After Trump’s Colonial Carve-Up, Western Sahara Has Risen Up

Hamdi Toubali

In one of his last acts as president, Donald Trump gave US recognition for Morocco's illegal occupation of Western Sahara in exchange for Moroccan recognition of Israel. It's unclear if Joe Biden will reverse the move — but the Saharawi population has now risen up against the occupation, refusing to let foreign powers dictate its future.

Saharawi troops near Tifariti, Western Sahara, awaiting the celebration of the 32nd anniversary of the Polisario Front. (Western Sahara / Flickr)

Interview by
Tony Iltis

When Donald Trump announced on December 10 that his administration was recognizing the legitimacy of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara in exchange for Moroccan recognition of Israel, it was the first time many people had heard of Western Sahara. This is despite the fact that less than a month earlier, on November 13, a three-decade-old cease-fire ended — and active hostilities between Saharawi liberation forces and the Moroccan occupiers resumed.

If often overlooked in Western media, the conflict dates all the way back to 1975, when the departing colonial power, Spain, made a secret deal for the sparsely populated country to be partitioned between Morocco and Mauritania. France was also part of the deal: as a former colonial power in both Morocco and Mauritania, it had a strongly neocolonial relationship with both.

The partition was resisted by the Saharawi liberation movement the Polisario Front. It had begun an armed independence struggle against Spain a few years earlier, declaring the independence of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The Polisario Front achieved a number of victories, their troops even reaching the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. Mauritania and Western Sahara have been at peace since 1978, and Mauritania, like most African nations and the African Union, now recognizes the SADR.

However, Morocco, whose powerful armed forces were augmented by an increased flow of arms from the United States, Israel, and other Western countries, in particular France, was able to seize about 80 percent of the country, including all of the coast, population centers, and resources. More than half the Saharawi population fled to refugee camps on the forty-one-kilometer-long border with Algeria, where they and their descendants still live. During the 1980s Morocco constructed, with Israeli assistance, a 2700 km–long wall and minefield separating the occupied territories from the liberated zone under Polisario control.

In this sense, Trump’s announcement changed little. While the United States previously withheld formal recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, this did not stop it from arming and training the military of Morocco, an unwavering US ally throughout the Cold War and the “war on terror.” Likewise, Morocco has had a close, if not entirely public, relationship with Israel for sixty years, including extensive “security cooperation” — to the detriment of both Saharawi resistance fighters facing Israeli-armed Moroccan occupiers and Moroccan dissidents assassinated in Europe with Israeli assistance.

Saharawis living in the occupied territories face much the same horrors faced by Palestinians and other people under occupation: violent repression as part of day-to-day life, extreme poverty, and social and economic marginalization. Moroccans have been encouraged to settle there, threatening Saharawis in the occupied territories with becoming a minority in their own country. Economic development is centered on resource extraction — mainly fisheries and phosphate mining — to the benefit of Western corporations and the closely intertwined Moroccan state and business elite. What local employment opportunities are created go mainly to Moroccan settlers.

Algeria has allowed the SADR effective control of the refugee camps on the border, where at least 165,000 Saharawis live. While this population experiences extreme material deprivation — there is no electricity grid or running water in the camps, little agricultural potential (it’s a desert), and virtually no economy — the camps are democratically run, highly egalitarian, and very socially cohesive. Cuban assistance has created a functioning health and education system, but UN food aid has not been adequate to meet nutritional needs. Remittances from Saharawi migrant workers in Europe provide a small source of cash income.

A clear parallel can be made between the “peace processes” in Palestine and Western Sahara. In both cases, the occupying power has had every incentive to drag out the peace process for as long as possible to cement their occupation through “facts on the ground.” Furthermore, in both cases this has been enabled by the Western imperialist powers — dubbing themselves the “international community” — acting as the supposedly impartial referees in the process while unambiguously supporting the occupying power. In the case of Western Sahara, Western maneuvers have allowed Morocco to prevent the referendum on self-determination that was the basis for the UN-brokered 1991 cease-fire agreement.

However, while the Polisario Front observed the cease-fire for twenty-nine years in the face of constant Moroccan violations, unlike the Palestinian leadership, they never made further concessions “to advance the process,” but insisted that for the process to advance, the initial promise — the referendum — needed to take place. Morocco has ruled out ever allowing a referendum. Its propaganda portrays the refugees in the border camps as hostages forced by totalitarian Polisario rule to oppose Morocco.

Girls playing with water at the Saharawi refugee camp in Dakhla, Western Sahara. (Western Sahara / Flickr)

In fact, when I visited the camps in 2011, I found a place where political discussion and debate was constant, and the Polisario Front were frequently criticized, but always for one thing: maintaining the cease-fire. Particularly among younger Saharawis, there was a growing feeling that the “peace process” was simply allowing the occupation to consolidate. The November 13 resumption of hostilities by the Polisario Front and SADR (after Moroccan troops attacked unarmed Saharawi protesters in a UN-administered border zone) indicates they have now drawn the same conclusion.

