Staff | November 19, 2004
“What happens all too often is that we know the good but do not do it, because we also know the better but cannot do it.” - Nietzsche
Without action, theory is impossible; without theory, change is impossible. It is through experience that creativity occurs and makes possible the ebullient appearance of revolutionary movements and thought. This is why Hegel believed that war revitalized culture. And it makes clear why for Gilles Deleuze only practice can fuel the development of theory: “Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.” Deleuze’s statement illuminates the difficulty we all face in understanding movements from a distance. Whether temporal or spatial, distance deprives us of the direct experiences necessary to practice theory and thus to move beyond our theoretical blockages. A seldom discussed corollary to this rule is that theory is impossible during practice because in the moment of acting writing is impossible. Thus, it seems fitting to analyze a social movement not with the distance of an undergraduate academic but as one who has experienced the struggle.
On October 24, 2002 I arrived in Israel having already spent a month traveling alone in Jordan. It was my second time entering Israel and although I was scared away the first time by a society militarized and xenophobic, I felt a sense of empowerment. While in Jordan, visiting the tourist haven of Petra, I had met an International Solidarity Movement member who explained the process of joining. Four days later I joined the International Solidarity Movement – a Palestinian-led nonviolent resistance movement against the Israeli occupation. I knew vaguely what the organization did because I had gone to a presentation ISM members at Swarthmore college. I spent six-weeks with the ISM, ultimately returning to America on December 10, 2002.
The ISM is composed of autonomous affinity groups composed of Internationals that circulate throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Decision making power within the organization, and the ability to direct the circulation of fresh affinity groups, was given to members who had made a minimum 3 month commitment. Giving a greater voice to these members privileges Palestinians and highly-dedicated Internationals. My affinity group was composed of around 5 people at any given point. Communication is done almost exclusively through prepaid cell phones and occasional use of internet cafés. This is mainly due to convenience as incoming calls are free and cell phone coverage is excellent.
New members are given a two day training where initial affinity groups are formed. At first these groups are large and clumsy, but they are ultimately pared down to a small size – enough to fit in a single large taxi. Groups are expected to be self-sufficient, using local Palestinian contacts to direct their action. Most out of group communication is only logistical: where are we needed? Day to day actions are decided by the group without oversight. Traveling as an international requires a sense of solidarity because you must trust that the individuals surrounding you mean no harm. Being unable to speak Arabic I, and most other ISMers, are compelled to show solidarity in everyday situations by never shying from moving freely within the Palestinian community. We had faith that our actions are beneficial for the Palestinian resistance and that this would be clear to Palestinians that we encountered who may initially mistake our clothing, language, or skin color as being of the colonizer.
There is no way for an ISMer to move than within the Palestinian community. The Israeli occupation has installed a parallel transportation system onto the Palestinian territory. To use the Israeli transportation would be to only experience the comforts of colonization. Further, as you move into the West Bank it becomes a truism that any Israeli you meet has a gun and is antagonistic. If they aren’t soldier they must be settler because there is no reason for them to be beyond the 1967 border if not to steal land with military force. The creation of an alternate transportation system for Israelis facilitates the most insidious aspect of their occupation: the manipulation of time. The Palestinian must wait. Unable to drive a car on the “settler roads” constructed by the Israeli military for use by settlers, the military, journalists, and westerners Palestinians are forced to drive on unpaved roads. Cars move slowly over the holy land in order to avoid the inevitable: the disintegration of Palestinian property. These Palestinian paths are periodically crossed by an Israeli road and this forms a checkpoint, or at least a place that Israeli soldiers can enforce a walking-only policy. Checkpoints are placed wherever the most Palestinians enter a given city or village and largely function to waste time.
Here is the first struggle that the ISMer will grapple with: at every checkpoint you will see a long line. Long lines mean that a checkpoint hasn’t moved in hours. Instead soldiers take their time to taunt the male Palestinian population. But better hurry to ask how long the Palestinian in front of you has been waiting because the majority of Israeli soldiers will spontaneously allow every Palestinian through so as to avoid you having to witness the injustice. Having learned this rule, the ISM conducts targeted “checkpoint watches” conspicuously to “document” the treatment of the Palestinians but mainly to dissolve the checkpoint by accelerating the movement of Palestinians through it. Some checkpoints will simply disappear when Internationals appear but others will harden as soldiers take offence at their presence.
If the primary weapon of the psychological occupation, the occupation that convinces Palestinians to submit, is the control over Palestinian time/movement then the primary weapon of the ISM is their physical presence. The power of the International’s presence is codified in the military law of Israel along with international relations. Aside from random points of blockage distributed throughout Palestine (ie, checkpoints), Israel uses its military to enforce closures of large areas of land. Soldiers are able to prohibit travel within arbitrarily defined boundaries using two methods: “curfew” and “closed-military area”. The curfew can be bypassed by Internationals while the “closed-military area” is decreed to exclude Internationals. Curfew is enforced within Palestinian communities by roving packs of armored Jeeps whose loudspeakers growl Arabic words declaring to an early morning Palestinian community that they may not leave their home. Curfew means that the Israeli military has announced its willingness to kill any Palestinian found outside their home. Of course, death is not usually what awaits Palestinians who, cloistered in their homes for days and weeks, venture from their homes to go to school and conduct the errands of normal, social life. Instead the occupation is primarily psychological and curfew-breakers in Tulkarem were mainly chased with sound-grenades, tear gas, and “non-lethal” bullets.
