How 20 tents rocked Israel: Palestinians take the fight to their occupiers in Bab al-Shams

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Bab al-Shams at night, January 12, 2013. (Photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills)

When the Palestinian leadership won their upgrade to non-member observer status at the United Nations in November, plenty of sceptics on both sides of the divide questioned what practical benefits would accrue to the Palestinians. The doubters have not been silenced yet.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has done little to capitalise on his diplomatic success. There have been vague threats to “isolate” Israel, hesitant talk of “not ruling out” a referral to the International Criminal Court, and a low-key declaration by the Palestinian Authority of the new “state of Palestine”.

At a time when Palestinians hoped for a watershed moment in their struggle for national liberation, the Fatah and Hamas leaderships look as mutually self-absorbed as ever. Last week they were again directing their energies into a new round of reconciliation talks, this time in Cairo, rather than keeping the spotlight on Israeli intransigence.

So instead, it was left to a group of 250 ordinary Palestinians to show how the idea of a “state of Palestine” might be given practical meaning. On Friday, they set up a tent encampment that they intended to convert into a new Palestinian village called Bab al-Shams, or Gate of the Sun.

On Sunday, in a sign of how disturbed Israel is by such acts of popular Palestinian resistance, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the the occupants removed in a dawn raid — despite the fact that his own courts had issued a six-day injunction against the government’s “evacuation” order.

Intriguingly, the Palestinian activists not only rejected their own leaders’ softly-softly approach but also chose to mirror the tactics of the hardcore settlers.

First, they declared they were creating “facts on the ground”, having understood, it seems, that this is the only language Israel speaks or understands. Then, they selected the most contentious spot imaginable for Israel: the centre of the so-called E-1 corridor, 13 square-kilometres of undeveloped land between East Jerusalem and Israel’s strategic city-settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank.

For more than a decade, Israel has been planning to build its own settlement in E-1, though on a vastly bigger scale, to finish the encirclement of East Jerusalem, cutting off the future capital of a Palestinian state from the West Bank.

The US had stayed Israel’s hand, understanding that completion in E-1 would signal to the world and the Palestinians the end of a two-state solution. But following the UN vote, Netanyahu announced plans to build an additional 4,000 settler homes there as punishment for the Palestinians’ impertinence.

The comparison between the Bab al-Shams activists and the settlers should not be extended too far. One obvious difference is that the Palestinians were building on their own land, whereas Israel is breaking international law in allowing hundreds of thousands of settlers to move into the West Bank.

Another is that Israel’s response towards the two groups was preordained to be different. This is especially clear in relation to what Israel itself calls the “illegal outposts” — more than 100 micro-settlements, similar to Bab al-Shams, set up by hardcore settlers since the mid-1990s, after Israel promised the US it would not authorise any new settlements.

Despite an obligation to dismantle the outposts, successive Israeli governments have allowed them to flourish. In practice, within days of the first caravans appearing on a West Bank hilltop officials hook up the “outposts” to electricity and water, build them access roads and redirect bus routes to include them. The spread of the settlements and outposts has been leading inexorably to Israel’s de facto annexation of most of the West Bank.

In stark contrast, all access to Bab al-Shams was blocked within hours of the tents going up and the next day Netanyahu had the site declared a closed military zone. As soon as the Jewish Sabbath was over, troops massed around the camp. Early on Sunday morning they stormed in.

Netanyahu was clearly afraid to allow any delay. Palestinians started using social media over the weekend to plan mass rallies at road-blocks leading to the camp site.

However futile the activists’ efforts prove to be on this occasion, the encampment indicates that ordinary Palestinians are better placed to find inventive ways to embarrass Israel than the hidebound Palestinian leadership.

Senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi extolled the activists for their “highly creative and legitimate nonviolent tool” to protect Palestinian land. But the failure of PA officials, including Saeb Erekat, to make it to the site before it was cordoned off by Israel only heightened the impression of a leadership too slow and unimaginative to respond to events.

By establishing Bab al-Shams, the activists visibly demonstrated the apartheid nature of Israel’s rule in the occupied territories. Although one brief encampment is unlikely by itself to change the dynamics of the conflict, it does show Palestinians that there are ways they themselves can take the struggle to Israel.

Following the Israeli raid, that point was made eloquently by Mohammed Khatib, one of the organisers. “In establishing Bab al-Shams, we declare that we have had enough of demanding our rights from the occupier — from now on we shall seize them ourselves.”

That, of course, is also Netanyahu’s great fear. The scenario his officials are reported to be most concerned about is that this kind of popular mode of struggle becomes infectious. If Palestinians see popular non-violent resistance, unlike endless diplomacy, helping to awaken the world to their plight, there may be more Bab al-Shamses — and other surprises for Israel — around the corner.

