Whether political or military, modern conflict is rarely static. One side takes a position and holds it, but must also use maneuvers and mobile tactics to protect that position. The more political the conflict, the more dynamic and complex its nature. Most of the great liberation struggles of the twentieth century were unconventional in that they were ultimately won not by armies but by flexible, mobile political forces who relied more on initiative, creativity and surprise than they did on holding fixed positions, the firepower of conventional armies, and the sheer weight of formal institutions and traditional establishments. During the l968 Tet offensive, the North Vietnamese risked, and lost, many men in all sorts of daring raids inside the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, which is where the American general command was also located. The purpose of these attacks was to draw attention to American and South Vietnamese vulnerability, and this was certain to be recorded on US television. In other words, the point was to influence American audiences in America, to provoke resistance and dissent in the US, to demonstrate the weakness of the American political cause whose main purpose was to impose its will on Vietnam.
During the l954-62 war of national liberation in Algeria, the FLN divided Algeria into six districts, or wilayat, each of which had its own command structure, field of operations, and fighting forces. The seventh wilaya was metropolitan France itself. The idea was that, given French military superiority, it would be crucial for the liberation movement to conduct political operations behind the French lines — that is, to win as much opinion and gain as much support as possible from French civilians. And this proved to be a significant factor in the Algerian victory which, to repeat, was not military but political. Influential French public figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Jean Genet and others were won over to the Algerian side, even though, as French citizens, they were theoretically opposed to the insurrection defying French colonialism.
And in South Africa, it was a major component of ANC policy to make sure that white South Africans were directly involved in the struggle against apartheid. The policy was clear.
Since it was necessary to convince whites that a victory for justice was not the beginning of a new form of injustice — whites were always promised that if they stayed, they would enjoy equality with blacks in the event of an ANC victory. Therefore it was a logical necessity for whites to be directly involved in the struggle against apartheid as members of the ANC. Without such a policy of actually getting white men and women to fight a policy that racially favored them, the ANC could not have won the battle inside South Africa. When the movement was at its lowest ebb inside the country, its leaders imprisoned, killed or exiled, its cadres demoralised, the apartheid government’s forces in complete control, the focus of struggle shifted to the international arena and to influential whites. Similarly, during the civil rights movement of the ’60s in the United States, it was because the black leadership actively sought out intellectuals and public figures for their support as whites in supporting the movement, going on marches, signing petitions, and so forth, that it achieved some measure of success.
Such a strategy demands extraordinary discipline and detail. A friend of mine who went to North Vietnam in the late ’60s told me that, when he visited the NLF’s political headquarters, he was astonished to see an enormous map of the United States divided into each of the many hundred congressional districts. For each district the Vietnamese had drawn up a list of congressmen as well as ten issues — domestic as well as international — that each of the congressmen had voted on. In this way the Vietnamese were able to keep tabs on every voting record and each congressman who might be persuaded to change or re-confirm a vote bearing on the war in Vietnam. And this at a time when the US was bombing the whole of Indochina on a scale that far outstripped anything in World War II or the Korean conflict.
The South Africans during the 1980s and early ’90s organised a boycott of visiting academics, journalists, sports figures, entertainers, and businessmen, but lifted the boycott in individual cases. When I went there in May 1991 as a guest of the Universities of Cape Town and Johannesburg, I had to be passed by the boycott committee, who reasoned that my presence would enhance the anti-apartheid struggle. In other words, there was never a total, undiscriminating opposition to every person assumed to be on the other side, neither in Vietnam, the United States, Algeria nor South Africa. A subtle system of trying to involve people from the opposing camp on the side of liberation was an essential component of the battle.
Our opposition, as Palestinians and Arabs generally, to the abuses of Zionism must deal with the other side with equal knowledge and discrimination. The idea that we should boycott all Israelis as a way of opposing normalisation is, in my opinion, far too blunt an instrument and in the end both impractical and self-destructive. In the first place, there is practically no conventional Arab military or political force that truly opposes Israel. Even the PLO, to say nothing of states like Jordan and Egypt, have signed peace agreements with Israel. We have no credible military option of any sort, with the exception of a valiant guerrilla struggle waged by Hizbullah in south Lebanon. Secondly, there are many Israelis who are quite disgusted with the policies of the Netanyahu government and who can be effective in helping us with the struggle against apartheid, which currently disfigures the Israeli and Palestinian landscape. Thirdly, we have foolishly confined our “acceptance” of Israeli forces for our side only to those connected in some way to the government and establishment. This is as true of the PLO currying favour with the Labor Party as it is of independent intellectuals who are happy to meet with people like David Kimche in Copenhagen.
This is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of our battle for equal rights and self-determination. As was the case in South Africa, we cannot be ambiguous about making it clear to Israelis that our fight does not envision driving them out of the Middle East altogether: we cannot turn the clock back to pre-1917 or pre-1948 days. But we can assure them, as Mandela regularly did the white South African community, that we want them to stay and share the same land with us on an equal basis. There is therefore an appeal to be made to Israelis on the grounds of civil, human and political rights for all the peoples of Palestine. What we oppose is that Israelis should dominate us, and continue to occupy and deprive us of our land. If we were to say to democratic elements in the Israeli population that we want the same things, equal rights and a decent life in peace and security, we can then enlist each other’s help in the struggle. But we must do this with attention to the exact nature of Israeli civil society, just as the Vietnamese did with the US or the Algerians with France.
I emphasise this notion of acting and taking into consideration the existence of other wilayat as a way of criticising the ineffective notion of an absolute demarcation between us and every single Israeli or Jew. This is why in a previous article I spoke about the need for Palestinian intellectuals to address Israeli students, professors, intellectuals, artists and other independent people directly, rather than to say that we will never talk to or deal with any Israeli. In the absence of a real military option, in the absence even of a real front dividing Palestinians from Israelis (the two populations are mixed despite the dreams of Zionism to separate them), there is no way for Palestinians to gain their rights without actively involving Israelis in their struggle. A well-organised international campaign against the settlements; a major march including Israelis and Palestinians on one of the settlements; public meetings in which common goals are articulated. In such efforts, it is we, not the Israelis, who must take the initiative, and we must do so at the same time that we speak openly and candidly about putting our own house in order. As a people, we can no longer endure quietly the tyranny and corruption of the present Palestinian regime. Make no mistake about it: the Israeli government wants a weak, corrupt and unpopular Palestinian Authority. It has no use for democracy or a dialogue between equals. This is why we must take our cause to the very heart of the Israeli wilaya, to speak both of peace and of democracy for two peoples. Until we can do this and do it without complexes about speaking with “the enemy”, until we can make distinctions between the real forces of peace in Israel and the Labour Party, we will continue to drift and suffer the costs of occupation and undemocratic Palestinian rule. We must speak the truth to power.