Palestinian composer and pianist Faraj Suleiman’s song “Questions on My Mind” describes a reality for Palestinians that includes daily struggles, neighborhood brawls, and gritty realities of dealers, collaborators, and jail time—quite different from the reality with which diplomats have been dealing. If there is one lesson for diplomacy from the past month’s events, it is to take such depictions as seriously as his audiences do.

The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas occurred exactly as expected, ruining lives but leaving the region’s politics unchanged. But for all the gruesome familiarity of what unfolded last month, something very dramatic occurred that may eventually have more profound consequences: the recent wave of Palestinian protests, which could be a harbinger of fundamental transformations in the Palestinian national movement.

What emerges from a still unsettled picture is a renewed sense of unity among Palestinians across divided geographies and the activation of dormant ties with the diaspora. Israel’s planned expulsion of thirteen Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem and police violence against worshippers at both the Al-Aqsa mosque and Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate on May 10, 2021, sparked a series of daily protests and sit-ins throughout the city. Then, violent repression of Jerusalem’s demonstrations spurred a broader protest movement in the West Bank, Israel, and neighboring Jordan in a spectacular show of unity. Thousands of Palestinians in the so-called mixed cities of Lydd, Ramla, Nazareth, Yafa, and the Naqab, among others, took to the streets asserting their Palestinian identity and solidarity with Jerusalem. The protests culminated in a large-scale general strike on May 18 that Palestinians all across historical Palestine observed. The Karameh (Dignity) Strike paralyzed several sectors of the Israeli economy and resulted in millions of dollars in economic losses.

Samer Anabtawi
Samer Anabtawi is a PhD candidate at the George Washington University studying comparative politics and social movements.

Was This Really a Surprise?

The ideas embodied by the new nationalist wave—the insistence on rights, the goal of ending apartheid,1 the contempt for the existing Palestinian leadership, the celebration of unity, the generational shift toward youth movements, the irrelevance of existing diplomacy, and the disengagement from the two-state framework (and from the stress on statehood generally)—have been staples of Palestinian discussions for many years, though many observers were not listening.

What was surprising, if not totally unprecedented, was Palestinians’ willingness to mobilize behind these ideas in such large numbers. Palestinian protests in Israel—and the display of Palestinian flags—are often met with swift repression from Israeli security forces. In a previous wave of popular protests across Israel at the time of the second intifada in 2000, thirteen Palestinians were shot dead and more than 660 were arrested. In 2018, the Likud party sponsored a bill that would ban Palestinian flags at demonstrations. Some Arab parties and candidates are routinely banned from running in elections, and political activists report facing arrests and questioning in a clear attempt to suppress signs of Palestinian nationalism among what the state labels “Israel’s Arab citizens”—further categorizing them as bedouin, Muslim, Christian, or Druze.

The shift also caught observers by surprise because recent attention had centered on electoral politics on both sides of the Green Line (which divides Israel’s pre-1967 borders from the West Bank and Gaza). On one side, Palestinian President and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas canceled the parliamentary and presidential elections that his party was predicted to lose. On the other side, Mansour Abbas, a Knesset member and the leader of an Israeli political party, the United Arab List, appeared poised to throw his weight behind an Israeli government coalition led by right-wing nationalist parties—which materialized in early June.

Nathan J. Brown
Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.

For Palestinians, these political leaders—and electoral dynamics—suddenly seemed irrelevant as examples of popular mobilization from history became far more germane. The general strike of April 1936 (a six-month strike against the British Mandate) suddenly became a model to embrace. Several episodes of decentralized nationwide demonstrations on either side of the Green Line were more recent dress rehearsals. Notable examples are the protests against the 2008–2009 Israeli onslaught in Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead. These protests were followed by another series of protests in 2013 and a so-called day of rage against the Prawer Plan, an Israeli Knesset proposal aimed at ethnic engineering in the Naqab region; a round of protests against Operation Cast Lead in 2014; and the Great March of Return protests that began in Gaza in 2018 and spread across the West Bank and Palestinian-majority communities inside Israel.

