Seeing Palestinian Resistance for Ourselves

Demonstration in Al Ma'asara

Demonstration in Al Ma’asara

Cross-posted with the Jewish Forward

Who will are the change agents of our world? Are they our elected officials and politicians or the ones who march in the streets in order to hold them accountable? These questions were clarified for me in profound ways during my recent trip to the West Bank as part of a delegation of Chicago-area Jews and Palestinian Americans.

The focus of our delegation was the Palestinian popular resistance movement in the West Bank, a phenomenon that is sadly unfamiliar to the majority of Americans and American Jews. In a world far removed from the images reflected in the mainstream media and the postures of political elites, we discovered a decidedly different reality: ordinary men and women struggling to live lives of dignity while actively resisting an inequitable and oppressive military occupation.

During our weeklong stay, we were hosted in Bil’in, a village that is has, along with many other villages throughout the West Bank, long been holding weekly popular demonstrations against the occupation over the past ten years. In Bil’in, as in most villages in this movement, the focus of the protests are Israel’s Separation Wall which cuts into the heart of numerous Palestinian populations centers, devastating these communities by cutting them off from their olive groves and farmland.

These weekly demonstrations have become part of the fabric of West Bank life for the past ten years, though few Americans are even aware of their existence. They have consistently been met with overwhelming military force from the IDF. Scores of Palestinians have been injured or killed in these protests, largely from high velocity tear gas canisters, coated steel bullets and live ammunition fired directly into crowds of unarmed protesters.

As we quickly came to see, the violence faced by Palestinians under occupation is a palpable and all-encompassing aspect of their lives. While the political parameters of this conflict are often characterized by Israel’s demand for Palestinian leaders to renounce and rein in Palestinian violence, the view from the ground reveals a different picture entirely: it is the Palestinians who live within a constant daily context of violence.

This is a difficult concept to grasp for those who have not visited or lived in the Occupied Territories. Every day Palestinian mothers, fathers and children experience physical violence from soldiers and settlers who attack them with impunity. Every day, moment they experience the structural violence of checkpoints, land confiscation, and home demolitions.

Our delegation experienced three violent encounters with the IDF during our short one-week stay. While touring the refugee camp of Aida, we inadvertently walked into the line of fire as the IDF shot tear gas canisters directly at local children. One morning in Bil’in we awoke to the sounds of explosions and gunshots. When we ran outside we found the entire village shrouded in thick, choking tear gas. We later learned that the IDF had chased a suspect in a bus bombing into the area and had killed him in a cave on the edge of Bil’in. Before they left, they bulldozed olive trees, shot up the elementary school and shot tear gas throughout the entire village.

One member of our delegation, Kalman Resnick, spent a day monitoring settler attacks on the Palestinian olive harvest with Israeli organizations Rabbis for Human Rights and Yesh Din. Kalman, a seasoned immigration lawyer from Chicago well versed in the Israel/Palestine conflict returned to our group that evening shell-shocked by what he had witnessed. He showed me nearly one hundred pictures he had taken on his phone – among the wretched images were severely injured Palestinians (including one man with his head split open), rows and rows of olive trees hacked to the ground and farmers literally attempting to harvest olives from dead trees.

As Israeli journalist Mairav Zonszein recently wrote in the pages of the Forward:

These incidents — now particularly heightened during the olive harvest season — are not the aberration from the norm, but a regular feature of life in the occupied West Bank. In 2012, over 7,500 Palestinian olive trees were destroyed. In the 5-year period between 2007 and 2011, there was a 315 percent increase in settler violence

Despite this overwhelming context of everyday violence, we witnessed remarkable examples of principled steadfastness by the leaders of the Palestinian popular resistance. Perhaps the most powerful occurred during the weekly protest in the village of Al Ma’asara, who were celebrating the seven-year anniversary of their participation in the West Bank popular resistance movement.

At the outset, it felt to me that this protest resembled many other American demonstrations in which I have participated over the years. The street was filled with hundreds of individuals: young and old, locals joined together with Israeli and international solidarity activists. There was a joyous air of solidarity as we chanted through the streets and were cheered on by bystanders.

