Palestine: between permanent war and permanent revolution

Issue: 181

Anne Alexander

As the bodies of Palestinians piled up in the Gaza Strip, United States ­president Joe Biden told reporters that the end of the conflict would only come with a “two-state solution” and the creation of a “real” Palestinian state alongside Israel.1 British prime minister Rishi Sunak and the leaders of the European Union also intoned verses from the same hymn sheet, raising the prospect of a peace process that would lead to sovereignty for the Palestinians in at least a portion of their ­historic homeland.2 Meanwhile, weapons and ­warplanes made in Britain and the US continued to rain down destruction on Gaza, as Israeli politicians openly boasted of plans to complete the forced “transfer” of millions of Palestinians into permanent exile.3 On 16 November, a large group of United Nations experts ­published a statement warning that “the failure to urgently implement a ceasefire risks this situation spiralling towards a genocide conducted with 21st century means and methods of warfare”. It further noted that “Israel has demonstrated it has the military capacity to implement such criminal intentions”.4

The contradictions between the rhetoric of peace from Western leaders and the practice of war by their Israeli allies have rarely been more glaring. Such doublespeak is, however, hardly new. Israel was founded through a similar ­process of ethnic cleansing and war. The racist, settler-colonial system of ­apartheid subjugating Palestinians is sustained by the imperialist role of the Israeli state. This is ultimately why all previous “peace processes” have failed. It is also why there is no real route out of the state of “permanent war” except through a sustained struggle for far-reaching political and social ­transformation, not only in Palestine, but also in the neighbouring states.5 This article argues that such a process of “permanent revolution” is the only way out of the Palestinians’ predicament that offers real hope for justice and liberation.

Two states or one?

A favoured narrative from Western leaders is that Palestinians are responsible for the collapse of the Oslo “peace process”, which began during the 1990s, and thus are to blame for the failure of a viable Palestinian state to emerge. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs representative, at least conceded that some on the Israeli side might bear responsibility too. He spelt out how the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank over the past three decades and the division of Palestinian territory into “an archipelago of unconnected areas” is the main cause of the current conflict. Borrell argued that the Abraham Accords, a series of US-sponsored bilateral treaties between Israel and Middle East states, could not circumvent the issue of Palestine:

This illusion has contributed to the fire of hatred. On the Israeli side, this is by extremist forces in the West Bank determined to put an end to the Palestinian question through submission or exile. On the Palestinian side, it is by Islamist extremists who want to destroy Israel and threaten the West.6

The problem with this skewed picture is that it is not only “Islamist ­extremists” who realise that an Israeli regime that denies Palestinians basic civil, social and democratic rights due to their national identity will also systematically block the exercise of genuine Palestinian sovereignty within any of the territory it controls. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has described this as a system of “Jewish supremacy”, and Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have concluded that the Israeli state is committing the crime of apartheid in international law.7

Acknowledging the fact of apartheid is important because it exposes the ­hollowness of Western leaders’ claims that the Oslo peace process ever ­genuinely offered a space for a “two-state solution”. The Palestinian Authority (PA), created by the Oslo process, is subservient to the Israeli state at every conceivable level. Its institutions serve primarily to relieve Israel of the burden of administrating service delivery to the Palestinian ­population as well as to act as a subcontracted police force in collaboration with the Israeli army. Moreover, the territory under even nominal Palestinian control has been ­progressively whittled away by expanding Israeli settlements, whose inhabitants regularly kill and injure Palestinians with impunity, destroying their crops and filling in their wells.8 As Jordanian diplomat and analyst Marwan Muasher puts it, in such circumstances, “the best that the Palestinians can hope for is more than self-rule but less than a state—a ‘Bantustan’-like arrangement, surrounded on all sides by Israel”.9

By contrast, it is not Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank, but rather Hamas that has repeatedly exposed the limits of a two-state solution under the Oslo ­process. In many ways, the government of the besieged Gaza Strip has a better claim to “real” statehood than the PA. It mobilises its own armed forces in complete defiance of Israeli control, engages in its own diplomatic activity and organises the delivery of some services to the population. However, it was not armed struggle by Hamas that exposed the limits on US tolerance of Palestinian sovereignty, but rather its victory at the ballot box. In 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, which EU parliamentary observers acknowledged were “a model for the region and…clearly demonstrated the commitment of the Palestinians to democracy”.10 Sadly, the US government’s commitment to democracy was rather less firm. US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice met with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA, and demanded that he overturn the results by force. Fatah eventually did attempt to carry out a such a coup in Gaza, which led directly to Hamas taking control of the Strip in a pre-emptive attempt to foil the takeover.11

This does not mean that the Hamas regime governing the Gaza Strip since then is democratic. Many elements of Hamas’ politics are utterly reactionary. Hamas’ ­policies—like those of Fatah—reflect the interests and aspirations of a portion of the Palestinian capitalist class, not those of the workers and the poor people who make up the vast majority of Palestinian society. The experience of Hamas in ­government in Gaza has mirrored the tragic trajectory of Fatah in many ways. Even if Hamas remains politically and militarily more intransigent than its secular ­nationalist rival, the movement has arrived at essentially the same dead end: presiding over an undemocratic regime locked in perpetual war with Israel and dependent on aid from regional powers to survive. Despite the territory’s defiance and resilience, Gaza is in no practical sense independent of Israel. The weaponisation of Gaza’s reliance on Israeli electricity and the ability of Israeli forces to completely obstruct supplies of food have provided a visible demonstration of this fact. Furthermore, this situation could not exist without the active ­collaboration of the Egyptian regime as an enforcer of the siege, a point we will return to later.

Obstacles to the national revolution within historic Palestine

The failure of the two-state solution underscores the depth of the revolutionary challenge to the current political and social order that will be necessary to make space for a Palestinian state. There is a long history within the Palestinian national liberation movement of support for the idea that this challenge should take the form of a democratic revolution aimed at demolishing the racist foundations of the current Israeli state and offering Palestinians, Jewish Israelis and everyone else living in Palestine a genuine, democratic alternative. The basis of such a Palestinian state would be the principle of equal rights to citizenship for all.

