| A view of Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood In the background the city center of Jerusalem | MR Online A view of Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. In the background the city center of Jerusalem. (Photo: David Shankbone )

Revolutionizing the narrative: Building a principled Pakistani solidarity movement for Palestine

As part of the ongoing Nakba, Israel has once again unleashed its latest reign of terror on Palestine, in response to resistance by Palestinians against ethnic cleansing of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem (meant to eviscerate both Palestinian social and cultural life from the city). During this time, Israel has razed Gaza’s residential buildings to the ground, bombed its refugee camps, and demolished its already crumbling infrastructure. Israeli tanks and artillery also launched a ground offensive, supposedly “fighting” a civilian population in northern Gaza, which has little ammunition other than pebbles and stones with which to defend itself. Within 1948 Palestine (what are now Israeli cities), armed right-wing Israeli mobs, supported by Israeli police, forced their way into Palestinian homes, terrorizing families, and lynched Palestinians on live television. Palestinian businesses have been ransacked. The infamous “administrative detentions” of Palestinians (indefinite imprisonment without a charge or a trial) also began with renewed vigor.

Mainstream Western media, and surprisingly at times even Al-Jazeera, have referred to these events as “clashes,” “a conflict,” and “a civil war.” Meanwhile, Palestinians and those in solidarity with them have pointed out that this terminology is grotesquely false, an attempt to create absurd equivalences between an occupied population and its occupiers. Palestinian-Australian scholar Lana Tatour, for instance, has argued that the use of the term civil war to describe what is taking place within ’48 Palestine obfuscates the racist, settler-colonial nature of the Israeli state and Israeli “citizenship.”

For a majority of ordinary Pakistanis, Palestine has always been an issue close to the heart. There is a buried history of Pakistanis going to fight alongside the Palestine Liberation Organization, and of Pakistani writers and poets penning hundreds of songs of lament against Israeli occupation and its powerful supporters, as well as in solidarity with Palestinian freedom fighters. One of Yasser Arafat’s closest bodyguards and confidantes was a Pakistani. Large numbers of Palestinian students came to study in Pakistan. In addition, one of Pakistan’s greatest intellectuals, the late Eqbal Ahmad, was one of the closest friends of the most powerful intellectual voice of the Palestinian struggle—the late Edward W. Said. Eqbal was respected not only by Said, but also by Arafat (and the entire leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization), so much so that they actively insisted he become one of their leading advisors, from the First Palestinian Intifada onward.

At the other end of the spectrum is the darker history of Black September, the 1970 massacre of Palestinians in which Pakistan’s erstwhile General Zia-ul-Haq (who in 1977 launched a coup in Pakistan and was the military dictator for ten years) collaborated with the Jordanian monarchy in killing Palestinians. As Pakistanis, it is important to acknowledge and condemn this history—to see the face of significant elements of state institutions that would sell out the oppressed at the first opportunity, even as they wax lyrical about their commitment to liberation.

At the same time, this incident does not undo the commitment that many ordinary Pakistanis have historically expressed, and often practiced, to the Palestinian cause. Unfortunately, the deep connections that were cultivated over decades slowly died out as the era of third world decolonization and international solidarity withered away. Today, Pakistani “civil society” and popular media have little recollection of involvement in global anticolonial struggles.

Another important critique about Pakistan’s politics of solidarity with Palestine is that, here, much like in many other Muslim countries, the commitment to Palestine is due in large part to the issue being framed not only as something of concern for the Muslim ummah, but also as simply emanating from religious differences—or more bluntly, religious animosities. To some, this simply proves the “inherently” anti-Semitic nature of Muslim societies. The often casual anti-Semitism that characterizes public sentiment, commentary by certain analysts and politicians, as well as statements made by right-wing religious groups and parties in Pakistan, is indeed despicable. It is imperative that we combat it on every level.

Yet, recent scholarship has demonstrated that the “religionization” of Zionist colonization of Palestine really only picked up with an avalanche of anti-Semitic sentiments exported to the Islamicate world from the deeply anti-Semitic Western world itself, in many ways tracing its origins to 1492. It is also worsened by the Israeli state’s own rabid racism and Islamophobia, most glaringly displayed by the military infiltration of the Al-Aqsa compound during the holy month of Ramadan a few weeks ago (and once again at the Friday prayers right after the declaration of the ceasefire).

In his book The Arabs and the Holocaust, scholar Gilbert Achcar documents that the Orientalist cliché of some inveterate Muslim anti-Semitism is erroneous. Indeed, it was largely in Muslim lands that Jews had felt safe to live for many centuries. It was primarily with the modern settler-colonial and secular nationalist ideology (and praxis) of ethnic cleansing of Arabs embedded in Zionism, as well as the thoroughly developed anti-Semitic ideology of Europe arriving in Muslim lands in the twentieth century, that we begin to see many Muslims join their European counterparts in anti-Jewish racism. A renewed investment in anticolonial and decolonial struggles then is crucial for us to not only support Palestinian liberation, but also to struggle against anti-Semitism in our own communities.

