Throughout July, Zionist groups carried out a number of attacks against Palestine solidarity activists and Palestinian institutions in Italy. They attacked and abused seven young Italians in Rome. One of the victims was accosted merely for wearing a kaffiyeh during the first day of the latest Israeli escalation on the Gaza Strip. Some gun shots were fired at the Palestinian diplomatic residence. Italian political institutions and media have neither condemned nor commented on these worrying events, which are just the latest episodes of the escalating anti-Palestinian sentiment and action in Rome in the past few years.
How is it possible that such episodes go unpunished, passing without any political denunciation and reaction? When and why have Italian institutions become so compliant and accommodating? Such indifference defaces a proud Italian history of sympathy for the Palestinian liberation struggle. To understand the events occurring in Rome today, we must reflect on the genealogy of the Italian-Palestinian relationship and its tragic deterioration.
Over the past sixty years Italian-Palestinian political relations have shifted, in line with larger shifts in Italian and Palestinian politics. For decades, Italy was considered the Western European country most sympathetic to Palestinians. That approach was not only the outcome of Italian political and economic interests in the Arab region, but also the work of Italian grassroots solidarity and Palestinian political activism, especially that of the General Union of Palestinian Students.
Starting in the late 1980s, Italian political support for the Palestinians underwent a gradual but consistent shift. Indeed, by now Italy is one of the closest European “friends” of Israel. There are two main factors behind this political repositioning. One is Italy’s political and social transformation—the long process of cultural, economic and political “integration” into globalised neoliberal policies ,tied tightly to a neo-imperial agenda, which has brought about a radical reconsideration of Italian foreign affairs.
This is chiefly a post-Cold War phenomenon. Although it is linked to broader culture shifts, a powerful media lobby has also emerged, attempting to eradicate previous grassroots global support for Palestine.
The second factor is the slow constant changes in Palestinian organizational practices and political vision, which the Oslo agreement crystallized: they brought about a political and social fragmentation that marginalised the role of Palestinians in the shatat in the liberation struggle. Not only did the PLO’s shift from a revolutionary movement into a quasi-state apparatus favor diplomacy over popular activism, but the organization’s political fragmentation negatively impacted grassroots activism, causing an unparalleled paralysis of social, cultural and political activities for Palestinians in Italy.
Italy’s Approach to the Palestinian Question: Historical Overview
After the end of World War II, Italy paid great attention to the Arab world. The government tried to play a proactive role in the region, well aware of the need to build strong and durable relationships, exploiting its favorable position as a “bridge” between the Middle East and Europe. Italy has historically attempted to benefit from geographical proximity to the region in order to establish an economic presence in the Mediterranean area. This was visible in attempts at direct colonial expansion. In fact, even though Italian foreign policy was considerably reduced in scope amidst increasing polarization between the US and Soviet spheres in the 1950s, its interest in the Mediterranean area endured. After losing the African colonies, Italy had to elaborate new strategies for maintaining its regional presence. In the aftermath of WWII, the Italian approach to the Middle East was trenchant and dynamic. This is not to say that Italian policy towards the Arab world and in particular towards the Palestinian cause was coherent or consistent. Despite its clear political and economic interest in the area, Italian attention and focus was directed almost exclusively at the Atlantic and Europe. Italy was well aware of the relevance of the old continent for US international politics and could see the advantages of European integration, making the repositioning of Italy among the major powers in the US sphere a priority.
In the 1950s Italy was too engrossed in achieving stability and dealing with internal dynamics to form a consistent political strategy towards the Middle East. It was a nation-under-reconstruction and, having lost the war, it had to reshape its image as a credible, solid ally for the US within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At the same time, Italy was a key pawn for the political interests of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc: the Italian Communist Party, emboldened and fortified by the Partisan experience, was the largest and strongest in Europe. The coexistence of these two opposite pulls strongly affected Italian political choices throughout the Cold War era.
On one side, the centrist party Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democracy), the largest Italian party, which led the government in the aftermath of the WWII, intended to prioritize a pro-European politics and a foreign policy based on Atlantic interests. On the other, different political, economic, and social actors were lobbying for a proactive role in the Mediterranean area. In particular, the socialist forces, the secular parties, and even the leftist soul inside the DC were convinced that the Italian role in the Arab world could contribute to the emergence of a “third way” to the Cold War dichotomy.