Yet the current upsurge in joint actions moves beyond these earlier waves in ways that suggest far deeper trends at work. First, it dramatically reversed divisions among various segments of Palestinian society that had been deepening, well beyond the chasm between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah had splintered ahead of the elections that had been scheduled for May 2021, and then prospects for knitting Gaza and the West Bank back together evaporated when balloting was canceled. In Israel, the United Arab List split from the Joint List.

Second, political participation inside the Green Line was far broader than in any prior round of protests—both in terms of the number of communities that got involved as well as the diversity in their socioeconomic and ideological orientations. The escalation from the state and the police, targeted at Palestinians in mixed cities, played a major role broadening participation. Internationally, Israeli officials portrayed their police actions as separating feuding populations, each capable of violence. But the differential tools used against Palestinians (both Israeli citizens and noncitizens) and Israeli Jews—demonstrated most clearly in vast disparities in arrests and felt on the ground by the way force has been deployed—made Israeli security bodies seem to Palestinians as participants rather than neutral referees. That realization combined with the immediate threat to ordinary citizens in their homes thrusted many Palestinians into action—including those from lower socioeconomic classes previously shut out by elites and partisan politics.

Third, new and powerful social media tools were used to spread even seemingly outdated symbols and language from the repertoire of the Palestinian national movement. Palestinian activists used social media platforms—namely TikTok, Instagram, and WhatsApp—to document, coordinate, and widely share calls to action. The content they circulated was strikingly similar to pamphlets distributed in secret by the Palestinian nationalist movement during the first intifada, both in design and message. Members of the Kurd family facing eviction in Sheikh Jarrah have streamed live videos on Instagram daily, calling on Palestinians to join their daily sit-in. Those calls were heard far beyond Palestine.

Fourth, the shift in media was accompanied by conscious changes in vocabulary and discourse carefully developed by youth activists. New terms may have been inaudible in diplomatic forums until now, but they have become notable in popular culture and social media. Indeed, social media provided the venue for Palestinian activists to insist on dropping “Oslo vocabulary” and refrain from calling Palestinians “Arab Israelis,” a label the state deliberately uses to erase Palestinian identity for those within Israel’s borders (because it would seem to deny their specifically Palestinian identity and links with Palestinian communities elsewhere). These same activists also have avoided calling the West Bank regions of Jenin and Tulkaram “Palestine’s northern governorates,” arguing that label should be given instead to the cities to their north (that have been part of Israel since 1948) because they are historically Palestinian and currently contain significant Palestinian populations—cities like Akka, Haifa, and others along the Sea of Galilee. Activists are widely reimagining their national movement and spreading its discourse beyond their own circles into wider usage.

Why Now?

If the various ingredients of Palestinian mobilization—new cultural expressions, disgust with the leadership, insistence on unity, and social media activism—were all emerging in plain view, what explains the sudden surge? One possible answer is that the events in Sheikh Jarrah were a microcosm of the varying struggles Palestinians face everywhere, regardless of geography or legal citizenship. In most areas under Israeli control—whether in the West Bank, Gaza, or pre-1967 Israel—Palestinians feel they are falling victim to marginalization and ethnic engineering, but in different ways, making each group conscious of only its own problems—until the attempted Israeli expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. The particular measures taken were in one sense unique to Jerusalem, where Palestinian ownership claims pre-1948 (the year the state of Israel was established) are regularly trumped by Israeli Jewish ones. But in a broader sense, the expulsions were a resoundingly familiar action of state-backed population engineering aimed at removing Palestinians and replacing them with Jewish Israelis. For all the variation in how and when the state implements this policy, the consensus within today’s growing pan-Palestinian movement is not to atomize the different Palestinian hardships that all stem from an entrenching apartheid regime that strikes with varying types of repression and legal codes.

But it was not merely emotional resonance that led to the snowballing Palestinian reactions. Israeli actions seem almost designed to fan sparks of outrage in previously disparate communities, allowing them to merge into a common flame.

