The chaos unfolding on the ground in Palestine-Israel is real, brutal, and terrifying. Fighter jets, rockets, cops, and lynch mobs have swallowed the skies and streets these past four days. The Israeli army and Hamas militants are continuing to exchange wanton fire, killing scores and wounding countless more, overwhelmingly in the besieged Gaza Strip. Across Israel, throngs of armed groups, many of them Jewish thugs accompanied by police, are roaming towns and neighborhoods destroying cars, invading homes and shops, and seeking bloodshed in what many are rightly describing as pogroms.
This descent into unrestrained state and mob violence is tragically drowning out one of the most incredible moments in recent Palestinian history. For weeks, Palestinian communities, with Jerusalem at their epicenter, have been organizing mass demonstrations that have spread like wildfire on both sides of the Green Line. Sparked by events at Damascus Gate and its adjacent neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, protests have sprung from the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza to the city of Nazareth in Israel to the West Bank hub of Ramallah. And so far, they show little sign of abating.
Even as current events take a horrific turn, these mobilizations over the past few weeks cannot be overlooked. While Palestinians of all stripes are deeply aware of their shared identity, many have long feared that Israel’s violent fragmentation of their people — abetted by national leaders who enforced those divisions — had crippled their unity beyond repair. The fact that Palestinians have taken to the streets in such unison is a defiant reminder that, despite the immeasurable toll on its victims, Israel’s colonial policy has still not succeeded. This perseverance is more than just a source of solace for Palestinians; it has galvanized them to seize this moment to forge radical, decisive change.
This is hardly the first time such demonstrations have occurred: the 2013 Prawer Plan to displace Bedouin citizens in the Naqab/Negev, the 2014 war on Gaza, and the 2018 Great March of Return generated similar joint actions in the past decade alone. Yet any Palestinian who has attended the current protests or followed the news from abroad cannot help but sense that this wave is unlike the others. Something feels different. No one is quite sure what it is or how long it will last — and after last night’s madness, maybe it no longer matters. But it is nerve-wracking to watch and electrifying to behold.
Not merely a slogan
The centrality of Jerusalem in this national revival is a vital piece of the story. It has been years since the historic capital was on the minds of so many Palestinians — and indeed, the minds of millions worldwide — in the way it has been these past weeks. The last time this occurred was in July 2017 when, following an attack by Palestinian militants on Border Police near Al-Aqsa Mosque, Israeli authorities installed metal detectors around the compound and refused to allow Muslim worshippers to enter without screening them.
Rejecting this imposition by their occupying power, Palestinians led a mass boycott of the detectors and protested any attempts to alter the Haram al-Sharif’s “status quo.” Their civil disobedience compelled regional actors to intervene, and eventually forced Israel to remove the installations. Though limited in scope, it was an inspiring victory that offered a glimpse of the potential for Palestinian organizing in the city, which many feared had been decimated by Israeli repression during and after the Second Intifada.
This time, the mobilization in Jerusalem is far more significant. Unlike in 2017, Palestinian protestors were not content with simply lifting the police’s arbitrary restrictions on Ramadan festivities at Damascus Gate. In what proved to be fatal timing, Israeli authorities and settler groups intensified their push to expel Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, whose evictions were set to be sealed by the Supreme Court this month, at the same time as the police were escalating their repressive violence in the Old City. The fate of Sheikh Jarrah, along with other threatened areas like Silwan, became intertwined with the heart of Palestinian Jerusalem — not merely as a weary slogan, but as a movement taking mass action to defend them.
In doing so, Palestinians broke tremendous ground in countering Israel’s attempts to splinter Jerusalem’s neighborhoods from each other, and to cut them off from their brethren outside the city. Spurred by the capital’s reawakening, Palestinians in other towns and cities organized their own protests in support of Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa, unfazed by Israeli threats and acts of repression. Last Saturday, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel defied police obstructions and traveled by bus and foot to worship at the holy site, praying for Sheikh Jarrah in the same breath. Until this week’s pogroms permeated the country, all eyes were locked on Jerusalem with a fervent energy that had not been felt by Palestinians in ages.
An extraordinary feature of the demonstrations is that they are primarily being organized not by political parties or figures, but by young Palestinian activists, neighborhood committees, and grassroots collectives. Indeed, some of these activists explicitly reject the involvement of political elites in their protests, viewing their ideas and institutions — from the Palestinian Authority to the Joint List — as domesticated and obsolete. They are asserting themselves on the streets and especially on social media, encouraging other youth who had never been to political protests to join for the first time. In many ways, this generation is defying its traditional leadership as much as it is fighting the Israeli state.
Resilience amidst the chaos
It is no wonder that Hamas has decided to enter the stage by firing thousands of rockets at southern and central Israel in the name of defending Jerusalem. For some Palestinians, this is a justified military intervention to bolster the movement on the ground; for others, it is a blatant attempt to hijack the protests for Hamas’ own gain, as it did with Gaza’s Great March of Return. Still, with President Mahmoud Abbas indefinitely postponing this summer’s Palestinian elections, the political leaders on both sides of the occupied territories have shown they have little to offer but old strategies and more authoritarian rule.