These dynamics—the need to guarantee internal stability in a delicate phase of national reconstruction, and the desire to re-emerge as a leading political and economic power in the Mediterranean area—all influenced Italian policies towards Palestinians, with sometimes controversial results. Since the establishment of Israel, Italy had attempted to align with the majority of the international, in other words, Western, community by establishing friendly ties with the newly born state.
However, the Italian Communist Party’s pro-Arab approach saw the Palestinian struggle for liberation not only as anti-colonial, but also as an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist revolution. That pole in that way affected Italian diplomacy, molding it in such as a way as to preserve Italy’s privileged role as both an interpreter of the Arab world and a friend of Israel. The attempt to pursue a politics of equidistance particularly characterized the 1950s and 60s. And it led to uneven outcomes. For example, during the 1956 Suez Crisis, Italy played a fundamental role in the resolution of the confrontation. Despite an initial effort to remain neutral, not only did it condemn the Israeli, French and British invasion, but it also engaged in diplomatic efforts leading to the tensions’ end.
Eleven years later, during the 1967 war, Italian attempts to maintain a certain distance from the Arab-Israeli question brought about a quite unforeseen outcome. The government was divided by a harsh internal debate between those who sympathized with Israel and those more supportive of the Arabs. While initially Italy refused to condemn Egypt and the Arab states, it eventually had to converge on the American plan for “peace,” which led to quite negative repercussions  on Italian economic relations with Arab states.
While the 1950s and 1960s saw merely timid attempts to pursue a proactive role in the Arab-Israeli question, during the 1970s Italy swerved to a more consistently pro-Palestinian stance. Italy, led by then-Prime Minister Aldo Moro, promoted a number of initiatives for the Palestinian cause. For example, along with France, it advocated for Arafat’s participation in the UN General Assembly in 1974.The government also expressed sympathy for the Palestinian plight, not only through statements and declarations, but even to the point of allowing an official PLO presence in Italy as soon as 1974. It also committed to the EEC Declaration of Venice, which Israel strongly opposed. The United States vigorously criticized these initiatives, but the Arab states and Palestinians warmly welcomed them.
That support increased during the 1980s when Italian politics, led by the Socialist Party’s secretary Bettino Craxi and Christian Democrats Party’s secretary Giulio Andreotti, became openly supportive of Palestine, sometimes to the point of straining the Italian alliance with the United States and Israel. This was the case, for instance, in 1985, when Italy refused to extradite the Achille Lauro Palestinian hijackers. During the 1970s and 80s, however, Italy also had to deal with the intensified activities of Palestinian forces on its soil. Its diplomacy aimed at ensuring that the tension between Palestinian militants and Israeli secret service did not degenerate in Italy. Through an unofficial agreement known as the “Lodo Moro,” Italy guaranteed certain Palestinian groups the freedom to coordinate and organize their work on Italian land if they would guarantee that actions would not be carried out in Italy. However throughout the years several reconstructions emerged according to which the same “blind eye” policy was turned on the Mossad.
Yet these efforts did not prevent armed actions and the murdering of innocent people on Italian soil. Between the 1970s and the 80s, four Palestinians were assassinated in Rome —Palestinian intellectual Wael Zwaiter in 1972, PLO Officer Majed Abu Sharar in 1981, PLO Vice Representative Kamal Hussein and Palestinian doctor Nazih Matar in 1982. Israeli pacifist nuclear Technician Mordechai Vanunu was kidnapped by the Mossad in 1986 in Rome. Additionally, the Abu Nidal group carried out a series of armed attacks in Rome that increased tension and which were strongly condemned by the PLO.
At the same time, the pro-Palestinian politics of the 1980s could boast tremendous popular support and solidarity, especially after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. That event shocked Italian public opinion, and had political reverberations. Then-President of the Republic Sandro Pertini condemned the killings during the 1983 New Year’s Address to the Nation.
This wave of unprecedented diplomatic and popular support peaked with the start of the first intifada in 1987. But during the 1990s it started fading, and underwent a gradual but radical shift during the 1990s: the end of the Cold War caused a long and irreparable crisis in the Communist party, which in turn affected Italian foreign policy. The Italian left drastically transformed, in line with the ascent of global neoliberalism in the aftermath of the Cold War.
