Palestine Through the Lens of Frantz Fanon [2015]

Middle East Monitor

October 19, 2015

by Nick Rodrigo 

Part 1: Why Fanon? The indispensability of thought and the urgency of action

Palestine is in the throes of revolt. It started with protests and demonstrations at the presence of Israeli “Temple Mount” activists (and their political benefactors) at the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, the symbolic pillar of Palestinian spirituality and national redemption. The unrest then spread to other cities on both sides of the Green Line. From Nazareth to Nablus to Bethlehem, young Palestinians have taken to the streets to hurl stones and Molotov cocktails at an occupation which plunders their future and consigns their bodies to be broken on the wheels of a colonial machine. Individual acts of violence have also injected a sense of terror into the Israeli population, prompting a paranoid state to respond with unbridled brutality from its military, and unabated mob-driven lynching by its civilian population.

Unorganised, sporadic and youth-led, these Palestinian demonstrations and violent attacks do not appear to be tethered to any political party. The rejection of political factions as the incubator of rebellious actions by the “Children of Oslo” is perhaps the final indictment on the political malaise which has characterised Mahmoud Abbas’s tenure as Palestinian president; he has operated hand in glove with the Israelis, to protect a regime which safeguards the interests of his political class.

The Question of Palestine, as Edward Said framed it, has gone through numerous changes since 1948; through the Nakba of 1948 to the Sumud, which characterised the first intifada, to the compromise of Oslo and the current post-second intifada division and status quo. Throughout these phases, various normative discourses and institutions arose, which shifted the nature of the Palestinian national movement. However, the reality of Israeli colonialism has remained the same: violent, intransigent and unaccountable. In order to understand the current events in Palestine properly, it vital to look towards the writings of Martinican psychologist-cum-Algerian revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, whose divisive thoughts have contributed prodigiously to the field of postcolonial studies.

Rebel without a pause

1925 was a bumper year for Black revolutionaries. In the space of twelve months, Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba and Frantz Fanon were born. It was the latter’s lyrical polemics and psychoanalytic inquiries which presented vast swathes of humanity with the framework for picking apart the layers of oppression which typified their lives under the yoke of colonialism. In his short life, Fanon developed a philosophy which provided colonised peoples with the blueprint for breaking out of their stupor, to create a “new man” and a new form of resistance to domination and oppression. Added to his literary panache and intellectual intrigue, he was able to interweave his subjective experiences into his works. By the time of his untimely death at thirty-six, Fanon had first-hand experiences of colonial society in a variety of contexts; through his youth in the French colonial department of Martinique; to his service for “Mother France” on the battlefield against Nazi Germany; to his academic training in Frances metropoles; and to his works with Algerian revolutionaries in the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).

Black Skin, White Masks

In Black Skin, White Masks Fanon developed a sociogenic and psychoanalytic explanation of the anti-black racism inherent within colonial societies, drawing on his objective experiences. In this seminal text, Fanon passes the Hegelian phenomenological master/slave dialect under a black lens. In Hegel’s dialect, the slave is in pursuit of recognition and, through fear of the master, develops sentience, acquiring independent thought and consciousness of his essentiality and master’s dependence on him. However, when the slave is black, Fanon notes that, “What [the master] wants from the slave is not recognition but work.” The result was for the black person to aspire for “values secreted by his masters.” Fanon stays with Hegel when he acknowledges that mutual recognition is not achieved at the end of this dialect, yet departs from him in denying that the black slave necessarily achieves any independent consciousness: “But the black man does not know the price of freedom because he has never fought for it.” Echoing the words of Malcolm X, he wrote, “No one can give you freedom, if you are a man, you take it.” This ongoing struggle for recognition and freedom informed Fanon’s work and life.

