By Steve Bell
“Historians take note. This is ‘The Palestinian Revolt of 2021’. #PalestineRisingUp #PalestineWillBeFree”
Tweet on Nakba Day, 15 May 2021 by Ramzy Baroud, Palestinian author
In horror and inspiration, the past weeks have witnessed a shift in the fortunes of the Palestinian people. Unhindered by restraints from governments in the imperialist powers, the Israeli government had been continuing the annexatiuon by stealth of Palestinian territory in Jerusalem and the West Bank. But despite the arrogance of the settler activists, and their Israeli occupation force escorts, the young Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and the tiny community of Sheikh Jarrah, refused to capitulate. The same aggression was then exercised by the Israeli security forces inside Al Aqsa mosque, using tear gas, stun grenades, and rifle butts against peaceful worshippers.
No longer was it just the audacity of Palestinian youth, now the identity, presence and dignity of the whole Palestinian people was under threat. Across the entire territory of the historic mandate of Palestine, and amongst the refugee communities adjacent in Jordan and Lebanon, a huge rising has taken place. Even while mourning, the Palestinians are making history anew.
Biden’s policy reset
The revolt coincides with U.S. President Biden’s reset of policy towards Palestine/Israel. The difficulty that he inherited was that Trump’s “Deal of the Century” was part of the more adventurist features of the previous administration.
The “Deal” definitely possessed a degree of coherence. Premised on the existence of a settler dominated government, led by Netanyahu, it assumed the continued passivity of the Palestinian Authority(PA), under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas. This would allow the normalisation of Israeli relations with Arab states, and the injection of Gulf states funding into the process. Some rise in the living standards would remove much of the supposed disquiet amongst the Palestinian masses. Even the annexation of the Jordan Valley could be accepted through land swaps, near the Egyptian border, with promises of development and investment.
Some Palestinian refugees would have the opportunity to return to the occupied territories. Some would receive compensation, and some would become Jordanian and Lebanese citizens. All together, these measures would guarantee the security of the Israeli state. Palestinians would have a heavily circumscribed “autonomy”. The promise of a future state would remain, subject to a later US and Israeli governments’ agreement.
However, Trump’s assumption of Palestinian quiescence was not shared by important constituencies. The US’s closest allies in the EU, and in the region were sceptical. More importantly, an influential opposition developed inside the Israeli state, expressed publicly by ex-military and security leaders; and inside the pro-Israel section of the US Jewish community. The concern was that the unilateral actions of the Netanyahu government would imperil the peace treaty with Jordan, and risk a new intifada in the occupied territories. Consequently, Trump was forced to push Netanyahu off his proposed annexation of the Jordan Valley on July 1st 2020. Since then, the Netanyahu government has continued to promote annexation by degrees, adding a few settlements and demolitions at a time.
Biden’s initial policy has been to try and create conditions for the return of the Israeli government, and the PA, to a “peace process”, even if this had become all process and no peace. Consequently, Biden has reversed Trump’s defunding of UNRWA, the UN organisation responsible for Palestinian refugees, pledging $235 million including for direct grants. He has resumed some diplomatic contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), although not yet having restored the Palestinian mission in Washington.
These small steps are qualified by the continued annual funding of $3.8 billion to the Israeli military. Biden has also accepted Trump’s transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem. The sedate pace of this process suggests Biden too assumed the continued passivity of the Palestinian people.
An unprecedented rising
Certainly the Biden administration had some grounds for assuming there was plenty of time for the US policy reset. The Abram Accords negotiated by Trump’s administration appeared to guarantee support from the regimes in Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sudan and Morocco for an Israeli dominated “peace”. The apparent progress towards Palestinian unity inside Israel registered at previous general elections seemed to disappear in the January 2021 General Election , with a split in the Joint List. And even the possibility of new elections within the Palestinians political structures might help confine Palestinian political activity to strengthening the PA.
But there were straws in the wind. The Abram Accords remained obviously unpopular in Palestine, and amongst the population of the compromised regimes. If the Palestinians had failed to unify inside Israel, then the crisis of political governance inside Israel was even more obvious with no stable government secured after four inconclusive elections in two years. The handling of Covid had also highlighted the disparity between the comprehensive vaccination of Israeli citizens versus the almost complete neglect of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
And something was clearly going awry in the run up to the Palestinian elections. In March this year, an opinion poll was held amongst Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Marwan Barghouti, currently imprisoned for life inside Israel, secured 22%; Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas leader, secured 14% while Abbas secured only 9%. In April another poll held in Gaza saw Haniyeh secure 27%; Barghouti 22%; Mohammed Dahlan, former Fatah leader in Gaza, secured 15%, while Abbas secured just 11%. The subsequent cancellation of the elections by Abbas was taken very badly. The Israeli government denied his claim that it had decided to prevent voting inside East Jerusalem. Certainly all reports suggested that young Palestinians in particular were very disappointed at losing the first chance to change the political leadership since 2006.
So, not quite from nowhere, a new radicalisation within Palestinian society emerged. At first it was expressed in Jerusalem in the active support for the besieged community of Sheikh Jarrah, threatened with house demolitions. Then, in the young people refusing to accept settler activists’ intimidation and Israeli security forces’ brutality at the Damascus Gate, entrance to the old city. But the terrible scenes inside Al Aqsa reverberated across the Palestinian population.
