Israel-Palestine: Can apartheid be defeated without armed resistance ?

The proliferation of rocket technology in the Middle East (AFP)

Azzam Tamimi

Middle East Eye  /  May 26, 2021

To persuade the sponsors of Zionist colonialism that this project is no longer viable, military resistance is vital, helping to drive up the costs of occupation.

The day after the Gaza ceasefire took effect, an acquaintance who works for an international NGO told me that his western colleagues were opining that Hamas had harmed the cause of Sheikh Jarrah residents by igniting the recent military confrontation.

Their argument was that the Palestinian cause could best be served through peaceful means, such as demonstrations and calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), while military action costs the Palestinian world sympathy and solidarity.

In a recent Guardian article, reporter Chris McGreal asked the question: “Boycotts and sanctions helped rid South Africa of apartheid – is Israel next in line?”

Indeed, Israel is likely to be next in line. But it was not just boycotts and sanctions that brought down South Africa’s apartheid regime. While they played a role, they were subsidiary to military resistance, which is credited with rendering apartheid too costly for the white supremacist minority and its sponsors in the West.

Striking similarities can be identified between the struggles of South Africans against apartheid and of Palestinians against Zionism. In both cases, the enemy is motivated by a racist vision that derives from biblical myths under which, in the name of divine preference and promise, white supremacists and Zionists claim licence to dispossess, dehumanize and persecute indigenous populations. 

As during the last few years of apartheid in South Africa, more people around the world today are better informed about what’s going on in Palestine. Thanks to the social media revolution, more people know that Palestinians are the real victims in this century-old conflict – victims of Israeli dispossession, occupation (in the West Bank), siege (in Gaza) and apartheid (in 1948 Palestine). 

Modern liberation struggles

It’s been decades since the South African people brought down the apartheid regime, even longer since the Vietnamese people defeated the Americans, and longer still since the Algerian people drove France out of their country after 132 years of struggle against a brutal settler-colonial occupation. 

In each of these examples of modern liberation struggles, freedom fighters paid with their blood and lives in order to break the shackles of servitude. But they also shed the blood of their oppressors, rendering oppression a very costly business to maintain. The histories of these struggles, and how they were eventually won, present important lessons in the context of Palestine.

All peaceful endeavours aimed at ramping up pressure on global public opinion, and through that on decision-makers, are important. Hunger strikes, picketing, general strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, boycotts, sanctions, you name it – they all play a role. In many cases, they are the only options available. 

Yet, it would be naive to think that these tactics are the primary ones that eventually bring about change. Colonial projects are, almost invariably, international projects. They derive empowerment partly from an abundance of resources, partly from the collusion of world powers, and partly from collaboration and acquiescence at the local level. 

Take the Zionist project: the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine could not have succeeded without British facilitation during the mandate years, and would not have continued this long without US sponsorship and financial, military, political and diplomatic support.

Furthermore, Israel would never have enjoyed peace and security without the collaboration of various local actors – from neighbouring Arab dictatorships to the Palestinian Authority (PA), conceived by the Oslo Accords as a means of helping Israel to end the Palestinian First Intifada (1987-1993), and whose primary mission since has been to control Palestinians under occupation and to relieve Israel of the burden of having to do so much dirty work alone. 

The dreaded spirit of resistance

Any western colonial project, like the Zionist occupation of Palestine, is not without cost to its sponsors. But so long as its benefits outweigh its costs, they will continue to sponsor, defend and justify it. While it might annoy them a little when its brutality and inhumanity are exposed by activists, this is not enough to make them end their support. 

There have been moments when alarm bells rang in western capitals as Israel’s maintenance costs seemed to be rising sharply. One such time was the First Intifada, which triggered the transformation of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood into a liberation movement called Hamas.

The revival of the dreaded spirit of resistance prompted the so-called international community, under the leadership of the United States, to seek a settlement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which falsely claimed to be the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The objective was to extinguish the intifada, contain the raging Palestinian masses and pull the rug out from under Hamas. This began with the 1991 Madrid Conference and was crowned with the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993. 

Some members of the international solidarity movement at the time were deluded by the PLO’s peace-making with Israel, and by the promise that Oslo would eventually lead to the creation of a Palestinian state – part of what was hailed as a “two-state solution” to the protracted conflict. 

Capacity for pain and sacrifice

Seven years on, in the summer of 2000, the Palestinian peacemakers, led by Yasser Arafat, returned from Camp David after marathon negotiations with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former US President Bill Clinton, empty-handed and humiliated but sober. The decision to trigger a Second Intifada, in hopes of squeezing Israel into a corner and forcing it to deliver what the PLO and Fatah believed had been promised to them under Oslo, ultimately backfired.

Arafat was eliminated and Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti sentenced to life in prison. Mahmoud Abbas was installed as president, with the aim of rebuilding the PA in service of the task for which it was essentially created: to be a security arm for Israel in the occupied territories.

In fact, the central idea of every peace treaty between Israel and Arab states – first Egypt (1979), then the PLO (1993), then Jordan (1994), and finally the recent Abraham Accords – has been to reduce Israel’s vulnerability as a colonial enclave installed in an ocean of hostility and rejection. 

But as the recent confrontation with Gaza and the rest of Palestine has shown, the endeavour to shelter Israel and save it from its own vulnerabilities is becoming more difficult and a lot more costly. Palestinians have developed a great capacity to endure pain and a willingness to sacrifice, as they have very little to lose in the face of a colonial power intent on stripping them of their land and dignity.  

Notwithstanding its contributions, peaceful resistance alone will not intensify Israel’s vulnerabilities or expose the fallacy of the Zionist project. As in every known struggle for liberation and independence, military resistance – more than any other means – is what will ultimately persuade the sponsors of Zionist colonialism that this project is no longer viable. 

Azzam Tamimi is a British Palestinian academic and political activist; he is currently the Chairman of Alhiwar TV Channel and is its Editor in Chief