Revolutionary therapy and the process of disalienation

In 1953 Fanon moved from colonial France to Blida, Algeria, where he developed a revolutionary approach to psychoanalysis, developing occupational therapy remedies with Algeria’s native communities with a direct effort to draw Arab and Islamic idiosyncrasies into his work. Fanon published 15 papers on psychiatric approaches throughout his career, and many of the findings were intertwined with his philosophical conclusions in Black Skin, White Masks. At the centre of Fanon’s psychoanalysis and “sociogenic” inquiries was a pursuit of disalienation from the social death caused by colonialism. In Marx’s Capital, alienation from labour is scrutinised, and through this process he lays bare the opposite of humanity within a capitalist society; a society freed from capital, able to pursue its own praxis. Fanon examined the way in which the human society under colonialism is alienated from its own cultural creativity; from this he wanted to create a way of breaking out of the colonial replications of that which is colonised. For Fanon, the colonised must pursue this process of disalienation actively.

Concerning revolutionary violence and the pitfalls of neo-colonialism

During his time in Algeria, Fanon was approached by the FLN to provide healthcare and a sanctum for their fighters in his clinic. He subsequently threw his weight behind their cause, writing for their publication El Moujahed and representing them at conferences in sub-Saharan Africa, where he forged ties with Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba. With them he developed the idea of an African Legion, to liberate African nations from colonialism, as well as opening up a southern arms route from Sub-Saharan Africa to Algeria. Fanon saw that the conclusion of the Algerian struggle would serve as the pace-setter for the trajectory of the postcolonial movements and newly-liberated nations throughout Africa.

With the publication of A Dying Colonialism he had moved considerably from the concept of negritude, towards revolution as the prime negative in his de-colonial framework. By the colonised finding themselves through revolutionary struggle, whilst at the same time realising the role played by national demands and racial particularities, a new humanity can be forged.

In 1962, Fanon was diagnosed with leukemia, and started work on The Wretched of the Earth, which was to be completed within months of his diagnosis but only published posthumously. Written with furious energy, the text is as much a timeless field manual for postcolonial movements as it is a piece of historical literature. It is his treatise on violence which has often been misconstrued, by supporters and detractors alike. Fanon does not valorise violence, as some contend, but rather acknowledges that colonialism is a project, which is, in and of itself, violence manifested. This violence has shaped the social constitution of the colonial subject. His land, resources and life have been seized by a state of violence, and within the framework laid before him, the only route out is violence. With prescience, Fanon writes that unless this violence is checked, it can turn inwards on the colonised, leading to tribalism and internecine conflict. Out from this a neo-colonial project will emerge, where elites from the revolutionary movements will barter their political capital with the old colonialists, for political power and capital, granting the latter rapacious access to resources and economic wealth.

Before he died in 1963, Fanon sent a parting letter to his friend Roger Taïeb in which he wrote the following: “We are nothing on this earth if we do not first and foremost serve a cause, the cause of the people, the cause of freedom and justice. I want you to know that even when the doctors had lost all hope, I was still thinking, in a fog granted, but thinking nonetheless, of the Algerian people, of the people of the Third World, and if I managed to hold on, it was because of them.”

Israel’s occupation as a neo-colonial project

What Fanon implored us to do was to view the struggle of the oppressed as a struggle to create a new mode of being, a new form of humanity. Within the revolutionary struggles of the masses, he insisted, lie the seeds of a new humanity. The ongoing resistance in Palestine today is not a new phenomenon, but is rather the latest episode in a decades’ long struggle for freedom and what Hegel and Fanon both agree on, recognition. Not recognition to live within shrivelled little cantons and drip-fed subsistence, but recognition as a human being in the holistic sense of the term. The stone throwing, the stabbings and the bombings are a reaction to a colonial regime which denies this recognition.

Over the course of these essays, Fanon’s key works, as outlined briefly above, will be utilised to examine the Palestinian national movement since it broke away from the paternalist hold of the Arab world and began, in earnest, to seek recognition. Navigating this history, with one eye firmly on Fanon’s work, it will conclude with where the movement is today; largely rudderless, but still yearning. Through this process, it is hoped that the reader will not only think and empathise with the Palestinians, but also, in respect of Fanon’s work, act on these feelings in the spirit of a collective humanity.

Fanon in Palestine Part 2: From Sumud to Surrender

Last week, the life, times and writings of Frantz Fanon were examined, with specific focus on his concept of recognition. Fanon, with literary deftness and intellectual mastery, managed to save Hegel from his racialised self and utilise his master/slave dialect in a conceptual apparatus that explicates the pitfalls of the neocolonised mindset.

