Return to what? Against misreadings of Gaza’s Great March

The perimeter fence between Gaza and Israel is made of barbed wire. On the Israeli side, there are watchtowers, military vehicles, and Israeli soldiers. Beyond that is well-watered Israeli farmland, lined with wheat and other food crops. The Palestinian side of the fence, however, is uncultivable because Israel declared it a “no-go area” in 2000 and has periodically sprayed it with herbicides since 2014. 

These are the lands on which the Great March of Return began on March 30, 2018, the anniversary of mass protests in the Galilee in response to Israel’s confiscation of land in the north. As in 1976, the Israeli army opened fire on the demonstrators, maiming and killing undeterred.

Over the months, thousands of Palestinians have taken part in the Great March of Return in Gaza. It has lost momentum at various points and regained it at others. The march has been celebrated in the media for its peacefulness and for its mass mobilization. We know very little, however, about the social and political composition of the people who marched. Their specific histories of social and political struggle are abstracted from them, in favor of simple and homogenizing narratives.

This abstraction is dangerous for three reasons. 

First, it overlooks the difference between Gazans who protested and Gazans who stayed at home. Gaza emerges as a classless society of identical and interchangeable individuals, thus failing to recognize one of the key components of Israeli policy since 1993: the outsourcing of the power to oppress and exploit to a comprador Palestinian elite which directly benefits from this power. 

Second, as ahistorical subjects, the protesters become easily adaptable to every conceivable political narrative. For Israel, they are gullible puppets of Hamas. For Hamas, the protesters are the victims of Israel, whom only Hamas can save. For NGOs, they are the epitome of human suffering. And for sympathetic outside observers, they are the manifestation of the unbreakable human will to be free. As shown below, each of these narratives fails to address the march on its own terms. 

Third, Israel’s existence ceases to be a problem. Without their histories of social and political struggle, the people of Gaza become hollowed-out subjects ready to accept neoliberal solutions, such as Trump’s recently announced “deal of the century,” which aims to achieve privately funded peace. Faithful to evangelist ideas, private capital becomes the worldly incarnation of Jesus the Savior, and the Palestinians become the religious mass that hums its name in the darkness alongside the incessant humming of power generators.

Understanding the Great March thus requires attention to both history and contemporary reality. 

Return to what?

At least since the second intifada, Palestinians in Gaza have rapidly lost control over their lives. In 2007, when Israel placed Gaza under siege, even the most mundane aspects of life, such as washing the laundry, fell prey to Israeli policies which, more than a decade later, continue to determine the amount of energy that supplies Gaza’s power grid. Israel had already been determining the amount of fuel that could enter the strip before 2007, but at least in Gaza, electricity had not yet been part of its policy of using infrastructure as a tool of subjugation. Perhaps most crucially, Israel began to withhold the salaries of Palestinian government employees, thus turning these hard-won salaries into weapons of political and economic control. This has made it very difficult for Gazans to plan their futures, to start families, and to secure dignified lives for their children. 

Before 2007, Gazan lives were still encroached upon, often destructively, by the Israeli army. Yet, some level of control could still be exercised. When the situation deteriorated more than they could bear, Gazans could respond effectively through direct confrontations and by sabotaging settlement infrastructure. This power to sabotage was itself sabotaged in 2005, when Israel “disengaged” from Gaza. As Israelis retreated to areas out of the reach of most Gazans, the latter’s ability to inflict costly damages and, consequently, to force Israel to take their demands more seriously was gone. When the siege was imposed two years later, Gazans found themselves cornered, without infrastructure, access to medical care, or secure jobs.

The Great March of Return must be read in this context. It is defined less by a hope to return to the dispossessed homes in 1948 Palestine than by the material conditions under which the vast majority of Gazans live. We know that class conflict has always existed in Palestine, as historian Beshara Doumani’s work on merchants and peasants in Jabal Nablus shows [1]. But in the Palestinian imaginary, return often offers an image of a peaceful and self-sufficient existence, even a pristine past in which people controlled their means of production and fed off their own fields, unburdened by Zionist lordship and away from dependence on UNRWA coupons. When people demand to return, what they are demanding is a return to a form of living in which they do not owe their education or the food on their table to a wealthier creditor or some charitable institution. 