During the 1990s the Italian left concluded that “outside of liberal democratic principles all is empty, or worse demagogic. And since advanced capitalist countries are governed from the center, they chose to orient themselves toward a neo-centrist collaboration.” This newly-found creed and the political shifts which went along with it had a huge impact on the Italian approach towards the Palestinian cause.
Italy counterbalanced its traditional empathy with the Arab cause with relationship-building with Israel as well as almost unconditional support to American pro-Israeli policies. Indeed, some scholars have argued that Italian foreign policy was, in this regard, basically delegated to the US. But especially after the 9/11 attacks, with the emergence of a widespread Orientalist discourse that identifies Arabs and Islam with terrorism, the Italian approach towards the Middle East and Palestine in particular changed utterly.
Governments led by Berlusconi and the Left coalition alike have strengthened Italy’s economic and political ties with Israel. They have justified these choices in terms of strategic interests, but have also exploited the rhetoric of a moral debt to Jews as well as a purported cultural affinity with Israel, “the only democratic state in the Middle East.” In the past decade, in the media, public debates and even political statements, the Palestinian plight has often been depoliticised or demonized. Palestinians are presented as a humanitarian case, and the mainstream media has maligned demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinian right to justice and liberation as anti-Semitic.
Furthermore, this debate has been purposefully placed in the “clash of civilizations” discourse—the better to justify Italian support for neo-colonial policies. Even the dichotomy between “us”— the good—and “them,” or “the other,” the bad, is a framework that has justified the pursuit of neo-colonial policies in non-Western areas. Italy has fully endorsed the neo-imperialist framework under which these policies were conceived and the cultural mechanism through which Israel became “us” and the Palestinians, the “others.” Hamas’s democratic victory in the 2006 Palestinian National Authority legislative elections was placed into this framework. And the identification of Palestinians with “Islamic terrorism” became stronger as the struggle was increasingly rendered in religious terms.
This distortion has, for a long time, gone almost unchallenged amidst the inability of a once-dynamic Palestinian community to push back against it. If during the 1960s and 1970s—and, to a lesser extent, the 1980s—Palestinians in Italy were able to establish a solid political network, in the past two decades such activism has been in crisis, marked by a social fragmentation that paralyzed its ability to impact Italian society and mobilise popular support.
Palestinian Political Engagement in Italy
Palestinians are among the most integrated foreign communities in Italy. The first wave of Palestinians arrived in Italy during the 1950s. Large cohorts of Palestinian students entered the country during the 1960s and the 70s. Coming from a second exile after the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Palestinian students immediately took to political activism, especially with the establishment of a General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) branch in 1969. GUPS was the pioneer Palestinian organization in Italy, and laid the basis for the establishment of other popular and sectoral unions. It embraced Palestinian students of all factions and movements, coming from the whole Arab region.
GUPS did not just aim to provide support to students. It also played an important political role, building strong relationships with Italian popular movements and grassroots organizations. Such formations included the Student Movement Organization, led by philosopher Mario Capanna, leftist parties such as Unità Proletaria and the Communist Party, and even extra-parliamentary forces such as Lotta Continua, Potere Operaio, and other Marxist, Leninist, and Maoist groups. During the 1970s, Palestinian students were the engine of Italian popular support for their cause: they organized demonstrations and constantly published and distributed informational material, posters and booklets. This intense work paved the ground for the PLO’s successive achievements in establishing ties with Italian parties and strengthening Italian-Palestinian diplomatic relations.
But if students were able to maintain their central role of generating solidarity amongst the Italian masses until the late 1970s, in the following years, they and indeed all sectors of Palestinian society in exile had to reorganize and rethink their activism and role in light of two events: in 1982, the PLO’s forced departure from Beirut, and in 1993 the Oslo accords. Both these events represent a fundamental turning point for Palestinians in the shatat. When the PLO left Beirut in 1982, its many institutions lost their cohesiveness and effectiveness and underwent a process of bureaucratization which negatively impacted on the popular organizations and unions, especially those in the shatat, where their role rapidly diminished.
