Existence is resistance

Even with an explicitly discriminatory policy in place, designed to force Palestinians to break the rules or leave the country, nearly all continue to apply for permits, paying the extortionate fees, using the system rather than fighting against it.

Scarlett Kutyla
18 December 2014

My experiences in Palestine offered up a lot of opportunities for writing on resistance to state crime. Every day Palestinians struggle against discriminatory policies and threats to their livelihoods by both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli state. There is no end to the impunity and barbarity with which these are executed and they remain an integral part of the structure and grounds on which the State of Israel is currently built.

The recent passing of the Jewish State Bill by Benjamin Netanyahu defines Israel as ‘the nation state of the Jewish people’, which if successfully enshrined in Israeli law will once and for all determine all non-Jews as second class citizens, and potentially further excuse all actions taken by the state that perpetrate this already popular view. The little protection that Palestinians are currently afforded by the Israeli justice system will be eradicated and there will be infinite scope for a gratuitous interpretation of the idea of a state built exclusively for a single religious group. This highly controversial bill has caused significant rifts within the Israeli parliament and among Israeli academics as it serves to completely deny Palestinians living in Israel even the pretence of equal rights.

From within the complex combination of civil and military rule that exists in Israel and the West Bank, where one people fall under one authority and another fall under a different authority, all within a tiny area of land, emerge impressively advanced and skilled forms of resistance that provide an incredible insight into how a population with 60 years of practice continues to resist crimes committed by a powerful and hostile state.

In the West Bank, where the proximity of settlements to Palestinian towns is unnerving, there is a heavy Israeli military presence. In Hebron particularly there are four military personnel to each settler and consequently considerably more violence, arrests and incursions against the Palestinian population in the city and surrounding area.

Palestinians continue to resist crimes against their humanity, freedom and right to equality before the law, all of which are aimed at pushing them out of the country or alternatively segregating them into impoverished and powerless communities. This is clear simply from looking at historical and current maps of the region that show the strategic building of settlements over the years. Resistance to these crimes must then take the form of perpetuating their existence as a united people whilst also maintaining ‘normal life’ without normalising the occupation. Speaking to Palestinians living in both the West Bank and Israel I discovered how difficult this was in the circumstances; to stay united against so many opposing ideals and to continue resisting without losing the little freedom you have.

Crimes committed by the state of Israel are plenty, but one that arises constantly is the theft of land and housing and the policies surrounding Palestinian permits and demolition. Israel recently brought back the policy of punitive house demolitions that was previously abandoned due to its ineffectiveness at preventing ‘acts of terror’. Punitive acts by the state without trial are crimes in themselves and this is just the icing on the cake for most inhabitants of rural Palestine and Jerusalem, some of whom have had their entire communities destroyed over 70 times without the return of such a policy.

Needless to say, the effort at rebuilding entire villages is striking. Each time a village or house is destroyed, it is rebuilt, again and again and again, peacefully declaring that they  will not be bullied out of their homes or off their land and demonstrating the absolute steadfastness present in so much Palestinian resistance. Israeli forces use chemical sprays to destroy farmland and bulldozers to destroy structures and revoke or deny permits for houses that have been lived in for decades by the same family, making legal residence impossible. The state has also made it almost impossible to attain permits to build and they are incredibly expensive to apply for, often taking years of appeals and tens of thousands of shekels. It is common in many areas to be left with 10 minutes to retrieve your possessions and leave your home to a waiting bulldozer, and it is particularly disturbing to witness the ensuing Israeli settlement or road that is built on the seized land. It is also often used as a tactic that is designed to make life intolerable and encourage emigration away from the area altogether. The permit system itself is legally flawed, however, the acts of violence and destruction aimed at civilians and committed by the military violate both human rights and the Geneva conventions.

Even with this explicitly discriminatory policy in place that is designed to force Palestinians to break the rules or leave the country, nearly all continue to apply for permits, paying the extortionate fees, using the system rather than fighting against it. This has the desired effect of ensuring Israel has no defence for what it does, even within its own discriminatory system, and simultaneously shows the process for what it really is; a tool for mass displacement. If Israel is breaking its own rules, and if following the rules leads to the same outcome as fighting against them, then there is a fault with the system and only Israel is to blame for that.

My time in Palestine taught me a lot, particularly the importance of how Palestinians feel they are seen by the international community. It is unsurprising with Israel’s global propaganda machine at work, that Palestinians feel the need to disseminate their side of the story and eradicate the harmful effects of decades of twisted rhetoric. Therefore, if Israel is recognised as to blame for something they have done, then part of the battle is already won.

