The following interview with Francesco Saverio Leopardi took place on 27 October 2023 and covers a range of issues related to the ‘Question of Palestine’ — from Israel’s ongoing siege against the Gaza strip and the discourse regarding a “two-state solution” in light of a one-state reality, to his 2020 book on the Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine alongside the broader Palestinian Left and Israel’s end-game in Gaza. Dr. Leopardi is a Research Fellow at Marco Polo Centre for Global Europe-Asia Connections (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice), Temporary Researcher at the Department of Political Science, Law and International Studies (University of Padua), and author of The Palestinian Left and its Decline: Loyal Opposition (Palgrave Macmillan: 2020). The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jose Rosales [JR]: While some on the left lament the absence of some ‘third position’ or ‘revolutionary left position’ from which to act in solidarity with Palestinian liberation, it remains the case that the world of the Palestinians is ultimately colonial in nature. And the colonial world, as Fanon reminds us, is a “Manichean world”; a world “characterized by the dichotomy [the colonizing power] inflicts” upon it.1 How do you view this antinomic feeling on the part of the global left? Perhaps more importantly, would the situation be any different if there were, say, a strong and vibrant Palestinian Leftist alternative to the predominance of groups like Hamas?
Francesco Saverio Leopardi [FSL]: I understand why you would mention Fanon in this context since the fundamental structure and ultimate division of the Israeli state is pretty straightforward: colonial occupation predicated on ethnonationalism. Now, while there are differences in terms of superstructural dynamics that characterize Palestinian life across historic Palestine, at the end of the day there remains an ultimate border between the Palestinians and Jewish-Israeli citizens. And if it was not as apparent during the first years of the occupation, the fundamental structure of the Israeli state became more and more clear with the drift towards the right of the Israeli government. Moreover, and particularly with respect to Palestinian politics, I think you are correct to lament the over-representation of the Islamist option of Hamas; an over-representation that effectively covers over the diversity of Palestinian politics. But what makes this overrepresentation problematic is not the neglect of other traditional Palestinian factions of which it would be the cause — all of the traditional factions have been living a crisis of popular credibility and legitimacy. More important is the fact that such overrepresentation ignores the rich and multifaceted experiences of political and cultural mobilization that exist both within and outside of Palestine. That is to say, when we talk about Palestinian politics or when we describe the situation of Palestinians, neglecting the social and political diversity of Palestine is dangerous precisely because it aids in the brutalization of Palestinians as a people and provides a justification for the ongoing occupation. And while we could inquire into what, in fact, is Islamist and what is not, it is incredibly difficult for this kind of inquiry to be taken up and circulated by the media when the debate is so heated.
At the very least, this much is clear: the current situation is the result of how Israel has decided to run affairs in the Occupied Territories; a result of Israel’s belief that it could ignore the worsening conditions in both Gaza and the West Bank alongside increasing numbers of colonial settlements. And while one could say that a lack of a viable Left-political option contributed to these kinds of military operations, I don’t think that the policies of the current Israeli government would be different if there was a [strong Palestinian] Left, if only for the simple fact that Israel has long since viewed the historical and traditional Palestinian Left as terrorists. Moreover, the Palestinian Left itself maintained, at least at the rhetorical level, its relation with the so-called ‘axis of resistance’ — notwithstanding the fact that the ‘axis’ represents truly reactionary forces and/or theocratic regimes for whom sectarianism is a political means of pressuring their respective polities (e.g. Iran, Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon). It is because the fundamental issue remains Israel’s refusal to recognize the equal rights of Palestinians who live in historic Palestine that the main problem isn’t about the political options that are, or are not, currently in existence. While Israel currently has some of the most aligned collaborators in Ramallah — i.e. Mahmoud Abbas — Netanyahu has always opposed a two-state solution ever since he rose to power in 1996, and even more so now when its implementation is totally impossible.
At the end of the day, the main problem is one that concerns the founding ideas at the heart of the Israeli political project, which is rooted in Zionism. One only has to recall the fact that there was no mention of the occupation during the protests in Israel earlier this year. So, the exclusion of Palestinians is something that is so present and needs to be directly confronted given that it informs fundamental aspects of Israeli policy.
JR: In a previous interview, you briefly mention how one of the limitations to the PFLP’s theoretical and strategic position was its adherence to the discourse regarding the “axis of resistance;” a framework that is itself a recapitulation of the Stalinist, Cold War era, analytic of a ‘world divided into two hostile camps.’ Could you say more about this idea of an “axis of resistance” and how it relates to the Soviet Union’s own geopolitical-strategic analysis of the structuring antagonism between imperialism and anti-imperialism?
