Helga Tawil-Souri. Popular Communication. Volume 13, Issue 2. 2015.
This article examines the Palestinian cause’s relationship to globalization: how it has been represented, mediated, and co-opted since the 1950s, and how it echoed rhetorically, politically, and ideologically by different groups; and how these resulted in both wider attention and obscurity. Particular moments of the Palestinian cause are highlighted, beginning with the movement’s circulation within third world liberation struggles and anti-imperial movements, which thrust the Palestinian struggle to prominence in contemporary history and across media platforms. By the 1980s, Palestine became deployed as an unresolved system of imperialism, and as media attention expanded the result was an abstraction of the struggle’s anti-colonial origins. This tension of attention and abstraction is discernible in contemporary solidarity movements on human rights and social justice. The article concludes that as the cause continues to gain universal traction, the core political issues are rendered distant and mediated spectacles.
A Universal Cause, an Array of Causes
At the plenary session of a conference to end Israeli occupation held in Brussels in 2004, French philosopher Etienne Balibar (2004) declared the Palestinian cause as universal and universalistic, explaining: “the Palestinian cause is an urgent one, a universal political cause, in the defense of democracy, but it is also a complex one.” Balibar’s comments were neither the first made by an academic in support of the “Palestinian cause,” nor were they the first to suggest the cause universal and linked to an issue larger than itself—in this case, the defense of democracy. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Palestinian cause was equally framed as universal: a struggle for national liberation that was part and parcel of anti-colonial movements across the Global South. Famous academics also made sympathetic statements. For example, British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1970) condemned Israel as an aggressive expansionist force in the region behaving in “the traditional role of the imperial power” (Abram, 2012).
The philosophers’ statements beckon unraveling: in being framed as a universal cause, and standing for issues such as democracy and anti-imperialism, do the demands of Palestinians become secondary? I argue that there is in fact a tension between being universal and simultaneously auxiliary, which becomes apparent in the traction the Palestinian cause gains among individuals, groups, and institutions whose proclamations echo similarities yet come from radically different ideological and political positions. Consider the two following statements of solidarity. One reads: “The Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone” (Lawrence, 2005, pp. 162-163). Another reads: “This is a human rights and social justice issue about which we all have to learn … so must we form alliances that show that our concern with social justice is one that will include opposition to all forms of state subjugation and disenfranchisement” (Butler, 2011). The latter was made by Judith Butler, the American-Jewish philosopher and gender theorist who has been an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights. The former statement is by Osama bin Laden in a 2001 letter titled “To The Americans” in which he ties Palestine to an Islamic sense of responsibility and uses it as a rallying cry for jihad (Lawrence, 2005, pp. 3-14).
How is it that the plight of a few million dispossessed people has taken on such universal rhetorics? How are global jihad and queer rights, anti-imperialism and the defense of democracy connected to the Palestinian cause? Can a cause be universal and address its own internal needs? What roles have globalization and media played in these processes? My aim here is to answer these questions.
The Palestinian cause is an interesting object of analysis. Stemming from a conflict that dominated the second half of the 20th century, it remains at the forefront of the world’s geopolitics and includes in its orbit various ideological positions. The Palestinian cause has been global and globalized since its beginnings. For one, world systemic structures have played significant roles in creating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the ensuing “Palestine problem”: from Ottoman and European imperialism to the Holocaust, from the promise of a Jewish national homeland by the British to the United Nations (UN) giving birth to Israel. It has remained intertwined in global geopolitics from Cold War politics to the rise and fall of pan-Arabism, from Islamism and Islamophobia to the Global War on Terror, among myriad other geopolitical realities. In fact the endurance of the cause helps garner more support which paradoxically distances solutions on the ground. This tension highlights a fundamental problem of a global cause: it gains traction through global media, it circulates more widely and garners various forms of support, in the process it becomes more abstract and those originally implicated gain little.
