By Afro-Middle East Centre
By Ramzy Baroud
Judging by its size, the Gaza Strip may look too small to matter in the ongoing regional intrigues involving Israel, the United States, Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. However, the 365 square kilometre coastal strip, which has been under Israeli-Egyptian siege for over ten years, outweighs its size many times over in the ongoing political gamble involving the region’s most powerful players. The many players that are involved are all motivated by sheer self-interest and self-preservation.
Israel has maintained the upper hand thus far, watching alliances emerge and others fold, manipulating the various variables as it sees fit, and ensuring that the outcome is always in its favour. But what exactly does Israel want? Shortly after Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, Israel imposed a siege on Gaza. The siege has remained in place since, and has grown to define the status quo. Dov Weisglass, a senior Israeli adviser to the then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, aptly described Israel’s motives behind the siege ten years ago: ‘The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.’ That single quote came to define the standard of cruelty with which Israel treats Palestinians. Yet, there is more to it than an expression of Israeli malice.
First, Weisglass’s near-starvation diet has been in effect ever since, with little done to remedy the suffering of Gazans. Second, with time, the Israeli siege also became an Egyptian blockade, thus making the most populous Arab country an accomplice to the Israeli plan to control Palestinians. Third, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah learned not only to co-exist with the Israeli siege on Gaza, but also to benefit from it.
The West Bank-based authority is controlled by the Fatah Movement, credited with launching the Palestinian revolt decades ago. But times have changed. The movement, now dominated by an aging, quisling leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is experiencing a power struggle within its ranks, while fighting hard to keep its Hamas rivals weak, isolated and discredited.
Egypt’s share of and role in the siege cannot be underestimated. Since his ascent to power following a military coup against an elected government on 3 July 2013, General - now President - Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved quickly to deepen the isolation of Gaza, and, by extension, Hamas. Sisi’s coup managed, decisively and violently, to overthrow a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Cairo, but not its Palestinian affiliates in Gaza.
Hamas, widely seen as the Palestinian extension of the Brotherhood, still reigned supreme in the besieged Strip despite determined Israeli attempts at destroying it, and any semblance of resistance there. Three major onslaughts launched by Israel (in 2008-9, 2012 and 2014) killed thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of Hamas fighters and leaders, but the political balance has remained firmly in Hamas’s hands.
With time, the Israeli siege became an Egyptian one, all with the tacit approval of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and with Arab approval. Some Arab Gulf governments, which wanted to ensure the complete demise of the Brotherhood, saw in Hamas’s survival a threat to their own existence. Now into its eleventh year, the siege has become a shared Israeli-Palestinian-Arab long-term investment. However, this is not a matter of politics or ideology only.
Following various popular uprisings in several Arab countries, Arab regimes with no democratic mandates moved quickly to suppress any dissent, no matter how seemingly harmless. Bloggers were dragged to jails; poets were imprisoned; peaceful activists were shot; and thousands disappeared in massive purges to ensure the failed uprisings do not resurface.
Meanwhile, Israel continued with its illegal land grab and Jewish colonial expansion, unhindered. With plans set in motion for ‘security coordination’ between Israel and the PA to crack down on dissenting Palestinians, the Israeli plan to annex most of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem was developing without many obstacles. Except, of course, Gaza, which symbolised a kind of resistance that could not be eliminated – neither by starvation, incarceration nor firepower. Nearly, 5 000 Palestinians were killed in Gaza during Israel’s three major offensives in the past decade. Yet, although much of the Strip was destroyed as a result of Israel’s deadly wars, the spirit of the resistance there remained strong, and eventually, it rekindled the resistance of Palestinians in the West Bank as well. Further, despite every attempt at creating two different political entities in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians in both regions continued to be bonded by their resistance.
Israel, nonetheless, succeeded. While it could not defeat Gaza, it managed to turn the siege on Gaza into an Arab affair, too. The Arab region has been experiencing rapid changes in recent years, where three civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen and the spread of militancy and ‘terror’ has reached almost every Arab country. The political uncertainty in the USA wrought by the election of Donald Trump, however, has offered a rare opportunity to some embattled Arab regimes. Even prior to Trump’s unexpected election victory, the USA was in the process of redefining its rule in the Arab world, and a ‘pivot to Asia’ was already downgrading US leadership and influence in the region. Trump’s ascendency, however, has mixed the cards like never before. Washington, which had governed the Middle East through clearly defined doctrines, now seems to have no doctrine, only impulsive decisions made by a Twitter-obsessed president.
The American retreat offered the kind of political space that could be filled by those vying to control the region. With Israel remaining on top of the pyramid, an alliance involving Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia began moving into a clear formation to achieve dominance through destroying some foes, isolating others and out-manoeuvring the rest. According to this new ‘vision’, Hamas, which could not be defeated by sheer force, could be relegated into an ineffectual political entity through an alliance with Mohammed Dahlan.
Once upon a time, Dahlan was the strongman of Gaza, commandeering ten security branches, torturing resisters and controlling the Strip in a way that was both consistent with the interests of his Fatah party and also with Israeli diktat. A few months after it won the elections, Hamas reportedly pre-empted a coup by Dahlan, and, since then, controlled the Strip alone. That was when the Israeli siege became complete. Dahlan fled to the West Bank, and a later power struggle within Fatah led to his dismissal by Abbas, who also accused him of a coup attempt in 2011. In 2012, Dahlan settled permanently in the UAE. Following the Egyptian coup in 2013, Dahlan and Sisi found common ground: initially to defeat Hamas, and eventually to coopt Hamas.
