‘One, two, a hundred Bab al-Shams’ — new facts on the ground in Palestine?

The Bab al-Shams encampment, overlooking a nearby Israeli settlement. (Bab al-Shams Facebook page)

The Bab al-Shams encampment, overlooking a nearby Israeli settlement. (Bab al-Shams Facebook page)

Last Thursday around 300 Palestinians gathered in Ramallah to prepare for a direct action in a location known only to a few key organizers but that would soon be seen in media around the world. The next day they traveled under the disguise of a Palestinian wedding party and converged upon a patch of land in the center of the proposed E1 corridor between Jerusalem and the large Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adumim, flags, tents and olive trees in hand. The mission of this apparent wedding party was to create a new Palestinian village.

Bab al-Shams — meaning “Gate of the Sun,” a name taken from the novel of the same name by Lebanese author Elias Khoury — was established at around 6 a.m. on the morning of Friday, Jan. 11. By Sunday the 13th, in the declared interests of Israeli security, the camp had been broken up by the Israeli army. A smaller group of activists returned the following Tuesday to plant olive trees on the site, resulting in 20 arrests. This week on the West Bank, Bab al-Shams is never far from anyone’s thoughts.

The clearing of the camp was the result of an executive action by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that overturned a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court that had given the demonstrators six days to leave the site. “We will not allow anyone to touch the corridor between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim,” Netanyahu said, according to Haaretz. The camp itself came in response to Netanyahu’s announcement of plans for settlement construction in E1, an apparent act of retaliation following the success of the Palestinian bid for upgraded status at the United Nations. Construction there would effectively cut East Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank.

“At about 1 a.m., 1,500 soliders came,” Musa Abata, who was present during the eviction, told me. “Where the media [could see] they didn’t hit people. Where they couldn’t, they hit. Every person had at least five soldiers pinning them to the ground before they arrested him and took him to the bus.

“There were so many of us on the bus that they put most of the people in the luggage space,” Abata said.The speed and scale of this response — isolating the site, preventing international access and demolishing the entire camp overnight — was carried out efficiently, but it perhaps also reflects the anxiety of a ruling government one week away from elections. Palestinian activists felt confident that their action had a powerful impact on the occupier. “We sent a message to Israel that this our land,” said Abdullah Abu Rahman of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee. “If you build E1 in this land you will destroy the dream of the Palestinian state. We want peace and we want independence.”

The Popular Struggle Coordinating Committee (PSCC) is a network of popular committees in villages and towns across the West Bank that seeks to unify Palestinians across geographical and party lines, as well as to organize supporters in Israel and around the world. Social media have featured heavily in their campaigns. Abdullah Abu Rahman, who is from Bil’in, is quick to point out that their approach is steeped in nonviolence, which he considers to be a Palestinian tradition.

“We have used nonviolent resistance for a long time — against the British in 1936, in the First Intifada, for 10 years against the apartheid wall,” he said. “We update our approach and use the Internet, Facebook, cameras, the media.”

Abu Rahman also explicitly links the approach of the committees to other nonviolent struggles worldwide. “We feel that this is the way in this new century,” he added. “We support nonviolence all over the world — to stop the destruction of nature for example. We support these people.”

Bab al-Shams represents a new level and scale of coordination for the PSCC. Organizers claim, also, that were it not for the snow and storms that disrupted many people’s lives in the region the previous week, turnout would have been ever higher.

Palestinian Youth Parliament president Mussa Abata, who is from Sirwan, explained, “We thought about this for a long time, working with a lot of parties in Palestine. We kept the location a secret.” As the action approached, more and more local people became interested and got involved. “They liked what we were doing. We will make one, two, a hundred Bab al-Shamses.”

Among Palestinians, feelings seem mixed. Some are afraid that actions like this could result in more severe treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli military. Abu Rahman acknowledged the difficulty of persuading more Palestinians to make the sacrifices and take the risks that this kind of activity involves, but he is optimistic that a critical mass can be gathered — step by step, victory by victory.

“It is not easy to ask Palestinian people to fight with nonviolence for one day, for one year, for 10 years,” he said. “But when we have one, two, three victories, more will join us. If we succeed in stopping [settlement construction in] E1, people will really trust us. This is the beginning, not the end.”

Alia Alrosan of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin echoed this sentiment. “It is putting real pressure on the enemy to force him to change his behavior, and people need to be ready for what it takes,” she said. “This kind of action needs to be continued … and generalized over all the lands that are under threat.”

Actions such as that at Bab al-Shams represent an attempt by Palestinians to change the “facts on the ground” — a phrase that is often used by Israeli settlers to describe their strategy for the de-facto annexation of the West Bank. This kind of deliberate subversion of settler rhetoric was also used by organizers to describe Bab al-Shams as a “legal Palestinian settlement on Palestinian land,” as opposed to the Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, which are illegal under international law. The founding of a new village is a powerful alternative to the image of a young man throwing a stone — an ubiquitous symbol of Palestinian resistance, both for outsiders and for Palestinians themselves. Like the stone thrower, the village represents pride, defiance and resistance, but the latter goes beyond merely pushing back against the occupation or matching its aggression. It’s an attempt to enact a vision of what comes after the structural violence of occupation is ended.

This proactive approach to protest and rhetoric has been heartening to many. “Taking action, instead of just being in the defensive position as usual, is so important for us as a Palestinian people,” Alia Alrosan explained. “It may be a sign that we are not stuck in the reaction zone any more, that we have the ability to plan and act.”

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