Palestinians comprise the longest-standing refugee community in the contemporary world: more than 11 million Palestinians are sprinkled around the West Bank, Gaza, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and farther afield. Many refugees do not have citizenship, and Palestinians who are nationalized (in Israel or Jordan for example) often have a lesser form of citizenship. Despite decades of attention and negotiations, there is no Palestinian state on the horizon nor any resolve to those in exile. The cause is equally global because the question of Palestine cannot be separated from Zionism, Israel and their own global inter-connections. Even on theoretical grounds, the cause contends with transnationalism, statelessness, exile and diaspora, and international relations, for example. Finally, it is also global because the conflict itself garners overwhelming media attention. Media increases support and opposition; it equally renders the issues distant and mediated spectacles, thus making the cause more easily “co-optable” by others and in the process “hollows” the cause itself. Whether embraced in a fight for democracy or incorporated into global jihad, Palestinians become bystanders to their own cause.
As the Palestinian cause has shifted over decades from one of national liberation to one of human rights and global justice, it demonstrates how any claims of solidarity are expressions of particular interpretations of symbols and history in a shifting geopolitical and media landscape. My interest is to map various claims made around the “Palestinian cause” and their circulation in the international arena. In other words, I examine the cause’s relationship to globalization: how it has been represented, mediated, and co-opted; how it has been made to echo rhetorical, political, and ideological movements throughout various eras, with the bittersweet result of wider attention and obscurity.
From the Arab World to the Third World to the West
Palestinian (global) solidarity must be understood within the historical global context in which it emerged. In what follows, I highlight its trajectory from the Arab world through “Third World” movements and eventually the West.
In the Arab world, the Palestinian cause has been central since its creation because of the obvious geopolitical human repercussions in the region. A resolve to the “Palestine problem” was initially crucial to the countries that fought in the 1948 war and received large number of refugees (e.g., Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq). As more Palestinians sought refuge and work across the Gulf and North Africa, and as the Arab-Israeli conflict was embroiled in larger geopolitics, there was no space in the region which remained “untouched” by the conflict. In the official realm, responses ranged from boycott of Israel and financial support of Palestinians to mere lip-service, and more often than not the “instrumentalization” of the cause in order to deflect popular attention from regimes’ own internal problems, repressive policies, or duplicitous politics. With the exception of the height of pan-Arabism—from the 1956 Suez Crisis to the 1967 War—there has not been unanimous consent on Palestine in the region. On a popular level, however, the plight of the Palestinians and the struggle toward a Palestinian state is one with which the majority of Arab populations sympathize.
Many historical events invigorated the cause’s formalization, particularly the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964 and the anti-colonial and national liberation movements across the Third World. In enlarging the Palestinian cause from a regional to a global solidarity movement, the 1967 war was the watershed moment. The Israeli defeat of Arab forces and consequent Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank (and at the time also the Golan Heights and Sinai) created a sense of Arab loss and malaise that reverberates into the present. While there were already signs of internationalization on the part of Palestinian freedom fighters prior, 1967 propelled them towards a wider geography.
The 1960s and 1970s saw increasing political interconnectivity during which universal concepts of (national) liberation and human rights were foregrounded in battles across the world. The PLO failed in many of its goals (most notably creation of a state). But it was nonetheless successful and visible on the international stage: it was the first liberation group granted observer status at the UN and received recognition from dozens of states and regional organizations (Chamberlain, 2011). The PLO’s successes evolved by drawing parallels with resistance struggles across the world and tapping into an international politics of anti-imperialism, national liberation, and human rights. This provided Palestinian liberation fighters access to material, political, and ideological resources. “By casting themselves as liberation fighters, the guerrillas were able to access networks of international support emanating from revolutionary centers […] and to become a focus of the international press” (Chamberlain, 2011, p. 26). This was not simply a posturing strategy; the Palestinian fedayeen really were liberation fighters and revolutionaries whose stories and leaders circulated throughout Third World networks.
This bearing toward the Third World would have a critical impact on the subsequent development of the cause, thrusting the Palestinian struggle to prominence in contemporary world history. In other words, the global appeal of the Palestinian cause is a product of its origins: the message resonated with the rest of the world because much of it came from the rest of the world. As it bore on so many international issues, the question of Palestine resonated across a radical political terrain that, by the latter decades of the Cold War, stretched across the globe.
Media were critical in this circulation in at least three ways. First, as a national liberation movement, fedayeen were exposed to Third World politics through a radical literature that circulated through the international system. Palestinian fighters applied the principles of Franz Fanon, Mao Zedong, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Che Guevara to their own liberation struggle and were key in translating their texts into Arabic. The PLO embraced a vision of “Third Worldism” that placed issues like human rights, justice, and national liberation as core priorities. Public diplomacy efforts in the UN, the Conference of Non-Aligned States, and the Organization for African Unity spoke to an international audience. For example, in 1968 a PLO member addressing the UN Conference on Human Rights argued for the universal validity of the concept of human rights and social justice and the need for action to put these ideals into action. The PLO saw itself as a movement struggling to achieve the same ideals that formed the basis of the (1948) UN Declaration on Human Rights.
