The Violence of Everyday life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories

John Petrovato

The events recorded here occurred on a single day, November 7, 2002, in the occupied West Bank. The following occurrences are daily ones, and November 7th might have been December 2, July 17th, or January 10th. The report below will hopefully illuminate the scale of unreported violence daily inflicted upon the Palestinian people.

Balata Refugee Camp

At three in the morning on this day of November 7th, undocumented military operations would be waged throughout the camp. Sleep would become impossible as heavy gunfire would be sprayed in the streets and alleyways. The darkness of the building where I slept would be disrupted by constant flashes which lit up the night from bullets and other artillery racing past windows. In the first few minutes of listening to this searingly loud cacophony, I could not decipher what it was. Others in my apartment whispered in panic; four Japanese men, an American woman, and I fearfully crawled to the safety of a windowless room in the center of the apartment. For the next couple of hours, we sat in silence and listened as soldiers yelled orders back and forth immediately outside the window. Everywhere, near and far, one heard the dark, ominous sound of tanks creeping around in the city. Though all the residents of the city were surely awake, all houses remained shrouded in darkness and silence until the troops finally pulled out around five a.m. People then filled the streets to investigate injuries and assess the damages of the long night.

Such late night operations are routine, occurring as many as four or five times per week. No explanation for the operations is ever given, though people take it as a signal that a curfew is about to be reimposed.

At 7 a.m. on that same morning, I, along with two other international observers, accompanied some children to school in the hopes of saving them from being tear gassed. Along the way, one could see the many bullet holes that have pierced houses’ walls and windows throughout the main streets. Residents seemed to be accustomed to the nightly violence and its morning evidence. The streets were full of people going to market and school—children, dressed in neat uniforms, holding their books and toting backpacks, on their way to school. For these children going to school is the highlight of their day and they walk with excitement. The city had only recently recovered from a three month, 24 hour curfew in which these same children were forced to remain indoors interminably; today, as far as anyone could ascertain, there was no curfew in effect.

However, the fact that a curfew is not in effect does not mean that getting to school is an easy task. We discovered this as we walked with schoolgirls as they made their way to Nablus, an adjacent city. For them, the normal way of getting to school meant by-passing the check points by a path cut through people’s backyards, construction sites, and behind the bombed-out debris of the former Palestinian Authority building. While the Israeli military knows that these routes exist, they don’t usually interfere since the goal is not to disrupt attendance at school, but merely make it more difficult.

This morning was different. The entrances to these alternative paths were blocked with jeeps and tanks, while soldiers informed children over loudspeakers that travel to Nablus was prohibited and they should return to their homes. When questioned, the soldiers would not give a straight answer as to whether there was a curfew in effect that day. I later learned that such noncommittal comments on completely arbitrary decisions were part of the routine harassment on everyday life.

Desperate to attend school, some of the children attempted to negotiate with the soldiers. In response to this “defiance,” soldiers began to throw tear gas canisters and sound grenades at the “offending” children. Many of these children were only six or seven years old, and all ran in panic to escape. Some were handcuffed and thrown into the back of jeeps, to be taken to the military base and interrogated. Those who escaped ran down the streets with their faces and eyes ablaze with the pain of tear gas. Some turned to throw stones at the armored jeeps and tanks, an act of defiance which, as some children lucidly explained to me, was something which they—but not adults—could do.

While all of this was taking place, just up the street the Israeli military had stopped traffic in all directions near the main intersection between Nablus and Balata. Like the arbitrary decision to cut off safe passage for school children to their schools, the military had also decided that there would be no travel in or out of Nablus on that day. Drivers cautiously waved their Israeli government supplied documents in the air; soldiers responded with such “civilized” communication techniques as aggressive hand gestures, screams, the repositioning of tank barrels directly towards individuals or vehicles, and threats to smash windows and hoods with the large sledge hammers they so visibly wielded. A large school bus carrying teenage schoolgirls was emptied of passengers and metamorphosed into a roadblock. The driver was told to return the following evening to see whether he would be allowed to retrieve the bus. Meanwhile, as Palestinians turned their vehicles around in the crowded intersection, it became evident that the roadblocks were only applicable to them. Israeli citizens, illegal residents in the West Bank, were waved through without inspection.

At roughly the same time, a temporary checkpoint had been set up only a couple blocks away where all men between the ages of fifteen and fifty were being taken into custody and interrogated. Their identification papers were seized, they had to pull up their shirts and unbutton the tops of their pants to prove that they were not wearing explosive belts, and finally had to stand quietly in a straight line while the soldiers painstakingly reviewed their identification papers. The soldiers told me that they were being checked as “possible suspected terrorists” (which evidently includes all men). Like many of the other daily “military operations” effected for “security reasons” in all parts of Palestine, the soldiers would soon abandon the operation and move on.

