Examining the Palestinian Left at SOAS : Episode I

I was very excited a few weeks ago to come back to my beloved university SOAS and attend the conference about the Palestinian left organised there. I was also able to see my ex classmates, going back to our old debates regarding our beloved region: the Middle East. The subject of the conference was very special to me, as I feel on many issues and positions very close to the Palestinian left. Georges Habash, a central figure within the Palestinian left, is actually a personality that I respect and look up to very much, it is I think our Che Guevera of the Middle East, directly involved with armed and political struggle, as well as an incredible and inspiring thinker, never forgetting the interest of the masses. The Revolution was always in his mind.

Right, after this rather politics/sentimental episode , let us come back to our conference, where many personalities gathered to give the public the best overview of a Palestinian left currently in perdition.
Many speakers mentioned the terrible situation in Palestine and the inability of the left to fill the vacuum or present an alternative to both Fatah and Hamas. Azmi Bishara, who intervened through video conference, criticized the neutral position of the left as a mark of its incompetence in relation to the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. He added that the struggle is actually not between an Islamic movement on one side and a secular group on the other side, as reported many times by the Western press, but rather an opposition between collaboration and resistance. The left should have claimed its clear support to resistance and denounce the security cooperation between the PLO and Israel. Azmi Bishara ended his presentation by declaring that the unity of the PLO cannot be used as an alibi, and this inability to take position is on the opposite an indicator of the left’s crisis in Palestine.
This weakness brought us back to the history of leftist Palestinian political parties and what made them strong in the past. Leila Khaled, from the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and member of the PNC, who wasn’t by the way allowed to come because British authorities refused to grant her a visa, explained the evolution of her party the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine created in 1967. They recruited most of their members in the refugee camps in the neighboring countries. The 1st document of the organization determining the political strategy of the party and the paths to Revolution was published in 1969. It defined notably very clearly who the enemies were:
– USA imperialism
– Zionism racist ideology and the Israeli State
– Arab reactionary regimes
It also showed the friends of the Revolution, in order to demonstrate to their members that they were not alone in the struggle:
– Arab liberation movements
– Socialist and workers
– Progressive States
The Party had a very clear Marxist ideology: the workers, the petit bourgeois and the proletariat were the classes interested in the Revolution, whereas the bourgeois class was not. The 1st objective of the Revolution was the creation of a Palestinian State, with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of the refugees, which was and is still its most important request. The mobilization of the masses was made through numerous ways:
– contact with the masses, forward information and organize seminars
– contact with the workers, the syndicates and the PLO
– Information activities, newspaper, tracks
– Political education, sending members to socialist countries, learn Marxism and its theories, and then members would come back and diffuse the message to the masses. They established schools in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. They sent students abroad to pursue their studies and offered them scholarships.
– Education of Palestinian culture
– Implement masses organizations for women, youngsters, workers, etc…
The left at that time was very successful in mobilizing different sectors of the society including women, youth, workers, etc…
After 1982, the Palestinian national movement declined, as well as the armed struggle, the departure of Lebanon was indeed a heavy blow to the movement. The mobilization nevertheless continued and the 1st Intifada gave the Palestinians a lot of hope. The position of the left was revitalized and the focus of the struggle was transferred from the outside to the inside of Palestine.
M. Jaradat, a Campaign Unit Coordinator for Badil and an activist during the 1st Intifada, supports this version and adds that the Left in the 80s was part of the community, not an arrogant and elitist movement, their members were mostly peasants. Popular movements influenced by the left had strong civic networks, they were autonomic and self financed depending on local resources, and composed mostly of youth, students and workers. Women associations were numerous and played an important role in girls’ education. Popular education was enshrined by the left in several regions. Education was actually the most important capital for the Palestinians, as M. Jaradat reminded.
The 1990s were the beginning of the downfall of the Left on different levels. On the International level, they lost their main support and model: the USSR. The left was not prepared to the demise of the socialist block. On the regional level, Arab regimes ceased to support the PLO and the left. On a national level, the conclusion of the Oslo agreements marginalized the role and the importance of the PLO and therefore weakening the left. This latter opposed the Oslo agreements because it achieved no objectives of the Palestinian Resistance such as the right of return or the establishment of a sovereign State. Many leftist seniors and militants were actually arrested because of their opposition to the Oslo agreements by the new Palestinian security services. The newly created Palestinian Authority has actually gathered since then the power and the financial resources given by the International Community. The left was in its majority not included in the PA, only few officers, who supported the creation of a Palestinian State even on a small part of the territory, joined it.
