The time was almost midnight, on Sept. 20, when a number of satellite stations interrupted their regular programming to announce that Israeli soldiers had warned Palestinians living near Arafat’s headquarters that the building would be blown up in 15 minutes if those inside it didn’t come out.
Within those tense minutes, the streets of Ramallah filled with ordinary Palestinians. Marchers, often led by women, were increasing in number as people trapped in their homes for days on end decided to shake off the injustice that had befallen them. Many of the demonstrators were Palestinians attempting to defend their national honour, rather than Arafat supporters.
This popular uprising that began in the Ramallah neighbourhood of Umm Al Sharit quickly spread to Nablus, Tulkarem, Gaza and Bethlehem. The following day, women and men came out with pots and pans and beat on their household utensils as a sign of anger and protest. The next day, a candle light vigil was what the people in Palestinian cities decided would be the way to break what they considered a repressive curfew.
In 1987, Palestinians introduce the term Intifada in the international lexicon. In the fall of 2000, many gave the protests the name of Al Aqsa Intifada, but for most, it was simply the second Intifada. Now I believe that what happened in the evening of Sept. 20 in Ramallah deserves to be called the third Intifada.
Since then, schools in many West Bank cities have decided to stay open every school day, oblivious to Israelis’ arbitrary curfews. Some areas are organising popular schools. Some of the more wealthy schools are sending homework to their students by e-mail. Curfew days have become high traffic days on the Internet as most people are doing their office work or school work from their homes. A major culture is being written up, recorded, photographed and spread on cyberspace about life under curfew.
What happened late Friday night was not without a warning. A week earlier, the representatives of the Palestinian people did something unprecedented in Arab politics: they forced a government appointed by the president to resign rather than be shamed into a vote of no confidence. A public opinion poll commissioned by the Search for Common Ground organisation also found a majority of Palestinians supporting the idea of non-violent resistance.
But as in the case of the two previous Intifadas, many people are trying to claim copyrights to the latest protests. Supporters of President Yasser Arafat’s party are claiming that it was Fateh activists who got the ball rolling. Many would disagree, saying that, like the previous Intifadas, this was a popular movement triggered by the anger of the population rather than the decision of a person or group.
Also like during the previous Intifadas, many of the proponents of violent protests are unable to let the marchers carry out their protests without starting to throw stones or, in some cases, use fire arms. Such acts are not only contrary to the spirit of non-violence, they also endanger those involved, thus quickly limiting the possibility that large numbers of ordinary Palestinians participate.
One of the first martyrs of this third Intifada was a journalist, Issam Tillawi, gunned down by Israeli troops who were distracted from their efforts to blow up Arafat’s headquarters by the sound of ordinary Palestinians sick and tired of being imprisoned in their homes day after day.
For a long time many of the international critics of Palestinians have been asking why Palestinians don’t use non-violent methods to effect change. They argue that if Palestinians do that, a major change will take place in Israeli and international public opinion, that will eventually be translated in political terms. Many have doubts about that, seeing that the Sharon government is only interested in a Palestinian population that raises the white flag of surrender.
When Palestinians in Ramallah carried out their plans to hold a candle light vigil Wednesday night, the Israeli army, which had declared that the following day curfew would be lifted, decided to reverse its decision and reimpose the curfew. On Thursday, some people adhered to the Israeli army’s curfew announcement, but most didn’t. Schools in particular have stuck to their decision that they will no longer call off their teaching duties according to Israeli army dictates.
What is worrisome, however, is that the Israeli and international press have ignored or belittled the non-violent nature of what was happening in Palestine this week. It seems that the long-awaited change in Israeli and US public opinion will not happen soon, as both peoples continue to be bombarded by news that fulfils the aspirations of those wishing to end the conflict in a violent way.
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. He is the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University which owns and runs Al Quds Educational Television. In May 2001, Mr. Kuttab received the International Press Institute’s award as one of fifty press freedom heroes in the last fifty years.