As Arab countries began moving to fill the gap left by receding US foreign policy, the political machinations began intensifying in an unprecedented fashion. Abbas quickly lost favour with Cairo, and Dahlan became Fatah’s strongman, as far as Egypt was concerned. Abbas’s sin was his refusal to join forces with Dahlan, with the ultimate objective of defeating Hamas. Meanwhile, with Abbas and Hamas failing to achieve even a minimal form of unity, Abbas remains confined to the West Bank, desperately trying to find new channels to win political validation.
The ‘Dahlan plan’ then emerged. A leaked document, widely reported in Israeli and other media, purported to show that Dahlan and Hamas had been negotiating the return of the former strongman to Gaza, to head a government there in exchange for an Egyptian easing of the siege. According to the plan, Hamas would remain in control of Gaza’s interior ministry and would not disarm, but, in the words of Haaretz’s Zvi Bar’el, Israel, at least, ‘would have a partner in Gaza who supports reconciliation’.
Overwhelmed by the unexpected move, Abbas is now trying to make life even more difficult for Palestinians in the Strip, hoping to exert more pressure on Hamas to end its possible partnership with Dahlan. A few months ago, Abbas slashed salaries for thousands of employees, many of whom were loyal to Fatah, and to Dahlan, in particular. More recently, the PA refused to pay for much of the electricity that Gaza is supplied by Israel, leading the Israeli government to order yet more electricity cuts to the Strip. The suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is now compounded.
Unemployment in the Strip is already among the highest in the world, presently estimated at forty-four per cent. Those who are employed still struggle to survive, with eighty per cent of all Gazans said to be dependent on humanitarian assistance. In 2015, the UN warned that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. A Red Cross report in May 2016 warned of another ‘looming crisis’ in the public health sector, due to the lack of electricity. The energy crisis has extended from electricity supplies to include even cooking gas. Following the most recent energy reduction which started on 11 June, Gazan households now receive two to three hours of electricity each day, and not even at fixed hours.
Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, sounded the alarm on 14 June when she warned that ‘the latest power cuts risk turning an already dire situation into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe’.
To think that Palestinian leaders are involved in tightening or manipulating the siege to exact political concessions from one another is dismaying. While Israel is invested in maintaining the Palestinian rift, Palestinians are blinded by pitiful personal interests and worthless ‘control’ over occupied land. Between Israel’s dismissal of international calls to end the siege and the Palestinians’ pathetic power game, Palestinians in Gaza are isolated, unable to move freely, or to live even according to the lowest acceptable living standards. The suicide rate in the Strip is at all-time high, and despair is believed to be the main factor behind the alarming phenomena.
Failing to subdue Gaza, Israel has succeeded in spreading the burden of tormented Palestinians there by enlisting the support of Palestinian as well as Arab hands, each playing a role in a dirty game of politics that has no regard for human rights, life or dignity.
*Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, media consultant, author of several books, and the founder of ‘PalestineChronicle.com’. His books include Searching Jenin, The Second Palestinian Intifada, and, his latest, My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.
By Alaa Tartir
To speak of Israeli-Palestinian ‘cooperation’…is to use no less than a misnomer. This is not, however, simply because ‘the outcome of cooperation between an elephant and a fly is not hard to predict’, as Chomsky so pithily writes…but because in the context of the Oslo peace process, ‘cooperation’ is often only minimally different from the occupation and domination that went before it. ‘Cooperation’, in this context, is above all an internationally pleasing and acceptable signifier which obscures rather than elucidates the nature of Israeli-Palestinian relations. - Jan Selby, 2003
I…applaud the Palestinian Authority’s continued security coordination with Israel. They get along unbelievably well. I had meetings, and at these meetings I was actually very impressed and somewhat surprised at how well they get along. They work together beautifully. – Donald Trump, 2017
From the outset, the Palestinian Authority (PA) security establishment has failed to protect Palestinians from the main source of their insecurity: the Israeli military occupation. Nor has it empowered Palestinians to resist that occupation. Instead, the PA has contributed to a situation in which the Palestinian struggle for freedom has itself been criminalised.
Rather than recognise resistance as a natural response to institutionalised oppression, the PA, in tandem with Israel and the international community, characterises resistance as ‘insurgency’ or ‘instability’. Such rhetoric, which favours Israeli security at the expense of Palestinians, echoes discourse surrounding the ‘war on terror’ and criminalises all forms of resistance.
This dynamic can be traced back to the 1993 Oslo Accords, but it has been galvanised over the last decade through the PA’s evolution as a donor-driven state that espouses neoliberal policies. The donor-driven reform of the security sector has been the linchpin of the PA’s post-2007 state building project. The enhanced effectiveness of the PA’s security forces as a result of massive donor investment has in turn created additional ways of protecting the Israeli occupier, thus creating spaces that are ‘securitised’, within which the occupier can move freely in the execution of its colonial project.
Such a development could only have two outcomes: ‘better’ collaboration with the occupying power in a way that shored up the destructive status quo; and greater violation of Palestinians’ security and national rights by their own government and national security forces.
This policy brief analyses the evolution and ‘reform’ of the Palestinian security forces since the establishment of the PA, and examines Palestinian-Israeli security coordination and its deleterious effects on the Palestinian ability to resist Israel’s occupying forces as well on basic liberties. It focuses on the PA forces in the West Bank and not the situation in Gaza, which requires separate research and analysis. It concludes with policy recommendations to reinvent the PA security forces’ operations and overhaul their structures so that they may truly serve to protect their own people.
