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What strategy for the Palestinian struggle?

May 18, 2007 | Pages 8 and 9

In September 2002, AZMI BISHARA, the leading representative of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, delivered a speech titled "The Quest for Strategy" at a conference in Ramallah. Delivered nearly two years after the start of the second Intifada and two years before the death of Yasser Arafat, Bishara's remarks argued for a framework to evaluate the effectiveness of the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Here, we print excerpts of that speech.

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The absence of a strategy for liberation

I am constantly surprised at how, when the subject of Palestinian strategy is discussed, impatient questioners seek to boil the matter down to "Are you for or against suicide operations?" The reduction of the national strategy to this question exemplifies an extreme political poverty in these difficult times, which is also quite tragic.

Allow me to be clear from the start: when we talk about strategy, we are not talking about various demonstrations, military operations and the different steps we ought to take. Many of today's [military] operations are motivated by vengeance, reaction or anger, and are not a byproduct of any strategy...

In this sense, strategy is a continuum--it is not just a collection of individually distinct steps or operations. It is an intellectual, political and even emotional continuum, as well as a question of will...

What else to read

The full version of Azmi Bishara's speech is included in the forthcoming Between the Lines: Readings on Israel, the Palestinians, and the U.S. "War on Terror," a new title from Haymarket Books edited by Tikva Honig-Parnass and Toufic Haddad. You can preorder the book from Amazon.

Bishara's statement "Why Israel is after me" is available on the Los Angeles Times Web site.

For a collection of essays on the history of Israel's occupation and Palestinian resistance, read The Struggle for Palestine, edited by Lance Selfa.

The Electronic Intifada Web site provides updates on the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank. For an eyewitness account of life in Gaza under israel's iron siege, read "From Gaza With Love," an Internet blog written by Dr. Mona El-Farra.


This is because the question of strategy is wider than the topic of military operations and reform [of the Palestinian Authority (PA)]. It is a comprehensive issue that addresses the relationship between the current situation and the goals we seek to accomplish through political means. We are talking about political strategies--not about strategies in a laboratory.

The debate on military operations

The question of whether we are "for or against military operations" is meaningless unless it is known under which strategy these operations take place, and to where these operations will lead...

Strategy is not only right for the sake of great goals like the "liberation of the Palestinian people." Our strategy may even serve transitional goals. There are stages of strategy. The question to be considered, then, is what are the transitional goals that this strategy will lead toward, and how are these to be achieved?...

You cannot be a political leader simply by virtue of continuity or faction--particularly if your political strategy is pushing the people toward death. While death is something basic and exists in struggle, and can even be asked for throughout the course of struggle, it must be explainable. Otherwise we are neither talking about a responsible leadership or society.

I am aware that struggle and liberation require sacrifice, particularly when you are talking about a colonial-settler movement of a nature whose uprooting will be more difficult than any other form of colonization. It is not as though [the Zionists] came within a set mandated period, and think in terms of possibly returning [to where they came from].

Rather, the nature of this colonialism is such that it says, "I am here so as to remain, so as to take your place." It is clear that ridding oneself of this form of occupation is not possible without a resistance strategy. This is the principal issue, without which nothing else can be understood.

Reform versus a strategy of resistance

The question of reform must take place within the context of an overall national struggle and within the pursuit for the strategy of liberation from occupation. I do not see a process of incremental reform, or for that matter, of state building taking place in Palestine that can lead to liberation from occupation without resistance.

[Liberation without resistance] was the presumption of all those who supported Oslo--at least those among them who were not cynical. I am talking about the people who supported Oslo from a position of principle and genuinely believed Oslo could achieve Palestinian national rights.

These people argued at the time that "through the Oslo process, we are engaging in an incremental process that will lead toward the ending of the occupation." This strategy believed that after the [1990–91] Gulf War and the establishment of a unipolar American hegemony both regionally and internationally, the Palestinians could begin a process of establishing a state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza...

I myself am categorically opposed to this strategy. This strategy is completely mistaken and led to giving up liberation. The strategy for liberation must include within it an elementary principle known as resistance [al moqawama].

