The Great March of Return and Palestinian Liberation
The past year has seen an intensification of the struggle for Palestinian liberation. The Great March of Return has inspired many around the world, and further exposed the crimes of the apartheid Zionist regime in Israel. This has also played a role in growing opposition to Israel in the U.S. Given this, it is important to understand the history of the Palestinian Liberation struggle.
*Tens of thousands of people have protested weekly during the March of Return. *
On March 30th 2018, the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip began a mass protest movement—the Great March of Return—at the Gaza-Israel border, to demand an end to the blockade and siege of Gaza, and demand their right to return to their homeland, stolen from them over 71 years ago. Over 30,000 people came out to fight back against the ongoing oppression and ethnic cleansing Palestinians face at the hands of the Israeli state. In typical fashion, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) responded by killing 15 and injuring 1,400 Palestinians in just the first day of the protests. The March of Return protests have continued on a weekly basis now for over a year, and as of writing over 250 Palestinians have been killed and over 29,000 injured by the IDF in its fascist attempts to destroy any and all resistance.
This particular movement erupted mostly spontaneously, but it did not come out of nowhere. It is the result of generations of struggle against Israeli colonialism and apartheid, the successes and failures of the movement of the past, and the increasingly dire situation the Palestinian people face. Despite the extremely brutal subjugation they face at the hands of Israel, their resistance is inspiring to people all over the world who are also struggling to break the chains of oppression. And given all the support the U.S. ruling class gives to the Israeli state for the brutal oppression of Palestinians, revolutionaries and all progressive people of the United States have a shared interest and duty to support the March of Return in Gaza, and the Palestinian liberation struggle more broadly.
The Gaza Strip has a population of around 1.8 million people and is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. It is effectively an open-air prison for Palestinian refugees, who make up around 74% of the population. Before the creation of Israel in 1948, the land was part the British Mandate for Palestine. This was land previously under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which the British and French (along with other imperialists) carved up between themselves after their victory in World War I. The British sponsored Zionist efforts to colonize Palestine, and worked extensively with right-wing and fascist Zionist militias (which would later become the IDF) like the Haganah and Irgun to crush Palestinian resistance to these colonial efforts. In 1948, these militias launched a massive ethnic cleansing campaign—known to Palestinians as the “Nakba” or “catastrophe”—to drive Arab Palestinians out of Palestine and create Israel as a Jewish ethno-state.
The Deir Yassin Massacre was one of many massacres carried out by the Zionists during the Nakba. 107 Palestinian villagers of Deir Yassin were killed by the Zionist Irgun and Lehi paramilitaries on April 9th, 1948.
The Nakba included burning villages, massacring civilians, forced evictions, and more. All of this forced an estimated 750,000 Palestinians their homes into slum-like refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza (which were under Jordanian and Egyptian control respectively until 1967), and to neighboring countries such as Lebanon.
Since occupying Gaza and the West Bank, Israel has aggressively pushed for the further Israeli settlement and annexation of these areas. While this push for settlement continues to intensify in the West Bank, the resistance of the people in Gaza in the early 2000s forced all Israeli settlers to leave. However, shortly thereafter, Israel enforced a brutal blockade on Gaza which continues to this day. The blockade prevents Gazans from moving freely from the area, confining them to live in what even the United Nations has called “uninhabitable” conditions. This blockade controls the food, water, medical supplies, building materials, commercial goods, and electricity that the people in Gaza require to survive. Roughly 97% of the water in Gaza is undrinkable, and about 52% of the labor force is unemployed (according to official statistics). This poverty is made even worse by the fact that Israel routinely launches military operations and wars against the people of Gaza.
In the past decade alone, the Israeli military has launched over a dozen military operations there. One of the more recent and more destructive operations was the war in 2014, in which at least 2,251 Palestinians were killed. The IDF targeted schools, mosques, crowded neighborhoods, hospitals, and more with mainly American-made missiles, planes, and other weaponry. These brutal operations and wars are waged in the name of fighting “terrorism,” but the main victims and targets are civilians. This is part of the overall Zionist aim of ethnically cleansing Palestine for the establishment of a Jewish-only state, which has been a goal of the modern Zionist movement since its founding in the 1890s.
Palestinian refugee tents after the Nakba in 1948.
The modern Zionist movement has always been a reactionary and settler-colonial movement. It began as a small movement among middle-class European Jews, who openly worked with imperialist governments to establish a colonial outpost. While it gathered marginal support in the Jewish ghettos of the Russian Empire—where anti-Jewish reaction was the strongest—it remained a very small movement, largely because its main arguments did not resonate with the majority of Jewish people, who were working-class or peasants and did not see moving to Palestine as a solution to the oppression they faced. Additionally, there was a strong revolutionary movement among the middle-class and working-class Jewish population in Russia and Eastern Europe. The Zionist movement relied on extremely racist narratives about colonized people, especially Arabs, in order to justify the eventual theft and settlement of their land.
