May 2020 will focus attention on the many dangers and challenges facing the future of Palestine.
First, Nakba72 will commemorate the continuing dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic is showing the fragility of the living conditions and the lack of security for Palestinians, especially those in Gaza and in refugee camps. And third, the Israeli government is preparing to officially legitimize its de facto annexation of large swaths of the occupied West Bank.
Yet, the dominant narrative in most Western countries regarding any right of Palestinians to live in security is fundamentally flawed, and contains many layers of pro-Israel protectionism, so much so that it is difficult for many people to appreciate the threat Palestinians live under on a daily basis.
Put simply, this narrative upholds as sacrosanct that Israel always has a right to security, to defend itself, and to decide when, where and how its ‘security’ is threatened. This principle is so ingrained and so fundamental to statements and reporting on the region that pro-Palestinian advocates are often forced into the position of having to prove their ‘non-violent’ credentials before being taken seriously.
In Canada, the stated and official foreign policy on “key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” (as described on the Global Affairs Canada website) even begins with this principle, entitled “Support for Israel and its Security”. This lead point “recognizes Israel’s right to assure its own security, as witnessed by our support during the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah and our ongoing support for Israel’s fight against terror.” In contrast, the second principle is entitled only “Support for the Palestinians”, and mostly consists of the standard lip service paid to the non-existent and debunked two-state solution.
Not only is the Canadian government highlighting that, above all else, Israel’s “right to security” is inviolable, it justifies Israel’s actions to “assure” that right. The brief mention of Palestinian security that Canada officially embraces is limited to financial support for the Palestinian Authority to monitor and control their own population. To break down the diplomatic doublespeak, that means assisting Palestinian security inasmuch as it helps to guarantee Israeli security. This is why every time the Palestinian Authority announces it is (once again) breaking off bilateral relations with Israel, security coordination is never impacted.
Is there any circumstance in which a Palestinian facing the Israeli military or an Israeli settler or any other branch of the Israeli government would be entitled to the right of self-defence? This is not just a rhetorical question. Similar to the experiences of black people in the United States during the Jim Crow era, this double standard is the backbone of the oppressive system Palestinians are forced to endure.
Canadian politicians are quick to reinforce this hypocrisy. Recent history gives us multiple examples. In December 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated:
We will continue to stand strongly against the singling out of Israel at the UN. Canada remains a steadfast supporter of Israel and Canada will always defend Israel’s right to live in security.
And back in May 2018, when Trudeau was finally obliged after the shooting of Palestinian-Canadian doctor Tarek Loubani to offer a more nuanced view on Israel’s killing spree on the Gaza border, he still refused to call out Israel by name and even referenced “incitement” on the part of the Palestinians. Then, just a few days later, he opposed an official United Nations investigation into the killings.
Earlier this year, the Trudeau government sent a letter to the International Criminal Court, arguing against its jurisdiction to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes against Palestinians. Former Canadian justice minister, Irwin Cotler, also weighed in and filed an official legal brief to the ICC in support of Israel. This is the same Irwin Cotler who the Jerusalem Post described as “one of the staunchest defenders that Israel has around the world”, and a figure who Trudeau insists on quoting during his defamatory attacks against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
What is the message here? State violence is condoned but not popular resistance; Palestinians have no rights to self-defence unless bequeathed by the colonialist forces; and Israel’s security is privileged above all other considerations.
Sadly, these attitudes are so prevalent that they have also filtered down to civil society in the West, even amongst large sections of pro-Palestinian supporters.
The elevation of non-violence as the only tactic beneficial to the Palestinian struggle has taken hold in much of the support movement, and it is of course an easier ‘sell’ that other forms of resistance. In fact, many supporters in Western countries will adamantly argue, and genuinely believe, that non-violent struggle is the best mechanism by which Palestinians can achieve their rights. Before we evaluate the accuracy of that position, let us clearly state that only the Palestinian people themselves can decide the course of their struggle and which tactics fit best at which point in time. That is because the lived experience of Palestinians must determine their priorities, not a viewpoint expressed from a position of privilege and naivete.
Non-violent tactics are of course part of a broader program of struggle and may indeed be the preferred strategy in certain situations. But recognizing that fact does not indicate a rejection of armed resistance against military targets. The right to resist foreign military occupation with armed struggle is recognized internationally and even honoured in many circumstances.
Many liberation movements were deemed “terrorist” by various oppressors and imperialist forces, from South Africa to Algeria. Parallels are often drawn between the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the Palestinian experience, both in the context of how apartheid rule operates institutionally and also how it demonizes resistance. The African National Congress (ANC) was labelled as a terrorist organization by both the United States and the United Kingdom. Today, many Western countries including Canada now attach that label to Palestinian resistance groups. Canadians would be better served by following the example of Sweden’s aid to the ANC during the darkest hours of its struggle against apartheid, support that reportedly helped to save lives and hastened the demise of a racist and vile system.
Palestinians have been highly effective in their use of civil disobedience campaigns, from the general strike of 1936, the Beit Sahour tax strike during the First Intifada to the more recent Great Return March. But most Palestinians will tell you that had it not been for the armed struggle of certain decades, the whole Palestinian tragedy would be nothing more than a footnote in today’s history books. The first generation of Palestinians after 1948 spent many years appealing unsuccessfully to the United Nations and various world governments before successive generations took up arms to show that they were not going to be erased from history, similar to what had happened to so many other colonized peoples.
Palestinians have long understood that no matter what type of struggle they are engaged in, the reaction from the Israeli military is always the same–killing, maiming and destruction. The Israeli government continues to respond with excessive force to all forms of Palestinian protest, because the only thing that will satisfy their objectives is for Palestinians to abandon any hope of national independence and full rights. This is something that will never happen.
Marion Kawas is a long-time pro-Palestinian activist and writer, and a member of Canada Palestine Association.