It was precisely such thinking that led Israel’s attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, to justify Netanyahu’s violation of the injunction on the grounds that the camp would “bring protests and riots with national and international implications”.

What Bab al-Shams shows is that ordinary Palestinians can take the fight for the “state of Palestine” to Israel — and even turn Israel’s own methods against it.

About Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is jonathan-cook.net.
Posted in Activism, Israel/Palestine, Israeli Government, Occupation, Settlers/Colonists | Tagged

{ 16 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Citizen says:

    It did not take many folks, black and white, to sit down at the whites-only counter at the local drug store in the Jim Crow South not so long ago. It did take a very courageous few. It did take ardent news coverage, compete with photos. Now the shoe is on a different foot, eh?

    • seafoid says:

      link to nybooks.com

      (Shimon Peres) assured the president of Cameroon that “a Jew who accepts apartheid ceases to be a Jew. A Jew and racism do not go together “

    • Mooser says:

      “It did take ardent news coverage, compete with photos.”

      I’m getting this awful feeling that because both Zionist illegal settlements, and this legal Palestinian residency (I think that would be fair?) start with tents or temporary structures, the media is conferring some sort of equivalency on them. I hope I’m wrong.

  2. seafoid says:

    They should set up a camp inside Israel next.

  3. Mooser says:

    “and even turn Israel’s own methods against it.”

    Et tu, Cook? There is nothing of “Israel’s own methods” in this. Nothing at all. C’mon, you must know that, right?

    • Mooser says:

      “The comparison between the Bab al-Shams activists and the settlers should not be extended too far. One obvious difference is that the Palestinians were building on their own land, whereas Israel is breaking international law in allowing hundreds of thousands of settlers to move into the West Bank.”

      Whew, of course he does. I just scroll too fast.

  4. Hostage says:

    I always love it when people use the various roles the individuals play in other entities to make it appear that Palestinian Legislative Council members, like Hanan Ashrawi or Mustafa Barghouti, somehow represent themselves, but not the PA.

  5. Newclench says:

    A great action. But this: “So instead, it was left to a group of 250 ordinary Palestinians to show how the idea of a “state of Palestine” might be given practical meaning.”

    Calling Abir Kopty and M. Khatib “ordinary” is a baffling statement. Extraordinary feels much more appropriate.

    There really is no limit to what can be accomplished in this way.

    • everyone there was extraordinary clench, not just people who were tweeting link to twitter.com

      but they were all ordinary palestinians

    • mcohen says:

      Calling Abir Kopty and M. Khatib “ordinary” is a baffling statement

      the word newsclench is not baffling but gaffling as this haaretz article shows

      “Senior Palestinian Authority officials were involved in the creation of a Palestinian tent camp in the West Bank’s E-1 corridor in an attempt to create a serious public disturbance, Israeli authorities stated in court on Wednesday. The accusations were made by the state’s attorney during a hearing at the High Court of Justice over the evictions of Palestinians from the Bab al-Shams outpost they established at… ”

      bab al shams is exactly whats it sounds like- a sham -

      • The accusations were made by the state’s attorney

        any evidence?

        bab al shams is exactly whats it sounds like- a sham -

        considering it’s been discussed at the the state department dailypress briefing, at a minimum consider it widely recognized as a successful non violent resistance action.

        link to mondoweiss.net

      • Hostage says:

        bab al shams is exactly whats it sounds like- a sham -

        I noted that Jonathan Cook’s report had overlooked or failed to mention that several well known PA Legislative Council members, like Dr. Barghouti, were involved as leaders of the group of Palestinians that setup the tent city on occupied Palestinian territory.

        IMHO the baseless Jewish counterclaims are a total sham, not the legal claims made by the Palestinians involved.

    • Avi_G. says:

      Newclench says:
      January 14, 2013 at 11:09 pm

      A great action. But this: “So instead, it was left to a group of 250 ordinary Palestinians to show how the idea of a “state of Palestine” might be given practical meaning.”

      Calling Abir Kopty and M. Khatib “ordinary” is a baffling statement. Extraordinary feels much more appropriate.

      There really is no limit to what can be accomplished in this way.

      I agree. The next step should be for Palestinians in refugee maps in the occupied West Bank to carry out similar actions on lands they were previously expelled from, like Sheikh Muwanis, Tantura and Deir Yasin to name a few.

  6. mcohen says:

    one group is building houses and the other is putting up tents. in the future both groups will live in the houses. those that can afford to.the rest will live in tents.

    • Avi_G. says:

      mcohen says:
      January 15, 2013 at 4:14 pm

      one group is building houses and the other is putting up tents. in the future both groups will live in the houses. those that can afford to.the rest will live in tents.

      I had no idea David Frum posted comments here.

      Say, when you perspire, does it smell like methane?