Amidst the daily harassment and chaos, the potential for tragedy was realized, as it is for everyone on the West Bank every day. On a road leading toward the Askar refugee camp, a ten-year-old boy was found lying in the street and bleeding. Soldiers had opened fire on him with live ammunition after he attempted to hurl a bottle at a tank. Only a few hours after this incident, soldiers on duty at the Askar intersection laughed as they continued to “play” with live ammunition with some other heckling Palestinian boys. This stone-throwing behavior on the part of children has been characterized by many American journalists as a form of child exploitation or, in the words of Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, “You feel as if you are watching a modern form of ritual sacrifice.” Such claims typically distort and decontextualize this behavior, as well as negate the savviness of Palestinian children who know that they can get away with more than their adult counterparts. The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem investigated the child exploitation allegations and found that “no evidence of organized exploitation of children” during the Intifada.

All of the above occurred before three p.m. in a roughly six square block area. By mid-afternoon, the military with its tanks, jeeps, and soldiers picked up and left. Residents walked safely down the streets and vehicular transportation again became possible. Of course, this would be a short-lived freedom as the solders, tanks, and jeeps would return at nightfall and re-impose a full curfew over the entire area, and thus the pattern would continue in an endless cycle.

Later in the afternoon, students at Nablus University would celebrate the end of their fourth day straight of school. The University of 8,000 pupils, which specializes in sciences, economics and management, has a student population which is 55% women. The university had been shut down for the previous four months—three months due to the full curfew imposed on the city’s residents, and the final month because Israeli settler snipers were firing into the university’s courtyards.

Evening hours returned again. The starry sky of previous nights returned with the brisk cool air announcing the onset of winter. Ramadan would be celebrated throughout the West Bank, and feasts would be arranged at the “break fast” with family and friends. Like the previous night, the children would run up and down the streets with sparklers again, almost oblivious to the fact that tanks and troops were but a few blocks away imposing curfew in another neighborhood.


Ramalla, the administrative center for the Palestinian Authority and a city of about 20,000, sits about twenty miles south of Nablus and ten miles north of Jerusalem. Like every other Palestinian city, invasions of troops and tanks have been going on since March of 2002. The invading army arrives, closes intersections, harasses people, searches houses and automobiles, and detains random individuals. On this particular afternoon, the military applied full closures to all entrances to the city. An ambulance carrying a Palestinian civilian “accidentally” wounded with live ammunition by Israeli soldiers was denied passage. The wounded man, lacking medical attention, would be left to wonder whether he would be the next person to die in an ambulance denied passage at a checkpoint.

The Qalandya Roadblock, where this wounded individual lay in the ambulance, is but one of 120 permanent checkpoints in the West Bank. Along with the hundreds of roadblocks between and within town and cities, some 300 separate areas have been created in Palestine in which travel from one place to another is extremely limited.

Thus, even on this day, a couple of hours after the military told everyone that no passage would be allowed in or out of Ramalla, the soldiers started allowing a few individuals to cross. They would search each closely and ask the usual questions: “Where are you going?” “What are you doing here?” “What business do you have there?” “When will you return?” “What is your occupation?” “Do you know any terrorists?” Some people who attempted to approach soldiers would be met with verbal abuses and physical threats; it was common to have a machine gun pointed at your face for asking too many questions. If or when a person was allowed through a checkpoint, it was accompanied by comments like, “Remember that I am doing you a favor” and “Don’t think that I will do this favor for you tomorrow,” although usually they are just dismissed with a flick of the hand.

Meanwhile, Ramallan construction workers continued to repair the Palestinian administrative complex which had been completely destroyed by an Israeli military attack a few months before. A massive mural, painted at the time by the invading Israeli army on a collapsed wall, read, “Israeli Victory”—in case the Palestinians should ever forget.


Tulkarem, a city in the northwest corner of the West Bank, sits along the “Green line,” the 1967 border with Israel. The 1967 border does not represent territory originally granted to Israel by the British and the UN, but land taken after the 1948 war with Arab countries. The 1967 border is now seen by the international community (as well as the Palestinians) as the legitimate border between Israel and Palestine.

For the unfortunate cities located alongside this border, however, there are still daily invasions to endure, and a larger percentage of Israeli settlements than in other parts of the West Bank, in some districts totaling 40% of the total population. Protection for the illegal settlers requires a greater military presence as well. The settlers are “illegal” in the sense that it is against International law in general and the Geneva convention in particular to transplant one’s population into an area or territory one has conquered.

