A Strategy within a Non-Strategy: Sumud, Resistance, Attrition, and Advocacy

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VOL. 35


No. 3
P. 45
Open Forum
A Strategy within a Non-Strategy: Sumud, Resistance, Attrition, and Advocacy

Strategizing Israel

Say what you will about Ariel Sharon, he was a man of grand (if often disastrous) vision. Looking back almost thirty years to the time when, in 1977, he became the head of the Ministerial Committee on Settlements in the Begin government, one can discern three phases of his strategy that would guarantee Israeli control over Palestine-Israel.

(1) Creating irreversible “facts on the ground.” The strategy of using "facts on the ground" to determine the final borders of Israel goes back, of course, a century, to the very beginnings of Zionism. In its current form, in which Labor is just as complicit and proactive as Likud/Kadima, the creation of strategic and irreversible “facts”—settlements, closure, massive land expropriations and house demolitions, the consolidation of a "Greater” Israeli Jerusalem, confining Palestinians to dozens of “cantons,” establishing Israeli control over Palestinian water and other resources, construction of the “separation barrier,” imposing a Kafkaesque system of administration, planning, laws, and military controls—have all resulted in a “matrix of control" that has fundamentally reconfigured the country, allowing for a Palestinian Bantustan to emerge, while foreclosing a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state.

(2) U.S. approval. In order to secure permanent Israeli control, the “facts on the ground” had to be legitimized as permanent political facts. For this, Sharon turned to Israel's patron, the United States, which obliged. In April 2004, the Bush administration formally recognized Israel's settlement blocs—euphemistically called “major population centers”—thus unilaterally removing a strategic 20 percent of the West Bank and “East” Jerusalem from the area defined as “occupied.” This American-sanctioned Israeli annexation of the settlement blocs, fatally undermining the “two-state solution,” was subsequently approved almost unanimously by Congress: in the House by a vote of 407–9, in the Senate by 95–3.

(3) Unilaterally declaring permanent borders. The final phase in strategizing Israel—the phase that would end the conflict in Israel’s favor—was conceived by Sharon and has been publicly adopted as the agenda of the next Israeli government by his successor, Ehud Olmert. Hamas domination of the PA eliminates the PA as a “partner for peace,” thus justifying a unilateral coup de grace: declaring the route of the wall the permanent border of Israel, thereby annexing Israel’s major settlement blocs and creating a truncated Palestinian state. Sharon (now Olmert) would then declare the end of the occupation and the end of conflict. This remains the agenda after the March elections, although whether Olmert has the clout to pull it off, as Sharon would have been able to, remains to be seen.

Non-Strategizing Palestine

What, by contrast, is the Palestinians’ strategy? One is hard-pressed to define it. Still, it would be wrong to deny that the Palestinians as a people—as distinct from the Palestinian Authority—do not have a strategy at all. It might be considered a kind of default strategy, verging on a non-strategy. It is certainly not consciously formulated. But the collective reaction to occupation, comprised of three main elements—sumud/resistance, negotiation, and attrition—has effectively prevented the Israeli military and colonial machine from defeating them. 

(1) Sumud/resistance. Despite the flight of many middle-class Palestinians, one cannot but be impressed by the steadfastness (sumud) and resistance to occupation on the part of the peasants, working classes, and petite bourgeoisie—resistance that takes the form of daily coping, an insistence on carrying on one’s life and a refusal to be cowed, as well as active and intentional forms of struggle. Be it intifada, evading checkpoints, tax revolts, or merely posing a “demographic threat,” Israel has not succeeded either in driving or “transferring” Palestinians out of the country or even in routinizing its control of them.

(2) Negotiations. The common-sensical conclusion to a strategy of self-determination would seem to be negotiations, which have been the Palestinians’ preferred route since Arafat approached Kissinger way back in 1973. For negotiations to work, however, there has to be a semblance of a level playing field. Israel’s military might, its matrix of “facts” on the ground, the absolute backing it receives from the United States, and the failure of the international community to apply norms of human rights and international law have all eliminated negotiations as an option. At this stage, as the Oslo process showed, negotiations can only be a cover for Israeli dictates. Negotiations cannot succeed until the Israel government is disabused of the idea that it can “win,” or until the international community decides that the conflict is too unjust and destabilizing to be allowed to continue.