Expulsions in Jerusalem are precisely the kind of rights-based issue that younger Palestinians have focused on, and the confrontations brought in a crowd of students and secular Palestinians from the middle class. Attacks on worshippers inside Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the violent attempt to clear Palestinians from Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate to make way for a march organized by the Jewish supremacist group Lehava, spread the sense of outrage into broader religious and national circles and began to draw in Palestinian citizens of Israel, especially those involved with the Islamist movement. And when right-wing mobs and settlers began storming Arab neighborhoods, entire communities were drawn together through WhatsApp groups and formed popular committees to protect their towns. Israeli media accounts stressed attacks on Jewish targets; for Palestinians, a community was building and finally willing to defend itself when confronted with organized assault.

A Spontaneous Moment of National Unity?

Thus, despite its sudden eruption, the upsurge in activism was long in coming. In fact, large- scale collective action in Israel’s Palestinian towns had begun earlier in February when tens of thousands marched in Umm al-Fahm to protest Israeli police inaction toward a gun violence crisis in the heavily Palestinian area of Galilee known as the Triangle, as well as other Palestinian towns. Those youth-led protests continued over the span of ten weeks. This time, police violence toward protesters inflamed rather than intimidated the demonstrators. Later protests grew larger, with more noticeable national displays.

And there are even deeper roots to the current wave of protest. In recent years, a gradual but clear shift has been taking place in political culture among Israel’s Palestinians, manifesting itself in two spheres: sites of art and cultural production as well as new forms of sociopolitical organizational structures outside of the traditional partisan framework.

These shifts were invisible only in the sense that most observers did not know to look for them. Hip hop music, for instance, has been trending since the creation of the band DAM in Lydd, and it quickly became a vehicle for constituting political identities and articulating ideas about resistance to colonialism and apartheid. Their songs also link Palestinian identity politics to feminist and LGBT+ struggles. More recent musical productions such as Faraj Suleiman’s new album Better Than Berlin speak directly to what it means to be a Palestinian in Israel, grappling with the ongoing settler-colonial project that seeks to displace Arab citizens from cities such as Haifa. The album paints a familiar Palestinian national story in new terms as a “hymn to gentrification.” By placing state suffocation of Palestinian life and second-class citizenship in terms of the city’s struggle with the “mighty beast,” it describes not military battles but urban transformation. The lyrics say, “Who put al-Souq in a mall? / Who evicted us from the houses / Divided them, then rented us studios smaller than coffins / Who came from Tel Aviv / I mean, who came from Poland? / Who built glass towers and destroyed our balcony?”

These new expressions of popular culture—including in cinema, music, and street art—have caught on very quickly, giving novel voice to old but mounting grievances and alienation and supporting new forms of identity and activism. They have subtly but profoundly altered discourse by shining a light on complaints about the state’s racism toward Arabs.

And these new cultural forms have built bridges across old divisions, including the Green Line. Evolving cultural expressions are tying Palestinian calls for liberation to global movements and have become a critical energizing element for social movements everywhere. The success and scale of recent protests are directly tied to an already growing social movement among Palestinians—one that draws on parallels elsewhere. It is not merely apartheid South Africa but the United States that has supplied language and themes. For example, a feminist Palestinian movement called Tal‘at recently called for a mass demonstration to coincide with a general strike, and they labeled it the “March of the Dignity Strike.” The group, initially formed in 2019 as an informal network uniting Palestinian women, turned its focus to police brutality last year following the killings of George Floyd in the United States and Eyad Hallaq in Jerusalem. They mobilized thousands in the West Bank and Israel with the aim to draw parallels between the Palestinian struggle for liberation and the globally resonant movement Black Lives Matter.

The recent mobilization is giving birth and new breath to small but growing informal structures within the 1948 borders that are likely to become stronger. In recent weeks, so-called popular committees emerged in Arab townships to provide protection from right-wing Jewish mobs alongside legal committees for the defense of political prisoners. 

What Happens to the Old Players?

Will established movements and leaders—those who built their structures over the past two generations—recover their roles?