The Rise of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces
The evolution of the PA security forces can be categorised in three phases: the Oslo Accords (1993-1999), the Second Intifada (2000-2006), and the post-2007 PA state-building project.
The Oslo Accords were characterised by two parallel, yet conflicting, projects: state building and national liberation. The former implied constructing state-like institutions and a bureaucracy under occupation, while the latter meant pursuing the revolutionary programme for self-determination that had been adopted by the PLO. The tension between these ventures already manifested themselves under the late president Yasser Arafat’s rule. Arafat’s personalised style of governance and its resultant complex network of corruption and patronage meant that the evolution of the PA security forces was from its advent neither inclusive nor transparent. Rather, it was fraught with nepotism, and was used as a tool to address the threats posed by Oslo’s opponents and to stabilise the population. In turn, it also solidified the nascent ‘peace’ agreements. The 9 000 recruits in the ‘strong police force’ envisaged in the 1994 Cairo Agreement became nearly 50 000 security personnel by 1999.
This proliferation of the security forces – all spying on each other, as Edward Said once said – has had severe consequences for Palestinians. Arafat’s establishment of security-driven political structures nourished authoritarianism and blocked accountability mechanisms in the Palestinian political system. This resulted in a dearth of legitimacy and further insecurity for Palestinians. As the security establishment grew in numbers and institutions, Palestinians remained ill-protected, and corruption and patronage within the forces became endemic. The divide-to-rule approach paved the way for future Palestinian fragmentation.
During the Second Intifada, Israel destroyed the PA’s security infrastructure because PA security forces participated in the uprising. This created a security vacuum into which non-PA actors inserted themselves, with mixed results for Palestinians. This exacerbated intra-Palestinian competition and led external donors, the PA, and Israel to be even more concerned with building a strong and dominant security sector. In June 2002, the PA announced its 100-Day Reform Plan; in 2003 the Quartet Road Map demanded that a ‘rebuilt and refocused Palestinian Authority security apparatus’ must confront ‘all those engaged in terror’ and dismantle ‘terrorist capabilities and infrastructure’. PA security structures were forced to combat terrorism; apprehend suspects; outlaw incitement; collect illegal weapons; provide Israel with a list of Palestinian police recruits; and report progress to the United States.
Accordingly, Palestinian security reform ‘remained…an externally-controlled process, driven by the national security interests of Israel and the United States, and characterised by very limited ownership on the part of Palestinian society.’ The international donor community led this reform in 2005 through the establishment of the European Union Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support (EUPOL COPPS) and the US Security Coordinator (USSC). This situation persists in the form of a ‘one gun, one law, one authority’ strategy through which the PA’s monopoly on force and violence is ensured.
The post-2007 state-building project under the PA has aimed, mainly through EUPOL COPPS and USSC, to reinvent the PA security forces through technical means, including training and weapons procurement. It has also aimed to reinvent the forces politically by constraining Hamas and its armed wing, curbing Fatah-allied militants through co-optation and amnesty, cracking down on criminals, and conducting security campaigns, particularly in Nablus and Jenin. These forces became known as Dayton’s forces in reference to Keith Dayton, the US lieutenant general who led the PA military establishment’s ‘professionalization and modernization’ process. Local and international human rights organisations have accused these reformed forces of human rights violations and of suppressing freedoms.
The current phase has further entrenched the predominance of Israeli security interests at the expense of the Palestinians. Disarmament and criminalisation have impaired popular resistance against the occupation, including peaceful demonstrations and marches, advocacy against Israel’s violations of human rights, and student activism. Today, PA security forces largely protect the security of the occupier and not that of the occupied. In short, the security of Palestinians has been jeopardised because their own leadership has been subcontractedto repress them. The post-2007 security reform agenda has thwarted Palestinians’ national struggle, their resistance movement and their everyday security, and has subverted the very functioning of Palestinian politics.
To understand the magnitude of the security coordination enterprise, it is useful to note that the Palestinian security sector employs around half of all civil servants, accounts for nearly $1 billion of the PA budget, and receives around 30 per cent of total international aid disbursed to the Palestinians. The security sector consumes more of the PA’s budget than the education, health, and agriculture sectors combined. The sector is currently comprised of 83 276 individuals in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including 312 brigadier generals, of whom 232 report to the PA and 80 to Hamas. In comparison, the entire US Army has 410 brigadier generals. The ratio of security personnel to the population is as high as one to forty-eight – one of the highest in the world.
Security collaboration between Israel and the PA has fulfilled the Oslo Accords’ objectives of institutionalising security arrangements and launching a peace process that is tightly controlled by the security sector in order to enable Israel to fulfil its colonial ambitions while claiming to be pursuing peace. This process of ‘securitised peace’ is manifested in a number of ways, including the PA security forces’ arrest of Palestinian suspects wanted by Israel (as in the recent case of Basil Al-‘Araj, who was arrested and released by the PA only to be hunted and eventually assassinated by the Israelis); the suppression of Palestinian protests against Israeli soldiers and/or settlers; intelligence sharing between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the PA security forces; a revolving door between Israeli and PA jails through which Palestinian activists cycle for the same offences; and regular joint Israeli-Palestinian meetings, workshops, and training.
Though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to suspend security coordination, he has at the same time declared it a ‘Palestinian national interest’ and a ‘sacred’ doctrine. PA security force activities and Abbas’s political manoeuvrings have created a deep gap in trust between the Palestinian people and the PA.
