Sharif Nashashibi

The Palestine solidarity movement is facing an unprecedented internal crisis, brought about not by the conflict with Israel but by the war in Syria. The latter has caused divisions that are arguably deeper and more damaging than those over how to realise Palestinian rights and aspirations.

While the effects of Palestinian political infighting have remained largely domestic, the fissures over Syria have taken on a global dimension, and created unparalleled hostility among supporters of the Palestinian cause. In that respect, while the popular uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad was not linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the five-year Syrian war is now arguably the biggest influencer of the one next door, which has festered for almost 70 years.

Oppressed peoples

Solidarity among pro-Palestine supporters with the Syrian revolution is based on principle, according to which solidarity must be shown to all oppressed peoples.  How can we campaign for Palestinian freedom and deny that fundamental right to others? To those of us in this camp, the struggles of the Palestinian and Syrian peoples are one and the same.

We support them not because they are Palestinian or Syrian, but because they are civilians facing brutal regimes, backed by powerful allies, for daring to seek what others take for granted: to live freely and with dignity.

This solidarity is in line with Palestinian public sentiment, which holds a very unfavourable view of Assad because of his onslaught against his own people, and of his foreign backers for their role in that onslaught, according to opinion polls. The most recent one, published in June, shows only 18 percent of Palestinians favouring Assad.

This predominant view among Palestinians is vital in belying the self-proclaimed championing of their cause by Assad and his allies, whose “axis of resistance” included the Palestinian group Hamas until it chose to stand with the Syrian people when they rose up.

However, sadly there are supporters of the Palestinian cause who oppose the revolution. Many of them do not even see Assad as the lesser of two or more evils - they actively whitewash his war crimes and crimes against humanity in their delusion that he is a benevolent, misunderstood leader who is the target of an international conspiracy.

Ironically, in doing so they are propagating a narrative that mirrors Israel’s justification for its oppression of the Palestinians. To them, the Palestinians’ plight trumps all others, so they ignore or justify repression elsewhere if they perceive a challenge to that repression as benefitting Israel.

Anti-Israel and anti-Western

To that way of thinking, Syrian suffering - no matter how catastrophic - is acceptable because Assad’s ousting would be a boon to Israel. Never mind that he has never posed a threat or challenge to Israel, or responded once to its violations of Syrian sovereignty.

Such people’s responses to the wider Arab Spring are based simply on whether they perceive the dictatorships being challenged as anti-Israel and anti-Western. Thus the revolutions against pro-Western regimes in Tunisia and Egypt were legitimate, but not those in Libya and Syria. This approach is presented as stalwart support for the Palestinian cause. However, these people are gravely harming it by denying other peoples their rights in the belief that this will bring Palestinians closer to theirs.

Lionising dictatorships that manipulate the cause for their own interests and self-preservation creates a false and dangerous association between Palestinian liberation and autocracy. The cause is, and should be, a grassroots movement that relates to and supports the downtrodden anywhere.

There are also supporters of the Palestinian cause and of the Assad regime who base their stance on a skewed view of anti-imperialism, one that sees only the West - and specifically the US - as able and willing to act imperialistically.

Such people condemn coalition air strikes over Syria (even though they do not target the regime), but excuse or support Russia’s bombing campaign, even as it rains down death and destruction on Aleppo’s civilians. The Palestinian cause seems to represent a platform for them to vent their selective anti-imperialist outrage.

Their legitimate anger over US support for Israel is undermined by their silence over ever-closer Russian-Israeli ties - even regarding Syria - and of Assad’s years-long willingness to torture people on America’s behalf as part of its extraordinary rendition programme, because these inconvenient facts do not fit their ideology or narrative.

Expressions of sympathy

The issue works both ways, however, with some Western opponents of Assad being avowedly pro-Israel. This is most striking with American politicians.

Their expressions of sympathy with Syrian suffering cannot be considered genuine when they are happy to justify Palestinian suffering and support Israel vis-a-vis Syria. Like their anti-imperialist counterparts, the Syrian conflict is not about morals or principles but about a wider geopolitical game. It is about advancing Western and Israeli interests, and checking Russian and Iranian ambitions.

Opportunism regarding Palestine or Syria does not constitute genuine support because it is based on agendas and self-interest, not the wellbeing of the peoples concerned. This goes against the morality and justness of the Palestinian and Syrian struggles, and should be exposed and rejected.

One cannot claim to champion human rights if that championship depends on the identity of the perpetrators and victims, or on ideology and politics.  If your support for Palestine entails justifying Assad’s mass slaughter, starvation and displacement of Syrians, or if you support Syrian freedom but also Israeli occupation and colonialism, you are no friend to Palestinians or Syrians.–Aljazeera