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Report on SOAS Conference on The Left in Palestine

category international | rights, freedoms and repression | opinion/analysis author Saturday March 06, 2010 18:26author by Freda Hughes - Personal Capacity Report this post to the editors

The School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London organised a conference on the Left in Palestine through it's Palestine Society from February 27th-28th. As far as I know this is the first conference covering this specific area of the Palestinian question and, thus, it had the potential to open up much needed debate on the subject.
Ahmad Sa'di, Bashir Abu-Manneh (Chair), Issam Makhoul and Areen Hawari
Ahmad Sa'di, Bashir Abu-Manneh (Chair), Issam Makhoul and Areen Hawari

This report contains merely my impressions from the conference. I do not pretend to be an expert on the Left in Palestine or even the Left in general. I am an unaligned leftist, but am primarily an activist who campaigns for Palestine as a volunteer with the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. This piece is written in a personal capacity.

The conference consisted of seven sessions spread over two days dealing with The Left in British Mandate Palestine, The Left of the PLO, both in exile and in the West Bank and Gaza, The Palestinian Left in Israel and The Israeli Anti- Zionist Left, The Palestinian Left in Literature and ending with a roundtable discussion entitled Towards a New Left Programme for the Palestinian Struggle.

From the onset Western bias against resistence movements was made obvious by the fact that three of the invited speakers were not allowed to travel to London to attend. Leila Khaled of the PFLP and Azmi Bishara of the Balad Party could not obtain visas and Jamal Juma, coordinator of the Stop the Wall Campaign, had his passport illegally confiscated by Israeli authorities after being detained for legitimately voicing his opposition to the Wall. The conference opened with a DVD presentation from Azmi Bishara in an attempt to overcome these imposed limitations.

The first session, The Left in British-Mandate Palestine, was chaired by John Rose was hosted by an impressive panel of Ilan Pappe, Leena Dallasheh and Musa Budeiri. Musa gave an informative talk titled, The Last Venture:Communists, Nationalists and Settlers in Palestine. Ilan Pappe, who recently spoke in Dublin, spoke about the contradictions of the Zionist Left while Leena Dallasheh presented a paper which death with the labour movement in late mandate Palestine.

At this point I want to give a very brief background to the left wing struggle within Palestine (West Bank and Gaza) as a backdrop to the issues discussed here.

The Arab Nationalist Movement was a Pan Arab nationalist, anti-imperialist, socialist, (but not explicitly Marxist ) movement that had its roots in student struggles in the Middle East in the 1940s and 50 and formed in 1958. It had sections all over the Middle East, but by 1968 had disintegrated due to internal squabbling. One wing became basically Nasserite in it's outlook and the other basically inspired by Marxism-Leninism.

The Marxist-Leninists gathered around George Habash (1926-2008) and The Arab Socialist Action Party was formed in 67/68. In this Habash played a key role in founding it's Palestinian section, The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and became it's general secretary. By 1968 the PFLP had about 2 or 3,000 fighters mostly in Palestinian refugee camps. It's HQ was in Syria and it also had a big presence in Jordan. In 1969 the PFLP declared its self Marxist-Leninist, but unlike other Palestinian factions retained the anti-imperialism of Pan Arab nationalism (ie. the belief in overthrowing right wing and reactionary Arab regimes). Today they have 3 Palestinian Legislative Council members. The armed wing is called the Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades, and the PFLP has been designated a terrorist organisation by the EU since 2005.

In 1968 the PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC) split from the PFLP arguing that the PFLP was not focused enough on military activity. Led by Ahmed Jibril, it was a totally rejectionist group, quasi-Marxist, quasi-Islamist. It is backed by Syria and has no popular base in Palestine, but does enjoy some support in refugee camps, especially in Lebanon. It is also designated a terrorist organisation by the EU.

In 1976 the Palestine Liberation Front split from the PFLP-GC following the GC's attacks on the PLO in Lebanon. A nasty internecine conflict broke out between the two groups, for example one GC attack on the Lebanon offices of PLFP left approximately 200 people dead. They still exist today but are very small.

In 1969 the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (later the DFLP) split from PFLP, as an ostensibly Maoist group, arguing that too much focus was being placed on militarism and not enough on grassroots politics. Ironically this probably had a lot to do with Habash and his supporters attempting to remedy the perceived problems that led to the PFLF-GC split the year before. It was led by Nayef Hawatmeh. The DFLP carried out attacks throughout the 1970's and 80's but it has only minimal armed capabilities today. It is not a designated a terrorist organisation by the EU.

The FIDA [Palestinian Democratic Union] were a 1990 split from DFLP, which took a lot of the West Bank DFLP with them. They were inspired by Gorbachev's reforms in the USSR and today they believe in a two state solution with an emphasis on democratisation over class struggle.

