Throwing rocks at the occupation — and Western prejudice too

Is throwing rocks at an occupying force an act of violence?

Oren Ziv ActiveStills

I had denied it for too long now but for a Palestinian, my rock throwing is abysmal.

On one of the Fridays I spent in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, I had grumbled out loud at this particular incompetence of mine and I suddenly found myself surrounded by eager teachers.

It was the Friday that demonstrators marched with a model of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. That day was mostly spent indoors as after the first couple of hours of the protest, the Israeli army aimed and fired tear gas at whoever poked his or her head out the door.

During the late afternoon the jeeps made signs that they were leaving and I jumped at the chance of being outside again. Along with two other girls, we casually sauntered forward until we reached the jeeps and stood next to local activist Nariman Tamimi and her video camera, where other village children joined us.The other activists tried venturing out but because they were a larger number they were promptly shot at. From the rooftops, others started cursing the soldiers in a humorous way, and they also were fired upon. One of the tear gas canisters rolled back toward the soldier who fired it and he had to scramble comically out of the way, which made us all whoop and cheer, the younger children laughing openly. The soldier stomped menacingly towards our group, his pride hurt, his eyes flashing angrily — and threw a sound bomb at us. We scampered.

The village was surrounded by soldiers. The hills were crawling with them, the orchards teeming. As we watched one troop making its way down from behind the olive trees, we didn’t bother to conceal the condescension on our faces. One soldier raised his hand in farewell. My throat constricted with a thousand incendiary words to say at this supposedly friendly gesture. The girl’s face next to me mirrored my own: dangerously-narrowed eyes that almost made us look cross-eyed.

One by one, the jeeps took off. A hail of stones began raining down on them, with whistles and cheering whenever a rock made contact with the armored vehicles. The infectious excitement made me pick up a rock, throw it, and then swiftly I buried my head in the ground as the rock traveled heavily in the air for a couple of meters before dropping dully. Next to me, a kid half my size threw his rock and narrowly missed the end of the jeep, which was now about two hundred meters away.

Two basic lessons

There are two basic lessons: how to hold a rock and how to throw a rock. The village was now empty of the occupying force, the street littered with sound bombs and canisters. My lesson took place across from a small empty lot with the sun dipping in the background.

“This is how you hold a rock,” said one of the shabab (youth). “No, not like that, like this. OK, you’re doing it wrong. No, look at my fingers! Imagine your thumb and forefinger as a pair of tweezers. Hold them up like this. The rock should fit comfortably.” He gave up on his theoretical talk, grabbed my fingers and molded them into the correct shape.

One kid tapped my arm. “Let the rock rest against your middle finger. That’s it, you got it.”

“Now stretch your arm out, away from your body,” the same shab continued. “No, not like a stick figure. Bend your elbow slightly. Move your arm backwards a little. When you throw, don’t let your shoulder move. The rock travels longer based on the follow through movement of your arm. OK, throw.” I threw. The rock felt lighter as it whizzed through the air. I yelled out in joy. “Did you see that!” My teachers nodded absentmindedly and threw their rocks. The distance covered was still longer than mine.

“OK, good, but you need to refine your technique a bit more. Try again. Wait, remember to keep this finger like that. OK throw again — wait, what are you doing, aiming for the driver? Let the car pass before you start. Now watch out for the kids. Hey!” he yelled out good-naturedly, “Get out of the way!”

I threw again, a broad smile breaking out across my face. I knew better than to say I don’t throw like a girl anymore — one of the last classes I took at university was women’s studies, which had a lasting effect on me. The kids showed just how good they are with rocks and were eager to offer me tips regarding size and target.

Israeli ignorance

Earlier that day, as activists were cooped up in the home of Bilal and Manal Tamimi — activists who are also involved in documenting the protests — one Israeli activist, a first-timer here, was standing in the middle of the room drawing attention to himself as he loudly asserted that throwing rocks automatically cancelled out a “nonviolent protest.” Another activist was arguing with him, pointing out that the rocks were barely the source of bodily harm, but to me they both were missing the point completely.

One of the Tamimi men was leaning against the wall on a mattress, staring at the Israeli with scornful displeasure. “As long as the soldiers are here, as long as our land is being encroached upon, as long as their jeeps take over our village, and as long as they continue to fire tear gas, our shabab won’t stop throwing rocks,” he declared.

“Fine, but you can’t call it a nonviolent protest,” the Israeli countered. He looked warily around the room. “Look, I realize most of you don’t agree with me, but in my opinion a nonviolent protest shouldn’t engage in any tactics of violence, and to me throwing stones is an act of violence.”