What do we mean by moqawama? We mean that the occupation must pay a price, to the extent that it is incapable of withstanding it morally, materially, emotionally, politically, economically and socially.

The goal of moqawama is not to defeat the occupation militarily. The goal of resistance is not to defeat the occupation in a decisive battle, nor for that matter to pull the occupation into a decisive battle. The goal of resistance is to make the occupation pay the price of its occupation in conditions that those under occupation are capable of withstanding, but taking the continuation of the struggle into consideration at the same time...

The Palestinian people have already proven that they are capable of making their enemy pay a steep price. I say to you that the Israelis have paid a high price.

And don't let cynical people say that the [Palestinian] military operations do not have any influence. On the contrary--they do. Israel, as any other state that respects itself, has the primary task of preserving the security of its citizens. That is the justification for its existence as a state that monopolizes the means of violence. If it is unable to do that, it has an elementary problem.

But this is not sufficient for strategic accounting. The real question is how does [Israel's inability to provide security to its citizens] translate politically? What is the political effect of this upon the enemy? Does it lead to a decisive battle where someone's back will be broken?

There is no resistance movement in the world that has such an interest. Are the Palestinians to allow themselves to be drawn into a decisive battle without taking this into account and in a way that has not been studied beforehand? Can we afford that, just because three or four people [a resistance cell] decided it as such?

This is incomprehensible, and furthermore not acceptable for a national movement that seeks to struggle. This is not up for discussion.

The goal of the national liberation movement must be to splinter the occupiers' society in order to decrease its capacity to withstand the price being paid.

If we see that what is being done by the resistance unites the occupiers' society and increases its capacity to pay the price of its occupation--because it enters into a stage of nervous nationalistic chauvinism where its historical complexes are brought to the surface--then things must be stopped and studied. We have a deep national experience that must be studied, and its lessons must be garnered...

In general, the capacity for a society to withstand losses of its troops is less than its capacity to withstand losses of its civilians. In this sense, it is the opposite from what one might expect. Losses of civilians give the impression in their society that everyone is a possible target. The society therefore concludes that there is no need for discussion or negotiations, but that "we have to remain steadfast."

However, an attack upon soldiers is an attack upon politics. Soldiers wear an official uniform, which represents the state and its policies. A society can potentially separate itself from a policy--it can imagine this.

Furthermore, its capacity to withstand losses as a result of a policy is greatly reduced, because it is in theory prepared to change the policies of the state, if it is the state that is targeted...

What has taken place in the previous few years is complete confusion over the political message [of the Intifada] that we have sent. Precisely at the moment when a sympathizing consensus was in the midst of forming regarding the Palestinian struggle against occupation--as a form of anti-colonial resistance and not a question of "terrorism"--the Palestinian political narrative underwent a retreat.

One narrative tried to project the Palestinian cause as within Western interests for the region. In this case, even the hint of liberation, progressive values or democracy was absent.

Another narrative that emerged was one that pushed the framework of the national struggle in the direction of a religious struggle. It is incomprehensible that an anti-colonial, liberation movement will be transformed into a religious struggle. What do Europeans [and others in the West to whom we look to stand with us in solidarity] have to do with this?

Solidarity with a liberation struggle means that there are underdogs--people who are oppressed unjustly and who are fighting against oppression and whose cause is humanitarian and emancipatory. The test, then, is how to frame one's struggle in an understandable humanitarian discourse in a universally comprehensible language. If you cannot do this, there is a problem...

This makes it incumbent upon Palestinian social forces to think not merely about strategies of resistance but also about the possibility of organizing popular mass struggle, which, in my estimation, will have its own price, but will also bear valuable fruit.

After September 11, the time has come for Palestinian society to return to itself and confront the Israeli military occupation machinery as civilians in the context of a liberation struggle...

Palestinian society should pour into the streets as a besieged oppressed society, posing, for example, the question: Why should we observe curfew in a collective manner? If there is a society and it has leadership and organization, this can be implemented within the strategy I have mentioned, capable of combining state building, reform, a political message and resistance.

I realize the situation is complicated. But we must set out to lay the foundations for this strategy.

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