You are not in Gaza, this is al-Hoceima!” This title describes a video clip of tear gas in the streets of al-Hoceima, the epicenter of the ongoing protests by the Hirak movement in the mountainous Rif region of northern Morocco. [1] Hirak protesters risk their lives demonstrating against corruption and for civil rights and state investment in the peripheral Berber-speaking region. Protests have been ongoing since the October 28, 2016, death of local fish seller Mohcine Fikri, who was crushed in a garbage compactor while trying to retrieve 500 kilograms of illegally-caught swordfish police had confiscated. Solidarity demonstrations spread across Morocco and the Moroccan diaspora in Europe. As tensions between the movement and the Moroccan state (al-makhzen) have intensified, protestors have drawn on the Palestinian question to suggest a reading of state violence, tracing parallels with the Israeli war machine’s actions in the occupied Gaza Strip. They build on an older, broader narrative in the region by which local residents—even economic elites—liken themselves to Palestinians subject to the symbolic and actual bulldozers of the makhzen’s predations. The Rif, like Gaza, is geographically insulated, politically isolated, economically marginalized and militarily controlled.

Invoking Gaza enables Hirak activists to symbolically close the gap between Israel as a settler colonial state and Morocco as a post-colonial formation that deliberately marginalizes part of its population. Support and solidarity with the Palestinian cause has strikingly shifted from being an expression of Arab nationalism consonant with hegemonic state rhetoric, to an oppositional discourse that likens the Rif to Palestine, and the struggle against the hogra (disdain) and humiliation by the makhzen, to the Palestinian fight for rights and self-determination. The state-controlled media seems to be amplifying the parallelism of this conflict by deriding the Hirak protestors, and particularly their spokesman Nasser Zefzafi, as “separatists” and “terrorists.” [2]

While some, mostly non-Rifian, secular elites in the broader Berber (Amazigh) movement for language, cultural and political rights have over the past several decades sought to forge real or imaginary ties with Israel, in general Palestine has broadly nourished the imagination of resistance and opposition to the Moroccan state in ways that go beyond the occasional rally, political gathering or activist speech. For instance, in the Gharb region of Morocco, the women who are fighting for access to communal land spoke about the uprooting of their olive trees in privatization projects. They evoked images of Palestinians hugging their trees, spoke about home demolitions in their shantytowns and villages and asked, “Are we Palestinians?”

In the long fight for Western Saharan self-determination, Polisario militants and fellow-travelers have similarly compared their struggle to that of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Invocations of Palestine by ordinary Moroccans in their struggle against the state machinery reflect decades of state official discourse, but also constitute heartfelt solidarity with Palestinian resistance.

The Palestinian Question as State Business

Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Morocco has been the platform for meetings and summits about the fate of Palestine. As a state hegemonic discourse, the “Palestinian question” illustrates late King Hassan’s promotion of Pan-Arabism, and post-independence Moroccan elites’ embrace of an Arab nationalist ideology. The country hosted several conferences, including the 1969 meeting following the arson attack on the pulpit of al-Aqsa mosque. This meeting set the ground for the birth of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1972, and the Committee of al-Quds headed by King Hassan, then inherited by King Mohamed VI. It was in the capital Rabat that the eighth Arab Summit of 1974 recognized the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” The (leaked) role of King Hassan in the Camp David Agreement did not disturb the state’s hegemony over the narratives around the Palestinian question. [4] However, the 1993 Oslo Accords legitimated Morocco’s move to openly connect Rabat to Tel Aviv through liaison bureaus in both capitals, and the king hosted an unprecedented Arab-Israeli economic summit in Casablanca in 1994.

Succeeding his father in 1999, Mohamed VI reiterated Morocco’s commitment to support the Palestinian struggle for self-determination while simultaneously moving towards normalization with Israel. On the one hand, he closed down the liaison bureau with Israel in response to the Israeli invasion of Jenin in the occupied West Bank in 2002. On the other hand, the prominence of the US-led global war on terror, especially after the Casablanca attacks of May 2003, and the importance of the Western Sahara question in international forums, has pushed the Palestinian issue down the agenda and out of the rhetoric of the Moroccan state, except in the occasional messages of condemnation or support, as during the summer 2017 confrontations over Israeli security measures at al-Aqsa mosque. Moreover, Western Saharan claims for self-determination since the 1976 Spanish withdrawal have created a shift in the direction of Moroccan diplomacy toward Africa and, according to unofficial sources, closer to the pro-Israel players in the US State Department and Congress. Morocco’s normalization with Israel, already taking place in Euro-Mediterranean platforms and in bilateral free trade agreements—notably with the US in 2004—pushes Palestine further down the list of Moroccan state priorities.