At 8:00 in the morning, and for unclear reasons, the Israeli military raided a school run by the UN, resulting in confrontations between soldiers and Palestinian youths. The youths threw stones and bottles at the occupying army and were met with live ammunition in return, resulting in two teenagers being hit by shrapnel. “Resistance” of any sort is usually met with an escalated military presence and, in this case, the military called in American-made Apache helicopters for assistance. Such hyperbolic use of helicopters, tanks, and other equipment is common in response to minor or symbolic resistance.


Qalquilya is another city which borders the Green line, about ten miles south of Tulkarem. The city has struggled constantly for its very existence in recent history. It has experienced constant curfews and closures which has resulted in travel being permitted in or out of the city only 72 days in the past two years.

On this day, the primary task of Qalqilya’s residents will be to try to salvage anything from fields which are in the process of being plowed in preparation for the Israeli security wall. The security wall was promoted to Israeli voters as a way to provide a barrier between peoples. The wall also encloses the city almost completely on four sides, allowing but one road into the city. Conveniently, a large Israeli military base sits at the mouth of that one road and controls all movement with the use of a metal swinging barrier for motor vehicles, and a walking path which require individuals to pass through tunnels of barbed-wire fencing.

Setting aside the absurdity of walls and their symbolism, the wall was supposed to follow the 1967 border. Yet, typical of Israeli policies, such is not the case: it is being directed far into Palestinian lands. It basically became an opportunity for a “land grab” as it became evident that tremendous amounts of land and water resources could be annexed to Israel. The wall would even end up isolating Palestinian villages from each other. For some families, the wall would essentially put them on the Israeli side of the border, unable to access Palestine. These people would basically be in no-man’s land as they are not Israeli citizens and have no legal rights or political representation. They would also have little means of earning a living.

Qalquilya farmers who harvest citrus fruit would attempt to quickly pick the fruit ahead of the path of destruction following them in the fields. Families whose land would be being seized for the building of the wall would scramble to salvage their citrus crop. They would fill tractors, donkeys, and cars with their pickings in clear view of the construction company hired to plow under the land, the armed security company hired by the construction company, and the armored vehicles and soldiers protecting both groups. Massive Caterpillar tractors would be accompanied by armed security forces and armored vehicles and foot soldiers to protect them from the farmers.

Falami and Jayyous

Falami is another village in the Qalqilya district along the green line area of the West Bank. As in Qalqilya, Tulkarem and all the other villages along the northwestern “green line,” the “security wall” will continue to be rerouted away from the line into ever new directions east. Israeli officials will notify individuals and families that the land which has belonged to their families for over 2,000 years will be confiscated, and that such individuals should attend meetings in which some form of “compensation” for the land will be determined. The Palestinian families losing their land often refuse to legitimate both the seizures as well as the erstwhile attempts at “compensation” and therefore refuse to attend these meetings. The land will be simply taken—an outcome horrible and tragic for Palestinians, but less horrible than entering into a contract with a land-seizing state.

On this November day in Falami, residents engaged in a nonviolent protest against the building of the wall. Along with international peace activists, they were attacked by Israeli soldiers using tear gas, sound grenades, and arrests to disperse these unarmed peaceful protesters. Even the French Consul General, who visited Falami and attempted to negotiate with the Israeli authorities over the apparent loss of investments in agricultural irrigation projects, met with little success. Internationals and others would continue to arrive in Falami throughout the day to support the protests.

In Jayyous, a nearby village, residents were also struggling with soldiers over land seizures for the security wall. Jayyous will be hit particularly hard with the rerouting of the wall: it will lose 80% of its land and many of their wells. This village, in existence for more than 1,000 years and having survived many wars, will be destroyed by a faceless zoning bureaucrat deciding that the land is needed to protect Israel. The town will have no means to support itself without the land upon which it depends for citrus and olive harvesting.


Unlike cities such as Nablus, Ramallah, and Jenin, the hundreds of villages throughout Palestine like Yanun face a slightly different struggle. With their numbers fewer, they are at the mercy of hostile Israeli settlements which surround them. Settlements are usually built on hilltops in close proximity to Palestine villages. There is very little security for Palestinians between the settlements and their villages (while the settlements have both their own internal security force and nearby military bases for protection). The short fence which usually separates one village’s land from the settlement does not deter settlers from crossing into land they perceive as their own.

The settlement outside of Yanun is called Itmar. Like the settlers I encountered elsewhere, these were extremely dangerous. Just a few days earlier, they had forced the entire village to leave, setting fire to their homes and electrical generator. When the villagers returned with ISM (International Solidarity Movement) activists, they found that many of their olive fields had already been plowed for the settlers’ own agricultural enterprises. Four internationals— two of whom were elderly—were viciously attacked with gun butts, clubs, and blows as they attempted to document this land seizure by Itmar settlers; all ended up needing hospitalization. Meanwhile, Yanun residents watched in horror as settlers worked the dispossessed land under protection of the Israeli army. It was only a few days later that they began to cautiously return to their village.


