Mass Politics Will Win Palestinian Freedom

Issam Aruri

Guerilla armed struggle alone won’t accomplish the goals of Palestinian liberation, says longtime Palestinian leftist Issam Aruri. Strikes, demonstrations, and an organized movement of millions are the key to ending Israeli occupation.

Palestinians stage a demonstration in Gaza City, Gaza to protest against Israel’s airstrikes and raids on Jenin, West Bank, on July 4, 2023 in Gaza City, Gaza. (Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Interview by
James Hutt

On July 3, the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF) launched a two-day invasion of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. Involving over a thousand soldiers, it was one of its largest and most brutal operations in decades. At least twelve people are dead, hundreds were injured, and more than three thousand refugees were forced to flee their homes.

The invasion of the Jenin camp is the IOF’s second in less than six months. This time, a larger number of armed Palestinian resistance fighters were among the refugees. Next time, that number will no doubt be even higher.

For much of the twentieth century, the Palestinian liberation movement was led from the outside. In refugee camps in neighboring Jordan and Lebanon, political parties under the broad umbrella of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) recruited and trained fedayeen fighters in a united struggle against a clear enemy, sometimes aided by other Arab countries.

The signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 changed everything. Thousands of Palestinians returned to the West Bank and Gaza, many for the first time in their lives. Subsequently, the PLO’s role declined, and political efforts switched to establishing a Palestinian government under a limited form of self-rule.

The transition came with a complicated web of agreements and dependencies. Israel remained in control of all land and sea borders: travel, migration, importing and exporting, and all related finances stayed in Israel’s hands. Israel also kept control of most natural resources — forcing Palestinians to purchase drinking water from Israeli companies, for example, and requiring them to apply for permits to cultivate the land. Closure meant that Palestinian labor was more controlled and restricted in access to Israel, diminishing the limited leverage it had.

The newly created Palestinian National Authority (PA), on the other hand, was in charge of internal administration matters, managing things like schools and hospitals, as well as a new internal police force. As part of the agreements, the PA also took on the “responsibility for overall security of Israelis and Settlements,” which required close coordination with Israeli occupying forces to surveil and deter Palestinian resistance. Israel has no similar obligation to ensure the security of Palestinians, either from its occupying military or from its settlers.

The PA is increasingly undemocratic, unpopular, and disconnected from its people. Its failures cast a long shadow over the liberation struggle. The West Bank is seeing a resurgence of youth-led resistance, particularly through armed military formations. Disaffected with the PA and without the political direction provided by something like the PLO, some elements of the resistance are unfocused and tinged with Islamic fundamentalism.

“This phenomenon is a result of the failure of existing official parties, including the PA and its leadership,” Palestinian left-wing leader Issam Aruri told Jacobin in the interview printed below. “That’s why they’re taking the initiative in their own hands. Sometimes it’s not out of strategic calculations, but out of despair.”

Aruri has been involved in the Palestinian liberation struggle for four decades, participating actively in the First and Second Intifadas and being arrested by Israel for his organizing. He understands what’s motivating the new wave of armed resistance. However, Aruri says, “We need to plan for the long term, not just react out of despair. If people become convinced armed struggle is the only way forward, they won’t use other means like strikes and demonstrations.” Aruri maintains that mass politics, not just guerilla fighting carried out by small groups, is necessary to achieve liberation.

Aruri is the commissioner general of the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) in Palestine, which acts as a watchdog for human rights violations across the West Bank and Gaza. He is also the director general of the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, and a founding member of the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO). Aruri is a longtime member of the Palestine Communist Party, now called the Palestinian People’s Party.

In conversation with Jacobin, Aruri shared his reflections on four decades of the Palestinian left, the changing nature of the liberation movement, and strategic questions of armed resistance.

James Hutt

I’m interested in your work at the commission and the investigations you did into the Israeli massacre of the Jenin refugee camp last January. Can you describe what you found there?

