As Palestinians commemorate the 74th anniversary of their forced displacement, the Nakba of 1947-49, it is clear that a new spirit of resistance is emerging in Palestine after years of stagnation.
In the past two months, politically motivated Palestinian attacks against Israelis have increased, resulting in the killing of 18. That represents an unprecedented number since the second intifada ended in 2005.
On 7 April, the scene on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv was extremely challenging for the security establishment in Israel, to the extent that former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz even commented that Israel had lost the battle for public “awareness.”
On that night, a young man identified as Raad Fathi Hazem from Jenin refugee camp, infiltrated into Tel Aviv and obtained a weapon. He attacked a bar, killing two Israelis. A third died later of wounds sustained.
The operation caused complete chaos in the city. Some 1,000 security personnel were mobilized, including “elite” units, while 100 roadblocks were erected as hundreds of Israelis were sent running into the streets to escape one Palestinian fighter. The pursuit continued for a total of several hours overnight before soldiers killed him.
Then, on 5 May, two youths, Asaad al-Rifai, 19, and Subhi Sbeihat, 20, carried out a new attack in Elad, near Tel Aviv, killing three Israelis. The two youths both lived in Romana village in the Jenin governorate.
A refusal to surrender
As soon as Fathi Hazem heard news of his son’s death, he stood before the crowd of mourners coming to offer their condolences. He spoke in words charged with patience and revolution and said he was proud of his son. And he asked God to make him among the first to pray at al-Aqsa mosque after liberation.
The elder Hazem was a former officer in the Palestinian Authority’s security services. Otherwise trained to coordinate with the Israeli military, his words were a significant indication of how the culture of resistance has spread among Palestinians. This is not a phenomenon exclusive to any specific faction.
The Israeli occupation forces rushed to Jenin camp to arrest him, in line with a long-standing practice of collective punishment targeting the families of perpetrators by either arresting relatives, demolishing their homes or both. Often, this happens without soldiers meeting any resistance.
However, something different happened this time.
Hazem’s father announced he would not surrender. The Israeli military failed to arrest him because of the presence of Palestinian gunmen in the camp.
He remains free to this day, even if another son, Hamem, was arrested on Tuesday.
This is an abnormal situation in the West Bank, where Palestinian Authority security coordination with Israel normally ensures Israeli troops have a clean run at targets.
On the following Friday, troops tried again, but this time the Palestinian resistance succeeded in killing a veteran Israeli commando.
A changing security situation
Israel’s numerous attempts to storm the Jenin refugee camp are an indication of the extent of its humiliation at the rising defiance from Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as its increasing concern about the changing security situation.
In the last 20 years, Israel has exerted great efforts to dismantle the resistance in the West Bank.
In 2002, Israel carried out “Operation Defensive Shield” to this end.
During the operation, Israel killed hundreds of resistance fighters, arrested thousands, and undermined the military infrastructure of the Palestinian factions in the West Bank, emptying the arena of fighters and weapons.
It even built a separation wall to prevent the resistance from carrying out attacks inside the territories occupied in 1948 – and some settlements constructed after 1967 inside the West Bank. Palestinians recognize that far more than a security measure, the wall advanced an Israeli land grab.
But Israel’s military was not the only actor strongly pushing to eliminate the resistance in the West Bank. In fact, Israel’s attempt came with the full cooperation of the US government and the Palestinian Authority, especially after the death of former President Yasser Arafat and the political ascension of current PA leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2005.
In 2005, when Abbas took over the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, the United States formed a security team in Ramallah led by the American general Keith Dayton. The aim was to “reform” the Palestinian security services.
The Dayton plan received generous support from the US administration and Congress. In a speech in 2009 to the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, Dayton summed up his mission as the creation of an armed force not to confront the occupation but “new men … who will help bring about a new state.”
That, of course, entirely depended on progress toward a state. But no such progress was made. Instead, the security services of the Palestinian Authority, trained by Dayton, were tasked with arresting, sometimes killing, those suspected of carrying out resistance acts.
They were, in other words, merely aiding Israel’s control over the occupied West Bank.
