Something important has happened across Palestine—and it has the seeds of a new, mass revolt against Israel. A general strike on Tuesday became the most unified, coordinated act of resistance by Palestinians for decades—inside Israel’s borders and areas under military occupation.
This new wave of revolt is, as Palestinian activist Bisan Abu Eisheh told Socialist Worker, “A general rage that exploded all of a sudden.”
It is “an accumulation of 70 years living under a number of different colonial situations, between the 1948 borders, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.”
While people protested in their thousands across the West Bank, Palestinians who work inside Israel answered the general strike call on Tuesday of last week. What really shook Israeli politicians—more than the economic impact of the strike—was its political significance.
Israeli newspapers last week were filled with warnings that Israel is heading for “civil war” with Palestinians in its own borders. Israel has always claimed that its Arab citizens have the same rights as Jews. It even tries to give them a non-Palestinian identity—Israeli Arabs.
In reality, throughout its existence, Israel has driven the Palestinians who still live there into impoverished ghettos, designed to keep them marginalised.
The repression of the past month revealed that.
As Ramadan began Israel began a drive to keep Palestinians out of the Al-Aqsa mosque in east Jerusalem. Its border police attacked not just the Palestinians living under military occupation, but also those with Israeli citizenship.
Sawsan Zaher, deputy director of the Adalah legal centre which defends Palestinian human rights in Israel, described what happened.
“They blocked Palestinian citizens of Israel who wanted to arrive in Jerusalem,” she told Socialist Worker.
“They prevented 20 buses from entering Jerusalem. People started to get out and walk to Jerusalem—about an hour’s walk. It was a huge violation of the right to worship for tens of thousands of Palestinian Muslims from east Jerusalem and also citizens of Israel.
“This happened at the same time as an attempted forced eviction of residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.
“A lot of demonstrations started to happen by Palestinians in Arab towns in Israel. Instead of allowing them to protest peacefully the police started using violence, attacking demonstrations.”
Armed groups of Israelis organised coordinated attacks on Palestinian areas, while cops stood by. The violence not only exposed Israel’s racism, but caused years of simmering resentment among its Palestinian citizens to boil over.
To the surprise of Israel’s ruling class—and even to some Palestinians in the West Bank—the call for a general strike came from those inside its borders.
“Now it’s obvious and so embarrassing for the Israel regime that people in the mixed and Arab cities inside Israeli territories are raging because they’ve been living in a dire situation,” said Bisan.
“This all of a sudden has led to this rage and it connected with what happened in Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah. It all just connected together.”
What’s more, Bisan added, the unity across borders of the Palestinians in struggle is a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Israeli state. It has demolished the idea that the struggle for freedom for Palestine is confined to Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
It is now being waged in the heart of Israel itself.
“This really puts a question about the whole existence of Israel as a colonial regime,” said Bisan.
“The Palestinians with their strike reconstructed the historic map of Palestine with their rage and resistance at oppression. This is a very unique moment.
This the first moment I feel I have hope
“We had nothing to lose before—now we have gained something because we are unified and standing alongside each other.”
He added, “What I hope to happen is to build on this and start talking seriously about a solution for the Palestinian cause, and a solution for the refugees.
“This has all taken the shape of a semi-intifada because of the generation younger than mine. This is the generation that has been marginalised and trashed, living with no hope or opportunity.
“Now they are raging and taking the streets and made everyone hear their voice.
“I am a member of a generation that never had hope. We were just surviving. The whole idea of reparations and freedom was a far off dream that maybe our kids will live.
“This the first moment I feel I have hope, because suddenly we can expose all the years of camouflage as an apartheid and colonial state.”
Strikes can inspire more revolts
For decades Israel has tried to keep its Palestinian workforce marginalised. But last week they showed they have the power to rock Israeli society.
The strike hit Israel’s construction industry especially hard. Some 65,000 Palestinian construction labourers—many of whom travel in from the West Bank—make up to 70 percent of the industry’s workforce.
Just 150 of them came to work during the strike last week.
The strike hit public transport and cleaning services too.
