Resurrecting Palestine’s struggle for liberation

by Tamara Tamimi 

A few years ago, in 2010, I travelled from Palestine to Lebanon for a youth conference about the participation of Arab youth in the political, economic, social, and cultural realms of their respective countries. During this 3-day conference, I met Jihad, a young participant working with the Arab NGO Network for Development, the organisers of the conference. I fell for him right away. Over the course of the event, I soon discovered that his grandparents had been forcefully displaced to Lebanon from Saffuriyya, a village close to Nazareth, during the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Three days of blissful yet unspoken love came to an abrupt close with the end of the conference. I didn’t know when I would see him again. For months, I tried figuring out a way to be with him, before giving up eventually: The Israeli occupation of Palestine denies Palestinians living in exile, like Jihad, their inalienable right to return. And I, as a Palestinian, lose my residency permit for Jerusalem, if I decide to live elsewhere permanently.

Since 1967, the legal status of Palestinians in East Jerusalem is defined as “Jordanian nationals residing in East Jerusalem.” Residents have to annually provide evidence of their status with receipts for taxes, electricity, water, and phone bills, amongst other documentations. Those who cannot provide evidence have their residency revoked. The Palestinian Authority has no real authority over the issue and cannot grant any alternative forms of identification. Therefore, those with identity cards from East Jerusalem risk becoming “absentees” at any moment.  

This was the first time I realised that Israel’s restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians impacts on Palestinians across the world.

Palestinians living in historic Palestine, such as myself, face similar issues to those in diaspora. Given Israel’s barriers, checkpoints, and legal restrictions on mobility, it is significantly easier to see my Palestinian friends from Gaza, which is a 2-hour drive away from me, 5700 miles further, in the U.S., rather than obtaining a permit to see them in Gaza, the world’s largest open air prison. For instance, following Israel’s assault on Gaza in August 2014, my friend Ayah was only able to see me in the U.S., when she was granted a temporary permit to leave her home in Gaza. Or Mary, who also met me in the U.S., to participate in the annual meeting of a Quaker organisation and later joined me in my speaking tour across the States. During the tour, Ayah, Mary and I repeatedly discussed the alienation we feel towards each other and our homeland as a result of Israel’s occupation and violent oppression.

In forcibly transferring Palestinian populations into three distinct geographical areas – East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza –  as well as the myriad refugee camps, while denying us the right to mobility and return, Israel’s occupation has permanently separated us. There are various campaigns trying to address this. The Mit-harkin campaign, which translates into those who move”, is one of them. It emerged from a local youth project, the Palestinian Youth: Together for Change (PYTC), and brings together 60 Palestinian youth from across historic Palestine, including present-day Israel, and works towards securing the freedom of movement for Palestinians.

The right to mobility is as important as economic rights

Growing up in a left-wing household, I was raised to think that economic and social rights take precedence over civic and political rights. I believed, as long as you have a stable income, access to education and health care services you can live in dignity and freedom. Two things changed my understanding of this, however: my speaking tour in the U.S., and my participation in the PYTC project.

When touring the U.S. for my speeches, I came across the work of the Black American Civil Rights Movement. My reading of their challenges and breakthroughs helped me realise how important civic and political rights are to human dignity and freedom. I now consider them just as important as economic and social rights, while acknowledging that both sets complement one and another. Secondly, when I joined the PYTC project in Palestine, I began working with a policy papers team, where we we researched Israel’s methods for restricting freedom of movement, including the blockades of the Gaza Strip since 2007, checkpoints, the West Bank Barrier, and legal restrictions more generally. We worked jointly on identifying the impact of these measures on collective Palestinian national identity and freedom.

Restrictions on civic freedoms, such as the freedom of movement, compromise Palestinian collective national identity fundamentally. Israel’s confiscation of land, settlement expansions, the building and extending of the separation wall, checkpoints, and the enforcement of a whole set of legal restrictions are all used to separate Palestinians over the land of historic Palestine and abroad. These restrictions have also impacted access to other rights, such as the right to education, health care, marriage and to a family. Having been in place for over 67 years means that Palestinians living in Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and refugee camps in neighbouring countries have developed entirely different needs and priorities, over time. For the majority, it has become necessary to shift their focus to daily life struggles rather than bigger, national issues. This is especially the case for Palestinians in Gaza, where Israel’s siege has led to massive food shortages and the primary concern is over how to obtain basic goods, such as wheat, salt and sugar, rather than the liberation of Palestine.

