RAMALLAH, West Bank — Senior Palestinian leaders — men who once commanded militias — are joining unarmed protest marches against Israeli policies and are being arrested. Goods produced in Israeli settlements have been burned in public demonstrations. The Palestinian prime minister has entered West Bank areas officially off-limits to his authority, to plant trees and declare the land part of a future state.
Something is stirring in the West Bank. With both diplomacy and armed struggle out of favour for having failed to end the Israeli occupation, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, joined by the business community, is trying to forge a third way: to rouse popular passions while avoiding violence. The idea, as Fatah struggles to revitalize its leadership, is to build a virtual state and body politic through acts of popular resistance.
“It is all about self-empowerment,” said Hasan Abu-Libdeh, the Palestinian national economy minister, referring to a campaign to end the purchase of settlers’ goods and the employment of Palestinians by settlers and their industries. “We want ordinary people to feel like stockholders in the process of building a state.”
Billboards have sprung up as part of a campaign against buying settlers’ goods, featuring a pointed finger and the slogan “Your conscience, your choice.” The Palestinian Ministry of Communications has just banned the sale of Israeli cell phone cards because Israeli signals are relayed from towers inside settlements. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is spending more time out of his business suits and in neglected villages opening projects related to sewage, electricity and education and calling for “sumud,” or steadfastness.
“Steadfastness must be translated from a slogan to acts and facts on the ground,” he told a crowd in late March in a village called Izbet al-Tabib near the city of Qalqilya, an area where Israel’s separation barrier makes access to land extremely difficult for farmers. Before planting trees, Fayyad told about 1,000 people gathered to hear him, “This is our real project, to establish our presence on our land and keep our people on it.”
Nonviolence has never caught on here, and Israel’s military says the new approach is hardly nonviolent. But the current set of campaigns is trying to incorporate peaceful pressure in limited ways. Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, just visited Bilin, a Palestinian village with a weekly protest march.
Palestinian political analysts say it is too early to assess the prospects of the nonviolent approach. Generally, they say, given the division between Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority here, nothing is likely to change without a political shake-up and unified leadership. Still, they say, popular resistance, combined with institution-building and international appeals, is gaining notice among Palestinians.
“Fatah is living through a crisis of vision,” said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem. “How can they combine being a liberation movement with being a governing party? This is one way. The idea is to awaken national pride and fulfil the people’s anxiety and passion. Of course, Hamas and armed resistance still remain a real option for many.”
Khalil Shikaki, who runs the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, said: “The society is split. The public believes that Israel responds to suffering, not to nonviolent resistance. But there is also not much interest in violence now. Our surveys show support for armed resistance at 47 percent in March. In essence, the public feels trapped between failed diplomacy and failed armed struggle.”
Israeli military authorities have not decided how to react. They allow Fayyad some activity inside the areas officially off limits to him, but on occasion they have torn down what he has built. They reject the term nonviolent for the recent demonstrations because the marches usually include stone-throwing and attempts to damage the separation barrier. Troops have responded with stun grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas and arrests. And the military has declared that Bilin will be a closed area every Friday for six months to halt the weekly marches there.
One reason a violent uprising remains unlikely for now, Palestinian analysts say, is that in the two years that Fayyad’s security forces and government ministries have been functioning, daily life inside West Bank cities and their surroundings has taken on much greater safety and normality.
One effort to increase a sense of hope is a new push to ban goods made in the settlements, symbols of occupation. A $2 million project called the Karama National Empowerment Fund, jointly financed by Palestinian businesses and the government, aims to spread the message through ads and public events.
Abu-Libdeh, the economy minister, said a law was likely to go into effect in April barring the purchase of settlers’ goods, a trade worth at least $200 million a year.
Palestinian industrialists have financed the settlers’ goods ban partly because they hope to replace the goods with their own. They do not single out other Israeli goods, which are protected under trade agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.
Fayyad, the prime minister, a political independent, said his notion was to build the makings of a state by 2011.
“It’s about putting facts on the ground,” he said in an interview. “The occupation is not transitional, so we need to make sure our people stick around. If we create services, it gives people a sense of possibility. I feel we are on a path that is very appealing both domestically and internationally. The whole world knows this occupation has to end.”