Second, fedayeen began producing media that circulated back through networks connecting Algeria, Cuba, China, Vietnam, and others—initially in Arabic, and later in a variety of languages. Their media were initially intended for military and political training, indoctrination, and news whose target audiences were Palestinians in refugee camps, the occupied territories, and elsewhere. But Palestinian and broader Arab populations represented only a third of the audience for the PLO’s public information apparatus. Public materials appeared in English and French, obviously aimed at broader communities. It was during this time that Palestinian political groups also formed a “revolutionary cinema unit,” drawing on Latin American Third-Worldist film theories. As much as fedayeen pulled from a transnational discourse of human rights and anti-imperialism from Vietnam to Bolivia, their stories circulated back to Havana, Angola, and elsewhere. A huge body of political posters for example emerged drawing from Communist aesthetics and anti-imperial discourse published in Vietnamese and Chinese as much as in Arabic and French. Designed to foster support for the struggle, these publications found their way to news offices and progressive groups around the world.
Third, these multilingual and multigeographic circulations made possible even wider foreign support which incorporated the Palestinian cause into foreign poetry, literature, and films. Two well-known examples include the French poet Jean Genet and film-maker Jean-Luc Goddard. Based on his time in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan in the 1970s, Genet’s memoir, Un Captif Amoureux, captured a foreign audience beyond those in political solidarity. He would later bring attention to the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in his poem “Quatre Heures a Chatila.” Godard’s 1976 film, Ici et Ailleurs, based on footage taken in 1970 among refugees and fedayeen also gained widespread notoriety which continues until this day.
Arab and Third-World support was largely, if not exclusively, secular in nature, taking on overt leftist positions. While these often condemned Israel as an imperialist/colonialist state, the discourse inevitably included racial and capitalist oppression and thus discursively and materially launched the cause beyond its initial ambit. By the 1970s and 1980s, Palestine was connected through both genuine and specious identification with a range of causes: the globally oppressed, exploited workers, Nation of Islam, Black Panthers, Nepalese Maoist Group, and Communist Party of India, among many others.
By Way of Failure and Islamism
As Third World countries gained independence and the global left began to dissolve, the Palestinians were left behind. The strongest legacy of the national liberation days would be the media-terrorism spectacles that Palestinians became notorious for: airplane hijackings and the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. In these, foreign media played a prominent role in framing Palestinians (often in conflation with Arabs or Muslims) as quintessential terrorists. This image would prevail from John Le Carre novels to Hollywood films (see McAlister, 2005). It would be a vestige of revolutionary days that Palestinians contended with for decades to come.
For those who did maintain solidarity, Palestine came to represent the unresolved legacies of colonialism and failures of modernity in the shifting global order. The result was that Palestine was adopted by groups who saw themselves struggling against ongoing (even if changing) forms of imperialism. One of these movements emerged in the sphere of Islamism while the other (re-) emerged in (quasi-)left movements. As much as Islamist and leftist groups exist on opposing ends of an ideological spectrum, both would come to deploy Palestine metaphorically as the unresolved symptom of (Western) imperialism. Herein, a new globalizing media landscape would play an even more prominent role.
By way of technological advancement such as satellite television and later the internet, media brought the plight of Palestinians into Arabs’ and Muslims’ living rooms from the 1990s onwards. The 1991 Gulf War propelled CNN onto the international media landscape, but it also showed Arabs the violence waged against their own people. About a decade later, Al Jazeera would play a similar role in exposing the West’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What had initially propped Al Jazeera’s popularity in the region was its coverage of the Second Intifada which erupted in 2000. The connections between the violence waged on Palestinians, Iraqis, and Afghanis was not lost on the region’s audiences. The Palestinian cause became one of the few issues that the majority of Arabs supported, no matter their politics, religion, or sect, in large part thanks to Al Jazeera’s coverage (Nawawy & Iskandar, 2002). This also allowed diverse ideological groups to deploy Palestine for their purposes.