Jenin, a city in the northern West Bank, has been in a constant state of siege for many months now. On November 7th, a full curfew had been in effect for eight consecutive days. Some residents and shop-keepers would break curfew to simply feed their families and others. Otherwise, the streets were empty except for the speeding jeeps and tanks looking for these curfew breakers.

Over the past year, West Bank cities and villages like Jenin have withstood 24-hour curfews more than half of the time. As reported by human rights organizations, the United Nations, and other international agencies, large parts of the city have been completely bombed out and leveled in recent months. Residents must navigate their ways through piles of rubble where their homes and neighborhoods once stood. The streets are filled with the remnants of vehicles set ablaze by soldiers or run over by tanks. Metal telephone poles lay broken on the streets, and sidewalks have been intentionally crushed by the weight of the tanks. Since most of the water is transported in by trucks, it has become increasingly scarce. The curfew meant that people had to use what little water was available just for drinking, and not for cleaning, disposal, or other needs.


On this day, residents of the small village of Yasuf would begin finishing up the annual olive harvest in the midst of guns being fired at them, physical harassment, and abuse by settlers. The military did its part in disrupting the harvest by creating “closed military zones” in the olive fields—usually as collective punishments for any form of violence against Israelis in general, and in which these particular villagers played no part. To enforce the closure of the fields, tanks sat on hillsides surrounding the village with their barrels pointing directly at it.

On this day, Israeli peace groups sent activists to various locations in the West Bank to support nonviolent actions against the Occupation. Groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights, Ta’ayush, Gush Shalom, liberal organizations, and anarchist groups would join with each other and ISM activists in the West Bank. I was lucky enough to meet hundreds of these activists in the six weeks I was in the region. They were welcomed into Palestinian homes, fed, and engaged in lively debate before a direct action took place. To an outsider like myself, I was continually surprised by the level of camaraderie and solidarity between these two peoples. Such Israeli individuals and groups, however, have been under increasing attack since 9/11. They have been harassed and intimidated by the state and media, and some have even lost their jobs.

I witnessed these events while working for the ISM as an olive harvester and international observer during October and November of 2002. The ISM is a Palestinian-led movement which uses nonviolence as a means to resist the occupation. The organization is a model of directly democratic processes, and it uses the affinity group and consensus decision making as its organizational foundation. The ISM works private with Israeli peace groups and internationals to give a voice to those who resist the occupation. Much of the work which I did with the ISM involved observation: the monitoring of human rights abuses by the Israeli military, check point watches, etc. I also participated in non-violent protests with Palestinian and Israeli groups. Non-violent protests and marches, by the way, or any other events which seek to empower Palestinians, such as symbolic actions such as even raising the Palestinian flag, is illegal and met with violence and arrests.

Israeli Occupation of the West Bank

Occupation and collective punishment for the people of Palestine has become a routine part of everyday life. For the past thirty-five years, Israel has actively built settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Today there are over 400,000 Israelis residing in the Palestinian West Bank alone. Some have chosen to reside there for purely economic reasons, such as cheap housing and subsistence checks, while others reside there for their ideological convictions that Palestinian territory must be reclaimed as part of the historical heritage of Israel. Following up on these opportunities and convictions, people come from all over the world on any given day—including this. Jointly, they contribute to the undermining of the Oslo Peace Accords as they move into their American style suburban homes, acquire jobs, and settle themselves in. Among the many who come from Eastern Europe, Russia, and North America, there will be some who will actively seek out and join radical right fundamentalist forces in the settlements in a religious crusade against the now displaced “others.”

These people are granted a “right to return” by the Israeli state based on their Jewish identity. They don’t question the historical spuriousness of this claim—the fact that they are being granted a right to “return” to a country in which many have never lived—nor the fact that Palestinians are made second-class citizens in the process, denied a right to return to a country which many in their immediate families and forbearers have had a direct connection with. They also do not recognize the international community’s recognition of the territorial rights of Palestinians and the illegal nature of settlements. Such international assertions are regarded as anti-Semitic allowing, ironically, a complete denial of political responsibility for current social events.

Though the settlements are located in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, residents of these settlements are rarely seen there. Israel has created an immense transportation, consumption, and production infrastructure which connects the settlements to each other and to Israel proper, thus eliminating any need for contact between the two populations. The “by-pass roads” may only be used by Israelis and foreigners; they are forbidden to Palestinians. In areas where the by-pass road crosses a Palestinian’s property, they still may not access it. If they do, they run the risk of being either shot or arrested, although the occasional soldier will let them pass without harassment. Currently, there are 120 permanent Israeli checkpoints and hundreds of road blocks in the Occupied Palestinian territories. In a place smaller than the size of Massachusetts, over 300 separate areas have been created. These areas, which are basically islands, are cut off from each other making travel from one place to another nearly impossible. It must be remembered that travel prohibitions are directed only at Palestinians. In addition to the clearly destructive effects such measures have on the economy, there are other, less intuitive, effects. For instance, ambulances stopped at checkpoints have resulted in an average of one birth every three days at a checkpoint itself. Numerous deaths have also been attributed to the travel restrictions, although statistics illustrating occupation-related deaths rarely refer to this most mundane events of not being able to travel.

