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.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion stating that ‘the construction of the wall being built by Israel’ is ‘contrary to international law’ and that it must be dismantled. Israel ignored the ICJ, but the village protests did not stop. After dozens of demonstrations in Budrus, west of Ramallah, the IDF recommended that the planned route of the barrier should be changed so that it would no longer encircle it and eight other villages, closing them off from both Israel and the rest of the West Bank. In 2005, the government approved a route that encroached on less of Budrus’s land, kept closer to the pre-1967 border, and no longer held the nine villages trapped.

The following year, an Israeli court ruled that the inhabitants of a single house near Jerusalem – encroached on by an Israeli settlement and surrounded entirely by the barrier, which had a gate in it that could be opened only by the army – were no longer to be confined. In 2007, after two and a half years of protests in nearby Bil‘in, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the barrier should be rerouted: ‘We were not convinced,’ the chief justice wrote in her decision, ‘that it is necessary for security-military reasons to retain the current route that passes on Bil‘in’s lands.’

The protests spread, and were no longer concerned only with the location of the barrier. In Kafr Qaddum, residents held weekly demonstrations after the main road from their village was blocked by the neighbouring settlement of Kedumim. All the settlements outside Jerusalem are located in the 60 per cent of the West Bank designated Area C by the Israeli military, and Palestinians there have had much to protest about. The army can expel residents by declaring that their land is to be used as a ‘firing zone’ for military training, and has failed to prevent attacks on people and property by Israeli settlers. Building permits are hard to come by: of the thousands of applications submitted by Palestinians between 2000 and 2012, only 5.6 per cent were approved, and in practice building by Palestinians is permitted in less than 1 per cent of Area C. Homes and other structures constructed without permits are routinely demolished: in the same years, nearly three thousand were destroyed, displacing thousands of people.

In 2008, a group in Hebron called Youth Against Settlements organised non-violent protests against army actions which had essentially put paid to Palestinian life in the centre of the city: the IDF had erected more than a hundred barriers to restrict movement; forced hundreds of businesses to shut down; enforced what it calls ‘sterile’ streets, where Jewish settlers can walk but Palestinians cannot (the front doors of Palestinian houses on these streets were welded shut, obliging their residents to use roofs and ladders to get out). What was once Hebron’s main market and liveliest thoroughfare, Shuhada Street, has mostly been closed to Palestinians since 1994 in response to an American-born settler firing 111 rounds and killing 29 people inside the Ibrahimi Mosque.

In December 2009 the residents of Nabi Saleh, a village of some 600 people, almost all of them members of a single extended family called Tamimi, challenged the confiscation of their land and their main spring by the settlement of Halamish. Israeli government statistics obtained by the NGO Peace Now show that one third of the land registered to Halamish was stolen from private Palestinian owners. The figure is almost identical to the amount – more than 32 per cent – of West Bank settlement land that is in fact owned by Palestinians. During the second intifada, the IDF had declared the land adjacent to the settlement a closed military zone. The army prevented the villagers from farming their land there, while allowing the settlers access. In protest against these and other confiscations, dozens and sometimes hundreds of people would march every Friday from Nabi Saleh towards the village spring, where settlers had built an arbour, a swing and pools. After two and a half years, the villagers finally reached the spring. They spent an hour there before the settlers told the army to remove them: they have never managed to return.

In 2011, with mass demonstrations spreading throughout the Middle East, thousands of unarmed protesters marched on Israel’s borders on Nakba Day, 15 May, the annual commemoration of the flight and expulsion of three-quarters of a million Palestinians from their lands and homes in the 1948 war. In the West Bank itself, new tactics were being used. Late in the same year, a group of young Palestinian activists calling themselves Freedom Riders invited foreign journalists to accompany them when they boarded a bus used by settlers to travel to and from Israel. When the bus arrived on the outskirts of occupied East Jerusalem, the police ordered the activists to get off the bus; they refused, comparing themselves to Rosa Parks as they were arrested. The next year a group of protesters blocked a road near Ramallah that is for Israeli cars only.

At the same time, the PLO leadership pursued – haltingly and primarily as a means of leveraging new talks with the Israeli government – a peaceful resistance strategy: it put forward a resolution to the UN Security Council on the illegality of settlements, which the US vetoed; it joined Unesco as a member state; it won Palestine’s admission to the UN as an observer state; and in April 2014, following the collapse of US-led negotiations, it signed instruments of accession to numerous international treaty bodies, as well as the International Criminal Court. These diplomatic moves didn’t put a dent in the machinery of occupation and had no impact on Palestinians’ daily lives, but they encouraged a sense that momentum was building for non-violent resistance.

