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Challenging the narrative in Israel/Palestine

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.


  • Joseph Dana is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East and Africa. He has written for Le Monde Diplomatique, The Nation, GQ (Germany), London Review of Books and the Mail & Guardian among other publications. Dana also files radio reports about cultural, business and political issues in the West Bank and Israel for Monocle 24 in London. Spending half the year in Africa and half in the Middle East, Dana is currently working on a memoir about identity politics and family history in Israel/Palestine.


  1. Robard Robard 9 November 2011

    In the light of what has happened to the Afrikaners since they relinquished sovereignty, I’m afraid that citing the anti-apartheid struggle is merely going to put the fear of the devil into Israelis. They will see it as further justification of their segregationist policies, not as a reason to be ashamed.

  2. nissim nissim 9 November 2011

    how naieve can you get? all simple, you see, like cops and robbers, cowboys and indians. such nice, neat little goody/baddy packages. man up dana, and get a grip. a little objectivity can go a long way. peace.

  3. V3 V3 9 November 2011

    The best way to change the sad narrative in the Middle East is for the people Dana supports to stop denying Israeli’s right to exist, to cease firing rockets at civilian targets and to stop the obscene suicide bomber pandemic.

    The rest is spin.

  4. Dan Dan 9 November 2011

    you said it !

  5. Alexo Alexo 9 November 2011

    Remember the fairy tale of Israel’s peaceful declaration of independence; read the history books 50% of arab citizens of Israel fled between 1947 and 1948; 1 in 3 refugees in the world are Palestinian.

    We created more refugees than Sadam Husein and Omar Bashir combined!

    But yes it is all the Palestinians fault! Why can’t they just peacefully move on and forget that 1 in 2 of them have no legal rights to exist anywhere in the world, even in occupied Palestine.

  6. Joe Joe 9 November 2011

    Good article.

    The people criticising aren’t actually challenging your argument/narrative. The article is apparently just trampling on their sensitivities.

    Keep up the good, fair work.

  7. shaun shaun 9 November 2011

    It is not good fair work Joe, Dana comments on a subject that he obviously has very little knowledge about. The Palestinians were offered a two state solution originally, THEY rejected it. The land was never theirs to lay exclusive claim to. As you may or may not know, Judaism is older than Islam, the land is described as belonging to Jews long before Islam was created in later centuries. Palestinians and their arab allies attacked Israel time and time again and have since complained about the conseuquences.

    Poor, one sided journalism that undermines the good work the M&G does Dana. You cant make sense of the picture whilst most of the pieces of the puzzle are still missing!

  8. shaun shaun 9 November 2011

    I should add that whilst Dana may claim to have knowledge of this because of where he is based, the way he has structured his argument and the details he has omitted would suggest otherwise. Alternatively, this is just poor one sided journalism.

  9. Peter Peter 9 November 2011

    Maybe the Palestinians are not welcome on the buses because of their history of violent attacks, murders, launching daily rocket attacks into southern Israel and suicide bombing campaigns against civilians.

  10. Larry Lachman Larry Lachman 10 November 2011

    There are several narratives in Israel / Palestine, and each can be challenged equally. It is pointless and dishonest to harp on one narrative without balancing against the opposing narrative. Each is valid and cannot be denied.

  11. Jack Sparrow Jack Sparrow 10 November 2011

    This just epitomises why there is unlikely to be peace anytime soon in the Palestine / Israel area, Absolute dogmatic ideology that has no place for tolerance and understanding. On both sides. Until there is tolerance, acceptance and understanding, there will be no peace.

  12. EWOK EWOK 10 November 2011

    Spot on. Clear factual reporting. Joe is right, your critics are floundering. The Israeli Security argument gets weaker and weaker with each act of passive resistance and worldwide solidarity. Nowhere is this more apparent then in the rhetoric and venom leveled at journalists and activists like you.

    Keep on keeping on for us all.

  13. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 10 November 2011


    The South African and the international Jewish communities were very effective opponents against Apartheid.
    Interesting that when it comes to Israel, the same moral indignation does not apply.

  14. frosty frosty 10 November 2011

    This is laughable. The major difference between the palestinian comparison to the USA comparison about non violent demonstrations is the fact that black Americans never ever threatened and tried to wipe white america off the map, now the Palestinians are led by Hamas who have made it quite clear on numerous occasions that wiping Israel off the map is its conly objective. The rest of this media spin is just dressing. The facts are this Israel exists and is not going anywhere, palestinians and other Arabs must just accept this and get on with their lives.

