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On Palestinian Civil Disobedience

Sometime in 1846, Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail because he refused to pay his taxes. This was his way of opposing the Mexican-American War as well as the institution of slavery. A few years later he published the essay Civil Disobedience, which has since been read by millions of people, including many Israelis and Palestinians.

Kobi Snitz read the book. He is an Israeli anarchist who is currently serving a 20 day sentence for refusing to pay a 2,000 shekel fine.

Thirty-eight year-old Snitz was arrested with other activists in the small Palestinian village of Kharbatha back in 2004 while trying to prevent the demolition of the home of a prominent member of the local popular committee. The demolition, so it seems, was carried out both to intimidate and punish the local leader who had, just a couple of weeks earlier, began organizing weekly demonstrations against the annexation wall. Both the demonstrations and the attempt to stop the demolition were acts of civil disobedience.

In a letter sent to friends the night before his incarceration, Snitz writes that “I and the others who were arrested with me are guilty of nothing except not doing more to oppose the state’s truly criminal policies.” Snitz also explains that paying the fine is an acknowledgment of guilt which he finds demeaning. Finally, he concludes his epistle by insisting that his punishment is trivial when compared to the punishment meted out to Palestinian teenagers who have resisted the occupation. These thirteen, fourteen, fifteen and sixteen year olds, he claims, are often detained for 20 days before the legal process even begins.

Snitz is not exaggerating.

In a recent report, the Palestinian human rights organizations Stop the Wall and Addameer document the forms of repression Israel has deployed against villages that have resisted the annexation of their land. The two rights groups show that once a village decides to struggle against the annexation barrier the entire community is punished. In addition to home demolitions, curfews and other forms of movement restriction, the Israeli military forces consistently uses violence against the protestors—and most often targets the youth– beating, tear-gassing as well as deploying both lethal and “non-lethal” ammunition against them.

Since 2004, nineteen people, about half of them children, have been killed in protests against the barrier. The rights groups found that in four small Palestinian villages — Bil’in, Ni’lin, Ma’sara and Jayyous — 1,566 Palestinians have been injured in demonstrations against the wall. In five villages alone, 176 Palestinians have been arrested for protesting against the annexation, with children and youth specifically targeted during these arrest campaigns. The actual numbers of those who were injured and arrested are no doubt greater considering that these are just the incidents that took place in a few villages.

Each number has a name and a story. Consider, for example, the arrest of sixteen year-old Mohammed Amar Hussan Nofal who was detained along with about 65 other people from his village Jayyous on February 18, 2009. According to his testimony, he was initially interrogated for two and a half hours in the village school.

“They asked me why I participated in the demonstrations, but I tried to deny [that I had]. Then they asked me why I threw a Molotov cocktail [at] them. I said I never had, which was true. My parents were there and witnessed [what happened]. They can confirm I never [threw a Molotov cocktail]. I later confessed to [having been at] demonstrations, but not [to having] thrown a Molotov cocktail.”

After being beaten for refusing to hold up a paper with numbers and Hebrew words on it in order to be photographed, Nofal was sent to Kedumim and was interrogated for several more hours. During this interrogation Captain Faisal (a pseudonym of a secret service officer) tried to recruit the teenager to become a collaborator.

“The Captain threatened that he would arrest my parents and my whole family if I did not collaborate. I said they could arrest [my family] any time, [but] it would be worse to become a spy. He then said they would confiscate my family’s permits so they could not pick olives.”

Nofal’s only crime was protesting against the expropriation of his ancestral lands. He spent three months in prison, during which time the Civil Administration decided to punish his family as well and refused to renew their permits to work in Israel.

When compared to Nofal and thousands of other Palestinians, Kobi Snitz is indeed paying a small price. But his act is symbolically important, not only due to his solidarity with his Palestinian partners, but also because he, like thousands of Palestinians, has decided to follow the lead of Henry David Thoreau and to commit acts of civil disobedience in order to resist Israel’s immoral policies and the subjugation of a whole people.

The problem is that the world knows very little about these acts. A simple google search with the words “Palestinian violence” yields over 86,000 pages, while a search with the words “Palestinian civil disobedience” generates only 47 pages – this despite the fact that for several years now Palestinians have been carrying out daily acts of civil disobedience against the Israeli occupation.

Thoreau, I believe, would have been proud of Nofal, Snitz and their fellow activists. It is crucial that the media and international community recognize their heroism as well.

NEVE GORDON is chair of the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and author of Israel’s Occupation (University of California Press, 2008).

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Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies and the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.

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