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.
Gone are the days when US administrations used to cloak their directives with the third person narrator voice and their injunctions in a passive prescriptive tone: ”X should do this”, “y needs to do that”, “there must be z” etc. Gone too are the pretenses of the Syrian opposition’s autonomy, independent decision-making and by implication, popular legitimacy. Now, the US has abandoned all diplotalk and concerns for the Syrian opposition’s public image in favour of a first person narrator voice and an active prescriptive tone that closely resembles that of colonial administrator. Earlier this week, Hilary Clinton announced the birth of a new opposition coalition — the Syrian National Initiative (SNI)— that is to supersede the SNC, in language that can only be described as that of High Commissioner for the Syrian opposition:
"And we also need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution," she said.
We have recommended names and organizations that we believe should be included in any leadership structure,” she told a news conference.
"We’ve made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition. They can be part of a larger opposition, but that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice which must be heard.”
As the references above demonstrate, the US boldly asserts what its “ needs” in Syria are, “recommends [Syrian] names”, “makes things clear” to its clients, deciding what they “can be part of”, and judging whose voice is “legitimate”.
Yet in an audacious denial of reality, former SNC spokeswoman, Basma Kodmani declared that
“it was wrong to suggest that the US or any other government was involved in selecting the new council… She said: “Foreign powers have not been involved in nominations. The authority would selected by Syrians. It is a completely Syrian process. Names have not been designated, only groups and organisation which should be represented have been proposed.”
This despite Clinton’s reference to both “names and organizations” which Washington recommended.
More ironic still, is Riad Seif’s blueprint document for the SNI which clings to the self-delusion of “Preserving the national sovereignty and independence of Syrian decisions”.
A US official who spoke to Foreign Policy would beg to differ with the SNI’s self-professed autonomy : “We need to be clear: This is what the Americans support, and if you want to work with us you are going to work with this plan and you’re going to do this now. We aren’t going to waste anymore time.”
In the final analysis, Clinton’s message can hardly be considered insensitive when neither the Syrian opposition nor its supporters appear deterred by the Zionist proclivities of some of their members, let alone by such passé considerations as the imperious tone of their American masters. Such are the priorities of those who see authoritarianism as the new imperialism.