The weekly peaceful protests in the small village of Nabi Salih, northwest of Ramallah, against the confiscation of the village’s lands by settlers from the Halamish settlement had been largely unknown until Ahed Tamimi, one of its participants, was arrested on December 19 after a video of her assaulting an Israeli soldier had gone viral. Tamimi has been imprisoned and, since February 13, is facing trial in an Israeli military court. In search of an emotionally powerful symbol to rally supporters, activists and movements such as the weekly protests of Nabi Salih are eager to promote Tamimi and youth like her as inspirational figures who could potentially galvanize people and draw international attention to the village’s protests and become part of a new face of what Palestinians refer to as the “popular resistance.” However, the absence of elite encouragement of such nonviolent protests dooms this model of resistance to remain on the margins.
The major political factions, including Fatah and Hamas, support popular resistance in principle, at least according to the various reconciliation agreements they have signed over the years. Nonetheless, neither group developed a strategy that actively pursues it. Whether in Gaza or in the West Bank, Hamas still prioritizes armed resistance and is trying to rebuild its forces. Many residents of Gaza, which has been under siege since Hamas took control of the strip in 2007, no longer see popular resistance as an option. And in the West Bank, Hamas doubts that popular resistance can stop the expansion of the Israeli settlements or respond to settler attacks on Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Fatah is hampered by the institutional overlap between the movement and the official bodies of the Palestinian Authority (PA), especially its security forces, which have an interest in containing all activism, violent and nonviolent. President Mahmoud Abbas did greet the family of Ahed Tamimi after her arrest, describing nonviolent popular resistance as “a powerful weapon in the Palestinian people’s hands exposing the falsity of the occupation, showing the whole world the brutality of this occupation.” Nonetheless, Abbas has not harnessed the power of this new generation of activists to launch protests across the West Bank. This reflects Fatah’s ambiguous position and fear that the protests might flare up into a full-blown intifada that could turn against the movement, which many Palestinians see as part of an old and ineffective, even corrupt, structure.
While the first intifada reinvigorated the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was left as the only remaining organization able to govern in Palestine, the more militant second intifada severely weakened the PA’s organizations after Israel destroyed the majority of the PA’s institutions when it invaded the West Bank. This explains the subdued response of vested political actors. Abbas worries a new wave of popular resistance could again weaken the already fragile PA, leading to his loss of control over the Fatah movement and the creation of local community leaders to rival it in the West Bank.
Furthermore, even though the Palestinian Central Council, the highest legislative body for the PLO, had decided in 2015 to end all security cooperation with Israel, Abbas still maintains this arrangement and is thus obligated to stifle any popular protests in the West Bank. The PA fears that peaceful protests could be hijacked by other, violent groups or turn violent on their own, which would make Israel and the United States hold the PA accountable. With passions inflamed by recent violent attacks, such as one in January in which Hamas’s Ezzeddine al-Qassam Brigades killed a rabbi in Nablus, the PA fears that the peaceful protests could spiral out of control into a new armed uprising similar to the second intifada. Abbas is therefore willing to discourage protests even if that weakens his support by heightening the already popular belief among Palestinians that the PA is even willing to provide Israel information to carry out assassinations.
As a result, the budding resistance and peaceful protests that Tamimi represents do not enjoy broad support among Palestinians, even more so after the contentious U.S. recognition of Jerusalem essentially ended the prospects for peace process. In an opinion poll conducted in December, 44 percent of Palestinians supported the resumption of militant operations as “the most effective means of establishing a Palestinian state,” compared to 35 percent in a poll that was conducted three months earlier. By comparison, 27 percent preferred negotiations and only 23 percent favored peaceful popular resistance.
Lacking broader grassroots support, these nonviolent protests have been largely limited to areas affected by the separation wall or settlements and have failed to develop a practical, integrated plan. Accusations by some Palestinians that these are run by outsiders and with foreign funding have led many to view the protests with suspicion, especially when they are joined by Israeli activists—some of whom have previously served in Israeli security services. The small scale of the popular resistance movement makes its leaders unable to bring Palestinians together, let alone draw international attention back to the long-standing issue.
This form of activism seems doomed to remain on the margins. Without the backing of Palestinian political elites, nonviolent popular resistance is unlikely to gain broad public support. And since the peace process is at a standstill, it is no wonder that a plurality of Palestinians sees armed resistance as the best option.
This article was translated from Arabic.
Mahmoud Jaraba is a postdoctoral research fellow at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. Follow him on Twitter @MahmoudJaraba.