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Date posted: October 08, 2002
By Toine van Teeffelen

Against the backdrop of the siege of Arafat's compound we could hear these weeks about some remarkable initiatives in Palestine. They remind of the popular movements of some decades ago against dictatorships in Eastern Europe or South-America: impressive mass prayers by peasants in a field near Nablous, the deafening noise of pots and pans in Ramallah, and courageous parents and teachers in various cities breaking curfews to guide their kids to school. In fact, some months ago plans of breaking curfews were already circulating and debated but it now seems that Palestinians under occupation have reached a point that many collectively want to act and join emerging forms of popular non- violent resistance. The reasons for this beginning change in attitude may be traced to two circumstances: the changing nature of the occupation and changes in the general political environment.

Nature of occupation

The three-decade long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has never been benevolent nor accepted by the Palestinian population but in various periods there have been different degrees of repression and control of daily life. Over long stretches of time, the occupation was a sophisticated controling institution that used a variety of resources to enforce the population's compliance. Not force alone was activated; it rather worked alongside a myriad of dependencies and controling devices including massive Palestinian labour in Israel, a complicated permit system, friendly relations with local mukhtars and other proxies, the extension of 'favours' which one's neighbours did not receive, and an elaborate network of probably tens of thousands of collaborators.

Right now, the occupation has largely fallen back on crude, visible, and arbitrary force against the population as a whole. Most clearly in reaction to the suicide bombings, the Israeli army has stepped up degrees of control over daily life that have become unbearable. At checkpoints and other Israeli-Palestinian contact points, Palestinian civilians are systematically humiliated in classical colonial style. After two long years the majority of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have been irrevocably damaged in their personal and family interests; in their possessions and lands, their own or their children's education, and their work. The purpose of this frontal assault is to break the people's spirit and to pacify the uprising.

However, the more plain force is exerted, the sooner also the limits of an army's deterrent and adaptive capacities are reached. As many observers have noted, in the last couple of weeks the fear threshold among Palestinians has significantly been lowered. The curfews are nowadays felt to be without real ending and have become so completely arbitrary and dehumanizing (people treated like mice in a cruel experiment is a suitable metaphor) that they are not anymore accepted as given facts to which one has to accommodate.

Political environment

Then the political environment is changing too. Threats against the civil population are palpably present. On the ground, the 'normal' processes of land confiscation and settlement building are continuing unabatedly. Public discourse has also become directly threatening. In Israel, the scenario of the 'transfer' of the Palestinian population out of the West Bank and Gaza has recently been so intensely debated - including 'variants' like internal vs. external transfer - that support for it has somehow become a legitimate stand in Israel as well as in conservative circles in the US. A superpower's will to change the political map of the Middle East in the wake of a war on Iraq may lead to a silent acceptance of a sudden change in the demographic 'map' as well. Many people in Palestine regard ethnic cleansing during or after a war on Iraq a real possibility.

In the face of such threats, Palestinians feel that their leaders alone are not having the power to move things into a different direction. While the Palestinian Authority and Arafat are recognized as the Palestinian representatives, they find themselves cornered in the international political arena and under political scrutiny at home. There is at present no clear and viable road towards some kind of broader political agreement. Under the circumstances, many common Palestinians feel that there is an urgent need to become themselves political actors again. Creating a popular movement could make a difference, locally and internationally. Commemorating two years of a militarized Intifadah, the Palestinian press is now full of articles about the need to go back to the popular roots of the Intifadah as it emerged in its original form at the end of the 1980s.

Strategy

A popular non-violent movement would need coordination and strategy. At this moment, such strategy is largely absent. The popular actions are locally and often spontaneously organized, with widespread media attention present only in exceptional cases.

One possibility for developing such a strategy would be choosing a broad societal field for a sustained concerted action that targets and involves the international public. Such a field could be medical, economical, educational or otherwise.The advantage of choosing a societal field for a public campaign is that such a field provides a very human illustration of the effects of occupation. For a broad international public that message would have more impact than general political statements. Let's take as an example the field of education. I am myself working in it (in the Bethlehem area), and so am familiar with its potential.

For the coming Wednesday (2/10), authorities, religious leaders and NGOs have announced a large demonstration in front of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. Children, parents and teachers will demand the right of education. Apart from inter-religious prayers and speeches, a banner with the text "Let Our Children Have Freedom" will be attached to helium-filled balloons and lifted into the air. Solidarity with education in other curfewed Palestinian towns will be proclaimed. While people in the Bethlehem area are 'privileged' to be able to go out of their houses - unlike other cities - students and teachers here too face problems in reaching schools, for instance when they have to cross checkpoints or settler roads.

In Ramallah, Nablus and other cities, people lately took many grassroots initiatives to organize forms of "underground education.". People challenged the curfew and offered their space, time and expertise to create alternative educational options at homes in case schools were out of bounds. It is not only the urgent need for education that guides them but also a knowledge of history. Teachers tell that their school communities are certain of one thing: students should not once again loose years of education as happened during the first Intifadah where underground education got publicity but was not done systematically. That lapse had a great impact upon the youth who afterwards were severely handicapped in their development. In my own environment, I see schools pressured by parents to make emergency curfew plans detailing how teachers and parents should call each other so that children are able to continue their studies as much as possible at home.

Palestinians have always been proud about the levels of education attained against all odds. Right now, visitors are impressed by the sheer persistence and improvising capacity young and older students (as well as teachers and administrators) display simply in order to realize the right to education. So many youth and teachers arrive exhausted at schools after being forced to take journeys through the hills or after long waiting times at checkpoints. Given these qualities of persistence and improvisational capacity, a sustained popular and public movement in education in which activities are coordinated across cities and regions (for instance, similar activities conducted simultaneously, such as the making of sounds or the holding of vigils) would have real potential. One central good slogan could be chosen. It would be possible to have local or regional committees with teachers, parents and representatives of the Ministry of Education. When face-to-face coordination is impossible, email would have to do the job. Such committees could organize, document and write about public actions conducted in their region. In Ramallah, there is a recent civilian initiative (called Jaras = Bell) to document the number of educational hours children are loosing in various cities and regions. After all, education is a field in which everyone has a direct or indirect stake, and in which massive participation is not impossible.

While it seldom happens that Palestinian youth - who are in fact the large majority of Palestinian society - are public spokespersons, a prolonged action in support of the right to education could give the floor to young Palestinians who are versed in different languages. They could be involved in writing and public speaking. Creative forms of raising one's voice could become part of extracurricular programs which could also encourage knowledge and discussion of the history of popular protest in Palestine. Students could make the texts of their placards and banners as they are presently asked to do for the Bethlehem action. Student choirs could perform a joint song in support of the campaign. An international committee of well- known personalities could without difficulty be formed to support such a large and sustained campaign, and volunteers and monitors on the ground could play a watchdog role. In this way, a broad movement with very concrete and human demands could expose the brutality of the occupation, move the international civil society and - hopefully - play some role in helping to prevent that Palestinian civilians become expendable pawns in a new Middle Eastern war.

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