Indeed, multiple surveys over the years have shown that the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (between 60 and 80 per cent) oppose security coordination with Israel. In a March 2017 Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey poll, two-thirds of respondents demanded Abbas’s resignation, with 73 per cent expressing the belief that Abbas was not serious in his threat to suspend security coordination with Israel. In a 2010 Maan News Agency poll, 78 per cent of respondents said they believed that the PA security forces were engaged in surveillance, monitoring activities, and intervening in people’s privacy. Finally, according to Visualizing Palestine, 67 per cent of West Bank Palestinians said they felt they were living in an undemocratic system that cracked down on freedoms in large part as a result of the security realm.
Negative public perceptions about security coordination are fuelled by lived experiences – from which elites are often spared – as well as by official rhetoric and the contents of the leaked Palestine Papers. For instance, Keith Dayton remarked in 2009 that senior IDF commanders had asked him, in regard to the Palestinian security forces he was training, ‘How many more of these new Palestinians can you generate, and how quickly?’ He also said a senior Palestinian official addressed a graduating class of these ‘new Palestinian men’ in Jordan, saying, ‘You were not sent here to learn how to fight Israel…you were rather sent here to learn how to keep law and order, respect the right of all of our citizens, and implement the rule of law so that we can live in peace and security with Israel.’ And in 2013, in a speech before the European Parliament, Israeli president Shimon Peres stated: ‘A Palestinian security force was formed. You and the Americans trained it. And now we work together to prevent terror and crime.’
While security coordination between Israel and the PA has been cemented since the Oslo Accords, the status quo is not a foregone conclusion. However, change will be difficult to achieve, as the system has created a segment of Palestinian society that will seek to maintain it. This segment is composed not only of security personnel in the West Bank and Gaza, but also of those Palestinians benefiting from institutional arrangements and a network of collaboration and domination. The status quo is beneficial for them, and ‘stability’ is their mantra. They are committed to an approach that privileges the political, economic and security elite, and they have no incentive to reverse the rules of the game.
Any attempt to halt security coordination would thus have real consequences for the PA and its leadership. Yet the perpetuation of the status quo is destructive for the majority of Palestinians living under Israel occupation and for the Palestinian people at large. With the crushing of the ability to correct political wrongdoing and hold elites accountable, business as usual will likely continue. Security coordination will remain a defining feature of the skewed reality that favours the occupier if action is not taken – soon.
The entrenchment of the PA security establishment requires policy interventions at multiple levels, from correcting biased rhetoric to establishing accountability mechanisms. The following recommendations, addressed to different stakeholders, propose an overhaul of the PA security forces’ operations and structures.
The Palestinian Authority
The PA must listen to Palestinian people and respect their wishes and aspirations, including in the security domain, otherwise the legitimacy and trust gap will grow larger. There has never been an inclusive Palestinian political system, but a more responsive, representative, and responsible leadership would ensure that the security of Palestinians, rather than that of their occupier and coloniser, is a core concern. An authentic security sector, as Tariq Dana has argued, would mean an end to the ‘focus on internal policing known as the “Dayton Doctrine”’ and ‘a program that demands accountability and justice be put in place’.
As Hani Al-Masri has elaborated, this would require gradual but firm steps to eventually freeze or suspend security coordination, including: ending Palestinian security apparatus intervention in political issues; reducing security allocations in the annual budget; disbanding parts of the security apparatus and restructuring the remainder, with an emphasis on professionalism, patriotism, and freedom from political nepotism; and instructing the security apparatus to resist raids by Israel in the West Bank’s Area A.
Although the PA still argues that the current security arrangements and division of labour serve the two-state solution, the relentless Israeli colonisation of Palestinian land means that the PA and its leadership must reassess their function. The looming threat of annexation should push the PA to take action before its role solidifies as a subcontractor to the Israeli occupation.
Palestinian Civil Society
Palestinian civil society organisations, especially human rights organisations, must form more effective coalitions and intensify their efforts to hold the PA and its political and security leadership accountable for their human rights’ violations. In the absence of institutions that perform checks and balances, pressure that goes beyond writing and publishing reports (though this in itself is an important act) is urgently needed. In other words, Palestinian civil society organisations need to develop practical actions that confront the PA’s continuous rights’ violations.
These civil society actors, including academic institutions, public intellectuals and think tanks, must also address the PA’s discourse in which Palestinian resistance is reframed as criminal insurgency or instability. Israeli and international actors who use this discourse should also be confronted. Civil society must embrace and operationalise resistance rather than see it criminalised, and view it as an all-encompassing way of living under occupation and in exile. Resistance as a way of life can help to reverse how the political and security elite currently portray it. Resistance can then ensure the restoration of the core values and ideas that enable Palestinians to engage collectively to realise their rights.
External actors, particularly security bodies EUPOL COPPS and USSC, need stringent scrutiny from civil society, both within Palestine and in their home countries. They cannot continue to dominate the security realm without accountability or transparency. By promoting the rule of law in an authoritarian context, these bodies contribute to the ‘professionalization’ of authoritarian practices by (ab)using a good governance framework. Their claim that their mandate is ‘technical’ enables them to evade the political results of their operations and interventions. After a decade of operation, it is time to conduct an independent Palestinian-led evaluation of these bodies and use that as an accountability mechanism to reform these erstwhile ‘reformers’ and decide on the way forward.