In contrast to these gross human rights abuses, there exists a widespread belief that the Palestinians have, in fact, been the beneficiaries of a “generous offer” on the part of Barak. Without knowing the details or the context in which the offer was made, Americans (and even Israelis) uncritically repeat the phrase “But didn’t Barak offer Palestinians 90% of what they wanted?” What fails to be discussed is how the offer so clearly ignored the demands and needs of the Palestinian peoples: what was not offered was the removal of all the illegal settlements, the return of valuable water resources to the West Bank, the return of East Jerusalem, or a Palestinian “right to return” for those displaced by the conflict. There is also a general veil of ignorance surrounding the fact that Oslo Peace Accords required that Israel gradually withdraw from the territories and grant further autonomy to the Palestinians. Instead, Israel used the nineties to further encroach on Palestinian territories and, in fact, doubled the number of their settlements during this time. Understanding the relationship between the settlements and Israeli foreign policy makes it clear Israel’s actions have been directed toward further colonization and complete disenfranchisement of the indigenous communities from their land and, thus, their source of subsistence, hope, and resistance.

Why has the implementation of international law failed so miserably in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Why here and not elsewhere? With so many UN resolutions condemning Israeli occupation and demanding withdrawal, the opposite has occurred. In addition, the “right to return” is an international law and is granted to all refugees—not just Israelis—and is guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention. The US has been an especially willful participant in the manipulation of international accords; while it used this “unalienable human right” as justification for war in Kosovo, the very same administration declared that the Palestinians’ right to return was “unrealistic” and merely an attempt to derail the peace process. Thus, although a Palestinian forced to flee at gunpoint has been denied the right to return by the international community, Israel’s policy of encouraging Jewish return from throughout the world is formally condoned. Currently within Israel, a growing right-wing movement has been attempting to persuade voters to allow the permanent “transfer” of Palestinians out of Palestine.

Violence, Ideology, and the Israeli State: Some Theoretical Questions

The picture I have painted above seeks to illuminate the scale of unreported and underreported violence which is inflicted daily upon the Palestinian people. It is impossible to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, and the motivation behind the Intifada in particular, without understanding the extent of this systemic violence. It is both an essential facet of everyday life, as well as an integral technique of Israeli attempts at rule. Everyday life for Palestinians, however, is woven with a seemingly inexhaustible energy to resist this particularly terrorizing form of rule.

Most media and other sources represent the conflict in ways which elide the basic nature of the conflict. They represent it as a conflict which is about either religion, as some kind of “primordial ethnic strife” which afflicts the region or, worst of all, as a “clash of civilizations.” This seemingly consensual and unanimous misrepresentation contributes indirectly to the continuation of the conflict by deflecting attention away from the root cause which, in my opinion, is the neocolonialist aspirations of the Israeli state. By ignoring the longer history of the British government’s involvement in the Israeli state—through establishment of the British mandate and its support of immigration—attention can be directed toward what are believed to be primordial dispositions toward violence and internecine strife which supposedly afflict the peoples of the region.

The systemic violence of the occupied territories is not a reflection of Israel’s need for self-defense against a foreign enemy, as Israel, the US, and the global media attempt to frame it. The argument of “self–defense” has historically been used by many states to justify oppression of populations within or at the frontiers of their respective borders. Anyone traveling in the West Bank would quickly realize that the sole reason for a military presence and its violent techniques of rule is the protection of Israeli settlements and the Palestinian lands which they have seized. These techniques serve not for the protection of the Israeli state against foreign and dangerous operatives, but for the extension of this state into foreign lands. The military invasions and oppression are not a result of the need of Israel’s need for internal security, but rather a response to the Intifada, which itself is a “shaking off” of the Occupation by both nonviolent and violent means.

Thus, Israel might be understood as a colonial state using any and all forms of organized state violence to crush opposition to its settlement of a foreign territory. It is an expansionist state. In contrast to earlier examples of colonial domination, this particular conflict is aggravated by the fact that Israel considers the land which it colonizes to be a part of its historical and religious heritage, therefore deflecting attention again from its status as a modern, colonizing power.

