The history of the Palestinian revolution has long been overlooked, argues Karma Nabulsi, which is why she has gathered scholars together to design a new course
Part of the spirit of the age … Muhammad Ali visits Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, 1974
This is a year of fateful anniversaries for the Palestinian people: the centenary of the Balfour declaration, when imperial Britain promised to protect Palestinian rights, but abandoned them instead; 70 years since the Nakba (“disaster” in Arabic) began in December 1947, when the majority of Palestinians were dispossessed from their land, remaining refugees to this day; 50 years since the military occupation of the remainder of Palestine in 1967. Yet last year gave us the 50th anniversary of a radically different landmark: the Tricontinental conference of 1966, the “solidarity conference between the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America”, a moment that became a beacon for anti-colonial resistance across the world, and one that had the Palestinian revolution at its heart.
The largely unknown story of this revolution can now be studied at universities across the world, through a new online teaching resource available in Arabic and English. Covering the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the 12-week syllabus introduces intellectual debates of the time, revolutionary culture, organisational methods and key events, from the battle of Karameh in 1968 to Land Day in 1978. Filmed interviews take us into Palestinian revolutionaries’ first meeting with Che Guevara in 1960s Algeria, showing the links forged in that room.
Why has this history vanished from view? One reason is that most courses teaching the story of the Palestinian struggle today do so within the framework of the “Arab-Israeli conflict”: a story of two sides, endless wars, leaders’ decisions and negotiations (particularly their failures). Viewed in this way, the Palestinian liberation struggle – on Palestinians’ own terms – disappears. Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus of linguistics at MIT, has his own perspective on this story:
Not long after the 1948 war and the Nakba, I spent some time working on a Mapam kibbutz … One day I was working with an older kibbutz member in the fields, and noticed a pile of stones. He said it was the remains of a friendly Arab village, which kibbutz members had destroyed during the war. I visited some of the victims – in towns and refugee camps in the West Bank, in camps in Lebanon, and in Gaza … One family was living – surviving – in a small room in the camp, where my companions and I were regaled with stories of their idyllic existence not far from the kibbutz where I had stayed, and shown their greatest treasure, the key to the home that had been destroyed and to which they yearned to return … The trauma of the expulsions and massacres was still deep, but there were already signs of the resistance to follow.
A solidarity poster for the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1972
This teaching resource begins with that key missing period, the Palestinian resistance of the 50s, forged by the “Nakba generation” of revolutionaries. The aim here is not to find a balance between two opposing sides or narratives, but to examine the issue on its own terms, and its connection to a tricontinental resistance.
Raúl Roa Kouri, a former Cuban representative at the UN, discusses the movement’s ideological foundations: “Having fought for our definitive independence and sovereignty since the US military occupation of the island in 1898, Cubans have a profound understanding of the quest of the Palestinian people for freedom,” he says. “Cuba took this position early on, establishing relations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, granting scholarships to young Palestinians to study in our universities free of charge, attending to wounded revolutionaries in our hospitals, and lending all help possible to those fighting.”
For the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, to understand this international spirit is to understand the Palestinian struggle itself: “The Palestinian revolution was the last, it seemed, of the great anti-colonial struggles, rooted in a tiny strip of land and spreading to embrace everyone who loved freedom … The spirit of the Palestinian revolution was part of the spirit of the age – it shared features, characters, stars, art and music with the great civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements in the States, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. It was to do with freedom and dignity, and it was global.”
The course explores the complex common endeavours of anti-colonial revolutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Richard Falk, Princeton professor emeritus and former UN human rights rapporteur, recalls how his attachment to the Palestinian cause grew directly from his commitment to anti-colonial liberation: “I came to Palestine by way of Vietnam,” he says. “It was particularly challenging to me as a Jew and American, as it seemed evident that despite the struggle being mounted by the Palestinians … the global balance of forces was aligned in a manner increasingly blocking Palestinian efforts to achieve liberation.”
Scholars of the global south’s anti-colonial struggles have discovered that a collective and popular history is best transmitted through the experiences of the ordinary people who created it. The way that hundreds of thousands of disfranchised Palestinian refugees were mobilised can best be appreciated through the oral testimonies of young Palestinians recounting when and why they first joined the revolution. Writer and film-maker Tariq Ali describes how these stories drew him in, too: “My first encounter with Palestine was in the aftermath of the six-day war in 1967. I visited Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, spoke with survivors and activists in Beirut and Cairo, photographed children. Shaken by the experience, I read everything I could about Palestine. There wasn’t much.”
The greatest challenge is how to bring anti-colonial history into the western academy as a serious subject of study. For although histories of the injustices of colonial Africa, Asia and Latin America are beginning to find a foothold, there are very few accounts of anti-colonial resistance to those injustices, especially those carrying an element of revolutionary armed struggle – as did all the tricontinental revolutions, from Vietnam to South Africa.
Ronnie Kasrils, former military intelligence chief of the ANC’s armed wing, uMkhonto weSizwe, explains: “We South Africans fighting apartheid, and turning to armed struggle in 1961, had a special affection for the Palestinian people. We taught about the Palestinian struggle in our training camps; we read Palestinian poems and books; we had their posters on our walls. When we trained in Algeria, Egypt, the Soviet Union, our paths crossed, and we were elated to share similar stories.”
Yasser Arafat meeting the Girl Scouts of the Revolution, Lebanon, 1980 Photograph: Wafa News Agency/ Creative Commons
Introducing the Palestinian revolution through the eyes of ordinary people who “made their own history” offers a sharp revision of conventional views on those liberation decades. Gilbert Achcar, a professor at Soas University of London, reflects on how a history told by those who lived the experience is remarkably different from what is written by others, or written years later: “1968 marked a worldwide peak in youth radicalisation – a time when revolution was in the air. From the Tet offensive of the resistance to the US invasion of Vietnam and the beginning of the Prague spring in January … to the French upheaval of May-June … the first semester of that year created the impression that the revolutionary dream was about to come true.”
Robin Kelley, professor of history and black studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, says these historical lessons on solidarity and global resistance are still relevant to a new generation of students and citizens: “‘From Ferguson to Gaza’ is now a mantra among young anti-racist activists in the US. In the summer and fall of 2014, a wave of police killings of unarmed African Americans occurred … Palestinian activists were among the first to issue solidarity statements in support of the protests.”
What drives most of these acts of solidarity, Kelley argues, is empathy for Palestinian suffering and recognition of the common experiences of oppression. “This has become the basis for a renewed black-Palestinian solidarity that represents a departure from my formative experiences. For me, coming of age politically in the late 1970s and 80s, the exiled PLO was part and parcel of a third world liberation movement. Palestinians weren’t victims; they were revolutionary combatants, and thus models for those of us dedicated to black liberation ... How did we move from a solidarity rooted in the commonalities of resistance to one based almost entirely on the commonalities of oppression? How did we come to pit human rights against self-determination, as if it is an either/or proposition? To answer these and other questions requires a deeper interrogation of the global histories of the Palestinian and black liberation movements, and fortunately this project is dedicated to such interrogations.”
► The course is available at learnpalestine.politics.ox.ac.uk