September uprising? Hopes, prospects and obstacles for Palestinian popular struggle

This article originally appeared in Mondoweiss.

The Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations (UN) was on the mind of the Tamimi family. Tea flowed and the coals on top of the nargileh pipe smoked on a warm Ramadan night last month in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh as a snapshot emerged of the divisions across Palestine regarding the bid for recognition at the UN.

“The UN move is a mistake,” one woman remarked, worrying aloud about some US officials’ threats to cut funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA). Her husband works for the PA’s security forces, and any further strain on the PA budget could prove detrimental to their livelihood.

Bashir Tamimi, though, was unequivocal in his support for the PA strategy of asking for UN membership at the upcoming General Assembly session in September, although he too wondered about the future. Tamimi is a member of the popular committee in Nabi Saleh that organizes weekly demonstrations against the nearby settlement of Halamish.

“It will be a long month. It’s difficult to understand what will happen,” he said, dragging on a cigarette as a Real Madrid vs. Barcelona soccer game crackled over the radio. “As leaders of the popular committees and popular resistance, we will demonstrate all over the country in order to support this decision of our leaders in order to make pressure on the world.”

The lines of thought expressed in the village about the Palestinian leadership’s decision to apply for some kind of membership at the United Nations are only two of many. There remains uncertainty about what exactly the Palestinian Authority is looking to attain this month, and what might come next. Perhaps the biggest question is what the reaction on the ground will be.

And so as debate over the UN strategy among the Palestinian disapora, those in refugee camps and Palestinians living under occupation continues, Palestinian activists are preparing the ground for a renewed wave of popular nonviolent resistance to Israel. Still, there is little consensus in occupied Palestine and around the world about the UN bid’s effect on the Palestinian struggle.

Palestinians “appear to be greeting the entire UN episode with considerable skepticism, a result of growing frustration with the leadership and of concrete questions regarding the impact of the move,” reads a recently released report by the International Crisis Group. “Ironically, [many Palestinians would be] hostile to a decision to drop the bid, viewing it as yet more evidence of the leadership’s powerlessness and vulnerability to outside pressure.”

Negative sentiment is even more pronounced in the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas leadership has criticized the UN bid and young bloggers have spoken out against what they see as an undemocratic and potentially rights-damaging move by an unrepresentative leadership.

The skepticism that exists, though, is not stopping West Bank popular committee leaders from preparing to seize the spotlight the UN bid will give Palestine.

“I don’t think the people here will be quiet,” said Mousa Abu Marya, a soft-spoken popular committee coordinator in the village of Beit Ommar.

His village, located near Hebron and surrounded by six settlements, has been a target of the Israeli military in recent weeks. “Maybe in September, many demonstrations will happen. But not only because of September, but because of the situation. [After], the Israelis will cut the money [to the PA]. The people will have no salaries and no good food…They will do something.”

Abu Marya, Tamimi and a host of other popular committee organizers are busy trying to turn their “maybes” into definite answers. They are planning to take action in the form of rallies and demonstrations against the occupation. The fate of their plans, while depending mostly on their ability to mobilize large numbers of Palestinians to challenge the occupation, will also be determined by the response of Israel and the US, the PA and the newly empowered Arab public in surrounding countries. The big question mark is whether a fragmented Palestinian polity can catch the winds of the Arab uprisings and put intense pressure on Israel’s occupation regime. It’s a high-stakes moment for the Palestinian popular struggle.

Going to the UN “is a positive step,” said Hassan Mousa, spokesman for the Nil’in village popular committee. “We expect Palestinians to continue their struggle through a comprehensive strategy…It needs struggle on the ground and diplomatic and political struggle at the United Nations. So both struggles come together.”

In July, the Palestine Popular Resistance Conference was held in three villages: Beit Ommar, Nil’in and Budrus. The conference was dedicated to the protests Palestinians continue to hold in villages affected by the separation barrier and settlements. It ended with the drafting of a statement that laid out the coalition of West Bank activists’ position on the PA going to the UN.

“Next September is the immense popular battle for the recognition of the State of Palestine,” the statement read. “The committees commit themselves to initiate to work in order to develop intensive action and mobilize people to expand the struggle for recognition of a Palestinian state in the Palestinian and the international arenas using an immense popular struggle program.”

