A genuine will to have an understanding on what is going on with popular committees in Palestine naturally arose from observing the many challenges posed by the Occupation, and witnessing a not infrequent discontinuation of activities organized in the Bethlehem governorate, notably in Beit Jala and Al-Walajah. The need to shed a light on popular committees in the area was reinforced after realising that local media would not really expose what is not seen happening or what is all of a sudden paralysed.
Popular committees across the Occupied Territories present a unique form of community-based resistance. The grassroots struggle offers the most significant alternative to ongoing violence, and has the intrinsic potential for a civic transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
From the villages of Bil’in, Ni’ilin to al-Ma’asara, through the many villages of the Jordan Valley and elsewhere, Palestinians all resist the various aspects of the Occupation through an essentially non-violent people’s mobilization. According to a policy paper by the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, published last September 2010, between a thousand to two thousand people are mobilized every week, around villages organizing different actions against settlement expansion and the Wall.
Despite being familiar with the overall functioning of popular committees, along with the regular activities and weekly non-violent actions, something I didn’t know much about until recently is what doesn’t make the committees work effectively or even stops them from working. The related problem seemed to be, outside small activist circles, the general lack of an open discussion over what obstacles are encountered by popular committees and how to deal with them.
What called my attention more was seeing reports of non-violent demonstrations -held in the four-five most active villages- released every Friday, whilst at no time any local news agency, that I am aware of, was ‘speaking’ about the same actions or other activities not taking place in other locations. Not one line written on how the people of Al-Walajah were coping before the Court ruling on the Wall construction works last September; why the weekly protests in Beit Jala suddenly stopped earlier in July; or how did villagers from Wad Rahal respond to a silence from the Israeli Court, since last September, when they expected a decision to be made over a switch of status from area C to B? While it is fair to report regular events or weekly actions taking place, it appears to be equally important to uncover what is not happening.
This question led me to meet two representatives of the popular resistance committees of Beit Jala and Al-Walajah, respectively. The views presented in the next two sections are those expressed by the interviewees.
Elie Shehadeh is a representative of the ‘not currently existing’ Popular Committee of Beit Jala.
Shehadeh started by giving an overview of the current scenario, ahead of a de facto fiasco following the Oslo agreement, with no formation of Palestinian state in place yet, a transformed Palestinian political scenario since after the 1st Intifada, the building of the Wall, the non-stop expansion of settlements, the intensified colonization in the West Bank, especially in Jerusalem, and an intractable government of extreme right in Israel that is not interested in peace.
The popular resistance in the West Bank has been largely supported by Dr Mustafa Barghouti’s party Al Mubadara in the recent years, but Fatah has played the major mobilizing role behind the Palestinian population. Although Fatah endorsed some the most strategic resistance plans, along with a large participation from party-affiliated ministers and officials, this has not been really reflected on the ground. Furthermore, the coordination between all political forces concerning popular resistance has never been effective.
Despite the various initiatives aimed to unite popular resistance efforts, the Palestinian Authority has proved to not be serious about it. While it is clear -since Abu Mazen came to power- that the broad strategy embraced by the PA is to have peace negotiations with Israel, no steps have been taken popularly to translate this ‘peaceful path’ on the ground. For example, the PA itself could have called for peaceful demonstrations against the Wall or supported Palestinians in organizing marches into Jerusalem, which is part of the 67 territories occupied by Israel after all. Not a single effort has been made in encouraging people to act in that direction. So how can the Palestinian people ask for peace and independence without taking some concrete steps?
The Popular Committee of Beit Jala was made up of different political parties and independent people, but predominantly led by Al Mubadara and Fatah. The PFLP was supportive of the committee’s actions but their involvement was not regular or sufficiently strong to mobilize people. Many young people joined and participated in the events planned by the committee, however there were no more than ten core active members.
There was a very close synergy between some Fatah members who believed that non-violent protests would give results but they were faced by many problems at that time. Demonstrations used to go from zone A to C, but then the Palestinian Authority demanded weekly actions to be staged only in zone C and after that things turned difficult in many ways. One issue concerned the stone hurling on soldiers which was a strategic mistake from those organizing the protests. The Popular Committee had a vision that women, children, and men could all participate, but if people throw stones Israeli forces will shoot back with tear gas and bullets. So it becomes hard to ensure a wide popular participation in non-violent protests, particularly when there are elders, women or children involved.
Nevertheless, the stone throwing was not the main issue with regard to weekly protests in Beit Jala. There was pressure from PA security officers who in turn coordinated, and heavily coordinate today, with Israeli forces. This didn’t mean there were no people prepared to resist non-violently and expose the Israeli occupation policies, but popular actions were to a large extent limited or obstructed as a result of the close Palestinian-Israeli security coordination.
Also, members of Fatah in the Popular Committee of Beit Jala came under further pressure for going beyond the political expectations of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Most of the times, the pressure would be exercised more on the actual supporters or people affiliated to the same party. Even though Al Mubadara and Fatah adopted many decisions to support the popular resistance movement, what the committee experienced was often ‘hijacking’ rather than real support or participation. In particular, some PA officials participated in and financed demonstrations in order to hijack them because there were new leaders emerging, with different political views, that they wanted to pressure.
