At first, the scene appears tense. Twenty-one Israeli soldiers in full combat gear are arrayed in a neat line across the main road of the small village of Al Ma’sara, just south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. Several of the soldiers wear partial balaclavas which obscure their features, leaving their faces visible only from the eyes up. They stand expectantly, some with their hands resting casually on the butts of their rifles.
Confronting them are twenty Palestinians, eight of them children. The protesters carry flags and placards. They march forward until they’re face to face with their occupiers. The leader of the protest is Hassan, a veteran of the local non-violent resistance movement. Hassan and his family have paid a high personal cost for his activism: he has been imprisoned on numerous occasions and his family home has been the subject of repeated night raids. His enthusiasm remains undimmed. Right now, he’s delivering an impassioned monologue to the soldiers, who maintain a stony silence throughout.
“I see your weakness in the mask on your face!” he declares. His voice ascends in pitch as well as volume as he speaks, producing an unusual, almost ululating effect. “Force masks weakness! Physical power means weakness! I may be physically occupied but you”, he says, jabbing his index finger at the nearest soldier, “are mentally weak.”
I’m here in my capacity as a human rights monitor with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). EAPPI offers “protective accompaniment” at non-violent demonstrations, working off the principle that the presence of international observers can defuse or de-escalate situations which could potentially lead to violence or other human rights violations. I approach the demonstration, my first, with some trepidation.
The reality is more prosaic than my expectations. Hassan’s interventions are the most remarkable feature of the protest, which is otherwise uneventful and soon peters out. It is, it transpires, a weekly event. The soldiers are present to marshal the protesters and the protesters demonstrate against the soldiers’ presence. No-one mentions the circular logic. I wonder why the soldiers don’t simply refrain from turning up one day given that the protest depends entirely on their presence for its political efficacy, but conclude that this would represent an unacceptable victory for the demonstrators.
As we drive away, I can’t help but feel that the whole scenario resembles a piece of absurdist theatre. The military spectacle appears wildly disproportionate in the face of a crowd filled with child protesters and there’s undoubtedly a performative element to Hassan’s exhortations (delivered in English, at least partially for the benefit of international onlookers). The soldiers even allow road traffic to pass through their line, blocking only the protesters from passing. There is little of the sense of charged possibility that I – perhaps naively – associated with popular resistance.
I monitor a number of other demonstrations during my time in Bethlehem. Not all are like Al Ma’sara; at one protest in particular, between the villages of Al Jaba and Surif, I’m struck by the resolve and the sheer anger of the demonstrators in the face of the casual use by Israeli soldiers of sound grenades and tear gas. By and large, though, there are relatively few protests and those I witness are low-key events. As time passes I’m increasingly occupied with an overriding question: why is non-violent resistance here so seemingly desiccated?
That question proves to be a recurring theme in my conversations over the next three months. I worry that I might be projecting unrealistic expectations onto the non-violence movement, but my premise – that popular resistance here is more dormant than might be expected, notwithstanding the extraordinary but isolated success stories of villages like Bil’in or Budrus – is shared by the Palestinians I meet.
Predictably, no such consensus exists when it comes to identifying precisely why this is the case. Usama Nicola, who works for the Bethlehem-based conflict resolution NGO, Wi’am, points to what he calls “resistance fatigue”, a phenomenon he attributes to the lack of attention non-violent resistance receives in comparison to violent methods. “Five thousand people marched from Bethlehem city centre to the checkpoint and there was hardly any coverage,” he tells me. “People get tired.”
Usama is echoed in this sentiment by others, including Nora Carmi, project coordinator with Kairos Palestine. Kairos is a Palestinian Christian movement which calls for an end to the occupation and a just solution to the conflict. When I speak with her she begins by reminding me that Kairos’ human rights advocacy is a form of non-violent resistance, including – though, Nora is at pains to point out, not exclusively – through its advocacy for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Nora, like Usama, recalls the mobilisation for popular resistance of the recent past. “We have tried moving in masses. In 1996 we staged a mass protest with religious and political leaders. We were waiting for them to start shooting, but we never gave them the excuse.” When I ask why such mass mobilisation is so rare, she responds with a shrug. “We don’t have a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King.”