Zionism also utilized many anti-Semitic ideas to justify its goal. In fact, the main argument of Zionism mirrored the dominant anti-Semitic narrative that Jewish people could never live together with other people—therefore, argued the Zionists, they must create their own country.
Jewish workers in the U.S. and Europe, however, were often some of the most supportive of revolutionary struggles around the world like the Russian Revolution. This was partly due to the extreme oppression they faced by the governments like that of the Russian Tsar, the German Kaiser, and the so-called “democratic” governments of France and Britain. But more than that, many Jewish people saw their common interests were with the poor and oppressed of all religions and nationalities, not with the small number of middle-class and capitalist Jews who also exploited the people. Instead of supporting Zionism, many Jews joined with their non-Jewish brothers and sisters in revolutionary struggle.
The fear that revolutionary movements would spread after the victory of the Russian Revolution compelled European imperialists like the British government to throw their weight behind the Zionist movement. The British government saw Zionism as a way to maintain control of their newly acquired land in the Middle East. Not only did Zionism help imperialists in maintaining their domestic rule and their grip over the Middle East by establishing a friendly reactionary government in region, it also provided a way to expel large portions of the Jewish population from Europe —something both the reactionary and anti-Semitic regimes and Zionist movement agreed on as a desirable goal.
Yet since the colonization of Palestine began, there has been brave resistance on the part of the Palestinian people. In 1936, the Great Revolt in Palestine began following a general strike of workers, and later turned into a war of resistance led by Palestinian workers and peasants. The revolt attempted to end British rule of Palestine and its sponsorship of Zionist settlers, who had been immigrating to Palestine in larger and larger numbers and acquiring more and more land. The settlers formed right-wing militias to aid their colonial efforts, which routinely abused the Palestinians. The revolt was eventually crushed by the British army and these Zionist militias (many of which would later lead the Nakba). The suppression of the revolt was so brutal that organized resistance to Israel remained small, unorganized, and largely underground until the 1964 founding of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was committed to liberating Palestine through armed struggle.
The PLO consisted of several different political parties in Palestine and in the refugee camps, and was quickly able to organize social programs in the camps such as schools, where Palestinian children were taught the history of their people and struggle, learned to read, and were taught both Arabic and Hebrew.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s the PLO organized massive protests and demonstrations in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan.
The PLO did not want to expel all Israelis from the land, but instead aimed to unify the people in a single, democratic, and secular state in which people of all nationalities and religions were equal. In fact, there had been an Arab-Jewish population in Palestine for centuries before Zionist colonization. The enemy of the Palestinian people was not (and is not) the Jewish people, but the Zionist state.
Based in the refugee camps in neighboring countries, the PLO won several victories against the technologically superior, U.S.-backed Israeli military. However, they were not alone in their struggle, but were supported by revolutionary and anti-imperialist forces around the world. The PLO received political and military aid from revolutionary China, and in 1965 even set up a diplomatic mission in Beijing. Taking inspiration from the Chinese revolution, which firmly and decisively kicked out foreign imperialists in 1949, PLO fighters studied Mao’s military writings and other revolutionary texts to guide them in their struggle. This struggle reached its peak in 1967-1969, after Israel militarily occupied both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
However, the armed struggle eventually faced major setbacks. The most significant of which was Black September in 1970, in which the Jordanian Army, with the full support of the U.S. and Israel, viciously massacred at least 40,000 Palestinians. At the time, the majority of the PLO was based in refugee camps in Jordan. Because the fedayeen (freedom fighters) of the PLO had set up parallel forms of government and were also inspiring Jordanians to take up struggle against their own reactionary ruling class, the ruling class of Jordan saw them as an existential threat. In September 1970, the Jordanian army began shelling the Palestinian refugee camps, and later launched an air and ground offensive to drive the fedayeen out. Despite the strong resistance of Palestinian fighters, the Jordanian army was successful, and this was a major blow to the Palestinian liberation struggle.
The PLO would then move its base to Lebanon, but following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 in which over 20,000 people were killed (by official Lebanese statistics), the PLO lost its remaining military strength. More and more, its leadership began making deals and compromises with Israel, causing it to lose much of its popular support within Palestine by the time of the first intifada, a grassroots mass uprising in 1989.
With the signing of the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel in the early 1990s—which put an end to the first intifada—the PLO was effectively made a puppet of Israel to oversee the territories and people in the West Bank and Gaza. It became little more than an arm of Zionism with a Palestinian face. To this day, the Palestinian Authority (the puppet legislature controlled by the PLO) openly collaborates with Israeli police and military to hunt down activists and break popular rebellions and protests. Many of these protests are aimed directly at the corruption and open collaboration of the PLO and PA with the Zionist state!