Fanon asserted that colonised populations tend to internalise the sneering images imposed on them, and thus as a result these images, along with structural relations, come to be recognised as natural. Settler colonialism operates through the elimination of indigenous people’s existence on the land. Without this reducible element, settler colonialism cannot operate. Settler colonialism it not interested in exploitating the natives, rather it attempts a totality though eradicating its negation, the existence of indigenous people, and reducing them to an invisible, a persona non grata. This is why the Palestinian-Israeli impasse should not be seen from the angle of a particular event, rather as a structure that operates on the elimination of indigenous Palestinians as an entity. The desire for recognition on its own terms of the overarching colonial structure can be seen as a form of misrecognition as it reinforces the dominance of the oppressor, seeking its legitimacy from the very source of the dilemma, making the coloniser appear to be the final redeemer: ‘’that is, I will compel the white man to acknowledge that I am human.”

In the second part of this essay series, I will trace the socio-historical development of the Palestinian National Movement and its quest for recognition. By picking apart various tactics for recognition, I expose the source of the symbolic capital of the current intifada, and where the failure of the current Palestinian leadership has presented more obstacles to the fundamentals of Palestinian recognition.


In English, sumud can refer to steadfastness, but it can be manifested as different practices and ideas. For instance, many refugees refer to their existence as “resistance”, or a manifestation of sumud when discussing their forced exile after 1948. Tracing Sumud within the PLO’s (Palestine Liberation Organization) discourse help demonstrate how the change in political strategy from resistance to the recognition of Israel affected the discourse from within the PLO, which in turn has affected the whole of the PNM. Such a framework highlights the ways Palestinians were involved in anticolonial struggle how they were able to construct a Palestinian political history through speech, and how it was constrained after recognising Israel and seeking recognition of statehood from Israel and the international community.

Sumud: The 60s and 70s

The grassroots nature of the Palestinian movement that emerged in 1959 gained traction after the successive failures of pan-Arabism and the emergence of a distinct national Palestinian agenda which centred around the concept of armed struggle. The national struggle was formulated around being exiled in the diaspora and the life of the Fedayeen in the refugee camps, who were represented as the archetypal Palestinian. The idea of the militant-fedai as a national and a cultural hero was utilised by Fatah to galvanize support in the refugee camps. Where previously there was no unified and collective Palestinian struggle, this represented a rupture and change in Palestinian discourse and identity, profoundly demonstrated in Ghassan-Kanafani’s novels.

Arafat seized on such imagery, mirroring it in his discourse, most notably In his speech to the United Nations in 1974. Appearing at the UN general assembly, dressed in the garb of the Fedayeen, Arafat emphasised the right to armed resistance, placing the Palestinian struggle within a wider global struggle against racism, imperialism and colonialism. This speech would serve to gain much legitimacy and recognition for his cause. Although the PLO, of which Fatah was the dominant faction, was eventually recognised as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestine people by the international community, it failed to achieve any results on the ground. This, coupled with the exile of the PLO from Jordan and Lebanon, created a sense of disillusionment in the OPT (occupied Palestinian territory), leading to the rise of grassroots activism which surprised a detached leadership.

The Intifada: Shaking off the occupation

Palestinian resistance in the OPT’s reached a zenith during the first intifada through large-scale confrontation with the Israeli army, mass demonstrations and civil disobedience such as strikes and refusal to pay taxes – a direct attempt to extract Palestinians from the structures of colonialism. The Intifada differed from Fatah’s operations as it was led by community councils and a united national leadership of the uprising (UNLU) with very limited control from Fatah and the PLO. The uprising was eventually steered by Fatah, leading to the Madrid peace conference of 1991, in effect paving the way for the Oslo process and the establishment of the Palestinian National Aassembly (PNA) in 1994. With the intifada and the influence of the PLO, there was a change in the discourse from the liberation of mandate Palestine to one of state building which marked recognition and diplomacy as a new political strategy.