Issam Aruri

Last January, we went to investigate and report on the Israeli activities in the Jenin refugee camp. People there described it as doomsday. Seventeen thousand people live there trapped in one square kilometer. There’s only one street in the camp. You open a window and see the face of your neighbor. People live there because they were born refugees. Their hometown might be a fifteen-minute drive away, but some other people are living there now enjoying it. Their land and homes were all confiscated or destroyed. Refugee camps were supposed to be temporary but have become permanent. People live in misery. It’s now the fourth generation living in the refugee camp.

Anytime day or night, Israeli soldiers can come and enter your home. It felt like a battlefield. People were waiting to be attacked again. The entrances to the camp were blocked. In January, Israeli soldiers came in unmarked cars and packed into a delivery van. They poured out and started shooting. For a long time after, residents didn’t let anyone into the camp they didn’t recognize, and all deliveries had to be done on foot.

James Hutt

What stood out to you from your visit?

Issam Aruri

I talked to a kid who was six years old. He described being woken up by soldiers smashing his window and entering his house because they were bombing his neighbor’s house. The first floor was a shop for his father; they lost all that. The whole building was bombed. He said it was very scary; he didn’t know where to hide because there were soldiers everywhere. Nowhere was safe.

I talked to the daughter of a woman named Majida, who was sixty-one years old. She peeked out the window to see what was going on during the invasion, and soldiers shot her in the neck and the chest. Her daughter found her swimming in her own blood. Israel refused to allow medical teams to enter. It took them an hour and a half before first aid workers could reach her, and Majida died in the meantime.

When we entered the camp there was a monument: a huge horse constructed out of broken cars. Twenty one years ago, in 2002, Israel led a brutal attack on that same refugee camp. Afterward, residents built a statue out of the remains of their smashed cars. It serves to remind them all the time of what they live with.

I discovered that the children who survived that 2002 assault are the ones joining the armed resistance today. I wonder about the kids there now, about all the trauma they are passing through and what will happen to them. They will never have a normal life. They don’t understand why they don’t have a yard or place to play soccer, or even a garden. We have a saying: cats are peaceful animals, but if you corner one and threaten its life it will attack you. And we Palestinians are braver than cats to accept all this humiliation.

James Hutt

How would you describe the state of the Palestinian liberation movement?

Issam Aruri

I might be one of the few people who believed that there was a historic breakthrough in 1993 with the Oslo Agreement. I believed that it might lead to a Palestinian state and put an end to the hostilities. Thirty years later, I find we are further than ever from achieving our own state. Now, there are more Israeli expansion plans, and more military operations against Palestinians.

Thirty years later, Israel is insisting that only 8 percent of historic Palestine will be left for Palestinians. It plans to further carve up the West Bank into three hundred little islands, where the main roads are for Israeli settlements and the remaining roads are for Palestinians to cross between their islands and through Israeli checkpoints.

For someone like me, I’m sitting here in Ramallah. I live in a good house in a good neighborhood. I have a stable life, all my family is around me, none of them have been killed. But I feel very angry because I don’t feel like I am entitled to live a dignified life. When I get stopped at a checkpoint, my life and liberty is controlled by Israeli soldiers who are the age of my daughters or younger. Here, some people have more rights than me because they have a different religion or origin.

Former UN special rapporteur Michael Lynk was clear: an occupation is illegal if the occupier has no intention of leaving. He concluded that Israel’s occupation is illegal. It is creating facts on the ground and making it irreversible. Israel is not hiding its intentions about it either: it doesn’t want two states. It doesn’t want one state based on equal rights either. It wants Palestinians living without rights and being governed by a government we don’t elect.

The one-state or two-state conversation isn’t important anymore. We want to live as equal human beings in this part of the world, either as two fully equal states or equal citizens within one state.

