Walled in?

About the author
Jared Malsin is a an editor at the English desk of the Ma'an News Agency, an independent Palestinian news network. He lives in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour.

Whether stereotyped as terrorists or idolised as freedom fighters, Palestinians are not a people often associated with nonviolence. In a world of checkpoints, airstrikes, squalid refugee camps, and nightly raids by the Israeli Defence Forces, peaceful political means at times seem incommensurate with their ends. Yet, the Palestinian tradition of nonviolence is both old and very much alive today.

In towns and villages all over the West Bank, Palestinians demonstrate every week, usually on Fridays after the noon prayer. The spirit and persistence of these protests have generated a small international buzz about a nonviolent resurgence in Palestine, a return to the days of the First Intifada when a largely peaceful uprising brought renewed attention to the Palestinian cause in the late 1980s.

From the frontlines Jared Malsin is a an editor at the English desk of the Ma'an News Agency,
an independent Palestinian news network. He lives in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour.

Hoping to gauge the alleged revival of nonviolent resistance in Palestine, I visited the small village of Al-Walajeh, four kilometres north of Bethlehem. Every Friday, Al-Walajeh's residents gather in protest of the construction of the controversial wall around the West Bank. The planned route of a 30-foot high concrete section of the barrier will slice the village in half. Shireen Al-Araj, a member of Al-Walajeh's municipal council, says the wall, which has already been raised in parts of the village as a barbed wire fence, will result in the annexation of much of the village's land by Israel.

One blazing hot September day, the villagers, joined by eight Israeli anarchists, a young activist from Japan, and a few elderly women with Christian Peacemaker Teams, prayed, then marched on the construction site. They set about blocking the access road used by Israeli construction vehicles. Israeli soldiers watched from their post higher on the hillside, but held their fire. The protesters built mounds of rocks, sand, and tree branches, eventually setting one of the piles ablaze: a literal firewall against invading bulldozers and trucks.

With one road blocked, it was time to unblock another. The demonstrators now scrambled down the hill, where yet another group of soldiers waited. Inching my way down, I asked fifteen-year-old Mohammad Adil Atrash what he hoped the action would say.

His answer: "Israel, go away, we don't want you."

The IDF soldiers below decided to retreat. Unlike most demonstrations that take place in the West Bank, it appeared this one would be spared the routine barrage of teargas and rubber-coated bullets. Gathering now on the road, the villagers turned to remove a roadblock separating Al-Walajeh from nearby Beit Jala.

Al-Araj, a powerful, straight-talking woman in big black sunglasses and a hijab, says the roadblock makes the journey to Beit Jala, and therefore to Bethlehem, the only town of any size in this part of the West Bank, twice as long.

Straining with every muscle, women and men, from young Mohammad to the very old, laboured with shovels, metal rods, and their bare hands to clear mounds plowed up by Israeli construction vehicles. After an hour's hard toil, the last boulders rolled away with a cheer from the crowd and a cathartic cloud of dust. Moments later, a small white sedan drove through the newly cleared roadway.

Catching her breath in between moving boulders, Al-Araj seems satisfied but recognises the Sisyphean character of her struggle. "The [Israeli] army will rebuild it later this week," she says. "And we will come back the next week to remove it again."

This is the nature of nonviolent resistance in the occupied territories. Demonstrators can block construction vehicles - temporarily. They can confront the Israeli army, until the IDF flexes its greatly superior physical might and scatters protesters. Roadblocks can be removed - until they are replaced by more roadblocks.

The success of Bil'in Also in toD on non-violent action in Palestine:

Maria Stephan,
"Dropping muqawama",
27 September, 2007

Even "victory," as hailed by the people of Al-Walajeh and other villages is bittersweet - activists like Al-Araj "do not agree with the idea of the wall in principle," but nonetheless the Palestinian villagers know they have to accommodate the barrier in the concrete. Along with physical resistance, the villagers have pursued legal advocacy through institutional channels, demanding a change in the eventual routes of the wall.

Fifty-five West Bank villages and towns currently have "Popular Committees" working towards this goal. Though each village committee functions autonomously, they are loosely united in "Stop the Wall: the Grassroots Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign", an organisation with a small headquarters in Ramallah.

In early September, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favour of a petition brought by residents of the village of Bil'in, about a one hour drive from Ramallah. For the last two years, weekly demonstrations in Bil'in have made the village an international poster-child for the contemporary Palestinian struggle. By last July, when I first visited Bil'in, the demonstrations seemed to draw more keffiyeh-clad protesters from the US and France than Palestinians from the West Bank. Yet, whatever the composition of the crowd, Bil'in never fails to draw a hail of rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas from the IDF soldiers who disperse the demonstrations week after week.

The Bil'in case was not the first in which the Israeli courts have ordered the route of the wall changed, but it has produced more exuberance than any other ruling. Many activists were quick to hail the court decision as a sign that the winds were changing in Palestine. Awni Jubran, a Palestinian activist with the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust suggested that it marked a step on the way to the creation of a "nonviolent culture" where violence has long been entangled with politics.

