Popular Resistance in Palestine


Mazin Qumsiyeh – TRANSCEND Media Service

Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment, by Mazin Qumsiyeh. English from Pluto Press (London), Arabic from Muwatin (link here). Can be ordered from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, soon also in French, German, and Italian.

“This is a timely and remarkable book written by the most important chronicler of contemporary popular resistance in Palestine. Mazin Qumsiyeh brilliantly evokes the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, Edward Said, Rachel Corrie and many others, to tell the unvarnished truth about Palestine and Zionist settler colonialism. With its focus on ‘history and activism from below’, this is a work of enormous significance. Developing further his original ideas on human rights in Palestine, media activism, public policies and popular, non-violent resistance, Mazin Qumsiyeh’s book is a must read for anyone interested in justice and how to produce the necessary breakthrough in the Israel-Palestine conflict.”
— Prof. Nur Masalha

“Qumsiyeh’s inspiring accounts of both the everyday and the most extraordinary acts of Palestinian indigenous resistance to colonialism expose the misguided claims that Palestinians have never tried nonviolence; in fact, they are among the experts, whose courage, creativity, and resilience are an inspiration to people of conscience everywhere. Even with the arms of a military superpower, the Israeli government’s failure to quell the Palestinians’ spirit and insistence on human rights reminds us that the greatest strength of all belongs to those with justice on their side, who will ultimately triumph.”
— Anna Baltzer

“Mazin Qumsiyeh’s insider’s chronicle of Palestinian civil resistance and its quest for self-reliance, independence, political rights, and self-liberation clearly shows that collective nonviolent action by Palestinians has been neither episodic nor an aberration, but remarkably consistent and for nearly a century. His sweeping account belongs on the bookshelves of Israelis who are fearful, Palestinians who are unsure of next steps, and a global community that has yet to take a meaningful stand for peace with justice. Anyone concerned about the future for all the peoples of the Middle East will take encouragement from his invigorating analysis.”
— Mary Elizabeth King, professor of peace and conflict studies, University for Peace, and author, A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance

‘Mazin Qumsiyeh’s book is enlightening and powerful.  It reveals the human suffering and destruction of Palestinian people and land, which are the appalling consequences of Israel’s ethnic, nationalist, military, project that has displaced the indigenous Palestinian population and committed crimes of genocide and apartheid. In spite of such injustice, we can all take hope and inspiration from Mazin’s stories of the lives of the courageous Palestinian people who make the real, often unrecorded, history.  Their peaceful spirit and persevering struggle for human rights and international law, has been, and continues to be, carried out (in the main) by popular nonviolent resistance.  Their method of active NV resistance deserve to be known more widely by the International community who need to see such examples, so they too can reject violence, militarism, and war, and build their security and freedom on Human rights and International Law.’
— Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Laureate (www.peacepeople.com)


The book summarizes and analyzes the rich 130+ year history of civil resistance in Palestine discussing the challenges and opportunities faced in different historical periods with emphasis on trends, directions and lessons learnt. The aim is to put before the reader the most concise, yet most comprehensive and accurate treatment, of a subject that has captured the imagination and interests of the global community.  Looking at the successes, failures, missed opportunities and challenges in this period allows people to chart a better direction for the future.


There is a litany of writings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that cover issues like wars, economic deprivation, terrorism (state and individual), human rights, religious beliefs, land, and governance.  There are hardly any books and writings about civil resistance (see section below on competitive titles).  Further, we can learn from any setback of collective grass-root efforts to chart a more informed path to a future of peace with justice. I reviewed over 800 sources (more than half of them in Arabic) and included over 300 as key citations from newspapers, interviews, press releases, articles, and books in different languages.  This allowed me to bring together something not attempted before: a compilation of issues of civil resistance in Palestine over 130 years with a well-informed analysis on the history, status and prospects of civil resistance in Palestine going forward.

Over two-thirds of the 10 million native Palestinians in the world are refugees or displaced people.  This outcome, like all other similar situations in history such as in South Africa, could not have come about without resistance to the violence of colonialism.  But most of this resistance has been in the form of civil/nonviolent resistance that is little discussed elsewhere.  This book will answer an acute need in the literature on this neglected area.  Because there has been key transformative events that bookmark chapters of our history, we use the intervening periods as indeed chapters to discuss what acts of civil resistance transpired and what lessons are drwan from them.

