Palestinian Activists: The Secret History of Nonviolence

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Across the West Bank, in one village after another, Palestinian activists have been using nonviolent tactics to confront the occupation for several years now, often below the radar of international media. When these acts are reported, they’re presented in isolation, and rarely if ever presented as reflecting a larger movement.
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On Palestine's hillsides and in the olive groves, on the roads and in the prisons, a new movement for nonviolent resistance has been struggling for traction—a movement with a path that can nonetheless be traced much further back than is commonly acknowledged.

Slowly, the small group of demonstrators approached the soldiers …

About 75 people had turned out for this week’s protest, a mix of Palestinian villagers and Israeli activists, women and children, and a handful of reporters. The crowd was chanting and clapping as they wound their way down the road leading to the spring that settlers have seized. As they came around the last bend before the checkpoint, the soldiers came into view, 13 of them, fitted with rifles and riot gear and spread in a line across the road.

Quiet descended. Most of the crowd hung back; about a dozen tentatively pressed ahead. In several weeks of observing these protests, I’d never seen the IDF allow them to come so close.

Then gas and stun grenades went flying as a few of the soldiers broke ranks, surging forward, and the protesters tumbled back up the road through the detonations and clouds of tear gas. The protestors hadn’t made so much as a threatening gesture.

Just another Friday in al-Nabi Saleh. It wasn’t until I watched video of the moment on YouTube, days afterwards, that I realized the soldiers had grabbed one of the demonstrators and hustled him away.

Whether it’s the cry that “There is no partner for peace,” or the familiar lament, “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” the suggestion that the Palestinians are hopelessly violent can be heard across the political spectrum. In al-Nabi Saleh and many other villages on the West Bank, those complaints seem far less convincing. On the hillsides and in the olive groves, on the roads and in the prisons, a new movement for nonviolent resistance has been struggling for traction–a movement with a path that can nonetheless be traced much further back than is commonly acknowledged. For six weeks in February and March, 2012, I traveled in Israel and Palestine, discussing this movement with Israelis, Palestinians, and the occasional expatriate, attending the demonstrations against the occupation organized every Friday in the West Bank.

Across the West Bank in one village after another, Palestinians have been using nonviolent tactics to confront the occupation for several years now, often below the radar of international media. When these acts are reported, they’re presented in isolation, and rarely if ever presented as reflecting a larger movement.

The precise catalyst has varied from place to place. In al-Nabi Saleh, the nearby Jewish settlement of Halamish seized the spring the villagers had long relied on to irrigate the land. In Bil’in, people rose up when the separation barrier was used to appropriate more than half of their village’s land (their struggle is documented by 2013 Oscar nominee Five Broken Cameras). Both communities were inspired by the people of Budrus (almost made famous by the documentary of the same name), who lay down in front of Israeli bulldozers to save their olive groves and force the route of the wall to be changed. All three of these villages (and others, such as Ni’lin) have been joined in their protests by Israelis and other international activists.

“In the first intifada and the second intifada, the Palestinian people used guns–many times,” says Iyad Tamimi, a member of one of al-Nabi Saleh’s largest and most active families. He would know; Tamimi has been a member of Fatah since 1985. “We tried [this time] to make the picture different from the first one. We are defending our rights to live in peace, to free our lands. So we are using no weapons.”

“This nonviolent resistance, we thought that it’s a good thing,” says Dr. Rateb abu Rahmeh, media coordinator for the popular committee in Bil’in. He continues in his broken English (far more accomplished than the few words I can muster in Arabic): “we saw the method of Mahatma Gandhi succeed, the method of Martin Luther King succeed. And we took these methods. There’s a lot of international activists that come here and support us in our struggle.”

The scene in al-Nabi Saleh that morning in March was typical of the five protests I observed (two there and three in Bil’in). While it’s often difficult to be certain who threw the first stone–literally or metaphorically–the Israeli military enjoys a clear superiority of force. Once the Israelis apply that force, the protests I observed fractured, with some of the Palestinian protestors (exclusively young men) trading stones for rubber bullets and (ostensibly) non-lethal grenades, while women often take the opportunity to rally elsewhere.

“We want to tell you, we are against throwing stones to the soldiers,” says Dr. Rahmeh. “As a popular committee, all the time we said: Don’t throwing the stones against the soldiers. Because this is not violent resistance.” Yet during the three protests I observed in Bil’in, neither Dr. Rahmeh nor anyone else advised the young people who were ineffectually lobbing stones at the soldiers to stop (nor is it clear that they would obey). Aware of the overwhelming disparity between the two sides, few of the Palestinians I spoke with could bring themselves to denounce the tactic.