In 1972 the Popular Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PRFLP) split from PFLP under Abu Shibab arguing that Habash was too right wing. At most it had around 150-200 members, and no longer exists.
The Palestinian People's Party was originally founded in 1982 as the Palestinian Communist Party, which itself was originally founded in 1919, but had split with the foundation of the Israeli state and the annexation of the West Bank. Between the 1948 partition of Palestine and their refoundation in 1982 it's West Bank activists operated as part of the Jordanian Communist Party, while those in the 1948 joined the Israeli Communist Party. The Israeli Communist Party which forms part of the Hadash alliance is a party which operates inside Israel, but is made up of majority Palestinian citizens of Israel. The ppp joined the PLO in 1987 and was an enthusiastic promoter of the Oslo accords.

The first session, The Left in British-Mandate Palestine, was chaired by John Rose was hosted by an impressive panel of Ilan Pappe, Leena Dallasheh and Musa Budeiri. Musa Budeiri gave an informative talk entitled, The Last Venture:Communists, Nationalists and Settlers in Palestine. Ilan Pappe, who recently spoke in Dublin, spoke about the contradictions of the Zionist Left while Leena Dallasheh presented a paper which dealt with the labour movement in late mandate Palestine and focused particularly on Nazareth.

Session 2 began with a DVD presentation by Leila Khaled who spoke about how the Left gained power and popular support in the refugee camps through social mobilisation. She spoke of how the PFLP leaders and organisers in the camps were aware of, and involved in, all elements of the social struggle from the bottom up in the camps. By focusing on the societal needs of civil society they gained the trust and support of the people. Leila is a member of the PFLP and Palestinian National Council and is a symbol of Palestinian resistance. She was born in Haifa, but fled to Lebanon with her family in 1948 as a refugee. In 1969 she was involved in the hijacking of TWA Flight 840 from Rome to Athens which was diverted to Damascus were all passengers were released before the aircraft was blown up. In 1970 she was involved in a second hijack mission which failed leading to her arrest. She was released later that year as part of a prisoner exchange programme. She now lives in Amman, Jordan.

Gilbert Achar and Jamil Hilal also spoke during this session which was chaired by Laleh Khalili. For more in depth analysis of this session and sessions 3 and 4 watch the comments section below or watch out for future posts.
During Session 3 I was particularly struck by Aitemad Muhanna's paper entitled “The rise of Hamas, the Fall of Leftist Ideology?”which contained within it a feminist critique of the PFLP in Gaza. Toufic Haddad's charismatic presentation on “The Left in the Post-Oslo Era” was also really interesting and the panel for this session was probably the most dynamic and energetic of the weekend.

The Session (4) on The Palestinian Left in the Israeli State saw the peculiar juxtaposition of Issam Makhoul of the Israeli Communist Party with researcher Ahmad Sa'di who discussed how the shift in the USSR's position towards Zionism has shaped the political orientations, debates and political activities among Palestinian leftist groups in Israel. Given the Israeli Communist Party's history of taking it's line directly from Moscow, this was perceived as an attack on Issam Makhoul and his party by some and Makhoul walked out of the session.

Session five, The Israeli Anti-Zionist Left was chaired by exiled Israeli academic Nira Yuval-Davis who was a member of Matzpen. Matzpen (“ The Socialist Organisation in Israel”) was founded in 1962 by ex-members of the Israeli Communist Party. As an organisation it committed itself to a socialist revolution based on councils elected by the workers, was opposed to Zionism and called for recognition of the Palestinian people’s national rights. It ceased to exist as a group in the 1980's, but many of it's members are still actively campaign against Zionism. She was joined on the panel by Matzpen founder member Moshe Machover and ex-Matzpen member and founder of the Alternative Information Centre, Michael Warschawski. The panel also consisted of Adar Grayevsky from Anarchists Against the Wall and Prof. Sami Shalom Chetrit.

I was not particularly impressed with Chetrit's paper which developed the theory that Misrahi/Oriental Jews are equally as oppressed as Palestinians by the Ashkenazi Jews in Israel and that this some how shows hope for future alliances. While the Misrahi do form a large part of the working class within Israel they are not divorced in any way from the Zionist ideals of the state. His analysis of the Misrahi question was interesting, but his attempts to link this in a constructive way to the Palestinian struggle against Zionism were tenuous especially given the history of the Shas party, which depends heavily on the Misrahi vote and has recently joined the World Zionist Organisation.