“Legitimate” and “Illegitimate” Forms of Violence

The question of how, and with what forms of violence the Israeli state attempts to achieve its objectives, is an intriguing one. As the above makes clear, violence is ubiquitous throughout the cultural, social, and political context of every day life in the occupied territories. This violence runs the gamut from the most rigidly state-organized and executed, to the “symbolic” violence of Israeli soldiers’ “playful” antics. Nevertheless, I think that these types of violence could be usefully grouped into two categories which, through their intertwining, contribute to some efficacy of Israeli rule in the territories.

These two groups could be called, somewhat roughly, “legitimate” and “illegitimate” forms of violence. “Legitimate” violence might be considered the structural and systematic harassment and terror formally condoned by the Israeli state and exercised through the military; this would include the military checkpoints, harassment for paperwork at checkpoints or in the streets, “episodic” but planned attacks by the Israeli army (for “retaliation” purposes), and the general practice of military occupation, crackdowns, and invasions in and of them-selves. “Illegitimate” violence is a term which might be used to describe that phenomenon whereby the formalized and systematic violence of the state withers somewhat at the fringes, and becomes replaced by something even more arbitrary and unpredictable. The quintessential symbol—and primary practitioners—of this would have to be the individual soldier. Wherever or however they are located, individual soldiers sometimes seem to represent as terrifying a power as the whole Israeli army itself. They are more unpredictable than tanks and states. On a whim, an Israeli soldier may decide to pass someone at a checkpoint, not pass them, use a child for target practice, or throw tear gas at passing schoolchildren.

Thinking of violence in terms of different “types” brings up some interesting questions regarding the nature and function of violence as it relates to a modern, colonizing power. How do these two forms of violence intertwine, thus better enabling the Israeli state to achieve its aims? The wayward and individual soldier corrupts the totalitarian and formally uniform activities of a state military, but at the same time, and on the ground in everyday contexts, they perform the very important function of terrorizing in a more human and proximate way—with more intimacy and familiarity than a faceless army. It should be noted that the Israeli state deliberately chooses young (and theoretically more trigger happy) soldiers for postings in the occupied territories, older soldiers—more tame and less unruly—are generally kept in the quiet of the Israeli cities. Is the episodic and unruly nature of sporadic violence as powerful as a formal and controlled occupation? Perhaps it is even more powerful? Is violence only exercised through guns and tanks, or does it also occur through daily interactions with a power (the individual soldier) more arbitrary and unpredictable than the weather? Which wreaks a more lasting sense of terror and victimization among a population?

What is the relationship between symbolic violence and real, physical violence? Checkpoints, for example, are important sites for symbolic violence. They are places where the military likes to flex its muscle and humiliate in one turn. I have witnessed people being forced to stand in straight lines without speaking, then sit down, then move back ten meters, etc.—completely arbitrary orders given with a sadistic thrill for dehumanizing others. These events occurred in the direct sunlight and 100 degree heat while soldiers were joking with each other, smoking cigarettes, and eating ice cream. Many reports by human rights groups have also told of Palestinians having to get on their hands and knees, or being forced to dance for the soldiers. Is this kind of symbolic violence always just representative of the potential “real” violence—as common wisdom would have it—or does it exercise a specific form of power in its own right?

Settlement Patterns and Methods of Rule

The very physical existence of the state in its myriad forms—military personnel and equipment, roads, checkpoints, the uses of official Israeli sponsored paperwork for safe passage—also raises some interesting questions regarding the relationship between the state, space, and state formation activities in the most banal and mundane of places and practices. The ways in which the Israeli state has geographically expanded into the occupied territories is interesting in this regard. Israeli settlements are usually accompanied by the construction of a military outpost, next to the entrance into the settlement. Additionally, settlements and settlers are generally of two types: first, there are the planned settlements of the Israeli government whereby they hope—as governments throughout the world have historically done with “frontier” or ambiguously claimed territory—that the mere physical presence of Israelis will increase the legitimacy of their claims upon the land. These settlements consist of track houses built by the government, they are provided with services and utilities, and the settlers receive stipends in return for living there.

The second type of settlements are the spontaneous settlements. These are settlements of Israelis who organize among themselves and spontaneously colonize an area. These settlements are different in the sense that they spring much more directly from the ideological convictions of the individual colonizers. The type of settlers or settler communities that one is more likely to encounter here are those that are more loosely organized, they practice a virtual citizens’ militia for protection of local lands and/or incursions into Palestinian ones (esp. in the case of the Olive Harvest), and they are much more unruly and unpredictable precisely because of their brazenness and ideological convictions. All of their actions are ultimately cloaked with the power of the Israeli state, however, and, as in the case of the individual soldiers somewhat ambiguously located between formal and informal forms of terror, these informal forms of settlement ultimately serve the formal interests of the Israeli state.