(3) Attrition. A Palestinian strategy of liberation, then, requires yet another element: attrition. The Israelis believe they can prevail. In their view, Palestinian resistance can be reduced to manageable proportions, and, by employing a multiplex strategy of selective “disengagement,” an ever-thickening matrix of control, repression, and skillful international diplomacy, Israel can maintain the status quo indefinitely. Eventually—Likud, Labor, and Kadima all agree—the Palestinians can be induced to accept a ministate, a kind of “soft” apartheid regime. Yet, in fact, the cost of maintaining a huge military presence in the occupied territories, the polarization the occupation causes within Israeli society, and the increasing toll on Israel’s image incurred by its ever-harsh violations of human rights are increasingly difficult for Israel to sustain. Attrition also has its international dimension. The regional and global destabilization caused by the conflict may ultimately lead to demands that Israel try finally to reach a just peace.
Strategizing and Advocating Palestine: The Role of Palestinian and International Civil Society

Yet sumud, resistance, and attrition, effective though they are in preventing Israel from successfully imposing its apartheid regime, in themselves constitute no program for the future and are unable to counter effectively Israeli strategic initiatives. In the end, they must be superseded by thought-out strategy, policy, and negotiations. “Strategizing Palestine” requires a fourth element: a campaign of advocacy designed to mobilize civil society in a way that is coherent, compelling, proactive, and assertive, and which consequently endows Palestinian civil society organizations with a mandate and vision to deal with Israel. Though governments are the bodies that finally determine the political settlement, unless the Palestinians mobilize international civil society, their only solid ally, they will find it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve their national goals.

At a minimum, I would suggest the following elements of any attempt to “strategize” Palestine:

(1) Resuscitating the PLO as a Palestinian “Jewish Agency.” A place to begin might be to adopt the suggestion of Omar Barghouti in this issue of JPS that the PLO resuscitate and reinvent itself, becoming the authoritative agency representing the three sectors of Palestinian civil society—refugees and the diaspora communities, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Palestinians under occupation. It would be a kind of Jewish Agency, which the Zionists used so effectively during the pre-1948 “state-on-the-way” period. The PA cannot go it alone, and if it was not engaged with its international supporters when Fatah was in control, its isolation (both external and self-imposed) is all the more complete under Hamas. The PLO is an inclusive and appropriate framework for strategizing Palestine and could be as effective in engaging with international civil society as the Jewish Agency continues to be under the aegis of the Israeli government.

If resuscitating the PLO proves unworkable, the PA should be urged at a minimum to appoint a full and high-ranking Minister for Civil Society Coordination, whose first task would be to revive the International Coordinating Committee on Palestine (ICCP) that functioned until the start of the Oslo process. If even this proves unworkable, it would be incumbent on PNGO, the Palestinian umbrella of “inside” NGOs and the only existing civil society framework up to the task, to become more inclusive and more strategic than it has been up to now. Such a reconceptualization would require a fundamental reassessment of the notion of “normalization” that today prevents many Palestinian organizations from cooperating with their Israeli counterparts, no matter how much the Israeli groups support the Palestinians’ national agenda.

(2) Articulating the end-game. Unlike in the South African struggle against apartheid where the ANC provided a clear end-game around which both local and global forces could mobilize (“one man, one vote”), the PA has not given its international supporters a clear goal—another crucial omission that a civil society PLO could address. Its advocacy of a two-state solution seems almost desultory. It seldom presents its vision of the future with passion or conviction, seldom addresses the fundamental question of whether it is still attainable after forty years of Israel’s creating massive “facts” on the ground, and tends to leave supporters of the Palestinian cause with the feeling that the two-state solution is a kind of “default” solution that no one, including the PA, takes seriously. The end-game under Hamas leadership is even more ambiguous.

At a time when “solutions” are both many and vague, but also at a time in which supporters of Palestinian self-determination must be given direction, it may be more useful to concentrate on the essential elements of any solution acceptable to Palestinians. These minimal yet essential elements would include (a) national expression for both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples; (b) economic viability for all parties; (c) conformity with standards of human rights, with international law, and with fundamental UN resolutions—in particular 194 (right of return), 242 (land for peace), and 338 (negotiated settlement); (d) a just resolution of the refugee issue, including Israeli acknowledgement of the refugees’ right of return and of its role in creating the refugee issue; and (e) addressing the security concerns of all the parties of the region (“guaranteeing the territorial inviolability and political independence of every state in the area,” as specified in UN resolution 242).

(3) Reframing the conflict. Over the years Israel has succeeded in framing the Israel/Palestine discourse, reducing advocates of Palestinian rights to a defensive, disjointed, and less-than-convincing rebuttal. Three elements have been central to the Israel framing: (a) Israel as a democratic, Western, peace-seeking victim of Palestinian terrorism; (b) the complete removal of the term “occupation” from the public debate; and hence (c) the reduction of the entire conflict to an issue of Israel’s security.

What is lacking is not counter-information or counter-arguments, but an entire Palestinian reframing that places the various arguments and facts into a coherent conceptual framework. Such a reframing would emphasize (a) the Palestinian right to self-determination as embedded in human rights and UN resolutions; (b) Palestinian and Arab overtures toward peace with Israel, including the Palestinians’ readiness to accept far-reaching compromises (such as renouncing political claims to some 80 percent of historic Palestine) and the Saudi initiative; (c) the portrayal of Israel as the strong party in the conflict rather than the victim, a switch that would legitimize demands that Israel be held accountable for its actions under international law and UN resolutions; (d) Israel’s occupation policies (especially its settlement enterprise) as a proactive policy of claiming and controlling the entire country, unrelated to security; (e) Israel’s unwillingness to accept a viable and sovereign Palestinian state as the primary obstacle to peace; (f) the negative impact of the conflict on American interests and global stability (including the “war on terror”); and (g) the political nature of the conflict, thus contesting the American and Israeli attempt to mystify the conflict as a “clash of civilizations.”