  15. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 10 November 2011

    The following states are all “Apartheid” states as they only allow their own religion or race to prevail:- Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and probably all Arab states. Israel is a homeland for the Jews and has been for more than four thousand years. In South Africa we have many acceptable ‘Apartheid’ organizations.
    i.e. The black business forum, the black editors forum, the Greek Club, The Irish Club, the British Club, The USA Club, The Italian Club and so on. These dastardly racist organisations should be boycotted and cast into the furnace. We have an editors forum that has no race as a face. The general business forums have no race as a face. In America we have the Miss USA beauty pagent that accepts anyone but they have the Miss Black America pagent too – why?
    We pick on Israel and deny history but we do not deny the Palestinians who did not exist before 1948 and we support the violence against Israel that has not seen peace for over 2,000 years. The Israelis want to live and let live but the world needs to be ‘politically correct’ so it’s OK to lob bombs into Israel but for Israel to fight back is ‘racist’ and are classified as war crimes? How many times is it OK for terrorists to do their criminal deeds before it’s OK for the victims to hit back? Arab mosques are built over the ruins of Jewish and Christian holy sites but that’s OK and now we are even beginning to believe the lies that these sites were ever anything but Islamic sites.

  16. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 10 November 2011


    You hit the nail on the head. When De Klerk men, like Pik Botha, were boasting of the South African “miracle” to the Israeli ambassador, he commented later that “Well, Israel certainly knew where to go to for advice if they wanted to give up power”.

  17. The Creator The Creator 10 November 2011

    Well, the trouble is that it is not just “narrative”, it is facts on the ground. The facts on the ground are that the Israelis have seized all the best territory in the West Bank and backed the Palestinians in the occupied territory into ghettoes, while buying off the Palestinians in Israel proper. And that the Israeli army is empowered to murder whoever it pleases, defining the deceased as a terrorist, with nobody except a few Israeli journalists and intellectuals protesting about this.

    You can organise all the freedom rides you want, but the grim fact is that Palestinians have no friends in the world, no significant allies, no competent leaders and no tools with which to challenge the status quo. It’s a very different situation from the situation in South Africa in the 1980s, and of course completely incommensurate with the situation in the United States in the 1960s.

    Changing the narrative won’t help, I fear. The facts about Israel have been common knowledge for nearly twenty years — ever since the first Intifada Israel has lost the propaganda war — but that narrative victory for the Palestinian cause has translated into nothing at all.

  18. Joe Joe 10 November 2011

    shaun, three things:

    The Palestinians never wanted to lay exclusive claim to the land. Speak to Palestinians maybe, do some research beyond the media, and you’ll discover that many Palestinians were never against (and still aren’t) against Jews, Hindus, Apaches etc. coming to settle in Palestine, as long as the Palestinians themselves aren’t forcibly removed from land they held title deeds to (which the British didn’t recognise, thus allowing a state of Israel to be formed and Israeli Jewish nationals to forcibly claim land from Palestinians).

    Second, I did know that Judaism is older than Islam. However, I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make? The Palestinian/Israeli conflict is not a clash of religious ideology or even religious communities. It’s a conflict between an occupying force and an occupied nation. The occupied nation is comprised of Muslims, Christians and (yes) Jews. Anyone who wasn’t officially registered as a member of the (international) Jewish nation was, and still is, persecuted by the Israeli state.

    Finally, the two-state solution per se was never rejected by the Palestinians. Until today, you many Palestinians will testify that they are not necessarily driven by a desire for one state or two states or three states. What they are driven by is a desire to eradicate the persecution by the Israeli state. What they rejected were the discriminatory and unjust conditions attached to the Israeli’s two-state proposal.

  19. Larry Lachman Larry Lachman 11 November 2011

    @The Creator. Israel also have ‘facts on the ground’ that escape consideration by the pro-Palestinian shrill.
    @ Joe – poorly formed opinion – try sucking the other thumb.

    Israel was created at great inconvenience to the Arab world which had enjoyed millennia of conquering and empire at the expense of others. The Arab Muslim sense of honour is a palpable emotion and they instinctively attacked this thing (Israel) in order to assuage their honour.

