Palestinian terrains of resistance: From occupation to international solidarity

By Moara Crivelente | Published at TransConflict 

At the end of the seventies, Edward Said wrote, “since 1948, the Palestinian dilemma is literally the fact that being Palestinian means living in an Utopia, in a non-existing place. Therefore, also literally, the Palestinian struggle is profoundly local” (Said, 1992: 143). Said recognized the international importance of Palestinian resistance, which was also a symbol among workers’ internationalist solidarity, and he probably meant how rooted in a specific geographical and symbolic space the Palestinian national struggle is. But his view might have changed had he seen how this struggle developed in more recent years.

This essay reviews three articles focusing on social movements and resistance from a critical perspective, including personal experiences. My argument departs from the author’s proposals to state that the Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation is both deeply local and ever more international.

This argument’s background is threefold:

  1. Campaigns and direct engagement with Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation is ever more international regarding the actors engaged and approached by the campaigns; [1]
  2. The Palestinian national struggle has persistently aimed at drawing international attention and commitment, which includes reaching out from Gaza and Bil’in, from refugee camps in neighbouring countries or from the exile, to the world, through social media, literature, music and theatre; and
  3. Counterinsurgency against Palestinian resistance or “stabilization” and “pacification” programs are also increasingly international. They happen through Israeli lobbies in the USA or the UK, through the involvement of foreign governments, international agencies, organizations and NGOs in the innocuous Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which many Palestinian authors, including Said and Raja Shehadeh, have already declared finished in its enduring lack of “progress” (Said, 2001; Shehadeh, 2015), and through peacebuilding programs ensuring a focus on control over Palestinian insurgency.

This argument follows a trail left by Routledge, who considers it “important to note that, increasingly, certain resistances are becoming regional and international in focus and organization” (Routledge, 1996: 510). He might have meant broader movements, such as what would become the World Social Forum, in 2001, as a “convergence space” for many struggles. The Palestinian national struggle is emblematic and encompassing of other national and even class struggles that identify and show solidarity with it. Furthermore, campaigns and movements such as the one calling for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel due to its occupation and apartheid practices are also internationally aimed and organized, with offices located and staffed by foreigners in different countries, to facilitate lobbying.

Local, international, physical and symbolic sites

This review’s title takes on Routledge’s conceptualization of “terrains of resistance” as “sites of contestation and the multiplicity of relations between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic power and discourses, between forces and relations of domination, subjection, exploitation and resistance” (Routledge, 1996:516). Converging with Sparke and Koopman, Routledge contributes to critical geopolitics to “(de)centre analytical focus from states’ machinations” and investigate how social movements challenge state-centred notions of hegemony, consent and power (Ibid: 509). In a deeper level of analysis, he refers to a physical place and a physical expression “which not only reflect the movement’s tactical ingenuity, but also endows space with an amalgam of meanings” (Ibid: 517). A recent example, in a bid from socio-cultural and political networks to “circumvent the state” (Ibid: 511), was the “Peoples’ Summit” in Brussels, in June 2015, held in parallel with the summit between leaders from the European Union (EU) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). In that alternative forum, social movements from the organizations’ member countries debated alternative views on international solidarity, environment and human rights, taking on previous Latin-American experiences with “peoples’ summits”, where grass-roots organizations give themselves space while “Big Men” discuss “Big Politics”. Koopman, in dialogue with Routledge, calls that “material and/or discursive forms of resistance” (Koopman, 2011: 275).

From Routledge, back to Palestine, interesting meanings of resistance in “physical places” and “physical expressions” are, for instance, the ladders used by Palestinian farmers and workers to jump over the Israeli 800-kilometre long and 8-to-12-meter-tall wall in the West Bank, or the sowing of “buffer zones” with olive trees, replacing those previously uprooted by the Israeli army.[2] These “terrains of resistance” are also books such as that edited by Literature Professor at the Islamic University of Gaza, Refaat Alareer, with his students’ stories of survival and powerful defiance because they survive gathered in Gaza Writes Back. These terrains include the Palestinian Freedom Theatre plays taken to different cities, engaged in their own resistances but interested in solidarity with others, or the world-famous poetries by Mahmoud Darwish, and powerful resistance songs playing in foreign radios, such as Unadikum (I Call On You), based on the homologue poem by resistance author Tawfiq Ziad. This is telling because “’cultural expressions of movement resistance’ – the place-specific ‘language of discontent’ that motivates and informs social movement agency – is of crucial importance in the understanding of collective action” (Routledge, 1996:523).