To this end, it is heartening to see the birth of a Palestine solidarity campaign comprised of many progressive activists, public intellectuals, students, and people from all walks of life in Pakistan. Many large and small protests for Palestine have been organized in Pakistan over the last weeks, and Pakistani mainstream media has reported with zeal on the bombardment of Gaza and the larger issue of Palestinian liberation.

Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the broader geopolitical juncture at which we stand, or forget that it was only last year that a somewhat different picture seemed to be at play within Pakistan. A number of Arab Muslim countries, most notably the United Arab Emirates, chose to normalize relations with Israel (finally revealing the open secret of the cozy relationship of the two countries), blatantly ignoring Palestinians’ calls for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of apartheid Israel. In turn, international pressure grew from the “brotherly Muslim countries of the Gulf” on Pakistan to do the same. This included insidious threats to Islamabad from Riyadh, which under Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was very much at the forefront of the push for cementing ties with the Zionist regime. The threats from MBS to deport Pakistani laborers, halt oil supplies to Pakistan, renege on its promised loans, and probably a whole bucket list of other antics that the rather sadistic Saudi Crown Prince could come up with, are in fact regurgitated every time Islamabad does not prostrate itself completely to Saudi demands. MBS believed he could achieve his goal by creating enough wedges between, on the one hand, prime minister Imran Khan who opposed normalizing relations with Israel and, on the other, the Pakistani military high command, which was keen on the idea. This back dealing between MBS and some of his favored, pliant Pakistani generals also reignited interest on social media in Middle East Eye’s report from 2018 (around the same time that Israeli delegations were visiting the United Arab Emirates and Jordan) about an Israeli plane (or more specifically a private plane that flew from Israel) landing in a Pakistani airbase—claims that were categorically denied by the Pakistani government.

As the absurd theatrics intensified—obviously funded by the Zionist regimes of the Gulf—it was perhaps no surprise that, out of the blue, a number of Pakistani journalists, including prominent establishment-cozy ones such as Kamran Khan of Dunya News and Mubashar Luqman of 24 News HD began discussing the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel. Khan’s tweet, for instance, declared that, “nations don’t have permanent friends or enemies, only interests,” and therefore, “Pakistan must also revisit its Israel policy.” Similarly, Moeed Pirzada, a television anchor and a putative “strategic analyst,” stated on his YouTube channel that Pakistan’s refusal to have any relationship with Israel had depended on (1) Pakistan historically following the lead of Arab countries to show its solidarity with the larger Muslim world, (2) Israel, yahoodi (Jewish), and so on being “trigger words” in Pakistan, akin to Qadiani/Ahmedi, and simply played on “emotions.” Even as he explained that historically Jews and Muslims had amicable relations living side by side, he chose to make no distinction between Zionism and Judaism, nor between a racist sentiment of anti-Semitism and a politics of boycotting a brutal, warmongering Israeli settler-colonial state. Now that Arab countries had themselves changed positions, Pirzada argued, it was high time that Pakistan too make a rational calculation and reconsider its policy toward recognition of Israel.

Perhaps the more shocking, and least remarked on contribution in this regard came from none other than Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa. A political scientist with a focus on security studies and the famous author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, Siddiqa is best known for her scathing criticism of the Pakistani military, its interference in politics, and its commercial and economic interests. Importantly, she is not just another international relations and security studies academic: she identifies as a feminist, has written on the topic, and has a close relationship with many in progressive circles in Pakistan. She has no doubt earned her badge of honor for speaking against human rights abuses in Pakistan, especially where the military is involved, like when it had engaged in wholesale internal colonization and displacement ventures such as in the military farms in Okara. On these matters, Siddiqa’s work has been laudable.

Yet, in an article published in January 2021 on the Indian news site the Print, Siddiqa appears to agree that it was in Pakistan’s best interests to recognize Israel. She starts by noting that Saudi Arabia wanted Pakistan to take this step, and that Pakistan’s military was willing to oblige. It was only Prime Minister Khan who had refused, simply because “it would prove politically costly” for him. The possibility that perhaps there could also be a principled reason for opposing normalizing ties with the apartheid racist state of Israel seems to have eluded her. She then explains at length what Pakistan could gain from recognizing Israel both in terms of monetary and military aid directly from Israel, as well as diplomatic dividends vis-a-vis India (and a better ability to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund) through a closer relationship with Israel and the “Jewish” (progressives are of course required to overlook our human rights-loving intellectual’s anti-Semitic language and pretend she simply meant Israeli or Zionist) lobby within the United States. She elaborates that Pakistan should have taken this step when it was “more challenging,” that is, under Donald Trump’s regime when no reciprocal benefits for Palestinians could be negotiated and hence its significance for Israel, and therefore diplomatic gains for Pakistan, would have been greater. Instead, she laments, “Pakistan has certainly missed the moment, yet again.” She then concludes, in an ever more direct voice, that Prime Minister Khan and his party should take ownership of this policy (and ease the country into it); otherwise, if the military goes ahead with it without prior warning, it would “have unpleasant consequences.” This is because Pakistanis have been “educated” that “Zionist-Jews” are Pakistan’s “worst enemies and a major source of all security threats to the country.” Not once does she speak of the lives and horrendous conditions of the Palestinians living under a brutal military occupation, but instead constantly centers the desires and wheeling and dealing of the Gulf states, Israel, the Pakistani prime minister and Pakistani military high command—all on the backs of the blood, suffering, and bodies of Palestinians whose existence she treats as utterly irrelevant.

