Nonviolent movements in the West Bank?

The question: Engaging with social movement theory, how have instances of “popular resistance” as a nonviolent movement promoted the rights of the Palestinian people since the Second Intifada? How has this aided/hindered their plight within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank? 
Palestinians headed to plant trees last month in the West Bank, part of a new, nonviolent approach to assert their land claims. (Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times)

The enormity of Palestinian bloodshed resulting from the Second Intifada hurt collective consciousness. It generated a bitterness and resentment projected not into further militancy, as political leadership continues to explore, but into the desire for changeability in nonviolent resistance. This is something not widely broadcasted, and so global recognition of Palestinian narratives fixate on those elements utilising extreme and unjust violent means, effectively justify Israeli ‘retaliation’. In the last two decades, foundations built in nonviolent movements have enabled the deflection of international, oppressor and leadership-oriented repressions, turning them into a further rallying point (Lee 2019, 146). Social movement theory is thus fundamental to understanding nonviolence in the West Bank and its potential, as it offers not just a discourse, but a recognition for the importance of context, structure and practice. Despite some successes in localised cases, the failure of nonviolence to achieve political support, force change in Israeli militancy and achieve complete popular support has limited its otherwise transformative capacity. While it may be a factor in a future peaceful resolution of conflict, its overall effect in the Palestinian plight has not yet proved itself. 

“Nonviolent action is not inaction, it is not submissive-ness, it is not the avoidance of conflict, and it is not passive resistance” (Schock 2003, 75). 

Social movement theory is ranging in its definition, and history. Fundamentally, it is the theory of sustained campaigns in support of goals, typically regarding a change in structure or value (Killian, Turner and Smelser, 2019). Perspectives developed by social movement theory are beginning to be recognised for their applicability to that of Islamist movements. This essay therefore places itself as divergent from the generalised depth of work on Orientalism, the predominant theory which promotes a perception of Middle Eastern (ME) nations as violent, as well as the belief of the region as somehow exceptional politically (Bayat 2005, 893). Rather, it will rely on those social movement theorists which analyse Islamism as relational, whereby context, practices and networks are central variables to societal understanding. It therefore frames nonviolent movements in the West Bank with perception and nuance, offering reliable interpretation for the actions undertaken by Palestinian resistance. 

In Life as Politics, Asef Bayat recognises the impotence of social movements in Middle Eastern uprisings coined the ‘Arab Spring’ (Hanafi 2013, 472). It exerts a double criticism, one of the Eurocentric vision placing the Arab world as a region of exceptionalism. Secondly, of those approaches which are incapable of reading the historicity of Islamic society and political actions (Hanafi 2013, 472). Agreeably, this essay adopts Bayat’s understanding of a fragmented vision toward social movements, encouraging accounts which recognise the complexities in Palestinian nonviolent resistance. The theory is therefore considered most appropriate in this case, particularly in recognition of nonviolence in the West Bank as a progressive movement. This is one which seeks a new social arrangement, as is sought by the Palestinians involved in resistance with Israel. 

The Al-Aqsa (Second) Intifada was marked by military escalations between Palestinian resistance groups and the Israeli army (Barghoti, 2015). From a Palestinian perspective, thousands of homes in the West Bank were destroyed, with prominent leaders ordered dead by then defence minister Ariel Sharon. The asymmetry of the uprising resulted in an Israeli domination of violence, with retaliatory suicide bombings facing international condemnation (Mason and Falk 2016, 173). In light of this period of intense aggression, recent years have witnessed a revival in nonviolent grassroots Palestinian activism. This essay contends nonviolence as the waging of conflict which aim to mobilise support for policy, to delegitimise adversaries and restrict their access to power in ways exclusive to threat or violence (Mason and Falk 2016, 164). Nonviolence does not translate well into Arabic, implying weakness and passivity. As such, when this essay refers to these movements, it utilises both the literal nonviolence linguistics, and others such as ‘civil resistance’, ‘political defiance’ or ‘popular resistance’ as would be interchangeably utilised in Palestine (Mason and Falk 2016, 167). 

Research on contentious politics in the Middle East emphasises the importance of repression and its effect on social movements (Hoigilt 2015, 636). Israeli aggression towards Palestine is reliant on a process of mortification designed to produce ‘social death’. This represents an explicit effort to eliminate national identity and the expression of statehood to the international community. It is indulged with ‘political policing’, the control of the population with a heightened focus on force and punishment. Moreover, attempts to overtake land area in the West Bank for the establishment of Jewish settlements combined with its dependency on Israeli economy (Moughrabi 1992, 49) ensures a fragmented community with little legitimate autonomy and power. Social movement theory incorporates the importance of relative deprivation, that is, the suggestion that people lacking something essential for the functioning of their society, plays a part in the uptake of such nonviolent movements. Interestingly, polling on respective publics in 2005 discovered that 66% of Israelis and 63% of Palestinians supported mutual recognition of each nation (Shamir and Shikaki, 2005). The dichotomy between aggressive and militant policies from political leadership, versus a public capacity which would in theory encourage reconciliation efforts is significant. This is fundamentally down to a severe lack of trust for opposition, their sincerity in nonviolent declarations and transparent long-term goals for peace (Arens and Kaufman 2012, 241).  