In general, Palestinian expressions of resistance account for a conflict that “is fundamentally a struggle over land which pits a powerful state against a stateless people, and which has created a vicious cycle of insurgency and counterinsurgency” (Turner, 2015: 121). After all, Israel’s counterinsurgency strategies involve ‘kinetic’ techniques, which “cover direct military intervention; extensive repression through mass incarceration, detention without trial, torture and house demolitions as well as targeted assassinations and collective punishment”, besides military checkpoints and other regimes limiting movement or imposing stratifying citizenship (Ibid).

Critical engagement in resistance

Routledge, Sparke and Koopman converge on the emphasis on the critical researchers’ role, calling on them to engage, to contribute with theorizing while taking part in social movements, contesting hegemonic powers and discourses, but leaving space for local resistances to represent themselves (Routledge, 1996: 524; Koopman: 2011, 276; Sparke, 2008: 2). Sparke, while alerting to the undesirability of forms of idealism or romanticization of resistance, also includes in his text “resistance reports that push back representationally against the ways some sorts of informal and non-refereed work on (and of) resistance are conventionally pulled out of formal academic progress reports” (Sparke, 2008: 2).

These articles hold a dialogue between each other regarding those efforts, while also addressing, at least in Sparke and Routlege’s case, Michel Foucault’s view on resistance as being actually located within relations of power. “Points of resistance are present everywhere in the power network”, and “there is no single locus of Great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions” (Foucault, 1980 apud Sparke, 2008: 2). This could challenge Said’s view as stated in the beginning of this essay, and to Routledge’s take on social movements as autopoietic, since they establish, after creating themselves, “a distinct presence in their social and cultural environment” (Routledge, 1996: 510). Routledge considers Foucault’s notion of power, and this might be related to his view on social movements, “too amorphous”, leaving little space for the role of classes and insurgency, for instance (Ibid: 511).

Recovering Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and other Marxist approaches of power, it can be argued that consent to domination is not necessarily fixed, and acknowledgement of this relationship by its subjects is possible, as well as varying levels of resistance and transformation. This is, after all, an aim of emancipatory calls. In this sense, Routledge thinks that it is possible to broaden “political geography to encompass more radical understandings of the political; an understanding of how place is central to particular terrains of resistance and the creation and articulation of alternative knowledges; and how local contexts of resistance may interplay with global processes” (Ibid: 510).

Therefore, this essay also takes on Koopman’s articulation of feminist and alter-geopolitics as currents calling for critical geopolitics to be “peopled” and engaged in building alternatives to power and hegemony (Koopman, 2011: 276). Moreover, responding to an extremely pertinent call from feminist and other critical geopolitics for authors to be “present” in their work (Ibid: 275), whether this means writing in a personal way or bringing personal experiences to the fore, this essay offers personal experiences and communication with Palestinians engaged in resistance to project an image onto its argument. For instance, during the last Israeli military operation against Gaza, in 2014, I talked to Nour el Borno, a young woman who had published a story in Gaza Writes Back. She wrote A Wish for Insomnia, a short story about an Israeli soldier who had nightmares for having killed Palestinians. While experiencing her third military operation in five years, she said:

I would like to find the right words to describe what is happening. My people is being killed every day. Our lives were suspended since the beginning of the attack and we can only wait, to see if we are next or if we survive another war. We are trying to be patient and strong.[3]

During that period I held more conversations like this to translate Palestinian narratives and disseminate them through alternative media in Brazil, from where those bombs dropping over Gaza could not seem more distant due to the conventional media’s “strategic” and alienable narratives.

To emphasize the argument about the ever more international character of Palestinian activism against Israeli occupation, an interesting example is the presence of “internationals” in protests against the Israeli “security barrier” (as the term goes in the Israeli security, official and media discourse), or the “separation wall” (according to those opposing it), and against the blockade imposed on Gaza since 2007. This experience relates to Koopman’s and other feminist views on “international accompaniment” as a “protective” engagement, which “puts bodies that are less at risk next to bodies that are under threat” (Koopman, 2011:278). According to Koopman, international accompaniment as “solidarity activism” is based on a paradox: the recognition of the fact that the internationals’ lives “count more (because of their passport/economic/racial privilege, which are hard to untangle), to build a world where everyone’s lives count” (Ibid: 280). It is a form of “protecting”, even if unarmed, “the bodies of those struggling to build peace and justice in the midst of conflict” (Ibid: 278).

