The best protests are those with deep symbolic resonance. They involve action that stirs the imagination and thereby exposes the incongruity and injustice of the present day.
This is one of the reasons that we remember certain protest movements in history so vividly: throwing tea in the Boston harbor, Gandhi leading the salt march, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus, the lone man in Tiananmen Square staring down tanks. Such acts encapsulate a broader movement, giving physicality to what is too often unseen or swept out of view by the powers and principalities. As the saying goes, actions – especially symbolic ones – speak louder than words.
The biblical prophets knew this well. The Hebrew Bible and New Testament are replete with accounts of exceedingly odd behaviour intended to signify a broader socio-religious critique: Jeremiah shatters a clay vessel; Isaiah preaches in the nude; Ezekiel lies on his side for days on end, cuts off his hair and scatters it to the wind, and finally sends himself into exile; Jesus curses a fig tree. But Ezekiel, for instance, is not merely warning Judah and Jerusalem of its impending exile through his words, he is also enacting or staging the prophetic message in and through his action. Prophetic performances aim to give physicality and pathos to the surrounding prophetic speech. Typically, the initial response is usually one of bewilderment and confusion. These actions grab the viewer’s attention, but rarely their understanding. Prophetic symbolic action, then, is something like a lived parable.
In the last month, on the outskirts of the very city where many of these prophets of old enacted their odd parables, a contemporary drama has been unfolding. On 11 January, a group of Palestinians and their allies (which included Israelis and Jews from abroad) founded a small tent village in the desert hills east of Jerusalem. They named it Bab al-Shams, which can be translated as either Gate of the Sun or Gateway to the Sun. (It is, incidentally, also the title of a well known novel by Lebanese author Elias Khoury about the Nakba.) Within days the village was decreed illegal and the villagers were told to evacuate. Then, in the early morning hours of 13 January, the Israel Defence Force arrested those present and evacuated the new village. Over the course of a single weekend, a Palestinian village was founded and destroyed.
To those unfamiliar with the nearly constant dance of illegal settlements, court injunctions, delays and finally evacuation or legalization, Bab al-Shams might appear a simple squatter movement. Accordingly, the event has largely gone unnoticed outside of Israeli and Arab news. However, within the context of the ongoing settlements in what is variously termed – depending on your political views – the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, or the occupied Palestinian Territories, the village’s creation and destruction takes on layers of irony and meaning.
Within this environment Bab al-Shams is one of the more creative protests in the recent history of the Palestinian liberation movement. For at its core, the village was a contemporary reenactment of this history of prophetic symbolic action. It was a modern lived parable. At the risk of turning poetry into prose, let me sketch the context that gives this event its symbolic power.
One of the primary grievances of Palestinians is the ongoing settlement by Israelis of land behind the Green Line (the 1967 borders that are often cited as the working border for those committed to a two state solution). While the international community has declared all settlements established beyond the Green Line to be illegal and in breach of international humanitarian law, Israel has established 124 «legal» settlements in the West Bank since 1967 (as of mid-2011), not including another 100 or so settlements referred to as «outposts» which are not officially recognized by the Israeli authorities.
Settlements are problematic on two counts. They are often established by seizing land from Palestinian families and villages. These settlements, then, create new «facts on the ground» that the Israeli government insists must be taken into account during any discussion of peace or land swamps in the much ballyhooed, but increasingly distant, two-state solution. Settlements are thus perceived by Palestinians to be both an immediate and long-term land grab.
The most recent news on the settlement front emerged in early January, when the media reported that Israel has decided to advance with what is known as the «E-1» plan. This plan allows for the construction of thousands of apartments near the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, a city of approximately 35,000 people that lies well beyond the Green Line but that will be incorporated by the security wall into «Israel,» in order to expand the settlement and connect it to Jerusalem. According to B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, these construction plans will create an urban bloc between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem cutting across the West Bank, interrupting its territorial contiguity between the north and the south of the West Bank and exacerbating the isolation of East Jerusalem. Moreover, to make way for the construction, some 2,300 Palestinians will be expelled from their homes near the Ma’ale Adummim settlement and relocated to a site next to the Abu Dis garbage dump, east of Jerusalem and behind the separation wall.