Look at any Palestine roof and what do you see? Those big ugly plastic barrels of water. Why? Because we have to store water. It comes to our homes once a week. If you look at settlers’ homes or at Israeli homes in any city, they don’t have those barrels. They have running water 24/7. They pump 85 percent of our renewable water resources to Israel and then sell the remaining 15 percent to back us. That’s the maximum we can use of our own resources. If there’s a water shortage, we could maybe accept getting only 80 percent of what we need so long as Israelis get the same amount. We insist that we should have the same rights. Even if it’s below international standards, we will accept that — if we are equals. But Israelis use three hundred liters of water per capita per day. Palestinians have to make do with only seventy liters.

In 2022, we documented that Israel demolished 952 Palestinian structures. Why? Because it’s planning a system based on demographic engineering. It wants to control the ratio between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem and in the Jordan Valley, which has the most fertile land and is rich with underground water.

Look, in North America and Europe you can find Israeli vegetables and flowers for sale there in winter that are produced illegally in the Jordan Valley. They’re exported for higher value and prices. We call on international governments to stop this crime because they are importing products planted on stolen land, irrigated by stolen water, and produced by cheap labor. Israel steals the land from Palestinians and turns them into cheap laborers on their own land. When states buy and trade with these products they are trading with crime.

James Hutt

What does this current wave of resistance mean in the context of the liberation struggle? Where do you see it heading?

Issam Aruri

I believe that Israel is pushing us toward armed resistance. It wants us to be trapped in it because then it’s easier for it to crush us. The imbalance of power means that we cannot win. And it’s also easier for it to justify in Western media the invasion of the Jenin refugee camp, for example.

I’m of the generation that participated in the First Intifada in the late 1980s. Mass mobilization and nonviolent resistance was the norm back then, and it was more difficult for Israel to counter. In the long run, we have to be patient and work gradually to put international pressures on Israel. We remember the experience of South Africa, where without international pressure, apartheid would still be alive today. The main Western powers were supporting apartheid up until its last year. But in the end, they couldn’t keep supporting it as people became more aware and put pressure on their governments.

Israel is gambling with its future. We are 7.2 million Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and seven million Jewish Israelis. We are equal. We are not a minority that can be controlled. They cannot get rid of us. They can kill tens, hundreds, or even thousands of us, but they cannot kill millions. They can’t exterminate us.

We need to continue our lives and combine that with nonviolence that is more organized and determined. For example, if we’re banned from entering Jerusalem, what if thousands of us go every Friday and Saturday, coming from across the West Bank and East Jerusalem to converge on the checkpoints and say we want to go to pray? It would overwhelm them. What will they do? On the first day, they might fire tear gas and arrest us. They might shoot, but they can’t kill us for asking to pray. We can make it very difficult for them with a minimum loss of life for our people.

James Hutt

I noticed you have a critical position toward armed struggle. It seems like it’s less about ethics or a sort of moral principle and more about a strategic calculation.

Issam Aruri

For over four decades, I’ve been active in public life. I participated in the First and Second Intifadas. Based on my experience, I support the policy of the Communist Party that we should be more organized and more consistent. That we need to plan for the long term, not just react out of despair. If people become convinced armed struggle is the only way forward, they won’t use other means like strikes and demonstrations. I recall the great Marches of Return in Gaza where people used to go to the borders and protest. It created a big problem for Israel: they can’t shoot them all. They can’t use their F16s and bomb them. Every Friday, thousands of people would go to the borders. But when it becomes more violent, only the elite will choose to join and fewer and fewer people will participate. It cannot be the main strategy, especially if it targets civilians indiscriminately.

Not every armed struggle is legitimate. I oppose indiscriminate attacks, like suicide bombs in markets and public places for example. In some situations it might help Israel too to mislead others and paint itself as a victim of attacks rather than Palestinians being victims of Israeli policy. Attacking civilians hurts our cause, and we need to have moral superiority. If you have a just cause, you should always use just means. But anyone has the right to defend themselves.

