Thursday, August 4, 2011

Throwing Rocks

Published at Electronic Intifada.

I had denied it for too long now, but for a Palestinian, my rock throwing is shockingly abysmal.

On one of the Fridays I spent in Nabi Saleh, I had grumbled out loud at this particular incompetence of mine, and I suddenly found myself surrounded by eager teachers.

It was the Friday of the flotilla model. That day was mostly spent indoors as after the first couple of hours of the protest, the Israeli army aimed and fired tear gas at whoever so much poked their heads out the door.

During the late afternoon the jeeps made signs that they were leaving, and I jumped at the chance of being outside again. Along with two other girls, we casually sauntered forward until we reached the jeeps and stood next to Nariman Tamimi and her video camera, where other village children joined us. The other activists tried venturing out but because they were a larger number they were promptly shot at. From the rooftops, others started cursing the soldiers in a humorous way, and they also got fired at. One of the tear gas canisters rolled back toward the soldier who fired it and he had to scramble comically out of the way which made us all whoop and cheer, the younger children laughing openly. The soldier stomped menacingly to our group, his pride hurting, his eyes flashing angrily and threw a sound bomb at us. We scarpered.

The village was surrounded by soldiers. The hills were crawling with them, the orchards teeming. As we watched one troop making its way down from behind the olive trees, we didn’t bother to conceal the condescension on our faces. One soldier raised his hand in farewell. My throat constricted with a thousand incendiary words to say at this supposedly friendly gesture. The girl’s face next to me mirrored my own: dangerously narrowed eyes that almost made us look cross-eyed.

One by one, the jeeps took off. The hail of stones raining down on them began, with whistles and cheering whenever a rock made contact with the armored vehicles. The infectious excitement made me pick up a rock, throw it, and then swiftly I buried my head in the ground as the rock traveled heavily in the air for a couple of meters before dropping dully. Next to me, a kid half my size threw his rock and narrowly missed the end of the jeep, which was now about two hundred meters away.

There are two basic lessons: How to Hold a Rock, and How to Throw a Rock. The village was now empty of the occupying force, the street littered with sound bombs and canisters. My lesson took place across from a small empty lot with the sun dipping in the background.

“This is how you hold a rock,” said one of the shabab. “No, not like that, like this. Ok, you’re doing it wrong. No, look at my fingers! Imagine your thumb and forefinger as a pair of tweezers. Hold them up like this. The rock should fit comfortably.” He gave up on his theoretical talk, grabbed my fingers, and molded them into the correct shape.

One kid tapped my arm. “Let the rock rest against your middle finger. That’s it, you got it.”
“Now stretch your arm out, away from your body,” the same shab continued. “No, not like a stick figure. Bend your elbow slightly. Move your arm backwards a little. When you throw, don’t let your shoulder move. The rock travels longer based on the follow through movement of your arm. Ok, throw.”

I threw. The rock felt lighter as it whizzed through the air. I yelled out in joy. “Did you see that!”
My teachers nodded absentmindedly, and threw their rocks. The distance covered was still longer than mine.

“Ok good, but you need to refine your technique a bit more. Try again. Wait, remember to keep this finger like that, ok throw again – WAIT, what are you doing, aiming for the driver? Let the car pass before you start. Now watch out for the kids – HEY!” he yelled out good-naturedly, “Get out of the way!”

I threw again, a broad smile breaking out across my face. I knew better than to say I don’t throw like a girl anymore – one of the last classes I took at university was Women Studies which had a lasting effect on me. The kids showed just how good they are with rocks to a patently easily amused me, eager to offer me tips regarding size and target.

Earlier that day, as activists were cooped up in Bilal and Manal Tamimi’s house, one Israeli activist, a first-timer here, was standing in the middle of the room drawing attention to himself as he loudly asserted that throwing rocks automatically cancelled out a “non-violent protest.” Another activist was arguing with him, pointing out that the rocks were barely the source of bodily harm, but to me they were missing the point completely.

One of the Tamimi men was leaning against the wall on a mattress, staring at the Israeli with scornful displeasure. “As long as the soldiers are here, as long as our land is being encroached upon, as long as their jeeps take over our village, and as long as they continue to fire tear gas, our shabab won’t stop throwing rocks,” he declared.

