When two soldiers were killed in occupied East Jerusalem a few weeks ago, it set off a chain reaction of Israeli punitive measures, Palestinian protests and violence. The Israeli government ramped up its presence in the Old City, installing metal detectors and security cameras in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Palestinians reacted with mass protest tactics such as boycotting Israeli security measures and collective prayer in the streets of East Jerusalem. And although the Israeli police responded with mass arrests and live fire, the protests grew. After weeks of sustained demonstrations, Israeli authorities reversed the measures, and Palestinians celebrated as trucks filled with security technology drove out of the Old City.
This was a rare unifying moment for Palestinians, who have been unable to sustain mass, coordinated protests since the second uprising in the early 2000s. What made this moment in Jerusalem a unique rallying point? My research illuminates the effects of repression on collective organizing and mobilization in the Palestinian territories.
Who controls the Palestinian territories?
Following the Oslo accords in 1993, the Palestinian territories were split into three main areas: Areas A, B and C, with varying layers of governance. In Area A, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is most free to operate as a quasi-state, Area B features limited PA control, and in Area C the PA is not allowed at all. Many Palestinians thus live in areas partially controlled by two regimes. While this was meant to be a temporary measure, with the PA slated to become the government of a future Palestinian state by 1999, the Israeli government never ceded this authority. Instead it utilized the PA to govern the territories while abdicating responsibility for its policies toward Palestinians.
As a result, the PA has become increasingly authoritarian. Some have characterized the PA as “subcontracting repression” for the occupation. Security coordination between the PA and Israel is a sore point for the Palestinian public, and many complain that the PA has begun operating as a police state. Not only is the police to citizen ratio incredibly high, but the PA has also expanded its purview over journalism, activism and academia. Moreover, human rights organizations have documented that those imprisoned by the PA are subject to beatings and other violent measures.
When activists are stuck between two regimes
Activist Basel al-Araj was arrested without charge by the PA for his nonviolent activism against Israel’s separation wall. He was tortured while imprisoned with other leftist organizers. Though a publicized hunger strike led to his release, the PA reportedly told Israeli forces when and where he would be released. After months on the run, Israeli soldiers killed Basel in Ramallah on March 6. While extreme, this case is not unique, and many activists have faced similar levels of repression from Palestinian and Israeli authorities alike.
Islamist organizers are also repressed and barred from participating in political life, often to a greater degree than their leftist counterparts. For instance, Islamist student activists have been repeatedly arrested, especially if they attempt to take part in student body elections. This has pushed many members into hiding and to increasingly rely on violent measures.
How dual repression fractured Palestinian activism
My recent research on activism in the Palestinian territories confirms that activists often deliberately work “off the radar” and publicize events only through word of mouth to trusted allies, to avoid possible PA involvement and/or crackdown.
Such inhibitions have an effect on group insularity, as well as the efficacy of their collective action efforts. My research also shows that the PA’s repressive tactics have polarized Palestinians, making it difficult for groups to coordinate.
This contrasts with the first uprising that had a unified leadership, allowing the activists to unify tactics and objectives. Today there is no cohesive leadership or even agreement on basic preferences or strategies. My interviews with Palestinians within the PA show a clear divide in Palestinian society. Those who are pro-PA view opposition groups as terrorists, radical Islamists or foreign implants intended to sow dissension. Palestinians in the opposition, on the other hand, view PA supporters as traitors and collaborators. Moreover, recent polling shows that Palestinians are almost evenly split on their support for the Palestinian Authority as an institution.
More space for mobilization without the PA
Based on statistical analysis of protests in the territories since the second uprising, political mobilization has declined systematically in places where the Palestinian Authority has direct control (Area A). Attempts to protest Basel al-Araj’s death in Ramallah were quickly and violently repressed. Protests in his home village of Al-Walaja, on the other hand, were large and unimpeded. Mobilizations in rural areas with limited or no PA control are now actually on the rise. Villages like Bil’in, Nabi Saleh and Kufr Qaddum are often in the news for their regular protests against the occupation, the separation wall and settlements.
Counterintuitively, although all three areas of the West Bank face Israeli repression, political mobilization today is actually less prevalent in areas where the PA operates. This finding suggests that the PA does, in fact, play a role in the decline of political mobilization and engagement.
During the July protests in Jerusalem, the PA and its leadership were always a step behind. They had nothing to do with the coordination of the protests and could do little to stop them. Local religious figures, particularly the Islamic Waqf, took the lead on calls for protest and formulating the Palestinian position. Christian leadership followed suit. Jerusalemites responded with high levels of participation, developing their repertoires of protest by relying on preexisting norms, like prayer times.
My findings also help explain why the Jerusalem protests were effective: East Jerusalem, despite having been occupied in 1967 like the rest of the Palestinian territories, is unique in its lack of PA institutions. Palestinians there do not face an added layer of repression from an indigenous regime.
And although the occupation is repressive, how people react to an externally imposed force differs from how they react to their own leadership. While the occupation can spur rebellion, the PA’s direct repression in the areas it governs exacerbates polarization and affects the ability of different groups to coordinate. This is precisely why today we see increased mobilization in places we wouldn’t expect: rural farming communities and East Jerusalem suburbs. Until we see a change in the Palestinian Authority’s role, the locus of mobilization will continue to shift in unexpected ways.
Dana El Kurd earned her PhD in government from the University of Texas at Austin, and beginning in September will be a researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.