The recent hunger strikes of almost 1,600 Palestinian prisoners represent a watershed juncture in nonviolent resistance in Palestine. While Palestinians have long utilized methods of nonviolence—dating back to Mandatory Palestine of the thirties and epitomized by the First Intifada of the eighties—only recently has a truly international effort appeared. In the midst of the Arab uprisings, the international attention on the region provides a moment of focus for civil resistance, and the nascent coalition of actors utilizing these methods is growing. While the groups have different agendas and tactics, their notable successes in recent months show that, regardless of divisions among them, strategic nonviolence is gaining powerful momentum in Palestine.
The present international activity has been a long time coming. In 2001, the deeply controversial United Nations Durban conference convened to address Israeli repression of the Second Intifada. Though it failed to produce a formal resolution or offer recommendations, the NGO forum associated with the conference condemned “Israel as a racist, apartheid state” (Article 162), and spurred many to action. For Omar Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian activist, “Durban confirmed that grassroots support, even in the West, for the justness of the Palestinian cause was still robust.” Academic institutions, trade unions, and religious organizations began to use targeted boycotts and sanctions against Israel. In 2004, the US Presbyterian Church voted for “a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations doing business in Israel.” The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) formed in April and issued a statement calling for the international community to boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions. Later that year, on July 9, an International Court of Justice advisory opinion deemed Israel’s construction of the separation wall and its West Bank settlements illegal.
Protests and horizontal organization, such as the ongoing weekly protests in the West Bank city of Bil’in against the separation wall, have been an important component of the largely nebulous movement. But the hunger strikes of recent weeks have uniquely captured the attention of the international media. Beginning with Khader Adnan’s now-famous 66-day fast, the coordinated hunger strikes of approximately 1,600 detainees called unprecedented attention to the Israeli practice of “administrative detention,” which allows Israeli Forces to arrest Palestinians for up to six months without charge or trial, often longer if detention is renewed. It eventually led to a May 13 agreement brokered by Egypt that gave prisoners the right to have Gazan family members visit them and released 20 detainees from solitary confinement back into the general prison population. The agreement also mandated that renewing administrative detentions require evidence presented to a military court, but Palestinian prisoners have accused Israel of not following through with this stipulation. With implementation ostensibly uncertain, Palestinian prisoners are now threatening to renew hunger strikes if the provisions of the initial deal are not met.
The Arab uprisings have galvanized a renewed sense among Palestinians that people power can be an efficacious mechanism to redress long-held grievances. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan have noted elsewhere that the use of nonviolence provides a higher probability of success in resistance campaigns—nearly twice the rate of violent counterparts. With that in mind, the surge in people power over the past few months signals a significant shift—and may yet lead to a breakthrough for the rights of those under occupation, in the diaspora, and in Israel.
Adam Gallagher, the Program Administrator for the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Program, is a PhD student at George Mason University and a contributor to Tropics of Meta.