Some international commentators have looked to the Bil'in ruling as a sign of a trend, a "dramatic transformation" in the Palestinian struggle, leading to the formation of a full-fledged popular struggle against the Wall and the occupation at large. "This is a new stage for us," said Bil'in committee leader Muhammad Khatib, "another indication of how the demonstrations are becoming a broader-based popular movement."

Blast from the past?

What many commentators and activists want, explicitly or emotionally, is a return to the moral force of the First Intifada, the heyday of Palestinian popular struggle. The uprising of 1987-91 challenged Israel's monopoly on world sympathies with images of general strikes and stone-throwing children confronting Israeli tanks.

Where the uprising was the strongest, including villages like Beit Sahour, just south of Bethlehem, Palestinians refused to pay Israeli taxes, handed in their Israeli ID cards, and grew their own food in an effort to boycott Israeli goods.

But calls for a popular uprising on the model of the First Intifada now come across as wishful thinking, and even veteran nonviolent activists wonder what today's protests can accomplish. Even "victory" in all 79 villages and towns affected by the construction of the wall would only mark a small gain in the overall Palestinian predicament, which increasingly looks like checkmate in favour of the occupation.

Protests against the wall "are only responding to the crisis created by Israel," noted George Rishmawi, an activist and advocate based in Beit Sahour. He argues that the completion of the wall will allow Israel to perfect its strategy of releasing some Palestinian lands while permanently appropriating other tracts. The checkpoints and roadblocks on the interior of the West Bank are "temporary measures - they will be removed when the Wall is completed."

Keeping the settlements while sealing off the rest of the West Bank into a patchwork of economically helpless, noncontiguous mini-entities allows Israel to complete a policy of "withdrawal" already in practice in the Gaza Strip, a process that began with the Olso accords.

Controlling the "way we resist"

What this looks like in practice is an ideal colonial situation: open air prisons with no need for a large occupying force. Israel would then be immune to Bil'in-style demonstrations. With no soldiers present, drama will be drained from physical protest, with Palestinians left to chant slogans at a concrete wall. In Rishmawi's words, completion of the wall will allow Israel "to direct the way we resist."

The Gaza Strip, for example, is one place where nonviolent action has been eroded by the Israeli "disengagement." Israel still control's Gaza's borders, airspace, tax system, sea coast, and most other dimensions of life, and still raid Palestinian cities, all without the daily physical presence of occupation.

With the settlers gone and Israeli forces no longer patrolling the streets, Gazans are already living the anti-political dystopia Rishmawi predicts for the West Bank. This leaves the business of resistance in the hands of armed fighters, whose homemade projectiles bombard neighbouring Israeli towns, causing more hysteria than actual damage.

Faced with such a bleak situation, the nonviolent resistance movement in Palestine, cannot aspire to achieve complete liberation for the Palestinian people. What is clear to Palestinian activists, however, is that Israeli policies will not change at all without protest. The only places where the route of the wall has changed, Stop the Wall researcher Dawood Hamoudeh stressed to me, are in villages like Bil'in where there have been stubborn protests.

A right to politics

Nonviolent resistance is therefore working within the barest of margins allowed by Israel's seemingly immutable system of control. The role of nonviolent action is to contest, to "denaturalise" a regime that has continuously adapted to sixty years of Palestinian resistance. Simply to challenge the inevitability of Israeli control is a significant step at this stage. Protests against the construction of the wall are, in a sense, demanding the right to protest in the first place, the right to politics.

The Palestinian slogan "to resist is to exist" could easily be reversed to say "to exist is to resist." As Rishmawi and other activists point out, for many Palestinians, simply remaining on their land and in their houses is a form of resistance. For example, in the West Bank city of Hebron, militant Israeli settlers have succeeded in driving Palestinians out of much of the old city center. A few stubbornly remain, though they are unable even to walk the streets that lead to their houses. Metal cages fortify the exteriors of their homes against the rocks, garbage, and even bottles of urine that the settlers hurl at them.

The same stubbornness, the same determination underlies the demonstrations in villages like Bil'in and Al-Walajeh. On 15 October, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly contemplated giving up some of the towns and villages that have been all but annexed in Israel's idea of "greater Jerusalem." One of the villages he named was Al-Walajeh.

Marwan Fararjeh, another organiser with the Holy Land Trust, dismissed Olmert's words as empty: "What Israel will do is build the wall just around the houses, annexing the rest of the land. When Israel gives up all the land, I will believe them." Fararjeh may very well be right. Yet, Olmert's mention of a tiny Palestinian village, unknown to most Israelis, does in a muted way mark the effect of the demonstrations there. Nonviolent resistance is critical in beginning to unsettle an occupation that appears, at first, as unmovable as the boulders in Al-Walajeh's roadblocks.