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Palestinian uprising one year on—lessons in resistance against repression

In a ground breaking move, a year ago a powerful strike of Palestinians in Israel combined with protests in the West Bank and Gaza. Nick Clark spoke to Majd Kayyal, an activist from the occupied city of Haifa, about the challenges facing resistance then and now
Issue 2805
Israel bombs Gaza

Israeli Air Force bombed the al-Jalaa media building in Gaza, Palestine in May, 2021. (Osama Eid)

It’s a year since a historic uprising across Palestine mounted a direct challenge to Israel’s regime. for the first time in decades Palestinians joined across Israel’s borders in mass resistance from below—raising the prospect of a united Palestine freed through struggle.

Since then, it seems as if the occupation has fallen back into a familiar patten. In West Bank cities Israeli forces storm refugee camps, snatching or killing Palestinians who have dared to resist. In the West Bank, settlers harass and attack villagers and farmers ­defending their land.

In the Gaza Strip, suffocating siege conditions are punctuated by sporadic airstrikes on what Israel says are ­military targets. In east Jerusalem—where the ­uprising began—cops attack ­worshippers at the Al Aqsa mosque so that Israeli ­settlers might stage provocations. And Palestinian families persevere in the face of efforts to evict them from their homes.

And inside Israel’s official borders, which Palestinians call 48 Palestine—because it was all Palestine before Israel’s creation in 1948—repression of Arabs has worsened. Nevertheless last year’s uprising was a turning point. Protests that began in Jerusalem spread into Israel and the West Bank, ­culminating in a general strike on 15 May.

Majd Kayyal, an activist from the city of Haifa in 48 Palestine, told Socialist Worker how it happened—and the legacy it left. “In this uprising you cannot tell who organised what,” he said. “The magic of what happened is that everyone—from different political affiliations, from different sides, from ­different places—just moved in their own very small groups everywhere.

“People tried to create their own groups. Even groups that are not political started to act in a political way. This is one of the most magnificent things that happened. So it could be a group of parents at a school who start to talk to each other and move through WhatsApp or Facebook.

“It could even be family groups on WhatsApp. We have pretty big families, so a group of 15 or 20 cousins could say, okay let’s have a demonstration. Let’s go to the street or make our own ­demonstration. We don’t need someone to tell us to do it.”

The events that sparked the revolt drew together several different sides of the Palestinian struggle—from across Palestinian society—then lit the touch paper. In Sheikh Jarrah, east Jerusalem, there was a direct link between the attempted eviction of Palestinian families from their homes, and the Nakba—catastrophe—of 1948.

Not only was it the latest example of how Israel’s laws work to gradually discriminate against Palestinians, ­marginalise them, and push them out. But the Palestinian families were living in homes for refugees from 1948.

Israeli law said settlers had a right to evict the Palestinians if they could prove the land belonged to Jews before 1948—meaning the Palestinians were expelled again. For weeks Israeli cops attacked ­protesters trying to protect the homes and stop the evictions. At the same time, Israeli forces stormed the Al Aqsa mosque, also in east Jerusalem, during the month of Ramadan.

As Palestinians fought back, Israel put up barriers and checkpoints at the nearby Damascus Gate—or Bab Al Amud—a popular gathering place for Palestinians.

Together, the battles were about Palestinians’ rights to live freely in their own capital city—drawing in people from all different backgrounds. They mobilised what Majd called, “The religious sector—people moved by anything related to Al Aqsa. This in my eyes is legitimate, it’s important. It’s part of the ­cultural and national identity of people.”

At the same time, the Sheikh Jarrah protests involved “activists from the circles of human rights organisations. They’re people from, let’s say a little bit of a higher social class that usually have some distance from the battle over Al Aqsa.

“But what happened at Bab Al Amud brought in so many people that have a relation to this city. Not just a religious one, but to the cultural life, to the urban life of Jerusalem. Anyone who has lived in Jerusalem for even two days has some feeling for Bab Al Amud and some understanding of its importance.”

This in turn united Palestinians across geographical divisions too. Israeli cops stopped bus loads of Palestinians from 48 travelling to Al Aqsa—only to end up drawing them into the struggle. As they marched on to Al Aqsa regardless, Palestinians from Jerusalem came to meet them.

The protests took on bigger significance. Palestinians in 48 had long been discriminated against and impoverished by Israeli laws and policies, and abused by Israeli racism.

Now, as they protested, they faced the same violence from Israeli forces and settlers as Palestinians under military occupation in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. At the same time ­resistance fighters in Gaza launched rockets at Israel in retaliation for its assaults on Al Aqsa. Israel responded with a two‑week ­barrage on the besieged enclave.