Donors and the Donor Industry
In a context highly dependent on aid, the supremacy assigned to securitisation and militarisation extends to the realm of development. Policymakers in donor states and Palestinians who facilitate donor programmes should address how ‘securitised aid’ has transformed a liberation movement into a subcontractor to the coloniser, and has resulted in authoritarian tendencies that favour the security establishment at the expense of sectors such as health, education, and agriculture, as well as at the expense of democracy.
Moreover, in Palestine, securitised aid and development have not only failed to address poverty, unemployment and empowerment, but have also created new insecurity and illegitimacy. Development planners must acknowledge that these patterns will never be reversed unless people, and not the security establishment, drive actions and are the constant reference point.
All these actions are the duty of the Palestinian people, especially when policymakers do not represent them and their aspirations. Palestinian society needs to confront the tools used to repress its mobilisation and organise in order to ensure the realisation of its fundamental rights. The non-factional youth-led initiative End Security Coordination that emerged in the aftermath of Basil Al-‘Araj’s assassination in March 2017 represents an example of such mobilisation. In their call for action, the group stated
'Our people have struggled for too long for us to stand idle while repressive leaders barter our oppression and dispossession for their personal gain…We are approaching 30 years since the Oslo Accords that transformed what remained of our land into open air prisons administered by unrepresentative PA officials who have hired themselves out to be our colonizers’ first line of defense…The Oslo regime does not represent us. Now is the time for us to come together and rebuild our collective struggle for the liberation of all of Palestine.’
If such organised resistance can continue and increase, pressure from the people may be able to change the trajectory of PA-Israeli security coordination, rendering Palestinians better equipped to work toward self-determination and the attainment of human rights.
* Alaa Tartir is the Program Director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, a Research Fellow at the Centre on Conflict, Development, and Peacebuilding (CCDP), The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID), Geneva, Switzerland, and a post-doctoral fellow at The Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).
** This article was first published by Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network
By Maren Mantovani
By defending their national rights the Palestinian people have defended the rights of all revolutionaries in the world and the blood spilled by their sons is like the blood of our peoples. (Fidel Castro, 23 August 1982)
Fidel Castro’s passing has been for many a moment of reflection on Cuba’s past and present. We want to revisit here the Cuban revolution’s contributions to peoples’ struggles across the globe and to the Palestinian people in particular. Firmly convinced about the necessity of internationalism, Cuba played a key role in strengthening concepts of solidarity, bringing peoples together and supporting liberation struggles all over the Americas, Africa and Asia. For the Palestinian people, Cuba has been an important ally for decades and the gateway to the liberation movements in Latin America.
Today, as many movements around the world are grappling to understand, redefine and practice contemporary and effective forms of internationalism and solidarity, a look at this history and at present-day efforts may help to identify new inputs to shape global connections among peoples.
Palestine and Cuba’s Tricontinental Conference
In the first decade since the Nakba ('catastrophe' in Arabic), when Israel’s formation in 1948 meant the expulsion of the majority of the Palestinian people from their homeland and the transformation of the Zionist movement’s settler-colonial aspirations into a state based on apartheid, ethnic cleansing, occupation and aggression, the Palestinian people had two central tasks to complete. On the one hand, they had to organise resistance structures; on the other they had to create awareness about the existence, rights and motivations of their struggle, countering at the same time the notion that expelling the Palestinian people from their homeland and creating a new colonial regime on Palestinian land could somehow be justified as reparation for the Nazi holocaust. In less than a decade the PLO achieved an incredible feat – establishing concrete and solid relations with peoples, governments and movements from Asia to Latin America. The efforts of these years ensured that until today a large majority of the world’s governments support Palestine, even if only nominally during UN voting sessions. This would have been impossible if not for the support of some of the leaders, governments and movements that shaped the world in those days.
Arab leaders, most importantly the Egyptian president Jamal Abdel Nasser, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and the leadership of the People's Republic of China were among the first to help put the Palestinian cause on the agenda of the Non-Aligned Movement and socialist countries, elevating it to a central struggle embodying anti-colonial and anti-imperialist aspirations. Their support ensured strong ties with Asia. Palestine’s breakthrough in Africa started with support from Nasser and Algerian prime minister Ahmed Ben Bella in the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Founded in 1963, the OAU was central in supporting African liberation movements against colonialism. The existence of close ideological, military and economic ties between apartheid South Africa and Israel, both using apartheid as a framework to preserve a settler colonial regime in the twentieth century, and direct relations between the African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) strengthened support for the Palestinian people throughout Africa.
The Palestinian people’s entry to Latin America was largely due to support received from Cuba, in particular during the Tricontinental Conference held in January 1966 in Havana. The Palestinian people played an often forgotten role in the construction of this historic event, which brought together more than 500 representatives of eighty-two delegations. Linking the experience of the Non-Aligned Movement and socialist and national liberation struggles in the global south, it bridged the geographic and ideological divides between revolutionary movements in Latin America and African and Asian anti-colonial struggles and governments. Amongst the delegates were leading figures such as Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende and Amilcar Cabral. It was in fact in Gaza that the celebration of a tricontinental conference was agreed upon. In 1961, the Palestine Committee for Afro-Asian Solidarity hosted a meeting of the Afro-Asian Solidarity Organisation, linked to the Non-Aligned Movement. The meeting, held in Gaza as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinian and Arab people, made significant steps forward in the construction of the Tricontinental Conference.
