Sumud: The Quiet Resistance

Jack Murray writes about the ongoing oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and how recent events have seen a rise in Israeli brutality in the Masafer Yatta area.

This article does not aim to shed light on the unspeakable violence that is currently being perpetrated by the Israeli state against Palestinians in Gaza (at the time of writing more than 10,000 Palestinians have been murdered since 7th October). Nor does it aim to situate that violence in the broader arc of colonial violence and dispossession that has been taking place against the Palestinian people since the Zionist project gained a foothold in the early 20th century. Its aim is not to point at the complicity of the imperial powers and the institutions that comprise them in maintaining this genocidal system for their own geopolitical or financial gain, nor to show how this pattern of imperialism has repeated and reproduced itself time and time again at the expense of countless innocent lives, and will continue to do so until it is stopped by an international, democratic people’s revolution.

Instead, this article aims to draw attention to a particular region in the West Bank which is currently on the front lines of ethnic cleansing, facing a continuous stream of fascist attacks (both by state and non-state actors) and the dignified and determined resistance of its people, who are committed to defending their lives and their land. I am talking about Masafer Yatta. It is a rural region in the south of the West Bank with twelve villages and around 3,000 inhabitants. In and around these villages is a collection of Israeli settlements and outposts constituting a pivotal part of the ethnic cleansing project. These are communities of Israelis that are built on stolen Palestinian land. They are often populated by particularly violent and aggressive Israelis who carry out attacks. Outposts are settlements that are unrecognised by Israeli law and illegal under international law – but are almost always given legal status, not to mention services (water, electricity) and various forms of financial aid by the Israeli government.

bunkers on hill
Sheds and a water tower in Khalet al Dabba, a village in Masafer Yatta.

I spent a month living with the communities in Masafer Yatta this August, as an activist with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Living with the communities as an international is understood to decrease the chance of open violence for two reasons. Firstly, most imperial states would be impelled to act against Israel if one of their citizens was a direct victim of attacks. Secondly, the media outlets that we have access to mean that we can help to document the crimes of the occupation and in doing so contribute to an international consensus around Israeli violence. This tactic is called protective presence.

The violence carried out in Masafer Yatta is insidious but it remains at a low enough level that it rarely, if ever, makes international news. It tends to take two main forms. The first is ‘Legal’ by which I mean explicitly state sanctioned. In the early 1980s the government declared the region fit for the establishment of a military Firing Zone on the grounds that the land was ‘uninhabited’. This decision has been contested legally since then, but in 2022 it was given a green light by the Israeli high court. This decision opened the doors to widespread evictions, demolitions (of homes, schools, agricultural buildings, etc.), arbitrary arrests, and the confiscation of vehicles. It is important to note that these processes of state violence would still be happening regardless of the firing zone ploy, but are now able to take place with even greater frequency and force.

The other major strain of violence is ‘extra-legal’ and it comes from the settlers. The ways in which they terrorise the Palestinians is extremely varied. The following is a short list of some of the things that happened while I was there. Two young settlers attacked an old shepherd while he was out with his sheep – pepper spraying him and his son. A group of about twenty settlers, three of whom were armed with assault rifles, surrounded two farmers who came out one morning to work their land and forced them to leave. A settler on horseback rode into a village and fired his gun in the middle of the night, before pointing his gun at all the terrified villagers and declaring that this was his land. The olive saplings that a shepherd had just planted were uprooted and destroyed. A farmer removing stones from his field so he could plant it up was followed by a group of settlers (armed with clubs) who were throwing the stones back onto the field. There are so many more instances that I could mention, ranging from crop destruction to killing sheep, from cutting down olive trees, to outright murder. Shortly after I left, a cousin of one of the families I was staying with was shot in the stomach.

This is violence that ranges from the banal to the deadly and never lets up. It is constant. The aim, it seems, is to weave fear and pain into every waking moment and make the lives of the Palestinians unbearable. As a result, many families, individuals, and whole communities have left their ancestral land and moved to the cities of Yatta and Hebron. Cleansing the rural areas of their inhabitants and herding them into the Bantustan-esque cities seems to be a pivotal part of the Zionist colonial plan.

But what really struck me when I was there was not the violence of the settlers, the brutality of the army or the injustice of the police, but the quiet resistance of the Palestinians who refuse to be driven off their land. The dignity and determination of these small communities who do not flinch despite staring down the barrel of the most sophisticated and technologically powerful fascist movement in the world today, is honestly breath-taking. The Palestinians call this Sumud. It is often symbolised by the olive tree or the pregnant peasant women. By most accounts, Sumud does not have a good translation in English, with the closest approximations being ‘steadfastness’ or ‘resilience’.

Sumud has different forms, ranging from the static forms of simply staying with your land to the active forms of resistance that involve the creation of organisations and structures that facilitate economic, political and cultural self-defence. The first intifada is considered the pinnacle of this active form of Sumud. The creation of women’s cooperatives, community decision-making councils and mutual aid institutions allowed the Palestinian people to carve out a sphere of autonomy from the Israeli state and pose a serious threat to its hegemony. The power of this uprising was curtailed through a combination of extreme repression and sell-out deals made by the ‘leadership’. However, it remains an extraordinary episode of popular revolutionary power that I would encourage all leftists to study and learn from – regardless of context.

But as I said, Sumud is not necessarily grand and spectacular. In Masafa Yatta Sumud is practised every day. It is practised every morning as shepherds take out their flocks whilst armed settlers watch from the hill top. It is practised every night when young community members take shifts to stay up and keep watch over their village. It is practised every day when older youth accompany younger children to school so that they don’t get attacked by settlers. It is practised every time a farmer carefully replants his field that has been bulldozed. It is practised every time a family sits down for a meal. It is practised every time a group of friends dances Dabke to celebrate a birthday. It is practised every single time anyone makes the decision to remain with their land and not buckle under weight of global imperial interests. It is Sumud to stay despite international apathy and it is Sumud to stay despite being ignored by their so called ‘leadership’. Never has the idea that existence is resistance rung truer for me than in Masafer Yatta.

To be a Samadin (one who practises Sumud) is to defy fascism and defend life. We can learn a lot from the Samadin of Masafer Yatta. We can learn how to take seriously the process of defending our lives and the lives of our communities against those who want to rob us for their own profit. Our enemies don’t carry guns or clubs. They own our homes, they manage and control our work, they cut our benefits, they gentrify our communities, they make decisions which consolidate their own power and claim to represent us. To take real inspiration from the Samadin of Masafer Yatta is to work to understand how much there is to defend in our own lives, and to build our own forms and vehicles of self-defence. It means committing to the construction of democratic people’s power in the face of capitalism, fascism, patriarchy and the state.

We must not forget the brave and humble people of Masafer Yatta.

We must not forget the beauty and power of Sumud.

We must continue to defend life wherever we stand.

Long live the intifada!

If you are interested in joining the international solidarity movement to stand by the side of the palestinian people, please visit the contact section of the International Solidarity Movement which can organise training and provide support for your trip.