The conference closed out amidst the firing of tear gas canisters by the Israeli military in response to an unarmed protest in Budrus—the usual response of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The response to the Budrus protest and other popular resistance campaigns by Israel, though, could pale in comparison if Israeli media reports pan out.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that the UN move could lead to “violence and bloodshed.” But Palestinian activists, based on the crushing experience of the second intifada, say that there is no place for armed struggle anymore in resistance against Israel’s occupation.

“The nonviolent resistance is the important resistance at this time,” Abu Marya said. “The second intifada was a big mistake. It moved Palestine 100 years into the past. So now the people are starting to think about something new.”

The IDF, though, has been instructed to meet any mass demonstrations by Palestinians in September with force. Last month, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that if Palestinian protesters cross a “red line” in approaching illegal settlements, “soldiers will be allowed to open fire at the legs of the demonstrators.” In addition, the IDF has armed settlers with tear gas and stun grenades to confront Palestinian protests with.

There have been recent previews of how the Israeli army will react to any large-scale Palestinian protests. Last May’s actions to commemorate the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, ended in bloodshed as thousands of unarmed Palestinian refugees in neighboring countries calling for the right of return marched to the border with Israel. Over a dozen were killed and scores injured when the Israeli army opened fire on the Syria and Lebanon borders. However, recent events, like the September 9 Egyptian protest that resulted in the Israeli embassy being broken into, will also be on the mind of the Israeli military establishment.

“Everybody feels that everything in the Middle East is changeable. The people will change the situation at any time,” well-known Palestinian activist Ayed Morrar told me as we sat in an office of Fatah, the political party Abbas belongs to. “So I think the Palestinian issue after the Arab movements will be different in the future than what it was before.”

To stem the possibility of large protest actions in the West Bank, the Israeli military is working closely with PA security to respond. To prepare, the PA has reportedly purchased tear gas grenades and rubber bullets from Israel.

Although PA President Mahmoud Abbas has called for mass protests in September in support of the UN strategy, the PA has also made it clear it wants to keep them confined to major urban centers under its full control (Area A under the Oslo agreement).

Having the PA control protests in the West Bank could also put to rest Israeli worries about the regional reaction in response to their soldiers opening fire on unarmed Palestinian protesters.

The PA, it seems, is hoping that the combination of the UN bid and controlled protests are a way out of their quandary: having to both show the Palestinian public that they are doing something to end the occupation and pleasing the US and Israel by keeping control.

But while some Palestinian activists are loath to commit to actively confronting their own leadership as the occupation remains present, criticism of the PA has been heard loud and clear.

“If they decide to fight us in any way, we will never turn back. This is our official stance,” said Morrar. “[PA Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad succeeded in controlling the situation this time because after seven years of oppression, and suffering [as a result of the Israeli response to the second intifada], the people need the time to take rest. But sooner or later they will wake up and discover that their targets are not achieved yet.”

The PA has, in fact, stopped protests from reaching Israeli checkpoints. On the May 15 Nakba protest, PA security stopped demonstrators from approaching a checkpoint.

Morrar criticized the PA’s protest strategy. “It will not make pressure on the occupation to force them to feel that there are another people that need their freedom,” he said. “We must pressure the occupation, to force them to feel that this is a loser project. And all these activities, we don’t aim to kill anybody from the other side, from the Israelis. We want to initiate a nonviolent struggle in order to achieve freedom and justice.”

Besides the PA and Israel, Palestinian activists also have to worry about galvanizing a tired and frustrated Palestinian public. Some are skeptical.

“I don’t expect that huge of a reaction on the ground. It will be a little bit more than now, but not huge. I don’t expect that. We are working to push it that way to make it huge, and I wish, I hope I’m wrong,” said Younes Arar, the executive manager of the Beit Ommar-based Center for Freedom and Justice and a popular struggle activist. “People they are really, really frustrated. They are frustrated with the situation…. Somehow they give up. And that’s bad.”

In the meantime, popular struggle leaders are continuing to push to use the UN bid as an opportunity to focus the world on the Palestinian plight.

“This is a decisive stage,” said Mousa. “It is a matter of life or death…When Palestinians realize that their existence is at stake, I think they will be having the courage, the resolve to participate and join in our struggle.”

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