Popular Committees of the Intifada
The Palestinian struggle for national liberation has always been spearheaded by the most oppressed sectors of society – workers and peasants from cities and villages and refugees driven from their homes and lands in 1948 and remaining in refugee camps today. While the visible Palestinian leadership has been largely comprised of middle-class, bourgeois, and intellectual leadership, the bulk of those who have demonstrated, organized, fought and died for the Palestinian national movement have always been of the working class and the peasantry.
The Popular Committees of the Intifada were an expression of the mass, popular basis of the intifada, its support among all sectors of the population, and, fundamentally, its revolutionary spirit in a transformative historical period. The popular committees were a massive experiment in liberation politics, alternative institution building, and the creation of direct working-class democracy. They can be compared to Soviets in Revolutionary Russia, direct councils expressing the needs and wants of the people, and carrying them into action, creating a dual power with the potential of actualizing victory.
The Popular Committees were sectoral in nature, embracing all areas of Palestinian society. They illustrated the capability of mass working class organization for not only revolutionary struggle, but also the potential of taking power and the beginnings of new structures. Democratic and grassroots in nature, the committees formed in villages, towns, cities and camps and attended to all matters of society and life, organizing women’s committees, children’s committees, committees to organize demonstrations and actions, to clean the streets, educate the youth, collect money, food and medicine, ensure agricultural production and guard areas from settlers’ and soldiers’ attacks, and also perform cultural work. They would form in neighborhoods and be subdivided into areas addressing the various matters of life, and send their representatives to coordinating committees that would bring together the work of the various popular committees, creating a vibrant grassroots democracy.
Elections were very popular within the committees, as they were a constant expression of the wishes of the people comprising the committees. They were not committees above the people or claiming representation when they were in fact unrepresentative; rather, they were a direct democratic expression of popular needs. They were also a direct representation of the concept of “national unity”; rather than being forged far away from those most directly affected, popular committees practiced national unity on the ground through popular action and decision-making, representing those decisions through the calls and actions of the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising, the highest coordinating council of the popular committees.
The popular committees were the tool of organizing of a liberation movement. Besieged by military occupation, cities and towns cut off from food or supplies, schools closed and education denied students, hospitals cut off from supplies of medicine, the people of Palestine created a separate power, rooted in and drawing its power directly from the people, that posed a substantive threat to Zionist control. In fact, the threat was so substantive that mere membership in a popular committee was punishable by 10 years in prison and many popular committee members and leaders were imprisoned and tortured under horrendous conditions. Nevertheless, the popular committees grew and flourished because they were rooted not in their individual members but rather in the community that spawned them.
They were truly representative of a mass-based revolutionary process that had the potential to radically challenge Zionist occupation. Rather than the state-building movement that answered the Intifada from the traditional, largely middle-class Palestinian leadership, the popular committees were fundamentally a liberation movement that challenged and presented a direct, viable and dynamic alternative to the vision of a Palestinian statelet incorporated into the capitalist world.
The alternative presented by the popular committees ran in direct contradiction to the Oslo process, a process motivated by dreams of building a traditional capitalist state, hindered, however, by the reality of the settler-colonial relation of the Zionist state to Palestine, and by the reality of globalization, to reveal the reality of Oslo – an imprisoned Bantustan subject to economic isolation and floods of Zionist products. The pursuit of Oslo meant the abandonment, at least by the new PA official institutions, of popular institutions like the popular committees and the conversion of once-popular PLO institutions into administrative mechanisms of the PA.
The popular committees did not achieve victory, despite their strength and their functional creation of a self-sufficient dual power. There are many reasons for this, but those that must be emphasized include the radical alteration in the international balance of power represented by the fall of the Soviet Union and the intensification of the assertion of US power in the Arab Homeland through the First Gulf War, circumstances that vastly affected the international and national position of revolutionary forces and movements. Secondly, the reality that there were forces in the Palestinian national movement, as represented by those who engaged in the Madrid and Oslo “peace conferences” under Yasser Arafat, whose vision of a possible Palestinian capitalist state did not coalesce with the alternative presented by the popular committees. The Oslo period and the development of the PA represented the ascendancy of that trend in the global environment described above.
