Against the backdrop of the siege of Arafat’s compound, we have been witnessing remarkable new initiatives in Palestine. Recent developments on the popular political level are reminiscent of grass-roots efforts of a decade ago in Eastern Europe, South Africa, and South America: impressive mass prayers by peasants in a field near Nablus, the deafening noise of people banging on pots and pans in Ramallah, and courageous parents and teachers in various cities breaking curfews to guide their children to school. In fact, some months ago plans to break curfews were already being circulating and debated, but it is increasingly obvious that Palestinians under occupation have reached the point at which many are ready to undertake non-violent resistance.
This emerging change in attitude may be traced to two circumstances: the changing nature of the occupation and changes in the general political environment.
The Nature of Occupation
The 35-year-old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has never been benevolent to or accepted by the Palestinian population, but various periods have been characterized by different levels and kinds of repression. Over long stretches of time the occupation, as a sophisticated control mechanism, deployed a variety of resources to enforce Palestinians’ compliance. Not only force was employed; but rather, the occupation worked its repressive effects through a myriad of institutionalized dependencies and coercive devices, particularly Palestinians’ marked economic reliance on labour in Israel, a complicated permit system, friendly relations with local mukhtars and other proxies, the differential distribution of ‘favours’ among neighbours, and an elaborate network of tens of thousands of collaborators and informers.
At the present time, however, the occupation forces have reverted to a reliance on naked, arbitrary violence inflicted upon the population as a whole. Reacting to the suicide bombings, the Israeli army has dramatically tightened its control over daily life to an unbearable degree. At checkpoints and in other Israeli-Palestinian contact zones, Palestinian civilians are systematically humiliated in classical colonial style.
After two long years of the second Intifada, the majority of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has been suffered irrevocable damage to their personal and family lives, their material possessions and lands, their own or their children’s education, and their work. The purpose of Israel’s full frontal assault on Palestinian society is to break people’s spirits in hopes of pacifying the uprising.
Yet, the more that Israel exerts sheer force, the sooner the limits of its deterrent and adaptive military capacities are reached. As many observers have noted, in the last few weeks the fear threshold among Palestinians has significantly decreased. The curfews are now assumed to lack any meaningful conclusion, and have become so completely arbitrary, absurd, and dehumanizing that fewer and fewer people are obeying them
The Political Environment
At the same time that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are reaching the logical limits of the use of force and cruelty, the political environment is undergoing profound changes. Threats against the civil population are palpably present. On the ground, the ‘normal’ processes of land confiscation and settlement building are continuing unabated. Public discourse has also become more extremist and threatening. In Israel, scenarios depicting the ‘transfer’ of the Palestinian population out of the West Bank and Gaza have been hotly debated – including ‘variants’ such as internal vs. external transfer. Support for transfer (known elsewhere by the less appetizing term “ethnic cleansing”) has somehow become a legitimate stand in Israel as well as in conservative circles in the USA.
A superpower’s desire and readiness to execute regime change and thereby alter the political map of the Middle East may prepare the ground work for a silent acceptance of sudden revisions of the Israeli and Palestinian demographic ‘map’ as well. Many people in Palestine regard the risk of an IDF ethnic cleansing campaign during or after a war on Iraq as a real possibility.
In the face of such threats, Palestinians feel that their leaders, alone, do not have the power to initiate needed changes or move the public in a new direction. While the Palestinian Authority and Arafat are recognized as the Palestinian representatives, they find themselves cornered in the international political arena and under political scrutiny at home. There is at present no clear and viable road towards some kind of broader political agreement. Under these tense circumstances, many Palestinians feel an urgent need to become political actors once again.
Creating a new popular movement could make a big difference, locally and internationally. Commemorating two years of a militarized Intifada, the Palestinian press is now replete with articles calling for a return to the popular roots of the Intifada as it emerged in its original form in the late 1980s.
