Strategies for liberation: old and new arguments in the Palestinian left

Issue: 183

Ramsis Kilani

After more than 8 months of Israeli genocide in Gaza, the Palestinian resistance is still standing its ground.1 Today, this resistance is dominated by Islamist organisations. The leading military and political force in the Gaza Strip (and increasingly, since the 7 October offensive, beyond it) is the Islamist movement Hamas.2 The military operations of its armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, are often carried out in collaboration with the second largest militant group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.3 Although left-wing organisations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) are members of the Joint Room for Palestinian Resistance Factions—formed in 2018 to coordinate armed struggle in Gaza—the military and political influence of the historic currents of the Palestinian left is marginal at the moment.

However, this was not always the case. In the 1970s and 1980s, the PFLP, the biggest Palestinian political party that self-described as Marxist-Leninist, was both famous and infamous around the world as a result of its militant operations. The organisation produced a weekly Arabic-language newspaper, Al-Hadaf (The Target), as well as a monthly English-language publication, PFLP Bulletin. Both contained political analysis and theory as well as addressing international affairs, social issues and culture. The PFLP‘s membership was estimated to be roughly 5,000 in Jordan alone, and almost half of these were armed fighters.4 The organisation managed hospitals, schools, daycare provision and other services in both Jordan and Lebanon. Indeed, my father and tens of thousands of other Palestinians in Gaza and beyond sympathised with the secular leftist factions within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which acted as an umbrella grouping for the Palestinian factions. These left-wing groups had close ties with the Palestinian diaspora, Communist parties and militant organisations worldwide.

In this article, I argue that the reasons for the decline of the historic organisations of the Palestinian left lie primarily in their prioritisation of military strategies, which made them dependent on the structures of the PLO. The bureaucratic competition between the PLO’s factions over funding and support from regimes in the region narrowed the space for organising that could unleash the creative energy of ordinary people through struggle from below. The dominance of Stalinist conceptions of a revolution in “stages”, where the national struggle would always take precedence over the struggle for social liberation from exploitation and oppression, smothered the revolutionary dynamics of the Palestinian struggle.

Today, questions of strategy have been brought back to the surface due to the Arab revolutions and counter-revolutions since 2011, the dramatic military escalation in the Middle East since the Hamas-led offensive against Israel on 7 October 2023, the brutal Israeli response and the echoes of all this in the growing Palestine solidarity movement in Western countries. A new Palestinian left is growing, particularly in the diaspora, with formations such as the Palestinian Youth Movement playing a role in shaping radical currents in the solidarity movement.

For revolutionary socialists, Palestinians have always had—and continue to have—every right to resist, by any means necessary, the imperialist-backed Zionist settler colony that occupies their land and oppresses them. They should have our unconditional support when they fight for freedom. However, our solidarity with the struggle of an oppressed people cannot remove the need for a critique of the tactics and strategies employed by Palestinian organisations.5 Revisiting the history and controversial debates within the Palestinian left can provide a vital resource, helping us understand the lessons of the past and develop a strategy for liberation from Zionist colonialism today.

Origins of the Palestinian left

The 1950s saw the growing popularity of a version of Arab nationalism across the Middle East and North Africa. This ideology saw Arabs as a single people (“qawm” in Arabic) who had been divided by the artificially imposed boundaries of the colonial era. In 1952 and 1958, respectively, junior military officers in Egypt and Iraq overthrew their British-backed monarchies, and Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as a champion of Arab nationalism. Nasser laid down a political and economic challenge to the old imperialist powers, Britain and France, through nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956. These developments fed into the idea that “Arab unity” could be created through the actions of radical nationalists at the helm of the state. In 1958, Egypt and Syria agreed to the first major merger of Arab states, the United Arab Republic. The liberation of Palestine was touted as a central cause of Arab nationalism, with many Palestinians looking to Nasser to move against Israel.6

The Palestinian left emerged from a twofold crisis of this Arab nationalism. The first moment of crisis came in 1961, when the Syrian state broke away from the United Arab Republic, which had been set up just three years earlier. The second, and more severe, moment of crisis unfolded with the devastating defeat of the Arab armies by Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967. The military failure of Egypt, Jordan and Syria called into question the doctrine that Arab unity would liberate Palestine. At this point, left-nationalist ideologies that branded themselves as “Marxist” started to compete with Nasserism in the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), a Pan-Arabist organisation founded by a group of Palestinian students at the American University in Beirut in the wake of the Nakba (“catastrophe”)—the forced expulsion of some 750,000 by the newly created State of Israel in 1948.

According to Palestinian sociologist Jamil Hilal, left-wing critics of Nasserism were looking to “everything that was available on the market”.7 Most popular on the “market” of the time were those ideologies prominent within the national liberation struggles of Algeria and Vietnam, for which many Palestinians had great respect. Texts by the leading figures of the anti-colonial struggles—such as Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh—were widely read and discussed. In this context, the Stalinist stages theory gained an influence in the Palestinian left. This theory argued that the role of Communists in national liberation struggles was to support the indigenous capitalist class’s project of building a nation-state and to carefully avoid risking the breakdown of alliances with the capitalists by refraining from pushing for a social revolution against capitalism. National independence would need to be achieved before socialism could come onto the agenda; a first stage, bourgeois revolution, would need to be completed before a second stage, socialist revolution, could be initiated.

