On creative disruption: the May uprising in Palestine

  • May 29, 2021

Land & Liberation

The unique temporality of Ramadan incentivized the Palestinian uprising that entangled every aspect of Israeli life in the struggle for a liberated Palestine.

Palestinian protester in the West Bank, Palestine – May 15, 2021.
Photo: abu adel / Shutterstock.com

This essay was co-published with
Mada Masr

The Islamic month of Ramadan is not itself the time of revolution. Yet, Ramadan holds within itself disruptions and intensifications that are always immanent — always capable of turning into an insurrection if summoned into action. These disruptions and intensifications are constitutive of the month and it is from them that the uprising that engulfed Palestine for two weeks in May drew its first spark. Ramadan’s disruptive temporality did not condition the uprising, but it did provide the immediate historical accident which ignited it and entangled all of Palestine.

Accidents, however, are materially conditioned. They are circumscribed by spatial arrangements and specific material practices which themselves are not accidents. Accidents are only accidents to the extent that their occurrence is neither pre-determined nor possible to predict. One can predict that the colonized will rise up against their colonizers, but the specific “accident” which sets an uprising in motion is not historically pre-determined.

In Palestine, historical accidents are conditioned by Israeli settler-colonialism. The May uprising unfolded as a radical rejection of these conditions. Ramadan provided not just a disruptive temporality, but one that became entangled with the commemorative calendar of the colonizing state. Such entanglement, or ishtibak as Palestinians call it, is key to understanding the power of the uprising.

Time in Ramadan is divided into two unequal segments which represent cycles of abstention and release. The first segment — from dawn to sunset — is marked by abstention and spiritual mobilization to endure fasting and the physical discipline required by it. The second — from sunset to dawn — is characterized by disciplined indulgence as Muslims break their fast and attend to physical needs.

Apart from fasting and breaking fast, the third central practice of Ramadan is tarawih, which are relatively long prayers performed at night on the heels of the fifth mandated prayer. Fasting Muslims structure their day according to these central practices and organize their work and obligations around them. They gather and disperse at uniform times throughout the day and partake in collective acts of worship.

The three central practices and cycles of mobilization and release endow Ramadan with its specific temporal constitution. Practices, rather than the abstract temporal order of the clock, give Ramadan its particular form. Moreover, the month itself is not temporally uniform. The days gradually acquire a heightened spiritual momentum as the month progresses and especially in the last 10 days.

This spiritual mobilization finds release on the night of the 27th day of Ramadan. The night is known as the “Night of Power” and is widely believed to be the most significant of the whole month. Muslims congregate in mosques in large numbers to partake in prayers and practices of dhikr, or remembrance, through the night. In Palestinian mosques, Muslims do not remember God only. They remember colonial injustice, renew their commitment to fighting the powers which inflict it, and behoove God to strengthen the resolve of those who risk their lives fighting it.

The accelerating cycles of mobilization and release underpinned the Palestinian uprising and allowed it to gain momentum in the first few days of its unfolding. Palestinian worshipers pushed forth Ramadan’s constitutive disruptions and aligned the uprising with the intensifying cycles of mobilization and release.

Reckonings: Reintroducing the colonial

On the first night of Ramadan on April 13, Israeli police broke the locks of Al-Aqsa mosque’s minaret doors and cut the cables to the loudspeakers that broadcast tarawih prayers. This was the first time since 1967 that the locks were sabotaged and the minarets of Al-Aqsa were stormed. The background of this violent encroachment was Memorial Day, Israel’s annual commemoration of fallen soldiers from its colonial army. Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin opted to deliver his Memorial Day speech at the adjacent Al-Buraq Wall — known by settlers as the “Western Wall” — at the same time as and in collision with tarawih prayers. Prayers were drowned out and Rivlin delivered the speech.

In the following days, the police installed metal barriers to confine Palestinian worshipers to a limited space in Al-Haram al-Sharif (Al-Aqsa Compound). Transgression by an increasing number of worshipers seeking a spot to pray in the last 10 days of Ramadan became grounds for violent reprisals. The reprisals were informed by a specific settler-colonial logic aimed at securing the right of way of settlers to seize as much ground as possible from the Palestinians in Al-Haram al-Sharif. From the Israeli standpoint, a violation of the barriers is a security issue only insofar as it is a violation of this right of way. Israel also blocked off a popular plaza outside of Damascus Gate where Palestinians gather in Ramadan to break fast with their families, socialize with friends, and organize activities for children.