At the end of the main street, however, the tension level changed dramatically. When the marchers encountered a long line of Israeli soldiers in riot gear blocking our way to the Wall, we pressed up close against the soldiers and a standoff commenced. After a military commander announced that we were denied passage, a leader of the local popular resistance committee, Mahmoud Zwhare, stepped forward and starting chastising the soldiers in English.

Careful not to use any physical violence or violent rhetoric, he asked the soldiers why they were not allowed the right to live and assemble freely in their own village. He explained to them they could oppress the villagers all they wanted, but one day like all oppressed people, they would be free. Pointing to their riot gear, their bulletproof vests and their M-16s, he noted that all of the extensive equipment they used to protect the wall was meaningless when the real wall they needed to address was the wall “in their minds.”

The protest ended without violence, though there were some moments of pushing and shoving between soldiers and protesters – and as we left the demonstration we learned that there had been a tear gas attack in another part of the village. As I thought about our experience later, it occurred to me that this was precisely the same circumstance that occurred on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965. The demand for justice was the same, the solidarity was the same, the method of civil disobedience was the same, as was the show of force by a brutal and over-militarized gauntlet. Moreover, that particular standoff ended in a way all to familiar to Palestinians. In a very real sense, Bloody Sunday is reenacted every week in villages throughout the West Bank.

In our meetings with popular resistance leaders we heard many common refrains. Our host Iyad Burnat of Bil’in and many others spoke of Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela as role models. We heard a deep disillusionment with political leaders on all sides. And we heard of their desire to create a “Third Global Intifada” worldwide movement of solidarity consciously modeled on the grassroots popular resistance of the First Intifada.

At the same time, however, the Palestinian popular leadership left us with the ominous impression that their movement is fast arriving at a moment of truth. The Israeli military is successfully inhibiting the growth of the popular resistance by jailing its leaders indefinitely and dividing villages from one another through a massive occupation regime. Nearly every leader with who we spoke had spent considerable time in jail, including our Bil’in host Iyad Burnat and Bassem Tamimi of Nabi Saleh.

In numerous conversations, popular resistance leaders expressed the frustration that it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain morale and convince new villages to join the movement as Israel’s settlements expand and their oppressive reality continues unabated. Despite the profound steadfastness of so many Palestinians, we sensed a growing fear that if the Occupation’s brutal reality is allowed to continue indefinitely, armed resistance will break out across the West Bank – i.e. that the next mass Palestinian movement will look more like the Second Intifada than the First.

It is time for those who venerate the American civil rights movement and the South African anti-apartheid movement to take a good hard look at these Palestinians who are likewise putting their bodies on the line to resist an unjust and inequitable regime. While many liberals – particularly in the American Jewish community – will clearly be loath to support a “Third Global Intifada,” it is well worth asking: will we continue to put our faith in fruitless political negotiations that only entrench an inequitable status quo or a popular Palestinian movement that is resisting this oppression in the manner of so many similar movements before them?

Who are the true change agents in the world? After living with and marching with the Palestinians throughout the West Bank, I couldn’t help but recall the words written by Dr. Martin Luther King in a Birmingham jail in response to liberal clergy colleagues who urged had urged him not to march, counseling that negotiations were a “better path:”

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

8 thoughts on “Seeing Palestinian Resistance for Ourselves

  1. Jordy

    Rabbi….the problem lies between two people’s desire for the same land…the Jews after 2000 yrs have taken this land back..they fought hard and worked harder to make it’s theirs pure and simple,..from the sea to the river…the Arabs have been fighting and still are for the last 65yrs to reverse it..or if not get a piece for they are still fighting , with rocks,stones,burning tires and occasional killings…they pay the price in harsh treatment,although not near as bad if they were dealing with fellow Arabs….

    1. Vicky

      Jordy, are you seriously arguing that land belongs to whoever fights and wins for it? That dispossession and homelessness don’t matter and are ethically OK providing you marched in with an army big enough to declare the place yours?

      The anthropologist and ecologist Aurora Levins Morales, in her contribution to an anthology on justice in the Jewish tradition, wrote, “Ownership shatters ecology. For the land to survive, for us to survive, it must cease to be property.” She talks about how aggressive nationalism facilitates the rape of natural resources. It also leads to the abuse of human beings, from which you turn away.

