When Palestinians Use Settler Tactics: A Beleaguered Netanyahu Responds

Palestinian activists use a non-violent form of occupation to protest plans to extend Israeli settlements into the controversial strip of territory called E-1.

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Olivier Fitoussi / News Pictures / ABACAUSA

Palestinians at the Bab al-Shams campsite on Jan. 12, 2013

Sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on Sunday, several hundred Israeli police officers in riot gear moved on a cluster of tents on a West Bank hilltop. Their target resembled the mainly Jewish campsites that pop up like mushrooms in the higher elevations of Palestinian territory, stippling the ridges that run from north to south across the striking biblical landscape. In the lexicon of a conflict that is fundamentally over land, the camps are called “outposts,” a term Israelis use to differentiate these more spontaneous efforts from the state-sanctioned “settlements” that look more like suburban subdivisions. At last count there were more than 100 of each, though some of the outposts have made the transition to settlement, the tents replaced over time by trailers, and the trailers by houses. Technically illegal under the law of Israel, in practice the outposts are typically provided with power and water by the country’s government and protected by the Israeli soldiers who have controlled the West Bank since 1967, the year Israel took the land with an ease that some Jews see as evidence of God’s intention that they should have it.

All of which accounts for the unusual briskness with which the new campsite was dispatched in the darkness of early Sunday morning — the settlers were not Jews, but Palestinians. Not two days before, some 100 Palestinian activists had set up tents on Palestinian land just east of Jerusalem. They dubbed the campsite Bab al-Shams, or Gateway to the Sun, though the area appears on Israeli planning maps as E-1. It’s the parcel that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Nov. 30 ordered be readied for transformation into an expansive Jewish settlement that diplomats and experts warned would, once built, effectively prevent the practical establishment of a Palestinian state, no matter that the U.N. had just recognized one in the airy realm of diplomacy.

(MORE: The West Bank’s 2012: The Year of the Israeli Settlement)

In fact, it was the General Assembly’s Nov. 29 vote making Palestine a nonmember state that stirred Netanyahu to announce what Daniel Seidemann, who heads an Israeli NGO dealing with conflict resolution in Jerusalem, called the “doomsday settlement” — apparently to demonstrate that Israel retains the power to render the notion of statehood moot by choking the West Bank with Jewish homes at its narrowest point. Currently, more than half a million Israelis live beyond the Green Line that defined the 1967 limits of Israel’s territory, blocking Palestinian access to some 40% of the West Bank. As a practical matter, there’s little Palestinians can do about it. Israel has the army, and Washington, in the phrase of President Barack Obama, “has got Israel’s back.” The weekend encampment aimed to make the most of that powerlessness.

“If we want peace, we have to resist — nonviolently, but resist — and counter Israeli facts on the ground with Palestinian facts on the ground,” Mustafa Bargouthi, the Palestinian activist who helped organize the camp, tells TIME, a few hours after being arrested and deposited at the edge of Ramallah, the West Bank city. “They’re allowing Israeli settlers to stay on Palestinian land, while at the same time within 48 hours they attack and remove us.”

Israeli soldiers barred the international news media from witnessing the police sweep. Photographers who were already inside the camp recorded the action, which unfolded without significant injury to either side. The news blockade — a literal thing, as Israeli forces manned roadblocks on roads approaching the site — served to confirm that the Palestinian activists had mounted a potent demonstration. “It’s in my view a very successful protest that is exposing the Israeli policy in many ways,” says Hagit Ofran, who monitors settlements for the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now. “First of all, it puts E-1 back on the political agenda. Maybe it’s because we’re on the eve of elections, but the Prime Minister himself was responding to this provocation.”

(PHOTOS: Palestinians Take to the West Bank’s Streets in Protest)

Netanyahu, who finds himself facing an unexpected challenge from his right in the campaign that concludes Jan. 22, ordered the police action despite a Supreme Court injunction against demolition of the camp (an order authorities finessed by removing only the people; the tents were left standing). The Premier’s election slate has seen its support significantly eroded in polls by the pro-settler Jewish Home party, a situation analysts say accounts for Netanyahu’s pre-election flurry of promises to build additional housing units beyond the Green Line — 11,000 announced in a week, as many as in nine previous years combined. “We will not allow anyone to harm the contiguity between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim,” Netanyahu said Sunday, naming the massive exurb that stands on the far side of the largely empty E-1 parcel.

The Bab al-Shams camp, named for an acclaimed novel by Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, aimed both to revive the international uproar over Netanyahu’s announced plans and to highlight the legalistic double standards that Bargouthi and others refer to as apartheid. “When the [Jewish] settlers do the same thing it takes years and lots of trips to the Supreme Court before anything moves, and here in less than 48 hours they managed to kick all of them out!” Ofran tells TIME.  “On top of all this, when they evict settlers, sometimes they’re confronted with violence from the settlers. This is a very powerful contrast.”

Indeed, the campsite and its prompt removal marked a watershed for a generation of Palestinian activists who have struggled to channel the transformative energies of the Arab Spring into their own conflict. The problem has been, in part, that mass rallies advertised as nonviolent can be undone by a couple of kids from refugee camps throwing stones — giving Israeli forces the excuse to fire tear gas and rubber bullets that turn the event into familiar scenes of melee. But the campsite protest was staged miles from a refugee camp, by activists trained in the discipline of nonviolent resistance.

The idea of establishing an “outpost” was also clever — a bit of jujitsu, maybe aikido, whatever finds an advantage in being the ostensibly less powerful force. And though the idea of conspicuously taking over hilltops had been tried by other Palestinian activists, those pioneers pitched their camps deep in the West Bank, in remote redoubts difficult for journalists to cover. But E-1 had been made prominent by Netanyahu’s fresh announcement to build — in defiance of international outcry. And it straddles a four-lane highway just outside Jerusalem, where major international news organizations maintain bureaus.

“What happened the day before yesterday was the merging of all these nonviolent movements into one stream,” says Bargouthi, who is a physician and Palestinian politician and not to be confused with Marwan Bargouthi, the jailed Fatah militant. “We merged all these groups from the village and the district level to the national level. And there will be a lot more creative ideas in the coming period.”

PHOTOS: A New Gaza War: Israel and Palestinian Militants Trade Fire