Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Palestine and the challenges of Self-Determination and National Liberation

Kali Akuno
January 2013

Self-determination - that is the right and ability of a people to determine their own destiny economically, politically, and socially – is absolutely necessary for the exercise of  “genuine” national sovereignty and independence. In reality however, very few of the 193 nation-states that exist within the present imperialist world-system exercise any serious degree of self-agency, let alone self-determination. And it goes without saying that none of the worlds remaining stateless peoples’ and nations do – like the Kurds, Saharawi’s, Basques, Chamorros, Puerto Ricans, Xicanos, New Afrikans, or the First Nations of North America to name just a few.

The challenges of attaining genuine self-determination and independence in the imperialist world-system are on full display in the case of the Palestinians. The Palestinian people have been waging a valiant struggle for national liberation since 1917, when the British occupied historic Palestine following the defeat of the Ottoman Caliphate during the first inter-imperialist war of the 20th century (i.e. WW I). Since that time the Palestinians have suffered the indignities of being a geo-strategic way station for the British and United States empires, and the victim of a Zionist settler-colonial project that has served as the primary military garrison of both empires in the southwest Asian and North African regions. And they have suffered wave, after wave of forced displacement and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Israeli state and the Zionist colonizers. The first wave was 1936 – 1949, which concluded with Palestinian Nakba and the imperialist recognition of the state of Israel. The second was from 1967 – 1973, which resulted in the Israeli occupation of the United Nations mandated Palestinian territories. And the third and present wave started in 1991 with the negotiations that halted the first Intifada and lead to the Oslo compromise, which formally turned the so-called occupied territories into a full-fledged neo-colony of the Israeli state.

However, in spite of the tremendous odds stacked against them in the form of US imperial domination and Zionist colonization, the Palestinian people have developed a strong national identity and a national liberation movement that has been able to wage and sustain a protracted struggle for self-determination. The Palestinian national liberation movement has been able to survive the fragmentation of diaspora, political sectarianism, international isolation, and countless betrayals. The movement has also been strong (and strategic) enough to gain international recognition of its people’s right to self-determination and an independent state on three separate occasions. Once in 1974, when the UN recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestinian people and reaffirmed the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and national independence. Again in 1988 when the PLO declared an independent state that was recognized by 94 politically independent nation-states in the UN system. The most recent acknowledgement occurred on Thursday, November 28th, 2012, when 138 of the 193 members states of the UN recognized Palestine as a non-voting member nation[1].

Despite the strength of the Palestinian liberation movement and its international recognition within the UN system, the Palestinian people are sadly far, very far, from exercising any serious degree of self-determination. This is demonstrated by a few concrete facts: the Gaza strip is the world’s largest open air prison; more than 40% of the West Bank has been colonized by Zionist settlers[2]; the Israeli government controls the fundamental movements of the Palestinians and nearly all of the entry and exit points into the territories occupied in 1967; the Palestinian economy is wholly dependent on the Israeli economy and the charity of the UN and major donors (i.e. various states, religious charities, and individual philanthropists); and both of the essential resources needed to sustain life, water and power, are controlled by the Israeli government. The recognition of statehood under these conditions is more symbolic than substantive in any concrete sense.

Where the statehood declaration might have some concrete relevance is in the arena of international politics. Although the statehood bid was very contentious amongst the Palestinians[3], it appears that despite all of the above listed limitations, Mahmoud Abbas, FATAH, and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) advanced the initiative because they believed that it was a strategic means to potentially isolate the Israeli state and force the US government and the European Union (EU) to adjust their historically intractable position on Israel in an increasingly multi-polar world. Whether this political gamble will pay off remains to be seen. What is clear however is that, as of November 28th, 2012 Palestinian self-determination can no longer be equated with Palestinian statehood.

So, how can self-determination be attained? Like most of the colonized and oppressed nations that have attained self-determination (if only for fleeting moments, like the Haitians in 1804), the Palestinians will realize self-determination primarily by relying on their own efforts and initiatives – self-reliance. When the Palestinians are able to operationally unite as a people (in this case starting by overcoming the divides separating the party factions and uniting the party bases with the initiatives of the social movements and popular forces), leverage this political unity into economic and military power (with all the internal class struggle this entails), and utilize this economic and military power to defeat the colonial system and its benefactors, then and only then, will self-determination be attained.

This is not a new script, and not one unknown to the Palestinian national liberation movement. This strategic (but broadly oversimplified) course of action was employed in one form or another by virtually all of the national liberation movements around the world over the past two hundred and fifty plus years. However, building and sustaining this type of unity and strength is no easy task. Political unity, even in the best of times, is always a temporary phenomenon. It is constantly stressed and strained by internal divisions relating to class, kinship, sexism, geographical consciousness, religion, and personal ambitions. Externally it is challenged constantly by competing ruling class rivalries, national or ethnic competitions over resources, religious imperatives, etc. So, maintaining the level and depth of political unity needed to attain national liberation through protracted struggle is a constant process of unity-struggle-unity. 

Self-determination is also highly contextual. As all peoples and nations exist in relationship with other peoples and nations, there are social and natural (in terms of resources) limits to self-determination. When exercised in a truly democratic fashion, self-determination helps to facilitate the peaceful political co-existence between nations and peoples, and maintains balances in the economies and natural resources used between them which acts as a barrier to the exploitation and oppression of one nation by another. When abused, self-determination has been employed as political tool to justify aggressive expansion in the forms of colonization and imperialism, which facilitates all the forms of subjugation that come with it, including ethnocentrism and white supremacy, patriarchy, and exploitative socio-economic systems like tribute societies (European feudalism is an example) and capitalism.