      In July I was invited to a friend’s birthday (Jewish Israeli). We didn’t have running water in my area, as is common across the OPT in summertime (80% of water from the West Bank aquifers is pumped into Israel, with a further 10% supplying settlements – the shortages are so acute that some Palestinians south of Hebron survive on the equivalent of two toilet flushes per day). I hadn’t showered in over a week. I’d washed out of bottles. I was running out of clean clothes. I was ashamed about having to be someone’s guest looking and feeling this icky. For those Palestinians who use fewer than 15 litres a day, it’s worse. This is also part of occupation; it’s not all about guns and killing and tear gas and difficulty getting the kids to school because soldiers are unpredictable. It’s the humiliation that you feel when you can’t wash properly when it’s forty degrees C and you’re menstruating, and you know that just a mile down the road there are blossoming flowerbeds and a swimming pool in Ramat Rachel – which you can’t enter because your ethnicity is wrong. You don’t deserve luxuries like swimming. You don’t even deserve to have the bare minimum amount of water recommended per capita by the World Health Organisation. When Palestinians fight for liberty, they’re fighting for the right to meet basic human needs and to live with some dignity – you will hear that word a lot if you talk with Palestinians under occupation, ‘karama’. You seem to be assuming that they’re living in a similar grand sweeping sturm-und-drang folklore to your own, only with the parts reversed. They aren’t. They’re living in a place where checkpoint soldiers, on hearing that my colleague and her daughters are headed to the zoo, respond with, “Don’t you have enough animals in Palestine?” and under a regime whose policies make it very clear to them that some animals are a lot more equal than others. Resisting occupation means resisting that.

      You will support American Wal-Mart employees who are paid an unjust wage, yet you defend the regime that denies freedom and karama to Palestinians. You defend this because a group of people with whom you identify marched in with guns and they made the desert bloom (see those flowerbeds in Ramat Rachel?) and the white phosphorus went up in a blaze of glory to show those rock-throwing, tyre-burning Arabs who’s boss, and isn’t this a story of conquest to stir the soul? You don’t tell Wal-Mart workers to be grateful that they don’t live under worse regimes, but Palestinians should just be thankful that they’re not ‘dealing with fellow Arabs’, and the Israeli government has the right to do whatever it likes to them because might is right, apparently, and he who has the biggest gun wins. Sometimes, reading your comments, I wonder if you realise that we are not debating literary interpretations of some Homeric epic here, but talking about human lives – the lives of specific people, not ‘the Arabs’.

  2. Jordy

    Vicky…the Arab nations threw out over 800.000 Jews out of their homes and business confiscating everything…they fought 4 wars 2 intifadas with Israel…thousands killed on both sides…the Arabs are still teaching and preaching hate and death…and yes…in a way it is a Homeric epic…6 million Jews vs 1.6 billion Muslims…plus you and your friends….as for the Walmart and undocumented folks, they don’t shoot rockets,kill innocent baby’s in their cribs,or teach hate and death to their children…finally if your friends leaders had not stolen and squandered the over a billion dollars in aid and put in a proper infrastructure your friends might just have the water they need…

    1. Vicky

      I do not divide the people around me into ‘the Jews’ and ‘the Arabs’ in the way you do. Those divisions make very little sense, neither in Israel/Palestine (what do you make of the people who are neither or both?) or in relation to the wider Middle East – you’re sweeping millions of people into one slop bucket even though their societies are different and their politics and histories remarkably varied. You’re doing this to justify very oppressive policies that in any other context you would be swift to see as wrong.

      To turn your comment on its head, Palestinian paramilitaries use exactly the same arguments you use – “Look, they groom their children for the army, their kids go on field trips to bases, they raise them to hate…” – and they invoke dead babies in exactly the same way (only they have a far higher number of dead babies to invoke). When they say it about Israelis, it’s terror. When you say it about Palestinians?