“An act of violence!” the other activist almost sneered. “In response to what, the tear gas fired? The live ammunition sometimes used? The storming of houses and the subsequent arrests and beatings? You can’t equate the tactics of the Israeli army to rock-“

“I’m not equating them! Definitely I’m not! But to me, a nonviolent protest —” “Listen,” I interjected. “This is the first mistake you’re making. Don’t say ‘nonviolent;’ the more correct term is ‘unarmed.’”

The Israeli first-timer has obviously fallen victim to the western discourse that dictates what it regards as the appropriate way for Palestinians to resist the occupation. It seems more apparent that for the West, the term “nonviolent” protest would mean that one should retreat meekly in the face of aggression once chanting, singing and sticking flowers into the barrel ends of guns result in exacerbated aggression on the Israeli army’s part. There are all sorts of implications that come with that term, and it is important not to be ensnared by the western mindset. Definitions should come with context.

A symbolic gesture

Last month, Ibrahim Shikaki, a Ramallah-based youth organizer and economic researcher, wrote a highly important article for Al Jazeera English on Palestinian resistance. Shikaki pointed out that media coverage shapes Palestinian resistance in the western narrative of nonviolence, and he challenged the West’s diktats on how Palestinians should resist (“What is the ‘right’ type of resistance?,” 6 July 2011).

“The fact is, facing a brutal war machine with stones is but a symbolic gesture,” Shikaki wrote. “It is a symbol of the vast discrepancy in power between the Palestinian people and Israel’s war machine. Stones aimed at Israeli tanks or other armed vehicles were a means for the unarmed indigenous people of Palestine to demonstrate their refusal of occupation and oppression. Youth, women, the elderly and all sectors of society participated in this form of resistance.”

So where does the history of rock throwing, the action that captured the hearts of millions around the world during the first intifada and inspired other people, like the new generation of Kashmiris, come from? Bassem Tamimi, a prominent activist now in Israeli detention, explained in an interview with The Electronic Intifada that rocks were traditionally thrown to warn or frighten off bears or snakes. “When a soldier comes into our village and shoots tear gas we won’t just sit there like a victim. They are protected from live bullets so we’re clearly not trying to take a life. With stones we are simply saying, ‘We don’t accept you here as an occupier. We don’t welcome you as a conqueror.’”

It is for this reason that to even consider throwing rocks as a violent act is absurd. The message is very clear: rocks are thrown at the enemy as a way of underscoring the Palestinians’ disapproval of a foreign occupier from intruding and expropriating their lands and homes. At the risk of insulting their intelligence and losing their respect at such a dim question, I asked a few Nabi Saleh children why they throw rocks. Their responses were simple: We don’t want the army here. This is our village. They are occupying us.

Overcoming propaganda

The Israeli hasbara (propaganda) machine excels in depicting the Israeli army, with its Merkava tanks, F-16 missiles, Uzi submachine guns, assault rifles and rubber-coated metal bullets as the true victims, while painting the Palestinian youth, armed with rocks, as a disturbing image of bloodthirsty emotional Jew-hating Arabs who loathe the white man’s economic, social and political accomplishments.

The David versus Goliath analogy is lost on those well-meaning “nonviolent” folks. Truth be told, the literal Arabic translation of “nonviolent” isn’t used widely. We use the term muthahara silmiya which means “peaceful protest.” It is especially cringe-worthy to remember how I used to look down on those who threw rocks in Bilin and Nilin, something I now attribute to my ignorance and inexperience. I used to think — as a victim the propaganda pumped out by western media — that throwing rocks was a thing of the past, and that we needed new ways to resist, not quite the Gandhi way but something along those lines. Thank God for Nabi Saleh.

Recently, someone told me the story of how the Spiderman of that village, little four-year-old Samer, had succeeded in breaking off a rear-view mirror of one of the Israeli jeeps with his rock. Spiderman picked up his prized possession, and wouldn’t let go of it. He probably slept with it next to him. This isn’t a case of young children being taught to hate Jews and therefore grow up to be suicide bombers. It’s a case of a young child who is forced to deal with the presence of his brutal occupier in his village.

I picked up another rock, positioning it in my right hand. My teachers looked on approvingly. “When you go home, line up everything you own on a shelf and start knocking them over with a rock,” they told me, grinning. “Give it a week and you’ll be a pro.”

Linah Alsaafin is a recent graduate of Birzeit University in the West Bank. She was born in Cardiff, Wales and was raised in England, the United States and Palestine. Her website is