In Palestine, where I spent the last two weeks, life is cruel every month. But in the face of seemingly overwhelming Israeli military force – backed to the hilt by Washington – Palestinians are digging in for the protracted fight, embracing the concept of sumoud, Arabic for steadfastness: a framework for struggle rooted in patient, steady resistance; in the notion that the dignity it brings is itself valuable; and in the principle that living life and staying put are forms of resistance in the face of powers that deny Palestinian existence.
As I witnessed samoud-infused resistance first-hand while reading this month’s headlines, it struck me with new force how much the relationship between U.S. activists and Palestinians enriches those of us coming from the U.S. As we bring all the solidarity we can muster, we also have much to learn – especially about digging in for the long haul and retaining hope no matter what is thrown at us.
HEBRON: ETHNIC CLEANSING AND RESISTANCE
During our visit to Hebron/Al Khalil, my colleagues and I witnessed the horrors of the Israeli occupation. This south West Bank Palestinian city and center of commerce has been strangled by a small Israeli settler movement, launched after the 1967 war, backed by the full force of the Israeli state. Following a 1994 mass shooting of Palestinians by an Israeli settler, the Israeli army invoked “security concerns” to impose a system of ethnic separation and Palestinian displacement, rooted in constricting, surveying, evicting, and patrolling the Palestinian population in the now Israeli-controlled H2 district. Today, Israeli soldiers deployed to this city center respond to perceived security threats with excessive violence against Palestinians, on orders from above, and often look the other way or participate as settlers systematically harass and attack Palestinians. Settler violence and military occupation have drained H2 of Palestinians: 41.9% of all Palestinian houses and 76.6% of all Palestinian businesses in H2 now sit empty.
Israeli former paratrooper Avner Gvaryahu, who now organizes with anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence, took us on a tour of the H2 district, part of the organization’s campaign to expose the realities of occupation through the testimony of Israeli combat veterans. We encountered a nightmarish tangle of ghost roads and apartheid barriers enforced by a constantly patrolling military presence. The Israeli-only Shuhada Street cuts through the former center of the city’s trade, its Palestinian shops welded shut: a tomb to the Palestinian city life that once filled this street. The handful of families still living on that road are forced to access their homes through the back via ladders, rooftops, and ropes and erect cages over their windows to protect from settlers’ stones. The estimated 30,000 Palestinians in this part of the city live among, yet separated from, Israeli settlers who attack their children, throw heavy objects down from their apartments at the Palestinian marketplace, and spray messages such as “Gas the Arabs” on their walls.
Yet, in the heart of H2 we encountered inspiring resistance. 19-year old Palestinian Sundus Azza, organizer with Youth Against Settlements and H2’s Sumoud and Challenge Center, invited us to her home, which connects to the center, and told of organizing amidst Hebron’s ghost streets. Since 2010, Palestinians in Hebron have mobilized despite tear gas and attacks from Israeli soldiers. Youth Against Settlements has designated February 25than international day of action to open Shuhada Street, and previous years have seen solidarity protests across the world. During president Obama’s late March visit to Israel/Palestine, Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists attempted to walk down Shuhada Street while invoking messages from the U.S. civil rights movement.
Azzaz emphasized that resistance also takes place in day-to-day, ordinary acts. In a setting where settlers attack Palestinian homes and attempt to move in while families are living there, simply staying put is a form of resistance. Palestinian women are often in the forefront of efforts to defend Palestinian homes from settler takeover and keep family life intact: Azzaz explained, as we sat in her front yard, that she was currently guarding her home while her other family members were out for the day. “The concept of sumoud is very important to us,” Azzaz said with a smile.
BETHLEHEM DISTRICT ORGANIZING IN THE SHADOW OF EFRAT
Hebron is not exceptional: it reveals the logic of ethnic cleansing and apartheid driving the occupation. In the Bethlehem district Dheisheh refugee camp, just miles from Terminal 300 that opens to Jerusalem, displaced Palestinians live in shelters built upwards, because there is no room to expand out, and murals of youth killed by Israeli soldiers line their cracked surfaces. From the Palestinian ShoruqCenter where I stayed in the camp, I could see the sprawling Efrat Israeli settlement on the opposing hill, making land grabs in sight of this overcrowded home of over 13,000 registered refugees from 45 villages in Western Jerusalem and the Hebron region. In a climate where Israeli curfews, restrictions on Palestinian movement, and exclusion of Palestinian labor make it extremely difficult to find work, a third of residents are unemployed, and 15 percent of homes are not connected to public sewage systems. “I have no future,” explained a 16-year old Dheisheh resident with a shrug, as a local organizer took us on a tour of the camp.
Yet, powerful resistance grows in Dheisheh’s battered streets. Shoruq, which means “rights” in Arabic, provides a space for refugees to organize against occupation and displacement through media training, advocacy work, and legal support. My colleagues and I crowded into a room in Shoruq with five youth volunteers who described the organization’s new media center, aimed at empowering Palestinians to tell their own stories through audio, video, and written media production, with a long-term goal of facilitating communication between refugee camps. “The U.S. media does not want to touch the truth,” declared one Dheisheh-based college student who asked that his name not be shared. “That is why the world is the way it is. It is up to us to tell the truth.”