As this was taking place, Palestinian residents of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah were mounting fierce resistance to the forced expulsions they were being subjected to by police-backed armed settlers. Palestinians organized sit-ins and tarawih prayers, set up open iftar tables in the street, and invited other Palestinians from Jerusalem and all Palestinian lands colonized in 1948 to join them. The expulsions and resistance occurred as the date approached for a ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court on May 10, widely expected to turn forced expulsions into legal evictions.

The expectation was not based on the strength of the legal evidence provided by Jewish settlers. The Ottoman document used by these settlers to claim ownership of land in the neighborhood is of dubious authenticity and was indeed contested in 1997 by Suleiman Darwish Hijazi, a Palestinian resident of Sheikh Jarrah. Hijazi provided title deeds issued by the Ottoman government to prove his family’s ownership of the land. His evidence was rejected by Israel’s Central Court in East Jerusalem in 2002 — the same court which authorized the expulsion of six Palestinian families earlier this year — and again in 2006 by the Supreme Court. Ownership titles, however, are not the only legal elements which enter into Israeli court rulings. There are two laws — promulgated in 1950 and 1970 — without which the expulsions appear as though they are legal results of real-estate disputes contested in neutral courts.

The 19th century saw the expansion of affluent Palestinian families outside the walls of the Old City. By 1905, 167 Palestinian families lived in Sheikh Jarrah. In 1948, most of them were expelled. Two years later, Israel declared its Absentees’ Property Law. The law gave Israel the right to confiscate property belonging to uprooted Palestinians who were rendered “absentees.” In 1970, the Legal and Administrative Matters Law was enacted. This law gave Jews who “lost” any property in 1948 the right to reclaim it without giving the same right or due process to the Palestinians. In 1956, when East Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) built houses in Sheikh Jarrah for Palestinians who were displaced from their homes in 1948 but did not end up in neighboring countries.

Although these families were to be given full ownership rights three years later, this never happened due to Israel’s refusal to recognize these entitlements when, in 1967, it extended its colonization of Palestine to East Jerusalem. The Jordanian government has also been reluctant to provide documentary evidence of Palestinian ownership rights.

The story of the Sabbagh family provides a telling but not unusual example. The family was displaced in 1948 and settled in UNRWA housing in Sheikh Jarrah in 1956. The Sabbaghs do not have the right to reclaim the land they were expelled from in 1948 per the law of 1970 because they are not Jewish. Their land rather falls under the 1950 Absentee Property Law which automatically gave Israel the right to confiscate it. In Sheikh Jarrah since 1956, the land titles they were supposed to acquire after three years are not recognized. Instead, settlers are claiming that this is land they “lost” in 1948 and are therefore entitled to it per the 1970 law.

The expulsion of the Palestinian families of Sheikh Jarrah and the brave resistance they mounted cannot be understood outside of these two laws. The logic which structures these and all Israeli laws is informed by a specific colonial practice. This practice constructs legal categories through which colonial dispossession is refracted to create the appearance of regular property relations that avoid the colonial question in its entirety.

Since March, the Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah have been pushing the colonial relations that structure their lives in the neighborhood to a point of radical eruption by fighting them in open confrontations with settlers. The Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah and everywhere in Palestine are collectively calling into question the very notion that Israel has any legitimacy to promulgate laws in the first place.

The Spark

Palestinian resistance to Israeli reprisals rapidly escalated over the course of the month of Ramadan. Every night, Palestinians already gathered in Al-Haram al-Sharif for iftar and tarawih protested Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian access to the plaza and mosque. Damascus Gate also became the first protest site outside of Sheikh Jarrah to condemn the forced expulsion of its Palestinian inhabitants. Damascus Gate, it must be noted, has always been a battleground against Zionist encroachment and a fault line which clearly demarcated Palestinians from settlers in and without uniform.

This fault line would later be extended, but it is in the courtyard of Damascus Gate that this fault line has historically been enacted through acts of protest, disruption of settler-colonial encroachments and anti-colonial cultural activities.

