Stop the Wall has been prominent lately in organizing protests to support Palestinian hunger strikers, resisting their detention without charge by Israel. The group’s strong opposition to Israeli apartheid has resulted in it becoming a target of repression. Earlier this month, its offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah were raided by the Israeli military.
Hassan Kharajeh, a youth coordinator with Stop the Wall, has been especially active in mobilizing young Palestinians to oppose the occupation. He spoke to Eoin Wilson, outreach coordinator with Stop the Wall, about the role of youth in the hunger strike demonstrations and why today’s generation of youth has Israel scared.
Eoin Wilson: Now that the hunger strikers have accepted a deal which hopefully will improve their conditions and restrict the arbitrary use of administrative detention, what is your assessment of the situation on the ground?
Hassan Kharajeh: I guess the clearest answer has already been given by the widespread Nakba Day protests across the West Bank, including the up to 2,000 people that participated in the protest in front of Ofer prison. For over seven hours Palestinian youth confronted the occupation and made their voice heard, nationally, internationally and even inside the prison cells of Ofer.
For the prisoners, this incredible show of strength and willpower has brought the chance to significantly alleviate their suffering. While the only way to give the Palestinian political prisoners justice is their immediate release, the current agreement is definitely huge progress. For us outside the prison cells, their struggle has given us a model of steadfastness and the certainty that if we stand up united, we can win, step by step, our freedom and national self-determination. This has galvanized many. It is now up to us to ensure that we build on this momentum to strengthen the popular struggle as such.
EW:The Palestinian youth were already very active in supporting the prisoners’ hunger strike in September 2011. Can you speak about that?
HK: In September 2011, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails began a hunger strike against their conditions, and the youth movement began to organize in support of the prisoners by staging demonstrations and other events. After the prisoner exchange in October 2011, which saw the release of over 1,000 Palestinian political prisoners in exchange for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Israel promised to improve prison conditions for Palestinian prisoners. This promise has not been fulfilled, and in actual fact the situation in Israeli jails has worsened considerably for Palestinian prisoners. This was one of the main reasons for the hunger strike initiated by Khader Adnan on 17 December 2011, as well as a general protest against Israel’s illegal policy of administrative detention.
EW: How did the youth in Palestine respond to Khader Adnan’s hunger strike?
HK: The reaction to Khader Adnan’s, and later Hana al-Shalabi’s hunger strike by the youth in Palestine is worth analyzing critically. While the youth again organized incredibly effective actions in solidarity, there was no long-term strategy, or a realization that Khader and Hana’s hunger strikes would lead to the mass hunger strikes that we witness today. This was an early mistake by the youth movement, but one learns a lot from such mistakes. When Bilal [Diab] and Thaer [Halahleh] started their hunger strikes, we realized that the youth in Palestine had to go beyond just supporting individual hunger strikers and their families, but had to have a strategy to support a general hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners.
EW: Since the Arab uprisings, a lot has been written about the role of social media in protests movements. How much have you been using social media?
HK: We have used Twitter a lot to mobilize international support for the hunger strikes, but also to put pressure directly on the representatives of the international community and to force them to break their silence in the face of Israel’s repeated violations of human rights. One example of this is when Catherine Ashton [the EU’s foreign policy chief] released a statement calling on Israel to “preserve the health of Mr. Adnan and handle this case while abiding by all legal obligations under international law.” We obviously considered this to be a very weak statement, so we organized a sustained campaign on Twitter to pressure Ms. Ashton to release a statement calling for his immediate release.
EW: Where does Stop the Wall youth draw its support from?
HK: Stop the Wall youth draws it support from many different political traditions within Palestine, and is independent of all of them, instead choosing to work with these various groups when and where the need arises. Stop the Wall was set up to oppose Israel’s apartheid wall, and this continues to be the focus of our work. [Stop the Wall] is also a member of a vast network of Palestinian civil society organizations struggling on various fronts against Israel’s colonization and occupation of Palestine. As such, our work, and the work of Stop the Wall youth, is not only confined to the fight against the wall and the settlements, but supports a wide variety of struggles, most recently the hunger strikes of Palestinian prisoners against their illegal detention by Israel. The extensive network of contacts that Stop the Wall has built up over the years makes our group very well-placed to participate and support the campaigns of our comrades throughout Palestine and internationally.
EW: What is the relationship between the youth movement and the popular committees set up to resist the occupation in various West Bank villages?
HK: We work very closely with the popular committees throughout Palestine, and many of the youth are involved directly in the struggles in their own areas, particularly in communities directly affected by the wall and settlements. At the moment the youth movement is strongest in the major cities of the West Bank as well as the communities on the route of the wall or with settlements built on their land.
EW: What is the situation of the youth movements in Jerusalem, and how is the situation there in terms of organizing the youth?
HK: Well, Jerusalem is a unique case. It is completely under the control of Israel, unlike areas of the West Bank which are under the partial control of the Palestinian Authority, and still its Palestinian residents do not have the rights of Israeli citizens. Palestinians in Jerusalem, therefore, directly confront the Israeli state in every aspect of their life, whether it be through the mundane bureaucratic procedures forced upon the occupied by the occupier, like applying for the myriad of permits that the Israeli state requires us to hold, or when there is physical repression by the Israeli occupation forces when we as Palestinians express our cultural identity and protest for our human rights.