Israel’s transportation ministry said 910 drivers—some 10 percent of all bus drivers—didn’t show up for work on the day of the strike. Egged, Israel’s largest transport company, said nearly 300 journeys had to be cancelled. The Kavim bus company asked passengers to avoid unnecessary travel.
Meanwhile, the Union of Cleaning Companies—a company that employs cleaners—said some 5,000 Palestinian cleaners didn’t work during the strike. Though it says this is just 6.5 percent of all Arab cleaning workers, its chair Avi Mizrahi said, “We felt their absence all over the country.
“We can’t work without them, they’re part of us.”
In a sign that bosses were worried, many threatened to sack workers for taking part.
Israel’s education ministry asked school heads for a list of teachers who took struck.
The strike had echoes of those that launched during the First Intifada between 1987 and 1993.
Strikes were a major weapon aimed at weakening the Israeli state. Then, like last week, Palestinians from the West Bank refused to cross into Israel for work.
The cost of putting down the uprising caused some Israeli commentators to question whether the occupation was sustainable.
But Israel has worked to exclude Palestinian workers from some key industries. And, importantly, the strike couldn’t touch the billions of pounds worth of military aid that Israel receives from the US.
The real power of the strikes and protests was to inspire resistance across the Middle East. Solidarity demonstrations in countries such as Egypt turned into strikes against their own rulers who cooperate with Israel.
Today, support for Palestinians has forced rulers of Arab countries that were prepared to make deals with Israel to condemn it.
Israel is afraid the revolt could spread across Palestine. In the background, it also fears what could happen if it spreads beyond.
'We feel that this time it is different'
One of the reasons that the call for a strike spread was because it wasn’t imposed from the top of official Palestinian leadership organisations. Instead, it began as a call by activists.
Though currently in London, Bisan has been in touch with friends and family members in Jerusalem and Haifa who have been part of the resistance.
“The strike was an idea that was discussed by a small amount of people who put it out there and it caught on,” he said. “That’s the spirit of how things are happening now—don’t wait for leadership. If you think of something, do it.”
Wassim Ghantous, from Haifa, also said the new wave of protests there began independently of official organisations.
“People who rose up were not following any political party,” he told an online meeting in solidarity with the strike last week. “It was decentralised organisation.
“This uprising has included many people from the young generation.”
Bisan and Wassim both described how the people involved in the protests are forming their own structures of organisation.
“From many places I’ve heard about but also from witnessing what was going on in Haifa, it wasn’t a passive strike where you just stay at home. It was an active strike.
“Each city, each village and each neighbourhood gathered and did activities.
“They had discussions about what to do when you get arrested as an activist, what to do with your children during these protests. We had a media crew that’s also organising posters and graffiti. So we feel that this time it’s different. This time Palestine has overcome the colonial fragmentary policies of Israel.”
Jerusalem-based activist Akram Salhab said, “What’s come out of this is this extraordinary spirit of self organisation.
From many places I’ve heard about but also from witnessing what was going on in Haifa, it wasn’t a passive strike where you just stay at home. It was an active strike.
“How do we come together and create structures that can, first of all, defend ourselves and how can we build on that?”
As the call for a strike gained momentum among activists it was backed by the official Palestinian leadership organisations.
Then, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has limited self rule in the West Bank, fell in behind it.
Palestinians there had also risen up and organised their own demonstrations against the occupation, and in solidarity with Jerusalem and Gaza. Mohammed, who lives in the West Bank city Hebron, told Socialist Worker, “Demonstrations are becoming more regular.
“It used to be that people would go out and demonstrate after Friday prayers. Now every day something is happening in the West Bank.”
Mohammed warned that the PA will try to contain the protests.
“They did not initiate the protests,” he said. “They say the best way to engage with the Israelis is to embarrass the Israelis.
“It’s to say we are cooperating as much as possible and we want something in return. So everything they try to do is non-confrontational. But the Israelis have just co-opted them.
“The people are frustrated so the PA is allowing them to voice that but it doesn’t want it to get out of control.”
Yet the growth of new organisation among ordinary people could overcome that. “For the longest time Palestinians in the West Bank have always written those in Israel out as people who have been normalised.
“Now they were not only participating but taking the lead. People are saying new alliances could take place. People have seen the power that they have.”