By looking at the changes in the power dynamics surrounding labor we can understand why, instead of striking or other forms of labor protest, Gaza’s working class are choosing to put their lives on the line. Their demands are deeply political, rather than “economic,” and require a political solution. 

Taking back control

Control over work is not only a matter of secure income or even contract. It is a question of workers wielding enough power to alter the conditions of their work, should they deem it necessary.

In the 1980s, wage labor in Israel “absorbed up to 125,000 Palestinian commuters daily (40% of the total),” all of whom were underpaid and regularly subjected to exploitation and abuse [2]. Many industries in Israel, especially construction, were dependent on this form of wage work. Palestinian labor was cheap to employ, and Israeli capitalists and businessmen could use its low price to drive down the wages of Jewish Israeli workers. 

Palestinian workers were aware of their collective power and often used it to alter their working conditions and to register their rejection of Israel’s policies toward their people. 

For example, the first intifada was at its core a working-class, anti-colonial revolt. When Palestinian workers launched a series of strikes and mass economic boycotts, the Israeli Civil Administration responded by deploying “force, might, and beatings,” or what came to be known as the “iron fist” or “breaking the bones” policy [3]. These, however, were not the most effective means of quelling the movement. When workers go on strike, it is because their work is the only form of power they wield over their employers. Abstaining from “doing the job” disrupts the flow of capital and forces the employer to put an end to the strike, either by compromising or through force. Banning unions, recruiting desperate workers to replace those on strike, and creating Palestinian beneficiaries of Israeli policies was far more effective. The first intifada showed Israel that Palestinian workers wielded too much power and could easily mobilize their communities. 

All this gradually changed in the 1990s, when Israel replaced Palestinian workers with immigrant labor, from Ethiopia and Eastern Europe in particular [4]. Palestinian workers were affected by this new policy not just because they lost what often was their sole source of income, but also because they lost their leverage in the Israeli economy. 

In Gaza today, there are 35,000 public employees, whose main source of income is the salaries dispensed to them by the Palestinian Authority, their employer, upon Israeli approval. These salaries provide not only livelihoods, but also tax revenue, which the Hamas government uses to pay the 40,000 employees it has hired since its takeover in 2006. And over 50 percent of all Gazans are unemployed. Thus, while the unemployed have no work to withhold, those who can withhold their labor could not be in a more precarious position. 

Neither the Palestinian Authority nor Israel have much to gain from the labor of the local workers in Gaza. If, for example, surgeons in Gaza go on strike, it will only affect the health of the human stock necessary for the reproduction of labor power — and therefore of capital — in Gaza, not in Israel or the West Bank. Israeli industries now depend on Gaza as a point of consumption, rather than production. The weaker the population and less productive it is, the more profitable it will be to Israeli corporations. 

In this way, Israel is reproducing a long history of colonial powers creating economically dependent populations.  As John Chalcraft demonstrates in his book The Striking Cabbies of Cairo and Other Stories, Britain during its occupation of Egypt in the 19th and early 20th century prevented Egyptian textile manufacturers from purchasing machines which would have increased productivity and lowered prices [5]. It did so by raising taxes on the importation and usage of machinery, while at the same flooding the market with cheap British imports. This practice was also common in New World slave economies, as Kenneth Pomeranz brilliantly argues in The Great Divergence [6]. These economies were almost exclusively organized around monocultures specializing in cash crops. Such monocultures ensured that the enslaved person could not produce her own subsistence, or even develop industrial skills, in an age in which the steam engine was making inroads into every conceivable industry.

In Gaza, only Hamas can be punished by labor strikes, through the disruption of whatever circulation of capital there is. Hamas thus provided free buses for the march, but cracked down on a recent protest against taxes it had imposed. The Great March poses Israel as the problem, rather than Hamas, a move Hamas is of course ready to endorse. Hamas even positions itself as a victim alongside the protesters, rather than as the beneficiary it gradually became after its electoral victory in 2006. 

