I have been observing discussions in Ramallah for some time now, trying to understand what people think about the political situation in general and the Israeli aggression against Palestinians in particular.
I have noticed that the majority discusses social and personal issues with minimal reference to political events. On the same day an elderly woman exploded herself near Israeli soldiers in Gaza I had friends over for dinner. When I raised the incident to my guests, none of them had heard about it, as they do not really watch the news, and no further discussion took place.
Even when political issues are discussed the most common comment one hears is, “what can we do?”
I believe there are two key elements with regard to any Palestinian response to the situation. One is related to the absence of leadership and the other is related to the feeling of helplessness, something strongly connected to the vicious heavy-handed Israeli practices against Palestinians.
When the Aqsa Intifada started in September 2000, it was a spontaneous response to the visit by Ariel Sharon to the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem at a time when Palestinians were frustrated by the lack of progress in the peace process and by Israeli violations of the Oslo agreement. It was also a collective response. People took to the streets, and were encouraged to do so by the Palestinian leadership.
However, soon people started to notice a divergence between the leadership and the mood of the people. The leadership started to hold meetings with the Israeli side discussing security issues, discussions that always resulted in failure. Palestinians came to perceive their leaders as mostly concerned with their own personal interests. In parallel, militant groups were formed to spearhead the resistance. Both the armed groups and the lack of leadership resulted in a failure to mobilize Palestinians for collective action.
A mid-1990s study by Rema Hammami argued that the political leadership in the first intifada was partisan in a way that succeeded in mobilizing people and civil society for collective action. Indeed, the main aim of the political parties then was to mobilize people to resist the Israeli occupation. I think in the second intifada, several factors have coalesced to make that difficult. The militant leadership, firstly, has not been unified. Secondly, it has been underground with little contact with the people and their daily problems. The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, has been unable to provide even minimal services, let alone lead the struggle.
The other key element is related to the large-scale Israeli incursions and the dissection of Palestinian territory, in addition to the wall the Israeli government began to build in 2002 and which led to further strangulation of the Palestinian economy. The majority of Palestinians by now suffer from a suffocating daily routine that requires most efforts to be directed at finding the means of survival.
The Israelis, furthermore, adopted a heavy-handed and indiscriminate military strategy that left many civilians as victims. That aggression was made possible by the lack of interference from the international community, which awarded Israel with impunity through the American veto.
Thus, when Palestinian women gathered to rescue besieged men in Gaza it received special international media attention, and some considered the event as a transformation of the resistance. As a matter of fact, this is not the first time Palestinians have used the human shield tactic during the current intifada. In 2002, many Palestinians scurried to protect Yasser Arafat when he was besieged in his headquarter in Ramallah and Israeli officials threatened to kill him.
I do not see the action taken by Gazan women as a change in strategy. I think it is rather a tactic that Palestinians use under two conditions: when the threat is directly affecting them or their relatives’ lives and when they think that their action will make a difference. This explains why it was only women that took to the streets that day. Palestinians have learned through experience with the Israeli army that only women may expect some leniency.
Nor is that to say that this is the end of the resistance. I think Palestinians are now trying to adapt to the new reality imposed by the Israeli government over the past six years and will–must even–find a new method for collective action to counter the occupation.