A version of this idea was adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1969 and supported by Fatah, its leading faction. In 1970, Fatah proclaimed it was “not fighting against Jews as an ethnic and religious community”:

It is fighting against Israel, an expression of colonialism based on a racist, expansionist and theocratic system, an expression of Zionism… Fatah solemnly proclaims that the final objective of its struggle is the restoration of the independent, democratic Palestinian state, in which all citizens, whatever their faith, will enjoy equal rights.12

The shifting demographic balance between Israeli Jews and Palestinians provides a compelling argument for instituting majority rule on the basis of equal rights. There are 7.4 million Palestinians and 7.2 million Israeli Jews now living in territories under Israeli control, and the much higher birth rate among Palestinians compared to Jewish Israelis means the gap is only going to grow.13 A democratic revolution could go further, creating the possibility of genuinely “sharing the land” between Palestinians and Israeli Jews who were prepared to give up their exclusive claims to citizenship. It would also provide a means to redress the historic injustice of forced exile by creating conditions for the return of Palestinian refugees.

However, the small size of the Palestinian majority in historic Palestine today demonstrates the difficulties facing the Palestinian liberation movement compared to movements that have successfully overcame apartheid and settler-colonial regimes. Past experiences of popular uprisings and revolutionary movements for democracy illustrate the crucial role of the organised working class in breaking down the resilience of authoritarian states through mass strikes. From the mass struggles that overturned the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974 and forced military-led regimes in Brazil and Argentina to concede reforms during the 1980s to the battles for democracy in South Korea and South Africa at the end of that decade, organised workers have taken centre stage at key moments.14 More recent revolutionary experiences, such as the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 and in Sudan in 2019 confirm this trend. Even if the effects of workers’ intervention in the struggle for democracy were temporary, general strikes played a major role in fracturing the inner core of the regime, precipitating the fall of dictators and opening a period of greater democratic possibilities.15

The problem of applying this model to the Palestinian struggle, if it takes places within the confines of historic Palestine, is that the Israeli state is much better equipped than other regimes to weather the disruption caused by general strikes and mobilisation of Palestinian workers. Unlike their counterparts in South Africa, for example, Palestinian workers cannot directly disrupt the most dynamic and profitable parts of the Israeli economy (especially the high-tech sector) through withdrawal of their labour. This does not mean that Palestinian workers’ struggles have no effect. On the contrary, the May 2021 general strike that united Palestinians across the whole of historic Palestine caused significant disruption in some areas, such as construction and parts of the transport sector.16 However, on its own, it was not enough to bring the machinery of the Israeli state crashing to a halt. In order to achieve that, it is necessary to look at the Israeli state in its wider regional context.

The structural role that the Israeli state plays in the imperialist system sustained by the US for decades in order to dominate the Middle East is the main reason why the struggle for liberation within historic Palestine has failed to make a democratic breakthrough. The long-term support of the US and its allies for Israel has allowed the apartheid form of the Zionist state to persist decades after other settler-colonial enterprises collapsed. It is important to stress the primary role of imperialism in this analysis, which means rejecting explanations that emphasise the supposed power of a “Zionist lobby” or, worse, a “Jewish lobby”.17

The reason for imperialist support for Israel is quite simple: the promise made by the Israeli ruling class to act as military guarantor of US interests in the region. So, one way of looking at Israel is as a “garrison‐state society”—a modern Sparta committed to the “defence of the West” from hostile natives.18 Considered in ­isolation from the wider context, this perspective can obscure the degree to which the “defence of Israel” has directly aligned with the ­economic, political and military interests of many ruling classes across the region. Moreover, all the ruling classes of states with large Palestinian populations, including those hostile to the US, such as Syria, have been systematically involved in the subjugation, marginalisation and impoverishment of the millions of Palestinians resident within their borders (or just outside them, in the case of Egypt’s ­assistance of the Israeli blockade on Gaza).

In other words, the Palestinian liberation has never simply been about storming some external citadel of tyranny imposed on the region from ­outside, but rather about challenging the sovereignty and authority of all the regional states. The fact that these states encompass a wide variety of political forms and embody various bourgeois political strategies—from the Jordanian monarchy, which has long tolerated legal Islamist opposition movements, as well as Lebanon’s sectarian warlord plutocracy and Egypt and Syria’s authoritarian military ­republics—underscores that fundamentally this is a class issue. A common thread linking all of these “frontline states” is the ­possibility that the cause of Palestinian liberation might fuse with the deep-seated social and ­economic grievances of the vast majority in ways that directly challenge not just the policies of specific ­governments and particular leaders, but also the entire structures of the state itself. Over many decades, these ruling classes have expended vast efforts to prevent such a fusion taking place, and their relative success has had disastrous consequences for Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike. The new phase that has opened in Israel’s war on the Palestinian people will severely test all of them.

In the current crisis, what happens in the states directly bordering Palestine will make the greatest difference to the outcome of the war on Gaza. It will have the greatest repercussions for the development of political and social movements inside historic Palestine. Nonetheless, concentrating on the states nearest to Palestine is not a denial of the importance of what happens in the wider region. Solidarity with the Palestinian people continues to be a motor for self-organisation and popular mobilisations across North Africa, including in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. Since Israel began its latest bombardment of Gaza, there have also been large protests in Iraq, Yemen and Iran, but these have been encouraged by states and armed groups that see themselves as being in alliance with Palestinian ­resistance movements.