These settlement patterns and practices raise interesting questions regarding space, settlement, ideology, and forms of rule. How is the rule of the Israeli state in the Occupied Territories greatly enhanced by the mere physicality of an Israeli presence—whether formal or informal? How does the bizarre occupation pattern—with settlements, restricted roads, military outposts located next to settlements, a vast grid laid across the Palestinian landscape—shape how we view the presence, geographical distribution, and very spatialization of the Israeli state in this instance? How do these spatializing practices enable its attempted rule in the occupied territories? And, how have these different ideologies and practices (of legitimate and illegitimate forms of violence, legitimate and illegitimate settlement patterns) combined to produce the very geography and landscape of what we now understand as the “occupied territories”? In this instance, where does one draw the line between “state,” “space,” “geography,” or “landscape”?

Problems which the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Poses for Anarchist Thought

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also raises many questions and issues which are both fundamental to and somewhat problematic for traditional anarchist thought and action. Anarchist theory may be enriched by consideration of some of these questions and, at the same time, existing anarchist ideas may contribute to an understanding of the conflict and its possible resolution. Some of these issues might be listed as follows:

1. How can a peaceful and just resolution be achieved when vast power inequalities exist between two parties?

2. How and why are states and political parties (such as Arafat’s) driven to quell popular revolts? Is it in the nature of political power that control must be total and totalizing, or not at all?

3. What are the points of connection and disconnection between states and particular ideologies? How or why is it that certain ideologies are more enabling of state dogma and power (such as political Zionism) than others? Are these ideologies merely “appropriated” by an autonomously acting state or do states sometime spring from the ideology itself? If or when the latter is the case, how might that affect anarchist critiques of the state? What are the intervening cultural or structural variables which may encourage or discourage certain relations between states and particular ideologies?

4. Which circumstances are necessary for the establishment of long-term peace between seemingly hostile groups? Does anarchist thought have anything to contribute to ideas of resolution?

5. Is the two-state solution which has been advocated by people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the best or only possibility for brining peace to the region? Is the two state solution just another contribution to the formation of states and nationalist ideologies? If so, does it not contribute to an ongoing and seemingly endless cycle of state-organized violence of which anarchists have always been critical? Is it possible to “imagine communities” in something other than a nationalist sense?

6. What set of circumstances—either in the Israel-Palestinian conflict or elsewhere—are the most pressing for anarchists to address? Is it conflict-resolution, the formation or disruption of state-making processes, the end of oppression, or all of the above? Which types of conflicts speak more directly to interests which have historically been central to anarchist thought and how might anarchism contribute to its own growth and reinvention by choosing to direct itself toward these conflicts?

The above questions are all ones which my long involvement with the anarchist movement, combined with my most recent experience in the occupied territories, have led me to ponder. Here I can venture answers to only the first two. With regard to the possibility of peaceful resolution to a conflict between two unequal parties: These types of negotiations are always unstable because people on both sides of the conflict usually believe that their respective decision–makers are conceding too much in their negotiations. Glenn Robinson, in an essay entitled “The Peace of the Powerful,” attempts to shed light on this problem by advancing a concept which he calls “hegemonic peace.” Robinson claims that, a hegemonic peace is defined as a peace between two significantly unequal powers that nevertheless retains the autonomy to accept or reject the terms of settlement. It is not a peace between relative equals, nor is it a “peace” completely imposed on an utterly vanquished enemy. Unlike these last two types of peace, a hegemonic peace tends to be destabilizing to both the hegemonic and weaker party. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is clearly hegemonic in nature, accurately reflecting the broad imbalance of power between Israel and Palestine.1

In opposition to popular conceptions, he argues that “peace treaties invariably reflect power, not justice.” And in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian peace treaties, he claims that in spite of the nature of Palestinian demands, it was, in fact, Israel that held the real political power to make the treaties happen: “The peace process should be understood more as an internal Israeli debate about how much to concede of all that it controlled, rather than as negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Most of the internal Israeli debate centered on how much of the 22% of Palestine not captured in 1948 should be returned to the Palestinians.”2 This type of hegemonic peace is actually internally destabilizing to both parties. For Palestinians, the negotiators—the Palestinian Authority and Arafat—appear to have given away too much because politically they were at the point of becoming irrelevant. They had lost ground to the Intifada (the popular resistance) and sought to regain it through “legitimate” politicking with an external nation. The PA, which did by the way agree to give up too much, would then have to put down the uprising to maintain authority. Indeed, the Oslo accords which actually greatly enhanced Arafat’s and his colleagues power, disrupted the popular revolt.

