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The Changing Face of Palestinian Resistance

Creede Newton Apr 4, 2013

This past Saturday, tens of thousands of Palestinians marched across blockaded Gaza, the occupied West Bank, Israel and the diaspora in commemoration of Land Day. It’s an annual protest that memorializes the six unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel whose lives came to an end in 1976 when they resisted the expropriation of nearly 5,000 acres of land in the Galilee region of northern Israel for the construction of Jewish-only settlements. The 37th annual Land Day was the first pan-Palestinian act of civil resistance to take place since the Bab Al-Shams “settlement,” a creative and widely-reported stand against Israel’s plans to build 3,000 new Jewish-only settlements in the E1 corridor.

These two actions represent competing currents in Palestinian civil resistance; while the Land Day protests are in many respects traditional, Bab al-Shams seems to have come from a new kind of spirit, as well as the expectation of a heightened level of struggle. A rallying cry for the Land Day demonstrators was, “Where is the popular revolution?”

Protest as pedagogy

This year, turnout in the northern Israeli town of Sakhnin on Land Day was immense. Approximately 10,000 people, representing nearly every Palestinian political party inside Israel, marched the streets calling for Palestinian unification, the return of refugees and justice for the people of the West Bank. From Gaza to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, activists planted olive trees — borrowing a tactic Jewish settlers often use against them.

“For the Palestinian minority, these rallies, these traditional acts are important,” Raja Zaatry, a representative of the Follow-up Committee on Arab Education, said. “They are important for teaching the children about the struggle and narrative of the Palestinian minority [inside Israel].”

Palestinians constitute 20 percent of Israel’s population. The curriculum of Israeli schools leaves little room for the teaching of their history, and the origins of Land Day are excluded entirely. This year, teachers in the Galilee took time to educate their pupils on the story.

“Even what the teachers are doing is a form of civil resistance,” said Darisha, a demonstrator at Sakhnin, in reference to the extracurricular education about Land Day. “Without [the children], our story disappears.”

In Sakhnin, there was near parity between children and adults walking in the march. The protest ended peacefully, but similar marches throughout the occupied West bank were dispersed with tear gas and “rubber bullets” — a misnomer commonly applied the rubber-coated steel bullets that Israeli forces use in the occupied territories.

Historically, the amount of force used to disperse Palestinians was the main story that would emerge from protests of the divided Palestinian population. This is still the case — the West Bank villages Bil’in and Nabi Saleh have generated news and international solidarity with their weekly protests against the separation wall that steals land from Palestinians who depend on the soil for sustenance.

These villages have taken a classic and consistent path for their struggle. In Nabi Saleh, demonstrations have been taking place since December 2009, and Bil’in is entering its ninth year of weekly resistance. There is a routine to the protests: The villagers march peacefully to the wall singing and chanting, internationals join them in solidarity, journalists snap photos and before long, the youth begin to throw stones at soldiers in full riot gear standing across the way. The soldiers respond by shooting rubber-coated bullets, tear gas and spraying “skunk,” a putrid liquid, from water cannons.

But the people of Bil’in achieved something unthinkable: They have pushed back the separation barrier and regained a portion of their land. Today, however, other forms of resistance are fast becoming the foundation of the Palestinian struggle.

Two can play the settlement game

Taking the logic of olive-tree planting one step further, the organizers of Bab al-Shams employed another common settler tactic by “settling” their own land. Constructing this wildcat settlement thereby posed a dilemma to the international discourse on Israeli policy: Palestinians who set up tents on Palestinian-owned land are evicted, while Israelis who do the same are often rewarded with government subsidies. Even Jewish settlements deemed “illegal outposts” under Israeli law are often retroactively legalized.

The demonstration gave a society weary of being stifled by the Palestinian Authority’s collaborationist policies a renewed sense of optimism and urgency. “I saw hope in these protests,” Aziz Qa’adan, a student activist at Haifa University, said.

This single act of creative resistance has helped spark a wave of innovative protests. Just last week, another tent city was set up to protest U.S. president Barack Obama’s visit.

Last month witnessed a mock wedding at the Hizma Checkpoint that involved two groups of Palestinians — one from Nazareth in northern Israel and another from the West Bank. The couple marched toward an opening in the separation wall between Ramallah and Jerusalem in protest of a law preventing West Bank Palestinians who marry a citizen of Israel from obtaining citizenship.

“If there are thousands of Palestinians coming from one side and thousands of Israeli-Palestinian citizens coming from the other,” Raja Zaatry said, “it shows that many on both sides do not want this occupation.”

Qa’adan added, “Youth these days are desperate to be connected to the rest of their people on the other side. It’s very important for Palestinians to keep the bond strong.”

The Freedom Bus is yet another example of novel protest. In the West Bank, a group of actors and musicians from the Freedom Theatre in Jenin are driving village to village and using Playback Theatre, a method by which they retell audience members’ stories through improvised sketches. According to Freedom Bus organizer Ben Rivers, this is a “way for communities that are quite marginalized to have their voices amplified.”

Dabkeh, a traditional Palestinian dance performed at special occasions such as weddings, is also being used as a reminder of Palestinian heritage in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem and even at universities across the United States. In December, the grou pPublic Movement staged a flash cross-cultural performance in Jerusalem’s Zion Square that included dabkeh, both Jewish and Arabic folk songs, and improvised theater. Onlookers were invited to participate in the activities and were served traditional Palestinian cuisine.

Jad Jammal Kadan, a participant in the performance, said that he views the dance as both resistance and a form of art that “keeps [Palestinians] together and links us with the past and strengthens our Arab identity. [It] makes me proud of who I really am, and of my people everywhere.”

Rivers and Qa’adan were both adamant, of course, that creativity is not new to the Palestinian struggle. The recent headline-grabbing protests are simply, according to Rivers, “new forms of cultural resistance addressing the reality specific to this point in time.” In other words, when the conditions of occupation change, Palestinians must find new ways of transforming their dire circumstances into the means of being heard. And more and more, they are indeed being heard.

‘You can do only two things when you’re this frustrated’

These new tactics are helping to shine a brighter light than ever on the problem of settlements in the West Bank. The European Union is preparing for sanctions on goods produced in Israeli settlements; Richard Falk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, has called for the boycott of businesses profiting from the Israeli occupation. The “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement is gaining mainstream acceptance at universities across North America and Europe.

Today, both new and old tactics are running in parallel. When asked whether or not he thought they would develop into a more unified movement, Qa’adan said his outlook was “quite positive” that future protests inside Israel “will be inspired by the creative ones in the West Bank.” They are, after all, attracting the “attention of the world very quickly.”

Equally important, too, is the fact that these protests have given Palestinians themselves a creative outlet. From tents on the hills in the E1 corridor to the traveling performances of the Freedom Bus, artful demonstrations are being used as a platform to air the grievances of an increasingly idle population — as the West Bank unemployment rate hovers near 45 percent.

“They give an opportunity for the Palestinians to get out of this sort of frustration,” Zaatry said. “You can do only two things when you’re this frustrated: nothing, which only makes you more frustrated, or blow yourself up. And we don’t want our people to die. We’re struggling for the right to life. We want our people to live well.”

This article originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.

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