Palestinian acts of speaking together, apart

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Amahl Bishara. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.020


Palestinian acts of speaking together, apart

Subalterneities and the politics of fracture

Amahl BISHARA, Tufts University

Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank both protested in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza during the 2014 war. They did so with what Charles Tilly would regard as distinct repertoires of contention, though they both referenced the same heritage of resistance. I argue that we should interrogate the boundaries that states establish to see how different forms of sovereignty and state violence shape resistance and expression. This approach highlights the role of the state in constituting the public sphere. The distinct subalterneities of these two Palestinian communities are a product not only of their political positions under Israeli rule, but also of the larger dynamics of fragmentation that separate them from one another. An analysis of their forms of protest demonstrates that in both cases, Palestinian protesters performed political community by establishing a collective voice and by taking over space.

Keywords: protest, publics, the state, colonialism, subalterns, Palestinians, Gaza War, Israel, place, chants

In March 2014, I met a Palestinian in Israel whose house was threatened with demolition because of Israel’s zoning laws, which systematically limit the growth of Palestinian communities (Adalah 2015a). When I told him that I was doing research on the relationship between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank, he recalled an exchange he had with a friend from the West Bank.

I told him, “You have it easier than us.” My friend was surprised. But I said, “For you, you get shot and become a martyr. For us it’s the slow death of solitary confinement (al-zinzaana). When you die a martyr, you go to heaven, but when our houses are destroyed, they throw us to the street. They kill you with guns, but they kill us with the pen, with the law.”[306]

This article is about distinct but mutually reinforcing forms of state violence: of the pen and of the gun, and the effect that differences between these forms have on subaltern modes of expression and resistance, especially in street protests. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reminds us, “simply by being postcolonial or the member of an ethnic minority, we are not ‘subaltern’” (2010: 65). Rather, Spivak contends that subalterneity has to do with structural obstacles to representation that condition and shape subaltern subjectivities and their politics. Palestinians are limited in their ability to narrate both their past and their present owing to their statelessness and dispossession (Said 1984; Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007; Bishara 2013), and those Palestinians who engage in forms of representation that are not centered or empowered in the normative liberal public sphere are especially pronounced in their subalterneity.1 In this essay, I consider Palestinians who are marginalized not only by their status in relation to Israel and in many cases by their socioeconomic status, but also by the way they choose to resist Israeli rule in the streets. Crucially, the fact of Palestinian geographic and political fragmentation itself exacerbates their marginality. While shared political traditions and cultural texts unite Palestinians in various locations, distinct forms of Israeli rule—military rule in the West Bank as opposed to a form of democracy within Israel’s 1948 borders2—create different modes of political expression and kinds of subalterneity. These differences then exacerbate Palestinians’ obstacles to effective collective representation. In examining this fragmentation, we see that, while according to liberal theory the public sphere is imagined to be independent of the state, in fact the state produces the conditions of expression that shape publics. Both in studies of Israeli settler-colonialism and in general, we must put the state into the study of the public sphere. As Charles Tilly’s theorization of “repertoires of contention” (2006) helps us to see, the specific character of state violence and repression affects the very form of the subaltern publics and politics that arise to confront domination. The apparent boundaries of polities and states shape and restrict the kinds of publics that can form.

Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank are differently ostracized and endangered by the Israeli state, and this affects their ability to speak to each other and as a collective. Palestinians make up approximately 20 percent of the population of Israel and 80 percent of the population of the West Bank. Both groups live under Israeli sovereignty, albeit with different legal statuses. Palestinian citizens of Israel enjoy many of the privileges of Israeli citizenship such as voting, movement, and access to Israel’s social service network. Despite such privileges relative to Palestinians in the West Bank, they are nonetheless systematically discriminated against within Israel in terms of political participation and level of government services received (Adalah 2013). In recent years, activist Palestinian citizens of Israel have increasingly demanded collective rights, rather than just equality as individuals, and have begun to conceptualize of their plight in terms of settler-colonialism (Jamal 2011; Rouhana and Sabbagh-Khoury 2015). Palestinian citizens of Israel are doubly marginalized: they are certainly [307]excluded by the Zionist project of building a Jewish state (Rouhana 1997; Robinson 2013), and they are also marginalized by hegemonic Palestinian nationalism, which has transformed from a liberation project for all Palestinians into a project for state building in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