The resilience of Palestinians living under Israel’s bombs was connected to the resistance of those facing down its tear gas and rubber bullets. In all this, Palestinians had broken down the ­borders Israel uses to ­fragment them.

“The whole uprising was a response to the fragmentation Israel has enforced since the Nakba,” says Majd. “It’s failing because people are always finding ways to know each other and to learn from each other.

“Israel’s target is to disconnect the Palestinians from Jerusalem from the West Bank in order to secure some kind of demographic control over Jerusalem. But this process created new ­connections—especially around the issue of Al Aqsa—between Palestinians from 48 and Palestinians from Jerusalem. So every time the mechanism tries to make a disconnection, a fragmentation, another type of connection and another type of unity is born.”

Unity and organisation from below also represented a challenge to the official Palestinian leadership. In various ways, Palestinian politicians in 48, and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, had compromised with Israel and ­contained resistance. Now ordinary people found new ways of political organisation outside their control.

“The traditional political powers working in Palestine for years wanted to monopolise and professionalise the political scene, pushing people away from political activism,” said Majd.

“Over the years people on some level lost their faith and self confidence in their ability to behave politically. So you need someone to tell you that you have to go to the demonstration, that you need someone to organise for you. The uprising broke this and people started to recognise they have the power to initiate political acts, even if they were never active politically.”

“There were ways of organising that we who are involved in political work didn’t recognise as organising,” he added. “This is the richness and beauty of what happened. For example a group of girls in a school that moved from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, making graffiti and distributing flyers they printed at home, wouldn’t have thought about the need to have a name or call ­themselves a group.

“I know about a family that decided to issue a booklet for other families, and everyone was reading it. It’s like that family started to work as revolutionary educators. But no one thought of calling it a group or organisation.”

Yet This strength of the uprising—its spontaneity and ad hoc character—also apparently left behind little in the way of permanent organisation. For Majd this is a good thing. He says it avoids the traps and pitfalls of parties and organisations that cut ­themselves off from the struggles of ordinary people. Instead, he says, the idea of unity and coordination across Palestine’s borders should be “a compass” for activists—“something that you dream of and that motivates you.”

But the important work is “locally in your neighbourhood, in your village, in your city, because this is where things happen. At the end of the day, this is where popular power exists.” But a year after the uprising, Palestinian anger and responses to renewed Israeli repression can go in different forms and directions.

Recent weeks have seen a return of stabbing attacks by individual Palestinians—a desperate, but fatalistic, reaction to life under occupation. And the Middle East Eye website reports that, in some refugee camps, there has been a renewed interest in armed struggle. Repeated Israeli raids on the Jenin refugee camp has turned the focus of the resistance towards the armed brigades of Palestinian factions.

Meanwhile, in 48 Palestine, Majd describes heavy policing and a steady stream of arrests in Palestinian towns and neighbourhoods. People without organisation are most vulnerable.

“Israel knows that targeting ­activists that have thousands of ­followers on their Facebook profile can be ­counterproductive for them,” says Majd. “So what they do is target people who are from lower social classes.

“People with a lot of social problems. People who are more likely to be afraid. People who are from social circles where it’s not common to get arrested or go to court, and don’t have the circles of activists around them. The real harsh ­repression is happening on this level.”

This sort of quiet repression is happening daily, Majd adds. “They do dozens every day,” he says. “They are following social media in an intense way. Anyone who writes anything, the local police call on them, even if it’s an invitation to a legal demonstration.

“There is a lot of administrative detention—especially after the attacks. But sometimes they don’t need to be arrested. They just need to take ­someone for two to four hours of interrogation, just to threaten them and make them scared.”

Yet there are still seeds of mass revolt. In the past year there have been protest movements against new ­settlements in the West Bank, and against repression by the Palestinian Authority.

Though not on the same scale as last year, Palestinians again defended Al Aqsa heroically during Ramadan. And residents have organised against evictions in both east Jerusalem and the Naqab desert in 48 Palestine.

Though the uprising itself perhaps didn’t leave new organisation, popular campaigns and networks outside “official” Palestinian politics—which fed into the uprising—continue to organise. Even the repression—and the ­sustained moves by Israeli settlers to marginalise Arabs even in 48 Palestine—lays the ground for new struggles, says Majd.

“The policing is at an unbelievable rate, and has increased,” Majd says. “I suppose Israel is still frightened about what happened last year. They should be. Are there enough measures to stop people organising and stop people rising up? If not this year, next year. It’s not that it ended and we’re waiting for another ten years. There’s nothing that can stop ­people’s desire to be free.”

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