Warschawski provided us with an excellent analysis of the origins of Matzpen right through it's decline and on to the more recent Israeli Anti-Zionist opposition to the Wall and the occupation through groups like Anarchists Against the Wall. I was impressed by his progressive grassroots approach not only to activism, but also to his analysis. He showed a genuine respect for the new generation of Israeli Anti- Zionist activists and for the Popular Committees within Palestine. From the audience I asked the question of how best to deal with left wing opposition to the boycott hoping that, as a prominent speaker on Boycott From Within, he would provide me with the rhetoric to effectively deal with this problem without having to enter into a lengthy debate as often happens within the left in Ireland and which rarely results in opponents of the boycott deviating from their party line. Unfortunately he did not provide the audience with this, but replied that the panel of left wing, socialist, Anti-Zionist Israeli activists in front of me was a living example that left wing opposition to the boycott based on the 'universal workers rights clause' was unfounded. This of course is a view that I already share as a promoter of the BDS campaign.

Adar Grayevsky who, despite her Zionist upbringing, has spent the last five years participating in the joint popular struggle against the wall and the occupation. She is a member of Ta'ayush and Anarchists Against the Wall and is currently studying to become a human rights lawyer. She spoke openly about her own personal prejudices which were challenged as she became more immersed in the struggle and the non-partisan approach to Anti-Zionism that is common amongst Anarchists Against the Wall and the Popular Committees. By discussing the struggle in villages like Bil'in and Nil'in she showed that there is hope for success through popular struggle despite the multifaceted difficulties it faces. She noted the Israeli Defence Force's decision to finally act upon the Supreme Court Ruling of 2007 and adjust the route of the Wall which cuts through the village of Bil'in.

Moshe Machover made two main points in his presentation;

1. In Israel the struggle for socialism must be part of a regional struggle; and it necessarily implies a struggle to overthrow Zionism.

2.Conversely, a defensive struggle against the worst effects of Zionism can be waged on its own as a series of one-issue campaigns, by single issue groupings; but Zionism cannot and will not be overthrown in this way. It can only be overthrown as part of a socialist transformation of the entire region, the Arab East. And it requires an organization set up according to this strategy.

Audience member Tony Greenstein engaged in a prolonged exchange with Machover.
Machover's speech and the exchange between Machover and Greenstein is further explored in Greensteins blog

Machover's view that Zionism can only be overthrown by a socialist transformation of the Middle East, although it has some merit, is not one that shows much hope for the struggle in the near future.

Session 6 focused on The Palestinian Left in Literature

Session 7. The conference closed with a roundtable discussion entitled “Towards a New Left Programme for the Palestinian Struggle” chaired by Gilbert Achar. Achar stressed that audience participation was essential and welcome in this discussion, however the panel for this session was rather large and this led to inevitable time constraints. Nevertheless, at least ten audience questions were accepted , most of which were addressed by the speakers. Unfortunately one of the most practical questions, posed by Greg Dropkin of the Liverpool PSC, regarding the use of the Cairo Declaration - in fighting against Apartheid and promoting BDS - as a universally accepted document within and outside Palestine was not addressed at all. Audience frustrations, at times, came to the fore during this session. Some felt that the issue of the Right of Return had not been sufficiently addressed and others were frustrated by the lack of genuine representation from members of left wing Palestinian parties ie. not Arab parties operating within Israel. (Aitemad Muhanna is ex-PFLP and Leila Khaled was not at the conference in person, but addressed it by DVD link up.) I don't think anyone really touched on the elephant in the room, namely that the priorities of the struggle for Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza is very different from that of Palestinians living in Israel which is different again from that of the Diaspora.

This session was opened by Jamal Juma by DVD link up. He discussed what he viewed as the three main obstacles to a unified left in Palestine.

1.Israeli Zionism and it's occupation is an obvious obstacle.

2.He spoke of differing perspectives and ideologies coupled with competitiveness or distrust between Palestinian groups as another major stumbling block, especially in the absence of a strong leadership figure.

3.The PA and Fatah were cited as another major factor in the lack of unity of the left. He spoke of the PA actively working against any process that could lead to unity as this would challenge the perception that the secular struggle still belonged to the Fatah and technocratic allies in the PA. By allowing the left to achieve unity and flourish in Palestine they would finally be letting go of any credibility that Fatah, under Arafat, had established amongst the Western Left. Furthermore, as Fatah have abandoned all concern for social struggle in favour of embracing capitalism, a strong left would provide an obstacle to this consensus.

During the Q&A session I asked the following question;

“ When faced with a collaborationist, corrupt government on one hand and an Islamist government on the other, presenting a secular left wing alternative seems like a viable option. However, given the fractious nature of the left in Europe and it's general unpopularity with Western governments there will obviously be problems with this. There is also the concern that within western solidarity movements various left wing factions may attempt to claim the left wing secular struggle as their own, thus inevitably worsening it's cause within mainstream society. When we are also faced with so many battling ideologies amongst the Palestinian left what should be the guiding principles for PSCs and international solidarity groups when promoting the Palestinian Left in Europe?”

