On Sunday June 5, hundreds of Palestinians gathered outside the Qalandia checkpoint separating Jerusalem and Ramallah. They were part of an unarmed demonstration marking the anniversary of Israel’s takeover of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, known as Naksa Day.
Simultaneously, thousands of Palestinians descended on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and attempted to mass on the Lebanese border with nothing more than their bodies. As the spring sun beat down on the demonstration, Israel killed 23 demonstrators with live ammunition and injured hundreds.
The Qalandia demonstration, organised by the Ramallah-based March 15 youth movement, was the embodiment of the Arab Spring in Palestine. Demonstrators, inspired by the revolutions sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, approached the concrete walls of the checkpoint and were met by fully armed Israeli soldiers who, without a moment’s pause, opened fire with teargas and stun grenades. Panic descended on the crowd as people collapsed from the effects of teargas inhalation.
I watched as some Palestinian youth responded to the Israeli incursion by throwing stones at soldiers, who then returned fire using large, aluminium teargas canisters as bullets, in violation of Israeli army rules of conduct. Within an hour, soldiers had taken over Palestinian rooftops around the walled checkpoint and were firing rubber bullets at the unarmed protesters. One Palestinian was hit directly in the face. The Israeli military reported that one border policeman was slightly injured in the demonstration.
Mainstream Israeli and international media argued endlessly, as though in a state of reverie, about whether Palestinian demonstrators who threw rocks should be considered unarmed, non-violent or violent. Absent from the conversation was the fact that Israel is rapidly increasing a programme of military repression against demonstrations in a last-ditch effort to dominate the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Portraying unarmed Palestinians as violent rioters enabled the press to downplay Israel’s heavy-handed reaction to the demonstrations. This response was largely based on unsubstantiated accounts of demonstrators’ behaviour, most of which came directly from the Israeli military and were completely false.
‘Striving for peace’
The entire Israeli-Palestinian peace process — predicated on the fact that both sides are striving for peace — has allowed Israel to portray any Palestinian attempts to challenge the status quo through unarmed resistance as antithetical to equitable settlement between the two sides.
This approach ignores the Israeli intransigence of endless settlement construction and the military infrastructure required to control Palestinian life. Night raids, mass arrests and lack of freedom of movement are all too often ignored when the international community envisions the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In fact, the word “occupation” seldom enters mainstream discourse at all.
Palestinians are now coalescing around unarmed resistance as a way of highlighting what occupation means for them. Although peace is clearly desired among Palestinians, their immediate concern is one of human rights.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Israel is starting to lose its edge in convincing the international community that the conflict is simply about peace and not rights. Palestinian demonstrations on Israel’s borders and checkpoints have highlighted the sea change taking place.
It would seem that Israel’s only course of action in explaining its heavy-handed military response to unarmed demonstrators is to describe the demonstrators as violent rioters. In practice, unarmed resistance to the status quo of occupation meets extreme violence from the Israeli army.
Historic episodes of human-rights struggles, such as the American civil-rights movement and the anti-apartheid struggle, underwent similar narrative reformulations. Unarmed demonstrations went from “violent rioters” to respected displays of people power in the face of repression. The Palestinian struggle for human rights will be no different when the history of the conflict is written.
Social media is having a transformative effect on Israel’s ability to define Palestinian violence. The internet provides concerned members of international civil society with an intimate and immediate view of unarmed demonstrations in the West Bank. Hours after the demonstration ended in Qalandia, dramatic YouTube clips circulated around the world challenging Israel’s portrayal of the demonstrators as violent rioters.
The overall acceptance of the Israeli analytical framework in the collective Western perception of the conflict is changing as a result of the Palestinian reappropriation of unarmed resistance in the new media age. While pundits argue whether a stone-throwing Palestinian teenager is violent or not, Israel is killing protesters armed with nothing but stones in plain sight of the international community.
As such observers begin to understand that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on human rights, Israel is going to find it increasingly difficult to muster support in the international community for its on-going military occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza.
Palestinians are going to maintain the pressure with non-violent measures such as the international boycott, divestment and sanction campaign and the Gaza aid flotilla, which highlight Israeli violation of international law and reaffirm the rights-based nature of the conflict.
Now, more than ever, Israel must devise a strategy to confront non-violent Palestinian resistance in a way that does not rely on semantics but addresses the deprivation of Palestinian human rights.
Joseph Dana, an Israeli-American writer based in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, is a contributing editor of the Israeli web magazine +972