The settlement plans produced the usual outcry and denunciations amongst Palestinians, segments of the Israeli population, liberal Zionists abroad and the international community. However, sometimes speech and lectures, even when they may be prophetic, can become redundant.
And here is where the genius of Bab al-Shams lies. It discovered an old mode of enacted speech – one that crystallized Palestinian grievances, the injustices of the settlement movement and the hypocrisy built into the way that the different legal systems govern those within Israel proper, the city of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Bab al-Shams’ symbolic action largely occurred through mimicry. The villagers imitated the settlement movement by creating their own «facts on the ground,» finding historical precedent for the village’s existence and appealing to the high court for legitimacy. Their mimicry was met, however, not with the court delays and silent government approval that typically meets new Israeli outputs, but with swift action by the police and government of Israel.
First, they «illegally» settled on their own land in the West Bank. While the land is technically in Area C (as per the Oslo Accords), numerous reports have indicated that much of the land is privately owned Palestinian land. To justify their presence, the Palestinian settlers, much like the Israeli settlers, had obtained historical «proof» that the land had once been part of a nearby village of al-Tur. Like most Israeli settlement outposts, the land was claimed, inhabited and justified through appeal to history.
But within a day of its creation, the village had been decreed illegal and given an evacuation order. Here the second aspect of mimicry occurred. The villagers were prepared for the evacuation order and had submitted an appeal to Israeli High Court – again much like settlers in outposts are wont to do. To the village’s possible surprise, the court gave the tent village a six-day delay to appeal their case. However, Benjamin Netanyahu declared the new residents a threat to security and demanded their removal (even as he allowed the physical tents to stay for six days, as per the court order). By sunrise on 13 January, the village had been emptied.
Comparing the swiftness of Bab al-Shams evacuation with the usual way that settlements are addressed is telling. The dominant approach is one of prevarication, turning a blind eye or tacitly supporting settlement outposts by offering security and over time connecting to water or electricity lines. Certainly, a few settlements unauthorized by the Israeli government have been evacuated by the Israel Defence Force – most notably the Migron outpost near Ramallah and Bet El in September 2012. But this is largely the exception rather than the rule, even for the unauthorized outposts. And when a settlement is moved, it usually takes months or years and includes compensation for the settlers. Not so with Bab al-Shams. The city was declared illegal within the day and evacuated under the cover of dark.
By mimicking the settlement process, Bab al-Shams brings to light the almost comic differences in the legal treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Israeli settlers. One group is under military law, the other Israeli civil law, despite the fact that they share the same geographic space (see the recent Israeli documentary, The Law in These Parts). And so, in being evacuated and destroyed so quickly, Bab al-Shams may have actually accomplished more than any of its participants could have hoped for. It gave symbolic form to arbitrariness of what is deemed «legal» and illegal, and the wide variance in the application of the law depending on whether one is Palestinian or Israeli.
Admittedly, in one sense, it could be said that the Bab al-Shams movement accomplished nothing: there are no renewed peace talks; no reconciliation within the various factions of Palestinian leadership; no end to settlements; no security promises for those living in Ashdod, Ashkelon, or Gaza; settlements and peace negotiations did not suddenly appear at the top of the agenda of the January 2013 Israeli elections.
But in a situation that seems stuck in an endless cycle of political banter and failed social movements, Bab al-Shams – much like the Sheik Jarrah solidarity movement, the Bil’in protest, or stories of Israeli women sneaking Palestinian women to the Mediterranean sea – provides something desperately needed: creative thinking, new models of protest, a form of grassroots politics that outstrips the rhetoric of Likud and Fatah. For in the end, prophetic symbolic acts are not only concerned with direct political solutions, but primarily with disrupting the callousness and apathy of the socio-economic and religio-political situation of the day and thereby gesturing towards new possibilities and paradigms of living together in justice.
And to those who continue to clamour for a non-violent movement among Palestinians or who only attend to the politics of the region when bombs are fired back and forth between Gaza and southern Israel, I’d say – in the words of a great prophet – for those who have eyes to see, let them see.
Joshua Ralston is an Instructor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, where he teaches courses in systematic theology, political theology and Christian-Muslim-Jewish Relations.