“Fine, but you can’t call it a non-violent protest,” the Israeli countered. He looked warily around the room. “Look, I realize most of you don’t agree with me, but in my opinion a non-violent protest shouldn’t engage in any tactics of violence, and to me throwing stones is an act of violence.”
“An act of violence!” the other activist almost sneered. “In response to what, the tear gas fired? The live ammunition sometimes used? The storming of houses and the subsequent arrests and beatings? You can’t equate the tactics of the Israeli army to rock-”
“I’m not equating them! Definitely I’m not! But to me, a non-violent protest-”
“Listen,” I interjected. “This is the first mistake you’re making. Don’t say ‘non-violent’; the more correct term is ‘unarmed’. ”

The Israeli first-timer has obviously fallen victim to the western discourse that dictates what the appropriate way for Palestinians to resist is. It seems more apparent that for the west, the term ‘non-violent’ protest would mean that one should retreat meekly in the face of aggression once chanting, singing, and sticking flowers into the barrel ends of guns result in exacerbated aggression on the Israeli army’s part. There are all sorts of implications that come with that term, and it is important not to be ensnared by the western mindset. Definitions should come with context.

Last month Ibrahim Shikaki wrote an excellent and highly important article on Palestinian resistance, pointing out that media coverage shapes Palestinian resistance in the western narrative of non-violence, as well as refuting the western imposition of just how Palestinians should resist.
“The fact is, facing a brutal war machine with stones is but a symbolic gesture. It is a symbol of the vast discrepancy in power between the Palestinian people and Israel's war machine.
Stones aimed at Israeli tanks or other armed vehicles were a means for the unarmed indigenous people of Palestine to demonstrate their refusal of occupation and oppression. Youth, women, the elderly and all sectors of society participated in this form of resistance.”

So where does the history of rock throwing, the action that captured the hearts of millions around the world during its foray in the first intifada and inspired other people, like the new generation of Kashmiris, come from? Bassem Tamimi explained that rocks were traditionally thrown to warn or frighten off bears or snakes.
“When a soldier comes into our village and shoots tear gas we won’t just sit there like a victim. They are protected from live bullets so we’re clearly not trying to take a life. With stones we are simply saying, ‘We don’t accept you here as an occupier. We don’t welcome you as a conqueror.’”
It is for this reason that to even consider throwing rocks as a violent act is absurd. The message is very clear; rocks are thrown at the enemy as a way of expounding the Palestinians’ disapproval of a foreign occupying entity from intruding and expropriating their lands and homes. At the risk of insulting their intelligence and losing their respect at such a dim question, I asked a few Nabi Saleh children why they throw rocks. Simple: we don’t want the army here. This is our village. They are occupying us. The Israeli hasbara machine excelled in depicting the Israeli army, with their Merkava tanks, F-16 missiles, Uzi submachine guns, assault rifles, rubber coated metal bullets, etc as the true victims while painting the Palestinian youth, armed with rocks, as a disturbing image of bloodthirsty emotional Jew-hating Arabs who loathe the white man’s economic, social, and political accomplishments.

The David versus Goliath analogy is lost on those well-meaning "non-violent" folks. Truth to be told, the literal Arabic translation of "non-violent" isn't used widely. We use "muthahara silmiya/ مظاهرة سلمية" which means "peaceful protest". It is especially cringe-worthy to remember how I used to look down on those who threw rocks in Bil'in and Nil'in, something I now attribute to my ignorance and inexperience. I used to think, victim to the the propaganda western media outlets emitted, that throwing rocks was a thing of the past, and that we needed new ways to resist, not quite the Ghandi way but something along those lines. Thank God for Nabi Saleh.

Recently, someone told me the story of how Spiderman of that village, little four year old Samer, had succeeded in breaking off a rear-view mirror of one of the Israeli jeeps with his rock. Spiderman picked up his prized possession, and wouldn't let go of it. He probably slept with it next to him. This isn't a case of young children being taught to hate Jews and therefore grow up to be suicide bombers. It's a case of a young child who is forced to deal with the presence of his brutal occupier in his village.

I picked up another rock, positioning it in my right hand. My teachers looked on approvingly. "When you go home, line up everything you own on a shelf and start knocking them over with a rock," they told me, grinning. "Give it a week and you'll be a pro."


  1. Thanks for the insight. I recently watched "Budrus" and the organizer of their protests also condemned rock throwing as you had before Nabi Saleh and the Israeli activist did in Nabi Saleh. I thought that this was the new standard for Palestinian protests, but apparently I was mistaken. Clearly rock-throwing is part of the Palestinian narrative and trying to cleanse ourselves from it is denying an important part of our struggle, both the history that it makes reference to and the symbol it serves of the inequality between us and our occupiers.

  2. With the rocks of your land, you just express your objection to the occupation and its criminal practices.
    Your existence on your land is what makes the criminals angry. Hence, they arrest and beat civilians for chanting or documenting.