Palestine and Political Groups

Despite the resilience of the Palestinian question in popular representations of oppression and justice, the current mood is far removed from the 1970s political climate, when Palestine was the main item on the agenda of campus activism, which equated Zionism and imperialism. The atmosphere now is also different from the 1980s when Islamist activism capitalized on popular sentiments about Palestine and redefined it as an Islamic question, rather than an Arab question. Despite their ideological differences and political divides, both leftists and Islamists appropriated the Palestinian tragedy to enlarge their base of support, build popular legitimacy and make claims on the state.

Spearheaded by the Islamist movements in the decade of 2000, massive rallies took place to protest Israeli aggression and violence against Palestinians. The Jamaat al-‘Adl wa al-Ihsan (Justice and Spirituality, also called Charity) and Harakat al-Tawhid wa al-Islah (Unification and Reform) movements organized calls, rallies and fundraising campaigns against the Israeli blockade of Gaza, the invasion of Jenin (2002), military operations in Gaza (2008–2009, 2012, 2014) and the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon (2006). They mobilized street rallies and renewed calls for boycott, generating new spaces for Palestinian solidarity and activating anti-normalization sentiments among new professional, urban elites. To Islamist groups, notably the banned organization of al-‘Adl wa al-Ihsan, these rallies serve both as a test of popularity and a show of force to demonstrate to the makhzen their large base of support. In the same way in which the current Hirak movement’s reference to Gaza in the video complicates assumptions about an Arab-Amazigh divide, which has often served as a master narrative about the Rif, the Islamist movements’ support for both Hamas and Hezbollah troubles the simple Sunni-Shia sectarian lens through which the broader region has been framed since the Iran-Iraq war.

The integration of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) into the government in 2011 drove a wedge between the “Islamists of the makhzen,” as some activists of al-‘Adl wa al-Ihsan like to call JDP members, and those in civil society, BDS groups and cyber-activists who support campaigns of boycott and calls for anti-normalization. While Moroccan support for Palestine is still alive, it is now less concentrated, more dispersed and more often activated through small online initiatives and limited street-level protests.

Palestine and Amazigh Activism

Even if references to Palestine by Hirak protestors (often in an Islamic rhetorical vein) can be read simply as allegorical calls for self-determination, they seem to stand in stark contrast to the ways in which Amazigh activists elsewhere in Morocco have, over the last two decades, tended to disavow expressions of solidarity with Palestine. These Amazigh activists, particularly in the south and the southeast, and among the secular elites based in Rabat, viewed expressions of solidarity as yet another aspect of the makhzen’s hegemonic Arab nationalist discourse. The general critique, as it has been articulated over the years, was that the Moroccan state’s focus on the Palestinian struggle was a means of drawing attention away from inequality and marginalization within Morocco.

In a presumably apocryphal story recounted by Amazigh activists during the early 2000s, a Palestinian law student studying in Fez in the 1990s spent his holiday traveling through the High Atlas mountains, from one poor Berber village to another, without electricity or running water. Everywhere he went, villagers asked what they could do to aid the Palestinian cause. Exasperated and moved by living conditions worse than he had ever witnessed in Palestine, he eventually responded, “Stop asking what you can do for us; instead ask me what I can do for you.” [5]

The Palestinian issue eventually caused a break between many Amazigh activists and the Moroccan oppositional left. [6] Fights broke out in universities between militants of Amazigh and Marxist branches of the national student union over demonstrations and boycotts in support of Palestine. A number of Amazigh activists came to adopt an explicitly philo-Semitic rhetoric which bemoaned the departure of Moroccan Jews, and a number participated in projects to preserve a local and national memory of their former presence. [7] At the extreme, some Amazigh activists likened the Amazigh cause not to the Palestinian struggle but to the Zionist struggle of an ethno-linguistic minority to achieve self-determination and assure its survival in an Arabo-Islamic environment. Over the years, individuals and groups of Amazigh activists have participated in conferences in Israel, toured Zionist heritage sites and met with members of the Israeli government. [8]

