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The politics behind the Palestinian resistance movement
The fight to liberate Palestine

January 4, 2002 | Page 8

TO THE U.S. and Israel, all Palestinians who fight back against repression are mindless "terrorists." But MOSTAFA OMAR and LANCE SELFA show that this is a slander against a national liberation movement with a long history of struggle.

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THE MODERN Palestinian resistance took root a decade after Israel drove almost 1 million Palestinians from their homes into refugee camps in 1948. Palestinian intellectuals and professionals who lived and studied in Arab countries--among them Yasser Arafat--formed the Palestinian Liberation Movement (Fatah) in 1958.

Drawing on the experience of the Algerian war of independence against France, Fatah advocated "armed struggle" (guerrilla war) to liberate Palestine. Fatah grew in size and popularity.

In the aftermath of Israel's victory in the June 1967 war and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Fatah's armed struggle gave millions of people in the Arab world hope in the possibility of fighting back.

In 1969, Fatah succeeded in taking over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), an organization that Arab governments founded in 1964 to pay lip service to the Palestinian struggle while keeping control over its activities.

Under Fatah, the PLO became a mass organization. It called for a popular liberation war, proclaiming that Palestinians "reject all solutions which are substitutes for the total liberation of Palestine."

But from the start, this radical language collided with the PLO's pledge of "non-interference" in the internal affairs of Arab countries. This promise meant that Fatah had to compromise with regimes that oppressed Palestinian refugees and had no interest in challenging either Israel or Western influence.

"Non-interference" led to many disasters for Fatah and the Palestinian movement. In September 1970, King Hussein of Jordan launched a military attack on the PLO, where Fatah had its main base.

Despite mass support in Jordan, whose population is overwhelmingly Palestinian, Arafat refused to enter into an all-out confrontation with the king's regime. Instead, he transferred PLO institutions and militias to Lebanon.

If their defeat in the 1967 war showed the impotence of the Arab regimes against Israel, "Black September" shifted many PLO leaders to narrow their demands to the liberation of only the territories that Israel occupied in 1967--the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

For the first time, the PLO agreed to seek a "ministate" side-by-side with Israel--giving up its aim to liberate all of Palestine. In 1974, Arafat officially called for a two-state solution and accepted United Nations resolutions that partitioned Palestine.

The PLO went even further in its "Declaration of Independence" in 1988, proposing that the independent Palestinian state be located in the West Bank and Gaza--only 23 percent of pre-1947 Palestine.

It endorsed diplomacy as the means to achieve the ministate. These concessions paved the road to Oslo.

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IN THE late 1960s and early 1970s, a new Palestinian left challenged Fatah's leadership of the PLO and its compromises with Israel.

Two main organizations, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), tried briefly to build a left-wing current in the national liberation movement. Both initially criticized the "ministate" solution, vowing to continue the struggle for a democratic, secular state in all of Palestine.

The larger of the two, the PFLP, contended that the victory of the Palestinian struggle was contingent on the success of Arab masses in defeating reactionary Arab regimes.

But the PFLP made a false distinction between "reactionary" and "progressive" Arab regimes, leading it to ally with dictatorships like Baathist Iraq that mouthed support for the Palestinian struggle.

Second, its concept of "armed struggle" focused on small guerrilla attacks or actions like airline hijackings. These tactics isolated the majority of Palestinians from the struggle and cost the movement solidarity.

The smaller of the two left formations--the DFLP, founded in 1969 as a split from the PFLP--rejected the distinction between "reactionary" and "nationalist" Arab regimes. The DFLP was also the first of the Palestinian resistance groups to work with allies in the Israeli left.

The DFLP rightly argued that the Arab working classes were the social force capable of defeating Israel and U.S. imperialism. But after the Black September defeat in Jordan, the DFLP shifted to the right. In 1974, DFLP leader Naïf Hawatma called for the formation of a Palestinian "national authority" in Gaza and the West Bank.

The early 1980s marked a low point for the Palestinian resistance. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon drove the PLO apparatus out of Lebanon to Tunis. The organization became even more isolated from the population it claimed to represent. That was why the official PLO had little to do with the mass struggle, the Intifada, that broke out in the territories in late 1987.

For the next six years, Palestinians waged a mass campaign of civil disobedience and confrontation with Israeli troops. They built hundreds of grassroots organizations that involved the mass of the Palestinian population in the fight against the occupation.

While cadres of all the organizations--both secular and Islamist, nationalist and leftist--played key roles in building the Intifada, they did not take orders from the PLO bureaucracy in Tunis.

It took years before PLO bureaucrats asserted their authority to announce an end to the Intifada when they decided to enter into the Oslo "peace" negotiations with Israel in 1993.

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THE INTIFADA also marked the emergence of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known by its Arabic initials Hamas. Hamas was formed in 1988 as the political wing of the traditionally nonpolitical Muslim Brotherhood.

Ironically, Israel tolerated the Islamists because it thought they represented a counterweight to the secular PLO.

Despite its "militant" image, Hamas's politics are reactionary in many ways, from advocating the creation of an Islamic state in Palestine to opposition to women's rights.

The 1993 Oslo accords and the subsequent years of U.S.-sponsored negotiations transformed Palestinian politics. The PLO, reconstituted as the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Gaza, faces pressure from the U.S. and Israel to crack down on Palestinian militants.

Meanwhile, poverty and unemployment for ordinary people have worsened while Arafat and his cronies have made fortunes through corruption and monopolies. This is why Hamas--and to a lesser extent, Islamic Jihad--became a focus for Palestinian discontent.

Officially, Hamas opposes the Oslo process and continues to call for struggle against Israel. But on more than one occasion, Hamas leaders have indicated their readiness to live with the state of Israel.

Until Israel assassinated Hamas leader Mahmoud Abu Hannoud, the group had maintained an agreement with the PA to refrain from carrying out suicide attacks inside Israel.

Sharon would like to use the "war on terrorism" to crush all resistance and to impose an apartheid system on Palestinians.

Only a strategy that involves the mass of Palestinians--not one that vacillates between isolated guerrilla actions and negotiations that simply reinforce Israeli domination over Palestine--can defend the liberation movement.

At the same time, an alternative to nationalist and Islamist politics must be built. This alternative will have to look to the struggles of the Arab working classes against their rulers and imperialist backers as the way to liberate Palestine.

Building a genuine socialist alternative in the Arab world might not be easy. The future of Palestine and democracy in the Arab world depends on it.

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