Cooption is not the only threat the burgeoning movement faces. In so-called “mixed cities” like Lydd, Jaffa, and Haifa — historically Palestinian towns that were forcibly turned into majority Jewish localities through expulsion and gentrification — right-wing Jewish mobs, many guarded and aided by the police, are lynching Palestinians and terrorizing their neighborhoods. Armed Jewish gangs from settlements in the West Bank, where violent assaults on Palestinians are rampant, are converging on these cities to join the fray. Some Palestinians are also assaulting Jewish Israelis and torching their vehicles and properties, including arson attacks on synagogues. Only one of these groups, though, has little reason to fear the authorities — and if anything, can happily rely on the police for protection.
These harrowing developments will likely worsen in the coming days as Israel and Hamas ramp up their asymmetric warfare, with Palestinians in blockaded Gaza paying the heaviest price. The Israeli government is now considering deploying the army to help police establish “order” in the country, a move that will impose further tyranny over Palestinian citizens of the state. Meanwhile, many Palestinians who support the protests have become fearful of taking to the streets over the risk of injury, arrests, or worse. Others have resigned themselves into believing that — after decades of uprisings, international inaction, and Israeli impunity — there is little hope that this episode will bring about any meaningful change.
And yet, even as the violence seems to spiral out of control, it should not be allowed to erase the currents of pride, solidarity, and joy that have energized this month’s wave of Palestinian resistance. In a symbolic image on Sunday, a Palestinian in Lydd climbed a streetlight to replace an Israeli flag with a Palestinian one — a defiant scene nearly 73 years after Zionist forces ethnically cleansed the city in the Nakba. When police blocked buses from entering Jerusalem for the holy night of Laylat al-Qadr, passing drivers offered lifts to Palestinians who were prepared to walk miles to reach Al-Aqsa. In Haifa’s neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas this week, Palestinian residents grouped together to stave off Jewish mobs, knowing the police were more likely to help the attackers than to stop them.
On social media, a viral video showed Palestinian citizens laughing and cheering as an Israeli police car drove by unaware that a Palestinian flag had been jammed into its backdoor. Another popular video showed a Palestinian boy, pushed out of Al-Aqsa by a crowd of police, slickly tossing his shoe straight at the head of a helmeted officer. Another one showed a Palestinian man breaking into a smile when his daughter, oblivious to the fact that her father was being arrested by police in his own home, impatiently enquired him about her doll. Even amidst the chaos, these moments of beauty and resilience should not be forgotten.
A national riot
There is no doubt that this is a perilous time for all those living in Palestine-Israel. The volatility on the streets is petrifying, and the dangers they bring feel almost unprecedented. This madness should have been avoidable, but the powers that be made it almost inevitable. The international community, including Arab states, have effectively abandoned the Palestinian cause; the Israeli right has solidified its apartheid rule between the river and the sea; and Palestinian leaderships have refused to give their people a say in their political future.
It is precisely this isolating and crushing environment that the nascent Palestinian movement is trying to shatter. Many of the young activists who have put their bodies on the line in recent weeks have spent their lives trying to procure their freedoms. More assertive and more equipped than their previous generations, they have tried their hands in social media, public advocacy, “coexistence” programs, legal practice, even friendships with Jewish co-workers — only to find they remain trapped in the same chains as their parents and grandparents before them. Robbed of options, public disobedience is now one of the few strategies Palestinians have left to hold off Israel’s relentless oppression, not least in fighting displacement from Sheikh Jarrah to Jaffa and beyond.
This mass act of unrest cannot simply be classified under a false binary of “violent” or “nonviolent” resistance. It is, to put it bluntly, a national riot. Though a deeply stigmatized word, and one used more to demonize and justify brutality against demonstrators, riots are a familiar feature of popular resistance against injustice; the Black Lives protests following the murder of George Floyd last year witnessed prominent examples of these. And for many Palestinians on the street, whatever violence many emanate from these protests — as abhorrent and condemnable as they may be — remains incomparable to the daily, direct, and structural brutality meted out by the state that rules them.
Indeed, along with the seismic wars of 1948 and 1967, Zionism’s success as a settler-colonial project derives in great part from its creeping approach to dispossession. It steals territory piece by piece, evicts families home by home, and silences opposition from person to person. “Quiet” is key to undermining collective resistance, while giving critics the illusion they have time to turn the tide. And as the events in Jerusalem showed this month, the more brazenly Israel pursues its policies, the more intensely resistance will rise.
The Palestinians who have taken to the streets these past weeks know this very well — and it is why they are not interested in letting Israel return to “normal.” Normalcy means allowing settler-colonialism and apartheid to continue functioning smoothly, unhindered by local or international scrutiny. That violent, inhumane condition forms the common lived experience of millions of Palestinians, whether they live under blockade, military rule, racist discrimination, or exile. All understand that they are confronting a single force that is trying to suppress, pacify, and erase them, simply because of their native identity.
Even on the brink of a frightening stage of war, many Palestinians cannot afford to wait for the next crisis to cast off that oppressive force. There is a riot going on now — and even if it does not free Palestinians from their chains, at the very least, it can loosen Israel’s grip on their consciousness.