The First Tricontinental Conference opened up Latin America to the Palestinian liberation movement. A sizable delegation of Palestinian representatives from various PLO factions participated and presented the case of Palestine. They forged solidarity ties and further developed their understanding of Latin American struggles.
Defining solidarity: The tricontinental spirit
Once gathered in Havana, the delegates developed what became known as a ‘tricontinental spirit’. They were imbued with a sense of urgency to form, in the words of the conference declaration, a unique alliance against the ‘system of oppression and exploitation of colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism’ and to devise effective forms of cooperation. At the time, debates on solidarity centred on the Vietnamese people’s resistance; however, the Palestinian struggle had an outstanding place even then. The Tricontinental Conference’s final declaration called specifically for ‘solidarity of all peoples with the Arab people of Palestine in its just struggle for the liberation of its homeland from imperialism and Zionist aggression’. Just as the Palestinian cause was a fundamental part of the tricontinental spirit, the PLO considered its struggle a part of global anti-colonial and anti-imperialist efforts. PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, in a 1969 visit to Cuba declared:
The alliance of the Arab and Palestinian national liberation movement with Vietnam, the revolutionary situation in Cuba and the People's Democratic Republic of Korea and the national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America is the only path to create a camp that is capable of confronting and triumphing over the imperialist camp.
In his letter to the Tricontinental Conference, Che Guevara pointedly stated: solidarity ‘is not a matter of wishing success to those who are being attacked’. This call for concreteness in action was a core element of the meeting. The encounters in Havana strengthened Cuban–Palestinian ties and set the basis for concrete cooperation between the PLO and liberation struggles in Latin America. Since then movements, such as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador, the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua and the Montoneros in Argentina, maintained close relations with the PLO. Latin American militants fought together with the Palestinian movements, and Palestinian movements trained and provided weapons for national liberation struggles in Latin America. The Sandinistas’ spokesperson Jorge Manda stated in an interview in 1979:
There is a union of blood for a long time between the Palestinian revolution and us. Many of the units of the Sandinista movement have been in Palestinian revolutionary bases in Jordan. In early 1970, Palestinian and Nicaraguan blood was spilled together in Amman and elsewhere during the Black September battles.
At the official, diplomatic level, relations forged and strengthened during the Tricontinental Conference yielded important fruits. Cuba became one of the most outspoken supporters of the Palestinian cause in international fora. Cuba co-sponsored UN Resolution 3379, which defined Zionism as ‘a form of racism and racial discrimination’, based on existing resolutions of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation for African Unity. During the 1960s and 1970s, many countries from the global south broke diplomatic ties with Israel. Already in the first years of the PLO’s existence, the Palestinian struggle became a symbol of resistance and inspiration for progressive, left and social justice movements across the entire global south and, by the end of the 1960s, the movement had built increasing ties in Europe and North America as well.
Re-encounters at Durban’s World Conference against Racism
Unfortunately, the 1990s saw a weakening, if not collapse, of many efforts to build global solidarity among peoples struggling against colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism. The collapse of the socialist bloc dealt an almost fatal blow even to the idea of non-alignment, and global anti-capitalist struggles faced dramatic challenges. US and European interventions broke down the last remnants of Arab nationalism. For the Palestinian people, the Oslo ‘peace’ process period mediated by the USA and Europe reflected a new paradigm: Left without almost any safe haven in the Arab world, and at the start of a decade where the West dominated a unipolar world order, Palestinian movements focused much of their international relations on western states.
However, by the year 2000 it was clear that no ‘Pax Americana’ would arise anywhere, let alone in Palestine: Military aggression, not only in the Arab world, continued to increase and, instead of creating a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, Israeli settlements had dramatically increased in the occupied West Bank, stealing ever more Palestinian land and resources, and accelerating ethnic cleansing policies in the Palestinian territories. In September 2000, yet another Palestinian popular uprising, the second intifada, erupted and was drowned in blood only in 2002 when when the Israeli forces conducted large-scale military operations in the occupied West Bank and began building an eight-metre high apartheid wall, stretching more than 700 km in length and encircling Palestinian villages and cities. Israel literally cemented on the ground its plans for a final status solution for the Palestinian people in form of a Bantustan system, akin to the South African apartheid regime’s attempt to contain the black population in isolated reservations. For many years, Gaza has been an open-air prison, while Israel continues inflicting ethnic cleansing policies against the Palestinian population in roughly sixty per cent of the occupied West Bank. The right of return of the refugees, which make up the majority of the Palestinian population, seems further away from implementation than ever, and Palestinian citizens of Israel suffer increasing racial discrimination and displacement. The Oslo period’s end has thus created an urgency to develop new strategies and recover fading alliances.
For Palestine, the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban came at the right time to bring back centrality to a global south country – South Africa – and to revive an almost abandoned argument on Zionism’s racist nature. The grassroots movement’s decision to define Israel’s infrastructure project as an apartheid wall must be situated within this framework.
The re-encounter with South Africa and its anti-apartheid movement’s legacy strongly inspired the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) issued on 9 July 2005 by over 170 Palestinian organisations from all across the historic homeland and the diaspora. Uniting all Palestinian political parties and major unions and networks, this call created once again a cohesive strategy for action at an international level. The rationale of the BDS call is basic: A capitalist and colonial enterprise will only survive as long as it creates profit. As a direct response to the failure of the US and European governments to ensure a just solution for the Palestinian people, the BDS call is a call to the people across the world who share a common goal of fighting injustice, oppression and exclusion. It is a call to governments that respond to the voices of their people or, at the very least, are not intrinsically beholden to Israel.