Discontented with Hamas as they may be, the workers and the unemployed know that it can do little to bring back jobs, income, and control over work and life. Hamas can reduce taxes and try to get its allies to donate, but there isn’t much it can do beyond that. Confronted with this material reality, Gaza’s working class and unemployed decided to face off with those who do hold power, namely Israel, at points of friction with it. At its very heart, the Great March is about taking back control. It is at once a show of force and an appeal to the “international community” expressed not in Fanonian language, but in one of humanitarianism. 

There are two possible ways to explain why organizers, journalists, and protesters at the Great March addressed themselves to the international community. First, taking the protest to the perimeter fence makes it very clear that Israel is responsible for the deterioration of living conditions in Gaza. At the same time, addressing the international community registers a collective understanding of the fact that an unarmed protest, even if thousands participate in it, is not enough to sway Israel, but that an international conversation about it at the UN might. Second, it is possible that the protesters in the Great March addressed the international community because they knew full well that an international anti-colonial working-class rebellion was not coming anytime soon. Confidence in a communist alternative broke down with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But we must not assume that Gazans are misguided or unaware of where true power can be found, nor should this lead us to accuse them of backwardness or weakness. Rather, it should prompt us to understand that the working class of Gaza, and of the Global South, belong to territories that are either post-colonial nation-states or ones that aspire to assume that status, like Palestine. 

As Partha Chatterjee argues in a chapter published in 2017, this aspiration is in fact one of the legacies of the Bandung Conference, which asserted the right of post-colonial nations to equality in an international community comprised mainly of European nation states [7]. In other words, the legacy of Bandung was precisely to seek integration into, rather than cessation from, the nation-state system, whose norms were primarily set by Europe and the capitalist order on which it is premised. The working class, as part of these (would-be) nation states, also seeks integration rather than cessation from the privileges they believe they deserve in their capacity as (would-be) citizens. Yet, different social and political classes in Gaza understand statehood differently.

Neoliberalization 

Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Israeli organization of power has created a new set of relations between different classes of Palestinians. On the surface, this set of relations looks like a crisis of private ownership. The systematic destruction of entire buildings in Gaza provides perspective. Israel has always flattened entire buildings in Gaza, but not on the scale we see today. Before 2014, it was common to see a bombarded apartment within a building that had more or less survived. Today, the common sight is that of entire buildings systematically reduced to rubble. 

This landscape is telling for two reasons. First, in addition to residents, these buildings often host small businesses. This means that people are losing not just their homes, but also the very sources of income which make having a home possible in the first place. Second, the destruction of homes drives up real estate prices. Though some can be sympathetic, owners are usually eager to profit from the desperation of those who lost their homes. Some in Gaza are literally benefitting from the homelessness of others, and the former justify it by saying that they too have mouths to feed. 

This is increasingly creating fissures in the social fabric and in solidarity networks. It is also a step toward depoliticizing the crisis. The story of how the buildings became rubble becomes secondary, and the colonial roots of the simmering tensions between different classes begins to appear as though it is a question of economics. Seen this way, neoliberal solutions like Trump’s “deal of the century” look not only logical but also sincere. 

Those who benefit from Israel’s wanton destruction see the value in maintaining the status quo, or in a political solution that maintains their class power. The nation-building project of the Palestinian Authority, according to which Israel remains the ultimate governing power with the right to destroy at its disposal, fits the needs of the beneficiary class. For a majority of the rest, however, liberation must precede state building. 

The problem with the present pro-Palestinian discourse is its fixation on statehood. Our primary aim must be the downfall of Zionism, its thudding defeat, before statehood. After all, post-colonial nation states do not seem to have fared well. Palestine need not follow their example.

[1] Beshara Doumani, Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus 1700-1900, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

[2] Yezid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement 1949-1993, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 607.

[3] Sayigh, Armed Struggle, 610.

[4] Leila Farsakh, “Palestinian Labor Flows to the Israeli Economy: A Finished Story?,” Journal of Palestine Studies 32, no. 1 (2002): 13-27.

[5] John T. Chalcraft, The Striking Cabbies of Cairo: Crafts and Guilds in Egypt 1863-1914, (New York: State University of New York Press, 2004).

[6] Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). 

[7] Partha Chatterjee, “The Legacy of Bandung” in Bandung, Global History, and International Law: Critical Pasts and Ending Futures, Ed. Eslava, Luis et al., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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