Jordan: the ghosts of Black September

On 24 November, thousands of demonstrators surged onto the streets across Jordan to rage against the carnage in Gaza and show their support for the Palestinian cause. One name predominated in the chants. It was not that of Jordan’s monarch, King Abdullah, nor his wife, Queen Rania, who is herself of Palestinian origin. Nor was it the name of foreign minister Ayman Safadi, who publicly clashed with US officials by calling out Israeli war crimes, ­withdrawing the Jordanian ambassador to Israel and stating that no Arab troops will go to Gaza.19 Rather, it was Abu Obaida, the spokesman of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz-al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, whose name echoed in the streets, with many demonstrators claiming they were directly responding to his calls for mass protests.20 The political popularity of Hamas in Jordan, where a majority of the population is of Palestinian origin, underlines the ­difficulties for both Israeli and US officials if they believe that it will be an easy task to simply “eradicate” the Islamist movement through military action and the destruction of Gaza. However, the history of the nationalist Palestinian ­factions in Jordan, particularly the catastrophic outcome of their clash with the Jordanian state in 1970, demonstrates the limits of the strategy in relation to Jordan that has been pursued by Hamas and its predecessors in the PLO.

There are a number of specific features of the situation of Palestinians in Jordan that differentiate it from other regional states. These include the fact that an ­overall majority of population is of Palestinian origin, with many Palestinians having Jordanian citizenship. Palestinians have held office at all levels of the state and form an important part of the Jordanian capitalist class. Jordan’s monarchy has many authoritarian features, but it has historically tolerated legal Islamist opposition groups such as the Islamic Action Front, the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas was able to carry out years of semi-legal activity in Jordan, and several of its key figures, such as former leader Khaled Mishal, are Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin. Mishal was one of a number of Hamas leaders exiled from Jordan in 1999 during a crackdown orchestrated by King Abdullah.21

Yet, in many ways, the situation of many Palestinians in Jordan is similar to those in Lebanon and Syria. Tens of thousands are denied equal rights with other citizens and trapped in poverty in refugee camps due to ­structural discrimination from which there is no escape. They are dependent on education, health services and aid provided by the increasing cash-strapped UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has faced a deepening funding crisis for years as a result of US attempts to undermine it at Israel’s behest. This has led to job cuts and late ­payment of salaries for UNRWA’s workforce, which is largely Palestinian.22

Over the course of their history, the Jordanian monarchy and wider ruling class have played two major roles in the regional architecture of US domination. The first has been to maintain Jordan as hostile territory for armed groups and political movements that threaten US interests in the region. As noted above, the Jordanian ruling class has often adopted political strategies of divide and rule rather than just brute force repression. For instance, it has worked systematically to fragment the Islamist movement by engineering constant splits between “loyalist” factions, which conform to the role of a tame opposition and convenient safety valve for frustrations from below, and those that exhibit more political independence.23 It has been particularly successful in using class fractures among Palestinians to its advantage. At every point of crisis, Jordan’s regime has been able to persuade politicians of Palestinian origin that their best interests are served by the survival of the monarchy and its ability to repress efforts at independent Palestinian organising.

The second key function of the Jordanian regime has been as an outsourced provider of social support to millions of refugees who have fled conflicts in ­neighbouring states. The latest “memorandum of understanding” between the US and Jordan, which was signed in 2022, mandates yearly US financial assistance to the regime of $1.45 ­billion between 2023 and 2029.24 Jordanian social provision has obviously historically included Palestinians, but it has also extended in recent years to refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria. According to UN data, around 3.3 million people in Jordan—around a third of the total population—are refugees.25 Besides the 2 million Palestinian refugees registered by the UN, there are also currently around 660,000 Syrians who have fled the brutal clampdown and subsequent civil war that Bashar al-Assad launched to destroy the popular revolution of 2011. The numbers of Iraqi refugees currently in Jordan has decreased from the hundreds of thousands who arrived in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2003, but around 66,000 are still registered with the UN.26 The marginalisation and impoverishment of Palestinian refugees is not exceptional, but rather reflective of a wider pattern. A survey by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2022 showed that 64 percent of refugees in Jordan lived in poverty, and 90 percent reported employing “at least one negative coping strategy, such as reducing food intake or buying household goods on credit to get through their day to day”.27

After Israeli victory during the Six-Day War in 1967, the interaction between independent Palestinian organisation and the miserable conditions in the refugee camps developed into the most serious challenge yet faced by Jordan’s ruling class. Armed Palestinian groups—such as Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine—organised attacks on Israeli and international targets and found a ready base of support in the refugee camps. Although Fatah’s leaders were desperate to avoid a clash with Jordan’s monarchy, many Palestinians concluded that the alliance between the Jordan’s elite and the US lay at the root of the immediate political, social and military challenges they faced. However, a general strike in September 1970, which demanded the convocation of a “people’s assembly” to choose a new government (including Palestinian representatives), failed. The initiative had been endorsed by Fatah at the last moment. The Palestinian nationalist and leftist factions alike found themselves under merciless attack by the forces of King Hussein (the father of the current monarch), who killed thousands of Palestinians. Neighbouring Arab states that had promised to support the Palestinian fighters, such Iraq and Syria, stood by and watched the brief civil war end in defeat for the Palestinians.28

Abu Obaida and others in Hamas’s military leadership are well aware of the events of “Black September”, as Palestinians dubbed the ensuing ­massacre. Thus, calls to demonstrate for “the resistance” are likely to remain ­carefully calibrated as an exercise in political pressure on Jordan’s regime rather than the beginning of mobilisations aimed at ­challenging the state. The Palestinian Islamist factions, just like their secular ­nationalist and leftist predecessors, have failed to find a solution to the military and political dilemmas that have haunted the leadership of the Palestinian national movement since the Nakba.

