The death toll in Gaza climbs terribly with every passing day. 400 Palestinians a day have been killed since October 7. More children were killed in Gaza in just three weeks than the total killed in the entire world in any year since 2019 in warfare. Bombs fall on UN schools, hospitals, food markets, and residential buildings. More than half of Gaza’s residential buildings have been damaged and over 70% of the population has been simultaneously forced to flee and unable to escape.
The human cost in Gaza is incalculable: it is not just numbers or names but whole people, lives, stories, worlds that have been obliterated by Israel with US-funded and manufactured weaponry. Hundreds of entire families, generations have been killed. Families who could trace their lineage back at least to the first century have been removed from the civil registry. History is literally being replaced by the genocide of Zionism.
People call Gaza the world’s largest open-air prison. The term “prison” evokes a place for people who have broken some law, done some wrong. But perhaps a better metaphor is another term, what is defined as a “place where large numbers of a persecuted people are deliberately imprisoned in a small area with inadequate facilities”—a concentration camp. Walled in, unable to leave, every hospital is only partially operational, surgeons working by phone lights, just waiting for the next one to be bombed. And of course there is no food, water, or electricity. We are witnessing literally the worst human catastrophe that any of us have witnessed in our lifetimes. Even amid the horror of this capitalist world, the full scale destruction of 2.3 million people in one of the most densely populated areas of the world bears no comparison in its callous brutality.
And it is going to get worse as the ground invasion grinds on. To rally their troops, Israel called up a 95-year old veteran of the IDF, Ezra Yachin, for the official role of motivating the troops. Yachin was a veteran of the Zionist militia that carried out the massacre of over 100 Palestinian civilians in the village of Deir Yassin during the 1948 ethnic cleansing that created the state of Israel. Yachin’s message to the troops is “Be triumphant and finish them off and don’t leave anyone behind. Erase the memory of them, Erase them, their families, mothers and children. These animals can no longer live.” There is no clearer example of the genocidal vision of Zionism.
In the world’s eyes, Gaza is rightly the main focus because of the enormity of the humanitarian disaster. It is also important to see what is happening in Gaza as one component of what is happening to all Palestinians right now. The occupied West Bank has since Oct 7 been on full lock down. On October 22nd the town of Jenin was struck by an air attack with the first use of a fighter jet by Israel. A mosque was also bombed in Jenin. It is important to note that the Palestinian Authority has played a role in this repression as well, shutting down demonstrations, arresting, and shooting at Palestinian demonstrators. And Palestinians living within the territory stolen in 1948—who are second-class citizens of Israel—have faced a wave of repression and mass arrests.
Understanding who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed in the current moment is not complicated. But in order to think beyond the immediate necessity of a ceasefire toward the liberation of Palestine, a brief sketch of some key concepts can be helpful in grounding discussions of Palestine and Palestine solidarity. In the following, we will cover in broad outline: Zionism, settler-colonialism, the role of US imperialism, and the history of Palestinian resistance.
Zionism is not a religious creed essential to Judaism but rather a modern political ideology that came into being in the last years of the 19th century. It is an ideology of a profoundly pessimistic response to the real problem of antisemitism that plagued Jewish communities in Europe. For Zionists, antisemitism is universal and immutable, impossible to be fought where Jewish folks lived. Thus, the only solution to antisemitism for them was the establishment of a Jewish-only ethno-state, set apart and walled off from other people. Zionism was the right wing of the Jewish movement in the first half of the twentieth century, counterposed to much larger organizations like the Jewish Bundt which held that antisemitism could be fought wherever it appeared, including in Europe.
The horror of the Holocaust provided fuel for the pessimism of Zionism. Political Zionism had its own left wing in the labor Zionism of Ber Borochov and in its right-wing, fascist variation exemplified by figures like Vladimir Jabotinsky who saw Zionism’s kin in fascist movements and was inspired by Benito Mussolini. But from left to right, every shade of Zionism—in its desire for a Jewish-only ethnostate—is racist and exclusionary. This reactionary character was born out through the settler-colonial form that Zionism took for its eventual creation of a state.
