At the Cinema Cafe in Nablus, hiply dressed youth sip coffee drinks, surrounded by a flashy mall and blaring pop music. It’s an odd place to have an existential discussion about revolution, but, well, this is the West Bank.
Beesan Ramadan, a young activist I met during a volunteer teaching stint at a local university, is up front about her views: “I’m not against armed struggle, but I don’t like to see people dying for no reason.”
The young cafe patrons don’t look terribly interested in warfare, except maybe the kind in the movies shown at the adjacent theater. But a few years ago, Nablus itself was a warzone of cinematic proportions. Today it is a stage for a mix of political tragedy and romance.
Palestine, long the real and symbolic focal point of the Arab people’s freedom struggles, is stirring with the winds of change wafting in from the uprisings among its neighbors. But even in an increasingly interconnected and globalized Arab world, peace still looks perilously distant from the occupied territories, and even youth activism feels fatigued.
Although the West Bank has been relatively calm in the last few years, day-to-day terror persists, with ongoing clashes and detentions, conflict surrounding Israeli settlements, as well as the usual suppression of civil rights by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
The spirit of the Arab Spring uprisings has drifted into the Palestinian territories, breathing some inspiration into international solidarity campaigns and perhaps boosting Palestine’s bid for official statehood. But for now these shifts appear unlikely to really weaken the occupation.
But doesn’t everybody just want peace? Yes, “peace” is frequently invoked in conversations with Israeli and Palestinian groups alike. But the discussions my colleagues and I had here, with local youth and other volunteers, were fraught with palpable rage and disillusionment, so that often, talk of a peaceful resolution seem wishful at best and perfunctory at worst.
Western activist taxonomy gives “nonviolence” sacrosanct status, from Thoreau’s “passive resistance” to Gandhi’s soul-force. At the same time, modern “nonviolent resistance” isn’t static: it has been defined in opposition to the horrors of mass warfare, and now changing technology and the post-9/11 political world have again reshaped its contours.
Palestine has always helped define resistance, “violent” or not: the First and Second Intifadas colored the aesthetics of Third World resistance. Images of children pelting rocks at Israeli tanks recalled South Africa’s anti-Apartheid youth uprisings, or police crackdowns in Bull Connor’s Birmingham—all movements that upheld nonviolence as principle, while steadfastly embracing the risk of bloodshed on both sides.
In January, a nonviolent uprising overturned a massive dictatorship in Egypt, reinvigorating our belief that peaceful means can be used to realize peaceful ends. But violence was certainly present at Tahrir Square; hundreds were killed and injured in crackdowns by authorities. Nonetheless, the movement as a whole was a triumph for disciplined, technology-driven nonviolent strategy, which captured the admiration of millions across the Arab World. But no nonviolent uprising in the region since then has netted similar success; massacres continue in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, while full-blown war rages in Libya.
Palestine looks relatively peaceful by comparison, but perhaps only because years of occupation has entangled civil society in bitterness and frustration. Here, the walls tell the story. On the cement separation wall, colorful graffiti rebels cry out for liberation. Streets in Nablus are plastered with faded, frayed martyr posters, depicting children who died fighting.
One evening the international volunteers visited the family of a woman who had been imprisoned by the Israelis several years ago. Her relatives expressed pride in her decision to become a freedom fighter. I asked how they felt about younger children who also aspire to be militants. One brother supported armed struggle; another disagreed and wanted to see an end to all fighting. Neither suggested they regretted the woman’s decisions, and I never got a straight answer about the kids, who scampered about as we sipped coffee and looked at family photographs of the heroine, who may die in prison.
In the isolated northern village of Yanoun, the population has dwindled to just a few families, about 75 people, living in fear of neighboring Israeli settlers. Their homes are precariously protected by humanitarian volunteers with the World Council of Churches, who monitor the area and try to document incidents of harassment and displacement (though it all occurs under the watch of Israeli authorities). Were it not for the foreign presence, according to activists, settlers would rapidly descend on local homes.
When asked how they resist the encroachment on their farms, the men said they sometimes just stood as settlers tried to stalk or intimidate them. In the case of an immediate threat, they said they would act to defend their homes. My colleagues and I refrained from asking what kind of action they could possibly take that would not endanger them further.
It’s clear that the greatest defense locals can pose to invaders isn’t violent retaliation, but just standing firm. This phenomenon is repeated across the Occupied Territories in communities under siege. This is an existence without dignity, but the refusal to be extinguished in itself constitutes resistance by default.
But can nonviolence propel the resistance beyond mere survival? Back in January, before the Arab Spring came to symbolize peaceful uprising, an activist network called Gaza Youth Breaks Out issued an online “manifesto” for a new revolution. From Gaza, a place aptly described as hell on earth, came an unlikely call for a peace movement:
We do not want to hate, we do not want to feel all of this feelings, we do not want to be victims anymore. ENOUGH! Enough pain, enough tears, enough suffering, enough control, limitations, unjust justifications, terror, torture, excuses, bombings, sleepless nights, dead civilians, black memories, bleak future, heart aching present, disturbed politics, fanatic politicians, religious bullshit, enough incarceration! WE SAY STOP! This is not the future we want!
We want three things. We want to be free. We want to be able to live a normal life. We want peace. Is that too much to ask?
To young Palestinians, it depends on whom you’re asking. How does civil society demand respect, let alone reconciliation, from an occupying force that is built on a racist ideology?
In this context, Ramadan notes the asymmetries of force that define their struggle. “The thing is,” she said, “the world has been saying that any action that the Palestinians take is something radical and something violent and they don’t have the right to use it, and they should go through negotiations and they should be more tolerant and they should be more patient. But for how long?”
Her comment echoes the exhortation of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his book, “Why We Can’t Wait.” But for young people for whom direct action is the only option, the question of “How long” often sounds as fatalistic as it is motivational.
There are many examples of incrementally successful nonviolent campaigns in Palestine, Israel and abroad, including many global solidarity actions, from olive tree-planting projects, to boycotts against Israel, to rapid-fire organizing via social media hubs.
But Ramadan pointed out that for all the drama of the Arab Spring, “the Egyptian youth didn’t just come out on the streets and start asking for their rights. They had been preparing for this … and mobilizing for at least several years.”
Building a grassroots nonviolent movement in Palestine may take longer. “It’s a process you have to go through,” she said. “Because we have dealt with the romanticization of arms, and this is something that, I would say, should change at some point. Because our culture is not a culture of death. It’s a culture of living.”
Nonviolent resistance may have the potential to challenge occupation because it isn’t just a passive plea for peace. It’s an insistence on humanity in the face of oppression.
This dispatch is based on reporting the author did during a recent visit to Nablus in the West Bank, where she taught social media workshops with the Zajel Youth Exchange Program.