On societal issues, the left also stepped back, Aitemad Mouhana from Swansea University and ex PFLP member, reports how in the beginning of 1988, some young boys started to throw stones on the young girls unveiled in Gaza. Leftist parties as PFLP did not try anything to solve this situation; on the opposite, they claimed it was not their problem and that in a traditional society such things are normal. PFLP cadres knew that Hamas was behind this trend, but for the sake of the Palestinian unity they did not intervene. Certain FPLP cadres even used this new trend or tradition to control women in their close entourage. Aitemad Mouhana denounced this state of affairs claiming that political coalitions should not sacrifice women or personal freedoms, and that, quite on the opposite, national liberation is linked by all means to the liberation of women and other personal issues. In her opinion, national liberation should erase all forms of social and traditional inequality. This showed the contradictory practices of the PFLP and allowed the historical foundation of Hamas expansion. Hamas bargained on the political scene but continued to spread their religious program. In 1995, the majority of women were veiled in Gaza, this islamisation of the society by Hamas was consolidated by a pragmatic strategy. As Gramsci’s theory stated it, Hamas has advocated as a particular class that provides the dominant culture: the Islamic culture.
The leftist political parties also lacked understanding of the situation, the transformation and the realities of Palestinian and Arab societies, as pointed out by Jamil Hilal, an Independent Researcher in Ramallah and Gilbert Achkar, a Lebanese teacher at SOAS and leftist militant. Many members of leftist organizations were indeed sent in socialist countries, adopting Marxism as a dogma while not understanding the dynamics of their society. They should have started with their own country reality, as remarked by Hilal and Achkar; there was a clear absence of the socio political conception of the conflict. The class structure, as Jamil Hilal noticed, was different for a Palestinian in Gaza, the West Bank, in the Gulf countries and in refugee camps in Lebanon or Jordan.
These elements weakened considerably the left in different manners as explained by few participants; the main ones were the following:
– Lack of recruitment mechanisms
– Lack of financial resources, which were only available through the PLO and Western donations through NGOs. This complicated their opposition to the Oslo agreement; the leftist parties therefore became a kind of loyal opposition towards the PLO or adopted a more liberal stand towards western countries to receive funds. They were many withdrawals of qualified cadres from leftist parties who joined NGOs. Leyla Khaled besides talked about the emergence of NGOs in this period and the way they tried to become an alternative to the leftist political parties, particularly after the Oslo agreement.
– The leadership in Damascus claims their will to become the 1st political party on the Palestinian scene, but they failed on the diplomatic scene to achieve this objective and they did not try to unite a common leftist front.
These elements led to a sharp drop in popularity for leftist parties which were around 17% in 1993 to 5 % today.
Gilbert Achkar also criticized from a Marxist perspective the historic strategic deficiencies of the left of the PLO:
– The Palestinian left was characterized by a Palestinian centralism after 1967, independent from other Arab movements. Their key principle was actually: non intervention in Arab regimes affairs. This Palestinian centralism was not valid in the Palestinian case because of the conflict’s nature and because the Palestinians are being divided in different countries. This strategy was and is non sustainable, the advantages were therefore for Israel in this configuration. Jamal Zahalka, Chair of the National Democratic Assembly/ Tajamu and Member of the Knesset, also stressed out the need to connect with other Arab movements to lead a successful struggle against Israel. Dr Achkar affirmed the need for the Palestinian left to create links with other leftist parties in the Arab world.
– After 1967, financial resources were needed to support the bureaucratization of the party, and this led in seeking rapprochement with Arab dictatorial regimes such as Syria, Iraq and Libya. This was in opposition with the revolutionary discourse of the party. The FPLP had besides known a faster increase in numbers when it was active as an underground movement and not linked to certain of these regimes.
– FPLP always criticized the social class and the infrastructure of the PLO, but never left the organization. The PLO structure was indeed not democratic and was under Fatah’s control. The demand to change the PLO’s structure was abandoned later by the FPLP which perpetually recon ciliated with the Fatah and Arafat after important political disagreements. The main key principle of the left has always been Palestinian Unity and this at any means. This has unfortunately meant a lack of critical attitude against the PLO and the left failed to present itself as an alternative to it. This was one of its main problems.
– Last but not least, arm struggle should not be the only perspective; a global political program should be put on the table by the left.
Few speakers also explained Hamas success, which on the opposite of the left clearly presented itself as an alternative to the PLO. Hamas always refused to enter the PLO in his current infrastructure, without any reforms which would lead to a democratization of the organization. In addition to this, Hamas had a political independent stand against the corrupt Palestinian Authority and had enormous financial resources. These elements explain partially Hamas arrival to power. However Hamas ideological use of the arm struggle was criticized and characterized as very elitist: a small group of armed men struggling and resisting against Israel, while the rest should only support them and stay aside. During the 1st Intifada in 1988, which was the peak of the Palestinian struggle, there was a huge social mobilization and no heavy arms were used, every Palestinian participated in the revolt and not a small armed minority.
In conclusion, Jamal Juma, member of popular committee in Palestine and expressing himself through video, said that the left in Palestine is currently unfortunately not very influential and respected. The foundation of a gathering of leftists and progressist associations is necessary and this movement should have a one secular state solution objective. This remark was echoed by different speakers such as Jamal Zahalka and M. Jaradat.
Stay tuned for more discussion around this SOAS Event!
2 Responses to “Examining the Palestinian Left at SOAS : Episode I”
  1. Toufoul says:

