The New Israeli Left
The key turning point occurred when protests erupted in 2003 in Budrus, west of Ramallah. The proposed route of the wall would have resulted in the loss of nearly forty acres of the village’s farmland, crucial to its survival. As Israeli bulldozers started destroying the ancient olive trees, Budrus residents held a series of nonviolent demonstrations, drawing on a long Palestinian tradition of civil disobedience and popular protest. This led to the formation of a committee of village leaders, who decided to invite activists from AATW. From 2003 to ‘05, dozens of Israelis and internationals joined the demonstrations in Budrus and surrounding villages. Despite a fierce response by the IDF, including the use of live ammunition, nightly raids on the villages and curfews, the protests grew stronger. Eventually, the Israeli military decided to request a different route for the separation barrier, one that would not annex any Budrus farmland. The joint popular struggle had its first victory.
The deteriorating ability to protest and the narrowing space for political activism against the Israeli occupation, Pollak says, have coincided with a growing space for racism and nationalism.
The Budrus model spread to other West Bank villages. The most notable of these, Bil’in, which lost most of its land to construction of the wall and a huge nearby settlement, has become a worldwide symbol of popular resistance. More than 300 demonstrations have been held there so far—one every Friday for six years. Thousands of Israelis, Palestinians and international supporters, including former US President Jimmy Carter, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Desmond Tutu and Nation columnist Naomi Klein, have attended the demonstrations. The European Union has officially recognized Abdallah Abu Rahmah, the imprisoned Palestinian leader, as a “human rights defender” for his part in organizing the protests, has sent representatives to all his trials and has pressured the Israeli government to release him.
Over the years, the joint struggle has become more than the choice of a few. It could even be said that the Budrus–Bil’in model is beginning to have an effect on politics in both societies. If Israeli policy in the past decade has searched for ways to contain and isolate the Palestinians, the unarmed struggle and the popular support it receives—mostly through a network of grassroots organizations—creates a countereffect. The popular struggle has refocused attention on the troubles of Palestinians living under occupation. Dealing with the confiscation of land, or exposing the brutality and injustice of the military court system, focuses attention on fundamental issues: the lack of political rights for millions of Palestinians, the absence of freedom, the routine violations of human rights.
The Palestinian Authority has slowly realized the movement’s potential. Recently it has made what can seem like attempts to co-opt it or adopt some of its methods. PA officials are present at demonstrations now; Prime Minister Salam Fayyad even attended the one in Bil’in the day Jawaher Abu-Rahma died. The PA’s recent attempt to internationalize the conflict by turning to the United Nations echoes the grassroots efforts to gather support for their struggle through cooperation with Israeli and international activists. In both cases, the local leadership reached the conclusion that it can’t confront Israel on its own. Now the PA, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (a leftist PLO faction) and Hamas send representatives and give lectures at Bil’in’s annual conference on nonviolence. Recently Aziz Dweik, a leading Hamas lawmaker in the West Bank, said, “When we use violence, we help Israel win international support…. The Gaza flotilla has done more for Gaza than 10,000 rockets.” Yet at its core, the unarmed struggle remains an independent grassroots operation, and in off-the-record conversations its leading activists are suspicious of the Palestinian senior officials and politicians. Recent demonstrations in support of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were carefully controlled—and sometimes shut down—by the PA out of fear that mass unarmed resistance in the West Bank could turn on the PA leadership itself. While urban Palestinian activists in Ramallah and Hebron see themselves in solidarity with villages like Bil’in and Nabi Saleh, the model of unarmed resistance has not spread across the cities of the West Bank partly because of PA fears of losing control.
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The grassroots protests have also had a subtle yet unmistakable effect on the Israeli scene, both in offering a new model of mobilization for a new generation of activists and in bringing attention to the suffering of Palestinians. In recent weeks, notable figures from the Israeli center have called for the security barrier near Bil’in to be moved, and right-wing pundit Ben-Dror Yemini referred to it as “a disgrace” in his weekly column in the daily Ma’ariv. More than 200 Israelis attended the protest in Bil’in in the week after Jawaher Abu-Rahma’s death, including representatives from the liberal Zionist party Meretz and from grassroots peace movements such as Combatants for Peace.