The context of a tricontinental spirit of the twenty-first century
Fifty years after the Tricontinental Conference, the context in which internationalism operates has changed dramatically. While Cuba remained a reference throughout this time, and the Palestinian struggle remained a global symbol of resistance, resilience and hope for social justice struggles, in most of the countries that at that time supported the Palestinian people, the celebration of neoliberal trade and investment agreements superseded solidarity ties. Movements that once stood side by side with the Palestinian people, and received Palestinian support and training, have in the meantime come into power and favour Israeli investment over historical legacies.
These shifts in positioning of national movements and governments reflect the demise of anti-colonial aspirations as an achievable aim for states as well as economic transformations. Never before in history has transnational capital had such sophisticated institutions and regulatory frameworks protecting and implementing its interests. This does not mean the end of the role of state power but shapes it differently in the face of transnational capital, which is deeply linked with national governments and state institutions. Over the last decades, this understanding permeated movements across the globe, and therefore, they began dedicating significantly more focus in their struggles to targeting these corporate structures and interests.
Another landslide shift occurred with the growing space held by ‘emerging’ economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America in terms of world trade and global GDP. In 2015, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) alone accounted for a total nominal GDP of 16.92 trillion, equivalent to 23.1 per cent of global GDP, equal to the EU’s share. The BRICS share in global exports rose from eight per cent in 2000 to nineteen per cent in 2014. Over the last decades, transnational corporations formed based on capital in the BRICS countries. This theoretically gives emerging economies much greater potential for economic and political leverage. However, in fact this development has in no way overcome imperialist and colonial structures: The peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America still pay the price for colonial and imperialist exploitation. Western states, including Israel, and their transnational corporations continue to reap the key profits from the system. The people in Asia, Africa and Latin America remain caught in proxy wars and brutally repressed whenever they rebel against the system. Israel in this context acts not only as an imperialist stronghold in West Asia but in the era of the ‘global war on terror’ has turned into the world’s most profitable laboratory and exporter of concepts and technology of repression and Orwellian systems of surveillance.
The Israeli military–industrial complex, which fuels and profits from Israel's wars of aggression and repression, has always been dependent on exports for its survival. Today it exports up to eighty per cent of its production. Between 2010 and 2015, eight of the ten major importers of Israeli weapons were in the global south, including India, Turkey, Singapore, Vietnam, Colombia and Brazil. In 2013, Israel exported almost US$4.8 billion worth of arms to Asia, Africa and Latin America, while only US$1.7 billion went to North America and Europe. Created after the 1967 war, the Israeli military industry’s first customers, which provided vital input to the industry, were Central and South American dictatorships that used weaponry to repress the liberation movements with which the PLO had cooperated since the Tricontinental Conference. Today, Israel continues to reap profits from repression and genocide in Latin America and beyond. In Rio de Janeiro, Israeli trainers pass on their knowledge to some of the most brutal police squads on the planet. Israel was directly involved in the Rwandan genocide. Security and military cooperation between India and Israel has exacerbated existing communal conflicts through anti-Muslim propaganda and provision of weapons and training to repress the Kashmiri movements in their quest for self-determination.
In addition, the global south is playing an ever-growing role in sustaining the Israeli economy via civilian trade. The 2008 economic crisis and victories of the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in Europe have both contributed to limiting the profits Israel can reap from economic relations with Europe. Over the last five years Israeli exports to the USA have shrunk by US$ 342 million, making the USA the Israeli market that shrunk more than any other in terms of net value of exported goods. Many EU countries have negative growth rates for imports from Israel as well. As a result, Israel’s financial establishment has looked towards the global south, especially Asia. Leo Leiderman, chief economist at Bank Hapoalim, stated: ‘Israeli exports to emerging markets account for about thirty-six per cent of total exports of goods, similar to emerging markets’ share of global trade...Asian markets, headed by its two giants, China and India, have paramount importance for Israeli export growth in the coming decades.’China is already Israel’s third biggest export destination and India the seventh. Both countries are currently negotiating free trade agreements with Israel. With 14.37 per cent of total Israeli imports (excluding diamonds) coming from China, Beijing ranks number one, even before the USA with 13.42 per cent, as a source of Israeli imports. The BRICS countries together are the source of 20.7 per cent of Israel’s imports. All BRICS countries have had rising annual growth rates of Israeli exports over the last five years. Today, Israeli exports to Asia exceed the value of exports to Europe. Among Israel’s top ten export items are medicine, cell phones, fertilizers and medical instruments – products for which Africa, Asia and Latin America offer huge markets.
Tricontinental solidarity today
This confers renewed tricontinental solidarity an unprecedented opportunity and responsibility. While these efforts and struggles cannot be disconnected from the struggles in North America and Europe the shared position and experience within Asia, Africa and Latin America defines a natural common ground.
One common ground can be found, as said, in the growing focus among social justice movements to hold transnational corporations to account for their infringements of people's rights. The struggles and victories of communities defending their lands and livelihood against mining corporations, such as Glencore International AG, mega-projects such as the Agua Zarca dam in Honduras, or multinationals destroying natural resources such as the struggle against Coca-Cola in India tell stories of popular uprisings successfully impeding, delaying or increasing the costs of construction and operations of transnational capital. Local protests, international pressure, legal struggles and efforts to defund these devastating projects by targeting the banks that give the loans to the corporations are shared tools developed by people to defend their rights and hold corporations and complicit governments responsible.
