Nabi Saleh, West Bank, May 21 2010 (photo: Oren Ziv, activestills.org)
Freelance journalist Ben Ehrenreich had a lengthy article in the March 17th NYT Magazine—published online under the title “Is this where the third intifada will start?“—that I just got around to reading. It is one of the most important reportages I’ve read on the popular resistance by Palestinian villagers in the West Bank to the Israeli occupation. In fact, it is one of the better reportages I’ve read on the occupation, period. The report focuses on Nabi Saleh, a village of 500 inhabitants some 20 km to the northwest of Ramallah (in Area B)—and close by the Gush Emunim settlement of Halamish—, which has been a haut lieu of popular resistance for the past four years. Halfway through the article Ehrenreich describes how the resistance took form
The strategy [of unarmed resistance] appeared to work. After 55 demonstrations, the Israeli government agreed to shift the route of the barrier to the so-called 1967 green line. The tactic spread to other villages: Biddu, Ni’lin, Al Ma’asara and in 2009, Nabi Saleh. Together they formed what is known as the “popular resistance,” a loosely coordinated effort that has maintained what has arguably been the only form of active and organized resistance to the Israeli presence in the West Bank since the end of the second intifada in 2005. Nabi Saleh, Bassem [Tamimi] hoped, could model a form of resistance for the rest of the West Bank. The goal was to demonstrate that it was still possible to struggle and to do so without taking up arms, so that when the spark came, if it came, resistance might spread as it had during the first intifada. “If there is a third intifada,” he said, “we want to be the ones who started it.”
Bassem saw three options. “To be silent is to accept the situation,” he said, “and we don’t accept the situation.” Fighting with guns and bombs could only bring catastrophe. Israel was vastly more powerful, he said. “But by popular resistance, we can push its power aside.”
But the strategy of unarmed resistance does not sit well with the Israelis
As small as the demonstrations were, they appeared to create considerable anxiety in Israel. Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told me that while the West Bank demonstrations do not pose an “existential threat” to Israel, they “certainly could be more problematic in the short term” than a conventional armed revolt. Eytan Buchman, a spokesman for the I.D.F., took issue with the idea that the weekly protests were a form of nonviolent resistance. In an e-mail he described the protests as “violent and illegal rioting that take place around Judea and Samaria, and where large rocks, Molotov cocktails, improvised grenades and burning tires are used against security forces. Dubbing these simply demonstrations is an understatement — more than 200 security-force personnel have been injured in recent years at these riots.” (Molotov cocktails are sometimes thrown at protests at the checkpoints of Beitunia and Kalandia but never, Bassem said, in Nabi Saleh.) Buchman said that the I.D.F. “employs an array of tactics as part of an overall strategy intended to curb these riots and the ensuing acts of violence.” He added that “every attempt is made to minimize physical friction and risk of casualties” among both the I.D.F. and the “rioters.”
One senior military commander, who would agree to be interviewed only on the condition that his name not be used, told me: “When the second intifada broke out, it was very difficult, but it was very easy to understand what we had to do. You have the enemy, he shoots at you, you have to kill him.” Facing down demonstrators armed with slings and stones or with nothing at all is less clear-cut. “As an Israeli citizen,” the commander said, “I prefer stones. As a professional military officer, I prefer to meet tanks and troops.”
But armies, by their nature, have one default response to opposition: force. One soldier who served in Nabi Saleh testified to the Israeli veterans’ group Breaking the Silence about preparing for Friday protests. “It’s like some kind of game,” he said. “Everyone wants to arm themselves with as much ammo as possible. . . . You have lots of stun grenades . . . so they’re thrown for the sake of throwing, at people who are not suspected of anything. And in the end, you tell your friend at the Friday-night dinner table: ‘Wow! I fired this much.’ ”
According to a leaked 2010 U.S. State Department memo, Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi of Israel “expressed frustration” with the West Bank protests to American diplomats, and “warned that the I.D.F. will start to be more assertive in how it deals with these demonstrations, even demonstrations that appear peaceful.” The memo concluded that “less-violent demonstrations are likely to stymie the I.D.F.,” citing the Israeli Defense Ministry policy chief Amos Gilad’s admission to U.S. officials, “We don’t do Gandhi very well.”
Sagi Tal, a former I.D.F. soldier, who was stationed near the villages of Bil’in and Ni’lin, which also held weekly demonstrations, explained to me that his unit sometimes conducted night raids to gather intelligence or make arrests and sometimes simply so “that they should feel that we are here and we are watching them.”
Yes, the IDF doesn’t do Gandhi very well. And it harasses Palestinians just to remind them whose boss…
On the stone throwing
I asked one of the boys why he threw stones, knowing how futile it was. “I want to help my country and my village, and I can’t,” he said. “I can just throw stones.”
“We see our stones as our message,” [Nabi Saleh resident] Bassem [Tamimi] explained. The message they carried, he said, was “We don’t accept you.” While Bassem spoke admiringly of Mahatma Gandhi, he didn’t worry over whether stone-throwing counted as violence. The question annoyed him: Israel uses far greater and more lethal force on a regular basis, he pointed out, without being asked to clarify its attitude toward violence. If the loincloth functioned as the sign of Gandhi’s resistance, of India’s nakedness in front of British colonial might, Bassem said, “Our sign is the stone.” The weekly clashes with the I.D.F. were hence in part symbolic. The stones were not just flinty yellow rocks, but symbols of defiance, of a refusal to submit to occupation, regardless of the odds.