      I work with Palestinian children in their hundreds. Schools, youth groups. I will never forget what happened when the British playwright Peter Mortimer travelled to Shatila refugee camp in the Lebanon to do a theatre project with some teenage girls there. They were to perform a fairytale he’d written, which ends in the manner of all the classic fairytales – the good live happily ever after, the evil magician dies. The girls weren’t happy with that ending. They wanted it changed. They grew up in dire poverty and in the shadow of a terrible massacre that took someone from each one of their families, leaving their parents so acutely traumatised that filtered down to affect them. This is their hate: “Can you make the king good? We don’t want him to die.”

      Closer to home, I could tell you about one child I’ve worked with, Maryam, who saw her little sister shot dead in front of her by the army when she was twelve years old. She herself was wounded. The army put her in the same ambulance as her sister’s body. Because of the proximity of the body, Maryam started to scream and couldn’t stop. She was in hospital in Jerusalem for several days. The whole school was very shaken by the incident, and my colleagues were wondering how to help her classmates come to terms with the shock and the grief – and yes, the anger. In the end Maryam helped them herself. She wrote down her story and read it out, at her own request. She ended it with something she hadn’t written, looking her classmates right in the eyes: “I don’t want to add any more words about that night or the nights I was in the hospital, but I want to say that the Israeli doctors and nurses were very kind to me and they treated me in a good way.”

      In her own awkward twelve-year-old way, she was trying to encourage her class not to generalise, not to hate. She did that when carrying weight that would have left many older people incapable of trying to do what she did. Then there is my boss’s mother, whose baby son got killed by the army and whose love and forgiveness is so great that whenever my own patience feels like it’s running out or I get too angry, all I need is to drop in on her and she’ll put me right again. There are some extraordinary hearts round here. No, not everyone’s a saint (why would they be? Most humans aren’t) and people do get justifiably angry, but I don’t recognise the hateful picture you’re painting from thousands of miles away, without ever having met these people or seen how they live.

      As for ‘the Muslims’, this isn’t a religious conflict. Have you ever come across the Kairos document, written by the Palestinian Christian churches? The liberation theology of the Sabeel Centre? My own host family is Christian. They’ve born enough pain of their own in this. Sparta-like fantasies in which you imagine the world’s Jews pitted against the world’s Muslims (erasing everyone’s humanity in the process – this is what happens when you can only see millions of people in black and white) leave no room for them. Conflict resolution and later reconciliation involves making room for everyone.

      This is why these friends of mine that you keep referring to include Israelis who have rather a different political understanding to my own. (Seating arrangements for my wedding would be a headache and a half, trying to ensure that ex-Palestinian political prisoners aren’t placed next to former members of the Tank Corps now residing in settlements…) Remarkably there is a lot less hatred round here than everyone abroad seems to think. There is more fear than anything, and if you just let people be who they are and where they are, and stop trying to judge them on the basis of their ethnicity or faith, it is possible to get past that.

      Of course, it’s also vital to challenge injustice, of which the water crisis is a vivid illustration. If you want to know more about that, I recommend reading the World Bank’s reports on the issue, and then also looking into the army’s targeting of wells in rural communities. The Wal-Mart/immigrant comparison is very apt – you sound just like those people who go, “If they’re in poverty, it’s their own fault, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps!” Those people say this because their personal narrative of hard work and success is more important to them than people’s lives, especially if those people don’t look like them. Everyone has their blind spots; losing them is not easy. Thankfully letting them go usually means they get replaced with something better.