Before looking to the Middle East, the founders of the Zionist movement Theodor Herzel and Chaim Weizmann explored other locations (Argentina, Cyprus, Uganda) as possible locations for the ethnostate but eventually received backing from the British Empire to establish a state in Palestine with the 1917 Balfour Declaration. That show of support occurred in 1917 because Britain saw the establishment of a Jewish state as helpful to police the surrounding Arab territory (called a “loyal Jewish Ulster” by the first British governor of Jerusalem, in reference to the role of Northern Ireland) that had been taken from the Ottomans after their defeat in World War I. The British ruling class also saw supporting the Zionist movement as essential to counteract sympathy among the Jewish movement which supported the Russian Revolution of 1917—in which a number of Jewish revolutionaries played important roles in fighting antisemitism in a country that was then the most antisemitic country on Earth. Winston Churchill wrote about this explicitly in his 1920 piece called “Zionism versus Bolshevism,”where he said it was “especially important to foster and develop any marked Jewish movement that leads away from the fatal associations” of Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and Emma Goldman.
But Palestine of course contained people— Palestinians. So settler colonialism was required to establish a new ethnostate on Palestinian land. Colonialism is the domination of a native people militarily, politically, and economically by a foreign power. Settler colonialism is not just the domination of Indigenous people but their replacement by a settler population. And so the construction of a Jewish-only ethnostate was carried out by the forcible seizure of land, the physical driving out of Palestinians, and the attempt at the erasure that they were ever there. Of this fact Zionists are quite explicit. Comments like Defense Minister Moshe Dayanin 1969 speech are quite common where he stated that : “We came to a country that was populated by Arabs, and we are building a Hebrew, Jewish state. Instead of Arab villages, Jewish villages were established. . . There is not a single Jewish settlement not established in the place of a former Arab village.”
In 1948 the state of Israel was established through the implementation of an organized plan (called Plan Dalet) to steal land and ethnically cleanse the Palestinian population, expelling one million Palestinians, and various massacres like what happened in the villages of Deir Yassin and Tantura. In 1950 Israel passed the Law of Return and Absentee Property which extended citizenship and right of property in Israel to any Jewish person in the world. The territory was further expanded in 1967 to its current boundaries, although Israel to this day has never formally established all its borders.
But even after the catastrophe, the question of the population of Palestinians who were not driven out or killed still posed a challenge to the establishment of the Zionist ethnostate. And that question, expressed in the form of the steadfast resistance of Palestinians to not be erased, will shape its history as described below. The key take-away here is that everything that is happening now is driven by the logic of Zionist settler-colonialism and is intrinsic to the so-called national project. The Israeli state is not reformable but its entire apparatus—constructed on assumptions of racist exclusion—have to be dismantled for there to be justice.
The other key plank to understanding the situation is that settler colonialism as a project depended on imperial backing. In a situation in which a settler population seeks to conquer and replace an indigenous population, they almost always require the military, economic, and political support of an imperial power with the resources to overcome local attempts to defend their land, identity, and lives. In the context of Israel, the Zionist movement and early state found its first imperial sponsor inBritain, but from the early 1960s to the present, the US took over that role with rabid gusto, providing massive military and direct economic aid, and political support like its iron-clad vetoing of any attempt to carry out international law in the UN against the regular illegal behavior of Israel.
Beginning with Kennedy’s establishment of the “special relationship” with Israel, Israel has existed as, to quote Benjamin Netanyahu, “the mighty aircraft carrier“ of the United States in the Middle East. Israel is the watchdog state for US interests in the region, deemed more internally stable (a function of it being a settler-colony) than the Arab states and with the 2011 Arab Spring being a recent example of their instability and therefore unsuitability for imperialist aims.
The Middle East is vitally important to capital globally due to its geopolitical centrality for the control of oil, international trade and supply chains, and Gulf finance. Israel is, to quote Genocide Joe Biden, the best investment of the US in the region and if Israel did not exist, “we would have to create it.” It is for that reason that the US has parked two aircraft carrier groups right off the coast of Israel, has fully endorsed and defended Israel’s bellicose brutality, and rushed to spend billions of dollars to reload the weapons Israel uses to mow down Palestinians. On October 7, the stability of this “mighty aircraft carrier” faced a massive blow to its veneer of invincibility.