For their part, Palestinians in the West Bank carry passports of the Palestinian Authority, which was established in 1994 in an agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1994, but they know that this is much less than a sovereign state. They are at the center of the Palestinian state-building project, which enjoys broad legitimacy on the world stage. Yet they continue to be subjects of the Israeli military occupation that began in 1967. This occupation strips them of basic rights to, for example, due process and movement, and systematically constrains and endangers their lives every day. These two groups of Palestinians share the Arabic language, as well as elements of their history, their expressive cultures, and cultural norms. They live in adjacent communities. Although, owing to Israel’s system of closure (Hass 2002; Hammami 2010; Abu-Zahra and Kay 2013; Bishara 2015; Peteet 2017), Palestinians in the West Bank cannot enter Israel without permits that are extremely difficult to obtain, Palestinian citizens of Israel can—with some difficulty and generally not legally—go to the West Bank. These two Palestinian groups rarely interact, nor do activists from each group frequently work in solidarity on a public stage. Understanding why this is the case is the puzzle I wish to investigate here.

Palestinians in both the West Bank and Israel protested Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza. During this war, 2,251 Palestinians were killed, including 1,462 civilians; six civilians in Israel and sixty-seven Israeli soldiers were killed; Israeli bombings and incursions damaged seventy-three medical facilities and destroyed 18,000 homes (OCHA 2015). The predominant Palestinian forms of protest in Israel were vigils and marches, while the most visible form in the West Bank was stone-throwing clashes with the Israeli army. These are what Tilly would regard as different repertoires of contention, as I elucidate below. The form of these protests echoes the modalities of Israeli rule in each location, even though, as I will show, the sense of a polarized division both in forms of Israeli rule and in terms of Palestinian protest should be complicated. Protests were a practice through which Palestinians in each location grappled with the appropriate and effective modes of asserting themselves as a community and confronting Israel.

This article focuses on two specific protests against the war in Gaza, one in Lydda, Israel, and the other in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. However, as part of my research on the barriers to Palestinian political engagement across the Green Line, the 1948 armistice line that divides Israel and the West Bank, I conducted participant observation at several other protests against the war both inside Israel and in the West Bank. I also followed protests and vigils through news and social media and conducted interviews with activists about these events. In addition, before the war began, I had attended other Palestinian protests in Israel and the West Bank.

Publics and protests

I am guided in my inquiry into protests by literature on language and politics and on the public sphere. While speech in the public sphere and protests have sometimes [308]been seen as diametrically opposed, it is useful to examine them in combination because both are means by which people set out to influence authorities and people around them. In both instances, people are judged by the tone and style through which they represent themselves. In conceptions that are by now classic, public spheres are supposed to be constituted by reason-based discourse among disinterested parties, and this discourse mediates between the state and society (Habermas 1989). Publics are recognized as being self-actualizing (Warner 2002), a way of creating “imagined communities” (Anderson 1991); publics can thus be conceived of as “large-scale political subjects … that are thinkable and practicable by means of mass-mediated communication” (Cody 2011: 38). Similarly, protests can also be sites for the performance of political community.

Writing in the late 1980s, Sue Gal observed that “the unity of talk and action, structure and agency, achieved by sociolinguistic studies does not yet locate linguistic practices as parts of larger systems of inequality, encompassing states as well as local communities” (1989: 347–48). Seeing speech and action or language and materiality as interrelated undergirds recent efforts to reintegrate public sphere theory and crowd theory, politics and publics (Mazzarella 2010; Cody 2011). As scholars like William Mazzarella and Francis Cody have pointed out, the crowd has historically been seen in contrast to the public, such that the crowd is viewed as disorderly, embodied, threatening, and irrational, acting in the street, while the public is presumed to be disembodied, rational, and orderly, gathered around a newspaper. Yet, in fact, both publics and protests are made up of embodied practices, whether they be reading or marching. As Cody (2015) argues, questioning the primacy of the stranger relationship in modern political agency, the crowd can be constitutive of public spheres. To see the crowd and the public as situated in relation to each other is not only to challenge forms of hierarchy that denigrate the crowd; it is also to remember that speech is always embodied (Butler 1997; Mazzarella 2003; Cody 2015) and emplaced (Feld and Basso 1996). To understand the ways in which collectivities are performed in protest, we must meditate on Judith Butler’s inquiry in an article about the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt: “Bodily and linguistic—how are we to understand these terms and their intertwining here?” (Butler 2011). With ethnography like this one that locates itself in more than one place, I place emphasis on the here of her question.