The landscape of support among Arab and Islamic entities that emerged is complex. In many cases Palestine is used as a metaphor or trope. Bin Laden’s statements and practices are one such example: Palestine is not central to goals of Islamicization or global jihad but rather is used as mobilizing tool. Similarly, a range of Arab governments and leaders instrumentalized Palestine in order to camouflage their own unpopular and repressive regimes by attempting to focus citizens’ anger outwards—from Qaddafi to Mubarak, from Saudi to Jordan to Iran. Erecting a boundary between genuine support and intentional “instrumentalization” can be difficult. Hizballah is a case in point. Hizballah has its own agenda within Lebanon and vis-à-vis Shi’a politics connecting it to Syria and Iran. But Hizballah has supported the Palestinian cause since its inception because it was fighting the same “imperial power” of Israel. As its current leader, Hassan Nasrallah, put it: “The intifada in Palestine today is our front line, so that our support is not only an obligation but also a necessity” (Zisser, 2002). Even as Hizballah’s struggle with Israel ebbed and flowed, Nasrallah confirmed: “time does not cancel the legitimacy of the Palestinian claim” (Zisser, 2002).
With respect to Islamic and Islamist groups, the struggle against ongoing imperialism and colonialism was tied to anti-American and anti-Zionist rhetoric. Gaining momentum in the 1980s, through the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the spread of Washington-led neo-liberalism, propping-up of Arab dictatorial regimes, among other events, resistance to US-led imperialist globalization became framed as a struggle for Muslim pride and identity. The increased financial, military and discursive support on the part of U.S. administrations to Israel would only strengthen the connection between Zionism and “Americanism” in the eyes of its opponents. Herein, Palestine was often turned into a cipher for a larger and different cause: a self-fulfilling prophecy of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” hollowing the cause from its Palestinian fundamentals.
This form of solidarity, which rhetorically construed a narrative of Islamic solidarity threading through Palestine, betrays a misdirected fixation that contributes to generalizing, abstracting, and decontextualizing the Palestinian struggle. Such “rhetorical support” conceals power differentials and glosses over the particulars of the specific national contexts where they are invoked, whether Palestine, Saudi, or elsewhere. This is not accidental. Rather, the invocation of Palestine as a trope is symptomatic of a deeper problem: reconciling the validity of the nation-state with the concept of the Islamic umma. Thus, ironically, the global support of Palestine replicates problems integral to it.
Onto the West
Support for the Palestinian cause in the West experienced a different trajectory. Disjointed solidarity movements continued to exist starting in the 1980s. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, for example, claimed support and made parallels between the PLO and the African National Congress, stating in 1990: “We identify with the PLO because just like ourselves, they are fighting for the right of self-determination” (ABC News, 1990). Desmond Tutu would further make parallels between South African and Palestinian experiences:
I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory … I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government. (Weiss, 2010)
While a few others would connect apartheid to Israeli occupation/colonialism, by far the loudest supporters would be “leftists” whose roots lay in the 1960s and 1970s anti-imperialism movements—from anti-globalization groups to Latin American leaders. The result is that today supporting Palestine is synonymous with combatting contemporary (usually American) imperialism; Palestine becomes an emblem adopted against the new world order. For example, under Hugo Chavez, Venezuela strongly supported the rights of the Palestinians and condemned Israeli actions, twice expelling the Israeli ambassador to Venezuela (during the 2006 Lebanon war and the 2008-2009 Gaza war). Bolivia’s President Evo Morales similarly severed the country’s diplomatic ties with Israel. Chavez went on to stop Venezuela from issuing tourist visas to Israelis and called for Israel to be tried for genocide before the International Criminal Court. Similar “diplomatic” moves occurred again during Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza. These may be largely polemical moves, but nonetheless they show how Palestine is subsumed into larger causes.