These period: the resistance to Zionism during the Ottoman rule (from the first colonies in 1878 til 1917); the British era from 1917 (Balfour Declaration) to 1935; the 1936-1939 uprising; the period between the start of WWII and the Nakba of destruction of hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages between 1947-1949; the period of fragmentation of the Palestinian population in exile and divided among the rule of Israel, Jordan and Egypt (to 1967); the unification under one ethnocentric Jewish state after 1967 to 1987; the uprising of 1987-1991; the Oslo years 1992-2000; and the Al-Aqsa Intifada starting in 2000.

Various UN resolutions and customary International law affirmed the legitimacy of armed resistance. For example, UNGA A/RES/33/24 of 29 November 1978 “Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, particularly armed struggle”.  The principle of self-determination itself provides that where forcible action has been taken to suppress the right, force may be used in order to counter this and achieve self-determination. Considering decades of ethnic cleansing, violence, destruction, it is actually surprising how few Palestinians engaged in violent resistance as a whole (whether internationally sanctioned or not). In fact, from the first Zionist colony in 1878 until the 1920s, we show in this book that nearly 50 years had elapsed of popular nonviolent resistance.

This Work Is Timely and Will Be Highly Readable for the Following Reasons:

  • The depth of data mining done to achieve a concise and highly readable yet comprehensive study based on original sources (over half from Arabic sources) on a subject that has received little attention,
  • the uniqueness of the approach in looking at success of civil resistance as an empowering history with lessons for the future,
  • the growth of interest in civil resistance in Palestine concomitant with failure of traditional political structures to address societal needs, and
  • the International community’s growing active involvement in this struggle.

The book makes the following arguments/generalization from analysing the history of civil resistance:

a) Colonial situations (especially those that strip people of their lands and homes) by nature involve the use of violence against the native population.  Such colonial situations generate resistance that is recognized as legitimate by International law.  That native resistance is a Bell shaped curve: a small portion is collaborative (asking nicely and accepting whatever is given), most of it nonviolent, some of it violent and even a smaller portion extremely violent.  As any statistician would tell you eliminating a portion of the curve would cause it to renormalize in short order (whether what you eliminate is those who engage in violence or nonviolence).

b) The violence of the occupiers/colonizers always kills many times more natives than colonial settler populations.  For example the ratio of civilians killed was 10:1 (Palestinian: Israeli) and over >100:1 (European settlers: Native Americans).

c) Palestinians resist by simply living in their homes, going to school, eating and living.  That is because this colonial occupation wants all Palestinians to give up and leave the country (to give Israel maximum geography with minimum native demography).  When the Palestinian Shepherds in Atwani village continued to go to their fields despite repeated attacks by settlers and even the attempted poisoning of their sheep, that is non-violent resistance.  When Palestinians walk to school while being spat on, kicked and beaten by settlers and soldiers, that is non-violent resistance.  When Palestinians spend hours at check points to get to hospital, their farm land, their work, their schools, or to visit their friends, that is non-violent resistance.  Palestinians have resisted by countless other ways as detailed in this book.

d) The vast majority of the civil resistance detailed in this book originate bottom up from the grassroots.  Political parties and leadership are usually taken off-guard by the start of new uprisings and the inventions of new resistance methods.  Occasionally movements may evolve into political initiatives as The Palestine National Initiative and the One Democratic State Group www.odsg.org but most of the time they simply influence existing political formulations to perform differently.

e) Locals ask what will we do: engage in personal struggle by violent or nonviolent resistance or a mix? But it It is rather useless for armchair theorists to lecture people thousands of miles away about tactics and strategies.  It is better for people in Europe and North America to work to effect change in their own governments and media (entities that are directly involved in perpetuating the injustices) to bring a just resolutuion to this conflict.

f) Individuals can change and adopt a nonviolent lifestyle even after spending years with violence.  That is the power of human intellect and strength of spirituality.  The Seville Statement on Violence was adopted by UNESCO at the 25th session of the UN general assembly on 16 November 1986.  Drafted by eminent scientists, it lays out facts and debunks mythologies including myths that the human species which invented war cannot eliminate war. http://www.unesco.org/shs/human_rights/hrfv.htm This document lays out the foundations for a world without war and injustice.  The few hundred examples of Palestinian civil resistance (among many more) inspire and mobilize us to seek a world without war and injustice.

g) The evolution of human societies is moving in a direction that made military confrontation less acceptable.  As the UN was established, more and more people have come to recognize that force cannot be used to bring domination and control.  But the cost of war has also become rather unacceptable in the era of 2 ton bombs, nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.  Further, having military superiority has become less likely to produce the results desired by political leaders.  Take the quagmire of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan as examples or the failure of the Israeli massive attack on Lebanon in Summer 2006 and on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009.9 In older days, combat can be done far away from civilian populations and ruling elites who get insulated from the conflicts.  Today, citizens cannot be safe when their country goes to war even when they are not combatants.