Lebanon: prisoners of the sectarian state

The history of Palestinians in Lebanon provides another example of how ruling classes in neighbouring states collectively deny Palestinian refugees basic dignity and rights, weaponising their “foreign” status as a divide and rule tactic to frustrate attempts by broader sections of the poor, oppressed and exploited to unite against the economic and political system. The picture in Lebanon is complicated by the devastating impact of repeated Israeli military attacks on its territory and Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon between 1985 and 2000. The agony of Gaza today was prefigured by the experience of Lebanon in 1982, when Israeli forces stormed across the border and drove all the way to Beirut, leaving tens of thousands dead and injured in their wake. On 6 June, just 22 days after the launch of Israel’s invasion, Catholic relief agency Caritas claimed that at least 14,000 were dead, 25,000 severely wounded and another 400,000 completely homeless.29 As in Gaza, many were buried in mass graves or suffocated under the rubble of their homes, and Israeli officials ­systematically refused to distinguish between Palestinian civilians and PLO fighters. Lebanese and Palestinian people alike died in the indiscriminate bombing of densely populated cities. West Beirut was subject to bombardment by some 185,000 projectiles—an average of 3 every second—over a single 14-hour period on 1 August 1982, according to the Palestinian news agency.30

This backdrop of devastation helps to explain why Shia Islamist group Hezbollah has won popularity among wide layers of Lebanese society for organising an effective military campaign against Israeli occupation, which led to the eventual withdrawal of Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000. Such experiences of war and occupation have sometimes become a catalyst for the formation of extraordinary bonds of solidarity between ordinary people. Israeli forces unleashed a major air and land assault on Lebanon after a Hezbollah attack killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others in July 2006, killing around 1,300 people. The attack was intense, with Israeli warplanes launching 7,000 bomb and missile strikes across Lebanon, including on the capital city.31 A coalition of armed groups resisted the new invasion; Hezbollah was the largest, but it was joined by fighters from the Lebanese Communist Party’s armed wing. One of the most inspiring examples of popular solidarity and resistance forging unity under conditions of war was the Samidoun volunteer relief network, a grassroots group set up by Lebanese ­activists to coordinate an emergency civil response to the crisis. Samidoun was no ­professionalised NGO, brokering deals with ­international aid agencies and relying on a small number of staff; instead, it was an exercise in popular, political resistance from below. It mobilised volunteers from all different sectors of Lebanese society, made decisions in daily mass assemblies and soon became one of the few effective relief organisations in Beirut.32 The attitude to Hezbollah among the activists leading Samidoun was to declare solidarity with the struggle to defend Lebanon from Israel, but also to refuse to gloss over their differences with the Islamist organisation. They ­operated independently of the armed resistance groups, concentrating on building a grassroots movement to mobilise popular forms of solidarity activism.33

The experience of Samidoun was all the more remarkable due to the entrenchment of sectarian divisions as a result of the Lebanese Civil War, which erupted in 1975 and continued until 1990. After 15 years of bitter conflict, at least 150,000 were left dead, and 1 million were driven to migrate abroad.34 The initial turn to civil war was a calculated response by the Maronite Christian parts of the Lebanese ruling class and their allies. The aim was to divide the political alliance that seemed to be forming between the Lebanese Shia Muslims, Palestinian refugees and the left, thus forestalling a process of radicalising social struggles against the Lebanese state.

The possibility of popular unity was based on shared experiences of ­oppression—the Shia community was excluded from politics and ­economically marginalised. The Maronite ruling class led the drive to reassert the domination of state structures, which parcelled out resources and political office on the basis of sectarian identity, drawing the poorest layers of each sectarian community into conflict with each other behind the leaders of “their” segment of the ruling class. Massacres of Palestinians by various Lebanese armed groups punctuated major stages in the war. The Maronite Phalange militias were responsible for some of the most horrific of these massacres, such as the murder of around 1,500 in Tel ­al-Zaatar camp in August 1976 and 3,500 in the Sabra and Shatila camps in September 1982, which took place with the connivance of the ­invading Israeli army.

The sectarian system was locked in place at the end of the Lebanese Civil War, albeit with one major change—the ranks of the Lebanese capitalist class ­admitted Shia representatives for the first time. Hezbollah has come to represent the ­primary political vehicle for this process, even while continuing to play an outsized role in defending Lebanon against Israel. In the meantime, Hezbollah’s links with Iran and the Syrian regime have drawn it into a counter-revolutionary role in Syria, where it mobilised on a sectarian basis to support Assad.

Where has all this left the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon? UNRWA data shows that the current Palestinian refugee population is around 200,000, ­including 30,000 who were previously living in Syria. A staggering 80 percent live below the national poverty line, and this figure would rise to 93 percent were it not for a quarterly cash handout distributed by the UN. As UNRWA notes:

The very high rates of poverty among Palestine refugees are a result of decades of structural discrimination related to employment opportunities and denial of the right to own property in Lebanon. This is compounded by the most recent economic, fiscal and monetary crisis in the host country.35

As in Jordan, Palestinian refugees have been joined in the most impoverished sections of Lebanese society by hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Furthermore, Palestinian communities in Lebanon today are living in the vortex of another storm that has wreaked a trail of destruction across Lebanese society. The cause of this is not war, but rather a financial crisis brought about by the venality and corruption of the gerontocratic warlords who preside over the Lebanese state.36 Mass resistance has emerged at several points since 2019, when a popular uprising, dubbed the “October Revolution”, brought hundreds of ­thousands onto the streets of Beirut and other cities. Protestors targeted banks and the political elite, refusing to spare Hezbollah from the criticism directed at other sectarian parties. A popular slogan attacked the Lebanese ruling class: “You are the Civil War—We are the People’s Revolution!”. Yet, in many ways the struggle from below remained trapped within the confines of the sectarian system. The favoured symbol of the protests was the Lebanese flag, and both Palestinians and Syrians were often excluded.

