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Palestine Solidarity Movement: Struggle for Unity

Matt Horton
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004
    As patience with the failed Oslo agreements was clearly breaking down nearly 4 years ago, a solidarity movement was beginning to pick up the pieces after thinking that the situation in Palestine was settled. When the inevitable second intifada exploded, activists responded quickly and hundreds of autonomous organizations emerged in North America, joining with the world to support the uprising and condemn Israeli aggression. But the movement these activists created was not without its difficulties. Palestine solidarity activist Matt Horton takes a critical look back.

In the early heady stages of the intifada, as a US-based solidarity movement began to take shape, prospects for launching a diverse and powerful coalition of forces looked promising. Graduates from the anti-globalization struggles mingled with vanguard leftists, reactivated veterans of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, and newly politicized youth to create a fleetingly delicious bouillabaisse of a movement – diverse racially, ideologically, generationally and internationally. But while the movement’s size and diversity should have been its greatest strength, the clash of ideologies and methods of organization, coupled with the speed of growth, has been traumatic and difficult to sustain, especially in the face of well organized repression by our common enemy. Within a few years, massive coalitions have emerged and collapsed, trying to find a working medium. In our rush to confront the Zionists, we painfully realized that our own house was not in order. As a result, we have found ourselves devoting a huge portion of our time trying to get the movement settled – organizing the organized. All of us recognize the potential of this movement and the immediacy of the situation for our sisters and brothers in Palestine, so dealing with our own house has been physically and spiritually exhausting. We have failed to effectively build off the momentum generated by our efforts and the situation, losing many people along the way to frustration (from the immensity of the task), personal conflicts (between activists on ideology and strategy) and marginalization (because of their lack of experience or time). Thus, we fell short of developing a coherent strategy and method of organizing that spans our differences in geography, political climate, strategies and ideologies. Organizing models In building a unified continental movement, we have struggled to deal with the fundamental question of how to make decisions, drawing heavily on our own experience with either hierarchical models or non-hierarchical models, usually ending with the frustrating result of either a veiled hierarchy of knowledge and privilege or a highly efficient but uncreative dictatorship. The most impressive of the hierarchical manifestations has certainly been the ANSWER coalition whose days of action have mobilized tens of thousands of people, but have not channeled that popular support into anything more than waiting for the next mass action handed down from on high. Keeping people out of the decision-making process has alienated ANSWER from many talented activists and has resulted in creative stagnation. The most impressive example where the non-hierarchical organizational innovations of the anti-globalization movement (consensus based decision making, affinity groups, direct action) adapted themselves to the emerging solidarity movement was through the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). The ISM effectively drew on these models of organizing which had seen success in IMF and WTO actions, and adapted them to bring internationals to Palestine in solidarity with the anti-colonial struggle. This structure has been fairly successful in facilitating thousands of internationals to learn about Palestine while working alongside communities in resistance. A large part of this success has been its ability – through affinity groups, consensus based decision-making, and direction from local Palestinian community leaders – to harmonize the vast diversity of the solidarity activists going to Palestine into a focused and functional movement. Moreover, its decentralized structure (embodied in the affinity group) has assured its survival despite high turnover and increasing Israeli repression. But while non-hierarchical models have been effective for the ISM in Palestine, they have been more challenging in North America where our task is less focused. In North America, the ISM has failed to find its place and activists remain disunited beyond their common experience in Palestine. The decentralization of the movement and lack of communication has also led to many ISM veterans using their experience of Palestine to serve their own agendas in local organizing, characterizing the movement to support their ideological views or using their experience to silence those who have not traveled there. While it is extremely valuable to see the situation in Palestine first hand and work side by side by the people struggling there, we have to be responsible for the privilege that is associated with our ability to travel there, as well with the power it gives us when we return. Encouraging elements Despite its failures to coalesce on a unified continental level, the diverse and decentralized nature of the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM) has managed to accomplish a great deal in the last 4 years. While it might not seem like we are making progress on a daily basis, our tireless organizing and educational efforts are beginning to turn the tide in this country. The first major victory was making the issue of Palestine central to the global justice movement in April of 2002, when the 100,000 strong IMF/World Bank protests in Washington DC became the largest Palestine solidarity march in US history. As the economic expansionism backed by low-intensity warfare that characterized the Clinton administration gave way to the full scale militarism of the Bush administration, the work of Palestine solidarity activists helped to prepare the global justice movement to effectively respond to both the ‘war on terror’ and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The PSM’s relationship with other solidarity movements and struggles in North America has, however, been a mixed bag because of two major factors: A) Other movements have avoided openly mixing their issues with Palestine for fear of a Zionist backlash, and B) In the current climate, we are all under attack and other movements have been too immersed in their own struggle to effectively relate to the Palestine solidarity movement. While we have seen important relationships built with individuals in other solidarity and North American movements, we need to continue working to solidify relationships with them. We must recognize that we are in the same boat and that we can learn from and support each other through coalition and cooperation. Unified voice More difficult though has been the lack of a unified voice from Palestine. The Palestinian National Liberation Movement is in shambles. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), once the most extensive unification of Palestinian liberation forces, is no longer functioning. This is due to a combination of the extreme circumstances of occupation and divisive international intervention. Instead of a clear and unified direction, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement is sending its own chaos and disunification, leading to a repetition of internal contradictions in the solidarity movement. There are some rare but important moments in the past 4 years where the solidarity movement was in direct contact with Palestinian initiatives. The best example of this came at the end of last year from PENGON, a coalition of Palestinian NGOs who launched an international campaign against Israel’s apartheid wall. Their campaign was simple and able to educate/mobilize tens of thousands people through a unified day of action. But while the campaign is still going on and the wall continues to go up, the momentum has been lost in the US. This type of direction for a coordinated campaign is essential and the success of the PENGON campaign speaks to the power of such a relationship. We need to learn from this and commit to developing better communication with Palestinian organizations and coalitions. We also need to have better communication within the solidarity movement about what to unify around so that we can all work together to keep pressing the issue until victory. Focused work In order to be unified, we must have communication within the movement. If we do not have serious discussions on how to focus our solidarity work, we will be doomed to fight on all fronts with too few people. There are two vehicles in the movement for such discussions: the Palestine Solidarity Movement ( and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation ( The Palestine Solidarity Movement began in February of 2002, when students at the University of California at Berkeley convened the “First Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement,” bringing together over 400 activists from around the US, Canada and Palestine to discuss strategies and tactics. The activists committed by modified consensus to pursue a course of divestment, modeled after the successes of the anti-apartheid movement. This movement for divestment remains primarily a student coalition, but has grown to include many community groups, and is now generically called the Palestine Solidarity Movement. The PSM will be meeting for a fourth time at Duke University in October. The movement for divestment has been successful in that it gives activists the ability to strike at Zionist support bases in our own backyard, drawing attention not only to the horrific acts of aggression in Palestine, but their material and political origins in our own institutions and cities with the goal of isolating a Zionist movement that is dependent on international support (particularly the US). This in turn allows us to think globally and act locally. Even thought the movement for divestment is still young, we were recently surprised when the Presbyterian Church USA general assembly overwhelmingly voted on a proposal submitted by its Peace and Justice committee (431 to 62) to investigate the church’s holdings and divest their funds (estimated in the billions) from Israel. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is a coalition founded in June of 2002. They have had 3 conferences, focusing their efforts on lobbying political representatives in the US. They have recently committed to direct action as a tactic and divestment from state and municipal governments as a strategy. Both movements are linked with a loosely organized campaign of divestment/boycott/public-shaming that is focused on the Caterpillar Corporation for its provision of bulldozers to the Israeli military. While the campaign has suffered from its share of growing pains, it has managed to call attention to a high-profile US corporation that clearly provides the Israeli military with weapons of mass destruction. Tactics for action There is a profound disparity in our chosen tactics—this is a primary point of division in the movement. If we are not in general agreement about a strategy or a few strategies on which to unite, we are condemned to pull the movement in as many directions, dividing our potential power. While it is important that we have tried a wide range of tactics including lobbying politicians, demonstrations, phone pressure on corporate executives, civil disobedience, we need to have some serious discussions about what has worked and ensure that we choose the most effective tactics among them. Popular education has been our central success. From speakers, to discussions, to email lists, to films and music, teach-ins and forums, speak outs, and street theater, more people understand the situation in Palestine than ever. We need to keep this central to our work and continually look for new and creative ways. One of the most important developments in the Palestine solidarity movement’s popular education arsenal is the emergence of a vibrant poetry and hip-hop scene. Art and culture are the highest form of public education and their power is evidenced in their centrality to successful struggles. In the struggle against apartheid, culture was central not only within South Africa itself, but as a method of communicating with the international community. In North America, there has been an explosion of poets and musicians who include Palestine in their work. This development in the North American Palestine solidarity movement is strongly rooted in a mixing of traditional Arabic poetry, the poetry of the Palestinian National Movement and the spoken word traditions of North America and the Caribbean. In the past 5 years, a network built by Arab-American poets like Nathalie Handal mingling with a general renaissance of spoken word has situated Palestine in the poetry community from solidarity events, cafes, books and even on Broadway. Slingshot hiphop There are hundreds of poets across North America who have pieces on Palestine like EXCENTRIK and Mars-One. Suheir Hammad embodies the emergence of the Palestinian poetry scene into the mainstream, taking her art to the highest levels of performance and becoming the first Palestinian ever to break onto Broadway in Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam. Mixing in the cafes and youth culture, this poetry has quickly translated into an emerging hip-hop scene (shout outs to Arab Legion, Iron Sheik, and Life Convicts). Hip-hop is developing into a unifying language between the youth in Palestine and North America in the way Reggae united the international anti-apartheid struggle. Palestinian hip-hop has even gained mass attention with articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times. Palestine is also breaking into the hip-hop ‘sub-mainstream’ with references by Talib Kweli and Rage Against the Machine in some of their recent work. Palestinians are constantly giving us new and interesting tools by which to communicate their situation to the world. From the cultural dance troupe Ibda’a to the upcoming film “Slingshot Hip-Hop” (, we must keep culture central to our efforts of popular education. It not only captures a broader public support base, but gives us solidarity activists strength and happiness. Needless to say, the situation in Palestine is worse than ever. The prospects for a Palestinian victory are not looking good. Despite our frustration, we are gaining ground. We need to remember that our actions always have an effect, even if we can’t see immediate results. The most important thing for us is that we keep an open mind with flexibility to change strategies and tactics if necessary. Stay committed and keep on pushing! ABOUT THE AUTHOR Matt Horton is a member of SUSTAIN in Los Angeles, CA.