Indeed, Israel’s occupation and restrictions of civic rights is in grave violation of International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The last assault on Gaza between July and August 2014, however, has led to an immense shift in international attitudes and opinions at the grassroots level, though unfortunately not on official government levels. The political-economic interests of governments, globally, explain international silence when it comes to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

The real problem, however, is the sovereignty that Palestinian administrations lack over their own territories. Having a so-called democracy within the confines of a settler-colonial state does nothing to change that. Whoever Palestinians vote for in the Legislative Council and Palestinian Presidential Elections, parties and candidates have extremely limited leverage over political decision-making.

Bringing Palestinians together

A resurgence of Palestinian civil society activism is desperately needed to rejuvenate Palestinian political parties, and the political landscape more generally. When the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the interim body governing the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, was founded, important civil work was shouldered by Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). Political parties and universities were able to take a back seat in the struggle for liberation and state building. However, the PNA’s strategy has become ineffective, since NGOs are entirely dependent on foreign aid ⎼ this largely dictates and impairs their scope and mode of operation. Most of international donors are tied to countries that benefit off the Israel’s occupation. Therefore, it is unlikely that NGOs will have any impact on the struggle for liberation the way they did in the 1970s and 80s, unless they explore alternative ways of fundraising.

Perhaps, the most effective strategy for overcoming Israel’s civic restrictions is to bring together Palestinians from all territories, including historic Palestine and the diaspora. Until the 1990s, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) did a good job at this before being sidelined by the PNA – which is not legally able to represent Palestinians of Israeli nationality and refugees, both of whom are integral and indispensable to the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

There was a time when political parties, particularly Fatah, which was long characterised by its grassroots approach, always returned to the demands of the Palestinian people. Their decisions were based on public opinion. Ironically, in the past 20 years or so, no single party has asked the Palestinian people about their demands, whether they continue to consider the two-state solution viable, or what their outlooks for the future are. Rather, foreign governments, the international community, international and national NGOs, and the PNA frantically dictate futile solutions to ‘the conflict’.

This is why the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) has become so important to Palestinians. Founded by a range of Palestinian civil society organisations and activists in 2005, it relies on multiple strategies to play an effective role in the struggle for justice. The movement has persistently called for the cultural, academic, and economic boycott, divestment from companies, and sanctions on Israel until it complies with IHRL and IHL. Currently, it is endorsed by more than 170 Palestinian political parties, organisations, trade unions, and movements.

BDS’ goals – ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands occupied since 1967; recognising the fundamental rights of Palestinian citizens in Israel; respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes as stipulated in UN Resolution 194 – reflect the wider civic aspirations of the Palestinian people. Since its founding, the BDS has enjoyed huge breakthroughs over the years, particularly on the level of the academic and cultural boycott, and the closure of illegal factories in the West Bank settlements.

The need for the resurrection of Palestinian civil society actors and political reform, I hope, will ultimately encourage Palestinians to form a more unified front in the struggle for their liberation. The promising outcomes of the BDS and the global shift in opinion means that I see at least some light at the end of the tunnel. It means, perhaps one day, Palestinians separated from one and another, as Jihad, my friends in Palestine, and I will be able to meet not in Lebanon or the U.S., but anywhere across historic Palestine – in Gaza, The West Bank’s Jerusalem, or present-day Israel’s Jaffa.

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Tamara Tamimi is an activist and writer from Jerusalem, Palestine. She obtained a major in Biology and a double minor in English Literature and Translation, from Birzeit University, Palestine and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Human Rights Law, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is a member and participant of the AFSC’s “Palestine Youth: Together for Change” project, which aims to empower Palestinian youth in their struggle for the right to freedom of movement and against the fragmentation of a collective, national Palestinian identity. 

This feature was edited by Media Diversified’s Middle East & North Africa editor, Mend Mariwany. To pitch an article or feature please contact mend@mediadiversified.org

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