This direct confrontation with Israel raises particular problems for organizing the youth in Jerusalem, the most obvious of which is that Israel can very easily arrest and imprison those who dare to express opinions in opposition to the dominant Zionist narrative. At the same time though, Jerusalem has always been the focus of the Palestinian struggle, and the youth in Jerusalem continue to organize despite the daily repression and intimidation of the Israeli occupation.
EW: You’ve spoken about Israeli repression of the youth movement, which leads me to wonder what kind of problems the youth movement faces within areas under the at least nominal control of the Palestinian Authority?
HK: This is an interesting topic. The nature of any independent youth movement is that, in order to become stronger and to grow, it must defend its independence from political parties and the political establishment, though we are happy to work with other groups and in fact many of the members of the youth movement are active in other organizations. What I mean is that we cannot allow ourselves to be co-opted by any particular group, lest we are forced to compromise our principles or adapt our tactics to suit those in power. This is one of the reasons that we refuse to take money from any organization, international or Palestinian.
In terms of the situation of the youth movement within the wider Palestinian society, our goals are certainly very different from those of the PA, who are content with maintaining the status quo and, as Mahmoud Abbas recently stated, do not want a third intifada or any sustained popular uprising against Israeli occupation. A major problem for any independent movement within Palestine is the extent of PA control over the media, and this was recently demonstrated by the arrests of dozens of journalists and bloggers over the last few weeks by PA security forces, a major threat to freedom of expression.
EW: Do you think that the youth movement in Palestine will face repression from the PA as well as the Israeli authorities as popular resistance to the occupation increases?
HK: Yes, I certainly do. The recent protests at the UN and ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] offices in Ramallah started with the PA security forces unsure of what to do. On one hand they seemed concerned by the number of photographers and journalists there, and didn’t want to be seen to be attacking the friends and families of hunger strikers. On the other hand, they didn’t want Israel or the United States to think that they were supporting the hunger strike.
The day after, at the ICRC protest, we saw a more assertive and aggressive PA response, with police officers ripping banners calling for the release of the hunger strikers. This is a worrying development, but I think that to an extent we can see the increased repression by both Israel and the PA security forces as a sign of the growing strength and power of the popular resistance in Palestine. The PA are in a very difficult position, because either they allow free protest in the areas they control and upset Israel, or they attack and arrest Palestinian protesters and become seen as collaborators. Time will tell which path they will chose, but I fear it will not be the side of the popular resistance.
EW: The repression of Palestinian protests and organizations is constantly justified as defending law and order. What are the tactics you are using as a movement?
HK: This is ironic. It is the Palestinian youth and those organizing protests that are defending international law and working towards an end of the constant Israeli violations of our UN-sanctioned rights.
The repression we are currently facing — whether that is violence against us during protests or attacks like the Israeli raid of Stop the Wall’s offices on 7 May — is simply an attempt to cancel our right to freedom of expression and assembly. At the Stop the Wall offices the Israeli military took away documentation and equipment for documentation of human rights violations, in particular computers, hard disks and memory cards. We are apparently asked to sit at home and watch our last lands being confiscated, our homes demolished and thousands of Palestinians being taken away to Israeli jails, many even without trials or charges. But we will not sit at home and we will not be silent.
The Palestinian youth movement has chosen popular action and shouting our demands to the world. We are with our bodies here in the streets and in the fields and with our voices all around the world. The idea that a new generation is getting stronger, that it is not ready to forget about their rights and their identity, and that it is not ready to accept the status quo as “normal,” this is what scares them.
If we are able to keep the current momentum of popular mobilization and international attention created for our struggle and are able to successfully build on it, then they will be even more scared of us and in Stop the Wall we predict more repression to follow the last office raid.
EW: You have talked about not accepting the status quo as “normal.” What do you mean by this?
HK: For example, this New Year’s eve — while Khader Adnan was already on hunger strike — a Ramallah-based company invited Israeli artists to perform for their employees, including an artist who had performed concerts for the Israeli military. When we learned about this we organized a campaign to force the Ramallah company to rescind the invitation and to accept that it was very offensive to have an Israeli, who one day sings for occupying Israeli soldiers, to then perform for the Palestinian people as they enter another year of occupation.
Thanks to massive public support for the campaign, the company cancelled the invitation, and within a few days we managed to organize an extremely successful New Year’s Eve party in the center of Ramallah, with artists performing for free for the public. This is a great example of the organizational strength of the youth movement, as well as testimony to the support that the Palestinian people give to us. I know that this support comes because we are consistent in our political opposition to the occupation of Palestine, and our independence from political or sectarian factions means that we can stick to our principles, while also being free to support the popular resistance.
EW: What does the Palestinian youth expect from the international community?
HK: If you mean by “international community” the governments around the world, then honestly we do not expect much anymore. However, we do expect a lot from the people around the world. We know that many understand and support our struggle. We need to work closer together and ensure that our actions are better coordinated and we grow stronger and more effective in pressuring companies and governments around the world to stop their complicit silence and their support to Israel, whether at an economic, political or cultural level.