Whose protests are they?

June 20 Beit Jala Demonstration (Photo: Joseph Dana)

by Joseph Dana

Beit Jala is a small city outside of Jerusalem. The wall that Israel is building in order to expropriate land and create a physical barrier between Israeli and Palestinian society is being built through the middle of this city. Palestinians have decided to begin a series of weekly demonstrations against the construction. The demonstrations are usually composed of Palestinians, international activists and a handful of Israelis. In the middle of last week’s protest, baking in the summer heat, I wondered how helpful the international activists were. Instead of maintaining a low profile and letting the Palestinians demonstrate, the internationals were at the front of the protest yelling slurs at the Israeli troops in the city. The Palestinian right to protest, resist and demonstrate is real, yet I am curious about the outcome when internationals to engage in the same actions, with their own style and individual behaviors. Israelis that want to assist and take on a supportive role often do so at the directive of the Palestinians. The Anarchists against the Wall are the most profound example of this movement in Israel. Are international activists who travel to Israel for short amounts of time part of the protest movement in Palestine? It is one thing to support a protest movement and another thing to join a protest movement.

It is wonderful to see an international effort to assist Palestinians in their struggle, however, the question remains: how can internationals help in the most effective way? Westerners have an incredible privilege in this conflict with their access to foreign press, social media networks and ability to travel throughout Israel and Palestine.  Documenting events seems to be the clearest path of using this privilege in an effective way since the internet has opened a space of fast communication from the front lines. Rather than getting arrested in a small village, it may be that documenting and disseminating events from that village will provide more positive results.  An arrest in Beit Jala or Bil’in is an event that often goes unnoticed by the Israeli and International media and only serves to reinforce negative images of the Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement in the West Bank. These actions can increase the damaging mechanism against the Palestinian population and the architecture of the occupation.  Arrests of Israelis tend to carry more influence in the Israeli press than those of internationals.

The Palestinians are happy to welcome internationals to the front lines of their protests. I asked a number of Palestinians in Beit Jala what they felt about the international involvement in their struggle and they presented me with different responses. Generally, they were very happy to welcome foreigners to their villages and places of resistance. They welcome the kind of international media coverage that videos on YouTube can generate. On the other hand, they were unsure about the lasting effect that internationals can have in this conflict. Abu Nidal, a Palestinian who might lose a large amount of land and olive groves to the wall in Al Walleja, argued that the protests in his village served to ‘blow off steam’ from the relentless life of occupation. He did not want to dismiss the international participation in the protest movement, but he maintained a pessimistic view of the future. The general response was one of indifference towards internationals, suggesting that there may be a large gap between the ‘help’ that internationals are providing in their minds and the reality on the ground.

Through my own experiences I have realized that many international activists are often not interested in the stories of Israeli activists who are engaged in the protest movement. What does it mean to travel to a foreign land in order to assist a resistance movement? If in the middle of an action, cars full of citizens of the country that we were resisting show up in order to join the struggle, would I ask them about their story, their involvement in the protest, their opinion about the occupation?

One cannot dismiss the passion that internationals bring with their opposition to the Israeli occupation. On the day that I was in Beit Jala, a 65 year old Irish activist collapsed from heat stroke and tear gas inhalation while filming the hours long protest. After a stop in the hospital in Beit Jala, he was back on the front lines filming everything again. Everyone can assist in some way throughout this process, but it will also be helpful to continue looking at our own actions in a critical way.

A clip from the June 20 Beit Jala protest filmed by the Irish activist mentioned above:

Joseph Dana is an American-Israeli freelance journalist, photographer and videographer based in Tel Aviv. He is active in covering Israeli involvement with Palestinian nonviolent resistance movements in the West Bank. His work has been published in Haaretz, Mondoweiss and Global Voices.

10 thoughts on “Whose protests are they?”

  1. I spent 4 months in Palestine last year, and I agree with the spirit of your critique. Our role is to provide solidarity, not blow off steam because of our frustrations with the occupation. I should also mention that I spent 90% of my time in Bil’in, where the Palestinians leading the demonstrations would always ask the us to stay at the front of the demos (in case the soldiers crossed over and started making arrests).

    I really wanted to get to know the Israeli activists. I had a little bit of success in Jerusalem, but overwhelming, they didn’t really seem interested. You’re a tough group to break. I attributed this to the fact that the internationals they meet are constantly coming and going, it’s difficult to make such an effort only for that person to leave and others to come. But still, I feel like I made quite the effort, and the response was pretty cold.

  2. Joseph, it’s tremendously important to ask these questions and ask them out loud. In this movement, and maybe even especially within Anarchists Against the Wall there’s a lack of documentation of these debates and one can only wonder how else will we learn? Nevertheless, these are questions which don’t have clear cut answers. I believe that AAtW is the only group which truly internalized the idea of Palestinians having their say, but it may come at the expense of us allowing ourselves to have our say I believe many egalitarian groups need to constantly weigh this. It’s an eternal balancing act. Also, we must remember that each one of us comes with a story- the reason why I’m here. There are personal goals that coincide with the political ones. In my experience, each one of us has their own “role” we take in a demonstration, and I for one will be damned if I let Palestinians (friends or strangers) take the heat again, so I can claim I want peace.

    One comment I simply have to clarify:

    “The Palestinian right to protest, resist and demonstrate is real”

    No it is not. We know for a fact that the orders change when Israeli activists are there, and the Israeli army moves from live ammunition to dispersal ammunition. So beyond the fact that the Palestinians don’t have the right to protest, neither do Israelis, when it comes to these issues, especially when they dare to do it in cooperation with Palestinians.

    Ahlam,
    I deeply regret that this was your impression of us, I hope you come back soon and we can rectify it :)

  3. This is post a load of crap.

    What are your criticisms of internationals solidarity activists in Palestine exactly? The only concrete points you seem to make are: a) some internationals at the demonstration said bad words to the terrorist occupation soldiers; b) none of the internationals talked to you in the car.

    Boo hoo.

    Seriously: how egocentric can you get.

    The bottom line is that Palestinian popular committees in places like Bil’in, Na’lin etc. explicitly invite international activists to join in with the demonstrations, and as such they sure as hell don’t need permission or approval from Israelis.

    And yes, as mentioned above, in my experience the Palestinians tend to ask for the internationals to go at the front.

  4. Tali,
    I think that we are in agreement in our shared viewpoints. The line that you quoted was directed to the notion that the struggle is the Palestinians and we should be careful to make sure that our actions are in concert with their wishes. I think the Awalls and Ta’ayush do a very good job of this and I was simply drawing attention to the international involvement in the situation.

    I am not sure how to respond to the anger of Asa but I can say that this piece was to float an idea to our community and hopefully start a discussion about the best way to help the situation. No need for anger.

    Best,

    Joseph

  5. Why doesn’t Dana get involved with the discussion among international activists, rather than patronizingly “posing the question” on their behalf. The tenor of this piece is that “Israeli” activists are authentic and internationals are somehow derivative.

    No one wants to get involved with so-called “Israeli” activists if they’ve got politics like this, Joseph.

    Did I miss something, or isn’t Dana international? I must have missed the call by Palestinians for American Jews to claim a right of return.

  6. Hi Joseph Dana, thanks for your level of commitment. Given such commitment, I was surprised to note you’re not a signatory to Boycott! from within’s call to support the Palestinian Boycott National Committee. I’m sure you must have a scintillating explanation for why you’re exempt from supporting the grassroots call of the Palestinian people. I am all ears. I just have SOOOO much to learn from a deeply principled freedom fighter like U!!

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