The activism has certainly re-energized elements of the Israeli left. Since 2009 the joint struggle model has been used with great success in Jerusalem, after the city’s police started enforcing evacuation orders on Palestinian families in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, north of the Old City. As religious settlers, financed by a radical right-wing organization with deep US connections, took over Palestinian homes, a few left-wing Israelis joined protests. Some of them even kept watch around the clock and slept with the Palestinian families so they could report harassment by settlers and be present in the event of further evictions. Eventually a series of Friday demonstrations, in the tradition of the West Bank protests, was established.
Throughout the winter of 2009–10, anarchists and other activists were arrested in large numbers in Sheikh Jarrah. That, and the central location of the protest, drew media attention. Soon hundreds of Israelis were protesting each week, many coming by bus from Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheva.
As the Sheikh Jarrah protest grew, representatives of the old Zionist left started showing up, among them Meretz Knesset members, leaders of Peace Now and public figures like author David Grossman and former Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair. Sheikh Jarrah reopened the Israeli debate on the future of Jerusalem and presented a challenge both to the city’s pro-settler mayor and the Israeli government. For the first time in years, Israelis had to discuss—in very concrete terms—the principle of dividing Jerusalem. A group of attorneys called for the government to confiscate settler real estate in Sheikh Jarrah and hand it back to the Palestinians (unfortunately, the municipality has different ideas: recently it began preparations for constructing a Jewish housing project on the site of the old Shepherd Hotel).
The demonstrations led to the creation of a Jewish group called Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah, which in recent months has joined protests in other Jerusalem neighborhoods where settlers have seized Palestinian property. Solidarity has also attended rallies in Israel proper, including support for an unrecognized Palestinian village not far from Tel Aviv, and against the repeated destruction and evacuation of the unrecognized Bedouin village El-Araqib, in the southern Negev Desert near Beersheva. (There are dozens of “unrecognized” villages in Israel—Palestinian communities whose inhabitants were not expelled in the 1948 war but that the Israeli government has refused to accept as legitimate municipalities, thus depriving them of routine public services like water, sewage, electricity, transportation links, etc.)
“We are going to places where the occupation and expulsion actually take place, and we do it together with the local community,” says Avner Inbar, an activist with Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah. “We are not that interested in large rallies in Tel Aviv, where Jews stand on their own and declare that the occupation is wrong. We want to confront racism and discrimination where they happen. This joint effort, together with the local Palestinian communities, is something new for everyone involved in it, and for many people it becomes a transformative experience.”
“The meaning of Zionism in Israel today is to be Jewish and not Arab,” says former Speaker Burg, who attends the protest in Sheikh Jarrah regularly. “In that context, the left cannot go on calling itself Zionist. We should ask ourselves whether Zionist humanism isn’t a contradiction in terms these days. We should go beyond ethnic democracy and toward a real joint society, in which Jews and Arabs are really equal.” Inspired by the demonstrations and convinced of the need for a new form of leftist politics in Israel, Burg is trying to form an Arab-Jewish party, though he doesn’t intend to run for the Knesset himself. “I’m done with short-term politics,” he says. “What’s important for me is to help create a new perspective, to fill the void.”
While Solidarity is becoming an Israeli movement, operating in towns, neighborhoods and villages inside the Green Line, the anarchists remain focused on the West Bank. In our last visit to a demonstration in the village of Nabi Saleh, the Israeli activists, still red-eyed from tear gas, join their Palestinian hosts for a Friday evening dinner. For many of them, these relationships, formed over years of demonstrations, seem to be the real reward for their efforts. That’s what keeps them coming every week to the West Bank. “We are not demonstrating because we believe change is around the corner,” says Ronnie Barkan. “It’s because this is the minimum we could do. It’s as simple as that.”