    By the way, can you write about the chants of the demonstration? An article about that could inspire me to write some good chants.

    Please stay strong and careful.

  3. Well, it's just as well I'm not into rock-throwing. I have dyspraxia and I would never manage to hit a tank, let alone a jeep. :P

    You make some thought-provoking points, and I both agree and disagree with what you write. I have noticed that politicians and media pundits from Western countries tend to try and impose a particular form of 'resistance' on Palestinians (if it can be called resistance at all) and then frown on Palestinians in a disapproving and paternalistic way if they aren't willing to let themselves be shoehorned into this mould. Then a disturbing scenario arises that would be funny if only it weren't so twisted: journalists devoting whole columns to a discussion of whether the man with the assault rifle was justified in opening fire (after all, he was facing a man with a stone! Stones can be lethal, don't you know!). Any Western media discussion of 'non-violence' typically centres around Palestinian civilians and their stones, or Hamas and their Qassam rockets, and never on Israel and its tanks and armoured personnel carriers and Apache helicopters and the rest of its formidable military arsenal. Even commentators who are sympathetic to the quest for justice in Palestine seem to get sucked into the debate over whether those naughty children weren't asking to get tear-gassed, throwing stones at the poor army like that.

    This isn't genuine non-violence/pacifism that they are advocating. You can't use stones to legitimise IDF behaviour if you really believe in non-violence. For that matter, you can't support any kind of violence at all. When UK Foreign Secretary William Hague visited Bi'lin and made his speech about non-violence, I remembered his own support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how strongly he voted for the replacement of Trident. What he was preaching to the Palestinians was passivity, not pacifism. He and all the other Western politicians who talk to Palestinians about 'non-violence' don't even know the meaning of the term. It's meant to be a philosophy that governs your whole life, right down to how you treat the shopkeeper and the annoying colleague at work, not something you can just impose on other people (while you fund and arm their oppressors).

    It's worth noting that Western organisations with a genuine history of pure pacifism (the Quakers, for example) are also the most likely to be supportive of the Palestinian cause. The Quakers are officially in support of BDS now, and they co-ordinate EAPPI. EAPPI is pacifist to the core, but it makes a significant contribution to the resistance - the villagers of Yanoun have said that EAPPI is the only reason they were able to come back to the village after they were driven out by the settlers of Itamar. Now they live in the village, always with an EAPPI team present, and simply their presence on that land is an act of resistance.

    While it is not my place to tell Palestinians how to resist, and I'm not going to look down on anyone for throwing rocks, I do think it's important to recognise that genuine pacifism can be powerful and is not to be confused with the sort of passivity that is advocated by certain Western politicians.

  4. brilliant Linah. Mohammed Hanif

  5. I am student of the University of Latvia and next semester within exchange program of Erasmus Mundus I am going to spend in Nablus (An-Najah National University) therefore I am trying to get as much information as possible about the place I am going to. Also I am part of country that has suffered injustice and occupation a lot in its history. It is also country that has participated in Baltic Way and singing revolution. Those are the reasons why I felt need to express my own opinion and hopefully continue the discussion.
    I understand that everything in such situations is complicated. I also believe that when there is conflict there usually is no one truth. Nothing is only black or white.
    Of course after getting familiar with the situation, history and culture I see the injustice in Palestine but still I am one of those who believe that throwing rocks is not justifiable form of protest even in such situation. Why? Because for me it seems that it's not leading anywhere. I understand your point of view, it is logic, but also I believe that approach - They'll stop, we'll stop leads nowhere.
    What I am trying to point out is that - is this action (throwing rocks) achieving its goal? Is it the most appropriate form of protest in this situation?
    I think it's the most important questions. Do people get the message sent by this action? I believe some people get it, some not. To some people the message sent by this action is reason to justify actions by Israel, to some people in Western world it is sending message of violence from both sides. Only difference to them is the available "toys", equipment.
    Therefore question rises - To whom the message by this action is sent? Is it for Palestinians themselves? Is it for Israel? Or is it for the rest of the World? Because if it is sent to others then the message is not being understood as Palestinians want it. It means that either world or the message has to change. What is the best solution?

  6. thanks Mohammed! x

    Vicky i think more than one type of resistance is needed against this out of control apartheid state. BDS of course, but other forms of pacifism..i'm not too sure about. Rock throwing is deeply embedded in palestinian history and culture. Unfortunately like you said western media will pounce upon that as justification for the israeli army's actions, forgetting than an occupied people have the right to resist in any way. When others realize that we have another fight on our hands, the media war, then people will start to advocate for another creative homegrown resistance without needing to fit into the "non-violent" narrative of the west.