Solidarity With Palestine Means Recognizing That Palestinians Aren’t a Monolith

As Israel launches a brutal assault on Gaza with US aid, it’s important for Americans to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians — and to avoid lazy thinking that treats them as a single collective entity thinking and acting in lockstep.

Palestinians collect their usable belongings under debris after Israeli airstrikes destroyed buildings in Rafah, Gaza on October 12, 2023. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Anadolu via Getty Images)

When I thought nothing I saw from an American politician would shock me, I saw Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)’s tweet. Quoting his own recent appearance on Fox News, Senator Graham declares that “we’re in a religious war.” In the embedded seven-second video, he recommends that Israel “level the place.”

Gaza is one of the most densely populated strips of land on the planet, with 2.2 million people crammed into an area twenty-five miles long and a little over six miles wide. About three-quarters are registered with the United Nations as refugees. Their families were ethnically cleansed from elsewhere in the country. Not only are they not allowed to return home, but they can’t even step outside of the tightly guarded perimeter of what numerous observers have called an “open air prison camp.” Oh, and half of the population is under the age of eighteen. That’s the “place” Senator Graham wants to level.

He may come horrifyingly close to getting his wish. Over the weekend, fighters from the Islamic fundamentalist organization Hamas broke out of Gaza to both attack Israeli military targets and massacre ordinary Israelis. Since then, Israel has responded with flagrant collective punishment of the entire population of Gaza, abandoning almost all pretense of even trying to distinguish between armed fighters and civilians. Entire apartment blocks full of civilian families have been targeted again and again with only the thinnest pretext that this serves any kind of military purpose. The ground invasion being prepared now could send civilian deaths into the stratosphere.

At a moment like this, it’s vitally necessary for ordinary Americans to stand up and protest human rights abuses being carried with American funding and American weapons. I’ve seen people claim that any and all pro-Palestinian rallies over the weekend were, simply by virtue of the timing, necessarily “celebrations” of Hamas attacks. That simply isn’t true. While I disagree with some messages that were present at those rallies, it was obvious to everyone on all sides that what’s happening to Gaza now was about to happen. Of course people who were opposed to it joined together to protest.

But it’s important that the solidarity movement be grounded not just in righteous indignation but also clear analysis. The bloodthirsty calls for collective vengeance against the entire Palestinian people rely on essentializing “the Palestinians” — treating them as a single collective unit, as if all Palestinians got to vote on Hamas’s decisions. It’s important that we don’t replicate the same essentialism with the pluses and minuses reversed.

Oddly Enough, Palestinians Are Individual Human Beings

The Palestine solidarity movement has correctly emphasized that any individual outbreak of violence must be understood as part of a cycle of violence, of attacks and counterattacks, massacres and counter-massacres, that started long before this last weekend. And it’s correctly emphasized that this cycle of violence is rooted in a violently enforced system of apartheid. That word isn’t hyperbole. It’s a sober description of a system where Palestinians on the West Bank can’t vote in Israeli elections and are tried under military law, but Israeli settlers living down the street can vote in Israeli elections and are tried under regular Israeli civilian law.

Where some in the solidarity movement might be tempted to go wrong, though, is in starting from an admirable impulse to focus on the roots of the cycle of violence and expressing that by saying that they won’t judge or condemn anything “the Palestinians” might do. That’s a morally untenable position when it comes to Hamas massacring teenagers at a concert or going house to house killing civilians or taking them hostage.

It’s also rooted in an unwitting embrace of the same essentialism about “the Palestinians” motivating calls to “level” Gaza. Talking as if it’s an inevitable law of nature that people of one ethnicity will take revenge on people of another only plays into the hands of Zionists who now want to take gruesome collective revenge on the Palestinian population — collective revenge that will undoubtedly kill far more civilians than were killed last weekend by Hamas.

