How the Palestinian revolt of 2021 has changed the international situation

Pro-Palestinian demonstration London May 2021

By Steve Bell

“Winning and losing wars of national liberation cannot be measured by gruesome comparisons between the number of dead or the degree of destruction inflicted on each side. If this was the case, no colonised nation would ever have won its freedom.

“Palestinians won because, once more, they emerged from the rubble of Israeli bombs as a whole, a nation so determined to win its freedom at any cost. The realisation was symbolised in the many scenes of Palestinian crowds celebrating while waving the banners of all Palestinian factions, without prejudice and without exception.

“Finally, it can unequivocally be asserted that the Palestinian resistance scored a major victory, arguably unprecedented in its proud history. This is the first time that Israel is forced to accept that the rules of the game have changed, likely forever. It is no longer the only party that determines political outcomes in occupied Palestine, because the Palestinian people are finally a force to be reckoned with.” – Ramzy Baroud (1)

The impact of the Palestinian victory will take some time to work through. But it is immediately evident that the uprising has created new tensions within US imperialism, and its Israeli ally. For Biden, his administration faces an organised struggle, where he had hoped to proceed slowly, and his own party is now seriously divided on the course he should pursue. For the Israeli state, the crisis of governance has not been solved by the war that Netanyahu would have expected to strengthen his position. At the time of writing, the crisis of governance will either continue to a fifth general election since April 2019, or there will be a new Israeli government that excludes Netanyahu. Such developments should clarify those who doubt the Palestinian victory.

Biden’s reset upset

Biden’s administration commenced without any sense of urgency about the situation in Palestine/Israel. Trump’s deal was dead, a reset was necessary in US policy. This would revive pre-Trump policies on Oslo and negotiations towards two states. A multi-lateral approach would be used, but no bold commitments to be made in resource or initiative. Hence a resumption of relations to the United Nations organisation for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and the Palestinian Authority (PA). But, alongside this, was the acceptance of Trump’s move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and the swift decision to maintain the $3.8 billion annual payment to the Israeli military.

Such reticence is more apparent than real. As Khaled Elgindy, of Middle East Institute, told Haaretz on 11 May: “They aren’t hands-off in underwriting the occupation; they’re hands-off in terms of the things that would help Palestinians or mitigate conflict. It’s selectively hands-off; it’s hands on when it comes to Israel and all the matters of ‘unbreakable and unshakeable’ [ties to Israel]”.

As the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah was taken up and amplified by a new generation of Palestinian activists so Biden’s favoured route was shaken up. As Ramona Wadi noted in Politics Today, on 27 May: “It is safe to say that neither Biden nor Kushner would have envisaged the Palestinian collective uprising against Israel’s colonial violence”.

But Biden’s oversight has not shielded his party from a convulsion in response to the Palestinian rising. In response to the growing mobilisation around Sheikh Jarrah, in early May, a number of prominent Democrats, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Chris Murphy, called on Israel to stop evictions of Palestinians. Further, twenty-five House Democrats signed a letter urging Secretary of State Blinken to publicly condemn the planned evictions. These efforts were disregarded by the administration.

After the military action erupted in Gaza on the 10 May, the US Congress became the arena for an extraordinary conflict inside the Democrats. The opposition broke through with a stream of contributions from pro-Palestinian representatives, matched by a counter-stream of contributions from pro-Israeli Democrats. As Haaretz put it, on 31 May: “It was the most noteworthy demonstration of support for Palestine and criticisms of Israel ever to occur in the halls of Congress”. The same article attests to the depth of change, not just in the Democrats, but within the Jewish community in the US: “these progressive, pro-Palestinian lawmakers have strong support among many young American Jews, and many have Jewish staffers helping them craft the message and policy”.

On the 12 May, Democrats Sanders, Warren and Chris Van Hollen tabled a resolution for a ceasefire. 138 House Democrats, including both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, issued a letter calling upon Biden to support a ceasefire, and take decisive action to end the violence. That day, Biden issued a statement on the need for a ceasefire, but “decisive action” it was not. What was decisive was his refusal on three occasions in one week, to support a UN Security Council statement calling for a ceasefire. Netanyahu was being allowed his war.