Among those interested in this model of national liberation were two founders of the ANM: George Habash, a Palestinian ethnically cleansed from Lydda during the Nakba, and Wadie Haddad, who had been expelled from Safad in 1948. The two were young Pan-Arabist doctors and ran a medical clinic together in Amman, Jordan. They helped transform the Palestinian section of the ANM into the PFLP, merging with the Palestine Liberation Front and other “fedayeen” groups.8

The PLO, in contrast, was initially established as a product and tool of Nasser amid regional rivalries in 1964. However, this changed with the military defeat of Nasser in the Six-Day War and the surprisingly successful guerilla operation against the Israeli army in Jordan at the Battle of Karameh by Fatah, a Palestinian guerilla group.9 Fatah later took over the PLO and transformed it, turning it into a mass movement and making it more independent from Cairo. The newly established left-wing groups, whose leaders had previously rejected the PLO, now joined it.

Consequently, the PLO of this period consisted of a range of armed resistance factions with a secular ideology. Fatah was the largest and had existed since the 1950s, although it only began military operations in 1965. Its politics were based on a form of “watani” nationalism that held up a shared Palestinian national identity distinct from the “qawmi” Pan-Arabist nationalist project.10 Fatah’s nationalism aimed at representing all Palestinian social classes. This resonated with the Palestinian capitalist class, which needed a mass movement in order to wage its struggle to create a Palestinian nation-state but also sought to avoid endangering its alliances with the existing Arab capitalist states. Fatah became the party of the Palestinian bourgeoisie. The leading figures in Fatah, as well as in its left-wing competitors within this newly formed PLO, had their backgrounds in the Palestinian middle class and intelligentsia living in exile in the Arab states.

Fatah tried to bind itself to a policy of non-interference in the affairs of Arab states, rejecting the idea of involving itself in the political struggles within other Arab countries. By contrast, the PFLP saw interference as essential. However, it failed to fully break with its Pan-Arabist background, and its concept of interference did not aim at workers’ revolutions and the destruction of capitalist state machines. The PFLP’s ideological and organisational conceptions followed the example of the Third World national liberation movements, whose radical intellectuals were oriented towards the Chinese and Soviet models of state capitalism as a method of creating economic growth and independence. The organisation continued to see national liberation as requiring Arab governments’ support for the Palestinian resistance. This is what Habash, the first general secretary of the PFLP, meant when he took over the Pan-Arabist slogan initially formulated by PLO chairman Ahmad Shukeiri: “The road to Palestine passes through Amman, it passes through Beirut, it passes through Cairo, and it passes through Riyadh”.11 When revolutionary socialists raise the same slogan, it is invested with a very different meaning—that revolutionary struggles by workers and impoverished people in the countries surrounding Palestine are essential for the victory of the Palestinian revolution.

The price of dependency

The PLO used the tactics of asymmetric warfare to take on its powerful Israeli foe. However, the risks were enormous for those who were leading the devoted (and often necessarily clandestine) underground resistance struggle against a militarily superior enemy. With Israel’s victory over Arab nationalism during the Six-Day War, the settler-colonial state had become the watchdog of the United States’ imperialism in the region. Palestinian political leaders risked being assassinated or imprisoned both inside and outside Palestine, and their organisations were criminalised by Israel and the West.

After its break with Nasser, the PLO accepted support from new state actors, ranging from Gulf monarchies to post-colonial Algeria, Vietnam and Cuba. The organisation tried to prosper financially, militarily and diplomatically by drawing on the inter-imperialist rivalry between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War as well as from regional rivalries between the Arab regimes.

The left wing of the PLO was no exception to reliance on outside sponsorship from state actors. Omar Mostafa notes:

[Although] it rejected, correctly, the notion that some Arab regimes were socialist, the PFLP made a false distinction between reactionary regimes that accommodated to imperialism and progressive nationalist ones that were forced to fight against it. Thus, based on this distinction, the PFLP allied itself with a number of repressive Arab governments, such as the Ba’athist regime in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria.12

The PFLP was the biggest PLO faction to the left of Fatah, but it was not the only one. Originally, the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was formed after a left-wing split by former members of the ANM and the PFLP, organising as a “progressive wing” around the magazine Al-Hurriyya (“Freedom”). In 1969, it seceded from the PFLP on the basis of a rejection of the theory differentiating between reactionary and progressive Arab states, and the organisation officially adopted the name Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) in 1975. Its criticism of the PFLP also challenged its military approach, initially arguing for a transition to a fully-fledged “people’s war” of liberation by raising “a fundamental political consciousness” among the masses.13 However, the DFLP failed to stay financially independent from the Arab regimes that it theoretically rejected. Mamdouh Nofal, a former DFLP treasurer, claimed in an Al Jazeera interview that “the DFLP received $1 million monthly from Libya, the PFLP more than $1 million, [and the PFLP] General Command $1.5 million in the period between 1978 to 1980”.14

Even though the DFLP began as a left-wing split from the PFLP, rejecting the theory of “progressive Arab regimes” while still clinging to other weaknesses such as the theory of stages, it made a sharp shift to the right following the crisis faced by the PLO in Jordan in 1970, when the Jordanian monarchy waged a brutal civil war against it. In 1973, just a few years after it had talked of its intention to form soviets, the DFLP pioneered a programme called the “Policy of Phases”, which argued for an “independent combatant national authority”, in other words, a Palestinian mini-state in Gaza and the West Bank. The following year, at the Palestinian National Council, this precursor to the “two-state solution” was adopted by the leader of Fatah and the PLO, Yasser Arafat.