Anyone remotely involved in any form of solidarity with Palestinians would be appalled by such a take. It seems that the principal cover Siddiqa wanted to employ in her defense of the article is of being an objective international relations and security studies academic, simply analyzing things as they are. This is perhaps the last refuge of academics beholden to power but masquerading as impartial commentators. One is reminded here of the great U.S. historian Howard Zinn, who, speaking of ostensible scholarly “neutrality” and “objectivity,” had this to say: “Objectivity is neither possible, nor desirable”; “you cannot be neutral on a moving train.”

No one should know this better than Siddiqa herself. One cannot help but wonder whether her commendable passion for exposing injustices was only reserved for the human rights abuses and excesses of the military-industrial complex within Pakistan? Now settled in an academic setting in the United Kingdom, does she feel the need to assuage the anxieties of the neoliberal, Eurocentric academy with writings that dare not challenge Zionism?

Over the last weeks, as even a mainstream U.S. news channel like CNN has been forced to cover the reality of Israeli occupation, it is not surprising perhaps that Siddiqa and most other analysts, journalists, and Pakistani liberals (perhaps finding it untenable not to do so anymore), in addition to more principled progressives, are currently tweeting in support of Palestine. While this is a welcome move, it needs to be noted that Pakistani liberal (as well as conservative) elites failed to show solidarity with Palestine when it was needed most within a Pakistani context, meaning, when the state was close to deciding to build friendly diplomatic relations with Israel without any commitment to the liberation of Palestine and a fair and just resolution for all Palestinians (as originally promised by Pakistan). Despite her valid penchant for critiquing Pakistan’s military, on the issue of normalizing relations with Israel, Siddiqa did not have a single word of admonishment for the institution, and instead chose to agree with it.

But why should solidarity with Palestine matter for Pakistanis? Is it simply a cause for bourgeois urbanites with some global awareness, or for the religious right? People from minority communities and those who are engaged in their own struggles of survival and liberation in Pakistan often ask: Why invest our energies into solidarity with Palestine and not closer to home? Who will speak of the atrocities being wrought by a twenty-year war in Afghanistan or Waziristan, the internal colonization of Balochistan, the evictions and land theft in Karachi, or the cultural and material marginalization of the Seraiki belt?

To answer this, it is imperative to recognize that the struggle for Palestinian liberation is linked to struggles for justice, self-determination, and liberation across the world, from Kashmir to Waziristan to Balochistan. While there is an obvious moral imperative here, there is also a significant material reason, one Siddiqa inadvertently hints at in her article. That is, a crucial reason why certain factions within Pakistan’s military have been keen to normalize relations with Israel is to gain access to Israeli weapons and military technology! Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit Systems for instance sells all kinds of military and surveillance equipment, “field-tested on Palestinians,” to any willing buyer. Israeli military and police are also infamous for providing training to other militaries and police departments in “counter-terrorism” and “crowd control”—and have already done this for the United States, United Kingdom, and countries in Latin America. In plain language, the Zionist state is willing to train security personnel of all fellow repressive states in police and security tactics meant for what Israel knows best: military occupation.

If Pakistan’s military and security forces receive this additional training and equipment, on top of what they already receive from the Unites States and other European countries, where does one reckon it would be used, if not to further suppress the struggles of various communities and social movements within Pakistan itself? It is not hard to see then that the struggle of progressive and liberatory movements in Pakistan have everything to gain and nothing to lose from taking a principled stance against the racist, apartheid, settler-colonial state that is Israel.

In the latest round of the Zionist festival of slaughter in Palestine, it is appreciable that Prime Minister Khan bluntly tweeted about the carnage being perpetrated against the Palestinians, especially when most world leaders, including Arab stooges, made tepid statements about de-escalation (and which led Pakistani mainstream media to hail the prime minister as “the voice of Palestinians internationally” in a rather self-congratulatory manner). It is also an encouraging development that there have been powerful demonstrations against Zionist settler colonialism in various Pakistani cities. But it is vital to note that the outpouring of support for Palestine the world over this time, including in Pakistan, has everything to do with how Palestinians have refused to back down in the harshest and most vicious of circumstances, and how they have worked tirelessly to form solidarities with antiracist movements like Black Lives Matter in the United States and Aboriginal struggles in Australia. As the narrative and sentiment on the ground in a number of Western countries has shifted, and it is no longer “cool” to ignore Palestine, it has also affected opinion among the young and old, progressive and ordinary people in Pakistan. A buried sentiment that has always existed, has now returned with renewed anger, disgust, and demonstrations of solidarity.

But ultimately, we must remember: the real voice of Palestine, and the real heroes of this story, are the Palestinians themselves. We must commit to centering their voices, learning from their struggle, and showing up for them—now and always.