Chapter Breakdown

The book is organized in 14 chapters that logically present the arguments in favor of civil resistance, a history o and lessons drawn from civil resistance in different and distinct historical periods and draws the reader into a world of positive and energizing action for change.  The first chapter introduces the subject and delves into issues of structure and definition for civil resistance generally.  Chapter 2 explains that Palestinian civil resistance from its inception has overwhelmingly been about creation of a democratic society with respect and equality for all people (Jews, Christians, and Muslims etc). In chapter 3 we delve deeper into the what, why, and how civil resistance is practiced.  The local context of civil resistance given in chapter 4 explains how actions of civil resistance in Palestine relied on a wealth of Palestinian religious traditions of tolerance, respect, and drawing boundaries on what is and what is not permissible in conflicts. These preparatory chapters (1-4) are followed by the main book section that includes Chapter 5 to 12 describing details of Palestinian civil resistance from the inception of the Zionist political idea in the mid 19th century until today. The lessons learned from these different time-periods are analyzed in each chapter. For example we see that, during different time periods, political opportunism and divisions diminished or even destroyed successful trends of civil resistance while selfless acts of civil resistance from individual and dedicated teams made a big difference in history.

In Chapter 5 we delve into civil resistance during the Ottoman Rule from the first hints of political Zionism in the 1840s until the end of this rule on Palestine in 1917 (Zionism made little inroads here thanks to Palestinian civil resistance). The Ottoman weaknesses in the 19th century with conflicts at the periphery of the empire forced deals that gave inroads to Western powers in Palestine. A lesson learned from this period is that the ability to organize effective resistance was hampered by isolation of Palestinian elites from the masses, by the Turkish-Arab rivalry, and by feudal structures that tried to face-up to well-organized and well-financed International Zionist movement. But the inroads Zionism had in Palestine before 1917 were small and inconsequential thanks to Palestinian civil resistance in a milieu of Ottoman systems.

In Chapter 6 we analyze the increased resistance following the qualitative leap forward in the Zionist project from the Balfour and Jules Declaration leading to Hibbet AlBuraq in 1929 and what followed to 1935 (a build-up of injustice that set the stage for revolution). Palestinian society during the British rule was riddled with problems but responded remarkably well to the onslaught of Zionist and British efforts to dismantle it and establish a Jewish homeland in its place.  Having gone through the dramatic changes from four centuries of Ottoman rule to British rule was a traumatic and perhaps least investigated aspect of the shifts in power and allegiances in the Palestinian society.  This new British rule was unique.  For, in addition to being a colonial rule, it had a distinct new twist: to fulfill the Balfour declaration of creating a “Jewish homeland” in predominantly Arab Palestine.  The appointment of the Zionist Herbert Samuel was key to advancing the Zionist project in Palestine and we examine in this book how the British society was kept in the dark about the reality in the ground.  The darkness was only penetrated in brief periods thanks to the Palestinian civil resistance. The British elite responded by “divide and conquer policies” some of which unfortunately worked as when some Palestinians worked with the authorities against the national cause. Most notable the quarrels between the Husaini and Nashashibi factions and these elites’ isolation from the interest of the average Palestinian ensure a limitation on what could be accomplished.

The uprising/revolt of 1936-1939 deserved a separate chapter 7 as systemic violence entered into the equation and the mix of violence and nonviolence became a staple of Palestinian discourse for the following decades. Systemic and unyielding British support for the Zionist project began to crack only when Palestinians engaged in massive resistance in 1936-1939.  As in other uprisings, a grassroots movement pushed hard and the entrenched elite political leaders reluctantly joined to ride the wave of the uprising as it rose.  The occupying authorities implemented collective punishment for Palestinians, preferential treatment of Jewish settlers (arming them also), assignment of land deeds, and changing status and access to holy sites like the Western Wall and Waqf  lands (these are lands deed to Islamic religious use).

