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Source: Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA)
25 February 2014


There is general agreement that the current state of the Arab world warrants serious concern. Observers concur that the Arab countries appear to be at a development impasse, evidenced by persisting knowledge gaps, fragile economies and the prevalence of human injustice. But when it comes to the reasons for the status quo, or what it will take to change it, agreement gives way to heated debate.

This report, entitled “Arab Integration: A 21st Century Development Imperative”, suggests an alternative to the present predicament. Readers may wish to study its ideas and recommendations, take up those which they find relevant and reflect constructively on how to adapt others that may seem contentious. The report results from an ESCWA initiative conducted with a group of distinguished Arab thinkers from various schools of thought, occupations and regional backgrounds. What unites this eclectic group is a common belief in the role of the Arab world and a shared desire to protect its future. Its members firmly agree on the main aims and recommendations of the report, if not with every detail in it.


Arabs unite behind the Palestinian cause

Popular solidarity with the Palestinian cause has taken various forms. As with other instances of popular cooperation, it has also gone through several distinct stages.

Organized Jewish immigration to Palestine began in the early twentieth century and received a boost from the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which expressed Britain’s support for the establishment of a ‘national home’ for the Jewish people in Palestine. As the presence and political organization of the Zionist movement expanded, it encountered increasing resistance from Arabs across the region, at both official and popular levels. A groundswell of Arab support developed for the Palestinian people’s right to a State alongside the other Arab countries then seeking independence from mandate rule.

The Arab Revolt in Palestine (19361939) began with a general strike led by Haj Amin al-Husseini and soon turned into an armed uprising. Volunteers from many Arab countries, including Iraq, Jordan and Syria, joined ranks. A prominent military commander from Lebanon, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, became the general leader of the Revolt. Other notable Arab volunteers included Sheikh Ezzedine al-Qassam, Said al-Aas and Mohammed al-Ashmar from Syria. Later, in 1947, al-Qawuqji would be designated by the League of Arab States to lead the Arab Liberation Army, one of several forces that took up arms in the first Arab-Israeli War. Al-Qawukji commanded military operations and fought the famous battle of al-Malikiyah alongside the Lebanese and Syrian armies. But the military confrontation ended in defeat and Palestinians were uprooted from their homeland to make way for the State of Israel in 1948.

Arab popular opposition to the creation of the State of Israel was strong enough to draw Arab volunteers to the fight against British authorities and Zionist gangs in Palestine. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, the Palestinian cause would remain one of the most compelling examples of Arab solidarity in which official positions converged with popular ones transcending political and other differences. A shared sense of Arab identity, religious and moral obligation, and anger over the perceived injustices of the occupation were the main factors contributing to this solidarity.

Aside from direct military action, social groups, activists and associations took up the Palestinian cause in other initiatives. Solidarity with Palestine was at the heart of the first initiatives undertaken by women’s organizations and movements in Arab countries. The Arab Women’s Union in Jerusalem was established in 1928 and had close interaction with the growing popular struggle, leading to the Arab Women’s Conference in Jerusalem in 1929. Its most important decision was the rejection of the Balfour Declaration and Jewish immigration to Palestine that was meant to evict Palestinians from their homeland. The Conference has been considered the launch point for Arab women in the political sphere. Coordination among women expanded beyond the borders of the Palestinian homeland. Palestinian women maintained contact with Arab women activists and organizations in Egypt and other countries. This resulted in several conferences, most notably the Women of the Orient, which was organized by Huda Shaarawi from Egypt in 1938 in support of the Palestinian cause.4 This too was a key event in the course of Arab popular solidarity with the Palestinian cause, highlighting the central role of women in the national liberation struggle.

The 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) was subject to different political interpretations. National and community groups bitterly blamed contemporary regimes for not standing up to colonial policies, which prompted a series of political changes bringing nationalists to power through military coups, most notably in Egypt in 1952. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization was founded. The new Arab Governments that emerged during that period continued to declare their opposition to the occupation.

A crucial development took place during 1965 with the ascent of the feda’yeen (armed militants) under the command of Yasser Arafat, the charismatic head of Fatah, the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. A new phase of Palestinian resistance began with the emergence of an independent Palestinian national character and a surge in various forms of political, social and military struggle. This restored the concept of Arab nationalism, yet through a discourse different from that of traditional nationalist movements. New variations began to emerge within the Arab nationalist movement, resulting in the Marxists and leftists joining forces with the nationalists within the Palestinian resistance and in other Arab countries. In that period, a distinction could be drawn between government solidarity, on the one hand, and the solidarity among various popular movements on the other, with the latter growing more distinct from the former. As time went on, knowing how deeply Palestine resonated with the masses, rulers would begin to exploit the situation there to distract their people from their grievances at home.

These developments clearly shaped the nationalist and moral dimensions of the Palestinian cause, and those based on universal principles and values, namely the right to self-determination and rejection of oppression. That is why solidarity with the Palestinian people was not limited to the Arab region, but went far beyond to reach other countries across the world, especially after the Israeli occupation of the rest of Palestine and other Arab territories in the 1967 War.

