In September 2002 the Israeli military, which had seized control of Ramallah months earlier, surrounded the Palestinian Authority (PA) headquarters in the Muqata’a where Palestinian President Yasser Arafat lived. Rumors of an impending Israeli incursion into the compound and threats on President Arafat’s life spread quickly through the country. Despite the imposition by the Israeli military of a curfew which forbid Palestinian from leaving their homes and which was enforced by snipers and tanks, the Ramallah population (both supporters and opponents of the PA and Arafat) spontaneously took to their balconies, roofs, and eventually the streets, banging pots, pans and other metal and chanting to protest the threatened Israeli actions. The whole city literally rang out in protest. Similar protests were repeated over the next several days until the Israeli military eventually pulled back from its position in front of the Muqata’a.
While the protests were mentioned in the media, they received far less attention than the acts of violence that were occurring during the same period. This is too often the case. Acts of physical violence gain attention, but the daily nonviolent resistance by Palestinians against the structural violence of the occupation goes unnoticed. As a result of this situation, these protests, like the many other acts of nonviolent popular resistance that have occurred and continue to occur in the occupied Palestinian territory, quickly passed from the memories of all but the those who were there to witness them.
However, the reality is that Palestinian resistance to occupation and injustice is overwhelmingly nonviolent. This nonviolent popular resistance is pushing for a new reality in which the occupation is ended, refugees’ rights are realized, and all people are treated with equality and justice. This effort deserves attention and support.
Is popular resistance a new phenomena?
Palestinian nonviolent resistance dates back to the Ottoman and British Mandate periods during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While the story of armed Palestinian resistance is known, the equally important history of nonviolent resistance is largely unacknowledged. The most well known early example of popular protest is the 1936 six month long general strike by Palestinians in protest over British colonial policies and the exclusion of local peoples from the governing process.
Following 1967, popular resistance was most often coordinated by “Popular Committees” comprised of local social and political leaders in towns and villages across the occupied Palestinian territory. The popular committees organized strikes, protests, political activism, and provided social safety nets that helped meet the basic needs of the population. The 1970s and 1980s also saw the rise of grassroots organizations including women’s committees, trade unions, relief committees, youth and student movements, and human rights organizations which provided alternate service systems and leadership to resist the occupation. These organizations and the popular committees were the bodies which supported the tax revolts, general strikes, teach-ins, prisoner hunger strikes, and other acts of popular resistance which defined the first Intifada.
The peace process years (1993 to 2000) saw a move away from popular resistance with wide support across the towns, villages and refugee camps of the occupied Palestinian territory for diplomatic negotiations led by a handful of key leaders. However, with the start of the second Intifada in late 2000 and the breakdown of the Oslo process, popular and nonviolent resistance again took a prominent position in the struggle to end the occupation. Palestinian activists launched legal challenges to the occupation at the U.N. and International Court of Justice, formed grassroots movements to challenge the Wall and settlements, reorganized popular committees, started weekly protests against land confiscation, and developed other new and creative forms of protest that continue into the present.[i]
What does popular resistance look like today?
Popular resistance takes many forms. At times it conforms to a traditional US view of what nonviolent protest looks like - protest marches, hunger strikes, work stoppages, boycotts, etc. At other times resistance is more subtle and perhaps harder for a US audience to understand. This is the daily resistance of laborers who circumvent checkpoints[ii] to find work, of children who cross checkpoints to go to school, of families who build homes despite being denied permits[iii] knowing that they risk having their homes destroyed, of villagers who remain on their land despite being denied access to water, electricity, health and education services, and other basic needs[iv]. This is the resistance of countless, unnamed people who refuse to accept and cooperate with discriminatory policies and laws.
The following are recent examples of popular resistance:
- Village Protests: Israel began construction of the Wall within the West Bank in 2002, isolating 9.4% of all West Bank land[v] on the Israeli side of the Wall. In response the Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign[vi] formed and Palestinian villages in the path of the Wall such as Nil’in, Bil’in, and Budrus launched regular nonviolent demonstrations. Several villages have succeeded in rerouting or delaying construction of the Wall. Today, popular committees across the West Bank continue to resist Israel’s confiscation of land for the Wall and settlements through weekly demonstrations.
- Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions: In 2005 over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations joined together and issued a call for the use of boycott, divestment, and sanctions[vii] tactics to bring freedom, equality, and justice to Palestinians and Israelis, sparking a global BDS movement. Since the call’s inception, targeted campaigns around the world have challenged corporations and cultural and academic institutions that reinforce Israel’s occupation and/or help sustain the denial of Palestinian rights.