Israel, for its part, only intensified its arrest campaigns against any activist or leader suspected of any ability to inspire Palestinians in the West Bank.
These security policies by Israel, the PA and General Dayton produced a noticeable decline in resistance activities against the Israeli occupation.
What they did not do was produce any similar reduction in Israeli violations of international law in consolidating its occupation or attacking Palestinian dignity.
Settlements continued being built, checkpoints proliferated, Israeli military operations proceeded unhindered and the West Bank became a collection of separated bantustan-like enclaves with little ability to develop and no chance of any kind of statehood.
Many years passed without any sustained resistance from the occupied West Bank.
But after 20 years of intensive systematic targeting, the spirit of resistance of the Palestinian people now appears to be increasing again.
It is notable that most of the perpetrators of the renewed resistance attacks are young Palestinians born after the signing of the Oslo Accords, which Israel signed in order to end the first intifada and, it hoped, with economic incentives to pacify the occupied territories for the future.
Having grown up in the shadow of Oslo and with its main consequence, a PA security force cracking down on its own people, these youths saw no benefits: no freedom, no progress toward statehood, only more settlements and more security for the Israeli military. It is no wonder these youths are turning back to the resistance.
Dizengoff attacker Hazem, for example, came from the Jenin refugee camp. Refugee camps hold a special place in the Palestinian consciousness, a place filled with misery, poverty and a constant reminder of the dispossession and humiliation of the Nakba.
Palestinians from these refugee camps are, of course, well aware that Israelis live in cities that were built on the rubble of Palestinian towns and villages Israel destroyed at its founding. Israeli wealth and comfort is built at their expense. Consequently, Palestinians see resistance as an act of self-defense against those taking their home and land.
Millions of Palestinians have been living for 74 years in dozens of refugee camps spread throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Jenin camp has another peculiarity.
The camp was almost completely destroyed during Operation Defensive Shield. Hundreds of homes in the camp were demolished and damaged beyond repair, and the Israeli military killed dozens of resistance fighters there.
The challenge to colonialism
This resurgent spirit of resistance was not only expressed in the recent wave of Palestinian attacks and the Israeli failure to storm the Jenin refugee camp. It was also expressed by confrontations and acts of defiance in the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem and inside Israel itself.
On 13 May, millions of people across the world watched live as Israeli occupation forces in Jerusalem brutally attacked the funeral of the slain journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
This assault on peaceful mourners sparked worldwide outrage .
Palestinians understand that the occupation’s aim to obliterate their existence in Jerusalem lay behind the attempt to suppress the funeral.
Israel has been working for decades to Judaize the Palestinian capital, and does not want any expression of Palestinian sovereignty in the city.
But as recent events, including Abu Akleh’s funeral, have shown, this project has failed. Palestinians continue to gather, whether for funerals or weddings, for protests or graduations. And they continue to fly the Palestinian flag and flaunt their Palestinian identity.
The flag-raising battle is a key indicator of the Palestinian people’s new spirit. In one video clip, an Israeli policeman rushes to prevent a settler from waving an Israeli flag at al-Aqsa mosque.
Other footage shows two female settlers in occupied Jerusalem hurriedly removing the Israeli flag from their car in order to avoid aggravating Palestinian demonstrators near them.
A third clip shows an Israeli policewoman stopping a young Palestinian woman only because the colors of her veil matched those of the Palestinian flag.
In still another scene, Palestinian demonstrators raised dozens of Palestine flags inside Tel Aviv University on Nakba Day, provoking the Israeli police to suppress the vigil.
Raising the flag, particularly in places like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is an assertion of Palestinian existence. It also feeds the Palestinian spirit and raises morale.
And this is the key lesson: What the resurgence of the spirit of resistance and defiance shows is that it is the very Palestinian identity that is an existential challenge to Israel’s colonialism.
Decades of oppression, violence and persecution have had no impact on the Palestinian determination to secure their freedom and rights.
Ahmed Abu Artema is a Palestinian writer and activist who is a refugee from Ramle.