This means interrogating the relationship between political expression and the state. A public, according to the liberal model, is meant to be “a space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself ” (Warner 2002: 67). Publics are thought of as being independent of the state, defining themselves “against the public authorities themselves” (Habermas 1989: 27). Yet, as Nancy Fraser (2007) has pointed out, this concept of the public is implicitly Westphalian. When we think of publics as made up of practices, it is generally difficult if not impossible to imagine forms of expression that exist outside of a relationship to a state, whether that relationship is enabling or constraining, prominent or hidden. In liberal contexts, the apparent independence of the public is a product of the state’s willingness to allow public speech to take place—a point which is especially clear when one considers protests—and thus publics are ultimately undergirded by state power (Montag 2000). The speech of state authorities has a performative dimension that can be rooted in global geo-politics or promoted by the workings of media institutions (Greenhouse 2008; [309]Graan 2010, 2016n.d.). Parameters for public speech structure forms of resistance. In the early 2000s, the performative styles of US politicians literally laid foundations for protesters to mock and question authority, as when protesters took advantage of a stage set up by elected officials (Haugerud 2013). In the hills of Zomia in Southeast Asia, people’s escape from the state has involved giving up written language altogether to avoid taxation and regulation (Scott 2009). Thus, the apparent independence of the public sphere idealized in the classic liberal public sphere literature can be seen as the product of another version of what Tim Mitchell (1999) might call the “state effect,” in which the state is reified as an entity separate and apart from the economy or society. The public seems to be independent of the state, but in fact this apparent separation is a product of liberal ideologies and conceptions of freedom.

To understand this dimension of the “state effect,” we must analyze exactly how the state shapes public expression. I want to think alongside Charles Tilly’s book Regimes and repertoires (2006). The central assertion of Tilly’s book is that forms of protest vary in relationship to forms of regimes, and that each may change the other. Tilly’s concept of repertoires of contention suggests that people select forms of resistance based on a history of previous actions and authorities’ reactions to them: “Performances clump into repertoires of claim-making,” he writes, and they “vary from place to place, time to time” (ibid.: 35); moreover, “when people make collective claims they innovate within limits set by the repertoire already established” in their context (ibid.), and the characteristics of the regime play a role in establishing the context. Tilly argues that regimes vary according to two major axes: governmental capacity (ibid.: 16) and degree of democracy, “the extent to which persons subject to the government’s authority have broad equal rights to influence governmental affairs and to receive protection from arbitrary governmental action” (ibid.).

Instead of Tilly’s global comparative approach, I want to investigate the work done by the very appearance of a division between two different regimes. Dominant news frameworks treat Israel and the Palestinian Authority as separate political units. The appearance of separation between the two is normalized by the global dominance of a system of nation-states (Malkki 1992; Ferguson and Gupta 2002), and has been buttressed by the Palestinian Authority’s performance of statehood (Bishara 2008; Allen 2013). In fact, Israel is sovereign over both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, where the Palestinian Authority is located, though its colonialism operates differently in these spaces (Veracini 2013). This particular division is part of a broader picture. Palestinians are geographically, politically, and ultimately culturally fragmented into areas in Israel, East Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank,3 Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and other locations in the diaspora (Farsakh 2005; Peteet 2015). All of these aspects of fragmentation are in some way related to Israeli policies.

Even in an era of multisited ethnography (Marcus 1998), researchers have too often allowed their work to be delimited by the very state borders that we should instead interrogate. As Lisa Lowe recently observed, “The modern division of knowledge into academic disciplines, focused on discrete areas and objects of interest to the modern national university, has profoundly shaped the inquiry into . . . connections” among single societies, peoples, and regions (2015: 1). Most research about [310]both Palestinian societies and Israeli rule tends to locate itself in one Palestinian location, in part because of the practical difficulties of doing otherwise. Even the literature on Palestinian fragmentation tends to examine dynamics within Israel and the occupied territories, as though the division between Palestinians living in Israel and those in Lebanon, for example, is to be expected. The ways in which ethnographic research, especially on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, is shaped and limited by state politics, even if it is critical of those states, has been the subject of recent anthropological inquiry (Perez et al. 2015; Deeb and Winegar 2016). Working in Israel and the West Bank, as I have done here, is one of the easier options for a multisited Palestinian ethnography.