During previous outbursts of political action, existing political parties and movements—what Palestinians call the “factions”—have struggled to emerge at the front of any spontaneous movement but generally have succeeded in doing so. In the first intifada (1987–1993), for instance, the factions stepped up their organizing in the West Bank and Gaza and managed to assert some local leadership; Hamas also emerged during this period. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah were then able to lead Palestinians into the Oslo process in 1992. In the second intifada (2000–2005), once again, factions rushed and even competed to lead the uprising in a manner that led to what Palestinians refer to (often critically) as the “militarization” of the uprising.

Smaller versions of the same pattern repeated themselves in 2011 when some youth activists sought to emulate Arab uprisings elsewhere before being dismissed by their elders and again in 2018 when a grassroots Great March of Return transformed into another military confrontation between Hamas and Israel. 

It was such rivalry and fecklessness—and the way that leadership has contained activism—that led Dana El Kurd to describe Palestinian politics over the last generation as “polarized and demobilized.” But the current wave of mobilization has changed things. In the short term, Hamas has emerged with more standing in Palestinian society, as the group clearly cannot be blamed for starting the conflict but was the main Palestinian faction to respond to Israeli actions in Jerusalem. The movement’s resilience and tactical adeptness ensure it will be a relevant actor. But it is still largely bottled up in a Gaza under a disastrous long-term siege; its lack of strategic vision and reputation for authoritarianism and opportunism might gradually undermine its temporarily enhanced status.

Fatah’s coherence, such as it was, shattered recently in the run up to parliamentary elections, contributing to a leadership decision to cancel them. Mahmoud Abbas, who also heads Fatah, has seemed irrelevant, internationally impotent, and capable only of monopolizing what little power is left in the Palestinian Authority. Thus the unmistakable tone of the demonstrations and the general strike was disgust with the old leadership and disdain for the factions.

Such feelings, though widespread, are not universal. There is no mistaking the reality that on the ground in both Gaza and the West Bank, there are youth activists still loyal to Hamas and Fatah, respectively. But both movements are weak in Jerusalem and absent in Israel. The global diaspora—a major base for Palestinian factions and leadership bodies before the Oslo Accords—is now dominated by other movements, many of which are loosely organized or networked and none of which are guided by the PLO or by existing Palestinian factions. And that will make it more difficult for the factions and the national and state-like structures (like the Palestinian Authority, the PLO, and the State of Palestine) to move to the front of the crowd as they have previously. 

Yet if there is one clear lesson from the Arab world over the past decade, it is that popular mobilization can put pressure on and even bring down old orders—but it is more difficult to build new ones. Past waves of mobilization, even the general strike of 1936, devolved into internally divisive struggles.

And that leaves the national movement in flux. The old structures have some staying power: organizational resilience on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza, control of limited governance bodies in those areas, formal international recognition, and clear leaderships. The newer ones have enthusiasm, grassroots activism, vitality, imagination, and international resonance, but it is not clear how they intend to build on their success. Do they attempt to complement, supplant, or enter older structures like the PLO? Or will they simply fade away in the face of cynicism, coordination problems, and repression by the Palestinian Authority and Israel?

Will This Movement Be Sustained?

It is too soon to know how long this movement will last. But if the answer will only unfold over time, it is possible now to point to factors to watch.

First, what will be the ability—or the strategies—of these newly forged coalitions to consolidate their ties and formalize the initiatives they pioneered (like the popular committees and legal defense volunteer corps)?

Second, how will these movements navigate repression attempts by the Israeli state? Such repression and retaliation is already underway. Hundreds of those who participated in the strike are being reportedly fired from their jobs, political activists and their families have been stripped of social and medical benefits, and the Israeli police launched a mass arrest campaign on May 24, which they referred to as Operation Law and Order. Two thousand arrests have been made since last month—91 percent of which are Palestinians. Rights activists in Israel described the arrest wave as “militarized war” against Palestinian citizens of Israel meant to prosecute demonstrators and send a chilling effect among Palestinian political activists and communities. Furthermore, on June 4, the Israeli cabinet approved a plan to up the presence of border police units in mixed cities.

