The changing face of Palestinian activism

The overlooked spring

ON NOVEMBER 29, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)voiced landslide approval for a resolution upgrading Palestine to an “observer state,” recognizing it as a sovereign entity encompassing the territories occupied by Israel in the June 1967 war: the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Palestinians awoke the next morning to see that nothing had changed. The Palestinian geography was still entirely militarized, with checkpoints and army bases densely scattered across the violently rolling hilltops, with rapidly expanding Jewish-only settlements still encroaching on Palestinian villages and agricultural lands, with housing demolitions and mass arrests unabated.

Just weeks before the UNGA decision, Israel and the Hamas-led Gaza Strip squared off in an eight-day exchange of rocket fire that proved to be a diplomatic disaster for the Israelis and a bloodbath for Palestinians. For, although Hamas emerged with a new diplomatic credibility at the expense of Israel’s PR image, the UN Office for Coordination of Human Affairs final report issued horrifying numbers for an already dilapidated Gaza: 103 civilian fatalities, 1,399 injured, 450 homes destroyed, and 15,000 people displaced.

Yet neither the rocket-hurling religious militancy of Hamas nor the ineffectual, collaborationist diplomacy of the Palestinian Authority represents the changing face of grassroots Palestinian activism.

Civil disobedience and rights
The first intifada is often touted as the pinnacle of unarmed, if not always peaceful, rebellion to Israeli hegemony. Large swaths of society enacted crippling strikes, marches, sit-ins, and constructed shadow institutions intended to serve as the basis of Palestinian civil society once independence was achieved.

Rather than territorial liberation, however, historic negotiations were the end result. The 1993 Oslo Accords, praised for being the first direct talks between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the state of Israel, proved to be disastrous. The ensuing establishment of the Palestinian Authority dismantled the gains of the intifada by installing an illusory form of self-governance incapable of slowing down—let alone stopping—Israeli settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories. As East Jerusalem was nearly strangled by new settlements and the West Bank usurped more each day, it became clear that, in effect, the peace process served as a front for Israel’s ultimate goal of annexing the Occupied Palestinian Territories. With tensions boiling over during these years, the emergence of violence came as no surprise. 

The peaceful pulse of resistance maintained by Palestinians throughout history, such as on Land Day in 1974 or throughout the six-year trajectory of the first intifada, was eventually eclipsed by the nauseating bloodshed of the second intifada. Today, most Israelis do not remember the emotional scenes of the intifada, those of unarmed dissenters standing defiantly in front of tanks, or Palestinian pupils arriving at schools boarded up by Israeli soldiers. Although always an integral part of the Palestinian struggle, these snapshots of civil disobedience were eclipsed in the public eye by the bombed out Israeli buses that dominated the headlines over the last decade.

In recent years, much activism has refocused on the indispensable principles of nonviolence.  Particularly since the conclusion of the second intifada, an innovative strain of unarmed resistance has blossomed and spread. Largely modeled after the traditions of the American civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, youthful Palestinian activists have ushered in a new era of creative dissent that includes a wide array of tactics designed to directly confront Israeli colonialism.

In November 2011, six Palestinian freedom riders, echoing the American struggle against Jim Crow, boarded Jerusalem-bound settler buses not open for Palestinian use. All in the same breath, the act was a cry for freedom of movement against the grain of military mandates and challenged ethnically segregated public transportation and illegal restrictions on entering occupied East Jerusalem. “To be clear, Israel would not be able to do this without the United States’ financial support and political protection,” thirty-five-year-old Huda Arraf, a Palestinian American, told “It’s up to the American people to say, ‘No, we fought this during the civil rights movement in the ’60s. We don’t accept it for our own communities, so we should not be funding it abroad either.’”

In defiance of mass land confiscations and arbitrary movement restrictions, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) has orchestrated a number of bicycle rides and marches in the West Bank. On December 8, 2012, the most recent bike ride took hundreds of Palestinians and international activists through the dramatic swells of the South Hebron Hills. “The purpose of the symbolic protest was to draw attention to and oppose the eviction orders issued to villages in the area [where] Palestinians in the area near one thousand and have lived there for hundreds of years,” the ISM said in a press release.