All history, Marx and Engels said, is a history of class struggle. The Palestinian liberation struggle has been the beating heart of the international movement for everyone’s liberation for generations. The whole arc of the history of the Middle East region has been shaped by Palestinians’ courageous and steadfast refusal to allow the settler-colonial project of Zionism to be completed. Whole volumes are devoted to this history but here we only mention the most important touchstones of the continuity and variety of the Palestinian resistance.
- 1936-1939: Even before the state of Israel was imposed, Palestinians resisted settler expansion and British complicity with nearly three years of massive general strikes, mass demonstrations, and armed rebellion. It was violently repressed by the British with collusion from the Arab regimes.
- 1948-1967: In 1948, Zionist militias carried out the ethnic cleansing of Palestine (the Nakba, or catastrophe), conducting massacres and forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to become refugees in surrounding states. At first, Palestinian resistance politics focused largely on pressure campaigns on the Arab states to militarily retake their homes that were stolen by the invading Zionist militias. In some places, like in Egypt, Palestinians formed military units (fedayeen) that fought with the Egyptian army in the project
- In the 1950s inspired by the Arab Nationalism of Egyptian president Gamel Abdul Nasser, Palestinian students founded the Arab Nationalist Movement where many of those who founded the Palestinian left would emerge. It was hoped that Nasser would be able to defeat Israel and return Palestinians their lands.
- In 1964 the Palestinian Liberation Organization formed. Leila Khaled wrote that the founding of the PLO was done by “the honorable [Arab]presidents and noble kings, without consulting the Palestinian people.” It would remain an advocacy group within the Arab League for its first five years.
- 1967: After the defeat of the Arab states in the Naksa (the 1967 Six-day War) and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, many Palestinians began to be disenchanted with the Arab regimes’ ability to win them back their land. Around this time the guerilla struggle became more prominent among the diasporic Palestinian population in Jordan specifically where Palestinian refugees made up a majority of the population. Successful actions carried out by armed resistance like the 1968 Battle of Karameh led to the increase in popularity of Fateh and the various parties of the Palestinian left. In 1969, Fateh leader Yassir Arafat won leadership of the PLO, marking its shift into an organization of struggle. Fateh and the left valorized the anti-colonial resistance in Vietnam but their hopes of a “protracted peoples war” was problematized because unlike Vietnam there was the mass displacement and thus the geographical fracturing of the resistance.
- In 1970, the King of Jordan, fearing revolution, massacred Palestinians and kicked out the diasporic-based political parties like Fateh. Because of these events—called Black September—the diasporic attempt at armed struggle became more fractured and isolated.
- From 1970 until 1982 in Lebanon a similar strategy was carried out by diasporic parties, involving a series of border skirmishes and publicized hijackings in order to bring attention to the Palestinian cause. But this faced another defeat with the leadership of the PLO having to flee again to Tunis due to events related to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.
- The events of the First Intifada began in 1987. Beginning with demonstrations in Gaza, Palestinians mostly within the 1967 territories rose up. What followed was six years of the full mobilization of the population with strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, feminist organizing, and resistance with stones and Molotov cocktails. A largely nonviolent movement, the First Intifada mobilized every community in Palestine and at first caught the diasporic factions of Fateh and the left surprised. Israel met the movement with intense violence, with Defense Minister Yitzak Rabin giving the explicit order to “break the bones” of Palestinians protesting. It was in the days of the First Intifada that Hamas, a section of the Muslim Brotherhood became polarized by lack of participation in the intifada and formed the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). This was a shift from their previous focus on providing civil service and religious instruction. Hamas initially had received some support from Israel as a counterbalance to the Palestinian left.
- Then in 1993 the United States sought to close the chapter of resistance and to normalize relations between Israel and the Arab countries surrounding it. To that end the US facilitated the Oslo Accords. The end of the Cold War left the US as the sole superpower in the world, and the leaders of the aspiring hegemon wanted to consolidate their gains especially within the strategically important Middle East.