Jamal Zahalka, Knesset member and Chairman of the National Democratic Assembly – Balad (Tajamu Party), addressed my question by suggesting that a unified Palestinian Left should operate as an internal solidarity campaign and be non-partisan in it's approach. This, he felt, was the only way it could succeed in gathering international mass support.

His response contrasted sharply with Gilbert Achar's comments from the previous day when he said that the struggle against Zionism could only be won from within. Although I was generally quite impressed by Achar these closing remarks surprised me given the part played by international pressure in the wider South African struggle against Apartheid and also in light of the repeated calls for international support from within Palestinian civil society.

There was an overall inconclusiveness to the conference in that it didn't really provide/suggest any viable way forward or practical course of action. With such vast representation from PSCs, international solidarity groups, the Palestinian diaspora and academics present I felt that including a session were people broke off into workshops may have yielded some practical outcomes. A suggestion was made by Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi from Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-BIG) that an internet discussion forum should be established in the aftermath of the conference. I would very much like to see this idea realised as it would, at least, keep the debate alive. Despite the lack of practical outcomes this was an excellent academic initiative. It was informative and hosted a great panel of speakers. This conference also provided excellent networking opportunities for solidarity activists and academics.

I was glad to hear that the IPSC is well known for it's strong media and awareness raising campaigns, networking and mobilisation abilities and CRH divestment campaign. It is well regarded for it's well organised and pro-active campaigning approach to Palestinian solidarity work. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) boycott motion and report from it's delegation to Palestine is also well renowned and has generated much action and dialogue amongst other trade union groups and PSCs.

The Palestine Committee of Norway struck me as really impressive in its multifaceted approach to solidarity work. As well as working at 'home-based' solidarity initiatives with civil society, politicians and trade unions, they also send regular delegations of medics, trade union workers and activists to work in Palestine and in refugee camps in Lebanon.

The Jewish Anti-Zionist networks were really well represented at the conference. Having met with representatives of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-BIG) I would love to see a similar organisation established in Ireland.

It was edifying to discover that three Irish IPSC members/supporters, now living in London, were part of the organising team for the conference. The Palestine Society at SOAS should be proud of it's achievement in organising this innovative conference.

I hope that we can open up a broad debate on the Left in Palestine here in Ireland and start to look at the various left wing parties and Popular Committees as viable alternatives to the traditional Hamas/Fatah dialogue that has dominated the debate in this country for too long.

Nira Yuval- Davis, Moshe Machover, Michael Warschawski, Adar Grayevsky and Sami Shalom Chetrit
Nira Yuval- Davis, Moshe Machover, Michael Warschawski, Adar Grayevsky and Sami Shalom Chetrit

Jamal Juma (DVD), Jamal Zahalka, Areen Hawari, Gilbert Achar, Muhammad Jaradat and Jamil Hilal
Jamal Juma (DVD), Jamal Zahalka, Areen Hawari, Gilbert Achar, Muhammad Jaradat and Jamil Hilal

 #   Title   Author   Date 
   Some thoughts on the Palestine Left conference - sessions one and two     David Landy    Sun Mar 07, 2010 17:18 
   Professor     Sami Shalom Chetrit    Sun Apr 04, 2010 17:01 
   Myths of Progressive Zionism - Labour, Race, Gender and Colonialism     HB    Sun Apr 04, 2010 17:36 
   Arabs call themselves Arabs and the Palestinian Arabs are no exception     Frank Adam    Sun Apr 04, 2010 18:54 
   So what was it about?     Tony Greenstein    Thu Apr 08, 2010 03:13 
   Mizrachim in Israel     Sean Og    Thu Apr 08, 2010 10:28 
   Mizrahim     HB    Thu Apr 08, 2010 14:34 
   Mizrachim     Sean Og    Thu Apr 08, 2010 18:06 
   Thank you Sean Og     HB    Thu Apr 08, 2010 18:52 
 10   Sephardic/Mizrahim discrimination is still rampant amongst Ashkenazim     HB    Thu Apr 08, 2010 20:09 
 11   On the other hand     Sean Og    Fri Apr 09, 2010 08:44 
 12   Left in Palestine - sorry I forgot     Sean Og    Fri Apr 09, 2010 08:50 
 13   Thanks once again Sean     HB    Fri Apr 09, 2010 15:55 
 14   Invaluable contribution . . .     HB    Fri Apr 09, 2010 15:56 
 15   Tolerance and the LEFT     Sean Og    Sun Apr 11, 2010 23:30 
 16   yes dear     HB    Mon Apr 12, 2010 01:49 
 17   Any port in a storm: people fleeing war and starvation     anti-racist    Mon Apr 12, 2010 14:57 
 18   Alarming Racism in Israel     anti-racist    Mon Apr 12, 2010 15:01 
 19   Anti-Racisism Protesters hang Yellow star patches around Tel Aviv     anti-racist    Mon Apr 12, 2010 16:35 

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