The Madrid Conference, which was the marking point for the initiation of the peace process, failed to bring about any real outcomes apart from ending the Intifada. This was due to Palestinian refusal to postpone key issues, and the efforts by Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir to delay the negotiations. This tactic of delay, whilst altering the facts on the ground through the entrenchment of the occupation, has been a central theme of all Israeli–Palestinian negotiations within the peace process framework. The Madrid process failed to consider the central issues of refugees and land loss that was insisted upon by the Palestinian delegation, it was the marking point for the beginning of the end, setting the precedent of future peace negotiations to come. Oslo would serve to provide the institutions to sustain this “differed agreement”, with the establishment of structure bent on constructing a state within the international legal sovereign model. However for the first time there was a tangent narrative of the PNM, that of the institutionalisation of Zionist-ideology and practices, hence the postponement of core issues.

Institutionalisation of the status quo

Through seeking recognition, the PLO had to engage in the language of the international community and the colonial power – Israel – therefore ensuring the maintenance of the status quo, i.e. not challenging the colonial structure of violence. Throughout the Oslo peace process the PLO de-facto acknowledged two Zionist-practices and ideas which characterise the discourse in Palestinian-Israeli relations; ethnic cleansing and land maximisation. The Oslo agreements make no reference to the exile of Palestinians during 1948, something that continues to govern the rules of negotiation in the Palestinian-Israeli relations. Although-the refugees were referenced, there was no explicit responsibility placed on Israel that acknowledged the forced exile of Palestinians. Alongside transfer was land maximisation, a strategy employed since Zionism’s inception. Today similar practices can be seen in Jerusalem, and the West Bank – the Naqba’s constant land maximisation is ongoing.

The sacrificing of key components If the Palestinian struggle on the alter of recognition and according to the terms of the coloniser was done in pursuit of of the hegemonic Eurocentric ideal of statehood. As Azmi Bishara predicted in 1999, if the PNA declares a Palestinian state, the issue will shift to recognition of such state, while there will be talks on settlements and refugees, the real focus and political strategy will turn toward seeking recognition for that state. Thus the PNA’s internal strategy becomes reducing any possibility of confrontation as Palestinians are forced to direct their energy on securing recognition and the survival of the pseudo state. The pursuit of recognition for this state has resulted in a whole range of PA actions, such as cooperative security with the Israelis, entrenchment within the international finance system, and the bureacratisation of occupation management. These very neocolonial practices will be scrutinised in more detail in the third party of this series, “The Economics of Capitulation”.

The development from sumud to surrender, which has characterised the PLO’s attitude towards Israel, demonstrates what Fanon called the “racist epidermalisaton of the oppressed”, where the PNA has became a product of the internalisation of what the oppressor thinks they must become. Through negating its own history and accomplishments, the PNA attempted to present a new image of the Palestinians as peaceful and civilised, and therefore worthy of their own state. Thus, as a result of seeking recognition overall, the focus of struggling and resisting shifted towards recognition of this new Palestinian image rather than addressing the overall structure of settler colonialism which created the need for such recognition in the first place. As Fanon found, the-colonised become obsessed with attention from the white man, where there is a strong desire to demonstrate to the white man that he is wrong about the black man.

Fanon wrote feverishly that it was the masses who “stormed the heavens” and in the process overcame their inferiority complex in the face of the colonial oppressor. What has occurred during the era of “Sumud” was a leadership and people who understood the transformative possibilities of engaging in a revolutionary process that creates “a new man”. Fanon was not a slave to nationalism, but understood that the particularities of race and nationness are indispensible in mobilising the people. The crude reduction of the Palestinian Authority’s claims that they are acting in the national interest is symbolic of the collapse of the revolutionary components of Palestinian nationalism. In the next part of these essays, the institutions which have emerged out of the neocolonial capitulation, will be scrutinised.