These dynamics were evident in Italy as well where, in the late 80s, the political engagement of Palestinian popular unions and groups slowly waned, as the Palestinian cause was increasingly represented through the diplomacy of the PLO delegation. The fragmentation of Palestinian society and the paralysis of Palestinian popular activism was crystallized by the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993. Those agreements formalized the PLO’s shift from a revolutionary movement working to achieve liberation and justice into a quasi-state apparatus willing to establish a mini-state concerned with land, boundaries, and representation rights. This transformation has deprived the struggle of its foundational principles and has slowly undermined its strategies.
Furthermore, Oslo accelerated the fragmentation of the Palestinian society by dividing it into “different groupings” with apparently different political agendas, while secluding the political claims of the majority of the Palestinian people to the far end of the peace process. Palestinians in the shatat were thus marginalized and isolated from their own struggle. When it became clear that, despite the rhetoric, peace would not be achieved, Palestinians in the shatat found themselves disconnected from their own society, detached from their own movements, and did not know how to reorganize.
In Italy, one of the most worrying consequences of such fragmentation and lack of a collective strategy was the Palestinian cadres’ inability to form and prepare the new generations of Palestinians born in Italy to understand and contribute to their cause and cultivate their original ties with Palestine. These dynamics, along with the political and cultural changes that characterized Italian politics and society in the past three decades, largely explain Italy’s pro-Israeli turn and the Palestinian inability to challenge it.
However, despite the Palestinian political crisis and increasingly intimate Italian-Israeli political, economic, and military relations, new waves of Palestinian activism and Italian support for the cause are emerging. Some of the recent and most dramatic events in the Zionist colonisation of Palestine have strongly affected both Italian society and the Palestinian community in Italy. The 2008-2009 Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip, “Cast Lead,” shocked Italian public opinion. Thousands of Italians and Arab Muslims poured into the streets. More people slowly started to remobilize and challenge the propaganda machine. The general emotion around the murder of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni in 2011 and the embarrassing institutional silence in Italy after this event was another fundamental moment in Italian reactivation of solidarity groups and movements. The BDS campaign, for instance, has gained broader support greatly contributing to spreading awareness among Italian society and the recent popular mobilization against the latest Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip has also been encouraging.
Recent political developments in the Palestinian community are also crucial. In the past few years a new generation of Palestinians has attempted to reorganize and reunite—initially only around the desire of strengthening their cultural and identity ties with the homeland. But such formations have gone on to develop a strong political consciousness and agenda, with the need to achieve “justice, liberation and return” at its core.
This group of youth includes Palestinian-Italians as well as Palestinian students from the Arab region and from historical Palestine. One can trace their mobilizations back to 2005 when they founded the Palestinian Youth Association “Wael Zwaiter,” through which they were able to raise awareness about their struggle for liberation. Although the association was able to achieve great results and coordinate with several Italian movements mainly in Rome but also at the national level, its activities ceased early in 2010. Youth political engagement, however, continued and was based on a more informal and decentralized approach.
Thus, despite the difficulties, the Palestinian youth in Italy have been reorganizing again in the past year. In general, they are committed to elaborating new political strategies and a new understanding of the Palestinian struggle on two different levels: among Italian society and among Palestinian society in historic Palestine and in exile. Their vision highlights the regional and international relevance of the Palestinian cause, situating it within the long history of anti-colonial revolutions. They see the Palestinian struggle as linked to and not isolated from broader struggles. While they insist on locating anew the commitment towards other oppressed people that used to characterise the Palestinian liberation movement, these youth emphasize the anti-colonial spirit of the struggle, denounce the national movement’s shift into state-building, and call for a “reunification” of the Palestinian people around the shared principles of justice, return and liberation.
In this sense, Palestinian youth in Italy have been coordinating their actions and elaborating their vision transnationally, trying to organize with similarly-thinking Palestinians scattered all over the world. To their great merit, they were also able to contribute to the internal debate within the Palestinian community and Palestinian groups and associations in Rome. The efforts to reactivate Palestinian political activism in Italy has also interested the older generation which was attempting to reinvigorate their strategies and structures by participating more directly to all forms of mobilization related to Palestine. Yet, the old generation’s political approach, and particularly the lack of a critical analysis of the current Palestinian political conundrum has sometimes prevented a more constructive cooperation with the youth, thus reflecting the conflictive dynamics that have characterized Palestinian society in the post Oslo period.
