Opinion |

Why the Palestinian Struggle Is More Necessary Than Ever

Israel and the U.S. hope to bury the Palestinian national project and make Jerusalem a playground for settlers and evangelicals; the Palestinians won't let that happen

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
A Palestinian protester on the Gaza border.
A Palestinian protester on the Gaza border.Credit: SAID KHATIB/AFP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

I was a high-school student when I first heard Robert Wyatt’s song “Dondestan,” the title song of a 1991 album. It’s not an especially good song, and I have no special interest in Wyatt, but the lyrics caught my attention: “Palestine’s a country / Or at least used to be / Palestine’s a country / Or at least used to be / Felahin, refugee / (Kurdistan similarly) / Need something to build on / Rather like the rest of us.”

I listened to the words and wondered what was meant. Why was he singing about Palestine? Like most Israelis, I didn’t understand why a British progressive-rock artist would devote a song to Palestine. To me the subject seemed to be our local issue, a problem we were stuck with, and there was no reason for anyone anywhere else to take any great interest in it. People I asked told me that in Europe there are some nasty anti-Zionist types who hate Israel and love the Palestine Liberation Organization. They especially despised the left-wing British actress Vanessa Redgrave, whom they referred to as “Fatah’s mistress.”

In time, I discovered that our neighbors the Palestinians are of interest to all kinds of people – not just creative artists and not just in Britain. The first time I visited Europe, I saw young people with Palestinian keffiyehs draped around their neck. In France, I met someone who had hung a poster of Marwan Barghouti on the wall of her home. She explained to me that the Palestinian struggle is the one she believes in most. The Palestinian revolution did it for her.

It’s unlikely that there are very many students today who will tell you that they’re wild about the Palestinian struggle. At one time, the Palestinian national project was considered a larger-than-life phenomenon. In the 1970s, long-haired young people wore T-shirts emblazoned with a portrait of the terrorist Leila Khaled; for a time they were almost as ubiquitous as Che Guevara T-shirts.

As Israelis, all this was presented to us as evidence of a childish fantasy of confused Europeans. Even if that’s true in some cases, it’s not the point. Every political project draws on supporters, most of whom are only vaguely familiar with the details. Among Israel’s supporters internationally, there are also those who can’t necessarily differentiate between the Galilee and the Golan.

Seemingly, nothing could be more delusional than to talk about the Palestinians from the point of departure of Wyatt’s “Dondestan.” After all, the Palestinians are here, next to us and among us. But our existence as humans is global, and sometimes the story of the neighbor across the way begins in Nicaragua or in Frankfurt. Solidarity with the Palestinians was once a global movement with which enlightened people everywhere identified. The slogan “Free Palestine” represented a dream and an ideal – one of the ideals of the 20th century, no less than sexual liberation or nuclear disarmament.

Generally speaking, Israelis find it difficult to understand what can be so exciting about the PLO or about Palestinian nationalism as such. In Israel, the subject is left to Arab-affairs commentators, or to past and present Shin Bet security service officials. These days, even the most enlightened Israelis feel at most pity for the Palestinians and perhaps think they deserve a few basic rights, as if the only question on the agenda were who is more miserable. But you’re unlikely to find an Israeli who thinks that to be a Palestinian freedom fighter is romantic and beautiful.

But in fact, Palestinian nationalism is more than a demand not to infringe on the rights of the residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It’s a revolutionary, anticolonial movement that, during the previous century, served as an inspiration for other revolutionary movements, such as the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the Irish underground and the civil rights movement in the United States. It’s not by chance that all those movements identified with the Palestinian struggle, and not with the Zionist movement.

Chosen vs. unchosen

For some decades, two myths confronted each other: the myth of the chosen people that survived the Holocaust and established its state after 2,000 years; and the myth of the unchosen people, clinging to its land in the teeth of imperialism. Each of these stories contains a messianic dimension, and each drew supporters: Barbra Streisand and Kirk Douglas for the Zionists, Fairouz and Jean-Luc Godard for the Palestinians. At certain moments, they were almost equal. But by the force of historical circumstances, the Zionist myth is far more popular today than the Palestinian myth. To be pro-Palestinian these days is no longer radical chic, and to be radical isn’t so chic anymore. The Zionist myth has trampled the Palestinian myth.

That’s worth remembering at the present time, when Israelis are speaking offhandedly about the end of the Palestinian national project. Some are recommending to the Palestinians that they forgo nationalism altogether, and even promise that if they do, things will get better for them. They’re being told that nationalism isn’t really important, that what counts is economic growth; that if they behave better, maybe someone will build them a port in Gaza, and that in any case Iran is the enemy of all the Jews and the Sunnis. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who march to the fence and are shot in masses by snipers are depicted as mentally deranged fanatics.

But really, what’s so fanatic and unreasonable about it? Israel and the United States would like to bury the Palestinian national project once and for all, in the hope that it will fade away without making ripples. They want to turn Jerusalem once and for all into a playground for settlers with flags and for Christian evangelicals. But the Palestinians have no reason to let that happen. Even if the struggle fails, it’s still called for, if only so as not to depart the stage of history in a still, small voice. The Palestinians are duty-bound to create for themselves a myth of resistance. Otherwise no one in the world will give two hoots about them.

One can hate the Palestinians, one can pity them, but it’s also possible to hold them in high regard. The European left has shrunk almost as much as the Israeli left. Young Europeans no longer wear keffiyehs, but talk about the Islamist threat and vote for Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest. If not the Palestinians, who is going to remind people that Palestine’s a country (or at least used to be)?

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