Bayat supposes that the existence of social movements is in the recognition of representative leadership (2005, 892). As the self-declared leadership in the West Bank, such nonviolent protests should thus seek the validation of Fatah for successful action. While not for lack of popular support, but internal structural failings in the organisation itself, this has not occurred. Fatah fears that the protests, if those involved are not trained effectively enough or abandon the nonviolent cause, may inevitably flare up into a third intifada which would turn against the movement (Jaraba, 2018). The lack of key political leadership, substituted instead with one lacking public support, has built up grievances in the West Bank. Fatah support the principle of popular resistance. They are not however, willing to act upon this, hampered by institutional “overlap between movement and official bodies in the Palestinian Authority (PA)” (Jaraba, 2018). This is most evident in the security forces, who’s presiding interest is the containment of all forms of activism, violent or nonviolent alike. This contradictory messaging between power and a disillusioned people has ultimately failed to project a confident and assertive position (Arens and Kaufman 2012, 240). Therefore, peaceful negotiations have been diluted in violence, and so are lost in the Israeli and global community.

Overt resistance in social movement theory understands protest in terms of interactions between protestors, their targets, and third parties such as the state and the general public (Hollander and Einwohner 2004, 538). Definitions all imply action to opposition. Popular Struggle Committees (PRC) are village-based groups working at the heart of most nonviolent movements in the West Bank. They support community building, international and Israeli activists (politics of inclusivity), media coverage and the ongoing use of legal channels against instances of repression (Alazzeh 2011, 27). While frustrations remain for the continuance of military occupation; they are projected at the ineptness of political leadership and so PRCs are seen as an expression of these grievances. By recognising nonviolent resistance as a movement, it abets a certain amount of legitimacy that may bolster future mobilisation. This is particularly important against the ambivalence of Fatah for nonviolent movements in the West Bank. 

Civil resistance is not only undertaken for its moral endorsement but that it shapes world politics. The studies of Erica Chenoweth confirm that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals than militant pursuits (Robson, 2019). Contemporary social movements don’t occur in vacuums, and so rely on both external, and internal factors which often change rapidly (Bayat 2005, 897). As young Ramallah based activist Ibrahim Shikaki writes, “the correct resistance method will demonstrate our worthiness to be given our rights and independence” (2011). According to the Program on International Policy Attitudes and Search for Common Ground, a surprising potential for nonviolent resistance exists among Palestinians. The study revealed how 80% would support large-scale protest movements and 56% would participate in it. 78% of Israeli Jews believe that Palestinians have a legitimate right to seek a Palestinian state, provided that this is achieved through nonviolent means (Kull, 2002). The gravity this social movement has, if appropriately nourished and promoted, is thus significant to the peaceful resolution of conflict, however rectifying global and localised perspectives is continually undermining.  

The Israeli West Bank barrier was erected along the green line during the Al-Aqsa Intifada under the guise of ending the wave of Palestinian political violence into the nation. In 2004, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion deeming the wall illegal, as it additionally snaked into rightfully Palestinian territory (ICJ, 2004). Members of the Bil’in PRC began weekly nonviolent resistance, with marches occurring now for over a decade. UN demands for dismantling and reparations, went widely ignored by Israel who sought to repress protestors with beatings, torture, home night raids, killings and the kidnapping of children. Between 2004-2007 alone, some 1,000 demonstrators required medical treatment (B’Tselem, 2011). Creative ideas and diverse tactics have ensued in the face of profound militancy, garnering regional and international support, a further frustration to Israel. It is a stance purveying how violence cannot quash willpower, resilience and plight. 

