The role reversal at the heart of the ‘Arab spring’
Palestinians, once the inspiration for Arabs and the pawns of dictatorial regimes, now look to democracy protestors elsewhere.
Has the ‘Arab spring’ reached Palestine?
After last weekend’s Nakba Day demonstrations marking the sixty-third anniversary of ‘the catastrophe’, as Arabs refer to Israel’s declaration of independence, many seem to be hoping (or fearing) that the Palestinians have joined up with the Arab revolts that are sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa.
While predictions that the demonstrations would spark a third Palestinian Intifada (uprising) involving the entire Arab world have turned out to be more Facebook rhetoric than an idea with traction on the ground, this year’s Nakba demonstrations did indicate that old orders in the region are changing.
Nakba Day protests are nothing new. Despite the widespread global media attention given to the skirmishes, marches and fatal clashes on the borders and in the Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem, beyond these areas the upsets this year were hardly noticeable. Here in Tel Aviv, it was largely an ordinary weekend. Even an incident in the south of the city, where an Israeli Arab truck driver ploughed through several vehicles in what he claimed to be an accident but others suspect was a deliberate attack, hardly broke up the Saturday lull. A more significant event, in political terms, was a demonstration in the largely Arab Yafo district that was organised by a youth group and that attracted a few hundred Arab and Jewish Israelis. Yet this also went by largely unnoticed by Tel Avivis.
According to the Jerusalem Post, this was the first-ever public Nakba commemoration held in Yafo, an ancient port city that had an Arab majority at the time of Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948. Along with the clashes at the borders – 12 were killed and hundreds wounded on Sunday as Palestinians marched on Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria and in the north of Gaza – this low-key demonstration, apparently inspired by the Arab revolts, signalled a significant shift in dynamics in the region.
The open alignment of Nakba Day protest organisers with revolts in the Arab world indicates a role reversal. The Palestinian question has historically had a central role in shaping political dynamics in the Arab world and in inspiring a pan-Arabic identity since the founding of the modern Arab regimes in the 1940s. After the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel defeated the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian armies, the Arab states were widely disgraced and Palestinian guerrilla groups came to the fore. Palestinians came to be seen as the vanguard of the Arab struggle, inspiring other Arabs’ political quests, rather than the other way around.
Now, however, Palestinians are professing that they are following the example of regime-challenging protesters across Arab nations in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. In protests running up to and following Nakba Day, Palestinians – including Arab Israeli citizens – have declared an affinity with other Arab peoples’ struggle for self-determination and rights.
Over the past six decades, the question of Palestinian statehood has served as a powerful tool of legitimation for Arab regimes even if, in reality, these regimes have also often brutally suppressed Palestinians and their representatives in order to bring the Palestinian issue under control. It is notable, in this light, that Syria seems to have facilitated the weekend’s marches, with reports that local troops allowed the protesters to reach Israel’s border. There has been speculation that this was an attempt to deflect international attention from the bloody clampdowns on regime-challenging protesters within Syria.
Yet while Arab regimes have used sympathy for the Palestinian struggle for self-determination as a way of gaining legitimacy, that struggle has also served as a tool to deflect their own populations’ desire for political freedoms, justifying authoritarianism in the name of upholding the continual struggle against ‘the Zionist entity’.
As the Egyptian historian Walid Kazziha has shown, ‘By 1948, Palestine had become not only a part of Arab politics on the official level, but also an essential element in the political consciousness of the Arab youth and army officers, who came to power in some of the countries in the Arab core during the 1950s.’ The defeat of the Arab nations in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (known in Israel as the War of Independence) discredited the ruling elites in those nations and paved the way for the army to take power into their own hands and institute authoritarian rule. According to Kazziha, ‘Ultimately, the Palestine issue provided the new rulers with a pretext to exercise full control over society in the name of preparing for “the battle of destiny”.’ (See The Egyptian uprising: ‘why now?’ and ‘what next?’, by Brendan O’Neill.)
In the Arab world, the Palestinians have been used as pawns in internal power struggles, with opposing forces posing as the legitimate guardians of the Palestinian cause. At the same time, the Palestinians have also acted as a focus for Arab political solidarity. This was also the case in the period following the Six Day War. The war marked the discrediting of pan-Arabism (which involved a desire to rid the Arab world of the artificial borders between the different Arab countries) and the rise of Palestinian guerrilla movements that were originally bolstered and then repressed by Arab regimes. Up until the 1990s, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964, and Palestinian nationalism itself, were seen as the vanguard of the Arab world. Within the Palestinian territories, a popular uprising – the First Intifada – took place in the 1980s. Over the past two decades, however, the Palestinian question has been gradually handed over to Western actors. The initiation of the Oslo Peace Accords in the early 1990s marked the transfer of Palestinians’ fate into the hands of outsiders.
The discrediting of Pan-Arabism, including support of the Palestinian national struggle, has yet again become evident in the past months’ Arab uprisings. The Palestinian question no longer serves as a tool of legitimation for Arab rulers, and while there is still widespread sympathy with Palestinians and animosity towards Israel in the Arab world, ‘the battle of destiny’ is not being allowed to be used as an excuse for putting democratic rights on hold. Indeed, the Palestinian question has received little mention in these recent uprisings; the focus has been on regime change and domestic issues.
All of this is having some political reverberations among the Palestinians in the occupied territories and in the so-called ‘diaspora’. Now, popular revolts in the Arab world are beginning to shape Palestinians’ political consciousness. Inspired by the Egyptian uprisings, Palestinians have demanded reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas and have called for mass demonstrations within and outside of the Palestinian territories. They have succeeded at least in initiating both. There have also been calls for regular, unarmed mass marches to follow those that took place on 15 May.
The Arab uprisings have, indeed, come to impact protests among Palestinians in the occupied territories, inside Israel and in the neighbouring Arab countries in significant and novel ways. Yet despite some commentators’ enthusiastic heralding of a Palestinian Spring, it is far from clear yet that the recent protests will last beyond Nakba Day or turn into a mass popular movement. After all, Palestinian self-determination is not only hampered by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but also by the transfer of the region’s fate into Western hands and by a splintered Palestinian leadership that is playing to outside forces rather than advancing a popular, nationalist struggle.
Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.