So far, the heavy hand of the state has failed to slow down the momentum of national mobilization. Solidarity events in Sheikh Jarrah continue to attract participants from all over Palestine, and they have inspired similar events in other East Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Silwan. On June 4, a solidarity marathon in Jerusalem continued despite Israeli police firing stun grenades and injuring twenty-three runners. Similarly, the success of the general strike last month has inspired youth movements to harness the power of economic resistance by orchestrating a nationwide “Palestinian National Economy Week” slated to begin on June 6, with the aim of ridding Palestinian stores of Israeli products and encouraging Palestinian consumers to support Palestinian owned businesses and products.

Third, can more established players co-opt this movement? Organizers so far appear adamant in remaining a popular movement made up of individuals, syndicates, influential artists, student unions, cause-lawyers, grassroots organizations, and local initiatives. They are deliberating publicly about how to transform what they achieved into a sustainable form of collective action.

Fourth, if Israel continues its long-term electoral drift to the right and incitement against Palestinians intensifies, what will be the effect of even deeper polarization inside Israel? The outcome of such communal tension is unclear: while it may raise the costs of resistance, the rawness of the confrontations may motivate continued mobilization.

Two factors may assist those who wish to navigate these difficult waters. First, activists and organizers have learned from previous experiences (both their own and those of other global movements for social justice) and are likely to continue to learn and adapt. Second, their redefinition of the national movement as an intersectional one that erases political boundaries has been met with unprecedented resonance both domestically and internationally. The effect should not be undermined: it is likely to boost morale and energy and incentivize broader participation.

Palestinians—and especially younger leaders—can envision themselves as agents acting in an international spotlight to shape their own future rather than as supplicants waiting for international diplomacy to deliver what they are too weak to obtain themselves.

What Can Outsiders Do?

Suddenly it is outsiders, rather than Palestinians, who seem to be passive and uncertain. The old playbook—a return to two-state diplomacy—looks irrelevant. But outsiders can still contribute significantly by doing no harm to the movement for equality and rights. And that will require a new mindset on how to approach Palestinians.

The habit of international actors (chiefly but not exclusively the United States) to rush to designate acceptable interlocutors on the Palestinian side, conditions for engagement, favored personalities, and appropriate leaders—and to name others as pariahs, troublemakers, and terrorists—has hamstrung a half century or more of diplomacy. It is not that such policies are ineffectual; just the opposite. They place heavy thumbs on Palestinian political scales, provide perverse incentives for some leaders to play only to foreign audiences and others to grandstand domestically, and eviscerate the capability of Palestinians to develop organic leaderships.

International observers accustomed to probing the complexity of Israeli society and politics—and its multiple actors and orientations—have rarely complemented that sophistication with an interest in Palestinian society and politics. The result is that international actors are now flying blind, rich with tools of aid and communiques but clueless about how to use them or what their effects are.

In a recent column, the New York Times editorial board remarkably suggested that

The Biden administration should appoint an envoy to the Palestinian people, tasked with restoring relations with Palestinian officials and building ties with civil society groups and the new generation of leaders who have been shut out of power with the lack of elections. The portfolio should include Palestinian people, broadly speaking, including their vital ties to brethren in Israel and throughout the diaspora.

What is remarkable is not the suggestion of an envoy to the Palestinians itself; that step seems like common sense. The striking element is that this suggestion—which would seem to be the very basis of diplomatic engagement throughout the world—appears fresh and ingenious in a Palestinian context. Over the past month, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has treated the conflict as if it were a crisis—and for good reason, since there was active violence. But the real questions facing Israelis, Palestinians—and diplomats, leaders, and publics invested in the issues—are long term in nature. A first step to addressing those issues is developing a far more deeply rooted understanding of the deep social changes at work—the very ones that made their presence so sharply felt in recent weeks.

Notes

1 The term “apartheid” is not controversial among Palestinians, but it does, of course, draw objections from many Israelis. Internationally, the term has legal implications and is increasingly invoked by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem. It has also passed into Israeli political discussions. One of us (Nathan Brown) has written a political analysis exploring the analytical utility of the term.