How 20 Tents Rocked Israel

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When the Palestinian leadership won
their upgrade to non-member observer status at the United Nations in November,
plenty of sceptics on both sides of the divide questioned what practical
benefits would accrue to the Palestinians. The doubters have not been silenced

Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas has done little to capitalise on his diplomatic success. There
have been vague threats to “isolate” Israel,
hesitant talk of “not ruling out” a referral to the International
Criminal Court, and a low-key declaration by the Palestinian Authority of the
new “state of Palestine”.

At a time when Palestinians hoped for
a watershed moment in their struggle for national liberation, the Fatah and
Hamas leaderships look as mutually self-absorbed as ever. Last week they were
again directing their energies into a new round of reconciliation talks, this
time in Cairo,
rather than keeping the spotlight on Israeli intransigence.

So instead, it was left to a group of
250 ordinary Palestinians to show how the idea of a “state of Palestine” might be
given practical meaning. On Friday, they set up a tent encampment that they
intended to convert into a new Palestinian village called Bab al-Shams, or Gate
of the Sun.

On Sunday, in a sign of how disturbed
is by such acts of popular Palestinian resistance, Israeli prime minister
Benjamin Netanyahu had the occupants removed in a dawn raid — despite the fact
that his own courts had issued a six-day injunction against the government’s
“evacuation” order.

Intriguingly, the Palestinian
activists not only rejected their own leaders’ softly-softly approach but also
chose to mirror the tactics of the hardcore settlers.

First, they declared they were
creating “facts on the ground”, having understood, it seems, that this is the
only language Israel
speaks or understands. Then, they selected the most contentious spot imaginable
for Israel: the centre of
the so-called E-1 corridor, 13 square-kilometres of undeveloped land between
East Jerusalem and Israel’s
strategic city-settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank.

For more than a decade, Israel has been planning to build its own
settlement in E-1, though on a vastly bigger scale, to finish the encirclement
of East Jerusalem, cutting off the future capital of a Palestinian state from
the West Bank.

The US
had stayed Israel’s
hand, understanding that completion in E-1 would signal to the world and the
Palestinians the end of a two-state solution. But following the UN vote,
Netanyahu announced plans to build an additional 4,000 settler homes there as
punishment for the Palestinians’ impertinence.

The comparison between the Bab
al-Shams activists and the settlers should not be extended too far. One obvious
difference is that the Palestinians were building on their own land, whereas Israel is breaking international law in allowing
hundreds of thousands of settlers to move into the West

Another is that Israel’s
response towards the two groups was preordained to be different. This is
especially clear in relation to what Israel
itself calls the “illegal outposts” — more than 100 micro-settlements, similar
to Bab al-Shams, set up by hardcore settlers since the mid-1990s, after Israel promised the US it would not authorise any new

Despite an obligation to dismantle
the outposts, successive Israeli governments have allowed them to flourish. In
practice, within days of the first caravans appearing on a West
Bank hilltop officials hook up the “outposts” to electricity and
water, build them access roads and redirect bus routes to include them. The
spread of the settlements and outposts has been leading inexorably to Israel’s de facto annexation of most of the West Bank.

In stark contrast, all access to Bab
al-Shams was blocked within hours of the tents going up and the next day
Netanyahu had the site declared a closed military zone. As soon as the Jewish
Sabbath was over, troops massed around the camp. Early on Sunday morning they
stormed in.

Netanyahu was clearly afraid to allow
any delay. Palestinians started using social media over the weekend to plan
mass rallies at road-blocks leading to the camp site.

However futile the activists’ efforts
prove to be on this occasion, the encampment indicates that ordinary
Palestinians are better placed to find inventive ways to embarrass Israel than the
hidebound Palestinian leadership.

Senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi
extolled the activists for their “highly creative and legitimate
nonviolent tool” to protect Palestinian land. But the failure of PA
officials, including Saeb Erekat, to make it to the site before it was cordoned
off by Israel
only heightened the impression of a leadership too slow and unimaginative to
respond to events.

By establishing Bab al-Shams, the
activists visibly demonstrated the apartheid nature of Israel’s rule
in the occupied territories. Although one brief encampment is unlikely by
itself to change the dynamics of the conflict, it does show Palestinians that
there are ways they themselves can take the struggle to Israel.

Following the Israeli raid, that
point was made eloquently by Mohammed Khatib, one of the organisers. “In
establishing Bab al-Shams, we declare that we have had enough of demanding our
rights from the occupier — from now on we shall seize them ourselves.”

That, of course, is also Netanyahu’s
great fear. The scenario his officials are reported to be most concerned about
is that this kind of popular mode of struggle becomes infectious. If
Palestinians see popular non-violent resistance, unlike endless diplomacy,
helping to awaken the world to their plight, there may be more Bab al-Shamses
— and other surprises for Israel
— around the corner.

It was precisely such thinking that
led Israel’s
attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, to justify Netanyahu’s violation of the
injunction on the grounds that the camp would “bring protests and riots with
national and international implications”.

What Bab al-Shams shows is that
ordinary Palestinians can take the fight for the “state of Palestine” to Israel
— and even turn Israel’s own methods against it.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn
Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel
and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq,
Iran and the Plan to Remake
the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine:
Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is

Image of the wall dividing East Jerusalem by Trocaire, licensed
under Creative

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