On 16 May, 28 Democrat Senators and House Democrats issued calls for immediate ceasefire. Some disquiet from the government was clear, with Blinken tweeting, that day, that “violence must end immediately”. But on the 17th the US Ambassador to the UN stopped short of demanding a ceasefire in the UN Security Council.

On 18 May, details emerged that the administration had authorised a $735 million arms sales to Israel. In response, the House Foreign Relations Committee issued a letter to Biden asking him to halt the sale, pending a review. This was the first time US arms sales to Israel were officially brought into question by Congress. After pressure, the Committee withdrew the letter the following day. Resolutions were then tabled by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the House, and by Bernie Sanders in the Senate, to block the sale. Again this initiative across Congress was unprecedented on the issue.

One hundred and forty House Democrats issued another statement demanding a ceasefire. Finally, the ceasefire was agreed with Egyptian and Qatari mediation. Netanyahu was finally reigned in. He proclaimed the campaign an “exceptional success”, just a few days before being ousted, or facing another election.

This chain of events demonstrates that the Palestinian rising has overturned any notion of an orderly, leisurely reset of US policy.

Changes in US society

Much of the momentum for the shake-up of the Democrats’ policy comes from shifts in how the US public views the Palestine/Israel issue. A poll published on 27 May, by the Arab American Institute, highlights the shifts.

Both Democrats and Republican voters have more favourable views than unfavourable views on Israel – Democrats 46% to 21%; Republicans 68% to 9%. But there is a difference on Palestine – Democrats 51% to 14%; and Republicans 30% to 40%. Note that the Democrats now view the Palestinians more favourably than they do Israelis, 51% and 46% respectively.

When asked should the Biden administration’s policy favour Israel, Palestinians or strike a balance, 25% prefer supporting Israel, 8% prefer supporting Palestine and 46% prefer a balanced policy. Among Democrats the issue is most pronounced, with 54% supporting a balanced policy, 16% supporting Israel, and 11% supporting Palestine.

When asked if the US should always side with Israel, or should act as a fair and impartial broker, 55% supported fair and impartial broker, with 27% for always siding with Israel. Democrats supported the former by 63% to 20%, while Republicans were divided 40% to 40%.

There were bipartisan responses too. When asked whether the two nations are “equal people deserving of equal rights”, 80% of Democrats supported, and 67% of Republicans agreed. Support for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel registered Democrats 60% for and 7% against; with Republicans 38% in favour and 17% against.

The growing support for the Palestinians is not confined to voter attitudes. The mass mobilisations in the streets in recent weeks have drawn new social forces into active opposition. Massive demonstrations are continuing, despite the ceasefire over Gaza. The confidence of Palestinian supporters has grown through these actions.

Two examples show how new social forces are expressing opposition. Firstly, over 600 musicians signed a statement of support for Palestine, and calls for a boycott of performances inside Israel. These signatories including very prominent artists such as Rage Against the Machine, Patti Smith, Cypress Hill members, Roger Waters, and Julian Casablancas from the Strokes. A similar initiative in Canada secured the support of over 1,000 artists and cultural workers.

Secondly, there is a growing opposition inside the trade union movement. The major federation, the AFL/CIO, along with major unions such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), United Auto Workers (UAW), and Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), are sticking with a pro-Israel and anti-BDS line. However there is a significant shift among the workers.

United Educators of San Francisco, composed of 6,000 teachers, voted to endorse the BDS campaign. UNITE HERE Local 23, composed of 25,000 hospitality workers across the south and south-west, tweeted support for Palestine. Teamsters Local 804, composed of 8,000 mostly United Parcel Services drivers, also posted support. These and other actions led Jeff Schuhrke, labour historian at the University of Illinois, to tell Middle East Eye, on 31 May: “It is fairly significant because in the last month or so we’ve seen more vocal, visible support for Palestine from US unions than ever before in the whole history of the labour movement, or at least since Israel was founded in 1948.”