Early indications are that the Biden administration will continue Trump’s efforts to obtain diplomatic recognition for Israel from Arab states. Morocco has made it clear that their recognition of Israel is contingent on US recognition of their claims over Western Sahara, but there is some opposition to this within the US foreign policy establishment from those who believe that formally aligning with Morocco, in defiance of international law and UN resolutions, will weaken US influence. While SADR diplomats have expressed hope that Biden will reverse the decision, either way, they are no longer willing to suspend the liberation struggle for airy promises.

Hamdi Toubali is a Saharawi journalist, activist, and international representative of the Saharawi Youth Union (UJSARIO), the Polisario Front’s youth organization. He spoke to Jacobin about the effect of Trump’s Morocco-Israel deal, the reasons why the cease-fire collapsed, and the Saharawi people’s decades-long fight to decide their own future.

Tony Iltis

Since the resumption of hostilities on November 13, Morocco has sought to downplay the fighting. Many international media outlets seem to be following suit. What military activity has been happening since November 13, and why do you think Morocco has been trying to deny that fighting is taking place?

Hamdi Toubali

Morocco cannot admit it is at war with Polisario because that would give the ultimate blow to the main sources of its economy — tourism and the plunder of Saharawi resources. Morocco is now playing the card of the peaceful dove attached to the “cease-fire” and this whole narrative, while complaining to its main allies — not publicly, of course — about Polisario attacks, asking them to intervene to stop the “hostilities.” But, once Morocco understood that Polisario was serious about the armed struggle and that it was no longer concerned by the previous cease-fire, Rabat turned against Palestine and accepted Trump’s illegal deal, trying to create a new situation on the ground in which the United States and Israel are implicated directly.

As for the situation, since November 13 the Saharawi army has been targeting military bases along the Moroccan military wall and advanced posts in at least ten different regions in Western Sahara. The Saharawi Ministry of Defense indicated on December 14 that its units had launched around 189 attacks by artillery, mortars, and missiles on these bases since the resumption of hostilities a month earlier.

As for the international media, it has never been on the ground before, even when we invited it to come and cover Moroccan violations. I think that the Saharawi decision has been so far to focus on the liberation struggle. We are not interested in the selfie-type coverage that we have seen in many other conflicts during the past decade. I am sure that the Saharawi army doesn’t want any civilian casualties and will wait until it has full control on the ground before thinking of media coverage.

Tony Iltis

The cease-fire broke down after Moroccan forces attacked unarmed protesters in Guerguerat, Western Sahara; Saharawi forces had to intervene to rescue them, because the UN peacekeepers enabled the Moroccan action. So, what is the situation there now?

Hamdi Toubali

Guerguerat is just a tiny spot in the southwest of Western Sahara and is not an issue anymore. In fact, the Saharawi army is no longer targeting that area, because it doesn’t have any military importance compared to the major Moroccan military bases elsewhere along the military wall, especially in the northern regions like Mehbes, Farsia, and Hauza, to name only three main targets.

As for the cease-fire, it was violated by the Moroccans on November 13, when they launched a military operation against Saharawi civilians. The cease-fire is also redundant since the Moroccan army has opened breaches in the military wall, and in fact started building a new wall in the Guerguerat region. The old cease-fire is no more, and the UN Mission, whose mandate was to organize a referendum and watch over and prepare the necessary conditions for the cease-fire, is also irrelevant now because it didn’t fulfil either of these two mandates, and worse, the UN Mission was working with the Moroccans as “traffic police” in Guerguerat, trying to convince Saharawi civilians to break their peaceful and legitimate sit-in.

Tony Iltis

How has the UN reacted?

Hamdi Toubali

It didn’t react. It has been a passive observer for so long, not only because the Secretary General was not even able to appoint a new envoy since May 2019, but also because there were no negotiations at all. The UN has never denounced or even stood against the various Moroccan violations: violations of the cease-fire, human rights violations, and the massive plundering of natural resources.

Worse, the UN has been very passive in the face of Moroccan attempts to change the situation on the ground. Morocco has been organizing a so-called international event in occupied territories and convinced a few African states and Arab dictatorships to open illegitimate consulates there.

Now it is selling out Palestinians and the Palestinian cause for the shameful recognition of its illegal occupation of Western Sahara from the outgoing president of the United States — the most racist and ignorant president the country has ever had, a president that couldn’t even secure a second term in office. Really sad.

Tony Iltis

What is the mood and morale in the camps?

Hamdi Toubali

Very high! Everyone is happy about the resumption of the legitimate armed struggle. Everyone says that Saharawi people have given the international community thirty long years to implement their own international law. They wasted it and started trying to facilitate Morocco’s occupation. Now it is time for payback. We will make Western Sahara a real hell for the occupier, and it shall not exploit or profit from it as it did before.