Egypt and the predicament of Gaza

One of the most acute problems facing the Egyptian ruling class is that the offensive unleashed by Israeli forces since 7 October clearly aims to make Gaza uninhabitable. Indeed, a significant section of Israel’s political and military leadership have declared themselves in favour of mass expulsions of Palestinians on a scale unseen since the Nakba.37 This would overturn a ­cornerstone of Egyptian foreign policy: avoiding the creation of a large permanent Palestinian refugee community within Egypt. The destruction of Gaza and the expulsion of its population would be an outrageous crime, condemned by both Palestinians and the vast majority of Egyptians. Yet, it is not out of regard for Palestinian rights that Egypt’s president, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, and his regime vehemently oppose this plan. Sisi indicated that he would be happy to see Israeli forces pulverise Gaza City and “deal with the militants”, provided the civilian population were relocated to the al-Naqab desert temporarily, rather than forced onto the Egyptian side of the border.38

Since the death of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, the dominant faction within the Egyptian military has traded its ­participation in the subjugation of the Palestinians for the economic and ­military ­benefits accruing to junior partner status in the US’s world order. This has had ­significant economic effects, including setting in motion a slow refashioning of the Egyptian economy according to the principles of Western economists, with successive rounds of ­structural adjustment in exchange for access to economic aid and loans. The ­political regime that emerged from this process was ruptured from below in 2011 Egyptian Revolution, but the partnership with Israel survived. Despite the huge popularity of the Palestinian cause in the Egyptian street and the rhetorical ­commitment to Palestinian liberation ­maintained by the major reformist Islamist force, the Muslim Brotherhood, there was no fundamental change in the status quo in the wake of the revolution. Gaza remained largely under siege and intermittently bombarded. All mainstream political parties, including the Islamists, declared their loyalty to the ­Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed in 1979.39

For decades, the bloated presence of the Egyptian military in the country’s economic and political life has been sustained by its ruling class’s alliance with Israel under the aegis of the US. Through the transfer of billions of dollars of foreign military and economic aid to Egypt, as well as the sabbaticals that Egyptian officers spend in US war colleges, the US political establishment validates its Egyptian counterparts’ self-belief that they are indeed the real “owners of the republic”.40

Could the progress of Israel’s war on Palestinians in Gaza undermine the Egyptian military’s claims to determine the fate of the state? It will certainly expose the hollowness of Sisi’s claims to be acting in defence of Palestinians’ interests, highlighting the gap between the Egyptian army’s boasts of military effectiveness and its failure to act when confronted with a genocide on its ­doorstep. A similar set of conditions fatally ­undermined the military establishment in the dying days of the monarchy, when a ­combination of scandals over defective arms and the defeat of Egyptian army by the Zionist armed forces in Gaza in 1948 set in motion a rebellion of junior officers. This led to the ­overthrow of King Farouk in 1952.41

Like its predecessors, the Sisi regime is not only vulnerable to the political and military fallout from the war in Gaza, but also to its economic aftershocks. The Egyptian economy was already in a fragile state before the Hamas attacks against Israel on 7 October 2023. As a socialist activist reports from Cairo:

At an economic level, the state is under severe pressure. Egypt’s foreign debts have massively increased in recent years through the accumulation of ­interest on loans for projects that are not linked to increasing production (such as ­massive construction schemes). In addition, the government cannot find enough dollars to meet Egypt’s import needs from international markets. Both of these are long-term problems, and the crisis is deepening as time passes. The terms of credit for loans are getting tougher as old debts pile up. The foreign currency crisis has also intensified. In 2013, there were 7 Egyptian pounds to the dollar; today, that figure is 30 pounds to the dollar.42

The deadly merry-go-round of plague, war and speculation that has crashed across the global economy in recent years has left the Egyptian government unable to pay its bills for food and fuel imports at the same time as servicing its debts. In 2022, it sought a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but it was instead forced to agree to an unpleasant set of ­conditions in order to secure the much smaller amount of just $3bn. Backed up by the Gulf states, which have also tightened their purses in recent years in response to Egyptian loan requests, IMF officials have demanded action to shrink the military’s role in the economy, reduce state spending on subsidies and devalue the currency.43

There are few reasons for ordinary Egyptians to trust Sisi and his regime. His policies have left them impoverished on a massive scale, and around a third of the population now live below the official poverty line.44 In the seven years since Sisi’s coup, which overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government elected after the 2011 revolution, subsidised loaves of bread, upon which 70 million people rely, have shrunk in weight from 130 grams to 90 grams.45 Add in the impact of waves of price rises on fuel, food and medicine, and it is clear that there is a combustible mixture at the base of Egyptian society:

So far, the regime has stopped any significant protests from developing over the cost of living by using repression. There have been strikes in some workplaces to demand higher wages. There has been a noticeable increase in workers’ strikes and protests over the last year. There are self-organised groups of workers at a workplace level, but there are not yet any serious initiatives coordinating between workplaces. We could say there are active individual trade unionists but no genuinely independent trade unions at the moment.46

The question of Palestine fits into this picture as the issue that has begun to open cracks in the regime’s monopoly over public space. Activists refounded the Popular Campaign for Solidarity with the Palestinian Cause, ­breathing new life into an organisation that played an important role in solidarity ­activism in the decade before the 2011 revolution. At the time of writing, there had only been relatively small-scale independent protests in solidarity with Palestine—and some much larger regime-sponsored affairs. Even the latter, which afford ordinary people a chance to let off steam by chanting for Sisi to “save” Gaza, have proved risky, with crowds in some areas starting to raise anti-government slogans.47

Prospects for permanent revolution

It is important to stress that those states not formally allied with the US, such as Syria and Iran, offer no genuine alternative to Western imperialism and its allies. Both the Iranian and Syrian regimes have reactionary and authoritarian relationships to their own people, repressing the vast majority and systematically using sectarian, national and religious forms of oppression to maintain their rule. The Iranian regime’s oppression of women, marginalised national groups and religious minorities has recently been challenged by an inspiring uprising from below, led largely by young people and symbolised in particular by the courage of young women.48 The Syrian regime has a long history of directly suppressing independent Palestinian organisation, including during its vicious ­counter-revolution against the popular uprising against Assad since 2011.49

The grim urgency of the war in Gaza has a tendency to override everything else, and the scale of suffering and destruction can appear to render “ordinary” forms of protest and action irrelevant. Yet, if anything is to change in a lasting way for the Palestinian people in Gaza and elsewhere, it will be through the revival of agency and power among workers and the poor in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and beyond. Moving beyond the state of “permanent war” requires the re-emergence of mass movements from below capable of fracturing the entire regional system that grants Israel impunity and empowers it even at its most vulnerable moments.