On Thursday, April 22, the 10th day of Ramadan, settler mobs attacked Palestinians at Damascus Gate with police protection. The Palestinians responded by throwing bottles and stones. On Friday night and through Saturday Palestinians continued to protest and sabotage police orders and metal barriers. On Sunday Israel was forced to remove these barriers. Within minutes, hundreds of Palestinians reclaimed the steps of Damascus Gate and erupted in spontaneous celebrations. The celebrations and news of this victory caught fire across Palestine and provided protests in Sheikh Jarrah with renewed momentum. In the neighborhood itself, settler attacks and police repression of Palestinian protesters became more acute. Palestinians, however, turned sit-ins into tents, and the iftar table was expanded as Palestinians from outside of the neighborhood joined them.

The protests intensified with the accelerating temporal cycles of Ramadan and culminated in a blaze on the Night of Power. The blaze rose from a remarkable historical accident: the coincidence of the Hebrew lunisolar and Islamic lunar calendars which brought the Night of Power and Israel’s Jerusalem Day into collision. Lest this be understood as a religious “clash” between Muslims and Jews, Jerusalem Day is an annual Zionist celebration of the colonization of East Jerusalem during the 1967 war. The day is marked by rabid settler parades which roam the Old City of Jerusalem and chant “Death to Arabs.”

In preparation for the parade on May 8, Israeli police blocked cars and buses heading to Al-Aqsa from Palestinian towns Israel colonized in 1948. This blockade was quickly sabotaged. Jerusalemites drove their cars to stranded worshippers, waited for them to cross to the other side on foot, then escorted them to Al-Aqsa from there. Ninety thousand Palestinians attended the Night of Power in Al-Aqsa. This show of force obliged Israel to change the route of the parade which was to take place on May 10.

That very morning, Israeli forces stormed Al-Aqsa and fired at Palestinians to make way for the parade. The settlers, however, called off their parade in protest of the decision to reroute it. This was the second victory, news of which spread to all Palestinian towns even more rapidly than the first. In the evening, Israeli forces stormed Al-Aqsa again, tossed teargas at those trapped inside the mosque, and attacked protesters in Sheikh Jarrah. It was at this point and following an unheeded warning that the resistance in Gaza started firing rockets into Israel.

This was the first fire. The uprising would later sustain itself.

The physical surfaces on which the first three weeks of battle unfolded remained limited to areas in which Israel had a long experience of control, repression and de-escalation. These were Al-Haram al-Sharif and Sheikh Jarrah. The primary tactic Palestinians deployed during this initial round was to disrupt physical spatial barriers used to squeeze Palestinians out of spaces demarcated for the exclusive use of settlers.

At Damascus Gate, disruption immediately turned into spatial reclamation and defense against further encroachment. In Sheikh Jarrah, the expansion of the Ramadan table and transformation of sit-ins into physical tents fulfilled this exact purpose of disrupting the advance of settlers, claiming the neighborhood and defending it through sheer human presence. This later led Israel to blockade the neighborhood to prevent other Palestinians from joining the protests. The neighborhood is still under Israeli blockade.

The interlocking tactics of disruption, reclamation and defense required a high concentration of human bodies. It was this physical concentration which ensured the success of these tactics. Where did it come from?

The Ramadan cycles of mobilization and release structured this early movement. Palestinians rested, mobilized and strategized during fasting hours, then congregated around iftar and tarawih in Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa. Calls to prayer became calls to action without action being at all mentioned. Protest leaflets aimed at amassing a large number of protesters at a specific time became redundant. The two central practices of iftar and tarawih already ensured that a large number of people — much larger and more quickly than any leaflet would achieve — congregated at times set by a cosmological temporal order which provided the organizational preconditions of the first two victories and great historical accident which sparked the uprising.

Creative Disruption

From May 10 onward, the fire which blew from Jerusalem spread to Gaza and to all other Palestinian towns. In order to understand the success of the great uprising, consideration must turn to the multiple, shifting and highly contingent tactics Palestinians have deployed.