  3. i_like_ike52

    This piece by Brant clearly illustrates why the Palestinians are not going to get what they want in the foreseeable future. Why? Note that this piece does NOT talk about peace, it only glorifies “resistance” and “struggle” and denigrates the “officials and politicians”. The only way the Palestinians are going to get anything is by MAKING PEACE WITH ISRAEL and this can only be done by the disparaged “officials and politicians” with backing from the Palestinian public.
    This piece is actually quite hallucinatory because it completely ignores the history of the Arab-israeli conflict, whose “struggle” and “resistance” have been going on for almost a century, and in that time the Arabs have fallen further and further behind and Israel has been growing and thriving, in spite of the indiscriminate violence the Arab side has been inflicting on Israel during that entire period. Palestinians and their sympathizers can talk all they want about being inspired by Martin Luther King, but the main Palestinian “struggle” and “resistance” has been carried out by mass terror attacks, full-scale wars against Israel in which the declared goal was, especially in 1948 and 1967 was “to throw the Jews into the sea” and now by indiscriminate rocket fire into Israeli population centers by HAMAS, who was elected by the Palestinian masses some years ago, and which is defined by the international community as a war crime.
    Do you think Israelis have forgotten the thousands of dead and wounded Israelis caused by the suicide bomber war of a decade ago? Have Israelis, who agreed to a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and destruction of the Jewish communties there, forgotten the thousands of rockets fired from there and the tunnels built across the border into Israel for the purpose of kidnapping Israelis or murdering them?
    Brant doesn’t even bother to talk to us Israelis. We don’t interest him. Only the “struggle” does. Peace will only come when Israelis are convinced that the Palestinians are going to accept a peace agreement and live side-by-side with us Israelis, yet Brant has nothing to say to us and neither do these Palestinians involved in the romance of “resistance”.
    Add to this the fratricidal slaughter going on in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and now the political violence in formerly stable Egypt. These Arabs/Muslims butchering each other are killing their brothers who they love as fellow Arabs and Muslim. However, on the other hand, these killers do have a problem with us Zionists/Jews. What would they do to us if we disarmed ourselves as Brant and others are advocating? You don’t think we Israelis, who are being called on to make concessions which affect our security see what is going on and this doesn’t affect they way we look at Palestinian “resistance”? Bombs and rockets overshadow Martin Luther King tactics in the news any day. It is also important to remember that the security wall was built in response to the suicide bomber war which Arafat initiated WITH LARGE-SCALE SUPPORT FROM THE PALESTINIAN POPULATION. If they don’t like the wall, they have only themselves to blame. If Brant wants to really help his Palestinian friends, it is time that he bring the facts of life I have outlined above to their attention. Only a real change in Palestinian attitutes towards REAL peace with Israel, which they never seem to talk about and which Brant has never mentioned in his postings can make a real difference. Otherwise, things will continue as they have up until now

    1. Vicky

      Ike, you’ve written all these things many times before and they’ve already been discussed, so I won’t go back there. But as I read, one thing stood out to me:

      “Peace will only come when Israelis are convinced that the Palestinians are going to accept a peace agreement and live side-by-side with us Israelis, yet Brant has nothing to say to us and neither do these Palestinians involved in the romance of ‘resistance’.”

      This is a sincere and serious question. Have you ever visited a Palestinian community or talked properly with any Palestinian? (I’m aware I’ve asked you this a few times before – you didn’t reply.) The vast majority of Israelis whom I know have never done so, so it seems a little odd for someone who probably doesn’t speak with Palestinians to feel that these guys have ‘nothing to say’ to you, and for a person who doesn’t know any Palestinian communities to think that they aren’t showing an interest in living side by side. Not a criticism, but something I think you should consider.

  4. Roz

    Thanks, Ike. Vicky-there are organizations in Israel that do bring “ordinary” Palestinians and Israelis together to talk. I’m sure there is a small minority of Palestinians who do want peace, as I carefully read the polls conducted by the Palestinians themselves, and clearly 15 to 20 percent are against the violence and the whole no deal situation. As to the other 80%, you figure it out. What’s really “funny” is how the town of Beitar Illit, in the “Gush Etzion” area, had trouble in the past with neighboring Husan, a small Pal. town. Now, relations are greatly improved, and some town leaders visited Beitar and had positive things to say. Even in Hebron there is one sheikh who may not accept the Israeli government ruling over parts of the city, but fully supports the rights of Jews to live there, peacefully. Guess what? He’s the only one. The stupidity of the “bi-national” state idea is the premise that if the Israelis aren’t in control, everyone will live in peace. What happened to the sephardic Jews, even before 48, who were exiled by their arab countries of birth? That idea cannot happen. Maybe after years of two tiny countries cooperating-and let’s face it, tens of thousands of Palestinians work in Israel (plus over 30,000 do so illegally) and “need” Israel-could there be a chance of co-governing. Personally, I don’t think Brant is so naive; he is probably getting some unnamed support for his one-sided writings and views. The rest of us aren’t fooled by him.


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