Even areas of the workforce which are struggling to unionise have strongly supported the Palestinians. Amazon and Google signed a $1.2 billion deal with Israel. A day later, 600 Amazon workers signed a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos seeking the overturn of the contract due to human rights violations by the Israeli Defence Forces. Similar letters were circulated and sent by workers to the CEOs of both Google and Apple.

Alongside these developments, there is clearly a shift in the narrative. Increasingly there is an appreciation of the nature of the Israeli government policy. References to colonisation, ethnic-based clearances, racism and apartheid are becoming the dominant oppositional discourse in the growing solidarity movement. The advanced character of these connections was well expressed by Congresswoman Cori Bush, when she told the House on 13 May: “St. Louis and I today rise in solidarity with the Palestinian people… The fight for black lives and the fight for Palestinian liberation are interconnected. We oppose our money going to fund militarised policing, occupation and systems of violent oppression and trauma. We are anti-occupation. And we are anti-apartheid. Period.”

One huge shock occurred when the New York Times made the “unprecedented” move of publishing the photographs of 65 Palestinian children killed in Gaza. When 526 children were killed in Gaza in 2014 there was no coverage. When 200 unarmed protesters were killed by Israeli snipers on the Great March of Return in 2018, four columnists were deployed to justify the killings. When Haaretz published the same pictures in Israel there was a similar shock. Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy wrote: “under the auspices of its pitiful media outlets, an entire society was enlisted as one, shoulder to shoulder, to evade any responsibility, to deflect any blame, to accuse the entire world, to dispel any doubts and say: It is not by our hands that this blood was spilled. But the bitter truth is that it was only by our hands.”

Obviously Biden is not in control of these developments. He is holding to an exhausted line, with slow to no progress in prospect. If the US government is to deliver anything in the region, it can only be through a real, not fake, reset of US policy.

The crisis of governance in Israel

The immediate expression of the crisis of governance has been the inability of the major Israeli parties to secure a stable government. There have been four general elections since April 2019, without producing a stable government. The establishment of a Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid government is unlikely to resolve this. It will be held together by common opposition to Netanyahu. It includes the most right-wing forces around Bennett, with the self-described “centrist with a slight tendency to the right” of Lapid. If Netanyahu is convicted by the courts then the glue between the coalition disappears. Netanyahu’s Likud party would certainly be a more natural match for Bennett’s Yamina party once the controversial leader goes.

Whatever the immediate combination forged in government, or in a further general election, the major causes of instability remain. Since 1977 there has been a fragmentation of the party system inside the Israeli state. The alternating of Labour/Likud has gone. Instead governments require ever more participants, and create less clear options and policy outcomes. The drift appears only to the right.

Within this there has been a growing weight of the settler movement within successive governments. Since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 the Jewish settler population of the West Bank and East Jerusalem has grown from 250,000 to 620,000. This is a self-reinforcing process: as settler numbers increase, so the demands of the settlers gain greater weight in Israeli politics.

At present there appears to be no willingness among the main parties to set limits on settlement growth. This is despite the UN-recognised position that these settlements contravene international law and are an impediment to the peace process. Equally, they breach the Oslo Accords, which include: “The two parties view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, the integrity and status of which will be preserved during the interim period.”

Yet the reality is that the movement has been severely jarred by recent events. Firstly, the attempts to simply force out the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan has been rebutted by the rising, as support for the community has grown in Palestine, and internationally. Secondly, the actions of the settlers, and particularly the attacks, captured on Palestinian phones and cameras, in Jerusalem and inside Israel have severely damaged the image of the Israeli state and settlers around the world.

No-one in Israeli governing circles appears to be about to check their activity. But having lost their key backers in Washington, Trump and Kushner, the settler movement is likely to face new difficulties.

To get any new engagement from Palestinian forces beyond Abbas’s dwindling power the US has to demonstrate some ability to restrict settlement growth. Otherwise there is no benefit for Palestinian engagement with US mediation efforts. It is no longer clear that the PA can now substitute itself for Palestinian civil society. The uprising has raised expectations. A return to bureaucratic manoeuvres while yielding ever larger parts of Palestinian territory will not be accepted after the rising.