The tactic of ishtibak, or “entanglement,” was the linchpin that held all insurrectionary acts during the uprising. The tactical meaning of the word was coined by Bassel al-Araj — assassinated by Israel in 2017 — to describe the “entangled intellectual,” an anti-colonial intellectual who practices ishtibak and can be roughly compared to Gramsci’s organic intellectual who secures national-popular consent for the revolutionary cause, albeit with a gun in his or her hand.

Yet, the word ishtibak denotes something Gramsci did not articulate. Ishtibak is an insurrectionary tactic, not a descriptive type. It synchronously denotes entanglement and “creative disruption.” Creative disruption is the element of ishtibak that refers to the disruptive rearrangement of surfaces and multiple, minute and heterogeneous ways of entangling a uniform and predictable enemy. Ishtibak is different from confrontation or the Arabic muwajaha which was popular during the first and second intifadas. Muwajaha mainly denotes direct, face-to-face confrontations with an enemy at points of friction already designed and designated by him. These include checkpoints and sites of critical ideological-nationalist significance such as Al-Haram al-Sharif and Sheikh Jarrah. Muwajaha is similar to Gramsci’s “war of maneuver,” or a direct strike aimed at quickly destroying the enemy’s defenses.

Ishtibak, on the other hand, extends points of friction to areas not designated as such by the enemy. The point is to entangle the enemy in multiple insurrectionary maneuvers and disruptive anti-colonial acts. In Palestine, this meant turning the entire country into multiple points of friction defined by a multiplicity of disruptive insurrectionary maneuvers that stretched, exhausted and unhinged the enemy.

Between May 10 and 20, Palestinians set fire to and sabotaged police vehicles and stations in Jerusalem, Lydd, Kafr Qassem, Kafr Kanna, Umm al-Fahm, Acre and Rahat in the south. All these cities and towns were forcibly declared to be part of Israel in 1948. Palestinians also sabotaged surveillance cameras, disrupted the railway line between Lydd and Tel Aviv, and set fire to symbols of Zionist private property and settler-colonial dispossession sustained by private capital flows.

In Lydd, Israel entirely lost control over the city which, for the first time since 1948, was temporarily liberated by Palestinian rebels. Neither the police nor other settlers were able to suppress the uprising as rebels quickly brought the city under Palestinian control. Netanyahu even declared a state of emergency and tried to get the army involved. In Haifa, rebels covered roads with soap and water to make them slippery for approaching settlers and the Israel Border Police.

News described these events as a “civil war” between “Arabs” and “Jews.” Crucially, however, the soap-and-water line of defense materially enacted the fault line which has always prevailed at Damascus Gate. The uprising revealed, with an immediacy that can no longer be ignored, that the fault line has always been between dispossessor and dispossessed. The tripartite split between settler (Jews in West Bank settlements), citizen (Palestinians and Israeli Jews) and subject (Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem) collapsed. Israel, despite its institutional status as a nation-state, was revealed to be a colony.

The whole “Israel-Palestine” affair was enacted on physical surfaces — the biggest since 1948 — that were being entangled and rearranged to expose a fundamental fault line: a radical irreconcilable binary between settlers and subjects even if the former posture as legal citizens, policemen and soldiers and even if Israeli passports are forced upon the latter.

Since 1948, settlers, soldiers and policemen have protected each other and killed and attacked Palestinians. During the uprising, settlers in Yafa and elsewhere marked Palestinian homes with the Arabic letter ‘ayn (ع) with the sole purpose of returning at night to attack the Palestinians who live in them. One cannot but recall how Nazis used the Star of David.

But there are other things to recall. Mosques also re-enacted the fault line between settlers and subjects as calls to defend Acre were broadcast from Al-Jazzar Mosque. It was a re-enaction not because it was a repetition, but because these calls brought back echoes of the important role mosques played in mobilization and defense against Zionist encroachment in 1948. Recall, moreover, Israel’s divide-and-conquer policy of channeling firearms to Palestinians so they can kill members of and fragment their own communities. Recall how, during the uprising, these same weapons turned against the very settlers who encouraged Palestinians to possess them.

The West Bank also entangled the enemy. In Nablus, Hebron, Jenin and even Ramallah, Palestinians marched to traditional points of friction at checkpoints and extended them. In Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority and its oppressive “security forces” which only exist to secure Israel and its Palestinian collaborators did not rear their heads. On May 18, Palestinians everywhere joined the Strike of Dignity and Hope even amid threats by Israeli employers to fire the Palestinians who participate.