The political retreats of the DFLP and Fatah on this question were tragic and mistaken reactions to the serious defeat inflicted on the Palestinian national movement by the events in Jordan in 1970. The position of the regional states towards the Palestinian national movement remained contradictory. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait claimed to be supporting the PLO, but simultaneously financially subsidised the Jordanian monarchy as it started to escalate its attacks on the Palestinian organisations.15 Despite signs of the Jordanian regime’s instability and the calls by left-wing Palestinian parties in Jordan to end the reactionary reign of King Hussein, none of these organisations seriously prepared for the possibility of a revolutionary uprising against the monarchy in 1969-70. The mobilisation of thousands of Palestinians and Jordanians into a mass movement against the monarchy could have prevented the imminent threat of the expulsion of Palestinian guerrillas from Jordan and opened a path to the liberation of Palestine. Yet, instead of anchoring itself in the Palestinian and Jordan working class, the PFLP focused on hijacking aeroplanes, taking over a number of Western airliners and landing them in Jordan in September 1970.

When the Jordanian regime launched its crackdown on the PLO, justifying it as reaction to the hijacking operations, none of the Palestinian forces were ready. Still keen to avoid affronting its Arab ruling-class siblings, the Fatah leadership agreed to truces amid the bombings, which simply allowed King Hussein to reinforce discipline in his army. There were no serious attempts to win over the army’s ranks against their unpopular leadership. After months of back and forth, the Palestinian guerrillas were defeated and forced out of Jordan in what became known as “Black September”.16 The supposedly more “radical” Arab leaders failed to come to the Palestinians’ aid. Chris Harman, reporting on the Jordanian bombardment of the Palestinian resistance, commented, “Meanwhile, Nasser, for long the self-proclaimed ‘leader of the Arab revolution’, stands on the sidelines hoping that the king will win”.17 Hafez al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, took the same position, standing by passively.

Despite Stalin’s diplomatic and military support for the creation of the State of Israel, the Soviet Union became a key reference point for the PLO. By 1970, the Soviet were providing not only money and information, but also military training, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mines and missiles. Weapons were especially being channelled towards PFLP fighters. The group’s orientation towards the Soviet Union went beyond the receipt of material benefits; it involved the adoption of organisational concepts such as a central committee built on the Stalinist interpretation of “democratic centralism“. In practice, this Stalinist organisational model amounted to bureaucratic centralism, and it undermined internal democracy.

Indeed, the Soviet Union aimed to transform organisations tied to it into loyal instruments of its own foreign policy objectives. A report by the Soviet secret service laid open the intentions behind support for the PFLP guerillas: “The nature of our relations with Haddad allows us a degree of control over the activities of the PFLP’s external operations section [allowing us] to exercise an influence favourable to the Soviet Union—and also to reach some of our own aims through the activities of the PFLP while observing the necessary secrecy”.18 Dependency on the Soviet Union meant at least a certain degree of obedience to its instructions and ideological imperatives.

The limits of a military national liberation strategy

Drawing inspiration from Guevarism, leftist forces within the PLO laid a heavy focus on the armed struggle and revolutionary voluntarism. Leila Khaled, a member of the PFLP’s cadre and one of the September 1970 hijackers, echoed Guevara’s famous words on the task of revolutionaries in her autobiography: “We act as revolutionaries to inspire the masses and to trigger off the revolutionary upheaval in an era of counter-revolution”.19 The idea expressed here is that the revolutionary will of individuals could transform a counter-revolutionary phase into a revolutionary one. Armed resistance was seen as the means to achieve revolution. Khaled imagined a strategy for the liberation of Palestine that was based on the example of armed struggle in other colonial contexts: “We must learn to emulate our Algerian brethren.” Similarly, the PFLP claimed that the Vietnamese National Liberation Front “proved that [it] is only with a formula” of guerrilla people’s war that “we are able to face imperialism with its technological, economic and military superiority”.20

Many forces within the Palestinian left rightly rejected Fatah’s logic of false diplomacy, political concessions and fruitless rounds of negotiations with the Israeli colonial power. Ghassan Kanafani, a novelist and leading PFLP member, famously described such unequal talks as a “conversation between the sword and the neck”.21 However, as Jabra Nicola, an important Palestinian revolutionary socialist, correctly noted, the almost sole focus on a military strategy meant that the left-wing critics of Fatah refrained from much needed involvement in the struggles from below that were waged by grassroots Palestinian organisations.22 Armed resistance acted as a substitute for a project of mass participation in the process of national emancipation. Jabra, writing under the pseudonym “A Said” in an article entitled “Theses on the revolution in the Arab East“, summarised his understanding of the “reasons for the Palestinian defeat”:

1. The failure of the leadership to recognise, in theory and practice, the regional (all-Arab East) scope of the revolution; the separation of the struggle for the “liberation of Palestine” from the struggle against all Arab regimes for a proletarian socialist revolution in the Arab East as a whole, which alone can defeat imperialism and Zionist Israel.