As was the case during the previous phase, popular engagement in the Palestinian revolution was not just a matter of sentiment. From its first years, the Palestinian revolution attracted young men and women from various Arab countries, in particular those where the revolution had an organized armed presence. These young people enlisted as members equal to Palestinians. The feda’yeen had an aura in the late 1960s and early 1970s that attracted Arab youth: the freedom fighters represented the universal concept of struggle for justice. The militancy of the feda’yeen was seen as a revolt against harsh realities and a legitimate response to the complete denial of freedom. Other groups of political and social activists, motivated by humanitarianism volunteered to provide social and health services in the Palestinian refugee camps.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Palestinian cause became a major icon of popular resistance, standing alongside the anti-Viet Nam war movement and the guerilla struggles of Che Guevara. It was not unusual to see names like the latter’s adopted as pseudonyms by the feda’yeen and leaders of the Palestinian revolution. The Palestinian kufiyya (headdress) became a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. Solidarity with the cause emerged in literature, art, poetry, music, films and novels around the world, elevating empathy with the plight of Palestinians to unprecedented levels.

In 1987, the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) broke out, rallying considerable Arab and international popular support, given its spontaneous character and the courage demonstrated by the Palestinian people. Through civil and peaceful resistance to the occupation in the 1980s and 1990s, the first Intifada acquired a symbolic stature no less than that of the Palestinian cause during its armed struggle phase in the early 1970s. Among the most remarkable international solidarity campaigns were those against the construction of the separation Wall in the West Bank; the foreign-backed campaign against settlements and house demolition immortalized by the searing case of Rachel Corrie, the young American woman killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza while sitting on the ground to prevent it from demolishing a Palestinian house; international campaigns, particularly in Europe, to boycott products originating in Israeli settlements; and the freedom fleets which repeatedly attempted to break the siege of Gaza.

Arab popular and political movements have steadily opposed the naturalization of relations with Israel. Egypt, the country most concerned with this issue after Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel, took the lead in those efforts. Various forms of solidarity were exhibited in support of the Palestinian cause and against Israeli aggression during the siege of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah in 2002 and the war on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.

Remarkable Arab solidarity with the Lebanese people’s resistance was shown during and after the 1982 Israeli invasion. Second only to the Palestinian resistance, the Lebanese resistance was the most significant expression of a long struggle against the Israeli occupation, which resulted in the liberation of Lebanon in 2000 and, a few years earlier, in the defeat of the 17 May 1983 Agreement.5 The resilience of the Lebanese people and the Palestinian resistance during the siege of Beirut and in confrontations with the Israeli forces; the surge of the national Lebanese resistance on 16 September 1982; and the recurring episodes of Israeli aggression against Lebanon (the Seven-Day War in 1993, the April War in 1996 and the July 2006 War) all prompted wide Arab and international solidarity.


Liberation from occupation and foreign influence

The occupation of Palestine and parts of Syria and Lebanon is not, as some believe, an issue that concerns only those countries. Continued occupation not only threatens the freedom and well-being of all Arab people; it also violates international law and threatens world peace, contravening the international community’s obligation to “safeguard future generations from the disasters of war” as stated in the Charter of the United Nations.3

Such international legal instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights4 and the Charter of the United Nations prohibit the use of force by countries to occupy foreign territory, and protect the right to resist foreign occupation under the right to self-determination.

However, thanks mainly to the United States’ veto, the United Nations Security Council has so far failed to oblige Israel to respect international law and implement the various resolutions demanding an end to occupation and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Enforcing those resolutions has thus become a Palestinian and Arab responsibility. Through political integration, the Arab region could acquire the leverage to accomplish what Arab countries individually have failed to achieve in more than sixty years: an end to Israel’s occupation. Any solution must meet three conditions:

Box 9-1 Ilan Pappé: The ethnic cleansing of Palestine is a crime against humanity

“Once Plan D (D for Dalet in Hebrew) was finalized, it took six months to complete the mission. When it was over, more than half of Palestine’s native population, over 750 000 people, had been uprooted, 531 villages had been destroyed, and 11 urban neighborhoods had been emptied of their inhabitants. The plan decided upon on 10 March 1948, and above all its systematic implementation in the following months, was a clear case of what is now known as an ethnic cleansing operation.

Ethnic cleansing today is designated by international law as a crime against humanity; and those who perpetrate it are subject to adjudication. …And yet, when it comes to the dispossession by Israel of the Palestinians in 1948, there is a deep chasm between the reality and the representation. There is no doubt that the ethnic cleansing of 1948, the most formative event in the modern history of the land of Palestine, has been almost entirely eradicated from the collective global memory and erased from the world’s conscience.”

Source: Pappé, 2006, pp. 32-34.

Israel must implement the international resolutions demanding its withdrawal from all occupied territories and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

The terms of a political settlement should not contradict the rights set forth in human rights instruments and the Charter of the United Nations regarding non-discrimination on the basis of sex, language or religion.5

In other words, no discrimination against Christians and Muslims in Israel or against Jews in Arab countries can be permitted.

Any political settlement must be final if a return to conflict is to be avoided. That will only be accomplished when justice is achieved and historical facts and wrongdoings are acknowledged. A political solution may now be closer than ever, thanks in part to some courageous Israeli historians who have gone against their Government’s official version of history by clarifying the historical events that led to the creation of Israel, including the ethnic cleansing of Palestine (box 9-1). An official acknowledgement of this record would clear the air once for all, creating the conditions for a real dialogue on a just solution for ending the Israeli occupation.

The struggle against occupation and foreign influence are linked. Self-determination is impossible so long as Arab decisions are tied to foreign powers. Those powers will continue to interfere in the region so long as occupation remains. Through political integration, the Arabs can liberate occupied Arab territories and prevent further occupations in the future.

It will send a clear message that they can, and will, act as an independent regional bloc to secure their land and interests. That, in turn, would mark the first milestone towards self-driven Arab integration.


Chapter 6
4ESCWA, 2005, p. 33.
Chapter 9
3United Nations, 1945.
4United Nations, 1948.
5United Nations, 1945, article 1-3.

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