Fanon in Palestine part 3: The institutions of capitulation

In part two, the historical development of the Palestinian National Movement (PNM) was traced, from its break with the paternalist hold of the Arab world, through the years of Sumud, to the historic compromise of the Oslo Accords. Through recognising Israel at the Madrid Conference, the PNM had achieved recognition, but on behalf of its colonial oppressor and the broader hegemonic ideals of the contemporary international system. Through recognising Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had also granted tacit approval to the former’s founding principles of ethnic cleansing and land maximisation. Oslo and its accompanying Paris Protocols entrenched the socioeconomic dynamics of a settler-colonial project, enshrining the Palestinian Authority (PA) as its outsourced management. In order to conceptualise how Oslo birthed the institutions of capitulation which play a large role in upholding the infrastructure of occupation, land expropriation and displacement, it is important to turn again to how Frantz Fanon forewarned about the development of neo-colonialism after independence.

Fanon’s prophesy

By 1958 Charles De Gaulle had increased France’s military presence in Algeria whilst coaxing former colonies away from the unfolding drama in Algeria through membership of the Francophone community; this tactic placed diplomatic and military pressures on the National Liberation Front (FLN). During this time, Fanon’s critique of the national bourgeoisie as an impediment to the development of a truly de-colonial revolutionary praxis began to crystallise into a coherent polemic. Some of his thoughts were laid down in “A Dying Colonialism”, but it was “The Wretched of the Earth”, published posthumously, that became Fanon’s political testament. This incendiary text is a field manual for indigenous guerrilla movements as well as an exposé of the particular spirit which drove the de-colonial movements of the sixties. Fanon’s examination of the emergent bourgeois leadership in Africa, and his relentless broadsides against their betrayals, echo loudly when paralleled with the post-Oslo Palestinian leadership.

Fanon notes that a revolution differed by a myopic conception of nationhood can lead to “the confusion of neo-liberal universalism to emerge, sometimes laboriously, as a claim to nationhood.” The development towards recognition folds revolutionary components of nationalism in on its particularities, stymying the development of a truly revolutionary dialect. In the bid to gain recognition, the national leadership will take up the positions vacated by the departing coloniser, and becoming “not even the replica of Europe, but its caricature”. This caricature, for Fanon, is defined by a rapacious desire to line pockets, and attract economic power from the former colonial overlords and the world powers. With razor sharp clarity, Fanon notes how the economic programme of the post-independence leadership attracts foreign investment for industrial projects, which are built from the “tête-a-tête” negotiations leading up to the withdrawal of the coloniser. Hedonistic projects are developed to mask the leaks in their economic plans, which do little to develop the nation, and before long, the national bourgeoisie become mere managers and intermediaries of foreign investment.

Fanon’s polemic draws up three institutions which seem applicable to the Palestinian context:

  1. The party: A political machine emptied of its revolutionary potential, merely a symbolic and bureaucratic mechanism of the neo-colonial system.
  2. A national bourgeoisie of capital managers and bureaucrats.
  3. A foreign-advised army, called on increasingly to step in when the contradictions of post-independence solicit widespread protest.

Fatah and the PA

Founded by Yasser Arafat in 1959, Fatah was once uncompromising on the merits of armed resistance popularising the re-conquest of Palestine through the deployment of sophisticated and popular imagery and execution of armed actions. It’s dominance within the PLO and popularity within the refugee camps endowed it with authority over all other factions after 1967. However, by the time of the first intifada (uprising) in 1987, the once revolutionary zeal of Fatah was subsumed by the Palestinian committees and grassroots organisations. Finding itself surplus to requirements, the Fatah-dominated PLO accepted the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, sidelining the popular appeal of mass movements of the intifada.

Fanon notes that the party’s mission after independence changes to give the people instructions “from the summit”, with party branches “completely demobilised”. Instead of a dialogue between the people and the party, from the bottom up, the party becomes a block between the masses and the leader. Fatah’s rallies and political meetings, emptied of any praxis or tactic, vindicate Fanon’s warnings of the lethargy which demobilises the party. Mahmoud Abbas’s amassing of political power, and embedding of Fatah into the institutional framework of the Palestinian state institutions, is also telling. Once the vehicle of the revolution, Fatah is now caught between its revolutionary phantoms of yesteryear, and maintenance of a status quo which benefits its apparatchiks and party bureaucrats. The result has been a divided party, reactionary towards rivals, sporadically condemning the occupation but on the terms of the international system.

