Staging the Occupation in Nabi Saleh

If an image is worth a thousand words, how much is a video worth? Especially when it's of young children and their mothers fighting a heavily armed soldier—grabbing, punching, and biting him—as he detains one of the kids, a kid whose arm is already in a cast from an injury caused by soldiers the week before?

Apparently, the video is worth 100,000 hits its first day on YouTube. And over 3 million by the third day, and so on.

The incident took place on a hill belonging to the West Bank Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, about 12 miles northwest of Ramallah. For the last six years Nabi Saleh has been ground zero of the Palestinian strategy of confrontational but non-violent “civil resistance” against the Occupation, a strategy that is winning increasing international attention and support.

Israel maintains security control over all the territory of Nabi Saleh, which is split between areas B, which Israel controls but does not immediately govern, and Area C, over which it has full control and can close off, expropriate, and otherwise utilize the land and resources, in this case on behalf of the neighboring settlement of Halmish.

Every Friday afternoon since 2009 residents of Nabi Saleh, joined by dozens of other Palestinians, Israeli and international activists, march from the center of the village to the hill, which they attempt, at least for an hour or so, to reclaim from Israeli control.

Israeli soldiers regularly respond with tear gas, plastic-coated steel bullets, stun grenades, sometimes live ammunition and, as the video shows, physical assaults on the protesters as they attempt to march down the hill towards the road and a small natural spring, for which the village is named.

The strategy of using the protests to reveal the raw face of the Occupation has brought thousands of Israeli and foreign solidarity activists to that hill, and to protests in Bil'in and other sites across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Millions of people have viewed videos from the protests.

What's more, after decades of demanding that Palestinians stop violently resisting the Occupation, Israel and its supporters don't have much of a leg to stand on criticizing the non-violent protests, though sometimes children and young teenagers throw or sling stones after soldiers start firing, but rarely do the stones reach the heavily armed and protected soldiers.

About the only criticism that finds any currency is the accusation that the protests are deliberately “staged” and the videos manipulated to show Israel in the most negative light. The idea of Palestinians staging protests and even inviting Israeli violence (or, allegedly, inventing it) has led pro-Israel commentators to deploy the term “Pallywood” to deride and defame the strategy of recording and restaging the protests through video on social media, including the above-mentioned incident with the Tamimi children.

Supporters of the protests might blanche at the accusation, but we find it both accurate and a testament to the creativity of the rising generation of Palestinian activists. Having spent the last five years in Iraq, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt and other high conflict countries studying the organization and aesthetics of citizen protest against oppressive power structures, we have seen how what we term “theater of immediacy” challenges far more powerful political forces wielding nothing more than the weapon of art across the Middle East and Africa. We define this term as artistic creation and performance that is emergent and urgent – in our terminology “emurgent.”

Theater of immediacy operates at and even transcends the liminal moment in which the grassroots performance of culture destabilizes and begins to reconfigure dominant, congealed structures and networks of power and identity. Such performances offer citizens greater possibility of pursuing deep and even revolutionary change. The success of theater of immediacy depends on actors and acts forceful enough to re-appropriate meaning and valence for lives which are lived largely under and through the power of others with whom the primary relationship is one of domination and exploitation.

We remained unprepared during our first visit to Nabi Saleh for just how powerfully artistic a protest could be until we experienced a hill become a theater, and everyone—residents, activists, soldiers and settlers—actors in a play that for once was directed by the weaker side. Indeed, before the first can of tear gas went screaming over our heads, we were so affected by the theatricality of Nabi Saleh that we decided to create a theater performance based on the protests (which we work-shopped and produced last March 2015 in the West Bank with the Amsterdam-based Transversal Theater Company and actors from the Jenin Freedom Theatre).

For many people, a “staged” protest is inauthentic, deceitful, and a sign of bad faith by Palestinians. Richard Landes, the Boston University professor who coined the term Pallywood, argued in an email exchange with LeVine that staged conflicts "do damage" to Palestinians by making heroes out of people who “systematically promote conflict by distorting a complex reality into a morality tale that glorifies the irredentists” and “recycl[ing] war propaganda.”

The language here is crucial; for Landes and others in his camp, it reveals how the mis-en-scene has to be changed from an illegal and unjust occupation in which Palestinians are the primary victims to a "complex reality" in which Palestinians, not Israel, refuse to modify the plot for the hope of a better ending.

Such a view reflects a lack of understanding of the history and practice of civil protest, which from Gandhi's Salt March to MLK's march across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge to the Philippines’ second People Power revolution, has succeeded in direct relationship to the creativity and carefulness of the planning behind it.