Sami Awad is the executive director of Holy Land Trust. From its offices in Bethlehem, HLT has promoted nonviolence in a variety of ways since its founding in 1998. Early in our conversation, he raises the question of stone-throwing before I have to ask. “I as an individual, we as an organization, we do not promote throwing stones,” he says. “We want to reach as pure an act of nonviolence as we can. I have many people who come to me and say, ‘The Palestinians are violent because they throw stones.'” Yet the Egyptian revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, Awad points out, which was lauded around the world as nonviolent, saw frequent clashes between police and stone-throwing demonstrators. Similarly, during the civil rights movement in the U.S., groups like the Deacons for Defense and Justice stood armed guard during the night while organizers for the Congress for Racial Equality coordinated nonviolent protests by day. The actual history of nonviolent movements is rarely as pure as it is in the popular imagination.

The first time I visited al-Nabi Saleh, the protest began with a memorial service. Israelis and Palestinians alike were holding pictures of a woman many feared would be the next to die: Hana Shalabi, an alleged member of Islamic Jihad whom Israel had placed in “administrative detention.” The Israelis inherited the practice from the colonial administration of the British; it essentially means holding people indefinitely without charge once they are declared a “security threat.” Shalabi had been on a hunger strike for two weeks in protest. Ten days later, the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights would report that she “could suffer from heart failure at any moment” and was “at risk of death.” Shalabi would hold out for over 40 days before she was finally released and sent into internal exile in the Gaza Strip. It will be two more years before she can see her family again.

As a hunger striker, Shalabi was following in the footsteps of Kahder Adnan, who singlehandedly reinvigorated the tactic. Adnan, allegedly a “spokesperson” for Islamic Jihad, was also in administrative detention when he began his hungers strike, allegedly being beaten by Israeli soldiers. After 66 days, the Israeli Justice Ministry agreed to release him. Many other prisoners had joined him in solidarity; Hana Shalabi was one of the few who persisted.

Less than a month after Shalabi won her release, at least 1,200 prisoners went on a nearly 30-day hunger strike to protest their treatment. In July, Akram Rikhawi ended a 103-day fast begun with those April strikers. But Adnan, Shalabi, and Rikhawi have now all been overtaken by Samer Issawi, who has gone more than 200 days without food. His is the longest hunger strike by a Palestinian ever, in this marathon relay race of starvation.

When Adnan was on his hunger strike, Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust posted about him on Facebook and YouTube. “It was incredible how many people attacked me for doing this,” he recalls, his detractors asking, “How can you support a person, a militant who was accused of being violent or a terrorist, and promote him or publicize him?’ My response was: ‘When we see signs like this, of individuals that begin not just to experiment but to go into a deep process–I can’t live two days without eating! For him to do this for 65 days … I don’t agree with his past, I might even denounce his past, and at the same time, if he is moving forward in a process, and I can encourage him to take even deeper steps in and to come out declaring, ‘There is actually real value in nonviolence that I want Islamic Jihad to look into,’ then this is something we need to encourage–instead of looking at somebody’s past and shutting them off when they do these things.'”

In her invaluable book A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance, Mary Elizabeth King dates the first modern, collective hunger strike coordinated by Palestinian prisoners to Ashkelon in 1970. It lasted for 15 days, and one of the strikers died. A second strike followed in 1976, this time for 45 days. In the summer of 1980, a third strike lasted three days and claimed two lives. By this point a “prisoners’ movement” had formed; according to King, actions were “coordinated across the length and breadth of prisoners in Israel” throughout the decade. More hunger strikes were held in 1984 and 1987. Even with the onset of the first intifada, nonviolent protest continued; July, 1988, saw a hunger strike by 500 prisoners.

In May of 1990, a young Israeli gunned down seven Palestinians and wounded scores at a bus stop near Tel Aviv. Clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians followed, leaving at least 15 dead. Forty-four Palestinians–most of them, King says, leaders of the intifada–began a hunger strike in protest. Faisal Husseini, who joined the strikers, reportedly declared, “This is the last chance to keep the intifada nonviolent.” After a bombing in Jerusalem and an attempted PLO attack on Tel Aviv’s beaches, the U.S. suspended dialogue with the PLO, and the hunger strike was called off after 13 days. King records that “Husseini told a reporter that the veto of the U.S., instead of reinforcing nonviolent approaches, had punished its advocates.”

Nevertheless, this wasn’t the last hunger strike of the era. Two years later, 15,000 Palestinian prisoners took part in a hunger strike that lasted for just over two weeks. King quotes their leader, Qaddourah Faris, as saying: “Our demands were that we be allowed to kiss our children … that we be allowed to learn [study] while in prison, that we have more time for family visits, better health care, better medicine … and more time outside … for sports, exercise, and to see the sun.”