For Israel, hegemonic peace created internal political instability as opposing parties viewed any peace negotiations with the weaker party as, also, unnecessarily relinquishing too much power. The 1993 Declaration of Principles “specified that a strong Palestinian police force would cooperate with Israeli and US security and intelligence units in crushing the Intifada.” Since Israel was already dominant, it was viewed by many as unnecessary and premature to give up any power at all. It was precisely for this reason that Ehud Barak, the former prime minister, was largely seen as a “sell out.” The “hegemonic”—and thus inherently unjust—peace resolution struck by the two countries thus had deleterious effects on the internal politics of each, as each suffered the cancerous effects of the unequal power relations which connected them in the first place.

The second question, which is intertwined with the first, relates to how states and authorities attempt to maintain political control by quelling popular dissent. The first Palestinian Intifada (1987 – 1993) did not emerge from the Palestinian Authority or old leadership but, rather, as a popular movement which reflected the changing relations of civil society in Palestine. Relations of civil society were changing for a number of reasons, among them; the growth of a class of university educated students originally from the lower strata of society (rural areas, small villages, and refugee camps), and the decline of traditional authority by large land owners. The political practices of the Intifada were different from those of earlier or existing movements in the region, largely because they were democratic and pluralist. Their decentralization made it difficult for Israel to locate, control and suppress them. Similarly, Arafat and the Palestinian Authority were external to this popular revolt and, increasingly, becoming politically irrelevant because of it. When the Oslo peace negotiations were organized, Arafat participated largely in order to recapture his declining political power among Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority sought to solidify its power base by challenging, attacking, and destroying the decentralized and democratic networks of the popularly organized Intifada.

Arafat’s strategy was and is common for a state seeking to centralize control and to eliminate competitors for political control. By undermining the institutional networks, strengthening and vastly enlarging police and legal authority, and by the “personalization of politics” around Arafat, the first Intifada was eventually dismantled. As a consequence, many Palestinians believed and continue to believe that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority—in their determination to hold onto internal political power—actually enabled Israel to gain more control over Palestine. Indeed, Israel’s doubling of the amount of settlements in the occupied territories during this period may very well have been aided by the Palestinian Authority’s methods of controlling internal dissent.


International activist groups provide a welcome disruption of and intervention into these state-making activities. In contrast to the media, international, and national groupings which contribute to the encouragement of the conflict, international networks leap-frog across the misrepresentations and divisive, violent, nationalist activities to try and forge a humane and more enlightened alternative to existing conditions. As such, their activities work contrary to the nationalist and imperialist ideologies of the Israeli state, and help to disrupt stereotypes of Palestinians propagated through western media channels.

It should be mentioned that all of these events were occurring throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories on the day of November 7, 2002, despite a report which Amnesty International’s released in April, 2002. The report, entitled “Israel and the Occupied Territories: Shielded from Scrutiny,” documented the sustained and systematic nature of human right abuses by the Israeli military. The abuses catalogued in the report include, but are not limited to, the following: unlawful killings; torture of prisoners/detainees; intentional destruction of houses (sometimes with the residents still inside); making medicine inaccessible by the use of checkpoints; the denial of humanitarian assistance; using Palestinian civilians as “human shields” during military operations; preventing children from their right to education, and more. Specific events, such as the military invasion of Jenin, in which 4,000 people were displaced by the destruction of their homes, were described. Amnesty International stated that, “Up to now the Israeli authorities have failed in their responsibility to bring to justice the perpetrators of serious human rights violations. War crimes are among the most serious crimes under International law, and represent offenses against humanity as a whole. Bringing the perpetrators of these crimes to justice is therefore the concerns and the responsibility of the international community. All states who are parties to the Geneva Conventions must search for those alleged to have committed grave breaches of the Conventions and bring them to justice.”3

In the conclusion to their report, AI states that, “There will be no peace or security in the region until human rights are respected. All attempts to end human rights violations and install a system of international protection in Israel and the Occupied Territories, in particular by introducing monitors with a clear human rights mandate, have been undermined by the refusal of the government of Israel. This refusal has been supported by the USA.”4

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict illuminates many questions of importance to anarchists regarding the state, law, power, and privilege. Might anarchists have something to contribute to a resolution of this conflict? Or to an understanding of the state-making activities and nationalist ideology which fuels it? How do states invent their history? What myths are the nation founded upon and why are such myths so powerful? Can anarchists only support movements which have strong anti-authoritarian leanings or should they also support movements which are simply for self–determination? Is there an anarchist moral response to which we should listen?

All these questions and others will need to be investigated as anarchists navigate their way through and participate in popular resistance to state-making activities.


1. Glen Robinson, “The Peace of the Powerful,” The New Intifada: Resisting Israeli Apartheid, ed. Roane Carey (New York: Verso, 2001), 112.

2. Ibid.

3. Amnesty International, “Israel and the Occupied Territories: Shielded from scrutiny: IDF violations in Jenin and Nablus,” 4 November 2002,

4. Ibid.