Mobilization for the historic strike replaced defeatist statements of fact such as “the Nakba continues” by a confrontational motto oriented not toward the status quo, but toward an imminent liberation. “It is time for the Nakba not to continue” read strike leaflets.

In Gaza, creative disruption has been the primary tactic of Palestinian resistance since Israel imposed its siege in 2006. Since 1994, Israel has enforced an expanding “buffer zone” along Gaza’s eastern and northern frontiers designed specifically to eliminate traditional points of friction which puncture the West Bank. This specific spatial organization renders ishtibak at close firing lines impossible. In Gaza, the only way to do ishtibak is to manufacture something that flies, and to do so not by rearranging surfaces, but by creating a whole subterranean layer to circumvent Israeli surveillance. This is why there are rockets and incendiary kites in Gaza but not anywhere else in Palestine.

Why entanglement matters

The possibilities of resistance are often imposed. The colonized, who cannot be expected not to resist their subjection, are forced to be creative. In Gaza, this means projectiles that fly. These projectiles brought colonized Palestinian cities from Bir al-Sab’ in the south to Tel Aviv northwest of Jerusalem to a total halt. The rockets damaged electricity networks in Isdud and Asqalan; forced ships to reroute from Isdud to Haifa; shut down Ben Gurion Airport for days; suspended settler encroachments on Al-Haram al-Sharif; set the Eilat-Isdud oil pipeline on fire and forced gas production platforms to shut down.

Yet, when Israel enforced the buffer zone, it did not prepare itself for the quantum leap in Palestinian military technology which shocked top Israeli and state officials. Israel carried out ground incursions in Gaza in its two major assaults in 2008–09 and 2014. This time, however, Israel threatened but did not dare. This is largely because a ground incursion would have entailed a deep and deadly entanglement with the Palestinian resistance, an entanglement which would have cost Israel’s military forces both captives and lives. Israel did destroy large parts of Gaza but it failed to eliminate resistance infrastructure.

Entangling Israel’s energy industry, airports, restaurants and banks — every aspect of Israeli life — in the struggle for a liberated Palestine is critical. Sabotaging Israel’s economic base is detrimental to its military capacity and ability to sustain its dispossession and colonization of Palestine. Colonialism requires a vast amount of money and a large material and infrastructural base. Sabotaging sources of funding and undermining the material base is conducive to liberation.

This is why boycotting, divesting from and imposing sanctions on Israel matters. This is why shutting down gas production platforms and vandalizing police stations is crucial. Israel claims to be able to secure and maintain its Jewish citizens and cajoles settlers from Europe and America on this basis. The Palestinian uprising has called into question blind faith in Israel’s ability to shield settlers from the violence it has systematized over seven decades. It has sent a different message: there is no security without decolonization.

Palestinians everywhere are celebrating this round of battle as an unprecedented victory, one which dismantled artificial boundaries Israel spent millions of dollars building and maintaining to ensure that Palestinians did not know each other. This is an uprising which took its lead from, and set its eyes, on Jerusalem. As Budour Hassan writes, the uprising demonstrated the actuality of liberation.

When the uprising is described, many say that “women and children” were “again” killed, that Gaza was “again” destroyed. But there is nothing quite “again” about this uprising. This is not cyclical history. This is a unique moment which can be grasped only within the temporal disruptions of Ramadan, not through pre-determined repetitions. It is a moment that demands fresh analyses and new forms of solidarity organized not simply around Palestinian suffering, but also around resistance.

Two things. First, I hope, once history writing begins, that we will not forget the worshipers of Al-Aqsa who ignited the uprising. Historians have the tendency to secularize, to populate the margins with those who do not easily fit the imposed secular distinction between the “religious” and the “political.” Those of us who write history, let us not. Second, do mourn the children. But thou shalt not forget our men and women who die in struggle bearing arms and stones.

Rana Baker

Rana Baker is a PhD student at Columbia University, Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies. Her research focuses on the study of infrastructure and environmental resources as micro-sites of political struggle as well as the emergence of land as an object of economic development.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/creative-disruption-may-uprising-palestine/

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