    Thanks a lot! I am not as sorry now that I missed the conference. This is an excellent summary and am looking forward to the future installments.Interesting that many of the reasons for the popularity then the decline of the left are structurally shared across the region. This is particularly so in the case of Lebanon where the left is squeezed between a so-called liberal secularist tendency and an Islamist movement, with whom the left shares common adversaries (imperialism, Zionism, reactionary Arab regimes). A paralyzing position.Another aspect which I have always found interesting is how much the Palestinian left has been instrumental in giving form to the regional left in general. The Palestinian cause became the coalescing point for a broader left in the late 60s and the 70s and I know many Lebanese and Syrians who were involved with the PFLP and the activities Leila Khaled mentioned. I wonder if this dimension and the role of the Palestinian left in energizing and collecting a broader left was part of the debate at the conference.

  2. Thank you Toufoul for your interesting comments,Unfortunately the role of the Palestinian as being a catalyst of the left in the region was not mentioned neither the fact that many Arabs joined and participated in the activities of the PFLP. Few speakers only talked about the necessity for the left in Palestine to create links with other leftist’s movements in the Arab region. To answer to your questions about the decline of the left several elements are common to Palestine and Lebanon especially, because of the nature of the State quite absent in both cases. Firstly the demise of the USSR, which meant the end of a certain model of society which leftist parties shared and beyond all the end of their main financial support which had harsh consequences on their programs, whether, being social, cultural or political.These elements definitely were bad in terms of recruitment of new members which lacked after the 1990s; the field and the masses were more and more taken by Islamists groups which took the place of leftist groups on the social arena. The growth of international NGOs and the economic liberalization policy of both Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority also weakened considerably leftist groups, we witnessed at this moment many leftist cadres and intellectuals join NGOs.I think there is also a sacred principle in leftist parties, especially concerning the Lebanese Communist Party and PFLP: national unity. Both of them in the sake of resistance against, accepted at different period of times the aggressively and the attacks of Hezbollah and Hamas, which in the case of Hezbollah killed some Communists leaders in the end of the 80s. The other example of PLFP in the other article is also symptomatic of this situation. They refused to react in the sake of the resistance, but in my opinion this was an error, because defending their own ideas and integrity would have been part of this struggle for resistance.Concerning your third point, I believe that the Palestinian left and especially PFLP, was such in a Revolutionary perspective ( in terms of social, political and arm struggle) of changing the Middle East, which was absent from other leftists movement of the region or did not reach this level, that it drew members from all over Arab countries. Thank you again Toufoul and please do not hesitate to add some comments

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