Such movements may begin with the simplest actions: distribution of leaflets in the street or to work colleagues, a chant that gathers a few people together, a show of defiance to the boss over an apparently trivial demand such as extending the tea break. These can be triggered by issues that are framed as political or economic demands. Yet, those that scale up into powerful engines of popular self-organisation, moving the people collectively into confrontation with the state, have a set of common features.

One is that they always start to cross over the divides between the domains of “politics” and “economics”. The 2011 Egyptian Revolution demonstrated this process in action. The decade before the uprising saw several waves of political mobilisations that defied the regime’s repression and turned the streets, university campuses and professional associations’ headquarters into spaces for political organising and self-expression. This process began in 2000 with the wave of school and university student walkouts in solidarity with the Second Intifada in Palestine. This fed into the development of popular boycott and solidarity campaigns for Palestine, but it also drove political campaigns directly targeting the Egyptian regime. These included the Kefaya (“enough”) ­movement, which demanded ­political reform and targeted dictator Hosni Mubarak’s plans to hand power to his son, Gamal Mubarak, who was being groomed as a future president. The ways in which Palestine solidarity activism laid the basis for the campaign for democracy were often very direct. Kefaya was launched with a protest on the steps of the High Court in Cairo in December 2004, supported by a broad spectrum of Islamists, Nasserists and socialists. Many of these activists had also participated in a solidarity convoy to Gaza, which was stopped by Egyptian police at the border of the Sinai governorate a few days before. The cross-fertilisation between various kinds of political demands also flowed from the inner logic of the movement’s development. As popular protests for Palestine grew in scale, they immediately came up against the limits imposed by the regime, which refused to allow space to organise, repressing activists while visibly collaborating with Israel.

In 2011, the interaction between political and economic struggles was ­fundamental to the success of the revolution that started on 25 January and soon brought down Mubarak. The decisive turning point in the 18-day popular ­uprising was a wave of strikes that spread across the country from around 6 February. These strikes were not all—or even mainly—overtly “political”; generally, they raised demands over pay and conditions. However, they paralysed key sections of the economy, such as telecoms exchanges, the Cairo bus network, ­companies supplying the Suez Canal, local government offices and miliary-owned manufacturing plants. This played an instrumental role in breaking the regime’s resolve, leading to the removal of Mubarak from power by his own generals on 11 February.50

The development of the Sudanese Revolution after December 2018 showed a similar process at work. In this case, the starting point was economic—the acute social crisis caused by lack of bread, cash and fuel—but it was the intervention of groups of organised workers into the protest movement that ensured it did not ­dissipate after a few weeks. These included health workers, who began to ­demonstrate in their workplaces and organised the first strikes supporting the movement’s demands as early as 25 December. Workers also blockaded Port Sudan in a dispute against privatisation while chanting slogans that symbolised revolt against the regime. Through general strikes in March, May and June 2019, activity in the workplaces shaped the whole trajectory of the uprising and played a central role in its development into a generalised challenge to the regime.

There are also important axes along which mass movements develop ­momentum through a similar back and forth motion, playing a crucial part in steering them towards a revolutionary trajectory. One of the most ­important is the interplay between questions of oppression and exploitation in the evolution of mass movements. In some senses, this is a specific example of the relationship between “political” and “economic” struggles outlined above, but the generalisation of ­challenges to oppression across the population as a whole is important for its own sake for a number of reasons. Importantly, experiences of oppression—among national and religious minorities, women, LGBT+ people and other groups whose identities and self-expression are systematically attacked by the state—can be transformed from causes of division between ordinary people into rallying cries for unity against the powerful. Two recent examples illustrate this neatly: the breakdown of the Sudanese state’s capacity to use racism against Darfuris to divide its opponents during the revolution in 2019, and the way in which Jina Mahsa Amini, the young Kurdish woman who was murdered by Iran’s “morality police”, became a symbol of resistance and hope for much wider segments of Iranian society during the uprising in 2021.

The cause of Palestinian liberation is able to play a similar kind of role in many contexts because it is an example of systematic oppression on the basis of national identity and because the maintenance of that oppression is, as outlined above, structured into the political economy of an entire region. Many Egyptian ­telecommunications workers, for example, will have been asking themselves why the bosses of the mobile phone networks refused to extend their coverage to southern Gaza in a simple act of solidarity with Palestinians under siege and bombardment. Some may start to conclude that the self-interests of their bosses are part of a wider ruling-class attempt to perpetuate a system that both exploits them and oppresses the Palestinians. Similarly, tugboat operators and pilots watching the handwringing and excuses of Egypt’s regime in the face of genocide in Gaza know very well that a well-positioned container ship blocking the Suez Canal at Port Said or Suez could disrupt a key artery of world trade, exercising enormous leverage over Western governments and concentrating their minds on achieving a ceasefire.

When mass movements develop on a society-wide scale, ordinary people can move quickly from understanding the connection between oppression and ­exploitation towards moving into action. Algeria, like much of North Africa, has a large population who are native speakers of Amazigh rather than Arabic. This language and culture has often been marginalised and discriminated against by the state. Amid the Algerian uprising in 2019, the regime attempted to use divide and rule tactics by criminalising the Amazigh flag and symbols. This only spread the use of the flag as a symbol of defiance and solidarity to street protests, workers’ picket lines and sit-ins across the whole country, not just areas with Amazigh majorities. The regime also banned the Palestinian flag at one point, leading to a similar process of identification between struggles among the oppressed and the battle for political freedom against the regime. Indeed, it also amplified a recognition of the deep connections between both of these fights and the social struggle against capital.

