Does unarmed resistance in Palestine work?

The authors of the new book  Popular Protest in Palestine discuss whether peaceful resistance to Israeli occupation is appropriate in the face of so much violence.

Darweish PPIP‘In March 2015 the Israeli electorate voted into power the most hard-line coalition in Israel’s history, headed up by Benjamin Netanyahu who had campaigned on the promise that he would prevent the establishment of any Palestinian state. In the national newspaper Haaretz the correspondent Gideon Levy bemoaned the result: ‘If after six years years of sowing fear and anxiety, hatred and despair, this is the nation’s choice, then it is very ill indeed. Netanyahu deserves the Israeli people and they deserve him.’ (Haaretz, 18 March 2015) Another commentator, James Besser, concluded that ‘apartheid is the path Israeli voters have chosen. The inevitable results will include even greater international isolation for the Jewish state, a boost to efforts to apply boycotts and sanctions, diminished support from American Jews and endlessly intensifying cycles of violence.’ (Haaretz, 20 March 2015)

But whilst the Israeli peace-camp anguished over the result, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories the return of Netanyahu to power was met with indifference by significant sections of the population. As Huneida Ghanem of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies explained, ‘Nothing is going to come from the Israeli state if the Israelis don’t feel they don’t pay any price for the Israeli occupation.’ (, 22 June 2015)

Ghanem’s analysis echoed one of the conclusions we reached in Popular Protest in Palestine: The Uncertain Future of Unarmed Resistance. In 2002, the wave of Palestinian unarmed resistance to occupation grew in response to the Israeli decision to build a Wall between the West Bank and Israel. The subsequent resistance movement failed to exert sufficient leverage on Israeli publics and decision-makers, and the question of Israeli commitment to occupation was left untouched.

We came to this conclusion after conducting numerous interviews with Israeli peace activists struggling to maintain hope for the future of their country. One of our informants expressed herself with brutal frankness:

“The popular resistance is weakening. It breaks my heart. I want to live here, but the worst thing for Israel is peace and quiet. If the occupation continues there is no future for Israel. The weakening of Palestinian popular resistance allows the occupation to continue.

People here in Israel – they just don’t realise, they don’t have to deal with it. It is a different world for Israelis – but it will blow up.

There was the second intifada – nothing came out of that and the buses being blown up. Now the buses are not being blown up and still nothing comes out of it. Israelis are comfortable with the situation … people look the other way … people live with it.”

In the light of such testimonies, we decided to focus our study on the growth of popular unarmed resistance to occupation since the second intifada. What we found was the emergence of a series of localised centres of active popular resistance against the construction of the Wall as well as the threat of land expropriation from local settlements. As the number of sites of contestation increased, many of the local organisers, who were drawn mainly from the generation of the First Intifada activists, allowed themselves to dream that they might be initiating a new unarmed uprising. As a leader of a local popular committee expressed, “We came alive in the First Intifada. Then we died in the second. Maybe now we are being reborn.”

At the peak of activity during 2010-11 there was a maximum of 40 – 50 villages and neighborhoods where there was some form of organised unarmed resistance against the ongoing occupation. Some of these pockets of resistance, such as Budrus and Bil’in, gained an international profile during their peak but then declined with the passage of time. At no stage was there anything comparable to a mass movement of protest such as characterised the First Intifada at the height of the popular resistance.

It is clear that whilst the First Intifada succeeded in shaking Israeli decision-makers and touching significant sections of the Israeli public, the more recent waves of popular unarmed resistance – particularly the resistance to the construction of the Separation Wall and associated expansion of settlements – have failed to impose a sufficient toll on Israel, nor have they created any significant re-assessment of the wisdom of continued occupation of Palestinian territory.

Through our research and interviews, we were able to identify and understand various failures of the movements. These include:

  1. Geographical fracturing of the West Bank

As a consequence of agreements arrived at between Israel and the Palestinians the West Bank has been divided into separate cantons designated as Areas A, B and C. This has meant that people cannot travel easily from one part of the West Bank to another without having to face the humiliation and the stress of negotiating roadblocks and checkpoints.

  1. The separation of the West Bank from the Gaza Strip

Israel controls access to the Gaza Strip and no-one, particularly residents from the West Bank can gain entry without specific permission from the Israeli authorities. This has resulted in a deepening gulf between the two populations.

  1. The political fracture between Fatah and Hamas

The geographical or spatial separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has been mirrored (and exacerbated) by the political rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, with each of them enjoying their own fiefdom within the territory that they control. The political divisions have been mirrored by the establishment of rival popular resistance networks, each affiliated with different political groupings, resulting in a lack of overall coordination.

  1. Corruption and cronyism within the Palestinian Administration

Throughout the period of the so-called peace process, public disillusionment with the corruption, cronyism and malpractice that permeated the Palestinian Authority has grown. There is a widespread belief that the members of the political class are concerned primarily with serving their own particular interests.

  1. The deepening vertical divide between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’

For many Palestinians, the most obvious manifestation of the way in which the political class have prioritised the pursuit of their own interests at the cost of the common good was the spread of private mansions in and around Ramallah, the seat of the PA, and the conspicuous consumption patterns displayed there.