On November 15, 2011, a small group of Palestinian activists carried out the first Palestinian Freedom Ride. I met one of the organizers, Fadi Quran, at a café in Ramallah. Amidst the smoke and the chatter, he shared his story.

At the time of the Freedom Ride, Quran was 23, one year out of Stanford University with a B.A. in international relations and a B.S. in physics. He’s already at work on his next degree, and in his spare time, he’s part of what he describes as the “a growing Palestinian youth movement that participates and coordinates acts of civil disobedience and protest and popular resistance within the West Bank.”

As Quran recalls, it “was the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, so it was all over the news, especially the American news. And we thought it would be excellent to show people that segregation and inequality still exist, and the type of domination that existed in the Jim Crow South exists in a similar sense in Palestine. One way to clearly show that … is to board segregated settler-only buses. So we planned the Freedom Rides.”

Six activists were involved, including Quran, and all of them Palestinian, all of them in their 20s, except a fortysomething professor from Bethlehem University. They decided to try to board a bus near Psagot, a settlement southeast of Ramallah. The morning they’d chosen for the ride, Quran, with a sharp eye for television cameras, put on a shirt with the slogan, “We Shall Overcome.” They got the word out to the media and arrived at the bus stop around 10 a.m.

One bus after another passed them by. “They would see that we were Palestinians and they would just keep going,” Quran says. Many of the settlers who were waiting for buses were armed; Quran says that one stepped outside the view of the cameras, unslung his machine gun, and released the safety. “It seemed like he was contemplating, what to do, what not to do.” No shots were fired.

After hours of waiting, Quran and other riders finally managed to board a bus. “The bus driver told us, ‘You’re not allowed to get on the bus, go back down,’ and so forth.” Still, they walked on board and found seats, shocking other passengers. As the bus drove off toward Jerusalem–which Quran and his colleagues are barred from entering–it was surrounded by four Israeli military humvees. Quran did a few interviews with the reporters who’d come this far, and read Great Expectations as they rode.

When they reached the checkpoint, the bus was stopped, and the settlers disembarked. Then the bus was directed to a nearby parking lot, where it sat for about three hours. Quran thinks the military was attempting to thin the ranks of the media; they began ticketing reporters’ vehicles, waiting for night to fall to make it more difficult to film. Finally, at 9 p.m., four soldiers boarded the bus and announced that the Freedom Riders were under arrest.

“We’re not going to fight our being arrested,” Quran and the others told the soldiers, “but we’re not going to participate in the act of arrest, and we’re going to remain seated nonviolently on the bus.” One by one, the soldiers hauled them off. As the soldiers carried Quran, they began hitting him in the back, and at some point they dropped him on the ground. He heard his mother screaming as the soldiers brought him out; unknown to Quran, she ran toward him but was intercepted by soldiers and thrown to the ground. One soldier stomped on her hand, breaking it. Quran took a punch and a kick to the stomach.

“You’re always afraid,” he told me. “The essence of it is what Nelson Mandela said: ‘Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.’ Every step you feel afraid, but you always try to make sure that your courage triumphs the fear, [that the fear] doesn’t make you back down, and doesn’t blind you from doing what is necessary to keep yourself safe.”

While the people of Bil’in were repeatedly confronting the Israeli military to protest the security wall’s impact upon their village, they also chose to challenge the wall in Israeli court, and in 2007 the High Court ruled that the barrier should be rerouted. It took several years before the Israeli government obeyed the Court’s decision, and even then some of the village’s land remained on the other side of the wall, but Bil’in has recaptured most of it. An even more decisive victory came in Budrus, when the people drove the wall away from their homes and olive groves.

“You know, we succeed here,” Dr. Rahmeh, the media coordinator, tells me, “Why [do] we succeed in our struggle? We do nonviolent resistance in our struggle.” Many young Palestinian activists like Fadi Quran have participated in these campaigns are testing Rahmeh’s conviction elsewhere. Still, says Sami Awad, the hunger strikes, village protests, and Freedom Ride “are separate actions and activities, not part of any unified vision or strategy that’s created at some top level of leadership. We’re still in a very, very basic stage.”

Whether they can reach a more advanced one depends, in part, on whether there is a partner on the other side willing to recognize their efforts. Unfortunately, while the recent Israeli election had some surprises, it looks as if the status quo will remain undisturbed. If the new government is somehow driven to sit at the negotiating table, it might be surprised by who it finds there.

Nicholas Jahr is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He is a member of the editorial board of Jewish Currents, from which this article was reprinted (Spring 2013). Jewish Currents carries on the insurgent tradition of the Jewish left through independent journalism, political commentary, and a “countercultural” approach to Jewish arts and literature. 

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