Experiences of oppression within particular national contexts are often linked to the development of the popular mass movement along another axis, which runs from the centre to the margins and back again. Mobilising ­powerful protests that target institutional, economic and political centres (capital cities, key government buildings, and important workplaces and economic sectors) is an important way in which mass movements build momentum. They demonstrate the power of ordinary people to take over, in both literal and ­figurative senses, the spaces at the centre of the elite’s domain. However, there is, once again, usually a back and forth ­movement between mobilisations in these central locations and more “marginal” spaces where ordinary people live and work. The massive sit-ins organised by Sudanese activists during the uprising of 2019 were a case in point. Tens of thousands congregated outside military headquarters around the country, with the largest protest camp springing up at the army’s General Command compound in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city. These sit-ins became spaces for debate and discussion: liberated territories for ­self-organisation and experimentation with new ways of being, as well as ­platforms for projecting slogans and demands, similarly to the sit-ins in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other public squares across Egypt in 2011.

However, one of the major reasons why the Khartoum sit-in lasted much longer than the Egyptian examples, and arguably had a greater effect on deepening the revolutionary process, was the more systematic connections that developed between the sit-in and neighbourhoods across the city. Activists organised in their local areas to raise money, source food supplies and bring reinforcements of new people, creating a whole infrastructure for mobilisation. In other ways too, the Khartoum sit-in was organically connected to areas on the periphery of the national state, including marginalised regions such as Darfur. Sudanese activist Muzan Alneel writes movingly of the impact of the arrival at the Khartoum sit-in of buses of Darfuri activists who had driven hundreds of miles to join the protest camp outside the buildings housing the very army and militia generals who had led the ethnic cleansing and murder of their people. A chant went up against ­dictator Omar El Bashir: “You arrogant racist—the whole country is Darfur!”. This gesture of solidarity was also accompanied by a recognition among Khartoum-based ­activists that regime’s divisive lies had, in the past, left Darfuris isolated from a wider movement of solidarity.51

The development of independent organisation that is simultaneously capable of disrupting the status quo and constructing popular alternatives to it is also a crucial axis along which mass movements consolidate and start to move in a revolutionary direction. The greater the scale of mass mobilisation, and the more that boundaries between political and economic forms of struggle are crossed, the more urgent these questions become. The same protest infrastructures that organised disruption on a mass scale in Sudan—the neighbourhood resistance committees—quickly turned toward the construction of alternative, popular services and management of resources. Resistance committees were set up to mobilise protesters, but they also supplied the sit-ins, organised teams to check on the production and delivery of bread, managed public health interventions in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, set up cooperatives, and began to intervene in many other aspects of daily life. In April 2023, when war erupted between the Sudanese military and the militia generals, the same sets of activists and local organisers were key to creating “emergency rooms”, which provided health care, repaired electricity generators, and opened schools and other public buildings to shelter refugees fleeing the fighting.52

The forms of organisation out of which such movements are built are often deceptively simple; many would already be familiar from their embryonic forms in more everyday struggles. They usually include a mass meeting or assembly with large numbers of local residents in a neighbourhood or workers in a workplace, as well as committees of activists willing to take on the work of coordination between different sectors. The experience of revolutions and popular uprisings of the past shows clearly that the stronger the democratic connection between these two basic forms—the assembly and the committee—the more ­powerfully engaged the mass of ordinary people will be in developing the ­movement. In particular, if authority begins to flow in real and concrete ways from the bottom to the top of the movement’s organisations, and its leaders know (and are constantly reminded) that they are acting as delegates of the assembly and subject to its decisions, this will open the door to radical political conclusions. As the crisis of the existing state deepens, such forms of organisation create spaces where people experiment with practices that pave the way for alternative forms of government. They provide the means to drive democracy deep into everyday life; in the process, this starts to build a new kind of power that can run society from below. Vitally, breaking apart the capitalist state requires these democratic forms become rooted in the workplaces—not just in working-class and poor ­neighbourhoods—a factor that was largely missing from the Sudanese Revolution, despite its vitality and creative energy.

The vision of a future democratic Palestinian state, which will only come into being through the self-organised struggles of the poorest and most oppressed in Palestine and beyond, does not just serve as a challenge to apartheid Israel. It also invites Palestinians, and their allies among the poor and oppressed of the neighbouring states, to see the democracy they seek as one they create through their own practice, rather than a liberal model handed down from on high. It is no accident that the Palestinian struggle turns time and again towards the fusion of demands for both political and social liberation. It is no wonder that even the radical Arab leaders were terrified of what this fusion meant and did their best to ensure that the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement abandoned it.

Despite this, an echo of a vision of a self-organised, democratic movement from below, contesting the apartheid regime and building its own means of struggle in practice, could be seen in the First Intifada, which erupted in 1987. The Intifada gave birth to a huge network of self-organised popular ­committees, which not only mobilised protests, but also coordinated the ­delivery of education, healthcare and basic services to Palestinians.53 On their own, these were unable to halt the operations of the Israeli state, leading eventually to the defeat of the struggle from below and the drive towards accommodation with apartheid through the Oslo process. Nonetheless, a generation later, the Palestinian general strike of May 2021 showed, in spite of escalating violence from Israel’s apartheid state, the potential for the development of embryos of similar forms of self-organisation.

The revival and rebuilding of these traditions will not happen overnight. It will also take time to create organisational forms capable of sustaining the mass movements in the countries surrounding Palestine in order to give space for all the varied forms of resistance to breathe and develop. Yet, there will be an immense prize for enlarging the “social soul” of the Palestinian revolution through creating an organic connection with the struggles of the poor and oppressed of the wider region against their own states—provided there is an organised party willing to fight for it.54

A revolution to liberate Palestine would thus necessarily be a process with two aspects. The first would be a revolution inside Palestine, led by Palestinians, for a single democratic and secular state, achieved through the dismantling of the whole social and political system of apartheid by a movement from below. However, this cannot be achieved without the second aspect—a revolutionary process outside Palestine, which nevertheless has Palestinian liberation as one of the main goals. In countries with either large Palestinian minorities or Palestinian majorities, such as, respectively, Lebanon and Jordan, it should go without saying that Palestinians would have to be part of the active leadership of movements conducting such a revolutionary struggle. In the case of Egypt this would mean a living, organic partnership between mass Egyptian revolutionary movements and Palestinian popular and revolutionary movements inside historic Palestine and among the diaspora. These two aspects of the revolutionary process are mutually reinforcing, entwined in a dynamic similar to the “reciprocal action” that Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg argued was at work between the political and economic aspects of the mass strikes in the 1905 Revolution in Russia.55

