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The Palestinian movement

 

 

 

 

 

Until the nineteenth century, Palestine was a periphery of the Turkish empire, which largely took care of itself. But then the empire began to strengthen its grip to gain strength to resist European encirclement. Among other things, they tried to get the tax collection in order. Therefore, land registers were set up where the peasants had to register to assert their rights. In many cases, local notables or merchants registered instead, who in this way could build up huge paper properties. The peasants were allowed to remain as tenants on land that the new owners increasingly used to cultivate citrus fruits for export.

The same principle has been used throughout the world to deprive peasants of their right in connection with the replacement of customary law with the Roman law of the world market system. But in Palestine, it had dramatic consequences. Because in Palestine, the new owners set about evicting farmers and selling the land to European Jewish immigrants who could offer European hard currency.

In Palestine, a split arose between notables and peasants, and the peasants were early forced to define their own goals, which they found to be nationalistic – regardless of whether it was Arab, Syrian or Palestinian, but at least against immigration and landowners. When the British government declared that it would encourage Jewish immigration in 1919, the Palestinian peasants also became militantly anti-English.

The resistance was organized around different lines.

Many evicted peasants established themselves as social bandits and attacked Jewish settlements. They had started with this in the 1880s and after 1919 it became more common.

The more urban and trade-based notables adapted to the political culture of the peasants and pursued a policy that was both more nationalistic and more socially conscious than their counterparts in the neighboring countries.

Others organized themselves into nationalist trade unions and popular literary associations of national color.

Most radical was the Islamic organization which after its organizer Izz-al-Din al-Qassam was called the ’Qassamites’. They turned to the slum dwellers in Haifa, mostly evicted peasants who worked in the port. It turned against both the English occupation and immigration and saw Islamic social justice, moral renewal and armed struggle against oppression as methods. Its members played a key role in the 1936-39 uprising.

The Depression sharpened contradictions. On the one hand, many peasants were ruined by declining incomes and rising taxes. On the one hand, immigration increased due to anti-Jewish violence in Poland and Germany; this immigration led to an economic upswing, but the new jobs were taken by the Jews themselves. In 1933, violent demonstrations broke out against the occupying forces. The political parties hastened to take the lead in the movement, and ’ulama declared it heresy to sell land to infidels. On April 13, 1936, two Jews were killed, the authorities launched a wave of terror against the Palestinian organizations, and they responded with a general strike.

The strike began in the cities but the focus soon shifted to the country. National committees were formed in the villages with peasant demands on the program. Qassamites began attacking military posts and new buildings, blowing up the oil pipeline between Mosul and Haifa. As the traditional leaders were soon arrested, qassamit-inspired peasants and workers took the initiative, and in 1938 they controlled the countryside. A social radical program was adopted with i.a. moratorium on all debts and boycott of British operations. Even city dwellers began to dress like peasants, so high was their prestige.

The Munich Agreement released British energy to quell the uprising. They used three methods: to arm the settlers, to disarm the Palestinians and to promise to stop immigration so that the more moderate Palestinians would fall away.

The Palestinian movement was also disarmed in a more decisive way. On the one hand, the gap between the urban middle class, the traditional organizer of all anti-colonial movements, and the peasants deepened. On the one hand, the conflict had become too expensive for the participants; Surviving resistance fighters without political coordination must push the peasants for money to survive. In 1939, the peasants could not bear any more conflict. The settlers, on the other hand, had strengthened themselves. They had been armed by the British and had strong international organizations, and they took up the fight against both colonial authorities and Palestinians. They succeeded well. In 1947, the UN decided that they could take half the country. The rest was taken care of by Jordan. And the organizationally weakened Palestinians were only able to react sporadically. Instead, people responded individually, by fleeing, aided by that decision through Israeli terror. About 150,000 remained and applied for citizenship in the Israeli state.

When the Israeli state was founded in 1948 and Palestine and its people were divided into three, the resistance was also divided.

The Palestinians who stayed in Israel gradually turned into wage workers in Israeli industry. The authorities were successful in preventing them from organizing themselves, through moderate terror combined with small benefits, until the war of 1967 when the compulsion to choose sides became urgent. Those who then took the initiative were the local politicians, who from 1974 built up a civil rights movement that demanded equal civil rights for Arabs. On March 30, 1976, a general strike, Earth Day, was organized, which became a tradition. From the 1980s, they received help and competition from Islamists to organize a welfare system based on mutual support, as Arabs were excluded from the Israeli welfare system.

For the refugees, the future prospects were even darker. Some of them were absorbed into the growing Gulf state economy in the 1970s, and many of them supported the Palestinian movement financially. The majority, who lived in refugee camps, were free to organize but had little to fight for because they lived on charity. In desperation, young people began to organize symbolic armed ”returns” into Israel, and this soon took an organized form through Fatah, created by exiled Palestinians in Kuwait. Armed attacks were not an end in themselves, just an act for lack of better.

However, Fatah and other refugee camp organizations grew into the organized force within the camps, supported by enthusiastic youth and oil dollars. But their militant exile policies became troublesome for the host countries, and they were driven out, in 1970 from Jordan and in 1982 from Lebanon, and forced to settle in Tunisia, far from their base, where they became increasingly dependent on oil money and increasingly corrupt and bureaucratic.

In the core area, in the West Bank, there was no popular movement organization at all before 1967 because it became part of Jordan. After the Israeli occupation, much the same thing happened as for the Israeli Palestinians: political initiatives against Israeli discrimination and military brutality were channeled through local politicians, sometimes in defiance of the PLO. These local politicians also organized youth organizations, trade unions, women’s organizations and collective welfare organizations.

The focus of the conflict with the occupying power was increasingly on the Israeli settlements, which not only stole land from Palestinian peasants but also used their status as Herrenvolk to extremes. This, together with the shrinking economic opportunities during the eighties, put an end to the wait-and-see mentality that had prevailed since the forties. The Intifada uprising broke out in 1987.

The Intifada – Arabic for ”shake off” – took the initiative from professional politicians and put it in civil society organizations. The strategy was boycotts and strikes against Israeli activities and enterprises and the success was striking. The Palestinians’ power over their own economy as well as their self-confidence grew, while the Israeli economy suffered a setback. In 1990, the Israelis were forced to negotiate and recognize the Palestinians as a party for the first time.

However, it was not the civil society organizations that negotiated primarily on the Palestinian side – they were at that time under heavy military pressure from the Israelis – but the PLO, for which it was enough to become an accepted party and get out of exile in Tunis. They accepted an agreement that made them a ”homeland government” based on the South African model but that gave very little to Palestinians in general. And when the PLO accepted this, they also got an interest in helping the Israeli authorities to fight the continued civil rights movement, which could now just as easily affect the increasingly corrupt PLO regime as the Israeli occupation.
Long after 1990, only elitist private armies and desperate avengers managed to survive these common attacks, while popular movement organization once again took the form of mutual aid and the organization of everyday life, often organized by Islamists.

Reading
Baruch Kimmerling & Joel Migdal: Palestinians - the making of a people, Harvard University Press 1994.

 

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