Despite such contradictions, the government’s support for Israel has been recently counterbalanced by a more consistent Palestinian mobilization and stronger organization of Palestine solidarity movements. While Italian institutions are strengthening their economic, cultural and even military relations with Israel, reflecting their uncritical support and acquiescence even for the recent attacks against Italian citizens in Rome, the Italian public is once again mobilizing.
The way to go is still long. But the role that a new generation of Palestinian exile organizers is playing within Italian society, while still only beginning to stir, is adding a fresh vigor to the pro-Palestine political scene. With the youth finally prepared to share the burden of the Palestinian national struggle in Italy, the future, perhaps, looks a little less grim.
 A version of this paper was presented at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies Conference “The Palestinian Cause and the Future of the Palestinian National Movement,” in Doha, Qatar. 7-10 December 2013.
 The closest translation of al-shatat is “Diaspora”. However, the use of the term Diaspora with reference to the Palestinian case is inadequate. The definition of Diaspora does not address their legal status, and further, "accepts a situation of dispersion […] which implies the abstraction of the right of return. To qualify the Palestinians as Diaspora, is to eliminate the language necessary to change their situation," Kudmani, quoted in Tareq Arrar, “Palestinians exiled in Europe” in Al Majdal (Spring 2006) pp. 41-45 p. 42.
 Francesco Perfetti, “Mediterraneo e Medioriente nella Politica Estera Italiana,” La Comunità Internazionale Fasc. 2 (2011): 186
Antonio Varsori, Europeismo e mediterraneità nella politica estera italiana, in Il Mediterraneo nella politica estera italiana del dopoguerra, ed. Massimo De Leonardis, (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2003), 27-28.
 Pietro Pastorelli Il ritorno dell’Italia nell’Occidente. Racconto della Politica Estera Italiana dal Settembre 1947 al Novembre 1949, (Milano: LED, 2009), 237-319
 Perfetti, “Medioriente nella Politica Estera Italiana,” 189.
 Francesco Perfetti Mediterraneo e Medio Oriente nella Politica Estera italiana” La Comunità Internazionale Fasc.. 2 2011 pp. 185-202
 Luca Riccardi, Il “problema Israele”. Diplomazia italiana e Pci di fronte allo stato ebraico (1948 – 1973), (Milano: Guerini Studio) 2006
On the Six Days War and Italian diplomacy see for example Daniele Caviglia e Massimiliano Cricco, La diplomazia italiana e gli equilibri mediterranei. La politica mediorientale dell’Italia dalla Guerra dei Sei Giorni al conflitto dello Yom Kippur (1967-1973), Soveria Mannelli, 2006,
 The Suez Canal was closed and oil concessions guaranteed to ENI in the Sinai were withdrawn
Francesco Perfetti Mediterraneo e Medio Oriente nella Politica Estera italiana” La Comunità Internazionale Fasc.. 2 2011 pp. 185-202; Palestine International Institute The Palestinian Community In Italy (Palestine International Institute) 2008
The Venice Declaration (also known as the Declaration of the Venice Summit) was an agreement issued by the nine-member economic committee of the EEC, which met in June 1980 in conjunction with Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The declaration called for the acknowledgment of Palestinians’ right to self-government and the PLO’s right to be connected to peace initiatives
 Francesco perfetti Mediterraneo e Medio Oriente nella Politica Estera italiana” La Comunità Internazionale Fasc.. 2 2011 pp. 185-202
See for example Eric Salerno Mossad base Italia. Le azioni, gli intrighi, le verità nascoste (Milano: Il Saggiatore) 2010
 Palestine International Institute The Palestinian Community In Italy (Palestine International Institute) 2008
Alessandro Demurtas, F. Galietti, S. Santangelo, Emanuele Schibotto,
Francesco Tajani, Stefano Torelli Italia, Potenza globale?Il ruolo internazionale dell’Italia oggi ed Mario Sechi (Fuoco Edizioni) 2012 P 80.81
See for example Meir Litvak The Islamization of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Case of Hamas Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 34, No. 1 (Jan., 1998), pp. 148-163
 Jamil Hilal “The Challenge Ahead” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 46-60
 Alain Gresh “The Palestinian Dream On”, Le Monde Diplomatique, 149, Paris, Jul/Sept 1998.