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Popular Protest in Palestine: the uncertain future of unarmed resistance

April 26, 2016 at 1:11 pm

  • Book Author(s): Marwan Darweish and Andrew Rigby
  • Published Date: 20 July 2015
  • Publisher: Pluto Press
  • Paperback: 224 pages pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0745335094

A comprehensive and detailed work, “Popular Protest in Palestine: the uncertain future of unarmed resistance” (Pluto Press 2015) provides a historical overview of Palestinian activism and popular resistance. It weaves the narrative up to the present and portrays the cycle which has contributed to the spasmodic visibility which, unfortunately, has resulted in fragmentation, despite the common anti-colonial struggle embodied by Palestinians.

In the introduction, authors Darweish and Rigby quote a Palestinian activist: “We came alive in the first intifada. Then we died in the second. Maybe now we are being reborn.” The quote summarises the book succinctly, while shedding light upon the dynamics of Palestinian popular resistance, its challenges and pitfalls.

The book incorporates both interviews and analysis, providing an excellent balance in its explanation and dissemination of popular resistance dynamics. Departing from the premise that popular resistance denies “the occupier’s claim to legitimacy, while waiting for eventual liberation”, Darweish and Rigby expand into a dearth of categories that shape and define Palestinian resistance, taking into account the diverse colonial ramifications as well as the multitude of experiences that form part of the Palestinian narrative and, as a consequence, the fragmentation and difficulty in establishing a common departure point for activism.

Through categorising the conditions for collective resistance, the conditions for collective non-violent resistance and the conditions for sustainable civilian struggle, the authors clarify that organisation, unity and recognition of the struggle’s legitimacy are necessary in order to create an imbalance that escalates costs for Israel. However, as is pointed out earlier, since the 1980s, Palestinians have experienced a perpetual cycle of hope and decline regarding the prospects of popular resistance.

Historically, the colonisation of Palestine which started in the 1880s resulted in an awareness of dispossession which to this day is a prominent feature of Palestinian popular resistance. The organisational efforts that started with the articulation of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and continued during the first decade of the British Mandate in Palestine can be perceived as the initial efforts of Palestinian mobilisation against colonial oppression. However, the fragmentation of Palestinian society can be observed as early as that period, where efforts at symbolic and polemical resistance were thwarted by what the authors term the timidity of the Palestinian political elite, the absence of national leadership and the accommodation to “occupation”. Between 1936 and 1939, unarmed resistance evolved into armed struggle, while further divisions exacerbated the prospects of unity for Palestinian society. With the establishment of the state of Israel on colonised Palestinian territory, divisions were cemented further as the struggle was increasingly diversified, depending upon the forms of oppression inflicted upon the indigenous population.

The authors embark upon a rigorous explanation of how Palestinians in Israel navigated from individual acts of subversion to overt symbolic resistance in the form of consolidating Palestinian culture. Israel reacted by offering privileges to Palestinian collaborators and, as in the case of cultural resistance, employed surveillance tactics in education as the means through which to stifle opposition. While efforts at organised popular resistance continued, say Darweish and Rigby, the colonial cycle between 1948 and 1964 made it difficult for its proper public manifestation. The emergence of Palestinian movements and resistance factions contributed to a change in the dynamic, as Israel attempted to distort the foundations of organisation by retaliating against Palestinian leaders. As a result, the formation of grassroots organisations, which became more prominent during the first Intifada, aided Palestinians in developing strategies that enabled them to confront Israel’s colonial violence through symbolic and constructive resistance; the aim was to increase the cost of occupation for Israel. However, the colonial endeavours made by Israel – mainly the appropriation of land and displacement of the local population — as well as the international community’s alienation, resulted in drawbacks for the Palestinians, who failed to increase damage upon the settler-colonial state.

In the aftermath of the militarised second Intifada and particularly in the post-Oslo period, divisions in Palestinian society increased to the point that despite renewed efforts at mobilisation, Palestinians were shackled by both colonial oppression as well as a lack of mistrust. This was reflected both politically and socially, resulting in rifts between those involved in popular resistance and others who resented the ramifications of such protest. Darweish and Rigby explain the dynamics of such antagonism; a form of alienation and submission that empowers colonial practices while endangering the foundations of popular resistance. The example of the Apartheid Wall is particularly revealing; activists sabotaging the construction of the wall experienced resentment from village elders. “In such locations the challenge for activists became one of combating the growing acceptance of the Wall as a fact of life,” say the authors.

Departing from this example, they effectively portray the cycle of delusion which has plagued Palestinian popular resistance. In identifying both internal and external factors, it is clear that the lack of cohesion is creating a massive imbalance between the continued efforts at organisation and strategy, and the ensuing fractured support, whether alienation, ulterior motivations, discord and political oppression — particularly from the Palestinian Authority — as well as the emphasis on territorial control rather than national unity. A political activist from Jenin quoted in the book states: “The parties are after their own interests and not the national agenda… In fact the Palestinian political leadership does not have a long term strategy… It is also constrained by its security arrangements with the Israelis. They have to retreat, so they do not have a long-term commitment to popular resistance.”

All factors considered, Darweish and Rigby point out that economic dependency emerges as a prime ramification of such obstacles. The lack of autonomy, exacerbated by the PA’s corruption; Israeli and international media that spout identical hegemonic narratives; restriction of movement; and territorial fragmentation, have all contributed to the defeatist attitude.

As regards the international aspect, the book insists that the emergence of Hamas as a political entity contributed to the shaping of international politicisation of aid, which in turn affected popular resistance. International aid to Palestinians, while contributing to some alleviation of their suffering, has increased Israel’s impunity by reinforcing a lack of accountability for Israel’s obligations under international law, thus normalising the colonisation project and, in turn, depriving Palestinian popular resistance of opportunities to assert its legitimacy to the international community. The achievements of international activism have combated the prevailing oppression, yet the visibility of popular resistance, despite its dissemination on social media — which has raised more awareness — continues to experience restrictions as its platform lacks both coordinated internationalist solidarity as well as political unity which could, in turn, influence a popular resistance strategy.

Throughout the book, Darweish and Rigby have highlighted the plight of Palestinian popular resistance with intricate details; the book’s structure is planned meticulously, reflecting the political and social narrative in a manner that sheds light upon the consequences of marginalisation. This is particularly evident in the last chapter, which discusses Gaza and serves as an apt reminder that, despite the importance of the enclave as far as resistance is concerned, it is ostracised constantly. International solidarity with Palestinians may influence the world’s perspective, but the latter is incomplete if Gaza’s exclusion becomes an objective of the international community, as it is for Israel.