There was once a time, not very long ago, when prioritizing the Palestinian cause above all else was a socially and politically constructed self-evident truth in the Arab world. Explaining to outsiders who asked why we loved Palestine was as impossible as explaining why we loved someone. Because it’s Palestine, would have been the natural answer. Regrettably, we have now entered a new phase whereby we need to respond to this question—asked from within our own ranks no less— with more compelling reasons. We now need to persuade supporters of the Syrian opposition who have always supported Palestine in the past, that liberating Palestine takes precedence over overthrowing the Syrian “regime”, or why imperialism and settler colonialism is a graver threat than internal repression.
But the imperialism versus authoritarianism debate is itself rooted in a deeper divide over the meaning of Palestine for Arab activists and intellectuals. As I wrote previously, Syrian oppositionists and some Third Wayers (assuming they still exist) “misunderstand the extent of Israel’s iniquity by locating it solely in Zionist aggression, human rights violations or in the circumstances of the occupation. The resistance camp conceives of Israel as the greatest injustice because of its very existence and the unprecedented nature of its oppression, which renders it not merely a human rights cause, but humanity’s cause.”
The difference in outlook became all the more stark to me when I read this description of the BDS movement and its priorities, by Ali Abunimah founder of the highly commendable website, Electronic Intifada:
Rather than fetishising “statehood”, the BDS campaign focuses on rights and realities: it calls for an end to Israel’s occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands conquered in 1967; full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and respect for and implementation of the rights of Palestinian refugees.
Although I am a huge supporter of the BDS movement and see it as a necessary complement to the armed struggle, and although I agree with the movement’s refusal to “fetishize” statehood, I take issue with its priorities as well as its willingness to settle for a truncated state with 1967 borders . Yes, Palestinian rights are of utmost importance and the Palestinian people are indeed subject to the grossest form of oppression and injustice which requires our collective efforts, but my unit of analysis is Palestine, not only the Palestinians.
When I think of Palestine, the people are of course a leading component but not the only component of this concept. Palestine is, as Seyyid Hassan Nasrallah alludes to it, “not just the blood of a man, the fate of a woman, the crushed bones of a child, or a piece of bread stolen from the mouth of a poor or hungry person. It is the issue of a people, a nation, a fate, holy places, history, and the future.” Palestine is the land and the people, past, present and future generations. If we are to limit our understanding of Palestine to Palestinians then we would be forced to relinquish the Palestinian cause and to betray future generations of Palestinians, if the their elected representatives chose to abandon armed struggle and satisfy themselves with a Bantustan comprised of 22% of historic Palestine.
More than this, Palestine not only needs us, but we need Palestine: it is the identity that once united us, the direction that guides our moral compass, the cornerstone of our political principles, the lens required for our awareness and understanding of imperialism, and a strategic necessity for the freedom and self-determination not only of Palestine, but of the entire region.
When I confine my understanding of Palestine to Palestinian individuals, I am effectively renouncing my need for Palestine. When Palestine is relegated to a human rights’ cause I open myself to the argument made by the Syrian opposition camp, that Palestinian blood is no worthier than any other Arab blood (itself a flawed argument). When individual Palestinians are my unit of analysis rather than the trans-historical concept of Palestine, I also open myself to the charge—made by some supporters of the Syrian government who withheld support from Hamas in the recent Gaza war — that Palestine is no longer a priority given Syria’s higher death toll and Hamas’ abandonment of Assad.
The only way we can ensure the Arab and Islamic world’s ongoing commitment to the Palestinian people is by making Palestine our unit of analysis and point of departure. And while we should never fetishize a truncated statehood, we should fetishize resistance and liberation for there is no other way to free the Palestinian people or the people of the region from the plague of Zionism.