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November 20, 2011

The Arab world's intifada

Phyllis Bennis

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The "Arab spring" may have started in early 2011 when a young Tunisian fruit seller, in a desperate response to disempowerment and despair, immolated himself in the streets of a small town. But its origins link directly to the first Palestinian intifada, the non-violent, society-wide mobilization that transformed Palestine's national struggle beginning in the late 1980s.

Palestinian activists chose "uprising" as the logical English equivalent, but Arabic speakers were clear that intifada didn't really mean that. It meant something closer to "shake up" or "shaking out" — exactly what Occupy Wall Street has done to the US body politic, and what the Arab spring has set loose in a region long trapped in the morass of US-backed military dictatorships, absolute monarchies, and repressive nationalists.

So when US analysts or European journalists or World Bank bureaucrats ruminate about "when will there be a Palestinian spring?", it's generally because they have no historical context, no idea that Palestine's first intifada spring in many ways set the stage for this Arab spring more than two decades later. For Palestine and Palestinians, the shaking up of the region has provided one of the most comprehensive — and positive — changes in a generation: the end (or at least the beginning of the end) of the era of US-dependent Arab regimes whose commitments to Palestinian liberation were limited to a few dollars and the rhetoric useful for distracting their own populations from state repression, lack of rights and inadequacies of their own lives.

Civil society has risen to become the most important component of the Palestinian national movement — and not only because of the 20 years of failure of the US-controlled "peace process". It's also because the most creative and strategic ideas for achieving Palestinian human rights have come from civil society, not from the leadership recognized (or not) by the world's governments. Beginning with the 2005 call for a global mobilization for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), Palestine's civil society organizations have been at the centerpiece of the growing international movement to bring non-violent economic pressure to bear on Israel until it ends its violations of international law: ending the occupation of the 1967 territories, ending the legal discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and recognizing the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

Inside the occupied territories, Palestinian activists have built village-based non-violent movements protesting the Apartheid Wall, the checkpoints that separate people from their land and from each other, and the occupation itself. That non-violent mobilization, while underway for years without significant attention in the US, has been empowered, strengthened and become vastly more visible because of the Arab spring. People around the world have begun to see the non-violent popular character of the Palestinian movement through the prism of the much newer but far more visible versions taking to the street in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and elsewhere in the region.

And of course, the victories of the Arab spring have brought to life new possibilities for achieving Palestinian rights. In Egypt, for instance, the post-Mubarak government, despite its continuing control by the military, has to be far more concerned about public opinion than the old regime, content to rule by repression, ever did. There is now at least a divided set of interests in the Egyptian government — while the military is still committed to keeping on Washington's good side to assure continued access to the $1.3 billion in US military aid to Cairo, the civilian government is worried about the possibility of losing public support, and perhaps being overthrown. As a result, the dispute sometimes leads to improvements in the on-again/off-again opening of the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza, leading to at least the chance for a little bit of fresh air for Gaza's besieged 1.6 million people.

In the United States, the rise of the Arab spring has profoundly transformed perceptions of Arabs and the Arab world, including Palestinians, by challenging the long-held monopoly of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, showing images of Palestinians and other Arabs who "look just like us". Despite its longer-term dangers (the notion that Arabs are suddenly okay because they are "like us" reflects a continuing level of racism and American exceptionalism), the image of Arabs who wear blue jeans, use cell phones and twitter and speak English has in fact made mobilizing in favor of Palestinian rights and ending US aid to Israel a lot easier.

For Israel (despite occasional rhetorical claims that Israel would be much better off with democracies throughout its neighborhood), that same regional shake-up has created a new set of serious challenges. With the shake-up of the Arab spring extending throughout the region, Tel Aviv can no longer rely on traditional US-orchestrated relationships defined by cold peace or controlled tension with Arab regimes that had no need to take into account the views, wishes or demands of their people. The definitive overthrow of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia and continuing threats to regimes from Yemen to Syria to Bahrain and beyond mean that kings and emirs and presidents can no longer simply ignore popular will and assume that repression will suffice. (Libya's NATO-dependent defeat of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi remains, for the moment, somewhat outside this process.) The old US-demanded strategy of forcing Arab governments to move towards normalization with Israel doesn't work any longer, as the once-compliant dictators now face loud and vociferous opposition--not the silent compliance of the past.

So Israel's diplomatic options have narrowed severely. The emergence of Turkey as the most popular government in Arab public opinion, a popularity grounded largely in Ankara's embrace of the Arab spring's uprisings and its responses to Israeli assaults, particularly the lethal attack on the Mavi Marmara, has further weakened Israel. For years the quiet partnership between Israel and Turkey, which saw major collaborations on water, military production, joint military exercises and Israeli tourists flooding Turkey gave Israel a close "Muslim partner", a link to NATO to supplement its US connection, and more. Now (with the exception of some continuing arms trade) that connection is gone, leaving Israel more isolated than ever.

That regional isolation was sharply visible in September, when angry crowds surrounded the Israeli embassy in Cairo. The rage was sparked by the Israeli military's killing of several Egyptian soldiers in Egyptian territory, during an effort to capture gunmen who had attacked Israelis near the Egyptian border. Under Mubarak, government security forces would have been immediately deployed against the protesters outside the embassy; this time around, the crowd grew and remained in place, forcing the Israelis to call on the US to persuade the government in Cairo to get the diplomats out.

We still don't know just how sweeping will be the long-term success of the Arab spring. But like the first Palestinian intifada, these revolutionary processes are already shaking up the Middle East and transforming the power and possibilities of both Israel and Palestine like nothing in a generation. Stay tuned.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include "Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer".

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