Next week, a group of young Palestinians will board Israeli settler buses in the West Bank with the intention of traveling to East Jerusalem. The activists will likely be greeted by fully armed Israeli settlers, as well as soldiers. The threat of Israeli violence has not deterred Palestinians who maintain that they are prepared to pay a price to highlight Israel’s segregationist policies in the West Bank.
While not officially segregated, Israeli bus lines often pass through Jewish-only settlements which dot the rugged West Bank landscape. Palestinian entry to Jewish settlements is strictly forbidden, unless, of course, Palestinians are engaged in construction of the settlements, most of which are considered illegal under international law.
The upcoming protest event is being labelled by organisers as the Palestinian “Freedom Rides”. In the early 1960s, white and black activists boarded segregated buses in the American south in an effort to draw attention to the racism of Jim Crow legislation. The protests caused panic in the south and helped chip away at segregation in the US. Palestinian organisers hope that the same effect will take place in the West Bank although they understand that their battle begins with challenging the narrative of the conflict.
West Bank Freedom Rides are the latest in a series of non-violent efforts by Palestinian activists attempting to challenge the dominant narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Palestinian human and civil rights take a back seat to Israeli security concerns. Our general understanding is dominated by the Israeli narrative of the conflict as one in which peace and security are the major factors as opposed to rights and citizenship. Earlier this summer, I wrote the following in the opinion pages of the Mail & Guardian:
“In the wake of the Arab Spring, Israel is starting to lose its edge in convincing the international community that the conflict is simply about peace and not rights. Palestinian demonstrations on Israel’s borders and checkpoints have highlighted the sea change taking place.
It would seem that Israel’s only course of action in explaining its heavy-handed military response to unarmed demonstrators is to describe the demonstrators as violent rioters. In practice, unarmed resistance to the status quo of occupation meets extreme violence from the Israeli army.
Historic episodes of human-rights struggles, such as the American civil-rights movement and the anti-apartheid struggle, underwent similar narrative reformulations. Unarmed demonstrations went from ‘violent rioters’ to respected displays of people power in the face of repression. The Palestinian struggle for human rights will be no different when the history of the conflict is written.”
In addition to the Freedom Rides planned for the West Bank, activists from around the globe boarded two ships last week headed for Gaza from Turkey carrying supplies for the besieged territory. This latest “flotilla” was another political stunt designed to highlight Israel’s control over of the world’s most densely populated area. Instead of using social media to organise demonstrations, Palestinian activists and their supporters are using the platforms to disseminate accounts of their protests in immediate and intimate ways. Additionally, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine convened last week in Cape Town in order to analyse the ‘facts on the ground’ concerning Israel’s behaviour in the occupied territories.
Challenges to the narrative are not just taking place merely at grassroots civil-society level. Last week, the Palestinian Authority claimed a major victory as Unesco — the United Nation’s educational, scientific and cultural body — recognised Palestine as a full member. The recognition threw Israel and the US into a tailspin resulting in the US ending its funding of the international body best known for women’s equality projects in the developing world. The international community, on the other hand, demonstrated a willingness to recognise the cultural heritage of Palestine, which has long been under attack by an aggressive Israeli narrative that casts Palestinians as an aggressive and stateless people.
The strategy is simple: affirm Palestinian existence and right to life free from occupation through nonviolent action. Emerging new media platforms such as Twitter have proven effective in getting the message through to the international community. As the protests get bolder and Israel’s reaction becomes increasingly violent, it is only a matter of time before the weak status quo in Israel/Palestine is shattered, likely to be replaced with a Palestinian expression of mass civil disobedience.