By: Noor Al-Kifah
Scene 1: Revolution or isolated expressions of discontent?
The revolution will not be televised. It will not be televised. The revolution will not be televised—it will be contained. The revolution will be quietly and insidiously contained, quelled, squashed even before it has a chance to gather momentum and determine its direction…
During the early days of September 2012, youth in cities and towns across Palestine began to express their frustrations and despair through scattered demonstrations and spurts of action—some constructive, others destructive and senselessly aggressive. At first it seemed to have the potential to become an organized movement, an inclusive and representative statement of discontent. At first, all I could think was, “Finally! Finally it’s happening.” And so I sat down to write it all down during the first week of September:
Finally. The early stirrings of agitation. Signs of discontent and frustration faintly flowing from talk to action. Nobody knows which direction this agitation will lead—into a cluster of more demonstrations and strikes, or into a full-fledged movement. There is no way to know, really. To speculate would be meaningless, when the odds are never clear. But the key lies in the preparation for both scenarios and anticipation of either one. Could the agitation lead to what racist elements in England called the London “riots” of 2011? Or could the self-immolation in Gaza and attempted one in Ramallah lead to a Bouazizi-style revolutionary overthrow of the government? Either way, we must let out a sigh of relief, and say “finally!” Finally the Palestinian people have decided to act, to put their foot down and tell those on top that enough is enough.
As I sat in my old stone home in the center of Palestine, I could not help but wonder why I wasn’t feeling any of the action. Far different from the days at the height of the intifadas—both the first and second—this agitation has not yet crept into our homes. Yes, a road closed here, a strike there, simultaneous demonstrations across the main cities creating some noise, stirring the “leadership” to its feet. Or at least to its press conference room, where Mahmoud Abbas behaved like a patriarchal tribal leader, waving off questions when convenient, laughing off others, and sternly putting reporters in their place for asking legitimate and logical questions about the economic situation in Palestine. Such local performances are worlds away from the soft-spoken clean-cut diplomat that is Abbas, appealing to “Western” sensibilities as he elegantly walks through the halls of the White House or the grand rooms of United Nations buildings. The cameras are directed at him in both scenarios, but the audience is different. The Western world sees one face, while the Palestinian populace sees another. What an insult to our intelligence! Are we so ignorant and lowly, so provincial and uncivilized, that we see a leader that shouts impassioned slogans or reprimands reporters for exercising their right to ask honest questions? Are we so undeserving that we do not get addressed or replied to in the soft-spoken manner that is the mark of legitimacy every international diplomat must exhibit?
The revolution, or its initial stirrings (irrespective of whether it comes to fruition), has not yet been felt in our homes. We have seen the effects of the transportation strike on workers and students unable to reach their daily destinations, but that is the extent of its scale. It has not rumbled under our feet yet, has not made the ground shake yet, has not shaken us to our core or pulsated through our veins. Not yet. And so long as liberals cry out “occupation! occupation!”; and leftists assert that it is being provoked and lead by Abbas’ camp to oust Fayyad, his cronies, and other citizens who would prefer to maintain their comfort; the elite allege that the agitators are but well-to-do kids stirring up trouble; so long as nobody legitimizes the legitimate economic woes and concerns of the people, the revolution will not be felt in our homes. It will not rumble underneath our feet or pulsate in our veins.
And it did not. The revolution did not get a chance to become. Instead, life went back to normal, with student strikes and school and university faculty and staff strikes being held in isolation from a wider attempt to address the people’s economic woes. Instead, frustrations are temporarily quelled with a trickle of money, as partial salaries are dispensed into hollow bank accounts.
Scene 2: Local elections: exercising free will?
In place of the revolution that did not become, we are now temporarily distracted by local municipal elections in the West Bank. Browsing through the official Palestinian Central Elections Commission (CEC) website leaves one with the impression that local elections were a well-organised, professionally executed, exercise in democracy. However, without genuinely impartial observers, it is difficult to gauge the actual competency of the Commission and the professionalism of its oversight. In an official statement, the Commission declares that while “CEC commissioners convened to look into complaints which came from the observation missions…[it] concluded that these complaints did not influence the results significantly enough to warrant action.” A description of the type or nature of the complaints is nowhere to be found.
But it is not so-called minor complaints that lie at the heart of the problematic nature of local elections. Rather, it is the very existence of elections themselves that comprise the problem. Ironic as it may seem, local and national elections are a farce, far from being a democratic expression of the will of the people. Elections provide a guise of democracy, a pacifying effect to people who want to believe that their voice is heard and that the Palestinian Authority (PA) actually serves their interests.
It is well known that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was one of the most prominent voices in rejecting negotiations and “peace talks” with Israel from the outset. Part of what is sometimes referred to as a “rejectionist front”, the PFLP foresaw the farce that was to become our reality in Palestine. In Peace and its Discontents, Edward Said eloquently explores and exposes the intricacies of this farce. It is thus nothing new to the Palestinian people that Oslo brought nothing positive to their lives, instead entrenching them deeper into a state of injustice that Israel continuously tries to legitimise and legalise.
