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Uncovering the roots of Palestinian resistance

Last week’s Qalandia demonstration was the biggest since the first intifada – just why are Palestinians rising up in a manner that has not been seen for a decade or more?

Many of the protesters who marched through Ramallah towards Qalandia checkpoint on Thursday 24 July had not participated in actions on that scale before. The masses, whose numbers have been reported at anywhere between 20-50,000, included many young activists who were just children when the second intifada broke out nearly 14 years ago. At a popular level, intifadas are collective actions but they are led by the new generation. Some commentators are even calling the Qalandia demonstration the biggest since the first intifada.

The current massacres being perpetuated against Palestinians in Gaza are eerily reminiscent of the bombardment that began on 27 December 2008, often remembered as Operation Cast Lead, although with the death toll already reported at more than a thousand, it seems quite probable that even that massacre may be eclipsed by current events. Demonstrations broke out across the West Bank and within “1948 occupied Palestine” during Operation Cast Lead, but nothing that even comes close to the uprising that is erupting across Palestine today. So what is different now, and why are Palestinians rising up collectively in a manner that has not been seen for a decade or more?

Grassroots solidarity

Intifadas do not erupt from within a vacuum. Neither are they the spontaneous yet somehow collective “cycles of violence” that the western media all too often portrays them as. Over the last year or so, forms of Palestinian community organising have been developing, usually unreported by the media, within which new young activists are building on tools that were employed successfully in previous uprisings.

In Nablus villages, which suffer regular settler attacks, communities have been organising “popular committees” to defend villages at night and, on several occasions, these committees have defended the village successfully against night-time raids. In the village of Qusra, villagers apprehended 18 masked settlers during an attack in January before handing them over to Israeli forces via Palestinian security liaison teams. Popular committees have been doing similar work in many villages. During the recent mass-arrest campaign across the West Bank, many towns and cities formed resistance committees in which networks of connected youth kept watch at night to resist military invasions.

Most notably in Ramallah, for many months now, youth have been enforcing economic strikes in the city centre following the killing of Palestinians. This practice was widespread in the first intifada and the early years of the second intifada, but its re-emergence over recent months has shown that the new generation are working to rebuild grassroots solidarity, perhaps learned from the experiences of older family members who were active in previous intifadas, and this strategy has now spread to other West Bank cities.

Such strikes have been complemented by direct actions such as those during the mass hunger strike of political prisoners. These actions have seen offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations and European Union blockaded and closed down, as activists demand that such bodies must be held accountable for their inaction amidst Palestinian suffering.

Time may also be a factor in the resurgence of resistance. The previous two intifadas have lasted in the most intensive phases for three to four years. Following these periods, resistance has continued in localised pockets and political negotiations have ensued. After the first intifada, the process of political manoeuvrings continued for close to 10 years, amidst localised small-scale resistance, until the second intifada broke out. Such troughs in resistance are periods in which the next generation grow along with collective frustration, until it reaches a crescendo and erupts once more with a new generation at its helm. A similar period has now ensued during which the fatigue of the majority has been addressed with people seeking, although not achieving, political developments and today's youth now seem ready to organise and lead the struggle again.

Anti-PA sentiment

When Mahmoud Abbas chose to continue the Oslo charade by re-entering the negotiation process in July last year it was met with widespread condemnation in the Palestinian street. Palestinians have lived through 20 years of this process which has brought only deepened colonisation of their lands and continued Palestinian displacement, imprisonment and death.

The collapse of the latest round of negotiations was followed by the mass hunger strike of political prisoners which turned out to be the longest collective strike in the history of the struggle against Zionism. Demonstrations in support of the hunger strikers were met with Palestinian Authority repression, as Abbas continued his security coordination policies with the occupation. Many see these policies as an “outsourcing” of the occupation to PA forces for the economic benefit of the PA elite. These practices reached a head when Israeli forces invaded Ramallah city centre in June for the first time since 2007. Taking up positions outside the central PA police station, the occupation forces rained bullets at Palestinian youth, as armed PA forces watched from the station windows under orders not to raise a weapon in defence of their people. Similarly, when demonstrations broke out after the recent killing of Mohammad Abu Khdair, PA forces stepped in on several occasions to prevent activists reaching the targets of their demonstrations - Israeli military bases and settlements in the West Bank.

Talking to people in the streets of West Bank cities, one sentiment remains constant - people feel trapped between the occupation on the one hand and the PA on the other, as they prevent popular resistance against the occupation. Anger is tangible.

The rise of Hamas in the West Bank?

Following the announcement of the recent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, Hamas flags have re-emerged at demonstrations in the West Bank, albeit with some trepidation at first. With such high levels of frustration aimed at the PA combined with Hamas’s role in resistance in Gaza, is Hamas filling the Palestinian political void?

Palestinians are clear that the current attacks on Gaza are attacks against Palestinians everywhere. Before the current wave of Israeli massacres in Gaza, mass arrest campaigns were being carried out across the West Bank and protesters in Jerusalem were being attacked for days on end following the murder of Abu Khdair. Similarly, demonstrations from Haifa to the Naqab and from Ramallah to Jaffa were being suppressed with varying degrees of violence and arrest campaigns. Palestinians are one collective people, irrespective of their Israeli-issued ID status or their status in international exile. The massacres in Gaza and the ongoing siege are one cog in the collective wheel of Zionist settler-colonialism, and it is that deeper expansionist project that is the target of resistance.