The Palestinian bourgeoisie and the international community

The Palestinian national bourgeoisie has become an intermediary for global capitalism, but in a way that supports the infiltration of western “humanitarian capital” facilitating a humanitarian structure which buttresses the human rights and development regime of the west. The Oslo Accords created a system in which its “logic” informed the development of institutions engineered for “statehood”. The conflict was dramatically reframed after Oslo, from an ongoing anti-colonial struggle to a depoliticised development-orientated industry of “capacity building”. Capacity building would usher in the development of an NGO sector which would forge institutions for “statehood” whilst managing the material impacts of the occupation.

Since Oslo, the Palestinian economy has been dependent overwhelmingly on foreign aid, which is transferred through a complex web of NGOs. Staffing these organisations are the Palestinian leadership, intimately wedded to the Palestinian Authority, often with ties to Fatah as well. The “NGO-isation” of Palestinian politics has spawned a complex bureaucracy which works hand-in-hand with the PA to develop institutions which do little to enhance an economy stricken by the detrimental effects of Israel’s military occupation. A Gulf-based transnational capitalist class joins these intermediaries of neoliberal state funding logic. This class controls major banks, industrial and manufacturing companies and telecommunications firms, and facilitates the regional dominance of Gulf conglomerates. The Palestinian economy has developed through NGO funding and direct investment into the economy from the Gulf, but this has had little trickle-down impact on ordinary Palestinians. Instead, it has given birth to an out of touch NGO/transnational capitalist class whose members reap huge benefits from investment into an economy which only seems to service a select few.

Collaborative security

Fanon parallels the poverty and stagnation of the post-independence nation with the growing dependence of its leadership on a foreign advised and funded military. However, in Palestine it is not an army which has grown to become one of the largest post-Oslo institutions, but the cooperative paramilitary security establishment, the actions of which the PA coordinates with Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency.

As the Palestinian economy has faltered and the Israeli occupation increases its disregard for the rights of the Palestinians, the Palestinian security sector has stepped in, clamping down on popular protest and pre-empting resistance activity through coordinated preventative measures with the Israelis. This cooperative security nexus enjoys international support with a budget of more than $8 million each year from the EU Police Mission for the Palestinian Territories. Meanwhile, Britain has allocated £76 million to the PA for security reform, much of which has been channelled towards the Presidential Guard intelligence service and the Preventive Security Force, both of which are headed by Fatah strongmen. Many of these institutions, trained indirectly by the US, follow what is known as the Dayton doctrine, in which an obedient “esprit de corps” is installed throughout the chain of command. They have been found complicit in the torture of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members, as well as the arbitrary detention of protestors. Former PM Salam Fayyad championed the collaborative security system as a key institution to assist with the development of a “Palestinian state”.

This posture echo’s Fanon’s understanding of the pitfalls of national consciousness when it is pegged to recognition on the terms of the coloniser. The security sector is not protecting the nation, but a specific bourgeois model of it, which benefits the class and bureaucratic privileges of the bourgeois elites. Perhaps the most candid representation of this was in 2007 when a faction within Fatah, with Israeli and western backing, attempted to launch a coup d’état in the Gaza Strip to dislodge the Hamas-led Palestinian government after it won the 2006 legislative election.

The institutions of capitulation in Palestine are laid deep, and many are rooted in a number of international structural factors external to the control of the current leadership. Furthermore, the political stagnation, economic strangulation and general immobility with regards to the “Question of Palestine” begins and ends with an intransigent, unaccountable Israeli occupation. However, the Palestinian leadership, once intertwined cognitively with the broader Palestinian people, especially those in forced exile, have narrowed the horizons of the PNM dramatically. Part of this is due to their pursuit of recognition, but they are also emulating the rapacious attitudes of their coloniser. This has led to institutions which obfuscate the asymmetric power of the current occupation, placing legitimacy in a political project which has failed, and serves no one but a tiny clique.


[Nick Rodrigo is a research associate at the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg; his writing has appeared in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.]