws the entire US-led imperialist project into question. Other nascent political movements would gain strength from a successful Palestinian struggle, much as the Vietnamese and South African struggles provided inspiration for anti-colonial movements in the 1970s and 80s.
Despite the bleak prospects, there are glimmers of hope. There’s the ongoing resistance of the Palestinians themselves, who confront the indignities of occupation daily. There are leftist movements within Israel, like the refusenik soldiers who will not serve their draft duty for what they see as an illegal occupation. There is also the growing campaign for boycotts, divestments and sanctions, as well the burgeoning Israeli Apartheid Week mobilizations, which Israeli authorities have identified publicly as a threat.
These movements didn’t arise out of some burst of humanitarian generosity: they are strategic. And that’s the pragmatic beauty of the Palestinian solidarity movement. By participating, you not only support an occupied indigenous people, refugee and women’s rights, you weaken the monoliths of imperialism and capitalist rule. There are many other worthy international solidarity campaigns today, but few others can make these kinds of links. It’s very little effort to accomplish so much.
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This post was written by Daniel Serge