Such a philo-Semitic or even soft Zionist stance certainly ran contrary to mainstream Moroccan public opinion, even in the Berber-speaking south where most non-activists, like those villagers in the story above, were broadly sympathetic with the Palestinian struggle. But over the last decade this stance has started to dovetail with the Moroccan state’s own normalization of relations with Israel, as well as with a shift in national self-definition (as inscribed in the revised 2011 constitution) from a monolithic Arabo-Islamic identity to one that explicitly embraces the Amazigh, Mediterranean and Hebraic dimensions of Moroccanness. Of course, such changes have been ambivalent and internally contested, and the makhzen is heterogeneous—the palace, ministries, political parties and local officials espouse potentially divergent ideological positions. But, overall, Amazigh philo-Semitism no longer bears the same critical edge it once may have had, whereas the Hirak activists’ statements, drawing on broadly Islamist rhetoric and likening their situation to that of Palestinians—and thus associating Morocco with the Zionist state—are fighting words indeed.

Morocco’s Palestine

“Palestine” in Morocco is ultimately less about Palestine than about Morocco. As an ideological prop, it has, on the one hand, underwritten the state’s management of an impoverished and potentially recalcitrant populace. On the other hand, it has served as a powerful rhetoric of critique of that very same state and its historic hogra for peripheral populations, like Riffians, who have long seen themselves outside of, or even in opposition to, the makhzen, and today struggle minimally for long denied rights and maximally for self-determination. Solidarity with Palestine has effectively shifted from a hegemonic national discourse that, if anything, divided the Moroccan opposition (leftist vs. Islamist vs. Amazigh), to one which increasingly seems to unite them. The invocations of Palestine during the 2011 demonstrations for social justice and dignity led by the February 20 movement, as continued by the Hirak activists more recently, constitute a poignant critique of makhzen state policy and geopolitical imaginary, including its de facto normalization with Israel.

There are also clearly regional dynamics to this within Morocco, as Palestine may make a better allegory for marginality and aspirations of self-determination in the former Spanish colonies in the Rif and Western Sahara than in other rural Berber-speaking areas. All of which points to one of the ongoing tragedies of Palestine, namely that the instrumentalization of the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) to serve state purposes and domestic politics in places like Morocco, while ostensibly broadening the base for Palestinian solidarity, tends to fossilize actual Palestinians as perpetual, if useful, victims.


Endnotes

[1] “En direct d’Al-Hoceima: Images impressionnantes! Vous n’êtes pas à Gaza, Vous êtes bien à Al-Hoceima!Rif Online, July 20, 2017.
[2] Wissam El Bouzdaini, “Zefzafi est-il séparatiste?Maroc Hebdo, July 17, 2017; Farid Mnebhi, “Nasser Zefzafi, une djihadiste, extremiste marocain copie conforme du terroriste daeshiste Aboubakr Al Baghdadi,” OujdaCity, May 29, 2017.
[3] Interview with Zakia Salime, May 28, 2016.
[4] It has since been reported that King Hassan II also leaked recordings of Arab leaders’ discussions of their military preparedness during a 1965 Arab League meeting in Casablanca to Israeli agents, thus providing key intelligence during the 1967 war. Sue Surkes, “Morocco tipped off Israeli intelligence, ‘helped Israel win Six Day War’,” Times of Israel, October 16, 2016.
[5] If many Amazigh activists have, over the last twenty years, disavowed expressions of Palestinian solidarity as little but state hegemonic discourse, many Palestinians—especially Palestinian citizens of Israel—have continued to view Amazigh efforts to secure language, cultural and political rights as a close parallel to their own struggles as an internal, marginalized minority.
[6] Samir Ben-Layashi, “Secularism in Moroccan Amazigh Discourse,” Journal of North African Studies 12/2 (2007); Paul A. Silverstein, “Masquerade Politics: Race, Islam, and the Scales of Amazigh Activism in Southeastern Morocco,” Nations and Nationalism 17/1 (2011).
[7] Usually this was done without any coordination with Jews still living in Morocco; actually existing Jews complicated the nostalgia. Jews, as a figure of Amazigh dissent, made for a better absent presence than a present presence. See Aomar Boum, “The Plastic Eye: The Politics of Jewish Representation in Moroccan Museums,” Ethnos 75 (January 2010): pp. 49–77.
[8] Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “Morocco’s Berbers and Israel,” Middle East Quarterly 18/1 (2011); “Moroccan amazigh Poet: Arab World is Imperialist, ‘Palestine’ is Jewish” Kabylia.me: https://kabylia.me/2014/09/22/moroccan-amazigh-poet-arab-world-is-imperi….

How to cite this article:

Zakia Salime, Paul Silverstein "Morocco’s Palestinian Politics," Middle East Report 282 (Spring 2017).
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