The “Palestinian Revolt of 2021” will go down in history as one of the most influential events to have shaped collective thinking irreversibly in and around Palestine. Only two other events can be compared with what has just transpired: the revolt of 1936 and the 1987 First Intifada.
The general strike and rebellion of 1936-39 were momentous events because they represented the first unmistakable expression of collective Palestinian political agency. Despite their isolation and humble resistance tools, the Palestinian people rose across Palestine to challenge the combination of British and Zionist colonialism.
The Intifada of 1987 was also historic. It was the unprecedented sustainable collective action that unified the occupied West Bank and Gaza after the Israeli occupation of what remained of historic Palestine in 1967. That legendary popular revolt, though costly in blood and sacrifices, allowed Palestinians to regain the political initiative and, once more, to speak as one.
The Intifada was eventually thwarted by the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. For Israel, Oslo was a gift from the Palestinian leadership that allowed it to suppress the Intifada and use the then newly-created Palestinian Authority (PA) to serve as a buffer between the Israeli military and the occupied, oppressed Palestinians.
The history of Palestine has followed a dismal trajectory ever since; one of disunity, factionalism, political rivalry and, for the privileged few, massive wealth. Nearly four decades have been wasted on a self-defeating political discourse centred on US-Israeli priorities, mostly concerned with “Israeli security” and “Palestinian terrorism”.
Old but befitting terminology such as liberation, resistance and popular struggle were replaced with the more “pragmatic” language of the “peace process”, “negotiation table” and “shuttle diplomacy”. According to this misleading discourse, the Israeli occupation of Palestine was depicted as a “conflict” and “dispute”, as if basic human rights were subject to political interpretation.
Predictably, the already powerful Israel became more emboldened, tripling the number of its illegal colonies in the West Bank along with the population of its illegal settlers. Palestine was segmented into tiny, isolated South African-style Bantustans, each carrying a code — Areas A, B and C — and the movement of Palestinians within their own homeland became conditioned on obtaining various coloured permits from the Israeli military authorities which controlled the bizarrely-named “Civil Administration”. Women giving birth at military checkpoints in the West Bank, cancer patients dying in Gaza while waiting for permission to cross the nominal border for hospital treatment and more became the everyday reality of Palestine and the Palestinians.
In time, the Israeli occupation of Palestine became a marginal issue on the international diplomatic agenda. Meanwhile, Israel cemented its relationship with numerous countries around the world, including many in the Southern hemisphere which had historically stood in alongside Palestine.
Even the international solidarity movement for Palestinian rights became confused and fragmented, itself a direct expression of Palestinian confusion and fragmentation. In the absence of a unified Palestinian voice amid the prolonged political feud, many took the liberty of lecturing Palestinians on how to resist, what “solutions” to fight for and how to conduct themselves politically. It seemed that Israel had finally gained the upper hand and this time it was for good.Desperate to see Palestinians rise again, many called for a third Intifada, including intellectuals and political leaders. It was as if the flow of history, in Palestine — or elsewhere — adheres to fixed academic notions or is compelled by the urging of some individual or organisation.
The rational answer was, and remains, that only the Palestinian people will determine the nature, scope and direction of their collective action. Popular revolts are not the outcome of wishful thinking but of circumstances, the tipping point of which can only be decided by the people themselves.
This month, May 2021, was that very tipping point. Palestinians rose in unison from Jerusalem to Gaza, across every inch of occupied Palestine, as well as Palestinian refugee communities throughout the Middle East and, in doing so, they also resolved an impossible political equation. The Palestinian “problem” was no longer the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem alone, but the Israeli racism and apartheid which have targeted the Palestinian communities inside Israel as well. It was also about the crisis of the Palestinian leadership and the deep-seated factionalism and political corruption.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided on 8 May to unleash hordes of police and Jewish extremists on Palestinian worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, who were protesting against the ethnic cleansing of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, he was merely attempting to gain some political credibility among Israel’s most chauvinist right-wing constituencies. He also wanted to remain in power or, at least, to avoid prison following his upcoming trial on corruption and fraud charges.
He did not anticipate, however, that he was unleashing one of the most historic events in Palestine, one that would ultimately resolve a seemingly impossible Palestinian quandary. True, Netanyahu’s assault on the largely civilian population of Gaza killed hundreds of people, including women and children, and wounded thousands. The violence he perpetrated in the West Bank and in Arab neighbourhoods in Israel killed scores more. However, on 20 May, it was the Palestinians who claimed victory when the unconditional ceasefire came into force; hundreds of thousands of people rushed onto the streets to declare their triumph as one unified, proud nation.
Winning and losing wars of national liberation cannot be measured by gruesome comparisons between the number of dead or the degree of destruction inflicted on each side. If this was the case, no colonised nation would ever have fought for and won its freedom.
The Palestinians won because, once more, they emerged from the rubble of Israeli bombs as a whole, a nation determined to win its freedom at any cost. This realisation was symbolised in the many scenes of Palestinian crowds celebrating while waving the banners of all of the factions, without prejudice and without exception.
Finally, it can be asserted unequivocally that the Palestinian resistance scored a major victory, arguably unprecedented in its proud history. This is the first time that Israel has been forced to accept that the rules of the game have changed, most likely forever. It is no longer the only party able to determine political outcomes in occupied Palestine, because the Palestinian people are finally a force to be reckoned with.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.