Whoever is in government, the Israeli state is facing the liabilities of the settler movement, and its divergence from the preferred options of US imperialism.

Repression as an answer?

After the ceasefire, the Israeli government and state apparatus have tried to demonstrate that they are regaining control. With no immediate concessions to the Palestinians, the aim is to break the frightening unity of the Palestinian struggle through systematic, targeted repression.

Inside Israel, the Arab Emergency Committee reported on 30 May that 1,700 Palestinians had been detained in Israel in the past two weeks. This appears to be the most serious wave of political arrests since the early days of the Second Intifada in October 2000. Dr Hassan Jabareen, the general director of Adalah (Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) said, on 24 May: “The massive arrest campaign announced by Israeli police last night is a militarised war against Palestinian citizens of Israel that requires a regional response from all Palestinian political movements… This is a war against Palestinian demonstrators, political activists, and minors employing massive Israeli police forces to raid the homes of Palestinian citizens. These raids are intended to intimidate and to exact revenge on Palestinian citizens of Israel – to ‘settle the score’ with Palestinians, in the Israeli police’s own words – for their political positions and activities.” According to Adalah, between thirty and forty per cent of those arrested required medical treatment following their arrest.

In the same period, the Arab Emergency Committee documented 300 attacks against Palestinians and their properties. There have been very small numbers of arrests. The religious settlers who shot and killed Musa Hassuna in Lydd were released on bail; his death sparked riots in Lydd. The police arrested only four of the participants in the lynching of a Palestinian driver in the city of Bat Yam. This was captured live on TV. Haaretz was able from this coverage to locate twenty of the participants in the attack.

Inside Jerusalem, the provocations against Sheikh Jarrah have continued. A checkpoint is in place to deny access to Palestinian citizens, whilst allowing access by settlers. On 29 May, the occupation forces assaulted dozens of Palestinian protesters. Journalists Zaina Hlwani and Wahbi Makka were arrested and removed from covering the incident, later to be released. Those photographing the incident were also arrested. The court proceedings against the communities of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan will resume within the next few days. The rulings can spark further extensive protests.

In line with this general repression, there continue to be attacks and harassment of Palestinians at the Damascus Gate and around the Al Aqsa mosque.

Gaza – keeping the siege

There is no immediate sign of a shift in Israeli government policy towards Gaza. It has allowed a return to limited access via the Erez and Keren Shalom crossings. Some medical equipment and food for the private sector has been allowed through. Fishing rights have been restored for the narrow six-mile limit. The issue of importing goods from Gaza, and the issue of access for day labourers to Israel and the West Bank (7,000 before the war) are under review. But overall, the brutal siege of two million Palestinians continues.

The limited funds being given to Palestine for humanitarian relief have prompted concern from both the Israeli and US government that this money goes to Hamas. The smear, and condescension, from the occupying power and key backer, was refuted by Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza. He told Reuters on 26 May: “We will ease and facilitate the task for everyone and we will make sure that the process will be transparent and fair and we will make sure that no penny goes to Hamas or Qassam. We have satisfactory sources of money for Hamas and Qassam. A major part of it from Iran and part in donations from Arabs, Muslims and liberals of the world who are sympathetic to our people and their rights.”

Despite the bluster of Netanyahu, there is evidence that Hamas has emerged stronger from the rising. Hamas flags were flown in demonstrations in Nablus, in the West Bank. The Imam of Al Aqsa was forced out of the Friday sermon as he refused to mention Gaza. Protests in Jerusalem and Umm Al Fahm in Israel chanted the name of Mohammed Deif, leader of the Qassam Brigades.

No evaluation of the cost of the damage to Gaza has yet been published. It is sure to be extensive, even if it doesn’t reach the $7.8 billion that Palestinian officials estimated as the cost of the 2014 war.

