20 Tents Rocked Israel
take the fight to their occupiers
By Jonathan Cook in Nazareth
January 15, 2013 "Information
- 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”
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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