But the strategy hasn’t borne fruit, needless to say
“This is the worst time for us,” Bassem confided to me last summer. He meant not just that the villagers have less to show for their sacrifices each week, but that things felt grim outside the village too. Everyone I spoke with who was old enough to remember agreed that conditions for Palestinians are far worse now than they were before the first intifada. The checkpoints, the raids, the permit system, add up to more daily humiliation than Palestinians have ever faced. The number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank has more than tripled since the Oslo Accords. Assaults on Palestinians by settlers are so common that they rarely made the news. The resistance, though, remained limited to a few scattered villages like Nabi Saleh and a small urban youth movement.
I sat down one afternoon in Ramallah with Samir Shehadeh, a former literature professor from Nabi Saleh who was one of the intellectual architects of the first intifada and whom I met several times at Bassem’s house. I reminded him of the car accident that ignited the first uprising and asked what kind of spark it would take to mobilize Palestinians to fight again. “The situation is 1,000 times worse,” he said. “There are thousands of possible sparks,” and still nothing has happened.
Part of the reason is the disconnect between the situation of the residents of Nabi Saleh and so many other villages in the West Bank, on the one hand, and the Palestinian elite in the “Ramallah bubble,” on the other, with its “bright and relatively carefree world of cafes, NGO salaries and imported goods… the clothing shops and fast-food franchises [that] are filled…[the n]ew high-rises [that] are going up everywhere.”
Life in the “Ramallah bubble” is indeed not too bad, as one may glean from pics I took on my last visit there (in a post from Sep. ’11 arguing why there will not be a third intifada…).
The “Ramallah bubble” does put a damper on the resistance, as Ehrenreich reports
At times the Palestinian Authority acts as a more immediate obstacle to resistance. Shortly after the protests began in Nabi Saleh, Bassem was contacted by P.A. security officials. The demonstrations were O.K., he said they told him, as long as they didn’t cross into areas in which the P.A. has jurisdiction — as long, that is, as they did not force the P.A. to take a side, to either directly challenge the Israelis or repress their own people… In Hebron, P.A. forces have stopped protesters from marching into the Israeli-controlled sector of the city. “This isn’t collaboration,” an I.D.F. spokesman, who would only talk to me on the condition that he not be named, assured me. “Israel has a set of interests, the P.A. has a set of interests and those interests happen to overlap.”
No wonder Israel has shown minimal interest in reviving negotiations with the PA, as the PA is already doing almost precisely what Israel wants it to do
Bassem saw no easy way to break the torpor and ignite a more widespread popular resistance. “They have the power,” he said of the P.A., “more than the Israelis, to stop us.” The Palestinian Authority employs 160,000 Palestinians, which means it controls the livelihoods of about a quarter of West Bank households. One night I asked Bassem and Bilal, who works for the Ministry of Public Health, how many people in Nabi Saleh depend on P.A. salaries. It took them a few minutes to add up the names. “Let’s say two-thirds of the village,” Bilal concluded.
New forms of resistance are being developed, however
In late November , Netanyahu announced plans to build 3,400 settlement units in an area known as E1, effectively cutting off Jerusalem from the West Bank. Just before I arrived in January, popular-resistance activists tried something new, erecting a tent “village” called Bab al-Shams in E1, symbolically appropriating the methods of land confiscation employed by settlers. “The time has come now to change the rules of the game,” the organizers wrote in a news release, “for us to establish facts on the ground — our own land.” The numbers were relatively small — about 250 people took part, including Nariman and a few others from Nabi Saleh — and, on direct orders from Netanyahu, soldiers evicted everyone two days later, but the movement was once again making headlines around the globe. Copycat encampments went up all over the West Bank — some in areas where the popular resistance had not previously been active.
Very good initiative the tent villages, though it’s hard to be optimistic that it will succeed. In point of fact, the situation in the Palestinian territories—the WB and Gaza—is hopeless, or nearly so. The Israelis are not going to withdraw to the ’67 lines and the IDF is not going to renounce its freedom to intervene wherever it pleases in the West Bank (and Israel will not loosen its vise on Gaza so long as Hamas remains in power). This is a statement of fact. The Palestinians are powerless to make the Israelis do what they want them to do and the international community—the US, EU, UN, Arab states, etc—is not going to—and cannot—make the Israelis do it for them. The situation has been going on for 46 years and for which all parties bear their share of responsibility: the Israelis, the Arab states, and the Palestinians themselves. It’s a terrible situation for Palestinians outside the “bubble”—for those whose lives are made miserable by checkpoints, IDF raids, land confiscation, fanatical settlers, and everything else—but I have no brilliant strategies to propose to them apart from continuing to do Gandhi (and maybe rethink the stone throwing). If persons more perspicacious than I have other strategies, do let me in on them.
Some questions (rhetorical) to those who support Israeli policy: what do you propose for the inhabitants of Nabi Saleh and other villages and towns in the West Bank? How should they deal with the IDF, its checkpoints, and the extremist settlers in their midst? What would you do if you were in their shoes?
Ben Ehrenreich’s article is long (over 8,000 words) but worth reading in its entirety.