In January 2013, Palestinian activists adopted the settler tactic of ‘creating facts on the ground’: on a site known as E1, a plot of land east of Jerusalem that had been picked out for settlement expansion, they put up two dozen tents to form a protest ‘village’ called Bab al-Shams. Israel regularly permits illegal settlements established by Jews: in fact it makes sure they’re guarded by the military and connected to water and electricity supplies. Often it retroactively legalises them. At Bab al-Shams, in contrast, Israeli forces had evicted all the protesters within 48 hours. But the idea caught on, and in the next few weeks four more protest villages were established.

For a period there was hope that this wave of popular resistance might start the next great Palestinian rebellion, a peaceful, non-factional uprising, led by a new generation. But this hope faded quickly. Participation, never high, shrank. Political leaders showed little interest. Media attention turned elsewhere. Some local struggles continued, but they never coalesced into a larger uprising against the occupation itself. The reason they failed to do so is one of the central questions Ben Ehrenreich poses in his eloquent account of popular resistance and Israeli military repression in the West Bank. His book gives a vivid portrait of Palestinian life under occupation and the enormous challenges faced by those who choose to confront it.

For those who are active in the popular resistance movement, the reason Israel has not faced a sustained campaign of Palestinian civil disobedience and unarmed resistance since the first intifada can be summarised in a single word: Oslo. The Oslo Accords, the first of which was brokered in 1993, brought the first intifada to an end, established limited Palestinian self-governance in parts of Gaza and the West Bank, outsourced to the new Palestinian government many of Israel’s responsibilities as an occupying power, and immunised Israel against the forms of protest to which it had previously been vulnerable: boycotts, strikes, non-payment of taxes and mass demonstrations.

After Oslo, Israel replaced Palestinians with foreign workers. Before Oslo, more than a third of the Palestinian labour force worked in Israel or its settlements: by 1997, three years after the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established, the figure had dropped to 16 per cent. Palestinian unemployment soared. PLO leaders who a few years earlier had been leading strikes against Israel now held government positions and were begging the Israeli authorities to issue more work permits.

Non-payment of taxes shifted from an Israeli liability to a Palestinian one, as the PA began collecting income tax. At the same time, the Palestinian economy became more vulnerable, since basic services once provided by the occupying power were no longer guaranteed: the PA depended on Israel to hand over the far larger taxes on imports, which it collected for a 3 per cent fee – and withheld when the Palestinians didn’t behave themselves.

With Gaza fenced off, and more than 90 per cent of the population of the West Bank living in 165 separate ‘islands’, ostensibly under the control of the PA, large-scale protests no longer posed as much of a threat. In Area A, which adds up to 18 per cent of the West Bank, the PA has security and civil control; it only has civil control in Area B, which adds up to 22 per cent of the territory. Both areas are surrounded by the spatially contiguous Area C, which takes up the rest of the West Bank, and here the PA has no jurisdiction. This arrangement ensures that the largest Palestinian population centres, in Area A, are removed from direct contact with Israelis and can be managed indirectly by the army through its close co-operation with Palestinian security forces. It also makes large demonstrations containable, less likely to spread and easy to seal off, thanks to encirclement by zones of Israeli control. Large-scale protests are even harder to sustain in Area B, where Israel has direct control of security, and most Area C communities are small, isolated villages. As a result, protesters struggle to offer a media spectacle to the fairly oblivious Israeli public, most of whom in their daily lives are hardly conscious of the occupation.

Those who continue to protest also face a daunting set of legal obstacles. Demonstrations in the West Bank are effectively criminalised. Israel’s Military Order 101, in place since 1967, makes illegal any ‘procession, gathering or rally … held without a permit issued by a military commander’, with a ‘procession or rally’ defined as ‘any group of ten or more persons’ assembled ‘for a political purpose or for a matter that could be interpreted as political’. Incitement, defined as ‘orally or in any other way attempt[ing] to influence public opinion in the region in a way that is liable to disturb public peace or order’, is outlawed too. Another regulation allows local IDF commanders to declare any area – for example, the Palestinian-owned land on which a protest is taking place – a ‘closed military zone’, thereby enabling them to shut down demonstrations and arrest the participants.

