The Israelis were shooting from one direction, the Palestinians from the other

Nathan Thrall

  • The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine by Ben Ehrenreich
    Granta, 448 pp, £14.99, August 2016, ISBN 978 1 78378 310 6

Despite the images of hijacked planes, homemade rockets, the charred wreckage of buses and Kalashnikov-wielding militants in balaclavas, the most common form of resistance in more than a century of Zionist-Arab conflict has been unarmed – or, as Palestinians call it, ‘popular’. During the first decades of Zionist immigration to Palestine, Jews barely encountered violent opposition. Palestinians instead tried to protest by withholding co-operation, appealing to the Ottoman and British authorities to slow Zionist immigration, and refusing to sell their land. Less than 7 per cent of Palestine’s territory was Jewish-owned at the start of the 1948 war; the property that was owned by Jews had mostly been sold by absentee landlords living abroad, many of whom weren’t Palestinian.

In 1948, only a few thousand Palestinians out of a population of 1.3 million joined irregular forces or the Arab Salvation Army; in the wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973 the number of Palestinians who fought was also quite small. While there has been violent opposition to Israel over the decades, there have been relatively few casualties. Between the first major Palestinian riots in 1920 and the end of June 2016, according to Israeli government statistics, fewer than four thousand Jews (40 a year) were killed in Palestinian attacks.

The four most notable acts of Palestinian rebellion all began in non-violent protest. The 1936-39 Arab revolt started with a general strike, demonstrations, boycotts and non-payment of taxes. The British repressed it brutally, making use of torture, home demolitions, deportations, raids, collective punishment and aerial bombardment. The strike was called off within six months, after approximately a thousand Palestinians had been killed, and the revolt then became violent, resulting in the deaths of another four thousand Palestinians and several hundred Jews and Britons.

The second large Palestinian rebellion took place on 30 March 1976, when tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel went on marches and joined a general strike to protest against the increase in land confiscations by the Israeli government in the Galilee; Land Day is still commemorated every year with large demonstrations. During the third rebellion, known as the first intifada (or, by many of the Palestinians old enough to have participated in it, the ‘real’ intifada), which began in December 1987, Palestinians took part in mass protests, strikes and boycotts, refused to pay taxes, flew banned Palestinian flags, and threw stones. In the first year of the uprising, four Israeli soldiers were killed, while the Israeli security forces and settlers killed more than three hundred Palestinians. This intifada is sometimes known as ‘the intifada of the stones’ and is seen by Palestinians as providing the model for popular resistance, of which they consider stone throwing to be a legitimate part. The IDF views stone throwing as a violent act but admits that not a single soldier has died as a result of a thrown stone. Both court testimony by members of the Israeli security forces and videos made by journalists record numerous occasions, some as recent as last year, when undercover Israeli agents infiltrated protests, incited Palestinians to violence and threw stones at soldiers themselves in an attempt to entrap protesters.

The far bloodier second intifada also began with protests by unarmed Palestinians and stone throwing, provoked by Ariel Sharon’s visit in 2000 to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem – known to Israelis, who have occupied it since 1967, as the Temple Mount. Israeli forces killed seven Palestinian demonstrators the day after Sharon’s visit, 13 the following day, and, a few days after that, 12 Palestinian citizens of Israel. Large demonstrations and other peaceful forms of resistance dwindled as violence took over, but were not entirely extinguished. Alongside the militarisation of the intifada a new form of popular resistance began to spread across the villages of the West Bank.

Initially these protests, which were seen as a return to the methods of the first intifada, were aimed at stopping the construction of the separation barrier. The first of them took place in the village of Jayyous, the largest olive-producer in the West Bank governorate of Qalqilya. In September 2002, residents found signs on their olive trees informing them that the separation barrier would be built several kilometres east of Israel’s pre-1967 border, and so would come within 27 metres of some of the houses in the village, separating the village from 70 per cent of its agriculture, 12,000 of its olive trees, each of its six groundwater wells and all of its irrigated land. The villagers held demonstrations, welcomed activists from Israel and elsewhere, stood in front of bulldozers, and managed to slow the army’s advance. But, in the end, the barrier was erected. Similarly, in Mes‘ha, Beit Liqya, Beit Ijza, Biddu and Ni‘lin, men, women and children stood in front of bulldozers, hugged olive trees, marched, were arrested, tear-gassed, shot and sometimes killed, but failed to stop the barrier from going up.

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