The Palestinian’s whole economic situation was already in a parlous state. According to the UN, the Palestinian economy contracted between ten and twelve percent in 2020. An UN Conference on Trade and Development study in March 2021 projected the economy would grow only 3.7% annually up to 2025. That looks optimistic now. The Palestinian economy is actively hindered by the occupation. Obviously Israel faces no such constraints, and declined by only 2.4 per cent in 2020; Goldman Sachs forecasts 7.5 per cent growth in 2021.

Certainly the public health situation inside Gaza is at a crisis point. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), dozens of health centres were destroyed by Israeli bombing, and remaining facilities risk being overwhelmed. Hellen Ottens-Patterson, Medicines Sans Frontiers Head of Mission in Gaza, said: “The capacity of the health system to respond is completely crushed.” The WHO estimate that around 600 patients require to be referred for treatment unavailable inside Gaza. They are unable to leave due to crossing closures and limitations.

The infrastructure has been further weakened. The Gaza Electricity Company reported that they face huge financial and physical difficulties in getting fuel for Gaza’s sole power plant. Supply to households is averaging no more than four hours a day. In turn, because of the shortage of power supply, and intermittent outages, the municipalities have had to start pumping sewage into the Mediterranean. Still, such facts elicit no action by the imperialist powers.

The new global movement for Palestine

Despite their continuing difficulties, the Palestinians can see that their rising has given birth to an astonishing growth of the international movement of solidarity.

Major actions have become regular in the imperialist centres since the early part of May. The gains that pro-Israeli forces had made inside the US, Britain and France have been set back by this movement, renewed by a new generation of young, Muslim and Black protesters.

Inside the Middle East and North Africa, there have been some of the biggest actions in the world, particularly in Yemen and Iraq. But across the region there have been major actions in most countries. The “normalisation” process initiated under Trump has been countermanded from below. Of the four regimes bribed into abandoning the Palestinians, only the Emirates has escaped serious mobilisations. The regimes in Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have endured a popular mobilisation and popular verdict on their actions.

Inside Asia, demonstrations have occurred almost without exception. This identification with the oppressed people of Palestine offers a new danger for Biden’s government attempts to isolate China. It is not a stretch to draw a parallel between US support for the denial of Palestinian rights, and its attempt to deny China its rights. This is particularly so, given China’s energetic role in seeking a ceasefire while the US government continued to encourage the Israeli war on Gaza.

Inside Latin America the first protests were small, but have become extended over the past fortnight. Across the continent, from Chile to Colombia to Mexico, and from Argentina up the east coast, the people have stood with Palestine.

Equally, inside Africa, beyond the Arab north, there have been fewer protests, but they have grown. Most notable appear to be those in South Africa. Those who defeated the apartheid regime of white supremacists most certainly understand the apartheid being endured by the Palestinians.

These popular actions will certainly impact on governments over time. One notable victory has already been won. Ireland became the first country in Europe to condemn “Israel’s de facto annexation of Palestinian land”. The Sinn Féin motion to the Dáil was endorsed by all parties. Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Foreign Minister, said the vote sends a “clear signal of the depth of feeling across Ireland.” No other country in Europe has quite the same experience as Ireland of occupation, settlements, coercion and repression and the struggle for elementary self-determination. Ireland’s empathy for Palestine is deep because of their comparable history.

Nor will the “multi-lateral” global structures offer the Israeli government and its imperialist allies much refuge in the near future. The United Nations Human Rights Council meeting on 27 May voted to establish a permanent commission of inquiry into Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights in all the territory under its control. This was carried by 24 votes in favour, 9 against, and 14 abstentions. Not one European state present, including the UK, voted in favour. However “normalised” Bahrain and Sudan voted in favour.

The international movement in support of the Palestinians has become an obviously global movement. The embattled and stateless nation, through their rising, have renewed and expanded their alliances around the world.

Those chants of “In our millions, we are all Palestinians” demand that activists don’t let the words die on our lips. With a new global movement comes the responsibility to sustain and deepen it. The Palestinian people have opened a new road, activists now need to broaden it.

(1) Ramzy Baroud, “Palestine’s Moment”, The Palestine Chronicle 26/5/21.