In the case of Palestinians confronting an exponentially more powerful foe, who for half a century has arrested, imprisoned, injured, and killed civilians with little worry about consequences, only the most creatively and carefully planned protests, with the greatest possible media coverage, stand a chance of achieving the goal of preventing Israel from gaining control of more land, which is the ultimate point of the Occupation. Indeed, such accusations forget that the Occupation is one of the world's most scripted processes. From the legalisms behind which Israel continues to expropriate land and resources or justify soldiers' violence against Palestinian civilians, to the “resistance” put up by settlers on the rare occasion of their (usually temporary) removal from an “illegal” outpost, and the hugely financed global propaganda—hasbara in Hebrew—machine that sells and repairs the image of “Brand Israel,” every scene is highly scripted and predictable. This is done so well, in fact, that they've managed for decades to constrain Palestinian resistance to specific narratives that the Israelis can easily counter and control.

And that is why Nabi Saleh and similar protests in Bil’in and other West Bank locations are so important, as a powerful cover story in the New York Times Magazine about the Tamimis published shortly before our last visit in 2015 makes clear. As with all great theater, Nabi Saleh and its sister protests profoundly affect most everyone who witnesses them. Once you've caught a “performance” it's nearly impossible to remain above the fray. When you experience the raw—although by no means the rawest—face of the Occupation firsthand, neutrality is not possible, and the Tamimi's script and direction, and the action that unfolds, make it feel repugnant to choose the Occupation over the residents of the village.

And yet, it also struck us that while the Tamimis stage the protests, they are in fact a collaborative venture with the Israeli military, who actually “own the house” and can change the mis-en-scene, production value, and narrative structure when and as they see fit (they also control the off-stage action in the surrounding settlements, military bases, and routine raids on the village).

The Israeli military also more or less control how long the performance continues, ramping up the barrage of “non-lethal” weaponry (which in fact have killed protesters at Nabi Saleh) and bringing out the live ammunition when the commander on scene decides it's time to close the curtain.

In fact, neither side can stray too far from the script, although its Nabi Saleh’s residents who've shown the most skill at taking advantage of any improvisation—like a lone soldier crossing the battle line to grab an injured child.  If you watch the video the rules are clear—women and young children can verbally and even physically assault soldiers because it's clear they won't—in fact, can't—seriously harm them (the unwitting star of the latest video was mostly just annoyed by the half women and children who descended on him). But if adult males would join the fray directly, a far more violent script would immediately come into play, which is why the men stand several feet away from the action, like referees ready to separate the players if things get out of hand.

And it's the Tamimi children who steal the show with daughter Ahed literally winning an international award from Turkish President Racip Erdogan for her fearless weekly performances. Their children have garnered millions of YouTube views, mostly of Ahed storming up to the closest soldier, fists clenched or raised, unleashing powerful soliloquies against the Occupation and the most recent injury against her family (the shooting of her mother, the arrest of her brother) that her unwitting scene partner can do little but mumble a reply. Americans might be shocked that Palestinians would allow their children to do this.

The most fascinating thing about the theater of Nabi Saleh is that no one knows yet precisely how it will end. Will the protests eventually become a mundane occurrence, a post-Oslo version of the “person-to-person” meetings that brought Palestinians and Israelis together before the Oslo peace process that make everyone feel good for a day or two but have no effect on the ground? What happens if Israel throws away the script—as senior politicians are demanding after the latest incident, and start shooting even women and children who dare lay a hand on a soldier? What happens if the activists move on? Or if Israel annexes the West Bank, as most every member of the last several governments, including the present one, now openly calls for?

The play is exquisitely choreographed given how improvised it is in practice. The images from September 2015 are clear—the children and middle-aged women can use all their force against the soldier, precisely because they can't really hurt him. The men stand back, making sure the violence is contained on both sides, while several others shoot a barrage of photos. The soldier is a cipher—for Palestinians and their supporters he is the embodiment of the Occupation's brutality. For Israelis he's a model of restraint and courage, showing how moral their army remains.

Although it continues to take a relentless toll on the Tamami family and Nabi Saleh more broadly—since our last visit seventeen villagers were arrested in one sweep in December 2015, and Bilal’s wife Manal was hospitalized after being hit with a heavy barrage of tear gas—the performance of Nabi Saleh has helped stop the expropriation of the village's land during the last several years. Yet aside from a few other locations, such as Bil’in and East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah, such theater has yet to occur or has been less successful in other parts of the West Bank, where the settlement enterprise proceeds without pause. It seems this show will continue its run for the foreseeable future.


Bryan Reynolds is Claire Trevor Professor of Drama at the University of California, Irvine, USA. He is the Artistic Director of the Amsterdam-based Transversal Theater Company, a director of theater, a performer, and a playwright, whose plays have been produced in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. He is the editor and author of ten books, the most recent of which is Intermedial Theater: Contemporary European Performance, Transversal Poetics, and the Future of Affect (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming November 2016).

Mark LeVine is Professor of History at UC Irvine and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University. He is also a senior columnist at al-Jazeera English and Tikkun's longest serving Editorial Board member. His most recent book, with Mathias Mossberg, is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States (UC Press, 2014).


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