2. Its adoption of the theory of “revolution in stages” and the theory of “primary and secondary contradictions”, subordinating the class struggle for “a certain period” to “national unity”, and thus considering the Arab regimes and the Arab ruling classes as allies in the struggle against imperialism and the struggle against Israel, and not as class enemies that should be struggled against and overthrown.

3. Its acceptance of the theory of the “focus”, which places almost exclusive emphasis on the military aspect of the struggle, and refusing to recognise the need for an all-Arab revolutionary vanguard organisation and [the need to] subordinate military operations to political strategy and political leadership. Thus, it made no effort to politicise the masses in the various Arab countries and mobilise them for a revolutionary struggle, not only for the “liberation of Palestine”, but for the liberation of the whole Arab East from imperialist domination and from the Arab rulers and regimes through which [imperialism] dominates. Its emphasis on the separation of the Palestinian struggle from the local struggle in the Arab countries led it to adopt such a policy vis-a-vis the Arab masses that it even demoralised and antagonised the Jordanian and Lebanese masses among which it acted and had its base.23

The logic of their focus on guerilla warfare led leftist forces within the PLO to compete with Fatah militarily through mounting ever more spectacular armed operations. Yet, even the militarily most radical wing of revolutionary nationalism saw the activity of the masses merely as a tool for building a nation-state instead of seeing the possibility of ordinary people accomplishing their own self-emancipation by taking control over the means of production. Indeed, this attitude can be detected in the PFLP’s 1967 founding document, which called upon the masses to fulfil their role as enablers of armed resistance:

The masses (o, sons of our heroic people!) are the life breath of the fighters, and it is the involvement of the masses in the battle that ensures victory in the long run. The popular support for the militants at all levels in every land form the basis for genuine, firm, and escalating struggle and steadfastness, rising until we crush the enemy.24

According to this perspective, mass activity serves as an enabling condition for the agency of a small group of militants. Rather than workers developing their own capability for revolutionary self-governance, they are expected to act primarily as a support for military operations by the guerilla organisations.

From the rifle to the olive branch

After defeat of the Palestinian armed factions in Jordan by King Hussein’s forces in September 1970, the PLO was forced to leave the country and move to Lebanon, where it soon stumbled into the Lebanese Civil War. This proved to be a key point in the development of the Palestinian left. During its time in Lebanon, the PLO formed a quasi-state entity, which led to the bureaucratisation and institutionalisation of its factions, including the left-wing ones.25 This affected the PFLP, which also received funds through PLO channels. Political activism was subject to “professionalisation”, with bureaucratic structures developing and increasing their material dependence on the PLO’s funds and state sponsors. This bureaucratisation “tacitly influenced the PFLP’s agency and represented an obstacle to change”, since any such change would “endanger established positions within the organisation”:

Furthermore, the bureaucratic structure also represented an instrument available to the leadership in order to exert a stronger control on the faction’s membership. Therefore, the PFLP’s need to maintain integration within the PLO institutions and the bureaucratisation of its structure…fostered a conservative approach in the PFLP leadership.26

The widespread corruption of the PLO affected its left-wing currents through the system that allocated finances between the factions, which also institutionalised competition between them for funds from state donors. Ultimately, the executive committee of the PLO controlled the organisation’s budget, and decision-making and budgetary control were increasingly consolidated under Fatah leader Yasser Arafat, who used this as a tool of political influence. The PFLP left the executive committee in response to the PLO’s first moves towards the adoption of a two-state solution, the “Ten Point Programme” of 1974, but it rejoined seven years later. The erosion of internal democracy in the PLO was mirrored by the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, within which internal elections came to an end after 1981, with its executive chosen by party appointment. Fatah determined six of the available seats, three went to the PFLP, and the other leftist parties decided on the remaining three seats.

During the 1980s, the independent newspapers, which had previously been important mediums of autonomy for the left wing within the PLO, also lost some of their weight. The English-language PFLP Bulletin ceased publication in 1984. Its successor was a bi-monthly publication, Democratic Palestine, but this failed to survive a decade. After it moved its headquarters to Syria in 1986, the PFLP’s weekly newspaper, Al-Hadaf, was subjected to the censorship of the Assad regime.27

The PLO leadership was still operating from exile and was not substantially involved in activities within occupied Palestine. The headquarters of the PFLP moved to Damascus in 1982, with the Assad regime becoming “its main regional partner”.28 Prior to the mid-1970s, when the leftist PLO factions began to play a role within occupied Palestine, the only PLO faction there was the tiny Palestinian Communist Party.29

In 1987, the outbreak of the First Intifada turned attention on the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank.30 Palestinians resisted the Israeli occupation with mass mobilisations, general strikes and grassroots organisation that fascinated ordinary people around the globe. Self-organised committees mobilised protests, strikes and physical resistance to the Israeli occupational forces, as well as setting up clandestine health and education systems. The role of these popular committees was celebrated by some elements within the leadership of the Palestinian movement on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank. In a communique issued on 28 May 1988, the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising urged Palestinians to “build the apparatus of the people’s self-government through the popular committees”.31 A potential alternative to the PLO’s self-conception as the “sole representative” of the Palestinian people was emerging even though the left was not well anchored in the uprising.