FSL: This is a problem that the Arab Left as a whole has been facing for several decades now; and not only in Palestine but in parts of the European Left as well. With respect to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP], the group’s early years saw them espouse a maoist view of world politics that divided the global political camp between “friends” and “foes.” It was the reductive simplicity of this framework led to the idea that there was an enemy, imperialist, camp led by the United States with all of their local proxies/allies and an anti-imperialist camp where it was the Soviet Union who was the main “friend” of the colonized world — despite the fact that the PFLP’s relationship with the Soviet Union was never that good, since the Soviet Union looked more favorably upon Fatah and considered the PFLP to be marginal and unorthodox. So the relationship between the PFLP and the Soviet Union was never that strong. Moreover, there remains the issue of an aging leftist leadership [within the PFLP]. When the Soviet Union’s ‘existing socialism’ collapsed, this geopolitical framework seemed to collapse along with it. However, since this aging leftist leadership never innovated their geopolitical framework; and given the fact that there wasn’t any significant generational change within the PFLP; this idea of the world as divided into two camps continued to persist.
As with many observers today, it is indeed difficult to look at world affairs without resorting to the analytical lens of bipolarity. Whether we are talking about Palestine, or Ukraine, or Taiwan, the result is always a discourse regarding a ‘new cold war.’ So it seems that it is really hard for politicians, the media, analysts, and scholars to acknowledge that we are in a multipolar world that is much closer to the world before the First World War rather than the world after WWII. Thus, while the PFLP’s leadership came of age during the era of bipolarity — i.e. during the era of decolonization — they fail to see that this geopolitical situation is no longer the case.
More importantly, this ‘anti-imperialist’ left completely refuses to recognize that simply because a given government or regime may oppose the traditional imperialist powers, it does not necessarily mean that they are progressive, or that these political actors do not possess hegemonic goals of their own. For example, one would have good reasons to define the foreign policies of countries such as Russia, China or Iran as “hegemonic” in several cases. Ever since the main counter-hegemonic actors in the Middle East were either Islamists or supported by Islamist forces, all those who were opposed to traditional imperialist forces ended up aligning themselves with these [counter-hegemonic] groups no matter how regressive, conservative, and reactionary they were. And several factors contributed to this outcome: primarily those of an aging leadership and their inherent weakness in re-elaborating their own political project.
JR: Perhaps it is because airstrikes and massacres are by now a routine part for Turkey’s war on Kurdish revolutionaries that news of Turkey’s airstrike on Kurdish held territory in northeastern Syria was overshadowed by the initial reports and striking images from Hamas’s ‘Operation’ from the same day. Given your reportage on Turkish-Israeli relations, how have the diplomatic and trade relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv affected the long and storied history of internationalist solidarity between the left-wing of the Kurdish movement and the left-wing of the Palestinian/Arab movements?
FSL: It is to be expected that Erdogan has recently ramped up his pro-Palestinian rhetoric. While I am no expert in Turkish politics, I see this as his attempt to position himself as a regional leader, to prop up support, both domestically and from Islamist milieus, for an image of himself as a regional leader.
Regarding the Kurdish left and the Palestinian left: their relationship was strong during the 1980s, which was when the Kurdish Workers Party [PKK] fighters trained in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine [DFLP] camp in Lebanon. Moreover, the PKK fought alongside Palestinians when the Amal Shi’a group, supported by Syria, attacked Palestinian camps in the so-called “war of the camps.” At that time, Syria controlled the area and had no problem supporting the PKK due to its rivalry with Turkey. However, when relations between Syria and Turkey were normalized, the PKK found themselves in a worse off situation — a situation that led to the expulsion of Ocalan, his eventual escape to Italy, and ultimately his arrest in Kenya. It is for these reasons that the two projects eventually distanced themselves from one another, and particularly when the PKK presence in areas controlled by Syria was no longer possible. So there were no longer any direct opportunities for contact and understanding.
The two groups would again diverge as the PKK transformed itself from a traditional communist party into a quasi-anarchist project that is both very interesting and very fragmented/diversified. By contrast, the PFLP and the Palestinian left stopped having similar opportunities to grow and reinvent themselves unlike the PKK, which maintained strong popular support and remained hegemonic within the larger Kurdish community in Turkey. While the material conditions are, of course, different, the [PFLP’s political] relations with the PKK froze during the 1990s, after which point it was no longer meaningful to speak of political relations between the two groups.
JR: This is actually something that comes out in your comparative analysis of the PFLP and the PKK — i.e. while the PFLP never found a successor to Khanafani after he was assassinated, Ocalan was able to retain the symbolism of leadership from prison while PKK members were able to further their struggle in the absence of a traditional Marxist-Leninist organizational structure reliant upon some centralized authority. Despite the advances and/or set backs respective to the Palestinian and Kurdish left, would we be right in saying that the problems of internationalism and the state have become all the more urgent given the persistence of an ossified anti-imperialist framework that sees a world divided into two hostile camps?