With Hamas officially boycotting municipal elections, a fair reflection of the people’s will is impossible to capture. However, irrespective of this essential missing link, voting results will have no great bearing on people’s lives. Government officials have no real political leverage, as municipalities handle purely civil matters—in effect acting as service providers. To add insult to injury, municipalities don’t even have control over the services they provide, for example water distribution, since control of this precious resource is in Israel’s hands. Issuing building permits and paving roads in what little lands the PA has political and civil control over, seems to suffice in maintaining a façade of governance.
As I watched people mill around outside voting stations, eagerly awaiting more voters to arrive, I couldn’t help but be amazed by their conviction. Passing through the gates of two local secondary schools—which served, among other places, as voting stations—young men campaigning for various election slates, discretely (or not so discretely!) slip you a small piece of paper. In a last-minute attempt to persuade you to vote for their slate, they mumble the slate number written on the paper. Walking away from the voting station, I noticed how self-satisfied voters seemed. Of course local elections were the talk of the town for the entire week. While the question du jour was “Did you vote?” citizens’ right index fingers provided the answer. As the excitement died down, dark blue ink stains lingered on people’s fingers for days.
Scene 3: Discontent
“Burn down this mountain,” the passenger to my right said to another fellow passenger in a service taxicab (i.e. public transportation) from Ramallah to the university town Birzeit. “The problem,” he continued, “is that prices are rising and there’s no money! People don’t have any money.” I glanced at him and with a smile, he continued. “Let’s not say burn down the Muqata’a [the PA headquarters], let’s just say burn down this mountain!” He ended his mini-monologue with a chuckle as he glanced around him to size up his audience. Despite his soft laughter and the amiable expression on his face, this average Palestinian man was expressing serious sentiments: disillusionment and discontent with the current situation and the concomitant desire for people to rise up and take action. Clearly taking a cautious stance towards the authority, he nevertheless implicitly placed the blame on their shoulders.
One often hears complaints of rising prices, increasing levels of unemployment, and a generally deteriorating state of affairs. One rarely hears calls for action, however. All the way to my destination, I contemplated his words, thinking of this call to thinking about this simultaneously literal and figurative call to action. What would happen if a group of youth actually set fire to a hillside near the Muqata’a? Other than the obvious deleterious environmental effects, what would it lead to politically? The most probable outcome would be the short-term incarceration of the youths, who will be dubbed “destructive,” “reckless,” and “rebels without a cause.” This would certainly not be a first!
Scene 4: Youth mobilisation and popular resistance
Both Israeli and Palestinian officials have hurled accusations of inciting a third intifada. While the onset of this intifada is nowhere to be seen, propaganda has continued to spread through media outlets. Protests and demonstrations of discontent, while fairly consistent vis-à-vis their reaction to Israel’s violations, are dishearteningly small, with the number of participants ranging from tens to hundreds. But while street protests may not cause much noise, youth around Palestine have been devising creative methods of resistance, raising their voices against ongoing colonisation and injustice.
Expressing their understanding of people’s apathy and fear of collective punishment, youth activists have led various solidarity activities. These include solidarity hunger strikes, protests outside of Israeli prisons, and the creation of tent villages in which activists set up camp on land that has been confiscated by Israel. From Bab al-Shams to Canaan Village, activists have attempted to re-claim land designated for colonial settlements. Unsurprisingly, Israel responds with force, declaring the areas closed military zones, destroying the activists’ tents, and banning journalists from covering the scene.
These activists also lead conventional demonstrations: coordinated street demonstrations across the country to protest Israel’s November 2012 attack on Gaza; and outside of Israeli prisons, in support of hunger striking prisoners. Amongst the string of protests for the prisoners, those held for Arafat Jaradat, the prisoner convincingly believed (see here, here, and here) to have beaten to death by Israeli interrogators, were the largest, with his funeral being attended by thousands.
Most recently, protests and strikes were held after Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh died in an Israeli prison. Being denied treatment for cancer, Abu Hamdiyeh was also banned from seeing his family until the very end. Israel’s failure to release a dying 63-year-old political prisoner sparked anger across the country. However, as with Jaradat’s death, this anger fell short of utter outrage, the type of outrage that sparks revolutions.
As most people struggle to make ends meet, desperately searching for employment or clinging to their precarious jobs, political resistance falls by the wayside. With the culture of solidarity a distant memory, isolated protests only cause tiny ripples in the ocean of injustice. Youth activists struggle to maintain a sustained movement that sweeps across the land, culminating in popular resistance. With a state of apartheid being formally achieved in the “greater Land of Israel”, the guise of a political will being exercised in a burgeoning democracy is rendered more ludicrous than ever. While the roads get paved and new buildings spring up, corruption proliferates in Palestine. But will overwhelming popular opinion be reflected in the streets? Will the people rise up and finally form a unified, organised movement to express their despair? If and when a true revolution does go down, Gil Scott Heron’s famous words will resonate in my head: “The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised. The revolution will be no re-run brothers; The revolution will be live.”