The Palestinian call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions – to stop impunity not only of the Israeli state but also of all corporations and institutions that profit from or sustain Israeli apartheid – mirrors such struggles. Victories against transnational corporations such as Veolia, which lost over US$20 billion in unsigned contracts and suffered several divestments from financial institutions before it quit operations in Israel, is one example. Another case in point is the growing number of victories against G4S. The global ‘security’ giant, now under pressure from movements across the globe, provides not only vital equipment for the Israeli prison system and military checkpoints but also is involved in mercenary services in Iraq and Afghanistan, and holds the security contracts to guard the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline against which indigenous people and social movements have launched a fierce struggle to defend their land and resource rights.
Probably the best example of how campaigns in support of the Palestinian struggle and its call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions target not only Israeli policies against the Palestinian people but also global structures of oppression is the ‘Stop Mekorot’ campaign. Israel’s national water corporation Mekorot is a key agent in the theft of Palestinian water, which simultaneously ethnically cleanses Palestinian communities by forcing them to abandon their living spaces due to lack of access to water and enables the colonisation of the land by Israeli illegal settlements, to which Mekorot provides water. Since it began international operations a decade ago, the company has profited from water privatisation across the globe. Its contract for a water desalination plant in La Plata, a province of Buenos Aires, which Palestine solidarity campaigners together with trade unionists defeated, highlights not only that the project violated the Palestinian BDS call but more importantly would have exported Israeli water apartheid to Buenos Aires, offering drinking water only to the rich districts and raising prices for consumers unnecessarily. In India, Israel’s proclaimed ‘support’ to the agricultural sector upon closer inspection also comes at a high to cost small- and medium-sized farmers. Israeli Elbit Imaging, for example, has been involved for many years in largely failed and damaging dairy projects, importing foreign breeds in order to industrialise and concentrate the sector under the control of large-scale agro-business enterprises. A report by the Global Forest Coalition on these practices tellingly concluded that: ‘Instead of blindly promoting foreign breeds, the government should support livestock keepers in improving their animals’ food, water and other conditions. The success of the Indian Gir breed in Brazil could provide some inspiration in this regard.’  Movements across the world are finding similar ways to target the oppressor, which unsurprisingly often end up to be the same – controlled by the same capital or employing similar methods.
Especially in the last decades, movements have tried to build new spaces in which to exchange ideas and experiences – ranging from the Intergalactic Encounters initiated by the Zapatista movement to the World Social Forums and other global campaigning networks, such as the Global Campaign to Reclaim Peoples Sovereignty, Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity. Yet, though we are all aware that only when we unite across the globe we can win against a global system of oppression, we far too often get caught up in the emergencies, contingencies and needs of our own struggles to be able to spare the necessary time to question how we can go beyond wishing success for the similarly oppressed.
It is essential that we understand our struggles as a common cause in order to accumulate the necessary forces to stand up against a system, which today is ever more blatantly showing its racist, exclusionary and oppressive nature. From the occupation of Palestine, to the devastating warfare all over West and Central Asia, to the rise of the right from Argentina to India and even in North America and Europe – we urgently need to identify our common ground and how to bring our efforts together into a powerful movement for land and resource rights, equality, self-determination and governing structures that respond to the people’s needs.
Remembering Fidel Castro’s legacy means reflecting on Cuba’s central contribution to the development of internationalism; today it is our responsibility to build an effective internationalism of the twenty-first century.
* Maren Mantovani is the coordinator for international relations of the Palestinian Stop the Wall Campaign and the Palestinian Land Defense Coalition
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 The Israeli 'security' company ISDS, for example, since 1982, trained police and military forces for dictatorships in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and the Contras in Nicaragua. In the last decades it has entered the market of megaevents and holds a contract with the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. For many years, it has trained Rio de Janeiro's infamous military police to apply techniques in the favelas ‘just as we do in Gaza.
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 The case has become even more famous after the brutal assassination of Berta Caceres, leader of the movement opposing the dam, on 3 March 2016, but is definitely not the only example. For more see: de Boissiere, Philippa and Cowman, Sian (2016). ‘For Indigenous Peoples, Megadams Are “Worse than Colonization”’, Foreign Policy in Focus, 14 March. http://fpif.org/indigenous-peoples-megadams-worse-colonization.
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 (2015). ‘BDS marks another victory as Veolia sells off all Israeli operations’, BDS Movement, 1 September. https://bdsmovement.net/news/bds-marks-another-victory-veolia-sells-all-israeli-operations.
 (2016). ‘UN World Food Programme Drops G4S’ BDS Movement, 6 December. https://bdsmovement.net/world-food-program-drops-g4s.
 Richard Norton-Taylor, Britain is at centre of global mercenary industry, says charity, The Guardian, 3 February 2016,
 Steve Horn, Security Firm Guarding Dakota Access Pipeline Also Used Psychological Warfare Tactics for BP, Desmog Blog,13 September, 2016 https://www.desmogblog.com/2016/09/13/g4s-dakota-access-pipeline-human-rights-bp
 (2014). ‘The agreement with Mekorot in La Plata (Argentina) has been suspended!’ Palestinian Grassroots Anti-apartheid Wall Campaign, 7 March. http://stopthewall.org/2014/03/07/agreement-mekorot-la-plata-argentina-has-been-suspended.
 Khadse, Ashlesha (2016). Dairy and Poultry in India – Growing Corporate Concentration, Losing Game for Small Producers. http://globalforestcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/india-case-study.pdf.