Therefore, two main reasons made the non-violent demonstrations stop in July, last year. First, there was no unity or coordination between the parties to encourage such a movement. Even though some supporters were behind the committee, they did not participate in the weekly events. The other aspect was the pressure from the PA security forces to call off such demonstrations due to the Israeli/Palestinian security coordination undermining popular resistance activities. Pressure was put directly and indirectly on the organizers of demonstrations. Moreover, it was felt that even local politicians did not want to support such initiatives. At the same time, political leaders did not create an alternative and were happy with the ‘status quo’, which is the same attitude found today among most people in the area, and that will not lead to peace or enable the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In addition, the committee’s activities would typically involve long hours of preparation for actions, running weekly actions, any facing any matters connected with non-violent protests such as some activists injured, other protesters detained, others required to pay fines to Israelis after being arrested. Many international peace activists, most of them Israelis, used to be rounded up during demonstrations.
Given the demanding conditions, it is inevitably hard to continue acting as a resistance movement for a long time unless there is a large supportive community basis in place. So the Popular Committee of Beit Jala tried to recruit more people on many occasions in the belief that any effective popular resistance work would have to be long-term. The committee regrettably failed in gathering people around to commit, share and continue what the most active members had initiated. It was also realized that people could not be expected to participate in actions every week. Palestinians also have their own jobs, daily lives, economic difficulties, and families to look after, so those who could commit to popular resistance on a regular basis were only few.
One crucial issue concerning the lack of commitment or reluctance to joining any popular committee in the area is that a significant part of the population, especially in the Bethlehem district, have work inside Israel. A number of Palestinian workers consequently depend on the issuing of permits by Israeli authorities. It is not hard to imagine that many of these workers would refrain from participating in popular resistance in order to not lose their permits. Nobody would secure their jobs or support them economically. So a large population in Bethlehem enjoy permits to enter Israel for work or leisure, and want to keep such privilege.
On the other hand, there are also people who, for example, don’t take part to non-violent protests because they don’t know much about the Wall since they don’t have direct contact with it. This is the case of those who work or live in the city centres, and don’t travel a lot, so they are not concerned about what happens in the suburbs of the cities or in the villages, in the proximity of the Wall.
That said, something important that was not really explained by local political leaders is how much people can do on the ground without participating directly. Through popular resistance people can make decisions without getting into politics. Boycotting Israeli or settlement products, for example, gives people the chance to be part of the popular resistance movement without having to talk about politics as long as they don’t choose to.
This is an opportunity that people could have used to express their political will without needing to voice it publicly. There was a big moment at the time when the PA had endorsed the decision to boycott settlement products, and there were some good results coming from the campaign, but these results were not reflected on the political level.
Moreover, if people find enough courage in boycotting settlement products, the next step they need to make is to boycott Israeli products and replace them with Palestinian products, if they really want to make pressure on Israel, no matter how high the price to pay will be for such decisions. When members of the Popular Committee of Beit Jala approached people about boycotting Israeli products, at that time the PA had adopted the campaign to boycott settlement products only. This lowered the expectations of results that could be achieved and made it difficult for the committee to discuss at a grassroots level about the boycott on Israeli products. So people responded by conforming to what the Palestinian Authority asked to do.
Currently, the Popular Committee of Beit Jala is not functioning either for non-violent protests or other activities. What was done until the committee was still operative gave at least a good indication to some people of the things that can be achieved on the ground, regardless of the end result. Also, the involvement of many Palestinian youth helped in breaking the cycle of thinking they cannot confront the Occupation since those from the new generation, for example, have never faced Israeli soldiers directly. That left an example to young potential leaders who may continue, in future, popular resistance and take over the older representatives within the committee.
Without the initiative of the ex-leaders it cannot be hoped that the the Popular Committee of Beit Jala will revive. But for the ex-leaders to take initiative, there has to be first of all an honest and solid support from the local political decision-makers. Secondly, this support should be psychological and political support as well. Nevertheless, the people of Beit Jala have not reached that maturity for such a movement for the time being. They don’t show initiative nor they are culturally prepared to lead or take part to the popular resistance struggle again. And with a small number of active members in the committee, it would not be easy to change things solidly in the current context.
Salin Hilmi, also known as Abu Ahmad, is the leader of the village council of Al Walajah. He was elected head of the local council in October 2005.
Hilmi first presented what is essentially the work done in the village council whose key function is to facilitate services for the population in Al Walajah including electricity, water, garbage collection, roads, and other types of services which the council is not directly responsible for. So the council would not provide public services but rather facilitate between the villagers and whoever is in charge for supplying such services. The work in the local council is volunteer-run so the nine members, including the head of the council himself, spare part of their free time alongside their jobs.
