Roots of Resistance: The first intifada and international solidarity

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Palestinian women and children demonstrate on January 3, 1988 in Al-Ram in the West Bank.
(Photo: Esaias Baitel/AFP/Getty Images)

This post is part of the series “Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada.” Read the entire series here.

In the years leading up to the 1st Intifada, an international solidarity movement had been gathering pace. I remember attending an international conference of solidarity with the Palestinian people in the late 1980s and being astounded at the vast numbers of activists from all over the world that filled the halls of the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Such an outpouring of support for Palestinian rights brought tears to my eyes (as did the dense cloud of cigarette smoke from what was an as yet unsanctioned activity.)

That movement grew ever stronger during the 1st Intifada, with many people contributing different strands to it. Nancy Murray described her personal contribution in her compelling piece for Mondoweiss. I was then based in London as a writer and journalist, and tried to do my part by writing indefatigably in the British press, taking part in media debates, and hitting the road as a public speaker. The British media had “discovered” that Israel might not be a plucky little state worthy of unquestioning support in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and it gave those of us in the media an opportunity to make our voices heard. Others worked with trade unions, political parties and civil society organizations.

It takes a long time and a lot of organizing to build up a solidarity movement, just as it does to lay the ground that sustains an uprising like the 1st Intifada for as long as six years, as Mouin Rabbani set out so well in his masterful Mondweiss tour d’horizon. That is yet another reason why the Oslo Accords were such a disaster for the Palestinian people: they not only deflated the grassroots organization and democratic decision making that marked the 1st Intifada but also greatly weakened the international movement in solidarity with Palestinian rights. 

And, just as Yasser Arafat and other leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) did not understand the power of civil resistance and grassroots democracy to which the 1st Intifada had given prominence, they neither understood nor invested in the power of international solidarity – nor, for the matter, in getting the Palestinian voice out to the media.

The PLO dealt almost exclusively with other governments – and aspired to recognition primarily by the U.S. administration – even though they were not a government and had none of the sources of power that governments can normally tap, including the actual protection of the United Nations as opposed to the lip service the UN offered to the Palestinian people.

The inability of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to conceive of strategic sources of power beyond government continues to this day as they rule the emasculated authority awarded by the Oslo Accords. Much as I dislike Hamas’s social program, I have to note that they do invest in grassroots organizing, as do Islamists generally, understand the power of the media, and have a form of internal democracy that appears to function better than that of Fatah, though they can be equally brutal with adversaries.

It was not until the early 2000s with the coming of the 2nd Intifada that the international solidarity movement began to regroup. In the U.S. where I was then based, I co-founded the US Campaign to End the Israeli occupation, along with others that had been active during the solidarity movement of the 1st Intifada such as Phyllis Bennis, Kathy Bergen, and David Wildman – soon joined by Nancy Murray, Jennifer Bing and the late and greatly missed Geoff Hartman, among many, many others.

This is not to say that we had ever disappeared from Palestinian or pro-Palestinian activism – far from it – but the 2nd Intifada underscored how weak the international solidarity movement had become. We realized how much work we (and many others) had to do in order to rebuild such solidarity as a potent force that had an impact on Israel’s illegal occupation and its other human rights violations, including of the rights of Palestinian refugees and of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Those of us contributing to the rebuilding of international solidarity faced the challenge – unlike the South African solidarity movement – that the Palestinian leadership was weak and divided and that we could not look to it for guidance, a situation that got much worse after the death (or murder) of Yasser Arafat in November 2004.

Instead, we were guided by the framework of international law and human rights, which protected the coalition from splits and politicization and steered it from a coalition of some six member organizations in 2001 and a few individuals to one that now groups nearly 400 organizations across the U.S. – large and small, rooted in ethnicity, faith, and/or human rights – and has over 52,000 people on its listserv. Another decision that protected the coalition should be mentioned, which is the focus on U.S. policy, i.e. to focus our energies especially on those issues where U.S. policy played a role.

The vacuum of Palestinian leadership was partly addressed by the Palestinian Civil Society Call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) in 2005 and the subsequent formation of the BDS National Committee, a body that groups all Palestinian political forces (including Islamists) as well as representatives of civil society organizations, trade unions, professional associations, and refugee associations. It functions on democratic bases.

It is important to immediately underscore that the BNC is not a replacement for a national, representative Palestinian leadership and nor does it seek to be. However, the BNC does give leadership to the BDS movement, a major part of the international solidarity movement.

In addition, the goals set out in the 2005 Civil Society Call – self-determination, freedom from occupation, equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and justice for Palestinian refugees – are goals that every Palestinian supports.

The importance of this Civil Society Call statement of goals and the fact that they have been upheld by a broad swathe of Palestinian political and civil society representatives as well as by religious bodies (see, for example, the Kairos document by Palestinian Christians in 2009) cannot be over-emphasized.

We must not be misled by the appearance or even the reality of a political settlement if it does not fulfill these goals. It is vital for the Palestinian people – as well as for the solidarity movement – to know what we are striving for, and not only what we are struggling against. Otherwise, we risk disbanding once more if a political settlement appears on the horizon, just as happened with the Oslo Accords. And we must not cease our struggle until Palestinian self-determination, freedom, justice, and equality have been realized, whether in a Palestinian state alongside Israel, or in a secular, democratic state in all of Palestine/Israel.