- Prisoner Hunger Strikes: During 2012 thousands of Palestinian detainees participated in hunger strikes to protest deplorable prison conditions and Israel’s use of administrative detention orders[viii], which allow for the arrest and detention of Palestinians without charge or trial. Under these orders Palestinians can be held for up to six months and the orders can be renewed indefinitely. Individual strikers were released from detention over the course of the year. In May 2012, Israel agreed to several terms of the strike, including an end to renewal of administrative detention. However, to date Israel continues to hold prisoners in administrative detention and a number of Palestinian prisoners have therefore continued their hunger strikes.
- Creative Actions: In early 2013 Palestinian activists erected Bab al-Shams, a protest village on Palestinian owned land in an area slated for illegal Israeli settlement development. The protest drew international attention to the ongoing confiscation of Palestinian land by the Israeli government for the construction of illegal settlements. Israeli authorities razed the village after two days, using over 500 police officers and military personnel to evacuate, detain, and arrest approximately 100 protestors. However, this action inspires the establishment of other protest villages[ix] across the West Bank.
These are just a few examples of the many creative actions that Palestinians have organized during the last several years. Other actions include, but are not limited to, “freedom rides”[x], “fly-ins”[xi], and mobilizing to protest the closure of the “buffer zone” area in Gaza and attacks on farming in the West Bank[xii].
How has Israel responded to Palestinian popular resistance?
Over the course of the occupation, all nonviolent protests have been brutally suppressed and popular resistance leaders have been imprisoned, exiled, and killed. All public gatherings of more than 10 people are forbidden in accordance Israeli military orders enforced by the Israeli military in the occupied Palestinian territory. Nonviolent protest actions and public political and/or cultural gatherings of Palestinians in areas under Israeli control are broken up by the Israeli military and police, often using tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, rubber bullets, live ammunition, and physical force, resulting in deaths and injuries. In villages such as Nabi Saleh, Bil’in, and Silwan mass arrest campaigns, night raids, and home searches have all been used to discourage the continuation of weekly protests. Leaders in the popular resistance and human rights community are also regularly arrested and held in administrative detention.[xiii]
Despite this response, nonviolent resistance continues. When one generation sees its attempts to establish new forms of resistance violently suppressed, the next generation begins again and they invent new strategies of resistance.
What about Israeli resistance to occupation?
While this background paper focuses primarily on Palestinian popular resistance to the occupation, it is important to note that Palestinian resistance is supported by a small group of Israeli activists who are committed to a process of co-resistance against the structures of occupation and inequality which sustain injustice and violations of international law. Groups like Anarchists Against the Wall work closely with village popular committees in communities challenging the construction of the Wall, while Taayush works with Palestinian communities impacted by settlement growth, settler violence, and other occupation violations. The Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions works to end ongoing displacement, while Zochrot calls attention to Palestinian displacement dating back to 1948 and the rights of Palestinian refugees. Boycott from Within and the Women’s Coalition for Peace both cooperate with Palestinian partners to support BDS efforts.
However, it is important to note that while Israelis are the ones leading efforts to transform their own society, it is Palestinians who are defining and leading the popular resistance movement and all joint struggles that push for the realization of Palestinian rights. Both Israeli and foreign supporters of Palestinians’ rights play a secondary and supporting role in this struggle.
What can you do?
Join the Palestinian led BDS movement[xiv] by supporting or by organizing a BDS campaign. AFSC is a member of two national BDS campaigns, the We Divest Campaign[xv] which asks investment giant TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that support Israel’s occupation or violations of international law, and the Interfaith SodaStream Boycott[xvi] which calls for a boycott of SodaStream due to the location of its production facilities in an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Other campaigns in the US include an Ahava Boycott, HP Boycott, Veolia Boycott and more[xvii].
The following organizations in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel support or engage in popular resistance actions and you can find out more about their work on their websites.
The Boycott National Committee – www.bdsmovement.net
The Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott Initiative – www.pacbi.net
Kairos Palestine – www.kairospalestine.ps
The Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign - www.stopthewall.org
Bil’in Popular Committee - www.bilin-village.org/english
Anarchists Against the Wall - www.awalls.org
Taayush - www.taayush.org
Boycott from Within - boycottisrael.info/
AFSC in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory
Since 1948 AFSC has worked in the US, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territory with Palestinians, Israelis, and other committed activists to support nonviolence, challenge oppression, and (since 1970) to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. This work is guided our “Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel”[xviii]. These principles support the implementation of international human rights and humanitarian law and call for an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, implementation of refugees’ right of return, equality, and justice for Palestinians and Israelis.
[i] For more information on Palestinian and Israeli nonviolent resistance to occupation and injustice see: https://afsc.org/resource/faces-hope-learn-about-palestinian-israeli-conflict or http://www.passia.org/home/2011/pal-resistance/intro.htm