FSL: When I wrote the chapter comparing the PKK and the PFLP, I focused on how the PKK was able to retain its radical appeal, its counterhegemonic platform, in a situation where the separatist option was no longer viable for both parties. That said, one is obliged to acknowledge the significant differences that distinguish the Kurdish and Palestinian party contexts.
For the PKK, when the separatist and statist options were no longer viable, Ocalan was able to retain his radicality by disjoining liberation from the nation-state — i.e. liberation and self-determination is no longer dependent on the creation of a nation-state. While this rearticulation of liberation was key for the reinvention of the PKK, it is something that isn’t commonly found either among the main Palestinian political factions or with respect to the Palestinian National Movement broadly conceived. And so, in a situation where you have a one-state reality; where separation is impossible unless it comes through mass expulsion; I think it would be healthy to discuss the idea that liberation does not equal having a nation-state. That is to say, while there are meaningful differences that distinguish the quality of life for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship living in East Jerusalem, Palestinians living in the West Bank, and Palestinians in Gaza, it remains the case that all Palestinians live under the same discriminatory system that renders the colonial nature of separation as something that is always present. This is something that we saw in 2021 during the mass mobilizations against the dispossession of Sheikh Jarrah. Hence the need to discuss and advocate for an idea of liberation no longer grounded upon the creation of a new state. But this is something that the official party’s never really discuss, which is maybe related to factors of age or critical convenience.
That said, even the PKK and the Democratic Union Party [PYD] don’t fully escape the statist solution. This idea of nationalism persists in a latent form insofar as it manages to mobilize groups in both Turkey and Syria. Additionally, the Rojava project retains some degree of dependence upon the actions of state actors insofar as its existence is linked to a political and military understanding between the Syrian regime and the US government.
JR: Where do you see things going from here?
FSL: I mean, no one can answer that. Absolutely no one. Israel’s ground offensive, which everyone has been anticipating, is well underway. Meanwhile, we are hearing of a division between the government and the army in Israel, which is very real. At the same time, Western leaders continue to arrive in Israel, not only to show support for Tel Aviv but to convince Netanyahu of tempering Israel’s military campaign against Gaza because the US military is not convinced that Israel has a clear goal. And this doubt on the part of the American’s is something that is entirely understandable since it is entirely unclear what Israel will do if they reoccupy Gaza.
Whatever the outcome, each option is worse than the other because of what it would mean for Palestinians and for the fact that a reoccupation of Gaza is untenable for Israeli institutions. You cannot expel all Palestinians, which is something that I don’t want to fathom. Then again, if we consider the fact that the [current siege and bombardment on Gaza] is already destabilizing Egypt, then Israel is creating a situation in Sinai that could be ten times worse than Gaza, if we are looking at it from the Israeli perspective. Then, there are those who suggest the idea that neither Iran nor Hezbollah want an escalation on a regional level. This revengeful approach on the part of Israel is probably going to continue as the ground offensive intensifies. But, again, we don’t know. What happened [on 7 October] overturned what we thought was possible. We can say what would be more probable — a limited invasion? Probably. Something that would allow Israel to save face? Yes. Until when and for how long? We do not know. And I don’t see the current campaign coming to an end any time soon.
This is why I am always quite skeptical of geopolitical analysis, since you can never exclude the worst outcome when the worst option has been mentioned. For example, with Ukraine, it’s common to hear people say, “Russia would never drop a nuclear bomb” …until they do. But if you talk about it and, thereby, normalize it, then this is something that could very well happen. Again, the rational option is to avoid a full scale regional war. But if the situation continues to be as risky as it is, and there is no call for a ceasefire nor a call for restraint, the worst case scenario remains a possibility and, therefore, should not be excluded.
1. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (Grove Press: 2004), 10.
2. While people may have encountered this term used in any news segment covering Israel-Palestine during any of the military confrontations between Palestine and Israel in recent memory (Operation Al Aqsa Flood; 2021; 2018; 2014; 2006-07), the original usage of the term, “axis of resistance,” did not arise from any of the “axis’” members — i.e. Iran-backed armed groups and parties in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon (Hezbollah), Palestine (Hamas). Rather, the term “axis of resistance” first appeared in a 2002 issue of Al-Zahf Al-Akhdar, a Libyan daily newspaper, and was coined in response to George W. Bush’s remark that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea comprised an “axis of evil,” and was intended as an alternate means of referring to this anti-US/“anti-imperialist” bloc of nation-states.
3. ‘Turkish Strike on Kurds in Syria Kills 20: Monitor,’ The Defense Post (9 October 2023). Accessed on 8 November 2023.
4. Francesco Leopardi, ‘Decrypting Erdoğan’s Palestine policy’, Independent Turkey (6 December 2016). Accessed on 8 November 2023.