For this reason, Internationals are particularly suited for inciting a general disregard for curfew as they are not required to observe the military’s decree. Walking through the city of Tulkarem I discovered that my space of protection extended beyond own self. Tactical choices are thus made. In Tulkarem we successfully ended the interrogation of two men seized by the military. We just did what no one else in the world was there to do: we watched how they were being treated and took an interest. Give the Palestinian the voice by being there to ask them: “Hello friend, tell me: why are you being mistreated?” Soldiers can’t deal with that and will have little temper tantrums. To protest our presence one day the soldiers decided to spin their tank, it’s a tactic that creates a terrible noise as it rips the street. The occupation is a continual destruction of Palestinian infrastructure. The destruction of the street, the placement of checkpoints, the use of curfews, all of these tiny tactics combine within Palestine to create an air of terror. Palestinians are terrorized and ISMers inevitably respond by testing their own conviction by placing themselves increasingly closer to the worst injustices.
Each affinity group is composed of individuals who realize they have a limited time in the country. Everyone is driven to gain experience so that they can deal with increasingly intense (urban) experiences. There is a general desire to at least see the worst – if not play an active role in preventing it. This is why Gaza is the rightful place for the ISM’s first martyr: Rachel Corrie. But this is also a logical organizational strategy – you must establish yourself within the organization before you are given access to Palestinian communities with an active violent resistance. It took me 4 weeks, with 2 vacations, before moving to Tulkarem – a small city deep in the West Bank and near Israel. At the moment we decided to go to Tulkarem there was an active suppression of the community because it was Ramadan. It was not long before I saw intense urban combat.
My affinity group was establishing a presence in a city that was experiencing frequent incursions and was under constant curfew. Unsure of where to begin our work we chose to ride with ambulances during the night (at least one ambulance driver had been recently murdered by Israeli soldiers) and monitor the school during the day (bullet holes provided evidence Israeli aggression against innocent children).
Ultimately, it was wise that we chose to create a presence at the school as it meant that we were introduced into the most fervent and traumatized youth. When we arrived no one knew who we were and all, except one, of us did not speak Arabic. After a few appearances we assumed we were accepted. However, when Signe (blond and white from Denmark) and I (brown skinned from America) returned alone the next day the situation became violent. Unable to explain our purpose standing before their school a crowd of confused youths gathered. These were the kids who skipped classes to throw stones. An understandable choice given the insanity of their situation: immediately behind their school was a graveyard through which the students were forced to walk each day because the Israeli military would randomly fire at the main entrance of the school. Our presence was obviously agitating their pain. One youth pulled up his shirt and pointed to a picture of his brother who was a martyr. Another asked us our politics and another our nationality. We tried to explain our solidarity, we kept calm, and we tried to deescalate the situation. Then we saw what we hoped would be our savior: a youth from Jayyous that we had known for two weeks. We asked him to explain who we were. But then small things began to trigger problems. The crowd was too large and anonymous individuals started pushing. Someone pulled us into the school yard and closed the gate just as stones and feet began flying. Signe was targeted and I was left alone.
Safely in the school we tried to explain why we were there. We had been told by our local contact that the school would be informed about us. This didn’t seem to have occurred. Fortunately, we were treated as guests by the Principal who arranged a tour of the school. When we left the building the situation had changed drastically. All of a sudden the youths were extremely apologetic. The most violent and politically vocal expressed their apologies and gave us trinket gifts. Evidently, someone had explained our role and the situation was completely resolved. From this point forward the entire youth community in Tulkarem knew who we were. They called out my name as I walked down the street and tried to tell me about their struggle. It was a total integration that saved my life.
A few days later, in the afternoon we were sitting in our apartment when we heard loud high-caliber shooting outside. Tulkarem was experiencing increasing violence because it was Ramadan and soldiers had free reign to make the experience a nightmare. The holiest month for the community was a state of constant curfew and tear gas. But that day it was different – the shooting wasn’t sporadic and it wasn’t stopping. Quickly exiting our apartment – we saw a large number of Palestinians fleeing. They looked scared. We continued towards what they were running from and soon saw two Palestinian gunmen running with weapons. It was immediately clear that this was a highly intense situation – it was the first time that I had openly seen a weapon being wielded by a member of the resistance. The resistance members passed us quickly and we continued to the intersection. There was an Israeli armored jeep parked in the street with hundreds of Palestinian youths surrounding it at a distance throwing a steady stream of rocks. The jeep would respond by driving forward, quickly reversing as a soldier would swing the back door open, aim and fire live rounds into the crowd. I watched the jeep shoot down an alley and kill an innocent civilian. I also watched as the jeep, trying to scare us away, pretended that it would run us over then just made noise by shooting at a random house nearby. The situation was pure war. The Israeli military was playing a game that was also codified in military law. They were carrying out an “incursion”. Later we found out that the gunmen we saw running had survived an assassination attempt by the Israeli military assassins who had snuck into the city in a stolen Palestinian car. The military was then able to use whatever violence it wanted to destroy territory. Although I had seen the gunmen fleeing I could still hear heavy machines firing.