Obviously, a PLO under Fatah’s leadership would resist this development. The danger of being replaced by the alternative leadership emerging from below in Gaza and the West Bank pushed Arafat into further negotiations with Israel and the US. This could have been a decisive moment for a revolutionary left-wing alternative. However, although the PFLP had been able to build a grassroots presence in occupied Palestine through underground organisation, its bureaucratised leadership in exile remained tied to the PLO. Hence, it took an ambiguous stance towards Arafat’s policy, and this positioning alienated it from its base in Gaza and the West Bank.

The revolutionary energies of the First Intifada were not only strangled by Fatah’s bureaucratic urges towards collaboration and compromise. A critical role in the defeat of the uprising was also played by the historical fragmentation of the Palestinian working class by Israeli settler colonialism and the displacement of millions of Palestinians.32 The strikes and mass mobilisations from below caused the Israeli ruling class major problems, generating both military and political crises. However, on their own, these struggles were unable to paralyse and fracture the Israeli state, which continued to function thanks to the willingness of Jewish Israelis to replace Palestinian labour and the US’s continued military and economic aid.

From the mid-1990s, the formation of the Palestinian Authority as a subcontractor of the occupation by the Oslo Accords led to a consolidation and institutionalisation of the process of normalisation between the PLO and Israel. In their announcements, the PFLP and DFLP were both opposed to Oslo from the onset, and the PFLP even initiated and led a “Rejectionist Front” alliance against the Oslo Accords, which the DFLP joined. Yet, the reliance of the PFLP structures on the PLO left them ill-equipped—ideologically, organisationally and financially—to actually act upon their rejectionist position.

Hamas emerged as a new competitor for Palestinian leadership from outside the framework of the PLO. Between 1988 and 1989, the PFLP still recorded massive membership growth, but this had slowed dramatically by 1991. A year later, the growth stopped completely. A number of PFLP members switched to Hamas, seeing it as the new, up-and-coming organisation.33 The PFLP’s popularity fell to just 3 percent in 1995, when the PLO leadership, having embarked on further rounds of negotiations with Israel, signed the Taba Agreement, also known as “Oslo 2”.34 By 2006, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Hamas’s overall support among Palestinian voters stood at 38.6 percent, compared to 42.1 percent for Fatah.35 The same poll saw the PFLP receive just 4.4 percent, while the DFLP had 1.2 percent. The most recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, completed in December 2023, found support for Hamas on 43 percent, Fatah on 17 percent, and the PFLP on just 1 percent.36

None of the left-wing factions in the PLO was seen as a consistent and independent alternative to Fatah by a broad section of the Palestinian masses, with the Islamist parties filling the vacuum instead.

Palestine’s post-Oslo left has failed to recover from its downfall over the past few decades. Nonetheless, the strategic and political questions raised by its rise and decline continue to play a role in the contemporary politics of Palestine. Nowadays, the leading national resistance forces largely identify with political Islam, but the Palestinian liberation movement is still facing similar challenges to those encountered by the secular nationalist and leftist factions of the PLO between the 1960s and early 1990s, including the issues of the resistance’s reliance on a military logic and its dependence of regional state sponsors.

Iran has become the main state sponsor of Palestinian resistance fighters over the past few decades. As noted aboce, the PFLP and DFLP in Gaza are members of the Joint Room for Palestinian Resistance Factions, part of the Iranian-led Axis of Resistance, an informal political and military coalition formed by Iran with its allies and proxies in the Middle East. Before his murder at the hands of the Palestinian Authority, popular left-wing intellectual Nizar Banat asked a rhetorical question in one of his videos: “Where did you get the rockets that protect Gaza?37 His point, addressed to the non-Islamist factions, was that Palestinians should be grateful that Iran provides any of the resistance forces with weapons.

As always, however, there are conditions attached to Iran’s backing for the resistance. When Hamas refused to provide unconditional support for the Iranian-aligned Assad dictatorship during the Syrian Revolution, Iran dropped its financial sponsorship from $150m to less than $75m. When the Palestinian Islamic Jihad refused to express solidarity with the Iranian-backed Houthi movement in Yemen, its funds were cut accordingly and redirected to the now-defunct Sabireen Movement, a Gazan Shia organisation. Ultimately, Islamic Jihad complied.38

In recent years, the leadership of Hamas living in exile in Qatar has also shown signs of wanting to follow the route already mapped out by Fatah and the historic PLO leadership: accommodation with the Western powers and the international state system. Crucially, in 2017, this entailed modifying the Hamas Charter—the group’s foundational document—to remove wording that would rule out a two-state solution. The revised 2017 charter also accepted the existence of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders of the Palestinian Occupied Territories.39 Moreover, Hamas officials reiterated their commitment to a “temporary” two-state compromise in April 2024.40

Hamas remains an organisation riven by a number of internal political and class contradictions. Still, its party base and military wing in Gaza are committed to continued resistance. The resilience of both its political support base and its military organisation—despite the enormous scale of the murderous Israeli onslaught—has surprised Hamas’s enemies as well as its supporters.

Echoes in the diaspora

Old arguments about strategies for liberation have reappeared as the international Palestine solidarity movement has expanded to previously unimaginable dimensions in the wake of the Hamas offensive on 7 October and the Israelis’ genocidal invasion of Gaza.