The cause has equally been embraced by well-known leftists such as Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. Indeed, the World Social Forum meetings, and later the occupy movements, have been formative for the wider circulation of the cause. It becomes a “natural” extension to connect Palestine to apartheid, capitalism, globalization and other forms of oppression and thereby foster an even wider-ranging set of causes. Consider the recent example of the parallels made between the 2014 war on Gaza and the highly militarized-police response to demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing. Media texts, whether in photographs, news footage, YouTube clips of demonstrations, or otherwise, highlighted the similarities of a military-cum-police apparatus against a largely unarmed citizenry: violence against a dispossessed minority group is one and the same. What these examples demonstrate is that the Palestinian cause is partially a story of globalization. It is also a response to globalization. British Parliament member George Galloway perhaps says it best: “In the 1930s, working-class people across Europe rallied to aid the people of republican Spain […] The cry then was ‘Aidez l’Espagne!’ The call today should be: ‘Viva Palestina!’” (Bakan & Abu-Laban, 2009, p. 38).
Notwithstanding that there are of course parallels between the Spanish Civil War, anti-imperialist movements, Latin American “third worldism,” economic dispossession, racism, and others, these highlight how the Palestinian cause is rendered as a metaphor and at the same time how causes are “Palestinized.” Michael Hardt’s (2013) response to the latest crisis in capitalism demonstrates this: “Palestine is part of the global neoliberal order and how Palestinians suffer and struggle in ways that are parallel to those elsewhere.” There is no doubt that Palestinians are problematically part of the (global) neoliberal order (see Khalidi & Samour, 2011). But there remains a fundamental oversight here: Palestinians continue to be stateless, and either live under occupation (in the Territories), under an apartheid-like regime (inside Israel), or as personae non gratae (in refugee camps outside Palestine-Israel). Hardt (2013) continues:
The lives of Palestinians […] offer powerful examples of these subjectivities of crisis […] The conditions of the indebted, for instance, become more complex and harsher in the context of occupation, where the bonds of debt are intimately interwoven with the militarized security regime. An occupier can effectively control a population through debt and even make use, directly and indirectly, of the debtor/creditor relations among the occupied population. Like those elsewhere, of course, Palestinians do not passively accept their position as the indebted (or as these other subordinated subjectivities) as the simple reality of contemporary life. Instead, they take these positions as points of departure for struggles of liberation. Palestine is unexceptional, then, in the sense that it shares some of the primary axes of domination that characterize the current crisis across the globe. […] we can see Palestine and the struggles of Palestinians as exemplary—a lesson and inspiration for those fighting back around the world. (emphasis added)
There is an underlying contradiction here, which echoes the problems highlighted vis-à-vis the Islamic groups. The Palestine solidarity movement that has emerged in the West increasingly posits the conflict as both an exceptional and unexceptional problem of the world. This, perhaps unconsciously, takes away agency from Palestinians and simultaneously places a larger burden on them; as if the solution to their cause will bring down all other forms of oppression. Such a view also exhibits a proclivity for abstraction and sweeping generalization, and falls into depicting Zionism and Israel as an agent, outcome, or symptom of global structures of control and domination. This very same position is echoed in Islamist support, although with the major difference that Islamist solidarity underscores the Jewish character of Israel whereas “Western” movements resist conflation of Judaism and Zionism. Both, however, invoke justice for Palestinians as central for broader peace and equality (see Omer, 2009) and “Palestine” as both an anti-neoliberal and anti-Zionist movement; this is one way of seeing the “similarity” between proponents of global jihad and LGBTQ rights. As Bhattacharyya (2008) argues, “serving as a cipher for the aspirations and alliances of others brings greater attention to the Palestinian struggle, but this is achieved at the cost of bearing the symbolic burden of other struggles and issues” (p. 48). The result is not simply a rhetorical burden but a shifting away and hollowing of the very foundational problem of the Palestinian cause: Palestinians remain without a nation-state. By rendering their cause as one of democracy, human rights, anti-racism, anti-globalization, global jihad, or whatnot, the geopolitical needs of Palestinians become auxiliary. The discourse of human rights, which I turn to next, demonstrates this paradox.
The Problems of Human Rights
Multiple causes and strategies oriented towards different spaces end up flowing through Palestine. The reverse is also true: Palestine comes to reflect the norms of various political spaces and shifts of international political trends. But how does this impact the cause itself and the realities on (Palestinian) ground?
A number of events have catalyzed the emergence of a transnational ideologically driven movement focused on rectifying global injustice and inequality. These include, among others, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, the Zapatista Movement, environmental concerns, the devastation caused by the Asian Financial Crisis, the Battle of Seattle, and the trial of Pinochet, which brought to the fore questions of supra-national justice (Steger & Wilson, 2012). Progressive thinkers and activists have gradually developed and articulated a form of political ideology that is committed to social justice not at the national level but at the global level. For Palestinians, questions of human rights and global justice are not new. But the current landscape, in which national liberation and anti-colonialism seem altogether démodé and take a back seat to human rights, international law, and global justice, is a cruel joke on Palestinians (Allen, 2013).