  1. Vested interest of elites in the status quo

The perception of many has been that the dominant political class and associated business/entrepreneurial class have a vested interest in ‘business as usual’. They might mouth their support for popular resistance and the struggle to bring the occupation to an end, but they remain very wary of any kind of popular movement that might threaten their lifestyle and their privilege.

  1. The ‘NGO-isation’ of community-based and civil society organisations

Following the Oslo Accords there was a massive influx of international aid agencies into the occupied Palestinian territories who sought out local partners for their programmes. As a consequence organisations and institutions that had once been vehicles for politicisation and mobilisation were transformed into professional deliverers of development aid, with a consequent haemorrhaging of their links with their original grassroots base. This development has been one of the causes of the erosion of the spirit of ‘voluntarism’ and ‘social service’ in Palestinian society

  1. Economic impoverishment

The economic impoverishment of large numbers of Palestinians who have been denied the opportunity of working in Israel and with restricted access to other sources of employment and income stands in marked contrast to the privileged minority who have prospered under the ‘post-Oslo occupation’. In a situation where few substantial gains have been achieved by popular resistance, it is not surprising that those living on the bread-line became reluctant to add to their burdens by participating in protest actions and thereby risking fines, imprisonment and physical injury for no apparent purpose.

In a nutshell, the changes that have taken place within the OPT in the years of the ‘peace process’ have eroded the socio-political base necessary for a unified movement of civil resistance of the scale sufficient to exercise leverage over Israeli publics and decision-makers and cause them to review their commitment to continuing the occupation.

However, this does not mean that the popular resistance has been pointless and futile. The resistance has been significant as an ongoing symbol of the Palestinian refusal to acquiesce to the status quo of occupation and as a means of communicating that refusal – and the justness of their cause – to wider constituencies globally, which has in turn fed into the growth of international networks of solidarity.

A notable feature of the last decade of Palestinian grassroots protest has been the increased involvement of international solidarity activists compared with the first Intifada, when often the most obvious international presence was the number of journalists and media personnel covering the Uprising. These activists have played their part as accompaniers and witnesses in a range of protest actions, but their most important role has been as advocates for the Palestinian cause.

There can be little doubt that the lived experience of international solidarity activists in Palestine strengthens their capacity for advocacy amongst their own networks in their home countries. This has been a significant factor in the expansion over recent years of a global grassroots movement of solidarity urging an end to the Israeli occupation. The growth of the transnational campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) targeted at Israel and initiated by Palestinian civil society organisations in 2005 is perhaps the most obvious illustration of this phenomenon.

However, the international network of advocates for the Palestinian cause relies in turn on the popular resistance of the Palestinians (and their Israeli partners) to feed into their campaigns. That is, whilst Palestinian popular resistance might be relatively weak in relation to its direct impact on Israeli decision-makers and publics, their presentation of themselves as brave people struggling for their basic rights by unarmed means against an illegitimate and brutal occupation can resonate strongly through international networks of sympathisers. They, in their turn, can use the examples and the stories of resistance to shame the Israeli occupation regime in the eyes of wider constituencies around the world. In their turn such people – links in the great chain of nonviolence – can exercise pressure on their own politicians and policy-makers to take action.

A recent illustration of how this process has manifested itself has been played out on a rocky outcrop of the South Hebron Hills where the few hundred inhabitants of the village of Susya are threatened with the demolition of their homes as Israel seeks to cleanse the area of Palestinians. Susya has become one of the flagship cases of dispossession and ethnic cleansing in the West Bank. Countless Palestinian, Israeli and international activists have participated in their resistance struggle over the years – but in 2015 a change took place insofar as these activists were joined by officials from the European Union and the United Nations who, on 7th June, accompanied the Palestinian prime minister in a visit to the village to express their support for the right of the villagers to stay on their land. A week later some 70 young Jews from the USA and other countries spent two days working alongside the villagers in yet another expression of solidarity with their struggle.

Susya is just one small site of resistance, but it is indicative of the way a local struggle has attracted the attention of international networks of solidarity, which have in turn caused their political leaders to be more forceful in their criticism of Israel’s refusal to countenance any serious move towards a sustainable peace with the Palestinians. And it is this heightened international pressure on Israel that provides Israeli leftists with some consolation as they contemplate a future in which Israel increasingly takes on the character of an apartheid state and society. As Gideon Levy put it, ‘The only consolation is that another Netanyahu term will prompt the world to act. That possibility is our only refuge.’


Marwan Darweish is Principal Lecturer in Peace Studies at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. He has extensive experience in conflict transformation and peacebuilding across the Middle East region and internationally. He co-edited Peacebuilding and Reconciliation: Contemporary themes and challenges  (Pluto 2012).

Andrew Rigby is Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies, Coventry University where he was the founding director of the Centre for Peace & Reconciliation Studies. He is the author of 14 books including Justice and Reconciliation: After the Violence (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001).


Popular Protest in Palestine: The Uncertain Future of Unarmed Resistance is available to buy from Pluto Press here.

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