Due to the repeated ethnic cleansing of Palestine since 1948, Palestinian diaspora communities make up of millions of people around the world. The communities differ in terms of their social composition, their places of origin and the countries from which they have fled. Correspondingly, they all have different concrete experiences with the historical and contemporary challenges faced by Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, “1948 Palestine” (that is, the area officially claimed by Israel since the Nakba), Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf states and other regions in the Middle East. Controversies and conflicts concerning positions on Hamas and the PLO, the Arab revolutions and the subsequent counter-revolutions, and strategies for Palestinian national liberation erupt frequently within diaspora communities and the solidarity movement.

This should come as no surprise. The exile communities are home to relics, but they are also marked by internal contrasts. Old PLO structures have survived in the West, and the diasporic communities are often led by the exiled members of the capitalist class or long-standing party cadres. Some foster diplomatic and financial relationships with those Arab states affiliated with their respective political parties. In some ways, the diasporic political structures resemble miniature models of the PLO. Because exile political formations have been active for decades, many have conserved features that played a bigger role before the emergence of Hamas and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Some still see the PLO as “the sole representative of the Palestinian people”—as it is dubbed by both the United Nations and the Arab League—and thus view themselves as the sole representatives of their respective Palestinian diaspora communities. Yet, many of these exile political structures are facing problems reproducing their organisations, sometimes even losing their own descendants, who are unable to identify with these legacy groups beyond an abstract level.

Promising new Palestinian diaspora formations have been on the rise in recent years, especially during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and after the upsurge in solidarity when Palestinians resisted eviction and ethnic cleansing in the Sheikh Jarrah area of Jerusalem. Examples of this include the Palestinian Youth Movement in the US, Canada and Britain and Palästina Spricht (Palestine Speaks) in Germany. Generally, these political structures have been initiated by the second and third generation of Palestinians in the diaspora. The political positions taken by activists within these groups based on some undefined notion of Palestinian identity are necessarily diverse. For instance, the Palestinian Youth Movement states, “Irrespective of our different political, cultural and social backgrounds, we strive to revive a tradition of pluralistic commitment toward our cause”.41 The organisation’s independence and non-affiliation to any Palestinian party is stressed in its public presentation, as are its efforts to rebuild a movement for Palestinian liberation through engaging in struggles alongside other oppressed groups. Its website, for example, documents its mobilisations in solidarity with those protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline and its attempts to draw connections between the Palestinian struggle and North American indigenous people’s experiences of genocide and oppression.

As in other young activist groups, the percentage of students is usually high. Many of these Palestinian activists have been socialised as migrant citizens in Western countries before getting politically organised as Palestinians. Others active in these groups migrated to the West only recently, fleeing, for instance, the Syrian Civil War and the destruction of the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp. The question of state affiliation with the Palestinian resistance has a concrete dimension for those activists who witnessed the PFLP General Command cracking down on the camp in order to defend the Assad regime.

Naturally, challenges on other questions also arise in these formations, including competing visions for a free Palestine and the pressures towards forms of separatism based on an unclear notion of Palestinian identity. Moreover, the most farsighted Palestinian activists already have an understanding that even if they could somehow manage to organise the entirety of their community in a given imperialist country, it would not suffice to substantially weaken that state’s support for Israel.

In these contexts, discussions on united front tactics tend to emerge. Quite understandably, given the historic betrayals explained above, there is a widespread fear among Palestinian activists of what is called “normalisation”: the building of relations with Zionists and the occupation. When there are attempts to widen the solidarity movement, there are discussions about how to differentiate between united front tactics aimed at reaching the base of working-class organisations and activities that normalise betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

One of the most urgent debates socialists are engaging with during the ongoing mass mobilisations against the Israeli genocide in Gaza is how to relate to other movements and struggles, especially the workers’ movement. There have been inspiring workers’ actions to stop arms shipment to Israel in recent months. May Day demonstrations around the world have put solidarity with Palestine forward as one of their central rallying cries. In some places, pro-Palestinian marchers have joined workers’ protests; in other places, workers and trade unionists have raised pro-Palestinian demands themselves. In several parts of the world, workers and activists have resisted bans on Palestinian flags by their own trade union bureaucracy. The new, young generation of Palestinian activists are increasingly involved in these conflicts and political experiences.

Building a solidarity movement rooted in the working class is especially important due to the increasing state repression and police crackdowns against the global Palestine solidarity movement, as shown by the student encampments in the US, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Amid brutal state attacks, there are intense discussions on what tactics are adequate to counter this repression. Autonomist methods of militancy and clandestine action appeal to many under these conditions, especially those who are inspired by the armed guerilla resistance of the Palestinians. Furthermore, activists are being forced to take a position on questions of military struggle by the government and media demonisation of all forms of Palestinian resistance. The exchange of missiles and drones between Israel and Iran, as well as the Houthis’ blockade of international shipping in the Red Sea, has set off a new round of discussions on the so-called Axis of Resistance.

Analysing both historical and recent events in order to take an informed stance on strategies towards the liberation of Palestine is a necessity for Palestinians and for the solidarity movement abroad. Understanding debates about the relationship between armed actions and mass mobilisation in the past can help to clarify strategies for the future. As outlined above, the experience of the historical formations of the Palestinian left demonstrates that secret deeds of an expert few cannot be a substitute for the collective power of mass activity and mass solidarity.

