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Popular resistance in Palestine

The Great March of Return in Gaza recentered the issue of Palestinian nonviolent resistance to the injustices they face.  Despite the popular grassroots organization of the march and its largely nonviolent character, there has been a continued attempt to delegitimize these protests.  This delegitimization is part of a larger campaign to undermine nonviolent resistance to Israeli policies against Palestinians.  In the first five months of 2018 alone, nonviolent protest leaders in Nabi Saleh, Bilin, and Budrus have been arrested, a Poet was sentenced to time in prison for her words, Palestinian legislators from Jerusalem had their residency rights revoked, protests in Haifa were violently suppressed, and over 100 Palestinians were killed while protesting peacefully in Gaza.

While nonviolent protests are often mentioned in the media, they received far less attention than acts of violence and delegitimization of nonviolent actions is the norm. As a result of this situation, nonviolent popular resistance in the occupied Palestinian territory is often ignored. 

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.

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 to find work, of children who cross checkpoints to go to school, of families who build homes despite being denied permits 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.  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 on the Israeli side of the Wall. In response the Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign 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 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: Palestinians in Israeli prisons have repeatedly gone on hunger strike to protest deplorable prison conditions and Israel’s use of administrative detention orders, 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.  These strikes have resulted in Israel Israel agreeing to change prison conditions, including an end to renewal of administrative detention.  However, to date Israel continues to hold prisoners in administrative detention and Palestinian prisoners therefore continued to use hunger strikes to demand change in their situations.
  • Mass Non-violent Protest: In July 2017 Israel moved to impose new restrictions on Palestinians wishing to enter Al-Aqsa Mosque to pray.  These restrictions were rejected by Palestinians.  Public protests including prayer service held in the streets when Palestinian refused to enter Al-Aqsa under the new restrictive regime, business strikes, and mass popular non-violent protests in the streets all were used to call attention to the imposed changes while pushing for change.  As a result of these protests and the attention the garnered, the new regime of restrictions was removed.  

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”, “fly-ins”, and mobilizing to protest the closure of the “buffer zone” area in Gaza and attacks on farming in the West Bank. 

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

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 Yesh Din work to diseminate information on the impacts of the occupation and to support Palestinians working for their own liberation, while Taayush works with Palestinian communities impacted by settlement growth, settler violence, and other occupation violations.  Gisha works to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza, 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?

In 2005, over 170 Palestinian organizations issued a call to the international community asking for the implementation of boycott and divestment initiatives (BDS) to stop human rights abuses against Palestinians by the Israeli government. The initial Palestinian call was signed by a broad coalition that included unions, academics, political parties, cultural groups, and civil society organizations.  AFSC is supporting and organizing various actions and campaigns and has developed an investment screening tool for individuals and groups to review their investments:

Invite your congregation to join the campaign and watch this video of AFSC Economic Activism Director Dalit Baum talking about the movement. 

Check your own investment portfolio using AFSC’s new investment screening tool

Learn about and join other active BDS campaigns.  

Learn More

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 –

Kairos Palestine –

Stop the Wall -

Youth Against Settlements -

Yesh Din -

Taayush - 

Boycott from Within -

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”.  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.

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