When people talk about “the Israelis” doing this or that, they’re generally using that phrase as shorthand for the actions of the Israeli state. But there is no Palestinian state. There are two factions, Hamas and Fatah, that each exercise some level of control over different bits of territory. There are also numerous Palestinian factions that don’t control anything, and of course there are all the millions of individual Palestinians — who, like the members of any other ethnicity, don’t all share the same political opinions.

There are Palestinians who are Marxists and Palestinians who are Islamic fundamentalists and Palestinians who are pan-Arab nationalists and Palestinians who are Israeli collaborators. There are Palestinian workers and Palestinian bosses, Palestinian feminists and Palestinian gay rights activists and conservative Palestinians who think homosexuality and feminism are sinful. There are Palestinian Hamas fighters and numerous Palestinians — including some who advocate a strategy of armed struggle — who have condemned Hamas’s tactics. The joint Palestinian and Israeli Hadash party and the Communist Party, for example, released a statement over the weekend focusing on the occupation and Israel’s “racist government” but also categorically stating that “nothing justifies” the massacres committed by Hamas. This range of opinions is to be expected. No ethnic group is a hive mind.

The Palestinians who are closest to the politics of the average American Jacobin reader have a long-term vision of that involves securing equal treatment for everyone — Palestinian Muslims and Christians, Israeli Jews, Thai guest workers, Druze, everyone — in a future post-Zionist state. Just like the South African Communist Party recruited both black people and white people because they saw white people as part of the post-apartheid future they wanted to build, no one who shares the vision of a single secular democratic state with equal rights for everyone in Israel and Palestine would agree with targeting random Israelis because of their ethnicity or citizenship. An ultraconservative nationalistic religious force like Hamas acts very differently from how secular socialists act because they have a different worldview.

Hamas’s tactics can’t be explained by ethnic essentialism. They do not reflect the way “the Palestinians” think or conduct themselves as a collective entity. There is no such collective entity, just a bunch of people suffering oppression and currently afforded no democratic mechanism to carry out their will.

The Intra-Palestinian Debate and the Task of the Solidarity Movement

Disputes about both goals and tactics have raged fiercely within the Palestinian liberation movement for many decades. As Palestinian leftist Issam Aruri told Jacobin a few months ago, socialist ideas made their way to Palestine early in the twentieth century, before they made their way to many other Arab countries, but these ideas were “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 political, financial, and logistical support” those states can offer, Aruri explained, it’s “very difficult for any political party to be strong in this part of the world.” Aruri isn’t a strict pacifist and he affirms the right of Palestinians to defend themselves against the army and settler pogroms, but he worries that “if people become convinced armed struggle is the only way forward, they won’t use other means like strikes and demonstrations.”

He argues that when such methods of mass struggle were more common, as in the First Intifada, there was “a strong power for socialist ideas and the Left,” but the ideological room for this became constricted due to a combination of factors including the fall of the USSR and the rise of religious sectarianism within the Palestinian national movement.

Within the Palestinian resistance effort, broadly speaking, Aruri’s views represent one end of a spectrum and outright supporters of Hamas represent another. In between there are Palestinians who see more value in armed-struggle tactics than he does but think indiscriminate attacks against civilians serve no strategic purpose for Palestinian liberation and provide propaganda justification for the actions of the Israeli military.

These ideological and strategic debates among Palestinian factions aren’t going to be resolved any time soon. And as long as Palestinians have neither democratic rights within the Israeli state or an independent state of their own, any faction claiming to speak for Palestinians as a whole is self-appointed.

Our task in the United States is a simple one. As Israeli war crimes mount and Gaza is systematically “leveled,” we need to build the biggest and broadest possible movement to demand the end of American military aid. Rhetorically siding with forces ideologically distant from our worldview or “refusing to judge” the war crimes committed by some Palestinian factions is neither necessary nor helpful for that cause. It only provides our political enemies with a rhetorical cudgel to use against us. And the impulse is rooted in bad analysis. We can leave the essentialism about the “Palestinians” to ghouls like Lindsey Graham rubbing their hands together about a “religious war.”