Returning to Tilly’s framework, how can we think of the degree of democracy in Israel and the occupied territories? While Israel is regarded in dominant US discourses as being quite democratic, limits on democracy in Israel disproportionately affect the 20 percent of the citizens who are Palestinian (Jamal 2009; Robinson 2013). The “broad, equal rights” part of Tilly’s definition of democracy (2006: 16) is seriously compromised. Several of the more than fifty laws that discriminate against Palestinians specifically limit freedom of expression (Adalah 2013). The “Anti-Boycott Law,” passed in 2011, prohibits public promotion of boycott by Israeli citizens against Israeli institutions. The “Nakba Law,” also passed in 2011, authorizes the reduction of state funding to any institution that commemorates Israeli Independence Day as a day of mourning. The “Law of Political Parties” prohibits political parties that “deny the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” (ibid.). These laws limit the expression of Palestinian collective identity in Israel. It is these laws that may make some Palestinians feel as though they are being “killed by the pen,” as suggested at the opening of this article. However, we should note from the outset that Palestinian citizens have also been victims of outright state violence on many occasions, such as the killing of six protesters at a land rights demonstration in 1976, and the killing of thirteen protesters at the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000.

In the occupied territory of the West Bank, Israel grants Palestinians no democratic rights at all, and has undermined the very limited self-rule processes of the Palestinian Authority. Israel no longer systematically censors the contents of Palestinian speech as it did before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 (CPJ 1988). Now the Palestinian Authority restricts those who criticize it. However, Israel continues to use violence in ways that limit Palestinian political expression. During the last Gaza War in the summer of 2014, at least seven Palestinian journalists were killed while they were working (Stern 2014). Yet there is not consistent evidence that these journalists were being targeted for what they were writing, or even for being journalists. At least eight Palestinian journalists were killed in Gaza while they were not working (ibid.). Thus it is easy for Israel to claim that it did not target journalists. Likewise, Israel killed fourteen Palestinians at protests in the year before the Gaza War, often with the same logic that these protesters posed a threat to the soldiers (Amnesty International 2014).

It may seem, then, that in the occupied territories, the gun is doing the work the pen does inside Israel, limiting Palestinians’ collective ability to express themselves while at the same time denying that limiting speech is its goal. Still, this outright physical violence is legitimized and reinforced through officials’ speech (Bishara 2013). [311]Indeed, as I work on this article, a new wave of Israeli repression against Palestinian journalists in the West Bank is underway (Ma’an 2016). As Achille Mbembe writes, “late-modern colonial occupation” combines “the disciplinary, the biopolitical, and the necropolitical” (2003:27). Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian analyzes the intersection of Israel’s use of the necropolitical and the biopolitical, arguing, “in colonial contexts in general, and in the case of Israeli settler colonialism in particular, the industry of fear aims at sociocide, which attacks the social fabric and daily life of the colonized, their land, their property, and their politics of truth” (2015: 10). While Israeli forms of repression use more outright military violence in the occupied territories, Israel employs a mixture of these approaches in both locations. Israel’s militarized repression of Palestinians under occupation perpetuates a logic of war that in turn justifies other tactics against Palestinian citizens of Israel, as was clear during the 2014 war on Gaza.

Now I turn to the protests themselves. The protests in Lydda and Bethlehem exhibit key similarities as well as important differences. In both places, Palestinians ground their resistance “morally and historically in the traditions of past insurrections,” as in other traditions of resistance (Feldman 1991: 163), yet they articulate or enact this connection to traditions of resistance in diverging ways. Importantly, what seems like a worthwhile mode of protest in each location may not seem worthwhile in the other location: there are distinct repertoires of contention in each location. Both are battles for a creation of a collectivity, won or lost by the hour, yet these battles are carried out in disparate terms. Though protest chants are prominent in one location while direct confrontations with security forces are prominent in another, we must recognize the ways in which speech and collective presence on territory—the semantic and the bodily—are interconnected in both sites.


On August 3, 2014, I attended a protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza in the city of Lydda, known in Arabic as Al-Lidd (or Al-Lydd) and in Hebrew as Lod, a “mixed city” in Israel of about seventy thousand. As used in the context of Israel, the term “mixed” itself is fraught: in these cities, Israeli Jewish populations are always dominant over the Palestinian ones, and this designation often elides a history of mass dispossession of Palestinians in 1948 and after (Monterescu and Rabinowitz 2007; Pasquetti 2015). Silvia Pasquetti, whose ethnographic work focuses on Lydda, suggests that “segregated” (ibid.: 2) might be a better term. Lydda, a city with a prominent history in the Roman era now known as the birthplace of Palestinian hip hop, is afflicted by high rates of poverty and crime and is located less than 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv. In 1948, the vast majority of the inhabitants—who were Palestinians—became refugees. Today about a quarter of the population is Palestinian, and they are concentrated in a separate district of the city.