Refugee camp in Tindouf, Western Sahara in 2006. (Jaysen Naidoo / Flickr)

All Saharawis are ready to volunteer for any task our liberation movement asks for. Young men and women came back from abroad to volunteer in the army, in other institutions, and for any task they can help with. It is really heartening to see young individuals abandon their businesses, their studies, and their comfortable lives in Europe to come back to the camps and go to the field of the battle in many cases, when the time for that came.

Tony Iltis

What, if you know, is the situation in the occupied territories? Has repression got worse since the resumption of hostilities? How do Saharawis in these territories feel about the resumption of armed conflict?

Hamdi Toubali

Repression in occupied territories has never stopped since 1975. In fact, during what many call “peace” in Western Sahara, there was no peace for Saharawi civilians in occupied territories. Every day they were killed, imprisoned, arrested, tortured, and disappeared. So basically, Saharawis were counting victims every day. It was only Morocco who enjoyed that “peace” — not paying its price.

The situation escalated notably a few weeks before the Moroccan violation of the cease-fire. Saharawi human rights defenders, such as Aminatou Haidar, to name just one, were put under house arrest, harassed, and threatened. Many young people, including children, were arrested and tortured and brought before Moroccan courts in some cases. So the human rights situation is still alarming.

A post of the Polisario Front in Western Sahara. (Wikimedia Commons)

Saharawis everywhere, especially in occupied territories, are very supportive of the position adopted by Polisario, and when the time comes they will participate in the struggle more and more.

Tony Iltis

The Saharawi side has said that it will cease fighting if given a referendum on independence. Given that the 1991 cease-fire promised a referendum, but the promise was not kept, what guarantees will be needed for a new cease-fire to be accepted?

Hamdi Toubali

If I understood well, I think that the main mistake the Saharawi leadership, if you will, was that they accepted the cease-fire before they could see an outcome. I think that now they have arguments to refuse any cease-fire. They may accept to negotiate and to deal with Morocco and the UN, but keeping their right to fight. So, I think that the situation would be different, and that the guarantee would be: “You give me peace, I give you peace! If you don’t, I will continue the fight the next day.”

Tony Iltis

Trump negotiated a deal whereby Morocco recognizes the Zionist occupation of Palestine in exchange for the US recognizing Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. What, if anything, does this change? Some other Arab countries have also recently recognized Israel. Some of these countries have also recently opened consulates in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Do you see a connection? What relations exist between Saharawis and Palestinians?

Hamdi Toubali

To answer all these questions, which are all linked in my opinion, I would say that “If the tree is tainted, so is its fruit.” Or as we say in an Arabic proverb, “All is wrong that is built on wrong bases.” First, Morocco has no sovereignty over Western Sahara, it is a simple illegal occupying force. Second, Western Sahara is not the property of Mr. Trump or the US or any other nation but that of Saharawis. Giving what you don’t own to someone who has no right to it is not legal and doesn’t make sense.

As for those countries that opened consulates in our occupied territories, they are all either failed states or, in the case of Gulf countries, dictatorships that have always supported Morocco’s war against Saharawis since the 1970s. They now need Morocco with them in the same basket of normalization as Israel to try to face the Arab world’s anger at their move against Palestinian rights. Legally speaking, Trump’s move has no effect and cannot have an effect. If, for any reason, the so-called international community give it any credibility, then that would create a precedent according to which any state could donate others’ property to any other state.

As for our relations with Palestinians, we believe that all peoples have an inalienable right to self-determination and that no country has the right to acquire other people’s lands by force. As Saharawis, we are fighting for the same rights as Palestinians and all peoples who are under occupation.

Unfortunately, a lot of Palestinian leaders have acted against Saharawi rights by supporting Morocco’s illegal occupation of our territory, but we have never answered them in a similar way. We hope that what Trump, Morocco, and Israel have just done will open many eyes in the Arab world and beyond.

Tony Iltis

What message to you have for people in Western countries?

Hamdi Toubali

The message is very simple: Stand for international legality and peoples’ rights! What are you waiting for? If you’re waiting until the fire of injustice and oppression reaches your backyards, it’ll be too late by then.

Unless people start to look at violations of other people’s rights as a direct attack against their own, I have no advice to give them. For those who still ask: Go to the streets and protest! Go to your representatives and protest! Go to your ministry for foreign affairs, to your prime minister, your media and TV networks, and protest against them! Why weren’t they unveiling the Moroccan occupation before? Why did they wait until Trump made this stupid move to cover it?

So my message to each and every person is to do something, not for Saharawis — we don’t need your help because we have been fighting and will continue fighting — but for your own coming generations.

Saharawis are fighting oppression, foreign domination, human rights violations, resource plunder, and, most of all, they are fighting for international law. We in Western Sahara and in Palestine are on the front line of the fight for the rights of all peoples. If we fall, your turn will come next — so you’d better have our back.