Palestinians have reaped few, if any, benefits from the development of international humanitarian law and focus on human rights. Rather, what Palestinians “gained” in the 1990s was the Oslo Accords: a negotiated agreement between unequal partners that side-stepped all kinds of international treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (concerning the rights of Palestinian refugees), UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 (censuring Israel’s acquisition of territory by force), and the Fourth Geneva Convention’s limitations on the actions of an occupying power (King-Irani, 2006, p. 924). The result is that Palestinians have no means of defending and vindicating their rights as defined by international humanitarian law and conventions, and this is only for Palestinians within the Territories. Palestinians in exile have gained even less. The focus on rights and justice occludes underlying problems, one of which is Palestinian geographic fragmentation, which is itself a factor of being stateless. For Palestinians inside Israel, the question of “rights” reframes the problem into one of racism, multiculturalism, and democracy. In the case of the Territories, the question is no longer an end to colonialism but a move towards a “better colonialism.” Those outside Palestine-Israel are altogether dropped from the conversation. The more “Palestine” is enfolded into the global, the more political concessions are made, so that little of “global justice” is relevant to Palestinians. In other words, issues of rights and justice neglect the anticolonial principles at the heart of the Palestinian struggle.
The question of human rights, on the part of Palestinians, is largely a response to changing realities of the politics of humanitarian assistance and development in the West (Allen, 2013). The reality of transnational solidarity is that it responds to Western discourses and resources. Assistance and intervention must come from abroad. Palestinian groups have little alternatives. As such, one result is that Palestinian solidarity movements abroad deal almost exclusively with civil society groups and non-profits in the Territories who “fit the bill,” leaving many Palestinian groups and communities excluded (Qato & Rabie, 2014). These have real repercussions: refugees outside the Territories are not involved in any talk of solutions to the conflict; Gaza continues to be marginalized because Hamas is treated as a pariah terrorist organization; those with Israeli citizenship are treated as a multicultural problem; progressive and leftist groups are circumvented because there is little interest in them. Many Palestinians’ demands (or needs) fall in the void.
A related problematic of being global is that demands shift, and in a sense, shrink. What began as national liberation and the return of the refugee movement becomes “only” a question of individual human rights. The rhetoric of rights presents a decontextualized history vis-à-vis colonialism and national liberation. In crusading against pink-washing, for example, underlying structures of violence and dispossession are overlooked. This is not to say that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) rights are not important, but that the Palestinian predicament is more than a struggle for “minority” rights. Forms of solidarity or intervention that avoid the underlying structural problems which have created the very processes they are addressing, do not necessarily make things better.
The global dynamic of activism invites further question about the support of national liberation against the presumption on the part of global civil society of the diminishing significance of nationalism and national spaces. Transnational activism and its strategy of global framing point to changing topographies of human rights and justice discourses and belief of an inter-connected world based on a post-Westphalian perspective of nation-states. Variants of jihad Islamism, ecologism, and transnational feminism are obvious examples of how the global imaginary provides a frame of reference that destabilizes nationally-based ideologies and introduces new ideational formations assembled around the global. As Fraser (2009) has argued, activists who focus on trans-border questions of justice end up challenging the interpretation of justice as a domestic relation among fellow citizens within bounded territorial parameters. According to Fraser, the proper frame for theorizing justice becomes “who counts as bonafide subject of justice?” (p. 5, emphasis added). This global perspective suggests that justice and rights transcend nation-states and that nation-states are unnecessary—rights are about individuals in a global order. This framing leaves little room for the more structural question of where, which remains fundamental in the Palestinian case. As Schwartz (2007) argues, “the road to greater international solidarity cannot transcend the politics of the state, but, rather, must run through it” (pp. 131-132, emphasis added.) No matter progressive ideals about the end of the nation-state, it remains the “container” through which human rights and justice are protected; a privilege Palestinians do not have. The establishment of an independent state seems to harken back to an outdated, romantic ideal, displaced by concerns of human and individual rights on the one hand (such as LGBTQ) and expansionist ideological desires on the other (such as Islamism). But Palestinian communities themselves have not rescinded their national rights, claims, or anticolonial politics, on the simple recognition that the nation-state is far from dead. Ironically, this is the part of the Palestinian struggle that goes largely unacknowledged by various “supporters.”
