By: Jacob Høigilt, Fafo.
In a rare event last week, Palestinian and international activists managed to seize the initiative and take both the Israeli state and the Palestinian authorities by surprise. On Friday morning, January 11, a group of around 200 activists erected a number of tents in part of the area between Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adummim. This area is dubbed E-1 by the Israeli government, which recently announced its plans for building a settlement there. As soon as the tents were up, the activists announced that they had now established the village of Bab al-Shams (Gate of the Sun) there, and that this step took place in understanding with the Palestinian owners of the land.
The activists managed to stay in the area for almost two nights in the bitter cold, as the Israeli Supreme Court did not at first allow the Israeli authorities to force them out of the area. But soon enough Binyamin Netanyahu got his will, and in what may be interpreted as an attempt at appearing independent, the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to forcefully remove the people in Bab al-Shams, but that the tents would be allowed to remain for some days. Hundreds of police moved in early Sunday morning and arrested the protesters.
The Bab al-Shams incident is important in more senses than one. The first and obvious sense is the symbolic one. The name for the village, which was erected on privately owned Palestinian land with written permission from the landowners, is taken from Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury’s novel The Gate of the Sun, which tells the story about the Palestinians who were forced to leave their lands and escape to Lebanon in 1948. The village of Bab al-Shams is central to Khoury’s story about loss and despair, and by adopting it for their village the activists signaled their refusal to let history repeat itself. Khoury himself paid homage to the activists on his website in a moving letter of admiration and encouragement.
In a more concrete sense, the establishment of the village is an attempt to highlight and stop Israel’s plan to divide the West Bank. E-1 is a big chunk of land between Eastern Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’ale Adummim, through which runs the only Palestinian road connecting the Southern and the Northern West Bank. If the plans for E-1 are realized, the West Bank will effectively be bisected. Not only will this make communication between Palestinian areas more difficult, it will also make it impossible to create a geographically coherent Palestinian entity in the West Bank. The activists attempted – and managed – to draw attention to this issue both in the Palestinian and global public sphere. Palestinian media covered the event extensively as political notables rushed to the scene, and both the New York Times and the Guardian wrote about the episode.
But the perhaps most important aspect about the event is that it represents a new turn in civil resistance to Israeli occupation and illegal settlements.
But the perhaps most important aspect about the event is that it represents a new turn in civil resistance to Israeli occupation and illegal settlements. In contrast to protests against Israeli policies and measures that have already been carried out, this is a kind of aggressive non-violence that seizes the initiative from the oppressor while using his own mode of action. For Bab al-Shams is, of course, nothing more or less than a Palestinian settlement – on Palestinian land. By their own admission, the activists aimed to create a “fact on the ground” – a time-honoured strategy employed by Israel to steal Palestinian land in the West Bank. Activists who were interviewed by Palestinian media said that they had created a new mode of resistance. They also emphasized the thorough planning and execution of the demonstration, promising that more actions of a similar kind will take place in the future.
Herein lies the mobilizing potential of this new and confrontational civil resistance: It is new, bold and easy to join. Palestinian activists and commentators alike observed that had they been able to remain for just another day, the scene would probably have been flooded with Palestinian sympathizers, curious diplomats, political leaders who wanted to boost their popular credentials, and foreign journalists. Netanyahu reacted swiftly to this challenge because the Israeli elections are so close, but it is not certain that the Israeli authorities will be able to crush similar initiatives as quickly the next time. Given enough time, the vanguard of civil resistance activists in the West Bank might have some hope of mobilizing larger sectors of Palestinian society and get the political factions to join the bandwagon – a prerequisite for sustained and effective mobilization against the aggressive Israeli land grab policy.