Palestinians throw rocks for several reasons but in this case it was a question of their survival. The rain of rocks acts to prevent the soldiers from leaving their vehicle and doing more damage within the community. In footage of the first intifada I’m always struck by the fact that Israeli soldiers are walking around freely on foot. This is no longer the case and rocks are what prevent this from occurring. The soldier is limited to the jeep and the soldier’s response is limited by the time of military situation. If its curfew then rocks are responded to with tear gas and “non-lethal” bullets and if it is an incursion then rocks are responded to with live ammunition. It is just a game for the soldiers because, ultimately, if they do not leave their jeep they are largely invulnerable to the Palestinian resistance. The first test of faith in a situation like this is to establish a presence without being targeted by the ample violence present in the situation. Ultimately, my life was saved because I had integrated into the violent youth community by meeting them outside the school. As the rocks rained, a Palestinian caught my attention, lit a Molotov cocktail and threw it at the Israeli jeep. If the Palestinian had not warned me in advance with a visual signal then Jenny and I would very likely have been hit. Instead the flames just briefly warmed our faces.
This story is ultimately a metaphor for the nonviolent struggle: what protects you from harm is the benevolence of the affected community. Nonviolence requires integration within a community. This is why solidarity is crucial. It is only through solidarity with the Palestinian community that the International is able to survive. The ISM’s use of the concept of solidarity to explain its action draws upon a history of shifting political struggles that have identified with solidarity.
The prevalence of the word, solidarity, is largely due to the Polish Solidarity movement that carried out anti-communist nonviolent action in the 1980s. Roughly, we can say that solidarity means actions taken by a community while “being perfectly united or at one in some respect, especially in interests, sympathies, or aspirations”. Solidarity can only be carried out by those directly effected by the oppression (often physically, sometimes empathetically). When the ISM acts on the principle of solidarity it means that it is committed to experiencing the struggle in the same way that the affected community does. Solidarity combined with “direct action nonviolence” means that a nonviolent actor should utilize solidarity to integrate into a conflict in order to use their presence to change the situation in a way that benefits the violent or nonviolent resistance. The ISM does not take a stand on internal Palestinian politics – preferring instead to refrain from that question until the occupation has ceased. Therefore, the entire Palestinian community should benefit from their presence.
Nonviolent actors should be apolitical in their transcendence of traditional politicking. Potent nonviolent theory is fermented in the moment of the State’s most tactical execution of its will. Foucault said, “we wish to attack an institution at the point where it culminates and reveals itself in a simple and basic ideology, in the notions of good and evil, innocence and guilt.” The ISM does not document war but instead attacks war by interjecting itself into the situation. In the moment, an ISMer’s presence limits the options of the local military unit forcing them to respond by seeking instructions from above. But later, the experience has a far more dramatic effect.
In experiencing the height of institutionalized military oppression, the ISMer is given access to the raw experiences necessary to pierce practical and theoretical blockages. The ISM is inherently revolutionary because the experiences that are gained strengthen what Nietzsche called “the plastic power” of an individual:
I mean by plastic power the capacity to develop out of oneself in one’s own way, to transform and incorporate into oneself what is past and foreign, to heal wounds, to replace what has been lost, to recreate broken moulds. There are people who possess so little of this power that they can perish from a single experience, from a single painful event, often and especially from a single subtle piece of injustice, like a man bleeding to death from a scratch.
It is here that the ISM plays its most important role – as the training ground for the application of nonviolent action that is unfazed by the levels of violence and crowd control used by the domestic law enforcement community. The ISM gives premature experiences in the sense that it gives a picture of what the tactics of Western military looks like in a situation of martial law. It is sort of like cheating because ISMers see the expression of the violence that is only latent in America. They are over prepared for the domestic fight because they hold the experiences that allow them to act with uncommon courage.
Hegel said that Kant’s perpetual peace was impossible because the state would always create an enemy. The ISM demonstrates that as long as the military aggression continues it is possible to train a growing number of internationals in the tactics of direct action nonviolence. This is the only practical way that a nonviolent tactic can be perfected against the State’s violence. It also makes possible the only way for the movement to regain control of the debate: a nonviolent spectacle that overcomes the State in a public way. Protesting is not enough and getting media attention is meaningless. Asking how to apply the American civil rights movement to Palestine is the wrong strategy. Instead, we need to be applying the lessons of Palestine to America. Al-Qa’ida used a handful of disciplined individuals to seize control of the world political debate through a violent spectacle that placed their mark on the center of the American empire. Could a nonviolent event carried out by an equally dedicated group accomplish the same? If the answer is yes, then we will only find the path through experimentation. After all, it is only through direct experience that we can move beyond our hypotheses.