The Arab Uprising Hasn't Suddenly Arrived In Palestine -- It's Always Been Here
Demonstrations marking the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba – the anniversary of Palestinians' displacement in 1948 – were held throughout the West Bank, Gaza and inside Israel this week. The focal point of West Bank Nakba day demonstrations was the Qalandia checkpoint. During the second Palestinian intifada, the checkpoint was a flashpoint for riots between Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers.
"Our movement is an outgrowth of the unarmed protest movement throughout the West Bank,” Ramallah-based youth organizer Fadi Quran told me as Palestinian demonstrators gathered on the outskirts of his city to mark Nakba day. Quran has become the face of a movement of urban Palestinians revolutionizing the face of Palestinian resistance in the wake of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. As we spoke, Palestinians from all political affiliations gathered outside of the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
Certainly, the demonstration on Sunday conjured images of the intifada; stone-throwing Palestinian youth in front of burning tires at the edge of a refugee camp battling fully armed Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets at protesters. However, it was not the start of a third intifada as some pundits speculated in the days prior to the demonstrations. Sunday was the start of something different; an unarmed movement endowed with deep insight into Israel's heavy handed response to Palestinian resistance and connected to the world using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Faced with boiling discontent in the West Bank, Israel moved quickly and violently against demonstrations in Qalandia as well as similar ones held in East Jerusalem, Hebron and the village of Al Walaja just outside of Jerusalem. Israel was caught off guard on its northern borders with Syria and Lebanon as Palestinians breached fences and entered the Occupied Golan Heights. As night fell, 13 Palestinian demonstrators had been killed and hundreds more had been injured in clashes. Military officials quickly filled the Israeli news cycle explaining the difficult challenges that mass unarmed protest created for the world's fourth most powerful army.
Hundreds of Palestinians from all political factions marched in Qalandia on Nakba day under the national Palestinian flag with the goal of reaching Jerusalem. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers quickly engulfed the demonstration in clouds of tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets. Despite the heavy handed crowd control measures, demonstrators quickly regrouped and continued to walk to Jerusalem. This routine continued for roughly seven hours.
“I have not seen this type of tear gas used by the Israelis,” Dr. Sami Dar Nakhla, director of the triage center, told me in the midst of the clashes. “People are having seizures from the tear gas and there are many cases of unconsciousness. It is as bad as the Second Intifada.” Nakhla told me he had handled at least 20 medium to serious injuries from rubber-coated steel bullets fired by soldiers at demonstrators, including one gunshot wound to the face. The Israel Defense Forces spokesman reported a handful of light injuries in the course of the clashes.
As the afternoon wore on, Palestinian youth attacked soldiers with stones, and purportedly a number of Molotov cocktails. There was even a futile attempt to upend a portion of the eight-meter-high concrete wall that constitutes the Qalandia separation barrier. This provoked a heavy handed reaction from the army as undercover Israeli police officers dressed as Palestinian protesters aggressively attacked the demonstration, arresting five minors in front of international press photographers.
“Palestinians understand that we have a chance to create new awareness of the dimensions of Israel's occupation in September [with the UN statehood recognition vote],” Leana Tamimi, a Ramallah-based youth organizer told me. “What you are seeing here in Qalandia and all over the West Bank is a demonstration of our unity ahead of the vote.”
The Nakba day demonstration at Qalandia was a small but crucial step forward for the new form of unarmed Palestinian resistance led by the March 15 movement. Full of harsh criticism for Palestinian leadership and struggling to breathe under an increasingly brutal military occupation, young urban Palestinians are confronting the systemic challenges to Palestinian existence in the Occupied Territories. Inspired by other Middle Eastern revolutions, the March 15 movement is abandoning armed struggle in favor of a model of resistance characterized by non-compliance with Israeli occupation, Palestinian unity and international isolation of Israel through boycott campaigns.
Many in the international press are claiming the Nakba day protests show that the Arab spring has arrived in Palestine. In Qalandia, this statement was not true. It was Palestinians who organized mass unarmed resistance against Israeli occupation in the late 1980s. It was Palestinians who organized civilian demonstrations in Ramallah and Hebron during the first months of the Second Intifada despite harsh military repression in the form of over one million bullets fired by the Israeli army. It is in villages like Bil'in, Budrus and Nabi Saleh that Palestinians have continued this spirit of unarmed resistance every week for the past eight years despite continued Israeli attacks. The Arab spring has not arrived in Palestine; it has always been here.