This resistance fatigue is aggravated, Usama says, by the sense of atomisation produced by the closure and curfew policies of the occupation. “I couldn’t drive out of Bethlehem for seven years,” he says, by way of example. In a neat symmetry, the forms of collective punishment employed by the Israeli authorities have made collective action by non-violent Palestinian activists almost impossible. How, after all, do you build an effective mass movement when the individual movement of its potential participants is so constrained?
Usama points to internal division as another major factor in the paucity of popular resistance here. Specifically, he cites the Fatah-Hamas split, both a symptom of this disunity and an exacerbating influence on it.
“There is so much disillusionment among the people, even with their own leadership,” Nora sighs. “There is not enough unity throughout the Palestinian struggle. We cannot count on the international community alone. The disunity of the Palestinians is as catastrophic as our Naqba and what happened in Gaza (during Operation Protective Edge). The key to our success is our unity, our democracy, our fight against corruption.”
I encounter this frustration at internal divisions at every turn. As I sit in traffic on the outskirts of Bethlehem, my taxi driver grows animated at the mere mention of the subject.
“We don’t know what we want! We haven’t planned. Sometimes we want to stop buying from Israel, sometimes we just want to get rid of Netanyahu. And we are divided…” He pauses, before continuing in a more thoughtful tone. “We can’t succeed this way. It’s too difficult. I think Israel doesn’t hear us because we are in conflict with ourselves.”
I ask about non-violent resistance. “Arab societies need leadership from the front, not the back. Our leaders call for non-violent resistance but they do it from behind a desk,” he snorts. “You have to remember these people were imposed on us from outside. The same faces for thirty years. Abu Mazen, Erekat. And if there is an election, they will come back. If they don’t come in the door, they come in the window.”
The taxi driver drops me off at Bethlehem University. I’ve come to meet Mazin Qumsiyeh, zoologist and founder-director of the fledgling Palestinian Museum of Natural History. In the time he spends away from his scientific endeavours he’s also a vocal campaigner and a published historian of popular resistance in Palestine. He is, in short, a busy man.
He’s also quite blunt. When asked why there is a relative lack of non-violent resistance he immediately turns the question back on me. “You chose to come to Palestine between uprisings,” Mazin says, pointing. “Resistance comes in waves, like every other social movement. In apartheid South Africa you would have found the absence of resistance quite bizarre. It’s like breathing. Breathing is a natural movement, it has a natural rhythm. There are periods of quiet for people to take their breath.
He goes on to list Palestinian uprisings throughout the twentieth century, the final two of which are those usually referred to as the First and Second Intifada. The intent is clear: to place the latter events, with which the world is familiar, in a broader, less familiar historical context. Mazin thinks that he has, in the course of his studies of these moments of resistance, identified a common set of conditions for them to take place. The implication is that if you can identify the factors which provoked previous uprisings, you can begin to predict when the next is imminent.
The first condition is time. Uprisings, Mazin elaborates, are generational events and can only be led by young people who have little memory of the failures and violent repression of previous uprisings. The young are also less likely to have been co-opted into the occupation by virtue of their economic activity. Large numbers of Palestinians, for example, work in Israeli settlements which are slowly destroying the viability of a Palestinian state; when I ask why there aren’t more concerted efforts to withdraw labour from the settlement enterprise his response is, again, blunt.
“Everyone has to live, everyone has to eat, everyone has to provide for their families,” he says. “South African blacks who worked in the mines, how do you think they felt? They felt like shit.”
The second condition is an internal focus among the Palestinian factions, so that elites are more focused on “squabbling”, as Mazin puts it, than they are on the needs of the Palestinian street. The third condition is a period of paralysis on the diplomatic track, which convinces young people that they need to take control of their own futures rather than bide their time in the hope of a political settlement being reached. These two conditions are interrelated: why, after all, would you wait for a diplomatic solution to be negotiated on your behalf by leaders from whom you feel profoundly alienated?
The final condition, Mazin says, is a sense of complacency on the part of the dominant party. This complacency leads them to behave recklessly and increase the hardship felt by the population below. Eventually, he says, like a pressure cooker, the lid blows off.