James Hutt

Do you include Israeli settlers in that too?

Issam Aruri

Look, when we talk about settlers, the settlers attack and kill Palestinians often. But also settlers have families too. If one is killed and he has a disabled child, what’s the morality of that? But when a settler is armed and attacking people, anyone has the right to defend themselves.

James Hutt

Something I don’t think many people in the Global North are aware of is the sheer extent of Israel’s surveillance on Palestinians. There are facial recognition cameras at checkpoints between cities in the West Bank, there are drones patrolling the skies above them, and we’ve learned that Israel can now monitor every single phone call. What is it like organizing when Israel could be watching and listening to almost anything you do?

Issam Aruri

It’s another reason not to go for armed struggle. And to make our resistance massive in a way that Israel cannot stop it. We experienced that in the First Intifada; Israel could not process everyone it arrested. It had to quickly build new prisons out of tents in the desert. Right now, there are five thousand Palestinians in Israeli prisons. What is the maximum? What happens if it needs to arrest fifty thousand? If hundreds of thousands participate in mass struggle, Israel can’t control that. It will not find the excuses or the capacity to arrest or execute them. I don’t know where it would even get enough prison guards.

In September 2021, six Palestinian heroes succeeded in breaking out of Gilboa Prison. They spent a year digging and escaped through an underground tunnel. But within two weeks all six of them were captured. Why? Because the entire West Bank is covered in cameras and drones, and Israel can capture everything. Every checkpoint you drive through has cameras with facial recognition technology scanning you, registering your license plates and companions, and tracking your movements. If you want to do anything, you have to know you will be caught or killed for it. Our lives are valuable. We shouldn’t pay with them without getting results.

James Hutt

You mentioned earlier about the increasing number of young people joining in armed struggle against the occupation. What is your impression of groups like the Lions’ Den?

Issam Aruri

This phenomenon is a result of the failure of existing official parties, including the PA and its leadership. That’s why they’re taking the initiative in their own hands. Sometimes it’s not out of strategic calculations, but out of despair. These youth, they see that they have no future, and there is no one leading them toward liberty. It’s a kind of internal rebellion against the official structures. All other channels are blocked to them. The last elections were seventeen years ago. Anyone under the age of thirty-five has never participated in any general elections. Even when Palestinians try to hold elections for student council at universities, Israel declares student activities illegal and arrests people for practicing their freedoms on campus.

We have to see groups like the Lions’ Den as the result of the exclusion of youth from the democratic process. It comes from the oppression they’re facing and a lack of hope in things changing. Many are unemployed. Unemployment for university graduates is over 50 percent in Palestine. In Gaza that average is much higher. We have a saying: living from the lack of death. Many people reach a point where life and death are equal.

James Hutt

What is the importance of political parties to the resistance now, especially given the collaboration of the PA and the fact that elections are still nowhere in sight?

Issam Aruri

There’s less and less support for traditional parties in the Palestine arena. All of them are declining, and even more for those on the Left. That’s reflected in polls. In the past few years, religious groups won more support because their program is that it’s impossible to coexist with Israel. Israel shows us all the time that it will not respect our rights or coexist with us. So the religious parties like Hamas and Islamic Jihad have demonstrated that they’re right to reject this “coexistence.” If you are a moderate party, it’s very difficult to attract supporters.

It’s very clear for Fatah [the West Bank’s ruling party]. It led the peace process in the ’90s. It’s losing because it’s still trying to make peace with Israel, while Israel responds with settlement expansions, atrocities, and attacks.

James Hutt

You were a longtime member of the Palestine Communist Party (now called the Palestinian People’s Party). Are you still an active member?

Issam Aruri

I’m not active, but I still believe the ideas the Communist Party called for, which is mass struggle and not armed struggle. That’s based on the analysis that it’s wiser for us to work on the long term and save our energy, our resources, and our lives for a bigger and more organized movement.