- Oslo established extremely limited administrative authority of the West Bank and Gaza by Palestinians. For Israel, it represented a temporary administrative, managerialistic solution to the problem that Palestinian existence posed to their desire for an ethnostate. Israel sought to divide and control Palestinian resistance by creating an apartheid system of semi-controlled enclaves including Gaza, and Zone A, B, and C in the West Bank. When the PLO under Fateh leadership accepted the illusion of a two-state solution, recognized Israel, and accepted the Oslo framework, it signified a tremendous defeat for Palestinians, in what Edward Said called “an instrument of Palestinian surrender.” The leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Hamas both condemned Oslo but were largely unable to formulate an alternative path.
- As illegal settlements continued to be built, borders closed, and promises of statehood failed to materialize, the reality of the defeat sank in. The Palestinian resistance simmered until Ariel Sharon, in his successful campaign for prime minister, stormed the Al Aqsa Mosque compound with 1,000 settlers in 2000, kicking off the Second Intifada in response. The new intifada began with a similar mass uprising of demonstrations and throwing of stones as the First intifada. But protests quickly turned to armed conflict as Israel fired one million bullets in the first several days of the uprising. Israel released a “shoot to kill” order and deployed US-made helicopters and tanks against Palestinian militias with small arms and homemade explosives.
- In 2005 the Second Intifada formally came to an end. In the course of the conflict, Israel constructed the apartheid wall dividing 1948 Palestine from the West Bank, and militarizing the series of checkpoints and outposts already constructed.
- It was also in 2005 that the vast majority of Palestinian Civil Society put out its call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Based on the South Africa strategy, this call was the ask of Palestinians for a global nonviolent campaign to 1) end the Israeli occupation 2) secure the right of return for all Palestinian refugees, and 3) establish legal equality for Palestinians in Israel. This nonviolent, international campaign that appeals to international law has faced several attempts to criminalize it, especially in the United States, even as it has achieved major successes in the US and around the world.
- In 2006-2007 Hamas won elections—largely due to dissatisfaction with Fateh’s association with Oslo and the PFLP’s lack of any alternative. The same year Israel instituted a disengagement plan with Gaza that removed settlers and military from within Gaza, a process that resulted in the blockade of Gaza and furthered the division and control of the Palestinian resistance that left Hamas isolated in Gaza. An uneasy balance was created under the siege of Gaza, in which Israel was relieved of the immediate responsibility for Palestinians in Gaza while Hamas maintained and managed the population relieving Israel of the immediate burden. By playing this role, Hamas preserved their standing in the territory. The uneasy and unequal relationship with the occupier however also meant that Israel would every few years carry out massive bombardments in Gaza–what one Israeli journalist called “mowing the grass” –under the pretense of limiting Hamas military resistance. The current genocide in Gaza can be seen as a very extreme version of or growing from that logic.
- In 2011, a wave of rebellion began in Tunisia and swept across the Middle East and North Africa, challenging and overthrowing regimes throughout the region. The so-called Arab Spring resonated among Palestinians as well, who marched up to the boundaries of the Zionist state en masse with the aim of breaking through, crossing back and returning to the homes that were stolen from them.
- 2018: On March 30, 2018 Palestinians in Gaza initiated the Great March of Return which consisted of mass nonviolent peaceful demonstrations at the fence enclosing Gaza every Friday for over a year. In one year, Israel killed hundreds of peacefully demonstrating Palestinians and injured 30,000, mostly by gunfire.
- 2021: Demonstrations broke out in East Jerusalem, led mostly by youth and aiming to prevent forced dispossession of Palestinian families in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, as well as to protest Zionist restrictions on access to the Al-Aqsa mosque. The resistance to the settlers’ encroachment kicked off mass rebellion—the Unity Intifada—all across historica Palestine. Even in cities inside the 1948 territory such as Lyd, Palestinian citizens of Israel rose up. A general strike stretching from the river to the sea coincided with the uprising. Villages in the West Bank like Beita engaged in militant demonstrations to prevent the building of settlements.