    Fact: At the time of Israel’s creation, and with the departure of the British Protectorate, Jordan emerged to annex the West Bank territory and Gaza was always part of Egypt. (Please read again and absorb).
    Israel’s war of independence, where it was attacked on three fronts by Syria, Jordan and Egypt, saw Israel defeating her attackers to the compounded humiliation of all Arab Muslims. Also at this point, the balance of 800 000 Arab Jews were expelled from Arab and Muslim countries after having their lands and possesions expropriated. They now reside in Israel and their progeny now number 3,6million, or 60% of Israeli Jews. This is a fact.

    Please note, that from 1948 until the 1967 war, the West Bank was occupied, or annexed by Jordan, and Gaza was under control of Egypt.
    Once again, the Arab agressors were repelled in 1967, trounced rather; – and this time Israel took steps to better secure its borders against future attacks. Israel both occupied the Egyptian Sinai Peninsular and Jordan’s West Bank.

  20. Larry Lachman Larry Lachman 11 November 2011


    Israel used these positions to leverage peace with Egypt and Jordan, which remains to this day. In these arrangements, Israel exacted territorial occupation as a buffer against future aggression and for defensive advantage. Egypt re-alligned their new border to exclude Gaza, where Israel military drew their own opposing border installations; and Jordan retreated to the east Bank of the Jordan river, leaving a stateless people now under the military occupation of Israel. All perfectly legal according to Internation Law of war.

    Israel cannot annex the West Bank territory, as the inclusion of many millions of non-Jews into Israeli democratic society would alter the demographics to their permanent disadvantage. The only Jewish State would become another Muslim State and this would be tantamount to committing national suicide.
    The Palestinian people can have their own state, but Israel must preserve territorial integrity by having a military presence and a demilitarised Palestine, so as to prevent attacks from militant Islamists and others. Quite reasonable.

    Settlements of Arab Muslims and Christians within Israel are not barricaded and none are under threat from Jewish neighbors. Why then must Jewish settlements in the West Bank be protected and secured against Palestinians? The perception that Israel is stealing land by settling Jews on legally occupied territory is wrong. They are just Jews living in Palestine,…

  21. Larry Lachman Larry Lachman 11 November 2011


    , much the same way Turkey has occupied Northern Cyprus and populated it with Turkish Muslims.
    Surely, if non-Jews can be citizens of Israel, then Jews can be welcomed as future Palestinian citizens.
    But NO, Arabs will not have Jews infesting their countries. Talk about Racism.

    So then territorial exchanges must be negotiated. But the Palestinians have another agenda.

    Non-negotiable – All of Jerusalem will remain to belong to Israel forevermore. Like it, lump it, get used to it. finish and klaar.

  22. Steve Steve 12 November 2011

    There should be one state with equality and human rights for all who live in Israel/Palestine. The idea of two states has always been a ruse to play for time while illegal settlements are bring built.
    To cry “anti-semitism” when real change is called for is a defence and excuse for the longest military occupation in our history is clutching at straws. To say that the “destruction of Israel” is being called for is also cluthcing at straws. What is indeed being called for is an equal and democratic society.
    The Zionists have taken the religion of Judaism and mashed it together with the ideology of Zionism as a justification for occupying this land.

  23. Steve Steve 12 November 2011

    see this website of an organisation which was created by an Israeli Jew to document and remember the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 and beyond from hundreds of villages and towns. It has verbaitm testimonies from Palestinians as well as Israeli’s. It also has a very accurate map of Palestinain villages that were destroyed.

    See here for the map:
    Zochrot (“Remembering”) seeks to raise public awareness of the Palestinian Nakba, especially among Jews in Israel, who bear a special responsibility to remember and amend the legacy of 1948. The principal victims of the Nakba were the Palestinians, especially the refugees, who lost their entire world. But Jews in Israel also pay a price for their conquest of the land in 1948, living in constant fear and without hope.

  24. Rory Short Rory Short 12 November 2011

    The bottom line in all human relating is justice between all participants. Justice does not come from only one narrative however but from the honest merging of the different narratives. Israel as the most powerful participant here has been trying to force its own narrative onto everybody. Not surprisingly this appeared to work but only whilst the Palestinians were also trying to use their much weaker force. Luckily more and more Palestinians seem to have recognised the futility of force and have turned instead to non-violent direct action to bring their narrative before the eyes and ears of the world. More strength to them as this is the only way that a satisfactory resolution to the problem can ever be reached.

  25. Lennon Lennon 17 November 2011

    Uhm… What about that time when the Jews / Hebrews / Israelites (whatever you want to call them) invaded and conquered the original Canaanite kingdoms without provocation?

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