Arguments around guerilla tactics are far from limited to activist scenes. Swedish Marxist ecologist and author Andreas Malm is known for advocating direct action strategies for the climate movement.42 Accordingly, in a recent analysis of the Israelis’ genocidal onslaught in Gaza, he suggested that the Hamas-led guerilla operations on 7 October were the greatest achievement of the Palestinian movement so far, dwarfing the First Intifada.43 Bashir Abu-Manneh, who teaches Palestinian and Israeli literature, replied to Malm via an article in Jacobin, where he correctly accuses him of “ignoring that the First Intifada was the largest self-organised anti-colonial mass movement in Palestinian history, and that it compelled Israel to make unprecedented political concessions”.44 Malm’s unarmed propaganda of the deed is related to the armed propaganda of the deed by guerillas because both stem from deep doubts regarding the potential and power of the organised working class.

Still, Bashir Abu-Manneh poses little more by way of an alternative; demoralised by the genocidal carnage in Gaza, he suggests that the Palestine solidarity movement should treat the struggle as an international law issue that makes no distinction between oppressor and oppressed, coloniser and colonised. In his view, the armed resistance of Hamas has brought about nothing but destruction and defeat. From an internationalist standpoint, this argument fails. The situation in Gaza is devastating, but Israel’s genocidal practices precede October 2023. In 2018, the United Nations had already declared the Gaza Strip “unliveable” due to the Israeli siege.45 Israel is not simply retaliating for the attack on 7 October, but rather using it as a justification for its desire to erase Gaza. Indeed, this desire has a very long pedigree in Israeli politics; in 1992, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said, “I wish I could wake up one day and find that Gaza has sunk into the sea”.46 Moreover, the intensity of the assault on Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces is far from absolutely unique; between June and August 1982, over 17,000 people in Lebanon were killed by Israel, supposedly as “retaliation” for the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London.47

Palestinian author Toufic Haddad explains that, prior to 7 October, the Palestinian national movement “was in an unenviable position of having its cause whittled away piecemeal by internal divisions and the Oslo Accords straightjacket”, which was compounded by “the Arab normalisation deals with Israel and the fact that nobody was really holding Israel to account”.48 Now, however, the Israeli attack in the wake of 7 October has triggered an unprecedented global solidarity movement, with protesters in Jordan, Egypt and Morocco coming into conflict with their regimes. Beyond the Middle East and North Africa, there have also been big mobilisations in support of the Palestinians at the centres of the Western imperialist alliance, including in the US, Britain, France and Germany.

A similar dynamic emerged during the Second Intifada, which broke out in September 2000. Rather than the mass-based grassroots organising seen during the First Intifada, the Second Intifada was associated with elitist military operations. Nonetheless, it still triggered student solidarity actions in Egypt, which later came to be considered the first signs of grassroots organising leading up to the Egyptian revolution in 2011, shaking one of the strongest pillars of support for the Israeli state and imperialism among the Arab regimes.49

A crucial factor in the current situation is the military resilience of the Palestinian resistance. This is now recognised by both Israeli military analysts and a growing section of the Israeli population. Despite overwhelming advantages in firepower and military technology, as well as the eager support of the most powerful states on the planet, the Israeli army has failed to “wipe out” Hamas. Nor has it defeated the Palestinian movement. On the contrary, Hamas has re-established political control in areas of Gaza that were supposedly conquered by Israeli forces months ago, leading Israeli officials to envision a “protracted battle” and predict their forces will fail to achieve their military objectives until 2026 or 2027.50

Even when arguing against a strategy based on military action alone, we cannot deny the fact that armed resistance has sent shock waves through the states at the centre of Western imperialism. Yet, the experience of the past shows that the armed struggle cannot substitute for working-class internationalism and the power that workers hold in their hands against the global system of capitalism and imperialism. Even if that power is currently repressed in the Middle East, it is surely in the region around Palestine that workers’ mobilisations have the greatest chance of tipping the balance in favour of revolution against the Israeli state, creating possibilities for the permanent dismantlement of the Zionist war machine. As other writers in this journal have argued over many years, the Egyptian working class in particular has the potential to massively deepen the crises caused by the Palestinian struggle for both the Israeli state and for the US and its Western allies. Egyptian workers have the power to threaten the stability of Egypt’s military regime, which is a key channel for imperialist influence in the region.51 At the time of writing, the dictatorship of Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was still enforcing quiet on Egypt’s streets and in its workplaces, utilising the tools of brutal repression. Nonetheless, he remains haunted by the experience of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, which had an important, organic link to the Palestinian struggle and the solidarity of the mass of Egyptian people with occupied Palestine.

The Palestinian left has never seriously attempted a consistent strategy of organising to develop the working class’s self-organisation and power, whether within historic Palestine, in the wider region or across the Palestinian diaspora. The historic left-wing formations failed to break with the idea that the heroic actions of the armed minority, rather than the self-activity of the millions, would open the road to national liberation of the Palestinian people from settler colonialism.

As I have tried to demonstrate through this historical analysis of the rise and defeat of the Palestinian left, the crisis faced during the First Intifada was a crisis of leadership. The leadership of the Palestinian leftist organisations relied on elitist armed operations and the support of Arab states. During the intifada, there was no revolutionary party anchored in the working class that could have offered a clearsighted alternative to the capitulation of the PLO.