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Thanks to laws and regulations such as these, 40 per cent of all Palestinian men in the West Bank and Gaza have spent some time in Israeli jails. Once arrested, Palestinian protesters, unlike Israeli protesters, are subject to Israel’s military justice system, which means they can be placed in ‘administrative detention’ indefinitely, without charge or trial. By his 44th birthday, Bassem Tamimi, one of the leaders of the protests in Nabi Saleh and a central character in Ehrenreich’s book, had been arrested ten times and ‘spent three years of his life in Israeli prisons without ever being convicted of a crime’. When he was finally tried, in 2011, he was charged with incitement, solicitation to stone throwing, disruption of legal proceedings and organising and participating in unauthorised processions. The trial dragged on; more than a year after his arrest he was convicted of two of the charges, and sentenced to 13 months in prison. Tamimi’s conviction was hardly in doubt: in 2010, the last year for which records are available, 99.74 per cent of the Palestinians tried in Israel’s military courts were found guilty. Palestinians haven’t had much more success in making complaints against soldiers: between 2010 and 2013, only 1.4 per cent resulted in an indictment (this doesn’t take into account the large number of cases Palestinians never bothered to file). According to the Israeli human rights lawyer Irit Ballas, of the hundreds of complaints alleging torture at the hands of Israel’s Internal Security Agency between mid-2002 and 2012, ‘not even one [was] found worthy of a criminal investigation.’

There were also internal obstacles to a new popular uprising. Fatah feared that Hamas might use popular protest to undermine its authority in the West Bank, and Hamas feared Fatah would do the same in Gaza. Many Palestinians were still exhausted after the second intifada. In Area C villages like Nabi Saleh, Ehrenreich writes, residents were divided over the effectiveness of protest, which had exacted a heavy price: after 14 months of weekly demonstrations, 155 residents had been injured, 70 had been arrested, 15 were in prison, six were in hiding, and nearly every home in the village had been damaged by Israeli raids, burned by gas grenades, or sprayed with a faeces-smelling liquid the army calls ‘skunk’. Two protesters have since been killed by the army.

Palestinian political figures were seen as having squandered the sacrifices of the first intifada to make a set of agreements that merely gave Israel’s occupation new life. In Palestinian eyes the gaps between the rhetoric of their leaders and the reality of their position were enormous. Rhetoric was the PLO Central Council voting to end security co-operation with Israel and President Abbas threatening to dismantle the PA. Reality was Abbas describing security co-operation as ‘sacred’ and saying that ‘the PA is our achievement and we will not give it up.’ Rhetoric was the official PA support for boycotts of Israeli products. Reality was Israeli settlements constructed largely by Palestinian workers. Rhetoric was Abbas promising that ‘our people will continue their popular peaceful resistance to the Israeli occupation.’ Reality was a lack of support for such a movement from Palestinian leaders. Protests were liable to be suppressed by PA security forces, failed to sustain the attention of a fickle press, hardly made an impression on Israeli citizens and were little more than a minor nuisance to the occupying power.

The politicians liked to claim that popular protest and civil disobedience aligned with their non-violent strategy of joining international institutions and asserting the PA’s state-like quality. But there is a fundamental contradiction between the two paths. The message the PA’s constituents heard was that they should keep quiet, do their jobs, pay their mortgages, and allow guys in suits who used phrases like ‘capacity building’ and ‘institutional development’ to deliver an independent state. It was a model of liberation without struggle. It was elite-driven and anti-participatory whereas popular resistance involves devolving power to local committees, villages and councils; disrupting the status quo; being prepared to endure closures, curfews and revocations of work and exit permits; risking damage to PA institutions; and the loss of family members to Israeli bullets and jails.

Near the end of his book, Ehrenreich recounts a vivid instance of the security co-ordination that Palestinian leaders frequently claim to oppose. A little after 1 a.m. on 22 June 2014, Israeli forces entered Ramallah and took up positions in a police station. The Palestinian police officers put up no resistance and, in the view of many bystanders, appeared complicit in the operation. Young people marched through the streets yelling ‘Traitors!’ and ‘The PA is a whore!’ To put down the demonstration, Ehrenreich writes, Israeli soldiers

began firing tear gas and both live and rubber-coated bullets from a few blocks away as the Palestinian police battled the crowd around the station. The streets were thick with smoke and gas, but for a few minutes before the jeeps sped off again, everything was perfectly clear. The Israelis were shooting from one direction and the PA from another, the two security forces acting in concert against the same opponent – the young men who had come out in defence of their city.

Thanks to scenes like these, the popular resistance movement that grew after the second intifada seemed less the spark of a new revolution than the dying embers of an old one.