The Resurgence of Strategic Nonviolent Organizing in Palestine

by Jim Haber

Israel-Palestine peace poster, courtesy Centre for European Reform;

A new project in the rural hills of the West Bank, called Sumud Freedom Camp, is the latest sign of a resurgence of strategic, nonviolent organizing in Palestine; it is creating strong bonds between Palestinians and Jewish activists from Israel and around the world.

I traveled to Palestine this May (2017) with a delegation organized by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV), to help build the Sumud Camp (the name means steadfastness), following a call for assistance by Palestinian communities. Using the hashtag #WeAreSumud, the camp was organized by a unique coalition of Palestinians, Israelis, non-Israeli Jews, and international justice seekers standing in solidarity with the village of Sarura, in the South Hebron Hills of the occupied West Bank.

The families of Sarura were displaced from their homes in the 1980s and 1990s, and wanted to return to their lands and rebuild their homes, which they still legally own. The village of Sarura, and the surrounding land, was declared a restricted military zone as part of Firing Zone 918, and 1,300 Bedouins were cleared out of a dozen hamlets south of Hebron, just north of the Israeli border. The residents have faced continuous settler violence and harassment including the poisoning of livestock and wells. After decades of injustice, marginalization and occupation, the Sumud Coalition is calling for an end to the systematic displacement of Palestinians, the dismantling of Firing Zone 918, and a future of justice, dignity, freedom, and equality for all.

How It All Began

On May 19, after walking from nearby Al-Tuwani to Sarura, Issa Amro (sometimes called “the Palestinian Gandhi”) of Hebron’s Youth Against Settlements welcomed everyone with a brief history of the area and a call to steadfast nonviolence.  “We encourage everyone to do nonviolent resistance,” Amro said. “Historically, our prisoners have one of the best nonviolent movements ever in Palestine.” And speaking of the political prisoners who were on hunger strike at that time, he added, “They motivate us to go on with our nonviolent resistance that will change the situation on the ground. We’re going to start work now. If the army comes, ignore them. It’s our land. You are in solidarity with the landowners. We are here, and we’re not leaving.”

Fadal Aamer and his family have led this return to Sarura. We laid a concrete floor in Aamer’s family cave, which Israel evicted them from 20 years ago. Since the family’s return they have lived in this cave. We also restored walking paths and paved a portion of road which helps to reduce the costs of supplying these outlying communities. We erected large tents over old stonewalled areas and danced exuberant, semi-traditional, Palestinian dabkah around a fire. People observed Shabbat [Sabbath Day] in different ways as they saw fit.

On the second night, a little before midnight, the Israeli army violently showed up and illegally seized Palestinian-owned tents, a generator and food, while also pouring water on sleeping gear and wrecking a projector. They pushed and pulled people as we created nonviolent walls by linking arms to hold or reclaim our space. While we were not able to block their vehicles from leaving with our supplies, it was clear that they were ordered to take things away, but not people.

The next night, Fadal Aamer’s oven made the first pita bread in Sarura in 20 years. The camp has persevered, despite the army taking more gear in subsequent incursions. They impounded a car owned by Aamer’s son and detained him. The coalition is raising money to replace items rather than pay exorbitant ransoms for their return.

The second phase of the Sumud Freedom Camp was to hold on at least through the holy month of Ramadan. International and local supporters worked days and kept vigil all night. All That’s Left, an Israeli-based collective unequivocally opposed to the occupation and committed to building a diaspora resistance, helped coordinate rides from Israel. Members of the popular committee of nearby Um Il-Kheir were key to keeping Sumud going through the nights of Ramadan. On June 26, there was a celebration in Sarura for Eid al Fitr, marking the successful conclusion of Ramadan. As Aamer told the group, “I especially want to thank the internationals who came. God willing, we will continue in our steadfastness and our resiliency in this camp. This is our land, and we will remain in it until we die in this land. No settler, no soldier is going to take us out of this land. Only God will take us out of this place.”

The Significance of Solidarity

Those of us with the CJNV delegation readily agreed to follow the direction of group leaders like Isaac Kates-Rose and Palestinians like Issa Amro and Sami Awad of Holy Land Trust. They advised we leave interactions with the settlers, military and police to them. During the chaos of night raids, they simultaneously argued about our rights with the army in Hebrew, Arabic and English, joined and led chants, told us when to hold fast and when to regroup, kept an amazing sense of humor and helped us find success, despite the partial destruction of our camp.

A Palestinian-led steering committee, including CJNV, Holy Land Trust, Combatants for Peace and others, had been formed months in advance for Sumud. It still continues to map out a strategy going forward. International and Israeli Jews were asked to use the privileged status granted to them by the state of Israel to get in the way of the same state.

Mahmoud, an elder from al-Mufaqarah, a Palestinian community near Sarura, told us, “Your presence here has an effect on the occupation more than the effect of using weapons. Any of you who carries a passport other than a Palestinian passport is an obstacle to the occupation, and I thank you for coming here. You represent the Palestinians in nonviolence and will go into the world and tell people that God willing, together we will end the occupation.”

A vital feature of the Sumud effort is how it has brought together various “popular committees,” from small, rural communities in the hills south of Hebron, which coordinate much of the activism and community engagement resisting the occupation, with more urban, nonviolent organizing groups like Holy Land Trust and Youth Against Settlements.

What Comes Next

After a delegation went to Israel in 2016, some of the people and communities CJNV had visited and worked with back then were quickly targeted by Israel and settler groups with extra-judicial demolitions and legal action. Nonetheless these same Palestinian communities have been very involved in the return to Sarura.

Issa Amro, the “Palestinian Gandhi” mentioned above, was back in military court on July 9, 2017, over old, trumped-up charges filed shortly after that 2016 CJNV delegation. In the Occupied Territories, Palestinians are legally treated as guilty until proven innocent under a set of laws that apply only to them, not to Israeli citizens or internationals. Despite the 99.74 percent conviction rate of Palestinians in Israeli military courts, Amro’s case was deferred to October for his next hearing.

The people of Um Il-Kheir have suffered through two more rounds of demolitions since CJNV and local children painted a mural on the side of their soon-to-be destroyed community center. The third phase for reconstructing the village of Sumud must include a continuation of international support and attention, if less of a presence on the ground.

New lines of communication were devised and strengthened for Sumud with the hope that they will continue to be helpful even if Israel once again evicts Palestinians from Sarura. Communities that are very close geographically have united around the current effort with renewed cohesion. Palestinians are steadfast in sharing mutual aid despite the various types of roadblocks put up by Israel and hostile settlers. Unjust scrutiny and attack are already part of Palestinians’ daily life, and the coalition behind Sumud is encouraging internationals — and Jews in particular — to join them in their struggle on the ground.


Jim Haber is a social justice organizer from the San Francisco Bay Area. He has been a member of Jewish Voices for Peace since 2000, and was on the National Committee of the War Resisters League from 2002 to 2013 and the steering committee of World Beyond War from 2014 to 2016. He helped manage a San Francisco soup kitchen for over twenty years in the Mission district, and also helped to pioneer the Prevention Point needle exchange program for HIV prevention during the 1990s. Jim is a Certified Laughter Yoga Leader. This article has been shared with, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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