In her recent article in The Guardian (‘Abandoned by Governments, Palestinians rely on the kindness of strangers’), columnist Nesrine Malik argues, quite eloquently, that the tide is turning in the cause of Palestinian solidarity:
“More and more people are believing their eyes. The individuals who support the Palestinians are growing in number and confidence, shaking off the “fringe activist” stereotype”
This assertion is not in dispute here, and it does seem, at least to this author, that something is tangibly different in the public response to the latest round of Israel Defence Forces (IDF) atrocities.
However, while the general thrust of the argument doesn’t prove contentious, one section towards the end raises the issue of Palestinian exceptionalism:
“the stubborn reality is that the Palestinians are special. They have, unlike most other oppressed peoples, been denied the language of legitimacy. The facts of their occupation, their resistance and the apartheid they are subjected to have been annulled or made ambiguous.”
The fact being obscured here is that, rather than being something unique and otherwordly, something beyond our comprehension due to its age and complexity, the Palestinian struggle is not exceptional. It is one of a broad tapestry of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles. In the words of Ghassan Kanafani, a key member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP):
“The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever he is, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era”
Between 1982 and 2000, it was not even a unique struggle within the context of Israeli occupation, with South Lebanese guerrillas (including a substantial contingent of the Lebanese Communist Party) fighting the IDF occupation for their freedom.
Malik also raises a very important point when she states that:
“the Palestinian cause has been rendered dubious through a kind of reversal in the narration of the conflict. The victims became the aggressors. The Palestinians were abandoned to their fate, and then framed for it”
While this is absolutely the case and is a tactic as old as the State of Israel itself (Haim Bresheeth-Žabner in An Army Like No Other, emphasises the cynical employment of the tragedy of the Holocaust to immunise Israel and the IDF from culpability for their incessant breaches of international law), again, this is not a feature unique to Israel. In South Africa, anti-apartheid activists were consistently labelled terrorists, a move backed by Western governments. A farcical result of this is Nelson Mandela finding himself on U.S. terrorist watch-lists until as recently as 2008. This alienation of actors from their actual roles allowed for similar actions of “self-defence” by the South African Defence Forces (SADF). In South Africa, as today in Israel, SADF soldiers regularly made forays into neighbouring states to pre-emptively neutralise “terrorist threats”; threats which regularly found themselves in civilian refugee camps.
Finally, the denial of the “language of legitimacy” to Palestinians, while indisputable, is not a unique phenomenon. We can find evidence of this epistemic violence (the denial of the ability to articulate ones own history and experiences) in our own history here in Ireland. In 1976, then Minister for Posts and Telegraphs Conor Cruise O’Brien, extended Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act (1960) to ban Republican voices from public broadcast, instituting censorship of a national liberation struggle with direct ties to Palestine. The results of this policy, the continued delegitimisation of Republican voices, can be felt to this day.
Why is this criticism worth making? Nothing written here is intended to denigrate or trivialise the cause of the Palestinian people. They are incredibly heroic, having suffered under and resisted one of the most technologically advanced and oppressive settler-colonial regimes the world has ever known. However, by insisting on their exceptional nature, they are condemned to a suspended animation: endlessly admired and supported for their resistance, but lacking the ability to draw on the successful struggles of others to inform their own. On top of this state of imposed limbo, if Palestine is exceptional, than so too is Israel, and this grants them an insurmountability they do not deserve. The purpose therefore of demonstrating that they are not unique, but rather part of a broader anti-colonial and anti-imperial milieu, is rather that they are also not alone, that they are supported by a pantheon of peoples that understand their struggle and show solidarity out of experience. And with allies like those, nothing is insurmountable.