That’s what we experienced in the First Intifada. Even symbolic things were very important. At the time, it was forbidden to raise the Palestinian flag. So Palestinians got creative. People got kites with red, white, and green colors, like the flag, tied them to a rock, and left them flying. So Israeli soldiers would shoot the kites down. Or people decided to postpone daylight savings time until May [Israel marks it in March]. Soldiers would ask you what time it was and if you said 11:00 a.m. instead of 10:00 a.m., they would smash your watch. These are silly little things but they show who controls the country.

When Israel banned the Palestinian flag last winter, people hung clothes on the drying line in the order of the colors of the flag. It infuriated soldiers. In the ’80s, when the flag was banned before, students at Bethlehem University were arrested for wearing shirts with its colors. When they got to the court, their lawyer argued that if their clothes were illegal, then Israel would have to ban watermelons too because they contain all the colors of the flag. The case was thrown out.

In the end, if we continue to show that we are committed to our rights, that we have the determination and can keep our resilience — with less violent means to help us sustain and grow — then Israel has to sit with us eventually and find a solution. It cannot control us as slaves forever.

James Hutt

How influential is socialism in Palestine today? How much is it guiding people, especially this new generation of youth?

Issam Aruri

Palestine was one of the first Arab countries with socialist ideas, and ironically they first came through early waves of Jewish immigration, starting in the late nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Some socialists were misled by the Zionist movement and were convinced that they were going to an uninhabited place. At the time, it wasn’t clear that the Zionists wanted to kick out all Palestinians. Many of those Jewish immigrants were part of the founders of the first Palestine Communist Party in 1921. The first manifesto of the party recognized that the main threat to both Jews and Palestinians was the British occupation and its colonial system.

Differences arose over time until the mid-1930s, when the Jewish and Palestinian communists became divided. But even now, some Israeli leftists and communists have a very strong position and recognize Palestinian rights, including the right to establish our own state.

When I was first imprisoned, the lawyer who defended me was a Jewish Israeli communist who used to defend Palestinian detainees as freedom fighters and argue their right to resist the occupation. Some of the more open-minded Israelis like Ilan Pappe were raised as communists. But socialist ideas began to deteriorate in part because of the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc in eastern Europe. The strong connection between socialists in Palestine and other Arab countries with the Soviet Union meant that the collapse of the Eastern Bloc appeared as a failure of socialism.

The second issue is that in the Middle East and here in Palestine, the growing influence of socialists in the middle of the twentieth century was perceived as a threat to some Arab states, especially the Gulf states, who invested lots of money to create Fatah, and later to create Hamas. Without the connection to regional powers, and with the political, financial, and logistical support that they offer, it’s very difficult for any political party to be strong in this part of the world. Not just here, but in Lebanon. When there was more social struggle, there was a strong power for socialist ideas and the Left. But then it became sectarian, based on religious differences: Iran supporting the Shias; Saudi Arabia supporting the Sunnis; and France supporting the Maronites. Those without religious affiliation have no support now that the USSR is gone.

James Hutt

What do you see as the greatest barriers facing the liberation movement today?

Issam Aruri

We have internal and external factors. The internal factors are a lack of unity and the lack of a shared vision. Externally, there are regional and international factors that guarantee Israel’s supremacy. It was and is in the West’s colonial interest to have Israel here. Now we are witnessing the world powers once again compete for resources, trade, trade routes, and for energy. That’s the root cause of what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine. It’s why the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and why it’s keeping its army in Syria. It’s all about power and energy. It’s about resources.

For the major powers in the West, Israel is perceived as an asset. The West needs it to control other powers in the region. The West also controls most Arab countries by supporting them to remain in power in an undemocratic way and staying silent when they commit human rights violations against their own people. That’s why Israel’s allies in the area are not democratic. If one day Israel becomes a burden instead of an asset, this will change.