In 2013, I participated in a protest in Bil’in, a village in the West Bank struggling against the Israeli separation wall built in its lands, mobilized through regional “committees of popular resistance”, working with non-violent methods. The locals and the internationals, many bringing their countries’ flags, shout slogans while soldiers guard the wall every Friday afternoon, and the soldiers respond with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and other repressive measures, sometimes approaching the demonstrators to beat or arrest them, depending on the overall context. After that, besides other kinds of activities, I participated in another protest, in 2015, in Silwad, a village geographically near the Palestinian administrative centre, Ramallah, but at the same time extremely distant in security and other conditions. There, youngsters also take to the streets every Friday, which often results in confrontation with Israeli soldiers, who seem to consider Silwad a centre of insurgency to be suffocated. But arrests, tear gas covering the entire village and death are part of the everyday.[4]

I have asked friends from Palestine their takes on “international accompaniment”. For Abdallah Abu Rahma, who coordinates the popular resistance committee in Bil’in and was arrested many times, when internationals participate in protests “the soldiers’ violence is lessened”. Also, the internationals “show the reality [abroad], they encourage other people to visit Palestine [and] strengthen campaigns such as BDS, organizing actions in their countries in support of Palestine”.[5] Protests are a persistent and resistant habit of stating opposition to Israeli occupation, which in Bil’in is represented by the huge wall and an Israeli settlement behind it and violent repression. Abdallah’s relative, Bassem Abu Rahma, was killed in 2009 during a demonstration, hit by a tear gas cannister in the chest. Bassem’s sister, Jawaher, died afterwards, from excess of gas inhalation. Haitham Katib, a local photographer who participates in the protests, said:

International activists are important to us because they are our eyes in the outside world. Without their presence, violence will only increase. The soldiers may think twice before they actually shoot, because they know this would be brought out. So yes, 200% sure, we need them with us. [6]

Muna Namura, in the Secretary-General of the General Union of Palestinian Women, also said that international involvement can “protect Palestinians to a great extent from being subjected to so much violence”. She continues: “we are grateful for people coming to Palestine to be with us, hand-in-hand, [because] we Palestinians are part of the world and humanity, and we need to act on that base. Our land is stolen, our kids are tortured, and our houses demolished,” and foreigners have to be there to “understand” it.[7]

International repression and counterinsurgency

In this sense, an addition to the reviewed essays could be Mandy Turner’s take on the “Western and donor-led” peacebuilding as the “toolbox” containing statebuilding, security sector reform, democracy promotion, private sector economic promotion and civil society support, which she ties to counter-insurgency (Turner, 2015: 122). Therefore, “peacebuilding as counterinsurgency operates as another layer of pacification techniques that have complemented and meshed with the structures of domination and repression created by Israel”, aiming at “securing the population and ensuring acquiescence in the face of violent dispossession” (Ibid: 125). Insurgency and resistance are regarded as threats and as de-stabilizing activities in the context of peacebuilding. So, not only Palestinian resistance is ever more international, as this essay argues, but also are its counter-insurgency techniques, permeated with a myriad of foreign actors, financial institutions, donors, NGOs and, of course, the Israeli occupation.

In a “spatialized” perspective of threat, much has to be evaluated in the Palestinian-Israeli case. A very direct example is the Israeli “security concerns”, an ever-present narrative of Israeli relationship with Palestinians even in the mouths of international donors and mediators. This includes the classification of the Gaza Strip as “hostile territory” since Hamas assumed power, in 2007. In an area of 365 square kilometres, 1.8 million people are packed together in one of the most densely inhabited places on Earth. Classifying Hamas as a “terrorist organization”, striping it from political legitimacy, the Israeli narrative has then turned to de-legitimize the entire Strip and its inhabitants. This is not a policy invented by Israel, but it is deeply telling of the rationale behind actions that UN documents and human rights international organizations have already recognized as collective punishment, aiming against what may be termed resistance. Between the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, or the Palestinian occupied territories, “Israel’s aims of creating and expanding its state, and securing dominance over historic Palestine, creates a structural imperative of control and displacement – but carefully refracted through the discourse of ‘security’” (Turner, 2015:126).