Inevitably, there is a defining moment which acts as the spark for mass resistance. “It’s impossible to predict what will set it off. In 2000, when Sharon entered Al-Aqsa, nobody thought it would lead to an uprising. But it did.”
I mentally apply the checklist of conditions to the current situation and reach the unsettling conclusion that each of the conditions appears to prevail today. If Mazin is correct then all that’s missing is the spark. Predicting the next intifada seems almost a pastime among some of the Palestinians I meet, but this is the most disquieting narrative I’ve encountered to date.
With that in mind, I ask what determines the tactics of an uprising. I mention the differing types and levels of violence employed in the First and Second Intifada; specifically, my thoughts have turned to the much greater degree to which the First Intifada was characterised by non-violent resistance, and the prevalence of the horrific phenomenon of suicide bombing in the Second Intifada.
“The majority of resistance is always non-violent. But there are also always arms used in these struggles, everywhere.”
Unhappy with this slight evasion, I press Mazin further.
“The most important factor in provoking violent tactics,” he shoots back, “is the behaviour of the oppressor. It’s like JFK said: ‘When you make peaceful revolution impossible, you make violent revolution inevitable’.”
In my last week in Bethlehem, I return to Al Ma’sara for the weekly protest. We arrive early, but not before the soldiers. Today there are twenty-five. I watch in silence from the car. I think about Hassan and his family and the high price that those involved in the non-violence movement pay. I think about the challenges they face in mobilising their own communities. I think about the terrible alternatives.
The arrival of the demonstrators breaks my reverie. There are eighteen today, including ten children. Hassan is not among their number. Instead, the demonstration is led by a man named Mahmoud, whom I haven’t met before.
I watch from the side of the street as the protest follows its usual patterns. Mahmoud paces back and forth, tigerish, berating the soldiers. Where Hassan was passionate and improvisational, Mahmoud is controlled and deliberate. His voice is measured as he stares down individual soldiers in turn.
“Does your mother feel proud of you?” he asks one soldier, a tall young man who has been assigned the task of recording the protest on his smartphone. “Is she proud of you, coming here, wearing your gun, frightening children?”
A confrontation is brewing to his left. One of the Palestinian teenage boys is squaring up to one of the Israeli teenage boys, their faces no more than six inches apart. The expression on the Palestinian boy’s face is one of perfect calmness, his counterpart’s one of relaxed but undisguised menace. They look to me like schoolboys, an impression which I briefly consider unfairly infantilising before I remember the fear and viciousness of schoolboy fights.
To the right, Mahmoud continues his soliloquy. “The Israeli government has built the Wall to separate you from me!” he says. “So you don’t have to see me or hear me, so you can imagine I am a terrorist.” The tall young soldier’s hands shake violently as he holds up his smartphone.
The stand-off continues, long enough that there is a palpable sense of threat in the air. Nothing is happening, but it’s happening in such a way that my stomach twists as the theatre threatens to come to an abrupt end. I can feel the latent violence underpinning the entire scenario threatening to erupt into reality. And then, after half a minute, the Palestinian boy slowly rolls his neck and shoulders and walks away. I feel an irrational urge to laugh out loud.
The protesters disperse soon after, the drama of the day done. I make to leave but pause when I see that Mahmoud has remained behind. He walks over to the tall soldier who had been charged with recording the protest, his demeanour entirely changed. Where before he exuded a sense of presence that was almost intimidating, now he seems amiable and completely sincere.
“We could sit and talk. You could tell me how you feel.”
The soldier refuses to meet his eyes, uncomfortable. Mahmoud leans in.
“Did I affect you? Did I affect you?”
Post-script: This piece was written in mid-2015, prior to the outbreak of violence which continues today. That violence has been characterised by so-called “lone wolf” attacks, arguably the product of precisely the conditions Mazin Qumsiyeh outlined in the conversation recounted here. That conversation now feels sadly prescient.
Maurice Cotter is an Irish human-rights lawyer, currently living and working in The Hague. He served as a volunteer human rights monitor in the Bethlehem Governorate of the West Bank for the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) in early 2015. His writing has previously appeared in the Dublin Review, The Irish Times, and Mondoweiss.