Palestine & the Right to Resist

Although western left wing groups agree on the need for solidarity with Palestine, there remains a significant strain that unequivocally oppose violence or hold faith in major institutions. In light of Israel's atrocities in Gaza, Kishore Lennon argues that Scottish activists need to recognise and support Palestine's right to resist – nothing less...

In 2014, Israel bombarded the Gaza strip again. In truth, the “Gaza War” could refer just as easily to targeted campaigns in 2008 and 2012 – this latest bombardment consisted of Israel's latest attempts to “mow the lawn”. They bombed schools and other civilian infrastructures, as well as engaging in other forms of collective punishment such as using toxic gas as a weapon.

Thousands of people marched in Edinburgh from the Mound to Bute House and demanded the Scottish government respond with boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel. Princes Street was packed with people carrying Palestinian flags and chanting "Alex Salmond, time for action – Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions". Amidst the very public display of anger a conversation was taking place among those who had come out to support the demonstration. It centred around BDS and the form it might take: we were encouraged to fill shopping trolleys with Israeli goods and tell store managers to quit stocking these items, and we reflected on how boycott was effectively used as a tactic in the struggle against South African apartheid.

But what was lacking was a conversation around Palestinian resistance and more importantly how our activism was linked to such resistance on the ground.

Until this year, many in the BDS movement couldn't point to an obvious form of resistance to relate to. Hamas' attempts to pursue armed struggle never lacked legitimacy in the context of international law but they did lack the ability to highlight clear demands. This only compounded the fact that defending armed struggle has proven a difficult argument to make, particularly in context given Islamophobia has emerged as the dominant form of racism in the West.

Then this year kicked off with Ahed Tamimi being detained for slapping an Israeli soldier – and everything changed. The response from the Israeli state and its supporters was desperate and disgraceful. They peddled a series of myths: Tamimi's family weren't actually related to her and they were too white to be from the Middle East. Another common theme was her appearance being used to degrade her in sexual terms.

But the more they swung at her, the more it became apparent they were on the defensive – even the right knew Israel were guilty on this question. Tory minister Alistair Burt summed this up when he grudgingly commented that the Israeli soldier who Ahed Tamimi slapped "should not have been there" in the first place.

Some were tempted to respond directly to these absurd accusations to defend Tamimi's character. But without explicitly defending her right to resist these attempts risked coming across as a set of excuses, implying she'd actually done something wrong – a weaker response even than that of a Tory minister. Defending Ahed from attempts to assassinate her character was one thing; we should have explicitly defended her and actions and the principle of the right to resist.

Again, a rally was held in Edinburgh to support Ahed, even if those attending weren't perhaps as energised as we had been in 2014. But what was important is we hadn't come to mourn but to express solidarity with a brazen act of resistance. Condemnation of the Israeli state's actions goes without saying, but a new question has emerged about the possibility of Palestinian resistance, the need to defend its legitimacy and create a new context for our own movement's work based on solidarity with an active and existing struggle.

To be clear once more: under UN law, Palestinians have the right to resist their occupier.

The Great March of Return is a particularly important example to bear in mind. It has already highlighted the specific right of Palestinian refugees to return to the land they've been forced out of. This particular right is important in itself but also raises wider questions in terms of a final settlement to the "conflict". The right to return, if achieved, would in essence highlight the fact that Israel would use a two state solution, not as a way to coexist with Palestinians but to secure the existence of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state.

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The strategy we adopt now is of critical importance: the use of popular resistance as opposed to armed struggle is something many in the BDS movement haven't considered previously despite a wider recognition that the armed struggle was failing. This isn't a new strategy and should be seen as an opportunity for activists to rediscover a long tradition of Palestinian resistance based around these tactics, as shown during the first initifada and stretching back to the Palestinian general strike of the 1930's.

The Great March is a critical juncture in how we talk about the resistance as we now have clear demands to relate to. Israel its supporters are on comfortable ground when they return the conversation to Hamas because, in reality, they don't genuinely believe activists seriously want to defend the organisation's legacy. But the conversation around the great march of return has nothing to do with Hamas and the unmistakable demands the resistance is making presents an opportunity to reframe this debate, which we must take seriously.

And so as the BDS movement grapples with these basic question, we must recognise a basic principle: Palestinians have the right to decide the direction and form their resistance takes and our role is to always support that unequivocally.

Those who fail to advocate such a strategy usually fall into one of two camps. The first camp, which even includes activists on the radical left, innocently and naively argues we must only support Palestine via established institutions that talk about human rights – particularly the UN. This sentiment was particularly prevalent among Edinburgh marchers in 2014 – we heard much about how we must have faith in these institutions, and yet the same activists professed despairingly they “just couldn't believe the UN hadn't done anything”. This sentiment shouldn't be mistaken as a rejection of the resistance, but it lingers due to a lack of a capability to relate to it effectively.

The second camp is composed of those who fail to recognise the context of anti-imperialist struggle. This camp's support cuts out due to a moralistic opposition to violence and leads to a liberal anti-racist approach that fails to understand the imperialist nature of the conflict. The events of the this year have put such attitudes back into the spotlight. The indiscriminate murder of innocent Palestinians serves as a reminder that failing to express explicit support for their method of struggle is unacceptable.

The question shouldn't be if and when we support this resistance but rather how we demonstrate our recognition. This isn't complex: it boils down to racism and anti-racism. We wouldn't accept the conditions that Palestinians are suffering under – we too would fight back – and a failure to recognise that right is therefore rooted in racism. The difficult part is identifying clear goals and targets and linking pro-Palestine groups around these goals, whether it be calling for Israeli ambassadors to be expelled or boycotting specific target. But the first step is clear: we consolidate in practice as we have done in principle and be unapologetic in our solidarity with their fightback.

@kishorelennon