Relatedly, the transformation of the Palestinian struggle into a question of rights imagines that Palestinians themselves can and should enforce these, further obfuscating “the mechanisms of sovereign states through which rights actually are secured’’ (Allen, 2009, p. 167, emphasis added; Allen, 2013). As Palestinian legislator and politician Hanan Ashrawi claimed in 2003: “[Palestinians] are the only people on Earth asked to guarantee the security of [their] occupier … while Israel is the only country that calls for defense from its victims” (Vlazna, 2014). A similar problem exists with movements universal in scope. Calls by civil society groups to pressure Israel to adhere to international law and base the Palestinian struggle on international law, for example, end up relying on bodies of law that emerged in order to regulate imperialism. The result is a “legalizing” of Israeli colonization and occupation since laws have no enforcement agents except for the states they regulate. As such, Israel can continue to act with impunity with little repercussions—whether in besieging Gaza, expropriating land for settlements, institutionalizing a hierarchy of citizens, or otherwise. Not only that, but as the last three wars in Gaza have demonstrated, law can be “tweaked” by the stronger power for its own protection, an arena in which Israel and the United States have much in common in their rendering and treatment of “enemy combatants” and “enemy territory” (see Weizman, 2012). The contemporary political concerns that focus more and more on the individual (in the question of human rights) and at the same time on the abstract and universal (in the question of global justice), burdens Palestinians “with the responsibilities of both plaintiff and police” (Qato & Rabie, 2014). In short, Palestinians are largely impotent in front of a modern-day form of imperialism.
The impact of globalization on social and political movements is multiple and ambivalent. The Palestinian cause vies in a continuously changing landscape that balances the group’s own goals (and shifts and contradictions therein, for no movement is ever homogeneous) and the goals of their chosen and not-chosen supporters (who are also full of contradictions).
The “Palestinian cause” is a paradox. The combination of internationalization and of global media attention has resulted in wide circulation with the added jeopardy of being “picked up” across various networks as a cause that can be tied to, added onto, or subsumed under other issues. The cause is an icon of oppression, colonization, neoliberal globalization, Islamophobia, and so on. As the cause garners more attention it becomes saturated by others’ attention in an ever-widening loop. Indeed, as Bhattacharya (2008) notes, “support for Palestinian human rights and self-determination has become the emblematic solidarity movement of our time. Palestine has become our Spanish civil war, our Cuba, our Nicaragua” (p. 46)—for the global left, Islamists, communists, human rights advocates alike.
This “magnetic pull” makes it appealing to a wide array of (opposing) groups. It simultaneously contributes to its withering. “Palestine” becomes reified, abstracted, and hollowed. It speaks to so many causes that the meaning of the cause itself—as it circulates globally—has become contradictory and atonal, reminding one of Mitchell’s (2000) poetic invocation of Palestine-Israel’s landscape as “freighted with so many associations and conflicting representations that it is a wonder that the earth’s crust does not buckle under their weight” (p. 199). It is a global cause in multiple ways, one which must deal with the tension of simultaneous expansion and abstraction.
A historical understanding remains imperative. In a political world whose framework is derived from the discourse of human rights and global justice, Palestine is a historical anomaly in fighting for national rights and national liberation. Yet the Palestinian struggle is the unfinished business of imperialism whose geopolitical historical roots are global. Thus, what is important to recognize is that its ongoingness renders it “attractive” to various other causes; in other words, the struggle’s “globalization” occurs in both space and time. This is not simply a question of representation and symbolism, but is based on the very real fact that what makes the cause universal is that its roots—of national dispossession—remain. The Palestinian cause circulates among geopolitical, ideological, and mediated registers that have gone through various transformations, from anti-colonialism to global justice, but the Palestinians themselves remain de-territorialized in very concrete ways. As such, unlike the Zapatistas, for example, the question for the Palestinian cause is not whether the cause should become globalized, but what the historically-specific modalities of globalization achieve, what contradictions emerge, and how to manage those into real (and territorial) action. Otherwise, the global cause remains hollow and Palestine withers.