The devastation of the political leadership that accompanied the devastation of Palestine after the 1936-39 uprising led into the years of the Second World War and the brief three years that followed with acts of civil resistance continuing (Chapter 8). Coupled with the refusal to fulfill of the basic human rights of the locals, including the right to self-determination, these policies engendered resentment and resistance. The British policies at the time were classically similar to those implemented elsewhere in the British colonial world: brutal and calculating and divisive.  Thousands were arrested over the years for nothing more than voicing opposition or establishing political parties that challenged the colonial rule.  Those who resisted violently were hunted down and killed.  Hangings were common.  The lines between the colonial Zionist settlers, the British occupation, and even local Jews who benefitted but not involved continued to be blurred. There were three periods of flare-up in the resistance, 1921, 1929, and 1936-39.  The latter period saw some Palestinian organized guerrilla fighters and resist systematically with arms.  But, the Great Palestinian Revolt of 1936-1939 also elevated the forms of civil resistance from petitions and protests to outright civil disobedience.  The more aggressive measures of civil resistance, together with some violence, caught the British and Zionists unprepared.  But they quickly adapted and managed to take advantage of opportunistic squabbling Palestinian political leaders (who themselves were happy to take on co-opting what was a successful revolt).  The Palestinians emerged politically weakened after most of their leaders were imprisoned or deported.  The local Palestinian economy, social cohesion, and organizational abilities were dealt a very heavy blow.  The void was filled by other forces post WWII including by newly independent Arab states.  It took another generation to rebuild a truly independent Palestinian voice.

Chapter 9 dissects examples of civil resistance in the period from the Nakba of 1948 to the Naksa of 1967 inside and outside of the ‘Green line’. Our study also shows that Palestinians mobilized essentially in isolation inside the Green line in 1949-1966.  Not only were they isolated from their Arab and Islamic hinterland, but they faced and empowered and brutal military rule that attempted to crush them separate them from their remaining lands.  Palestinians outside the Green Line (in Gaza, West Bank, and exiled in other countries) had other problem.  They did not have direct contact with their oppressors and colonial power and they had lots of contact and work in the Arab and Islamic world.  They had to develop ways of struggle and coping that were unimagined before 1948.

As Israel occupied the rest of Palestine in 1967, an era of one state of oppression reemerged and so did concomitant resistance throughout Palestine (Chapter 10).  The 1967 war changed this landscape dramatically in both positive and negative ways.  Israel’s military superiority allowed it to occupy and control vast new Arab areas.  But the war also shocked people to realize that the Arab leaders were impotent to make changes.  Palestinians began to build their own representative institutions to challenge those loyalists to Arab leaders (e.g. slowly the influence of King Hussain in the West Bank weakened despite both Israeli and Jordanian policies to strengthen those traditional loyalists).  By the 1973-1974 periods, the nationalist trends dominated (with a very small minority representing Islamic and Royalist support).  The support for the PLO and the growth of civil institutions in the occupied areas (on both sides of the Green line) mushroomed. Israel tried all tactics at its disposal to crush these nationalist feelings to no avail. The harsher its repression, the stronger the resistance grew.  Israel’s adventure and massacres in Lebanon in 1975-1987 were attempts most of all to kill the resistance by killing its outside symbols.

We devote chapter 11 to the Intifada that became known as Intifadat AlHijara (1987-1993). Even the PLO traditional leadership was caught off-guard and quickly worked its way back to connect with people on the inside and connect with a new generation of activists.   Our analysis reveals that, like the uprising of 1935-1939, the uprising of 1987-1991 ended because of a) political leadership interest in dominance and factionalism, b) external circumstances (start of WWII and start of the gulf War respectively), c) societal stress, and c) collaborative Arab leaders both near and far.

The history section closes with the Oslo years and Al Aqsa Intifada (Chapter 12) and the increasing split between Secular and Religious nationalist elements. Here the most notable civil resistance forms of the past accelerated but also added new forms such as an increasing internationalization with the development of the International Solidarity Movement and a qualitative and quantitative jump in efforts of civil resistance especially after the building of the segregation wall around Palestinian communities. We discuss Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions strategies in Chapter 13 explaining why their effort intensified recently and the future impact in the increasing Internationalization of the civil resistance.  The book is concluded with a chapter summarizing lessons learned from the 130+ years of struggle and by looking to a future of liberation aided by civil resistance.  This would bring peace based on human rights and resulting in full equality for all communities in the Holy Land.

Local Popular Resistance Initiatives


Mazin Qumsiyeh, associate professor of genetics and director of cytogenetic services at Yale University School of Medicine, is founder and president of the Holy Land Conservation Foundation and ex-president of the Middle East Genetics Association. He won the Raymond Jallow Activism Award from the national Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee in 1998. He is co-founder and national treasurer of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, and has written extensively about the Middle East. Qumsiyeh is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, author of Sharing the Land of Canaan and Popular Resistance in Palestine, a professor at Bethlehem University and director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History in Bethlehem. http://palestinenature.org

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