There were two development alternatives presented to Palestine - that of popular development, represented by the popular committees and encompassing community-based projects and enterprises governed without exploitation for the good of the community as a whole, emphasizing self-sufficiency and fulfillment of community needs, and globalized development, as represented by the drive for external investment in priority to local investment, development of ties with multinational corporations, and serving as a labor resource in the globalized capitalist economy. This was the preferred development mechanism of the small Palestinian capitalist class, whose power far exceeds their numbers. This capitalist class is nearly entirely dependent upon the Israeli economy, thus dependent on the occupier for their very existence – the direct result of Oslo. Rather than a self-sufficient Palestine, the path of globalized development led to Palestinian markets flooded with Israeli goods, with one of the most basic methods of resistance practiced by the popular committees – the boycott – made nearly impossible by the lack of local popular development and the favorable environment afforded Israeli goods – like other foreign investors – by an economic policy focused on globalization.
The Oslo period also brought worsening circumstances for Palestinian labor. The closure of the West Bank and Gaza – and especially the tightened closure after the beginning of the current Intifada – have been a paralyzing economic blow to Palestinian workers dependent upon Israeli employment, as Palestinian industries and shops equally dependent on Israeli trade are forced closed by closure. The importation of numerous foreign workers from Asia – never intended to become Israeli citizens, but mere replacements for cheaper Palestinian labor – has become the normative adjustment on the part of Israeli capitalists to the isolation of their traditional Palestinian labor forces.
We should not only look at the West Bank and Gaza, however, as the Palestinian nation lives not only in these occupied areas but also in Palestine 1948 and in the diaspora. Everywhere, the Palestinian ability to exist is under attack; in Lebanon, where Palestinian refugees are prohibited from numerous types of employment, in Palestine 48, where many Palestinians remain in the role of their brothers and sisters in the West Bank and Gaza prior to Oslo and closure, with more rights on paper, but still forced to be part of a labor system that is defined as a settler colonial project against their very existence.
Popular development as represented by the popular committees was not only favorable, democratic and participatory; it was and remains a necessity for self-sufficiency. It is the choice not just for justice, but also for survival.
Today, we stand amid a new intifada, that began in 2000. We have spoken at length about the structures of the first intifada, but the Palestinian revolution did not end with Oslo but rather continues today. In fact, it is the conditions described above produced by Oslo wherein lie the sources of the present intifada and resistance.
This intifada has often had to start from the ground up in rebuilding its institutions, the Palestinian popular institutions. Many of the institutions were absorbed into the PA, others became NGOs, dependent on US/European funding and thus removed from the resistance, and others dissipated in the period of retreat following Oslo. However, this was not a lengthy period.
Popular committees and their likes never died in Palestine; while they were more dormant for several years, Palestinian grassroots organizing never ceased to exist nor ceased to function as a basis for liberation, in Palestine 48, West Bank and Gaza or in the diaspora. One of the strongest sources of grassroots organizing that arose prominently in the Oslo period has been what has formed today’s right of return movement, the organization of Palestinian refugees in camps in the West Bank and Gaza, in the Arab homeland and in the diaspora throughout the world into grassroots committees and organizations dedicated to the Right of Return. It is no accident that this happened during the Oslo period. The fundamental question of Palestinian liberation has always been the right of return – the right of Palestinians to live in, reclaim and liberate all of their land, to not be guests nor prisoners but sovereign on their own land. These fundamentals became more apparent and more critical as the statehood project allegedly championed by Oslo became more and more obviously barren of liberatory process. Right of Return was a rejection of the Oslo process and all that comprised it. It could not be accommodated within a servile bantustanization of Palestine, and it faced a serious threat in the seemingly endless rounds of “peace negotiations.”
From popular organizations for the defense of the Right of Return in refugee camps, to A’idun, to BADIL, to Al-Awda itself, this grassroots initiative was a reassertion of the capacity of Palestinian democratic, popular organizing designed to fulfill its own needs. It is in the Right of Return movement that the legacy and hope of popular organizing of Palestinians throughout the world is held.
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