Palestinians in the occupied West Bank village of Beit Ommar are returning to older models of organizing against the Israeli occupation. These organizers are employing strategies of resistance made famous during the first intifada in order to overcome stagnation and division within Palestinian society. Despite numerous obstacles from Israeli repression and the increasingly heavy-handed policies of the Palestinian Authority, a new National Committee in Beit Ommar is making headway in building a grassroots initiative to expand on the foundations of popular struggle.
Building the popular struggle
Beit Ommar is a large village in the southern West Bank with a population of approximately 17,000 persons, most of whom make their living as farmers. Five Israeli settlements are built on Beit Ommar's land, and the main road leading in to the village has a permanent watchtower guarded by the Israeli military. Several hundred residents from Beit Ommar are currently political prisoners in Israeli prisons, and the village is subjected to late-night raids by Israeli forces almost every night. Despite the oppressive presence of an occupying army, Beit Ommar villagers have a strong history of popular resistance, with active participation from the area during both the first and second intifadas.
In early 2010, Palestinian organizers in the village united to form the National Committee Against the Wall and Settlements. The idea behind this committee is hardly new; rather, the activists are seeking to return to models of organizing used in the first intifada which transcend political party affiliation and combine political struggle with social programs and support.
Additionally, these organizers are seeking to link popular resistance in surrounding villages, and strengthen communication and cooperation especially in Areas C and B in the West Bank. Under the Oslo accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the mid-1990s, the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip were carved up into areas A, B and C, the latter of which indicates full Israeli control. The National Committee works with the Palestine Solidarity Project, an anti-occupation organization founded in 2006 to facilitate international and Israeli solidarity activists' involvement in demonstrations and other actions in the area. While participation from these solidarity activists is welcome, the committee maintains its focus on strengthening and empowering Palestinian leadership and popular struggle organizing.
Defending the land and resisting occupation
For the past eight months, the National Committee has planned weekly demonstrations against the nearby Karmei Tsur Settlement. Every Saturday, between 50 and 80 Palestinians, supported by Israeli and international solidarity activists, march towards the settlement fence. There they are always stopped by Israeli forces, who use tear gas and arrest activists in an attempt to repress this initiative. The demonstration draws a large number of youth from the village, who the committee recognize as the next generation of leaders in struggle.
Since many residents of Beit Ommar work in agriculture, the National Committee places a strong emphasis on defending farmer rights and access to land. Several days a week, committee organizers and PSP activists accompany farmers in the Saffa Valley, an area directly below the ideological Israeli settlement of Bayt Ayn and which is currently under threat of land annexation by the Israeli military. Since April 2009, when two elderly farmers were attacked by settlers in the valley, the situation in Saffa has escalated with settlers setting fire to crops and the Israeli military frequently imposing military closure. In the last two weeks, 33 Palestinian, Israeli and international solidarity activists have been arrested by Israeli forces while attempting to cultivate land in the valley. In December, Beit Ommar organizers intend to plant several thousand trees both in Saffa and on Beit Ommar land adjacent to the Karmei Tsur settlement in the hopes of deterring Israel's plan to annex more Palestinian land.
Organizers remain steadfast in the face of Israeli repression
In an attempt to repress the popular nature of resistance in Beit Ommar, Israeli forces raid the village almost every night, often trashing homes and arresting youth, particularly those who participate in the weekly demonstrations. In the month of October, 13 Palestinians between the ages of 15 and 28 were arrested solely because they attended the demonstrations. On 11 October 2010, 25-year-old National Committee member Eyad Jamil al-Alami was arrested from his home, given an administrative detention order and held in an Israeli prison without charges. He was released after one month, most likely due to lack of evidence against him. A little more than a week later, Israeli soldiers came to the houses of two committee members at 3:30am, trashed one of the residences and warned both organizers to stop planning demonstrations and hosting solidarity activists.
Despite intensified repression, the resolve of the National Committee in resisting the occupation has only strengthened. Membership in the committee continues to expand. Recently, activists in the neighboring village of Beit Ula contacted Beit Ommar organizers, seeking support for restarting demonstrations against Israel's annexation barrier, which is built on land belonging to Beit Ula farmers. The National Committee is currently working to strengthen the participation of women and youth in the weekly demonstrations, as the protests continue to grow and become more confrontational in nature.
Additionally, the National Committee in Beit Ommar has remained committed to operating outside of the influence of the Palestinian Authority. Organizers have declined offers of resources and delegations of politicians, regardless of their party affiliation. As the Palestinian Authority continues to crack down on other political parties or initiatives outside of its control, organizers in Beit Ommar seek a return to a participatory, grassroots and nonsectarian organizational model that increasingly seems at odds with the PA agenda.
Mousa Abu Maria is a Palestinian resident of Beit Ommar and a member of the National Committee. In 2006, Mousa co-founded the Palestine Solidarity Project along with his wife Bekah Wolf, who has Israeli citizenship. Mousa has spent more than half of the last decade in Israeli prisons, much of the time under administrative detention.