Sheikh Jarrah and the Reimagining of Palestinian National Liberation Struggle

Historically, national struggles of self-determination and community’s sense of national self tend to ebb and flow where some epochs constitute a dying optimism while other epochs represent a glimmer of hope for the preservation of national identity and belongingness to a particular territory.

The most recent violence unleashed by the Israeli state machine in Jerusalem and Gaza in the context of protests surrounding settler-colonialism in Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood represents certain trends in the movement. These trends if continued, could embody a changing paradigm in the Palestinian struggle for national liberation.

As I articulated in my previous opinion that the changing nature of power within Israel is leading its political culture toward the right, resulting in an intransigence toward any kind of dialogue with the Palestinians whilst the Israeli occupation continues in full-throttle and brutalizes the everyday existence of the Palestinians.

While the Israelis, since the second intifada, developed strategic thinking of deferring the Palestinian question to the distant future while consolidating their foreign relations and settler-colonialism, this deferring inadvertently pushed Palestinians to experiment with different kinds of resistance, a composite expression of five of them we had witnessed recently.

  1. Grassroots Mobilization

One of the most distinctive features of the recent Palestinian mass resistance, as opposed to the earlier ones, is that mobilization of the people tends to be grounded in community-based issues and community-based groups rather than in mammoth bureaucracies of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and other arrays of political representatives of the Palestinian national struggle.

While initially, people in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah mobilized themselves in protesting the state-sponsored forced displacement of them through a court order, which has now been delayed yet the settler-colonialist violence continues unabated, the second mobilization of people occurred around the issue of Al-Aqsa Mosque when Israeli police tried first to prevent people from entering the mosque and then charged them with police violence in the holy month of Ramadan. This led to riots within Israel proper as Jewish mobs rampaged through Arab neighbourhoods, threatening lives and properties, building a situational cauldron as Jewish and Arab communities battled out each other on the streets.

The resultant violence from these flashpoints pushed political forces such as PA and Hamas to mark their relevancy through rhetoric and rockets in a political moment that is increasingly being led by the people through grassroots mobilization. Within Israel proper, in Jerusalem and Ramallah, people were organizing and resisting while being independent of the political forces who claimed to represent them.

While these five trends in the Palestinian national struggle symbolize a shift in attitudes and dynamics within Palestinian nationalism, consonant with the broader shift in the discourse and criticism of the Israeli apartheid system, the dominant paradigm of Palestinian nationalism still revolves around the insidious dichotomy of complacency and militancy.

This form of political mobilization represents a departure from the complacency of PA and the militant character of Hamas, and is more reflective of the forms of political resistance such as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement – a call to boycott economically the goods and services which finance the continuation of settler-colonialism. Notwithstanding Israeli attempts to have Palestinians represented either by the PA through a direct consequence of Oslo accords or Hamas through inadvertent consequence of hedging against secular resistance, this form of political resistance through a community-based approach is the sum of all fears in the Israeli strategic calculus.

Tel Aviv cannot comprehend any Palestinian representation outside the insidious dichotomy of complacency and militancy. Similar to their whole-of-the-government approach in challenging BDS throughout the world, the Israeli state, in the aftermath of recent state-sponsored violence, applied what is the only tool in its playbook – the continual detention of the Palestinians – conspicuously punishing them for their independent mobilization.

  1. Cross-Border Unity

Existing along the axis of community mobilizations within Israeli-occupied Palestine and Israel proper, a conspicuous change was observed in the notion of intra-Palestinian unity when Arab participants of the Israeli economy announced a general strike in response to the violence meted out by the occupying forces against their brethren at Al-Aqsa Mosque, Gaza and Sheikh Jarrah. The mass strike was intended to paralyze the Israeli economy.

However, besides its explicit objective, the more meaningful messaging was communicated symbolically to the Israeli state: first, the Arab participants of its economy are important economic actors and if they wish so they could jeopardize the economic wellbeing of Israel proper; second, there exists a cross-border unity among Palestinians despite all attempts at division in the past. Notwithstanding the most traumatizing experience of the Israeli occupation structure to punctuate Palestinian territories with its settler-colonial model, the message was resoundingly clear that there exists a composite intra-Palestinian unity between Gaza, Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Moreover, cross-border unity also spans geographies as workers in South Africa practising BDS refused to offload cargo from an Israeli ship and wider movement around the hashtag #BlocktheBoat is being observed in different countries of the world. There are even calls for the journalistic community to report hard truths on the Israeli violence, and even within Israel, prominent people in science, academia, and activism are calling for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Israel for possible war crimes.

These expressions of intra-Palestinian unity and protest campaigns may appear miniature but they are of significant implications as they hurt the Israeli sensitivities toward criticism of its policies and represent a different approach from the mainstream political actors such as PA and Hamas.

  1. From The Land to the Rights

One of the most striking features of this grassroots mobilization is not in the areas beyond the green line, the territories officially designated as occupied, but mobilization within the green line – Israel proper – by the progeny of ‘1948 Palestinians’ –  Palestinians who managed to retain their homes or were internally displaced after Nakba massacre by the Zionist paramilitary forces to establish the modern state of Israel.