Many of the West Bank villages that do remain face encroachment of Israeli settlements and annexation by the Israeli separation wall. My colleagues and I joined in a weekly Friday demonstration in Al Ma’sarah, one of nine Bethlehem district villages facing annexation and destruction of vast amounts of agricultural lands from the expanding Efrat settlement (visible from Dheisheh), as well as from Israel’s separation wall. We marched with dozens of Al Ma’sarah villagers and Israeli and international activists to the 3152 road that leads to the settlement, part of weekly demonstrations in this village. About 25 Israeli soldiers blocked the nonviolent demonstration with shields, M4 rifles, and army personnel carriers as villagers chanted and spoke against the occupation, illegal settlements, and displacement.
Al Ma’sarah’s weekly demonstrations are part of movement growing since 2005 of popular protests in towns and cities including: Bil’in, Ni’ilin, Tulkarem, Nablus, Qalqilya and West Ramallah, coordinated through Popular Committees. Each week, Palestinians lead these mobilizations throughout the West Bank, braving violent and sometimes deadly Israeli military repression to continue protests that build Palestinian dignity and organizing momentum, provide an anchor for international solidarity, raise global consciousness, and make it that much harder for colonial land grabs to take place: in response to regular protests in Bil’in, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the wall that cuts through Bil’in must be moved to return some land to the village.
ISRAELIS IN SOLIDARITY WITH PALESTINIANS
This resistance extends to the Israeli state. Twelfth grade army draft resisters, or Shministim, as well as combat veterans with the group Breaking the Silence, work to withdraw Israeli consent from the occupation. Members of New Profile employ a feminist framework to demilitarize Israeli society and support youth questioning their military service. Israeli organizers with Yesh Gvul, in conjunction with New Profile and previous generations of Shministim, organize support campaigns for people like Nathan Blanc, currently serving his 8th prison term for refusing to serve in the Israeli army on the grounds that Palestinians in Israel do not have political rights. Druze communities organize to support their conscientious objectors, who face less media attention and longer jail sentences.
The Israeli organization Anarchists Against the Wall, on the other hand, focuses on building with Palestinian civil society, joining in weekly demonstrations throughout the West Bank and directly supporting Palestinian popular mobilizations. “It is a Palestinian struggle. We are there as supporters,” explained Koby Snitz, longtime organizer with AATW. “We don’t show up when we are not invited.” This organization, like many groups and individuals working within Israel to end the occupation, supports the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.
STAYING THE COURSE
Popular resistance within Palestine appears to be growing: Palestinians are galvanized by Palestinian hunger strikes that have swept Israeli jails since 2012, and they are outraged by the recent death of Palestinian prisoner Maysara Abu Hamdiya in Israeli prison after being denied adequate cancer treatment. ThisApril 17th—Palestine Prisoners Day—saw Palestinian demonstrations and sit-ins throughout the occupied territories, including a large rally in Gaza City, in which children released thousands of balloons, and a 3,000 – strong Palestinian prisoner hunger strike. Palestinian prisoner support organization Addameer commemorated April 17thby launching a campaign to stop administrative detention, arbitrary arrests, and collective punishment of Palestinians.
There are signs that the critique is penetrating and rattling Israeli society. In an early April Haaretz article, Ramallah-based Israeli journalist Amira Hass argued that Palestinians have the right, and even duty, to throw stones at their violent Israeli occupiers, insisting, “Throwing stones is an action as well as a metaphor of resistance.” This set off a firestorm of criticisms, and the settler Yesha Council and the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel even petitioned the police to investigate Hass for incitement of violence and terrorism.Yet, some came to Hass’s defense, including prominent Israeli journalist Gideon Levy who wrote, “The slogan “We’ve had enough of you, occupiers” is not exclusive to Arabic; it has been voiced down through history in nearly every language, including modern Hebrew.”
Yet, John Kerry’s recent visit to Israel confirmed that the geopolitical relationships backing Israel’s occupation are still firmly in place. Kerry made it clear that the US will not stop Israel from taking actions against Iran it deems necessary and vowed to stand behind its close ally, echoing the message Obama sent to Israel in his visit last month. As Phyllis Bennis argues, Kerry’s behind-the-scenes efforts to re-start the 2002 Saudi Arab Peace Initiative amounts to little more than rehashing of failed past negotiations, as Washington has no plans to address the Israeli occupation itself, or the issue of right of return, and Israel refuses to budge on settlements. As Rashid Khalidi points out, this is part of a long-standing bait-and-switch policy, in which the US manages negotiations while batting for Israel. The conditions for the Israeli occupation remain global, and so must be the resistance.
When I was in Dheisheh, residents emphasized that preserving and generating Palestinian culture and life is an important component of camp resistance. On the first floor of Shoruq, a dance instructor provided lessons in the Palestinian folk dance dabke to young girls in the camp. Around the corner, two musicians with the hip hop group Palestine Street played us tracks in their basement: “I am hungry for food, but dignity is my food,” rang out their lyrics in tribute to Palestinian hunger strikers. Organizers framed this cultural work as a means to build strength for resistance and di