The Popular Committee of Al Walajah has a quite varied makeup which makes it different from other committees. It is an open committee, not limited to a certain number or type of people, where anyone who is capable, and wants to contribute in their own way, can join. The members of the committee are residents of Al Walajah and with few exceptions most of them are not affiliated with any political parties. The committee does not receive any financial support from the Palestinian Authority nor from other parties or institutions, so it is self-sustained.
The main reason for joining this popular resistance committee is it offers the only possible way left to fight against the Israeli occupation policies and practices, since people are left with no other options. People do not act but mostly react, in fact popular resistance committees were originally set up in reaction to assaults or violations committed under the Israeli occupation. So popular committees are not a strategic choice for the Palestinian resistance but rather a reaction to what happens on the ground. The strategic choice of these committees is the reaction is non-violent. Likewise, members of the Popular Committee of Al Walajah do not use violent means nor they will ever include violence in their reactions. Even in the face of oppression or harassment, in hard confrontations with the Israeli forces, people would react in a non-violent way.
This committee chose the legal path as people’s primary source of non-violent resistance, so the court cases are the major focus of the popular resistance work in Al Walajah. Members of the committee heavily coordinate with their lawyers, follow up on the court cases and try to support the lobby for these legal cases inside and outside the Court. Based on the decisions made by the Court, the committee acts upon a range of matters that affect the village.
There are regular activities planned as part of the work in the popular committee. One consists in unofficial gatherings of people in affected areas eg. where land or property has been damaged, to show solidarity to the owners and try to stop Israeli settlers or military from further damaging wherever possible.
Another activity is advocacy which is done in coordination with other popular committees across the West Bank. It usually focuses on exposing the situation to international activists, journalists, officials, and anyone who is interested in hearing first-hand accounts from people in the village. The advocacy work is done in the form of fact-finding tours, marches and other activities.
Another aspect is attracting the media, both local and international. There is a need to address to the local media, and indirectly to the Palestinian Authority which is not necessarily aware of what is happening in different parts of the West Bank or doesn’t really have knowledge about the extent of damage in the Occupied Territories. As for the international media, this is where Al Walajah people try to voice out their ‘catastrophe’ and appeal to those outside so to create a solidarity movement in the world.
In addition, the popular committee strives to attract the attention of NGOs in implementing projects to provide services needed by the village population. There is a problem in Al Walajah concerning the peculiar nature of the village land, divided into two halves: one incorporated into Jerusalem –which is not recognized being land illegally annexed by Israel; the other half is ‘seam zone’, located between the Wall and the Green Line.
This problematic legal status over the two halves of the village makes it difficult for NGOs (whether international or nation) to apply their projects in Al Walajah being high-risk. Some NGOs clearly point out, if there are other areas with a lower factor of risk and where people are still in need, they would rather run their projects there. So part of the hard challenge is to campaign with NGOs in making pressure to have projects implemented in the village.
The weekly demonstrations were suspended in late September of last year the reason being there has not been anything to protest against. Since then, following appeal against the path of the Wall, there is a court order to stop works on the Wall route in Al Walajah. Also earlier in December, when Israeli bulldozers started clearing an area at the other side of the village, the villagers stopped them through the Court since they mostly rely on legal cases in their popular struggle. Again, people just react on the basis of what is happening.
So the non-violent protests are connected with what Israel is doing on the ground. for instance, if Israeli bulldozers are there the villagers will be definitely out and stand against it, but if they are not the demonstration doesn’t make sense. And demonstrating will document what Israel does to the village however it won’t stop anything.
In the case of Beit Jala, what not just halted the weekly protests but also paralysed the committee overall was clearly the Palestinian-Israeli security agreements. Based on these agreements, none of the parties is allowed to do any unilateral action. Yet, Israel is building the Wall which is a unilateral move and is also creating facts on the ground. And when the residents of Beit Jala tried to demonstrate against the Wall, it was not only the Israeli forces who stopped them but also the Palestinian security forces since the town is situated in area A which falls under the PA security control. Because of that, the Popular Committee of Beit Jala cancelled the non-violent protests. The PA cannot do the same in Al Walajah being located in area C (subject to Israeli control) which eventually can be an ‘advantage’ in this case.
On the whole, the major real pressure on the Popular Committee of Al Walajah comes from the military Occupation. The common problem that people face is, when they take part to demonstrations, usually they’re deprived of their work permits and that means losing their major source of income which is working in Israel. So the villagers are torn between either taking part to weekly events or securing food for their families.
Another main pressure used against Al Walajah, under the Occupation, is the fact that virtually all the houses are subject to demolition orders being built ‘illegally’ according to Israel. Not to mention the issue of arresting people at different check-points in the West Bank if they are identified to be from Al-Walajah.
Palestinians civil society started organizing in the form of popular resistance committees in 2003 to resist the several forms of the Israeli occupation, most notably the construction of the Wall and settlements.
Local popular committees have been formed in different locations across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The popular struggle emerged in the affected villages in a move to protect their rights and their land, and prevent the destruction of their livelihoods and communities.
Popular committees lead community resistance in various forms ranging from marches to strikes, demonstrations, direct actions and legal campaigns, as well as supporting boycott, divestment and sanctions.