For that purpose, Palestinians, either mobilized in resistance or social movements, throwing rockets or rocks, taking part in demonstrations, are constantly regarded by Israeli official discourse as threats that justify the occupation as “security measure”, to contain those whose acquiescence has not been consolidated, or who remain excluded from the “peace process”. In that sense, proliferating works on the critical analysis and deconstruction of discourses are also “terrains of resistance” advancing counter-hegemonic narratives against the quest for sustaining “stability”, or the status quo (Shehadeh, 2015).

Conclusion

This review essay addressed Koopman, Sparke and Routledge articles on their views of the need for critical geopolitics to engage in resistance and social movements, not only in their analysis but also practically. Resistances are happening in a web of power relations and in levels other than those focused upon by traditional, hegemonic geopolitics, which are concerned with “Big Men” doing “Big Politics”. Alter-geopolitics, feminist geopolitics, the focus on local agencies, and so on, converge on “terrains of resistance” that combine extremely varied forms and expressions in contestation, building and bringing alternative knowledges to counter hegemonic world-views and practices. In that effort, as emphasized by all three authors, “[r]ather than the indignity of speaking for others”, those doing critical geopolitics should attend to the politics of articulation, engaging in networks exchanging ideas (Koopman, 2011:282). Routledge and Koopman explicitly call on academics to work as critical collaborators with social movements (Ibid), while Spark states that “critical geographers have sought to complicate conceptions of place-based resistance through solidaristic research that also attends to wider webs of relations” (Sparke, 2008:9).

Attending to those calls, I added Turner’s and Palestinians’ views on the counter-insurgencies happening in Palestine to, in the first place, grasp what are Palestinians resisting to, and how are they doing it. Their articulation with international activists, official institutions and actors, as well as their expressions actively projected to the outside world, compose a very rich landscape of insurgency, sowing the “terrains of resistance”, sometimes literally, with different forms of contestation. And they clearly count, ever more, on international solidarity and direct engagement, through visits, accompaniment, reporting the non-Israeli (the hegemonic) narrative, campaigning and lobbying, on local-to-local and local-to-institutional levels, in a transnational network.


 

Footnotes

  1. For arguments on why Israel is maintaining occupation over Palestinian territories, which Israeli officials deny, especially regarding Gaza, see: Hajjar, Lisa (14 July 2014) “Is Gaza Still Occupied and Why Does it Matter?” Jadaliyya, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/8807/is-gaza-still-occupied-and-why-does-it-matter [8 December 2015]
  2. See the “Olive Tree Campaign”, for instance, launched in 2002 by the Joint Advocacy Initiative in East Jerusalem, here: http://www.jai-pal.org/en/campaigns/olive-tree-campaign
  3. Personal communication, already published in Portuguese with Nour’s consent, 31 July 2014.
  4. For a recent example of the kind of counter-insurgency ocurring in Silwad, see a recent note by the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: http://www.mofa.pna.ps/en/2015/12/07/israeli-soldiers-shoot-palestinian-in-silwad-northeast-of-ramallah/ [9 December 2015]
  5. Personal communication, reproduced with Abdallah’s consent, 8 December 2015.
  6. Personal communication, reproduced with Haitham’s consent, 8 December 2015.
  7. Personal communication, reproduced with Muna’s consent, 10 December 2015.

    References

    Koopman, Sara (2011) “Alter-geopolitics: Other securities are happening” Geoforum 42, 274-284.

    Routledge, Paul (1996) “Critical geopolitics and terrains of resistance” Political Geography 15(6/7), 509-531.

    Said, Edward (1992) A Questão da Palestina. São Paulo: Editora Unesp.
     
    __ (2001) The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After. New York: Vintage Books.

    Shehadeh, Raja (2015) Language of War, Language of Peace: Palestine, Israel and the Search for Justice.London: Profile Books. 

    Sparke, Matthew (2008) “Political geographies of globalization III: resistance” Progress in Human Geography 32(3), 423-440.

    Turner, Mandy (2015) “Securing and stabilizing: Peacebuilding as counterinsurgency in the occupied Palestinian territory” in Turner, Mandy; Kühn, Florian P. (eds.) The Politics of International Intervention: The Tyranny of Peace. London and New York: Routledge, 121-141.

*At TransConflict this article is under the title Terrains of resistance: from occupation, exile or containment to the world.

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