In 2008, when revolutionary upheaval across the Middle East was the furthest thing on anyone’s mind, the people of Nabi Saleh were protesting. Nestled in the rolling hills of the West Bank, the tiny Palestinian hamlet organized weekly protests against the Israeli occupation and the encroachment of Halamish, its neighboring Israeli settlement. Today, its residents are still protesting and one of its most outspoken youth has just returned from eight months in an Israeli prison.
Ahed Tamimi captured the attention of the region and the world when she was sentenced to time behind bars for slapping an Israeli soldier at a protest. Throughout the course of her interrogation she was subjected to psychological torture and other methods aimed at breaking her spirit. Even when the 17-year-old was about to be freed, Israeli authorities attempted to break her resolve by changing the location of her release three times, forcing friends and family to wait for hours and move from one location to another to collect her.
Thanks to her stoicism, Tamimi is now the face of Palestine’s ongoing non-violent resistance. Tamimi is carrying forward the spirit of the Arab Spring throughout the region. Yet, one cannot help but wonder if something more than protest is needed – a new intellectual core around which the protests themselves can orbit.
Since 2010, protests have spread throughout the Middle East. Yet for Palestinians, the shifts have not been as definitive. This is because the Arab Spring didn’t bring about a sea change in Palestine’s leadership. Nor did it upend the nature of Israeli control. If anything, Israel is in a stronger position than before the Arab uprisings: Gaza has been severed from the West Bank, and political infighting within Palestine means divisions exist deep in society.
The late Palestinian scholar, Edward Said, famously noted that people around the world should support the Palestinians because their longing for freedom reflects the highest desire for justice. The quest for human and civil rights, instead of a life under occupation and colonialism, is an idea people understand on a palpable level. He was halfway right.
The Palestinian fight for freedom finds special resonance across the post-Arab Spring Middle East. The young are emboldened by the Palestinian struggle. It is a defining aspect of contemporary Middle East identity. And in Tamimi, they find a champion with the internal resolve to stand tall against an oppressor and suffer whatever consequences her actions may bring.
Yet, the battle for the freedom of Palestine is also a lopsided one. On the one hand is Israel and its ideology of Zionism, while on the other are Palestinians fighting in reaction to Zionism. What is missing on the Palestinian side is a fresh articulation of an intellectual core belief with freedom at the still point of the center – in the manner that the Prague Spring sought a new form of socialism for Czechoslovakia with freedom as its focus (even though that movement was doomed from the start). At this moment in their struggle, Palestinians need an anti-Zionist idea, rather than just an anti-Zionist protest movement.
While this notion might seem precious in the face of brutal Israeli militarism, Palestinians need something to fight for beyond the vague notion of freedom. For freedom cannot exist independent of the ideas and institutions that buttress it; “freedom” as an absolute is after all a state of anarchy. To be sure, there is not a state of anarchy in Palestine. But that is only because Palestinians are not free.
Villages like Nabi Saleh have waged their protests against the occupation without the help of institutions despite having captured the hearts and minds of the region. For indeed, the struggle for freedom is handicapped by the very institutions that represent Palestinians.
There is the Palestinian Authority, run by Fatah, which was born out of the Oslo Accords as an interim self-governing body. The accords, as an attempt to end the conflict and establish a two-state solution, has been a failure. Oslo institutions have been shown to not represent the interests of the Palestinians but rather protect Israel’s security. Ensconed in Gaza, Hamas is isolated and its Islamist doctrines strike a discordant note against the aspirations of many Palestinians.
So who will be the Gandhi or the Mandela against Israel? Who can build a better institution and fill it with the ideas that better propel Palestinians toward freedom and dignity? There is currently no answer to that question. And that is perhaps the crux of the problem for Palestinian cause at this time.
Tamimi has captured something unique and raw. Her courage has given millions hope. But the struggle also needs an intellectual champion capable of channeling this spirit. Over the last 70 years, Israel has been quick to jail or kill such leaders. In the absence of such a new champion, Tamimi will remain confined to the rolling hills of the West Bank and the intellectual ground will be ceded to movements such as Hamas and Fatah, who are themselves bankrupt of fresh ideas.
Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.
AFP PHOTO/ABBAS MOMANI