The protests by the progeny of 1948 Palestinians within cities such as Lod, Nazareth, and Haifa etc. of the Israel proper reached the point of a potential catastrophe that the Israeli president had to warn of a civil war within Israel proper and the state had to declare emergency in Lod.

While Palestinians and refugees beyond the green line built their resistance in terms of reclaiming occupied lands, the Palestinians within Israel had to confront the other side of the administrative violence where they are considered a second-class subject of the Israeli state and denied equal access to fundamental human rights. But Israeli occupation, though fragments these visions of national struggle, does exercise the same degree of disproportionate violence against Palestinians within and beyond the green line – a reality which Nathan Thrall of International Crisis Group called, “The Separate-Regimes Delusion.”

This axis of mobilization from Jerusalem to Gaza to Nazareth and other cities within Israeli proper lead to the fusion of disparate notions such as right to return of 1948 refugees, an end of the Israeli apartheid system in occupied territories, and an assertion of national identity by the Palestinians for equal rights within Israel proper. This fusion of distinct notions into a composite vision of national identity and self-determination terrifies Israeli strategic thinking as historically it manipulated these different notions and keeps the national struggle fragmented, notionally and politically.

  1. Narrating the Israeli Apartheid

The Palestinian struggle against the Israeli apartheid system has always been subject to sanitization by the discursive structures of western media. It is still projected as a ‘conflict’ than as an ‘anti-colonial struggle’ against Israeli settler-colonialism.

Thus, the Israeli apartheid does not only occur in the physicality of its occupation-in-perpetuity but it also occurs in the discursive sphere where suppression of Palestinian consciousness, narratives and voices is a de facto reality. This reality was so pointedly captured by Edward Said in one of his pivotal political essay, “Permission to Narrate.”

There still exists an intra-Palestinian unity across Israeli-occupied Palestine and there still exists a unified sense of Palestinian nationalism particularly within younger demography.

The reality of discursive suppression of the Palestinian consciousness articulated by Said now also latches into the sphere of social media where digital conglomerates attempted, albeit in relative success, to suppress the voices coming out from Lod, Ramallah, Jerusalem and Gaza during recent Israeli violence.

But global pressure and activism to suspend their prejudicial approach to the Palestinian narrative allowed the world to witness an unregulated and raw look into the organic mobilization of the Palestinians against the brutal realities of the Israeli apartheid.

Palestinians still have a long way to go in narrating their communal consciousness to the world and underscoring the Israeli apartheid through their everyday experience but the recent global activism from communities across Israeli-occupied Palestine as well as the globe indicates a beginning of a political undercurrent that no longer Palestinian voices would be suppressed or be subjected to sanitizing by western media corporations.

  1. Open criticism of the Israeli Apartheid

Complementary to the Palestinian grassroots mobilization, another great stressor to the Israeli apartheid system is the openness of criticism to its racist, xenophobia and genocidal policies in the occupied territories and within Israel proper. While Israel, to some extent, had success in suppressing the indigenous voices of the Palestinians, it is finding it hard to contain the resurgent criticism of its occupation from human rights groups to political actors and parties.

In what is considered a significant departure from the norm, the Israeli human rights advocacy group termed the Israeli occupation as apartheid. Following this, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) published its extensively long report and implicated Israel of Apartheid crimes. It was the first time both human rights advocacy organizations within and outside Israel termed its systematic oppression of the Palestinians as “Jewish Supremacy” and “Apartheid”.

Even staunchest of the Israeli supporters, the United States. Winds started to marginally shift in the opposite direction as the recent disproportionate violence by the Israeli occupying forces amplified cracks within the democratic party as its progressive wing lead by the likes of Bernie Sanders and the Squad (comprises of six members including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib) articulated strong opposition against Israeli violence as well as questioning the logic behind continued US support to the Israeli state.

In the geopolitical context, China, though an important trade partner, and Russia also voiced their criticism over the Israeli military offensive in Gaza and Israeli administrative violence in Jerusalem. Understandably, their renewed focus on the Palestinian question is part of a broader geopolitical dynamic of competition with the US, but Israel nurtured foreign relations with China and Russia to strengthen its leverage with US foreign policy establishment and shield itself from the criticism over its policy especially over a two-state solution. Now, with the rising tide of critical views from Beijing and Moscow, this Israeli strategic understanding also found its limitations.

While these five trends in the Palestinian national struggle symbolize a shift in attitudes and dynamics within Palestinian nationalism, consonant with the broader shift in the discourse and criticism of the Israeli apartheid system, the dominant paradigm of Palestinian nationalism still revolves around the insidious dichotomy of complacency and militancy.

However, what Sheikh Jarrah did gave birth to is an understanding that there still exists an intra-Palestinian unity across Israeli-occupied Palestine and there still exists a unified sense of Palestinian nationalism particularly within younger demography. Israeli violence pushed the Palestinians to reimagine a new kind of popular mobilization which, above everything else, expresses a unifying force of Palestinian nationalism against the Israeli occupation in Jerusalem, Haifa, Gaza, and Ramallah.

Hassan Zaheer

Hassan Zaheer is a post-graduate in Sociology from the University of Karachi with specialisation in Sociology of Religion and Politics. He is currently working as a non-resident Research Associate with the Centre of Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR), Islamabad.

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