It is true that there may be some rise in Hamas’s popularity in the West Bank given their current role in resistance, but it is the act of resistance itself rather than Hamas as a political or ideological body that is receiving most of the support. Hamas is not alone in resistance in Gaza, other factions are also playing their part and the same is true in the West Bank and in 1948 Palestine - people are resisting because of their identity as Palestinians, rather than because of factional policies.

The recent announcement by the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in the West Bank that they are no longer part of a ceasefire is a clear example of this, as they went against the official party line. The day after the mass Qalandia demonstration, members of al-Aqsa brigades opened fire at occupation forces at Qalandia and a prolonged gun-fight ensued. The same night the military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees - the al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades - claimed responsibility for an attack against occupation forces in Nablus in response to “ongoing Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people”. Organised resistance in many forms is erupting as a new uprising takes shape.

Palestinian unity from the bottom-up

Although the announcement of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement was welcomed by most people in principle, it was also met with widespread scepticism in the West Bank, with few believing it would amount to real political advances.

Possibly the most significant factor in the growth of the current uprising is the resurgence of grassroots Palestinian unity. National unity does not start with factions signing agreements, but rather with collective action in the streets. The demonstrations after Abu Khdair’s murder that broke out across historic Palestine supported this trend. In particular, the protests that broke out amongst Palestinian communities in 1948 Palestine showed that the current uprising is not tied to factions, given that the political role of Fatah, Hamas and other factions have their base in the 1967 occupied lands.

Many among the new generation of activists are rejecting the entire Oslo framework, and both the divisive factionalism and elitism that it spawned. Instead, they are working collectively at the grassroots level and calling for a truly representative national leadership that could take the form of a restructured PLO, or possibly an entirely new framework altogether. Whichever of these approaches are preferred by individual activists, the demand is that the body must be representative of the entire Palestinian people. This includes Palestinians in 1967 occupied lands, those in 1948 Palestine, and all those in international exile. For activists following this route, whether or not the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement ever amounts to anything becomes almost a side-issue given that such a reconciliation would only sustain the current political impasse rather than working to create a truly representative political unity.

Abbas’s about-face

When Mahmoud Abbas assured Israel that the PA-Israel security coordination practices were “sacred” two months ago, his comments were met with popular disgust. Following last Thursday’s mass demonstration, Abbas’s own Fatah party joined calls for a collective Day of Rage against the massacres in Gaza. Among Fatah leaders publicly promoting this resistance were some of Abbas’s closest aides. This cannot have been done without his knowledge. So what led to this about-face from Fatah and why did Abbas not instruct his forces to prevent the demonstration as they have done at so many recent actions?

The PA relies on international funding to prop up its regime. Such funding is reliant on the suppression of resistance. The US-Israeli neoliberal economic plan that the PA jumped into with both feet was at the expense of Palestinian rights - this is a widely acknowledged fact in the Palestinian street. Yet Abbas also appreciates that with support for him at an all-time low, he is treading a fine line, and barely holding on. When tens of thousands marched to Qalandia, Abbas knew that he quite simply didn't have the political power to stop it, and doing so would have been his final act of political suicide. Instead his Fatah party took the opportunity to appeal to the current waves of anger and attempt to co-opt them. By calling for a Day of Rage to follow the Qalandia demonstration, the PA leadership hoped that they could score points and raise their public profile. Instead, the call proved largely insignificant, with demonstrations taking place as they have done every Friday for many weeks - those who did attend protests that day did not do so because the PA supported the call for them. With this act, Palestinians rejected structural co-optation of the intifada, aware of its disastrous results when factions gained control of the first intifada leading the people towards Oslo, and similarly the factionalisation of the second intifada which again led only to the benefit of the “chosen few” in their seats of power.

Abbas may also face a challenge in controlling his own forces if events continue to develop. Following an Israel-PA deal in 2005, several hundred members of the resistance, particularly the Fatah-aligned al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, were absorbed into the PA forces in return for being removed from Israel’s “wanted list”. A look into the eyes of many of the young members of the PA forces as they prevented Palestinians from attending recent demonstrations highlighted an evident lack of belief in their current roles. Should the tides truly turn and the streets break free from any PA shackles, it is not unlikely that many of these young men may opt for the struggle and the street rather than their employer’s demands. All of this proves that Abbas is losing more and more control by the day.

Collective pain

At the root of all this, it becomes clear that many different factors are playing a role in the current uprising. The men, women and children being killed every day in Gaza and also in the West Bank are first and foremost human beings not statistics, they are also Palestinians and not “Gazans” or “West Bankers”. This is a collective pain that is felt by all, and amidst this pain Palestinians have chosen, once more, to resist en-masse. With an “international community” that, at least at official level, has no political will to right its wrongs, Palestinians are again fighting back.

At the heart of this resistance is a new generation who are now taking the lead as previous generations have done before them. It is being led by Palestinians because they are Palestinian, not because of their factional affiliations, and it is resistance being carried out against a settler-colonial project not a religion or a people. People are struggling for an end to the theft of their land, the killing of their people and a life of real freedom, they are also calling for a leadership to support their struggle that truly represents them all. The masses of people around the world who are now supporting Palestine in various ways must take heed of this context when they protest, and be aware that calls to “End the siege” or “Free Gaza” do not encompass the root demands of Palestinians. Only real justice and true human liberation can save the Palestinian people. It is that liberation for which people are struggling.

- Rich Wiles is an award-winning photographic artist, author and film-maker who has been based in Palestine for more than 10 years. His latest book is Generation Palestine: Voices from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (Pluto, 2013). www.richwiles.com