Inside Israel itself, Palestinians shrugged off the obliterating term “Israeli Arabs”. In Lydd, Haifa, Akka, Yafa, Ramla, Nazareth and elsewhere Palestinians mobilised. They sent supporters into East Jerusalem, and organised large protests in their own cities, towns and villages. This prompted a furious reaction from settler activists and rightist forces who attacked Palestinians in the streets, their cars and homes. Ghada Majadli, Palestinian and Director of Physicians for Human Rights Israel, tweeted “Some good news re 48 Palestine: Local committees were set up to: protect Palestinian neighbourhoods, to evacuate the wounded, to defend the detainees, to provide psychological support to those affected and securing safe transportation for students and workers”.
Inside the West Bank, there have been continuous large demonstrations and protests, many of these coordinated in timing. Reports suggest these are unmatched for numbers in recent years. Inevitably there have been physical confrontations with the Israeli occupation forces, including some armed responses from Palestinians. Inevitably, the Palestinians have been registering greater numbers of fatalities and injuries.
Inside Gaza, there have been mass mobilisations in support of Jerusalem and Al Aqsa. In response, the Israeli government has begun a military offensive. So far this has stopped short of a ground invasion, but has not stinted of a terrifying aerial and artillery attack upon the besieged people. The military response of Hamas has drawn down relentless condemnation from imperialist circles, who have avoided criticising the far more murderous actions of the Israeli government.
To complete the picture of the Palestinian rising, the refugee communities exiled to Jordan and Lebanon have joined the mass actions being organised in these countries. Notable have been the marches and protests at the border with the West Bank and Israel, where buses from the camps have joined those presenting themselves at the front line. Although only small numbers have breeched the Jordan border, this symbolic action has demonstrated the determination to join the struggle in whatever limited way may be open.
This complete unification of the dispersed people in a common struggle is exactly the refutation of US and Israeli assumption of future passivity.
The immediate response of Biden has been to blankly reassert the traditional wisdom of US government’s in defence of Israel’s “security”. He has given Netanyahu all the immediate comfort required. At the time of writing, the US government has prevented any UN mediation efforts, informally vetoing Security Council appeals to end the conflict. The fast escalating list of Palestinian deaths and casualties is being allowed to continue.
But there will be serious concerns inside the US government. They had anticipated a reset along predictable lines. Now it is far from evident that there will be a return to “normal” after the immediate punishment of Gaza is completed. Assuming the Palestinians will be now exhausted by destruction, deaths and repression is surely badly to underestimate the courageous people.
Biden has to reckon with new, unexpected problems. Abbas has lost control. The settler movement has damaged Israel’s image, and the social equilibrium inside Israel. Netanyahu may have immediately strengthened his hand, but only immediately. Once the air raid sirens stop the governmental crisis returns.
The reset will still have to be made. One recent important indication of the attempt to push the Israeli government off unrestricted promotion of settler activism and annexation was the publication of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. This report characterised Israeli government actions thus: “In certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution”.
Such conclusions have been drawn by many previously. But HRW is closely connected to the US security state, and generally follows state department positions. This then appears to be an attempt to get leverage on the Israeli government’s current direction. Reports suggest that Amnesty International (AI) is due to produce a report around September along similar lines. AI also has historic connections of a similar, if less obvious appearance, than those of HRW.
A new rise of international solidarity movement
One further factor complicating Biden’s problems is the new rise of the international solidarity movement behind the Palestinians. Although the Palestinians have a majority of the world’s states recognising them, diplomatic realities often limit the action of governments in practical support. This means for the Palestinians their own lack of state power places a premium on political support from non-state actors internationally.
Immediately before the past few days, the international solidarity movement was still subdued following some serious setbacks. The Abram Accords appeared to have strengthened the position of Israel and the US in the region. Inside the US, the defeat of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination was a great disappointment. Inside Britain, the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn represented a similar serious setback. The defeat of the two most influential pro-Palestinian politicians in the imperialist countries had been preceded by an intense campaign from the ruling class to smear and discredit them and the entire solidarity movement. Alongside this, particularly in the US, but to some extent in Britain, there has been the use of lawfare to prevent the promotion of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel and in support of Palestine. Similar campaigns have been underway inside Canada and other EU countries, notably France and Germany.
Undoubtedly the pro-Israeli goverment forces in these countries have made some progress since the ending of the 2014 war on Gaza. But in a few days a new movement of huge potential has been organised and lifted myriad voices in support of Palestine.
Inside the US Congress, much to the horror of uncritical bipartisan supporters of Israel, a stream of pro-Palestinian contributions have been made. Alongside this, major mobilisations have taken place in cities and towns from East to West Coasts. In Britain, demonstrations have been held up and down the country. On May 15th there were over 70 actions, with an enormous demonstration in London of over 100,000. In France, despite a government ban and police attacks, there were huge actions in Paris, and many other cities. In Germany, a number of major actions, including in Berlin, were held, despite the reactionary atmosphere. Major mobilisations took place in Spain and Italy, and in Livorno Italian dockers refused to load ships to Israel. Most European countries saw serious actions on Nakba Day.
In the Arab world, the impact of the Abram Accords seemed suddenly redundant. Demonstrations of millions were held in Yemen and Iraq. Major actions took place in Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and Qatar. Inside three of the four signatory countries of the Accords there were mobilisations which showed what the population felt about their governments’ sell-outs, these were in Morocco, Sudan and in Bahrain, where the repression has not silenced the brave opposition.
In Asia there were massive actions in Japan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand. In Kashmir, again in the face of repression, activists organised protests.
It is evident that a new chapter is being written, as a result of the Palestinian Revolt of 2021. The next days and weeks will require the commitment of activists around the world to ensure that the Palestinians cannot be isolated.