In villages like Nil’in, Budrus, Bil’in, and Nabi Saleh, faced with the ever-present threat of settler attacks and land loss at the hands of the infamous separation wall, weekly peaceful protests have garnered astounding displays of support from Israeli and international activists. According to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, peaceful dissent is uniformly greeted with military violence. Heavily armed Israeli soldiers arrive and employ what they call nonfatal crowd dispersal means: skunk gas, tear gas, sound bombs, and “rubber bullets” (which are, in fact, live bullets coated in rubber). These “nonfatal” forms of punishment often prove fatal, such as in the case of Mustafa Tamimi, who died in Nabi Saleh in December 2011 after being shot point blank in the face by a tear gas canister; or Rushdi Tamimi, who survived a mere three days after being shot in the head and stomach by “rubber bullets” during unarmed demonstrations against the latest Israeli onslaught on Gaza in November 2012.

As these Arab spring-like scenes unfold without provoking the international community to put any meaningful pressure on Israel, a call for disengagement from Israel has simultaneously alighted from within and outside of Palestinian society. In the face of wild accusations of bigotry and anti-Semitism, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has emerged as the largest civil society movement based on an equal rights approach. Rather than taking a side on debates on a final solution, namely two states or one state, BDS demands a boycott until Israel meets three non-negotiable conditions to which it is already obligated under international law: “(1) Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall; (2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”

On the crowded stage of Palestinian political drama, two fresh trends stand out, each taking key roles at the forefront of the struggle by introducing well-calculated means of appealing to the world: the Palestinian prisoners’ uprising and the popular movement to establish Palestinian encampments on land slated for Israeli settlement.

The prisoner revolt
In the fragile, highly fractured political landscape, the last two years have witnessed the rise of one issue in particular that is capable of uniting the Palestinian street. While demonstrators face off with security forces at checkpoints and in the streets, prisoners are gripped in a quiet fight behind the scenes. 

According to Addameer Prisoner Support Network, 4,812 Palestinians were packed away behind Israeli bars in sordid conditions as of February 1, 2013. Among them were 178 under the administrative detention file, an archaic practice that flies in the face of jurisprudence, in which suspects are held on “secret evidence” without trial or charge. Another 219 were classified as child prisoners, 31 of whom were under 16-years-old. At least fifteen were members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Imprisoning intellectuals, activists, and potential leaders is a key component of Israel’s broader goal of stifling civil society in order to preserve its hegemony. Yet prisoners have refused to be locked away without a scuffle.

In 2011, administrative detainee Khader Adnan, accused of being an activist for the militant Islamic Jihad organization, launched a successful sixty-six-day hunger strike that achieved the rare feat of capturing international headlines. By bringing himself frighteningly close to death, he was able to wrestle his life back from the hands of Israeli Prison Services (IPS): under immense pressure, IPS agreed to release Adnan into his West Bank village.

Within days of Adnan’s release, Hana Shalabi, another administrative detainee placed in indefinite lockup for alleged involvement in Islamic Jihad, went forty-three days without food. Under pressure again and lacking evidence to charge her, IPS forcibly deported her to the besieged Gaza Strip rather than allowing her to return to her West Bank village.

Following their examples, some 2,000 prisoners launched a mass hunger strike in April 2012. In exchange for giving up their collective fast, IPS reluctantly agreed to meet most of their demands: ending solitary confinement, not extending administrative detention sentences without charges, improving general living conditions, and allowing more family visits. Rights organizations claim that Israel has since reneged on all of the conditions to which it agreed.  

At the time of writing, two prisoners are presently on long-term hunger strike: Samer Issawi and Ayman Sharawna. Each passing day without food, Issawi flirts with death as he surpassed the 225-day mark and presses on. Ayman Sharawna, a former hunger striker who went more than six months without eating in 2012, relaunched his strike in January, though the precise date is uncertain. Like many of their empty-bellied predecessors, none of them have been charged with a crime—let alone convicted. Posters of Issawi line the walls of what seems like every street, corridor, and alleyway in the Occupied Palestinian Territories: his heavily bearded, olive face rests atop a decimated and wheelchair-bound frame, accompanied by slogans such as “Hungry for freedom” or “Dying to live.”

The dwindling Issawi penned from his prison cell:

My health has deteriorated greatly, but I will continue my hunger strike until victory or martyrdom. This is my last remaining stone to throw at the tyrants and jailers in the face of the racist occupation that humiliates our people. I draw my strength from all the free people in the world who want an end to the Israeli occupation. My weak heartbeat endures thanks to this solidarity and support; my weak voice gains its strength from voices that are louder, and can penetrate the prison walls.

