Since last week, dozens of activists have grabbed the spotlight on the Palestinian scene, which had been busy with US President Barack Obama’s visit. But after he left, those activists have become an important news item in Arab and Palestinian media. Israeli newspapers revealed that Israeli police were forced to postpone dealing with those activists until Obama left so as not to cause bad press in his presence.
As those young activists were formulating an initiative that breaks the political deadlock, presents alternative Palestinian resistance methods and offers something different than armed struggle and traditional resistance, the US president was speaking about the peace process and the Arab summit was issuing perplexing decisions and proposals that raised many questions about the future.
Those young activists set up a small tent city, with a children's playground, on a piece of land threatened with being seized by Israel as part of an Israeli plan known as Plan E1. According to that plan, Israeli settlements would reach Jerusalem and cut off the West Bank’s south from its north, thus threatening the establishment of a future Palestinian state.
The activists named their tent city “The Descendants of Younes.” They had previously set up a tent city called Bab al-Shams in January 2013. Bab al-Shams is the title of a story written by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury. It talks about the Nakba and how the Palestinians were displaced in 1948. It also talks about resistance after the Nakba. The story’s main character is a resistance fighter named Younes. He meets his wife Nahila in a cave inside Palestine. They fall in love and live their love life in secret.
The Israelis dismantled the Bab al-Shams tent city after it started attracting many visitors. But the activists who established that tent city are still active. Their movement uses different methods, has different objectives and involves different activists than traditional Palestinian movements.
The activists come from all the Palestinian factions, especially Fatah and al-Badira movements. The latter is the only Palestinian anti-Israel movement that has never participated in the armed struggle. But despite that, it has significant presence. Along with Fatah and al-Badira, the PFLP and the DFLP were also present.
A large part of the coordinating and preparatory work happens at the level of the activists, not the political parties to whom they belong. Moreover, many of the activists are independents. The movement is the result of several previous experiences, such as the fight against the Israeli separation barrier by the Bil’in, Ni’lin, Walaja and Hebron movements, and others. Those were peaceful grassroots movements with international and Israeli support. The Bab al-Shams movement is based on those previous experiences, except that the foreign presence in it is virtually nonexistent.
In such a movement, the activists are better able to organize. One of the organizers said that they want to rely on their own efforts rather than that of international activists, although the latter’s support is important.
In this kind of organized activism, the activists gather secretly to avoid the Israeli army checkpoints. Maybe in the future that can mobilize at multiple places concurrently. Things seem to be heading in that direction; it would be a different kind of intifada. The first intifada, in 1987, started with stone-throwing and demonstrations, it was not militarized. Weapons were rarely used and only after three years from the uprising’s start. In the second intifada, known as the Al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, many Palestinians regret that Israel was able to drag the movement into an armed struggle when it attacked Palestinian security headquarters with aircraft. But the new movement is very keen to avoid using violence, whether stone-throwing or arms, even though many activists affirm that all kinds of legitimate resistance are guaranteed by international law.
Popular uprisings are not usually planned. They happen when there are tensions and some event comes along to act as a spark. When that happens, activists and politicians are often surprised. Sometimes they are able to lead the popular movement and sometimes new leadership emerges. Therefore, identifying those who will lead the third Palestinian uprising is not easy. But what is certain is that Bab al-Shams and other experiences have presented a new Palestinian resistance model.
Perhaps for the first time in Palestinian history, the idea of a peaceful popular resistance is dominant. Even if this new experience is still in its infancy, all other forces that have proposed other resistance methods are on the decline. Fatah, which led the armed struggle in the past, has stopped using that method. Hamas, as a result of the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, has also halted military activities and now seems to favor political action.
In the last few days of the Descendants of Younes experience, two parties spoke of a compromise solution. The first party was US President Barack Obama. In his visit to the area he promised that Secretary of State John Kerry would devote time for a peaceful settlement. US aid to the Palestinian authority resumed and Israel resumed paying the Palestinians the owed taxes. The second party was Qatar. It suggested supporting the Palestinians by establishing a billion-dollar fund to support the Arab presence in Jerusalem and to hold an Arab summit to help Palestinian reconciliation, followed by political negotiations that may include an international peace conference.
The Palestinians are wary of a new armed struggle. But they are also suspicious of a political process that does not stop Israel from imposing facts on the ground by building settlements and confiscating land. They also do not trust Arab resolutions.
There is an international push for a peace settlement. At first glance, it may seem a course correction and a means to lower tensions. But the failures of such efforts and the Israeli policy of imposing facts on the ground may create a new anti-Israel grassroots movement. The Bab al-Shams experience may act as a model for such a movement because it includes the traditional forces but has a new approach.
Those new Palestinian forces and approaches are likely to grow stronger, especially if the reconciliation process fails and there are no new elections to rejuvenate Palestinian institutions.
Ahmad Azem is the director of Palestine and Arabic Studies at Birzeit University.