A popular non-violent movement requires coordination and strategy. At this moment, strategy is largely absent. The popular actions are locally and often spontaneously organized, with widespread media attention evident only in exceptional cases.
One possibility for developing such a strategy would be choosing a broad social domain for a sustained and concerted action targetting international public opinion. Such a domain might be medical, economical, or educational. The advantage of choosing such a domain for a public campaign is that it would put a very human face on those who suffer the damaging effects of occupation. From the perspective of the broadest definition of “the international public,” such a humanizing message would have a far greater impact than do general political statements.
Let’s take, as an example, the domain of education. I work in this field myself, so I am familiar with its potential.
For Wednesday, October 2, local authorities, religious leaders and NGOs have announced a large demonstration in front of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. Children, parents and teachers will demand the right of education. Apart from inter-religious prayers and speeches, a banner with the text “Let Our Children Have Freedom” will be attached to helium-filled balloons and lifted into the air. Solidarity based on the need for and right to education will also be proclaimed in other Palestinian towns. While people in the Bethlehem area are ‘privileged’ to be able to go out of their houses – unlike other cities – students and teachers here also face difficulties in reaching schools, for instance when they have to cross checkpoints or settler roads.
In Ramallah, Nablus and other cities, people have recently spearheaded many grassroots initiatives to organize forms of ‘underground education.’ People challenged the curfew and offered their homes, time and expertise to create alternative educational options at in case schools were inaccessible due to curfews and sieges. It is not only the urgent need for education that guides them, but also a knowledge of history. Teachers relate that their school communities are certain of one thing: students should not once again lose years of education, as occured during the first Intifadah, when underground education received considerable publicity, yet was not pursued systematically. That lapse in learning had a profoundly deleterious effect upon the young people’s intellectual and professional development.
In my own environment, I see parents pressuring schools personnel to make emergency curfew plans detailing how teachers and parents should call each other so that children are able to continue their studies as much as possible at home.
Palestinians have always been proud about the levels of education they have attained against all odds. Right now, visitors are impressed by the sheer persistence and improvisatory capacity young and older students (as well as teachers and administrators) display simply to realize the right to education. So many students and teachers arrive exhausted to their schools after being forced to take detours through the hills or after long waits at checkpoints. Given the Palestinian capacity for persistence and improvisation, a sustained popular and public movement in education, characterized by coordination of activities across cities and regions (for instance, similar activities conducted simultaneously, such as the noise-making of sounds or holding vigils) would have real potential.
A compelling and unifying slogan should be chosen. It would be possible to form local or regional action committees staffed by teachers, parents and representatives of the Ministry of Education. If face-to-face coordination is impossible, then email can do the job. Such committees could organize, document and write about public actions conducted in their region. In Ramallah, there is a recent civilian initiative (called Jaras Bell) to document the number of educational hours children are loosing in various cities and regions. After all, education is a field in which everyone has a direct or indirect stake, and in which massive participation is not impossible.
While Palestinian youth – who are in fact the large majority of Palestinian society — are seldom public spokespersons, a prolonged action in support of their right to education could give the floor to young Palestinians who are versed in different languages. They could be involved in writing and public speaking. Creative new means of voicing concerns and claiming rights could become part of extracurricular programs that encourage knowledge and discussion of the history of popular protest in Palestine. Students could compose the texts of their posters and banners, as they are presently asked to do for the Bethlehem action.
Student choirs could perform a joint song in support of the campaign. An international committee of well-known personalities could easily be formed to support such a large and sustained campaign, and volunteers and monitors on the ground could play a watchdog role. In this way, a broad movement expressing compelling, immediate, and very basic human demands would expose the brutality of the occupation, catalyze international civil society and – hopefully — play some role in preventing Palestinian civilians from becoming expendable pawns in a new Middle East war.
Toine van Teeffelen, a Dutch national married to a Palestinian, is project manager at the Arab Educational Institute, and the local coordinator of the United Civilians for Peace, a Dutch initiative to send civilian monitors to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.