Today, 29 November, Palestinians and their supporters around the world observe the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, established by the United Nations (UN) in 1977 to express the opposition of the majority of its member states to the ongoing colonisation of Palestine and the expulsion of its people. The historical origins of the Day of Solidarity can be understood only when the Palestinian struggle for national self-determination is located in the context of Third World anticolonial movements, the political organisation of global solidarity, and its interaction with international institutions like the UN.
The establishment of the Day of Solidarity indicated the UN General Assembly’s recognition of the role of transnational solidarity in challenging colonial powers. This was the zenith of the Third World liberation movement, a wave of global revolution that promised to sweep away centuries-old empires. In the post-war era, dozens of national liberation movements – including that led by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) – operated across Asia, Africa and Latin America in a broad framework of ‘Third Worldism’. This political ideology and project took many different (at times competing) forms, but was united by its ambition of creating a more egalitarian international order. The period produced a distinctive political language and set of revolutionary practices that were shared globally in the 1960s and ‘70s.
For millions of people, the goal of this revolution was not only the end of colonial rule, but a new horizon of possibility in which a just world could be created. This global revolution has reentered the radical political imagination in recent years, partially due to the 50-year commemorations of 1968. New historical engagements with this era have challenged the erasure of the Third World political project – and the accompanying idea that the period represents only a failed radical movement of the left in Europe and North America – by foregrounding the anticolonial solidarities that constituted it.
Upon winning their independence, national liberation movements brought the principles of Third Worldism into the halls of international organisations. The UN’s new member states, for example, sought to initiate a shift in power from the Security Council, dominated by the United States and former colonial powers of Britain and France, to the General Assembly (GA), whose membership grew from a mere 51 members at its founding in 1945 to 193 today, the majority joining in the 1960s and ‘70s post-independence. A slew of resolutions followed, seeking to cement what had been won by force of arms into an international legal regime that would protect newly-independent states and aid those still struggling against colonialism. The UN’s establishment of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People was a product of these institutional and transnational anticolonial solidarities.
By the mid 1970s, the Palestinians had spent nearly thirty years living under military occupation and/or as refugees since the forcible expulsion of more than 700,000 during the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, of 1948. In that time the international community had failed to implement relevant international resolutions and legal obligations, leaving Palestinians to languish in the misery of the refugee camps. Efforts to organise Palestinians against this dispossession came to fruition when, in 1974, the PLO was admitted to the GA as the representative of the Palestinian people. The following year the GA passed a resolution establishing the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. It was tasked with producing “a programme of implementation, designed to enable the Palestinian people to exercise their rights”, that was to be submitted to the Security Council.
The report they drew up is remarkable for the simplicity with which it approached the core issues of ‘the conflict’, so often described as complex and intractable. It reaffirmed an existing international legal framework by recognising the inalienable rights of Palestinians to national self-determination and of Palestinian refugees to return to their original homes. It recommended that these rights be achieved through a two-phase plan: beginning with the return of the 300,000 Palestinians recently displaced by the June 1967 War, in the first phase, followed by the establishment of a competent UN agency to oversee and organise the mass return of Palestinian refugees expelled during the 1948 Nakba. It also submitted that outstanding legal questions – such as the relationship between the Palestinian right of return and previous UN Resolutions recognising Israel – should be clarified by the International Court of Justice.
It was only once this plan was summarily, and predictably, rejected by the Security Council that the Committee sought other means through which Palestinian rights could be realised. In this spirit, the GA passed Resolution 32/40B in 1977 establishing the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. The date, 29 November, was intentionally chosen as a corrective to the disastrous UN Partition Plan, passed on that same day in 1947, which paved the way for the political and territorial dispossession of the majority of Palestinians. The thirty-year gap between the Resolutions charts the shifting role of the General Assembly, from legitimating colonial dispossession to advocating a resolution based on international law and global solidarity. But the passing of such resolutions was not a linear or predictable process – rather they were the outcome of the organising of movements and rehearsals of arguments in a range of other institutional forums over the previous decades.
It was through the international project and language of Third Worldism that the Palestinian struggle communicated its goals and won landmark victories, in UN resolutions as well as in popular opinion. Palestinian solidarity was part of a shared and increasing global culture of struggle expressed in publications, posters, film, poetry, and artwork. Unions and representatives attached to the PLO worked in international fora to dismantle colonial structures and to push forward a liberatory agenda, from the UN to the Women’s International Democratic Federation. Activists traveled between different bases, being trained, studying and learning from each other’s experiences, creating lasting bonds of camaraderie and friendship.
One of the mechanisms for organising this broad global movement were days of solidarity, disseminated through Palestinian institutions to provide a focus for the mobilising efforts of their supporters worldwide. China was the first non-Arab country to announce Nakba Day (15 May) as a day of solidarity with Palestine in 1966. By 1969, it was being commemorated in Havana, New Delhi, London, Paris, Moscow, and elsewhere, with solidarity events including art exhibitions, mass demonstrations, press conferences and public meetings. Such events were based around commemorating colonial crimes, as well as recognising key dates in the national struggle such as the 1968 Battle of Karameh that marked the start of the Palestinian Revolution, or the 1978 Land Day, which celebrated the mass resistance of Palestinians to the dispossession of their lands. Both these events became key days in the Palestinian calendar.
Recalling this period often invokes a sense of nostalgia, a lament among activists for a lost past, or melancholic ruminations on revolution by postcolonial writers. In some ways the force, breadth and ambition of transnational anticolonial struggle, coming after such a long period of imperial dominance, is staggering and feels almost unimaginable today. But how can activists and historians alike engage differently with this unprecedented period of global struggle?
One might start by recognising that the vast networks and mobilisation of the 1960s and ‘70s did not emerge from (or indeed vanish into) thin air. Rather, they were the product of a previous generation’s decades of painstaking organising work, within nations and across borders, building the institutions that would later come to play such an instrumental role. Indeed, historians have increasingly recognised the inter-war period as the crucible of many elements of the anticolonial thought on which the Third World project was to establish itself. In the case of Palestine, the 1936 Great Revolt, during which Palestinians organised a mass resistance to British Mandate colonialism, provided a source of inspiration and a lesson to the organisers of the national liberation movement to come.
It is apparent, therefore, that political activity has an impact beyond the immediate, material achievement of political objectives. Just as the revolutionary organising of the preceding generation benefited from the work of those that came before them, so too can activists today look at Third Worldism as a project to be drawn upon and learnt from. This task is becoming increasingly possible with the proliferation of writing on the anticolonial project in the 1960s and ‘70s. Moving beyond reductive lenses of the ‘Global Cold War’ or ‘Third World nationalism’, this scholarship centres the ambitious, liberatory agenda that navigated the central organisational and ideological questions of the period.
The history of 29 November recalls a period of Palestinian politics when Third Worldism and a transnational solidarity movement interacted in institutional and organisational ways to shape the global agenda. Although the circumstances of Palestinians have changed over the years, their core demands for liberation and return – and the need for resistance and solidarity to achieve this – have not. The tenacity of Palestinians in struggling for their most basic of rights, and the continued solidarity of people across the world in response, offer a ray of hope that neither alarming rightward drift of Israeli politics nor the bleak geopolitical landscape can diminish. The ongoing challenge for Palestinians, and those engaged in their struggle, this 29 November, is to translate this sentiment of hope into tangible structures capable of moving towards a different political reality.