Although hunger strikes quickly disappeared from the headlines after the mass strike in 2011, they continue to prove an effective and unifying stripe of resistance. Addameer’s most recent quarterly newsletter reports that “not one day passed without at least one prisoner on individual hunger strike” between September 1, 2012, and January 15, 2013, generally in response to administrative detention sentences or Israel’s reneging on release agreements. As one representative told me in a recent interview, “Where else in the world would this not be a serious human rights crisis? What other weapons do prisoners have? When they are pushed into a corner and denied their basic rights, they have no choice. In that way, hunger striking is the only way they can protest.”

Israeli settlements vs. Palestinian encampments
The most recent showing of creativity and strategic cleverness came in January, when activists erected some twenty-five tents on private Palestinian land slated for 3,000 new Jewish settlement homes in the E1 Area of the West Bank. The Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, who organized the tent protest, declared a new village, Bab Al-Shams (or “Gate to the Sun”).  After the Israeli military declared the entire area a closed military zone, activist-stuffed buses crossed on-the-fly checkpoints, claiming to be giving a tour of drug clinics in the area, and made impromptu stops on the side of the highway. As civilian cars whizzed past and soldier-filled jeeps bounced through the unpaved, rock-ridden fields in pursuit, passengers swiftly exited and sprinted to deliver food and medical supplies to fellow campers. “Freeze now or you will be arrested,” a single soldier draped in olive insignia and crowned with an oversized helmet cried in vain as dozens ascended hills unfit for vehicles.

In Bab Al-Shams, Abdallah, a veteran activist staring back from under a forehead carved with worry lines, explained the situation. “The owner of the land has a court order that said our presence here is legal, and that the owner has six days to protest the confiscation of his property.”  His chest still pulsating from the chase, he took a drag of his cigarette and added, “But the military came again yesterday afternoon and said that the court order did not say that the presence of people was permitted—only tents—and that we needed to leave.”

For decades, Israeli officials have justified the ongoing occupation of the West Bank by arguing that it would be inhuman to yank settlers from their homes even if their presence is illegal under international law. But several rows of minimal white tents, posted against a skyline punctuated by inequality and segregation, leveled the trite “facts on the ground” argument: armed with nothing more than the permission of the land’s legal owner, hundreds of activists were violently evicted by Israeli security forces from Bab Al-Shams after it was declared a closed military zone by the right-wing Netanyahu administration.

Meanwhile, mere kilometers down the road, Israeli settlements were continuing to swallow Palestinian land by erecting “outposts,” settlements considered illegal even by the Israeli government. Despite their unequivocal illegality, it sometimes takes the Israeli regime a decade to evict settlers from outposts. In the case of Bab Al-Shams, less than forty-eight hours passed before the military stealthily surrounded the village.  Amid the silence of the dead of night, some 500 soldiers raided the village, dragging, beating, and arresting activists.

“All we saw were bright green lights, and then the soldiers emerged from the dark,” says a French photojournalist. “Before we could realize what was happening, we were being pushed towards the highway while our Palestinian partners were being beaten, handcuffed and arrested.”

At the time of writing, at least four more protest villages have been built: Bab Al-Karama, Al-Asra, Al-Manatir, and Cana’an. In the case of each of them, the military, always aware of the effectiveness of nonviolent protest, moved to dismantle them without delay, injuring and arresting handfuls of demonstrators and bystanders alike.

Not on the front pages
Throughout the course of the Arab uprisings, conveniently dubbed with the easily marketable theme of “spring,” Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans were depicted as revolutionary heroes who overthrew Arab autocracies to gain Western-like liberal democracies. Yet Palestinians, much like restless populations in Jordan and Bahrain, have not enjoyed the unconditional backing of mainstream media. Despite improvements in the coverage of Palestinian nonviolence, most outlets continue to perpetuate stale stereotypes of Palestinians as religiously intoxicated terrorists inherently incapable of peace. Editorials and analyses regularly seep into the news speculating about the prospect of a third intifada, hinting that violence is inevitable.

For the time being, the immediate outlook is bleak: recently reelected Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue expanding settlements; the international community seems unwilling to pressure Israel into respecting the Palestinian Authority’s newly acquired statehood status; and Hamas has continually reaffirmed its commitment to armed struggle.

It is very likely that the third intifada has already arrived, and it is being conducted not through the force of arms but with bicycle rides, freedom rides, graffiti, marches, sit-ins, empty stomachs, and protest villages. You won’t see this uprising in the pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post. In a society informed by profit-driven media, violence will go on dominating the images in our newspapers and on our television screens. But as Mohandas Gandhi wrote, “We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.” 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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