The Israeli military destroyed large swaths of the Gaza Strip in its genocidal 2014 war. Due to the blockade preventing building materials from entering the region, five years later much of Gaza is still in ruins.
Despite the betrayal of the PLO, and the inability and unwillingness of other political parties in Palestine to actually chart a course forward for revolution, the Palestinian people have continued the struggle to liberate their country. The Great March of Return is but one of the more recent and powerful examples of this. The central demand of this movement—the right of return—is key to ending the Zionist oppression of Palestine. The right of return means allowing the roughly five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants (of which around 1.6 million live in UN refugee camps) to return to their homeland—stolen from them in the Nakba and in the years since. It would allow millions of Palestinians who live in extremely oppressive conditions to regain basic rights and citizenship, and would be a major victory for their struggle. While Israel has a “Law of Return” which gives any Jewish person the right to move to and settle permanently in Israel, it has repeatedly denied Palestinians the right to return to their land.
But often, this basic right is ignored or chided as “unrealistic” by the imperialists and Zionists. Instead, the Palestinians are urged to “compromise” on a solution to this brutal oppression. This has an impact on our movements here as well. For example, there is a common idea here in the U.S.—even within the Palestinian solidarity movement—that only the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza should be opposed, and that there should be both a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. This idea is referred to as the “Two-State Solution,” and it is an apartheid “solution.” It effectively allows for the continued apartheid oppression of the Palestinian people, while masquerading as a way to resolve the issues with Zionist settler-colonialism. The “Two-State Solution” is also promoted by the so-called “progressive” politicians like Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar. It essentially whitewashes the history of Zionism as a settler-colonial ideology, and the genocidal campaign to remove Palestinians from their land. In justifying the continued existence of a settler-colonial apartheid state, it justifies the continued oppression of the Palestinian people.
The right of return, in contrast, directly threatens the ability of Israel to maintain its racist rule, and would allow for a real democratic and secular state to emerge in Palestine. Zionism is a form of apartheid rule in which Jewish Israelis are granted more rights and have an overall higher position in society over Arab Palestinians. To maintain this while also legitimizing the absurd lie that they are “the only democracy in the Middle East,” Israel needs to maintain a majority Jewish population, but the Arab population of Israel is growing faster than the Jewish population. (The racists in Israel euphemistically refer to this as a “demographic problem”). Already, nearly two million people in Israel—21% of the population—are Arab Palestinians.
If millions of refugees were allowed to return to their homeland and regain basic democratic rights this would throw a wrench in the existing capitalist and settler-colonial democracy in Israel. At present they are able to maintain a facade of democratic legitimacy because the majority of citizens are Jewish. However, if Palestinians were the majority, the Israel state would have to discard even this facade of democracy, thus further weakening their image and support internationally. The return of millions of Palestinians to their land would also expand the social basis of resistance to the Zionism and thus threaten the ability of Israel to maintain its apartheid regime in the face of the resistance of millions of people. It is no surprise then that Israel and its supporters (especially the United States) have ferociously opposed any attempts to recognize this basic right on the international level. It is also no surprise that the Israeli state has turned to more and more openly fascist measures to suppress Palestinian citizens of Israel and ethnically cleanse the West Bank.
Tear gas being fired at protesters in Gaza during March of Return protests. The fascist Israeli military, in a flimsy attempt to avoid international condemnation, made it a policy injure Palestinians (often by shooting them in the legs to cripple them for life, or suffocating them with tear gas) instead of outright slaughtering them.
For revolutionaries and progressive people here in the U.S., it is important that we support the Palestinian people’s struggle. The U.S. is the largest supporter of Zionism in the world. The U.S. government gives the Israeli military over $3.8 billion every year, paid for with the tax dollars of poor workers in this country. Israeli military and surveillance technology are also bought by U.S. police and “security” agencies to track, surveil, and oppress people here. And Israel is closely aligned with the interests of the U.S. monopoly capitalist class and regularly cooperates with imperialist invasions and interventions in the Middle East. All of the above is key to understanding the powerful role we in the U.S. can play in supporting the Palestinian liberation struggle. With a large mass movement opposing U.S. support for Israel and U.S. imperialism in general, the pillars of international support keeping Zionism alive will crack and weaken, and provide openings for the Palestinian people to advance the struggle to free their homeland.
On an even more fundamental level, Zionism must be opposed because it is a wholly racist, genocidal, and settler-colonial ideology, bent on the creation of a colonial enclave in the Middle East. And we should support Palestinian liberation because the liberation struggle in Palestine is an integral part of the global struggle to break all chains, and to free the people of the world from capitalist-imperialist domination and oppression.