One critical contextualizing factor in the realization of self-determination is external relations. Making and having good friends and allies can be a decisive factor in the success or failure of a peoples’ struggle for self-determination. This is especially true in cases where the oppressed nation is fighting an enemy that is stronger militarily and economically. Good allies can help offset the strengths of the enemy in numerous ways. For instance a good ally can allow a liberation movement to use its territory as a rear base from which to operate from, as Guinea and Senegal did to aid the PAIGC (in English this translates into the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) in the liberation of Guinea-Bissau in the 1960’s and 70’s. Or engage in joint struggle against a common enemy to disperse its forces and weaken it, as the liberation movements of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde did in the 1960’s and 70’s against Portuguese colonialism.

Many of the current national liberation movements - like the Kurds, Saharawi’s, New Afrikans, etc. – have a fair amount of international allies. But, given the current balance of forces within the imperialist world-system, few of these allies are willing to openly challenge US imperialism or jeopardize their relations with the US and the emerging sub-imperialist powers within the system (like China, India, Brazil, etc.) in support of these movements, so their support is typically more symbolically strategic than materially and politically substantive. This strategic symbolism was on full display on November 28th, 2012 with the Palestinian statehood vote. The Palestinians have the sympathy of the vast majority of the governments of the world, but, few of these governments are willing to support the Palestinian movement with the material assistance it needs to successfully confront Israeli colonialism and US imperialism (and the few that are, like Baathist Syria and the Iranian Islamic Republic, are confronting major regime change or destabilizing campaigns being directed at them by US imperialism and its reactionary allies).

In a reactionary period such as the one we’re presently in, where should the peoples’ movements for self-determination seek friends and allies? The most substantive answer one can perhaps give is from the other peoples’ movements still struggling for self-determination and national independence, the social movements aligned with these struggles (like reparations in the case of New Afrikans or Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions in the case of Palestine), and the social movements addressing trans-national solidarities (like the Pan-Afrikan, Pan-Arab, and Indigenous peoples movements), or regional (like the anti-NAFTA and School of the Americas movements) and global (like global warming) issues.

Segments of the Palestinian movement have been advancing elements of this strategic approach for well over a decade. Perhaps the clearest examples are the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and Stop the Wall. These forces have built a broad network of international alliances and supporters that concentrate on disrupting the Israeli economy and isolating the Israeli state through strategic campaign initiatives. These forces recently launched an initiative intended to expand the scope and scale of this strategy. The initiative was the World Social Forum Free Palestine, which was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil from November 28th through December 1st, 2012.

The World Social Forum Free Palestine initiative was intended to unite the social movements of the world that have been relating to the convergence process of the World Social Forum (WSF) over the past decade with the Palestinian social movements in historic Palestine and throughout the diaspora. In reality, the initiative proved to be much more complicated. A degree of synergy with elements of various international social movements was attained at the WSF Free Palestine. But, a greater degree of it was stymied by disagreements relating to how the social movements of the world wanted to relate to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Brazilian government, both of which occupied a center stage in this thematic WSF.

Social movements throughout the world are becoming more skeptical of the Worker Party (PT in Portuguese), which is currently the party presiding over the Brazilian government, due to its numerous compromises with trans-national capital to deepen the capitalist penetration of Brazil in the effort to turn it into a regional hegemon and a global economic powerhouse. Even more are weary of the Palestinian Authority, due to the role it has played as part of the Oslo Agreement signed by the PLO, to contain many of the grassroots social movements and popular uprisings of the Palestinians since 1994. The involvement of the PA and the PT dampened the enthusiasm and mobilization of many of the social movement allies of the Palestinian liberation movement throughout the world, which in turn limited the impact of the WSF Free Palestine.

What the example of the WSF Free Palestine demonstrates is how challenging it is for social movements to work with national-states and proto-states (as in the case of the PA), and vice versa, in a reactionary period such as the one we’re currently in. There are a few current examples, like the Bolivarian revolutionary process in Venezuela and the attempted Indigenous transformation of Bolivia, where some aspects of the contradictions inherent in this relationship have been struggled through in a positive fashion. But, for the most part, this contradiction is one of the major challenges of our time, particularly as it pertains to the question of oppressed nations and peoples attaining self-determination, as there are few, very few, governments that are willing to support revolutionary movements (either domestic or international) in their efforts to transform human society.

The Palestinian national liberation movement, as one of the most advanced national liberation movements in the world, has a tremendous amount to offer and teach to other national liberation and revolutionary movements throughout the world. This short essay was an attempt to gleam some of these lessons and share them from the perspective of a partisan of the New Afrikan Independence Movement (NAIM)[4], which is also struggling with many of the same issues, contradictions, and limitations as the Palestinian movement. But, of all the lessons the Palestinian liberation movement has to offer, I think the most fundamental lesson is to never give in and never quit. No matter the odds, not matter the enemy, and no matter how bad things appear in the wider world. Where there is unity to build organization, capacity and social movement, coupled with the will to take on the odds and challenges, oppressed peoples’ can and ultimately will find a way to exercise their self-determination and live in dignity in our ever-changing world.   

[4] The New Afrikan Independence Movement is one of the three dominant tendencies within the historic Black Liberation Movement (BLM) that seeks self-determination, national independence, and sovereignty for Afrikan people over portions of the Southeastern territories now claimed by the United States government.  

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