- 2021: In response to the Unity Intifada, Israel carried out a wave of arrests and assassinations and increased settler violence. Palestinians then organized self-defense militia on a nonsectarian basis between and beyond the established political factions. This trend spread across many of the refugee camps and towns in the West Bank.
This brings us roughly to today. From this very cursory summary one can see both the resilience, continuity and variety of the Palestinian resistance. The enduring fact of Palestinian resistance, and their ability to internationalize their struggle through solidarity, is what has prevented the completion of the Zionist settler-colonial project.
On the ground now, amidst the existential threat facing Gaza and the stark escalation of settler violence and state repression in the West Bank, the Palestinian resistance is focused on a unity of all fronts. One important element of the contemporary resistance is the prisoners movement. Before October there were 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners being held by Israel. That number has since doubled. Many of those are held in administrative detention, held without charge or trial. They are—for all intents and purposes—hostages. In Israel’s prisons, the Palestinian prisoners movement had already exemplified a unity of all fronts before the current crisis with members of all the factions jointly organizing hunger strikes, protests, and the publication of political perspectives like the 2006 Prisoners Document.
An urge to unity from below is echoed in the dynamics of the Unity Intifada in which the mass resistance that erupted did so outside of, and despite the dominant political parties, Hamas, Fatah, and, to a degree, the PFLP. As Yara Hawari pointed out in 2021:
Yet this uprising shows more than just the growing irrelevance of the PA and the struggle for legitimacy and power between the two dominant Palestinian parties. It has shown that grassroots and decentralized leadership can develop organically and outside of corrupt political institutions. It has also shown that Palestinians are hungry for unified mobilization.
It was this spirit of organizing beyond the established factions that fueled the development of the self-defense brigades in response to the current Israeli violence. While in certain instances (e.g. in Nablus) such formations were initiated by young people associated with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, they are not initiatives of the parties, but rather a kind of self-activity from below and that is what drives their popularity.
Our organizing here should mirror the calls for unity of all fronts in the fight for Palestine. We can learn especially from the newly emerging–though slowly developing–axis of the Palestinian resistance, which is finding important expressions today. The main advancements in struggle are occurring outside of the main political factions, and in a very difficult situation trying to find form.
Palestine Will Be Free
What would Palestinian liberation look like? At least three things have to occur. One, there needs to be resistance inside Palestine. And that’s happening and that will continue. Our responsibility in the US and the West is to champion and defend resistance in general.
The second component is the need for a massive domestic challenge to US imperialism here in the belly of the beast. US military aid is crucial in buttressing Israel. Importantly, US political and military support for other countries in the region helps to secure Israel’s role as the US watchdog state as well. It’s not just the direct armament of Israel, but also the 24 year support of King Abdullah II in Jordan, the massive flow of arms to Saudi Arabia, Egypt being the second largest recipient of US aid and all the strings that are attached to that. Having a robust resistance in this country against US imperialism is an essential part of our common struggle. This dovetails with the current slogan for ceasefire, around which people are rightfully mobilized. At the same time as the movement is calling for a ceasefire, by which people often mean “stop the bombing,” we have to point out that ceasefire is the floor. Our task is to chart a course from there to ending US financial and military aid for Israel, and more.
The last piece of the Palestinian liberation puzzle involves the role of the Arab working class around the region. Glimpses of the elemental power of that force could be seen in Egypt in 2011 when there was a brief period of time in which Mubarak was dethroned, revolutionaries ran the Israeli ambassador out of the country, and ransacked and literally tore apart the Israeli embassy. That kind of uprising is what it will take to alter the balance of power. The Rafah border crossing from Egypt to Gaza was briefly opened by the Egyptian revolution. That is a completely different situation than the one now with al-Sisi assisting Israel as another jailer of Gaza and taking a week to have the barest trickle of aid go in.
These conditions for liberation of Palestine are not going to happen in stages. If the long and recent history of the region has taught us anything, it is that a liberation struggle will come together in the kind of chaotic, amorphous, asymmetrical activity that always tends to happen in mass movements, in revolutions. And it is there that our hope lies. It appears still small now, but it is pregnant with potential, a shimmering and explosive spark.