Bil’in as a vibrant, grassroots uprising has proved inspiring, courting public opinion and increasing the financial costs for the wall exponentially. It additionally delayed construction to allow time for complementary legal challenges and media strategies to be implemented, resulting in a section dismantled and 125 acres of Palestinian land returned (Hughes-Fraitekh, 2015). Contextualised, the wall protests express not only impetus for mobilisation as perceived opportunity, but existential threat (Hoigilt 2015, 636). The feeling of desperate need to continue, later examined as ‘animating’, brought about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, works to end indirect global financing of Israel’s oppression and force it to comply with international law. Little success has unfurled from this particularly, other than statement from the Israeli establishment recognising its “strategic threat” (Israeli and Hatuel-Radoshitzky 2015, 1). The two movements have hence witnessed various degrees of success. They highlight the difficulty of extrapolating a regional resistance with narrow aims into the international sphere, of gaining supporters not otherwise vested in the establishment of an Israeli border. It is indicative of the need for a collective to feel frustrated and deprived, as stipulated by social movement theory.

In 2013, a group of Palestinian activists set up a tent village on land dubbed E1, that is territory earmarked by the Israeli government for settlement development (Sherwood, 2013). The event, now referred to as Bab al-Shams or ‘gate of the sun’, echoed the tactics of radical settlers when establishing outposts in the West Bank (Sherwood, 2013). It has become recognised as a nonviolent resistance on occupied land, a legitimate expression of the threats to Palestinian nationhood and a far cry to the international community to act. The forcible eviction and jailing of peace activists attracted global media attention, shining light on the distinctive differences between Palestinian capacity to protest and the advanced military response of the IDF. Their simple existence was enough to action government forces for repression.  

Social movement theory coins this ‘backfire’, the creation of sympathy for individuals struggling against repressors (Mason and Falk 2016, 171). Significantly, Bab al-Shams and other nonviolent events snowball, becoming actions of solidarity with those Israelis who take similar stances for peacebuilding efforts. Refuseniks are those who choose not to follow orders in protest, creating non-profits such as ‘Breaking the Silence’. While political resistance is certainly between the “rock of occupation and the hard place of Palestinian authoritarianism” (Hoigilt 2015, 646), these cross-border networks of activists ensures the movement has found a soft spot. In this way, indirect peacebuilding such as that described goes beyond the political complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, resulting in a worthwhile movement for continuation. 

New approaches to nonviolent movements, as adopted by advocates to this social movement, challenge Israeli occupation without risking sanctions for Palestinian elite. As President Mahmoud Abbas writes “popular resistance is a powerful weapon in the Palestinian people’s hands exposing the falsity of the occupation, showing the whole world the brutality of this occupation” (Jaraba, 2018). What he is largely ignorant to here, is that such resistance is also an indirect criticism toward political leadership, their failings to free Palestinians from occupation and to launch pressure for peacebuilding initiatives (Hoigilt 2015, 636). Contrastingly, earlier this year Netanyahu announced an order to promote plans for 3,500 homes on E1, an action frozen due to government objections from those nations supportive of a two-state solution (Staff, 2020). This was previously approved in 2012, however frozen due to what the Prime Minister acknowledged as pressures from European Governments and the US. The action appears a nod to shoring up support of his right-wing bloc ahead of elections (Staff, 2020), again highlighting the gravity of external complexities on a social movement and its capacity for success. 

Mason and Falk contend that efficacy of nonviolence lies in how tactics may render an opponent’s behaviour unworthwhile, persuading in effect moderation (2016, 164). While this is arguably an end goal, such theorists are ignorant to the ‘animating effect’ of social movements, their capacity to inspire and unintentionally activate fragmented society, encouraging external sympathies. For Bayat, the resulting animation is fundamentally useful to social movements in highlighting where change is required, while additionally sparking enough outrage for intervention and in some circumstances forcing the hand of the repressor to change (Bayat 2005, 900). Just this year, foreign policy chief Josep Borrell criticised Israel’s plan to build new settlement homes on E1, noting that it would cut territorial contiguity between East Jerusalem and the West Bank (Staff, 2020). While this essay is critical of the tangible impacts nonviolent resistance has had in promoting the Palestinian cause without the support of Fatah, it has proven itself in the holding back of Israeli development plans in this instance. For such animation to become a widescale approach, uptake of nonviolent resistance would be required across the entirety of the West Bank, something currently unlikely with little elite support. 

Nonviolent movements have the capacity to bridge the gap between desire for peace and the trust of opposition organisational bodies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the lack support from leadership in Palestine means the model of local resistance will remain marginalised. This structural emphasis on the need for encouraging political opportunity is a necessary theoretical underpinning to the successful resolution of a social movement. Uptake from these establishments is required and argued that it will unite the people and those who supposedly represent them in a more worthwhile, lawful way. Despite this, since the end of the Al-Aqsa Intifada nonviolent movements in the West Bank have been sustained. They continue despite lack of organisational support, and against the formidable nature of a state military willing to ignore international rulings and in some cases, core human rights. There have therefore, been instances in which the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank has been aided by nonviolent movements, though they have been largely small-scale and not shifted the dialogue of conflict with Israel. 


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