The Right of Return is still high on the list of nearly all Palestinian organisations fighting against the occupation. It is a key demand of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement, which was started in Palestine a few years ago, and the refusal of which continues to be a violation of international law. There are 355,000 internal refugees in Palestine and millions more around the world, yet none have been granted the right of return which is enshrined in international law. Although Palestine has no army and no trade with the outside world that could enable the civilian population to arm themselves on any large scale, Israel insists that it is at war with terrorists in the West Bank, and after 40 years is still implementing a state of emergency-like situation. It is almost impossible for West Bank residents to travel into Israel and the Palestinian Authority complies with Israel’s security forces without question. This makes it impossible to justify the refusal of the right of return on the basis that there is still a conflict, although this would be the only legal reason why it might not be implemented. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of refugees still live in impoverished camps on the edge of the largest cities, suffering intense military presence and high levels of arrest and violence. Young men are often involved in violently resisting the military incursions and arrests of their friends and family, and there is a strong sense that there is nothing to lose in protecting their communities in this way.

I was extremely surprised, when I visited Aida Camp on the edge of Bethlehem, to find that it was a short walk from the idyllic architecture of the city. Not only that but it had a large, impressive entrance adorned with a key that had travelled the world and returned with thousands of signatures of support. It was not a slum as I was expecting, though clearly very poor, but instead more like a gated town. I found the same with the camps on the edge of Ramallah. They appeared to be part of the city, yet always with large entrances advertising the status of those inside.

The denial of a human right by a state that is not your own is a personal and vindictive act, and it is clear that no matter how many generations are born into the camps and how many have never visited their original homes, the residents in them will never integrate into the cities they border and will never stop demanding their right of return. Even though refugees in the West Bank suffer harsher retribution and higher levels of military violence and arrest, there is no desire to give up their status as refugees. Palestinians have lived under Israeli occupation for generations. They know how beneficial it is for Israel that they disappear and relieve them of this burden, but they also know that as long as they remain visible, Israel and the international community cannot forget their existence and may one day allow them their right to go home. This steadfastness and determination is partly fed by the fact that the home carries a lot more weight for Palestinians than it does in western culture. Land and home are a family’s roots and belong absolutely to their owners, not only as a possession, but as their connection to the entire land.

Crimes committed by the Israeli state are not only strategic, they are also vindictive and reactionary, especially on ground level. This often means the common arrest of children, administrative detention that can extend to years, brutal violence and murder. This often erratic and unprovoked behaviour leads smaller communities to protest on a weekly basis, which leads in turn to violent repression and violent resistance. Communities are dwindling in size and in some almost all the young men are in prison or dead. However, it is not surprising to see such injustice answered with anger and the throwing of stones by an emasculated and fatherless youth. Palestinians have no desire to fight the third strongest army in the world with stones. It is simply a means of expressing anger at the injustice surrounding them, and should be taken as such. However, there are conscious acts of resistance happening in these same communities: the documentation of military and settler violence.

Although they were not the first, Youth Against Settlements began filming soldiers in Hebron in order to publicise their criminal acts, and the effectiveness of such tactics has caused the trend to spread. Not only does a camera give the international community a window into the truth, it also causes the perpetrator to feel apprehensive and therefore more reserved in his actions. Israeli soldiers are mostly very young and have not had to judge their individual behaviour for a global audience before. It is also the case that Palestinians cannot prevent the IDF from doing what they come to do as they are mostly children and completely unarmed. However, Palestinians have learnt more than anyone that the international community is key in its struggle against occupation, and documentation serves that purpose perfectly.

Many locals have taken up this role during protests and incursions and the amount of documentation of the crimes committed by soldiers and the impunity with which they operate is astounding. Even though it is dangerous to point a camera at hostile armed youths - many have been arrested without charge, beaten and even killed - they continue to resist on a weekly basis, making the IDF’s work as uncomfortable as possible.

Although the residue of impunity has already begun to trickle down, so that soldiers fear less now they see that there are no consequences to their actions, even when they are filmed - the effect of a camera in your face while you commit a violent crime against another person will have a psychological effect on such young soldiers.   

Palestinian resistance is almost exclusively non-violent. There is no benefit to giving a hostile state a reason to commit its crimes and this knowledge governs almost all forms of organised and individual resistance in Palestine. My experiences there taught me that, to a certain extent, it is possible to achieve a kind of normality under occupation. But whether or not this is attained, Palestinians continue to effectively resist crimes committed by Israel, having more of an effect on Israeli policy and strategy and the impunity with which it behaves than any member of the international community or the UN. As long as Palestinians continue to resist complete eradication and maintain support from states around the world, they are successfully resisting the unlawful objectives of the Israeli State.

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