Unconditional support for all Palestinian resistance must be accompanied by serious engagement with the debates on how resistance can be most effective and how it can ultimately achieve liberation. We need discussion of the mistakes made in the past and dialogue about which strategies can succeed. The need for a strategic building of revolutionary parties—in occupied Palestine and beyond—capable of rising to the challenge of overthrowing Zionist colonialism increases with every passing day that the genocide against the Palestinian people continues.

Ramsis Kilani is a revolutionary socialist in Germany and a member of the Sozialismus von unten (Socialism from Below) group.


1 Thanks to Anne Alexander for editing this article and providing some of the important background references.

2 “Hamas” is the Arabic word for “zeal”, but it also an acronym for the group’s formal name, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya).

3 Hamas’s armed wing is named after Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a Syrian preacher and early militant opponent of Zionism. He formed the Black Hand, an anti-British and anti-Zionist guerilla group, in 1930. Al-Qassam was murdered by the British colonial authorities in 1935. His armed campaign was a precursor to the mass Palestinian uprising against British rule and Zionist colonisation between 1936 and 1939.

4 Chaliand, 1971, p83.

5 As Tony Cliff put it in an article written in the wake of the 1967 war, “Only people who wholeheartedly support a colonial people in rebellion against imperialism are justified in being severe critics of their leaders’ policies and tactics.”—Cliff, 1967.

6 See Marshall, 1989, pp106-113.

7 See See also Marshall, 1989, pp112-113; Sayigh, 1991, p609.

8 Fedayeen (meaning “those who sacrifice themselves”) were early Palestinian guerilla fighters.

9 Fatah means “conquest”, but it is also a reverse acronym for the organisation’s formal name, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani al-Filastini).

10 “Watan” is the Arabic word for “nation” or “homeland”, and “wataniyya” (translating as “nationalism” or “patriotism”) has come to be associated with brands of nationalism based on the existing nation-states in the Middle East and North Africa. This is counterposed to “qawmiyya”—pan-Arab nationalism. In some cases, watani nationalist movements have explicitly rejected qawmiyya because it proposes unity based on Arab identity, with some watani nationalists arguing that this excludes non-Arab groups from its liberation project. This criticism of qawmi nationalism was influential in Iraq, where the Kurdish movement was also engaged in struggles for liberation.

11 Buck, 2013, p4.

12 Omar, 2002.

13 See Maher Charif’s article, “The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine: 1969 to Present”, on Interactive Encyclopaedia of the Palestine Question—

14 This interview appeared in an Arabic-language Al Jazeera documentary series, entitled The Tale of a Revolution, which was aired in 2008. The episode, called “In the Land of the Cedars”, is available online at The PFLP General Command was created from a split from the PFLP in 1968. It is largely based in Syria.

15 Salibi, 1988, p233.

16 Harman, 2006.

17 Harman, 1970.

18 Bergman, 2016.

19 Khaled, 1973, p64.

20 Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, 1969, p31; Khaled 1973, p27. The Vietnamese National Liberation Front had launched the decisive Tet Offensive in 1968.

22 See Cliff, 2000; Greenstein, 2011. Nicola was a Palestinian Trotskyist activist from Haifa. He was originally a leading member of the Palestine Communist Party, but he later left when the group split into Jewish and Palestinian wings in 1939. He then joined Ygael Gluckstein (later known as Tony Cliff) in a small Trotskyist organisation in the 1940s. Following Gluckstein’s departure for London (where he founded the Socialist Review Group, predecessor of the Socialist Workers Party) and in the wake of the Nakba, Nicola emerged as a leading socialist Palestinian intellectual. He played an important role in the political development of Matzpen (“Compass”), an Israeli socialist organisation, which he joined in 1963. He was placed under house arrest after the Six-Day War before moving to London in 1970.

23 Nicola, 1972.

24 Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, 1967, p17.

25 During the 1970s, the PLO was able to develop a relatively large infrastructure that served both to provide essential services to Palestinians in the refugee camps and to sustain its political project. Arab states contributed funds to the PLO, enabling the development of a “state without a territory”. See Marshall, 1989, p130.

26 Leopardi 2017, pp192-193.

27 Eleftheriadou, 2021.

28 Leopardi, 2017, p50.

29 Hiltermann 1993, pp46-52.

30 Intifada is the Arabic word meaning “uprising”. The First Intifada erupted in December 1987 in Gaza after a horrific incident in which an Israeli tank transporter smashed into cars carrying Palestinian workers and killed four passengers in the Jabalia refugee camp. The funerals of the dead men turned into mass demonstrations against the Israeli occupation, sparking huge mobilisations and clashes across Gaza and the West Bank. See Marshall, 1989, p11.

31 Mishal and Aharoni, 1994, p98.

32 Marshall, 1989, p154-155.

34 Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 1995.

35 Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 2006.

36 Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 2023.

38 Skare, 2023.

39 Al Jazeera, 2017.

40 Associated Press, 2024.

42 Malm, 2021.

43 Malm, 2024.

44 Abu-Manneh, 2024.

45 United Nations, 2018.

46 Munayyer, 2023.

47 Ross, 1982.

48 Haddad, 2024.

49 The Second Intifada ended in 2005 and resulted in the dismantling of the Israeli settlements in Gaza and the withdrawal of the Israeli military from the territory. Much of the intifada compromised campaigns of shooting attacks and bombing organised by the militant groups.

50 Zitun, 2024.

51 Alexander, 2024.


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