Such a reframing is critical to countering American/Israel hegemony over the popular discourse, as Jaleh Bisharat and Saree Makdisi also make clear in this issue. Indeed, alternative reframings are needed for different audiences. The one presented above is a political and human rights reframing, which is fine for university groups but not suitable, perhaps, for more conservative groups. I would suggest an American reframing (à la Jaleh Bisharat’s suggestion, though I’m not sure that words like “oppression” and “apartheid” resonate with the average American). We should also formulate a Christian reframing (mainstream and evangelical), a Jewish reframing, even a women’s reframing.

(4) A proactive campaign of advocacy. Once we turn to advocacy itself, we find yet another crucial arena where Israel has established (or more accurately, has been allowed to establish) unrivaled hegemony. This is perplexing, if not exasperating, given fundamental shifts in global public opinion in the Palestinians’ direction. According to an EU poll, for example, 60 percent of Europeans believe that Israel is the world’s greatest threat to peace, and Israel’s oppressive policies, highlighted by the wall, have made its policies transparent even to the mainstream press abroad. The Great Palestinian Mystery is why, when justice is so clearly and visibly on the Palestinian side, does not the Palestinian leadership, together with Palestinian organizations at home and in the diaspora, mount an effective campaign on their own behalf? Bright spots of Palestinian advocacy such as the Electronic Intifada are just that: bright spots. They do not add up to a coherent strategy of advocacy.

Current action-oriented campaigns—divestment, Caterpillar, house demolitions, olive tree planting and harvesting, the wall, human rights monitoring, initiating legal proceedings, and more—should be accompanied by a limited number of focused “big picture” meta-campaigns. I have in mind three fundamental informational campaigns. First, a campaign to clearly expose what happened to the Palestinians as a people, placing them within a context of human rights and decolonization. Second, a campaign aimed at critically viewing the occupation as a whole, with a special emphasis on Israel’s proactive policies of conquest and control that have little if anything to do with security. Finally, a campaign is needed to explain the rise of Hamas (in the wake of the January elections in particular), in the context of the religious, political, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity of the Palestinian people.

In light of Ehud Olmert’s “convergence plan,” however, a plan he has promised to carry out during the last year and a half of Bush’s administration, an urgent anti-apartheid campaign is also called for. Such an action-oriented meta-campaign, in response to the declared Israeli intention of unilaterally and permanently institutionalizing its control over the occupied territories, would focus on (1) preventing the imposition of an actual regime of permanent apartheid; (2) continued insistence on a complete end to the occupation; and (3) rejection out of hand of any attempt to impose a “solution” unilaterally.

(5) A campaign of noncooperation and resistance “on the ground.” If international campaigns of advocacy, lobbying and pressure provide crucial support for resistance “on the ground,” the latter provide legitimization and focus for distant international efforts. A nonviolent campaign for national liberation would encompass two main elements: noncooperation designed to protest occupation policies and practices and to gum up the works; and actual resistance. The former could take various forms: refusal to carry Israeli-issued IDs; refusal to use Israeli currency; refusal to pay Israeli taxes (such as happened in the Bayt Sahur tax revolt of 1987 that was brutally suppressed by the Israeli authorities); a boycott of Israeli goods, including foodstuffs; a boycott of Israeli courts by Palestinian lawyers and their clients; and other measures strategically aimed at the moral and coercive pillars of the occupation. Acts of resistance would mean peacefully confronting the Israeli army and the major expressions of occupation (such as is being done today in Bil`in by Palestinian farmers, young Israeli activists, and internationals); or defying Israeli prohibitions on Palestinian campaigning in East Jerusalem by large-scale and demonstrative gatherings. Mubarak Awad has even suggested the dramatic step of refugees burning the camps in Lebanon, then launching a mass march home to Palestine/Israel. In the ultimate action of resistance and attrition, to which the current international campaign of starving the PA lends justification, the PA asks the international relief agencies to leave the country, then resigns, throwing the occupation squarely back onto Israel’s shoulders, a burden it could not withstand.

Any campaign of nonviolent resistance would carry mortal risks to Palestinians and their supporters on the ground. A sine qua non for a successful campaign of this sort is the ability to mobilize international support for those resisting.

The setting of national goals, establishing appropriate frameworks and formulating an effective strategy are the responsibility of the Palestinians themselves. Both Israeli and international civil societies are limited to support roles; advocacy for a solution to the conflict requires authoritative Palestinian guidance. Only close cooperation among Palestinian, Israeli, and international civil societies, coordinated and actively supported by the Palestinian national leadership, will give the samidun, the steadfast, the ability to sustain their struggle and eventually to prevail.


Jeff Halper is an anthropologist and the coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). He is a nominee, together with Ghassan Andoni, for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.