James Hutt

You mentioned the lack of unity or a shared vision. Obviously, the PA is a major factor in that. Part of your work involves monitoring and reporting on the activities of the PA and its security agencies through the IHCR. Can you talk a little about that?

Issam Aruri

Not only is the PA not helping — it is not sufficient in improving health and education, improving lives of people or even responding to their basic needs. It built a huge bureaucracy and is becoming more and more of a burden for the Palestinian people. I don’t think this structure is sustainable or that it can continue for long. Soon Israel might find itself face-to-face with the Palestinian people and have to return to direct occupation and be responsible for all the dirty issues that it now hands off to the PA.

James Hutt

You’ve visited and reported on both the PA’s and Hamas’s detention centers and their use of torture against their own populations. What’s possible for liberation given that governing parties of both Gaza and the West Bank are controlling and limiting dissent?

Issam Aruri

The PA puts limits on political and public freedoms in order to protect the privileges of its elites. It thinks that if we have more freedom of speech, people will talk about corruption and malpractice. But we are living in an area where censorship is becoming more difficult. When people are living a good life, they will defend that and support anyone who secures that for them.

The PA is building such a heavy bureaucracy that it’s left with very limited resources for development and to meet human needs. Its main obsession is how to secure salaries for the party’s huge bureaucracy. Two-thirds of our revenue comes from Israel due to the Paris arrangement, in which Israel collects taxes, customs, and tariffs on behalf of Palestinians. We don’t control imports or exports. We don’t have ports or airports or even our own land crossings. Israel controls all the borders. We have to go through them. It collects revenue on behalf of the PA. It decides when it transfers that revenue, how much to transfer, and how much it keeps for itself. It controls our resources, and the PA is becoming very dependent on that. It’s not sustainable. And what applies to the PA applies to Hamas in Gaza. They are both becoming a burden to people.

James Hutt

Much of your career has been in the nonprofit sector. What role do NGOs play in Palestinian society, as well as in the fight for liberation?

Issam Aruri

Before the establishment of the PA and in the absence of a government, civil society and NGOs have played a strong historical role. They succeeded in building very powerful institutions in the past. Most universities in Palestine are still run as charities and nonprofits. They have independence in deciding programs, curricula, and recruiting professors. Most hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza are run by nonprofits. About 40 percent of the total hospital beds are in hospitals run by NGOS.

NGOs have a role in leading and influencing people, defending democracy, and keeping the Palestinian identity and heritage alive. When they expelled us in 1948, the Zionists said that our elders will die and our youth will forget. The elders died but the youth didn’t forget. In 1948, there were only 150,000 Palestinians left inside Israel. They were a minority, but they survived and their culture survives there. We have kept our culture, language, and identity. Even though Palestinians inside were totally isolated from other Palestinians and other Arab cultures, they kept theirs alive. Palestinians have been expelled across the world, and we’re still keeping our culture alive and continuing to develop it for younger generations.

James Hutt

What gives you hope for the future?

Issam Aruri

The Palestinian cause is not new. The British mandate was imposed on us in 1921. Since then, Palestinians have survived military operations, curfews, killings, and starvation. We’re still standing and still progressing. We are more than seven million from the river to the sea. We are not a minority that can be removed. The Nakba cannot be repeated. If we show all this determination for one hundred more years, that’s not a long time in history. History shows that every superpower can govern maybe a few hundred years, but not forever.

This interview is Part Two in a series of interviews with Palestinian left leaders in the West Bank. Here is Part One.

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Issam Aruri is the commissioner general of the Independent Commission for Human Rights in Palestine. He is also the director general of the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, and a founding member of the Palestinian NGO Network. Aruri is a longtime member of the Palestine Communist Party, now called the Palestinian People’s Party.

James Hutt is a union organizer and writer based in Ottawa, Canada. He is a member of Labour 4 Palestine and a columnist with Our Times Magazine.

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