The revolutionary process inside historic Palestine is crucial for several reasons. Only a revolution—or at least the opening of a period of revolutionary ­possibilities—can produce the dynamic of political and social transformation from below that makes a single democratic, secular state possible. This vision of a ­liberated Palestine “from the river to the sea” does not necessitate the removal of Jewish Israelis from Palestine; it only requires the suppression of ideologies that are supremacist, racist and colonialist. It demands the ­dismantling of unjust, racist laws such as the 2018 Nation State Law and the Law of Return (which does not extend to Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homeland) as well as the whole state apparatus that sustains apartheid. As Palestinian academic Ghada Karmi notes, a democratic state would reflect, rather than repress, the “multicultural reality” of society in historic Palestine.56 In fact, there are a whole range of Jewish identities clearly at risk of being criminalised, repressed and forced into exile by the rise of the ­Jewish-supremacist far right. Such forms of Jewish ­self-expression could better flourish in a democratic Palestine.

As Rob Ferguson explains elsewhere in this journal, conflicts between ­different segments of the Israeli ruling class will not of their own accord create the ­conditions for the majority of Jewish Israelis to break with Zionism. That much is clear from the experience of the last year’s protests against Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right allies. A revolution against the apartheid state must be led by Palestinians. However, the further it goes down the road towards a process of social transformation that involves ordinary people changing themselves as they fight to change the world, the greater the possibilities for loosening the ideological and material bonds binding working-class Jewish Israelis to the Zionist state and to the brutal defence of their racial and religious privileges. Ultimately, it is this process of revolutionary transformation that can create the possibility of taking off the masks of oppressor and oppressed, “settler” and “native”, and forging a different future.

This article has laid out in detail reasons why this revolutionary process cannot take place within historic Palestine alone. Instead, it must involve the organised working class in the wider region taking a leading role in the struggle. In reality, this means that the Egyptian working class has a specific role to play, since it has much greater social weight than the working class in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as far more developed traditions of independent organisation. The aim should be to break the siege of Gaza, frustrate the desires of Israeli ­politicians to force millions of Palestinians out of their homeland, and avoid requiring the Palestinian resistance to lay down their arms and surrender their political independence by accepting the sovereignty of Israel’s single, racist state. This can only be practically achieved by weakening the Sisi regime from within Egypt.57

Adding the weight of the organised working class beyond the borders of Palestine is also essential because it will strengthen the social dimensions of the struggle within the apartheid state and deepen the class struggle against it. This opens up the prospect of breaking down the vertical divisions that compartmentalise society in historic Palestine between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians—between citizens and subjects—as well as those that divide Palestinians into Gazans, Jerusalemites, West Bankers and so on. This can be done through the activation of the one cleavage in society that really matters—the division between “the mass of the people, their majority, the very lowest social groups, crushed by oppression and exploitation” and the state.58

Anne Alexander is the author of Revolution is the Choice of the People: Crisis and Revolt in the Middle East and North Africa (Bookmarks, 2022). She is a founder member of MENA Solidarity Network, the co-editor of Middle East Solidarity and a member of the University and College Union.


1 Wong, 2023.

2 Quinn, 2023; Borell, 2023.

3 Teibel, 2023.

4 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2023.

5 Hubbard and Abi-Habib, 2023.

6 Borell, 2023.

7 B’Tselem, 2021; Human Rights Watch, 2021; Amnesty International, 2022.

8 Zonszein, 2023.

9 Muasher, 2023. Bantustans were small black statelets set up by the apartheid regime of white minority rule in South Africa.

10 McMillan-Scott, 2006.

11 Rose, 2008.

12 Johannes, 2023.

13 Muasher, 2023.

14 Barker, Dale and Davidson, 2021.

15 Alexander, 2022a.

16 Alexander, 2022b.

17 There is a real danger that narratives about the power of a Zionist lobby can turn into versions of antisemitic conspiracy theories, especially when the growth of the far right is powering a real rise in antisemitism. British academic David Miller is one prominent critic of Israel who has fallen into this trap—see Socialist Worker, 2023a. For a more detailed analysis of rising antisemitism, see Ferguson, 2018.

18 Shapiro, 1974.

19 Gambrell, 2023.

20 Al Jazeera, 2023. Hamas’s armed forces are named after Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a Syrian figure who founded a guerilla group to carry out attacks on British forces and Zionists in the 1930s.

21 Hirst, 1999.

22 Davis, 2021.

23 Masalha and Hamid, 2017.

24 United States Mission in Jordan, 2022.

25 World Health Organisation, 2023.

26 Human Rights Watch, 2006; United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2022a.

27 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2022b.

28 Marshall, 1989, p124.

29 Tucker, 1982.

30 Tucker, 1982.

31 Human Rights Watch, 2007.

32 Lavalette and Levine, 2011.

33 Lavalette and Levine, 2011.

34 Wenger, 1990.

36 Alexander, 2020.

37 Teibel, 2023.

38 Abdallah, Awadalla and Wali, 2023. Israel refers to the al-Naqab desert as the “Negev”.

39 Alexander, 2022b.

40 Sayigh, 2019.

41 Nasser and Khalidi, 1973.

42 From an interview conducted on 28 October.

43 International Crisis Group, 2023.

44 World Bank data.

45 Salem, Ismail and Mamdouh, 2021.

46 From an interview conducted on 28 October.

47 From an interview conducted on 28 October.

48 Jafari, 2023.

49 Alexander, 2022b.

50 Bassiouny and Alexander, 2021.

51 Alexander, 2022a.

52 Alexander, 2023.

53 Alexander, 2022b.

54 Alexander, 2011.

55 Luxemburg, 1986.

56 Socialist Worker, 2023b.

57 Alexander, 2022b.

58 Lenin, 1917.


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