Of the hundreds of people who gathered for the protest, which was organized by a group called “Al-Hiraak al-Watani” (literally, the Nationalist Movement), almost all were Palestinian, with just a few Israeli Jews or internationals. While young men made up a plurality, there were also women, children, and people all ages and a mixture of socioeconomic backgrounds. This was typical of the Palestinian protests I attended in Israel throughout the summer; predominantly Israeli Jewish protests [312]against the war were held separately from these Palestinian ones, and many Palestinian activists felt that this separation was important. One Palestinian activist I interviewed commented that Israeli Jews were welcome to organize their own protests or to come to the Palestinian one, as long as they did not dictate or dominate Palestinians’ messages. The implicit goal of the protest was not only to oppose the war, but also to assert the strength of the Palestinian community in Israel and its unity with other Palestinians. Israeli Jews who attended this protest were thus far to the left of the mainstream, willing to support a collective Palestinian identity within Israel.

The Facebook invitation for the event declared this Palestinian unity in a number of ways. The name of the event was “Yom at-talaahum ma‘ Ghazza” (A day of cohesion with Gaza). At-talaahum (cohesion) sounds unusual in both English and Arabic in this context; it substituted for the anticipated word, “at-tadaamun” (solidarity). Both in Israel and in the West Bank, Palestinians discuss the politics of the word “solidarity,” pointing out that while it is supposed to signal a bringing together, in the very act of doing so it also signals a state of being apart. At a demonstration in solidarity with hunger-striking political prisoners in Haifa earlier in 2014, a speaker from Jerusalem explained to the audience, “We should not use the word ‘solidarity’ to talk about prisoners from the West Bank because we are one people.” In a similar vein of asserting unity rather than solidarity, the banner at the top of the Facebook invitation included the statement “kulunaa Ghazza” (We are all Gaza), and a key slogan from the protest was “jurhik ya Ghazza huwa jurhnaa” (An injury to you, Gaza, is an injury to us).

The textual format and contents of the invitation underscored that this was a Palestinian protest. The first line of the description read, in Hebrew, “Hebrew follows Arabic”; after this came Arabic, Hebrew, and then English invitations to the demonstration. Such an announcement to scroll down for other languages, common in such invitations, was a means of establishing a hierarchy of languages and voices that reverses the dominant order in Israel.

The Arabic invitation decried the extreme violence of Israel’s occupation and war and proclaimed Palestinian unity:

We direct our call to you, our dear people in our beloved cities and villages, and we call for you to come out in a mass demonstration of anger in uprising against this savage aggression. . . . To reaffirm . . . that there is no difference between Gaza and Lydda, or between Haifa and Khuza‘a, or between Nazareth and Shujaa‘iya. The aggression is an aggression against any Palestinian Arab, wherever he is4

The word “reaffirm” again presumes that Palestinian unity has already been established. It is a kind of Bakhtinian “authoritative discourse” from below, through which “the authority of discourse and its internal persuasiveness may be united in a single word” (Bakhtin 1981: 342; see also Yurchak 2005: 61). It is made even more authoritative by the text’s unspecific authorship. The Hebrew and English versions of the invitation were briefer and did not include this statement.

The invitation also reconstituted Palestinian space within Lydda, a formidable task given the way in which Israel has criminalized Palestinian space in this mixed city [313](Pasquetti 2015). The Arabic text invited people to meet “on Salah Ad-Din Street,” using the Arab nationalist and anticolonial pre-1948 name for the main street. Only between parentheses did the invitation introduce the corresponding official—and deeply Zionist—Israeli name, Herzl Street. The invitation also listed that the demonstration would end in Martyrs’ Circle, in front of the Dahmash mosque (“duwaar al-shuhadaa’ [amaam jaami‘ Dahmash]”), a reference to the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in July 1948 by the Palmach, an elite Zionist militia. Again, this Palestinian name was in stark contrast with the Israeli place-name: in Hebrew, this space is referred to as Palmach Square.

On a pragmatic level, though, Palestinian unity contained gaps and absences. The invitation ended with a list of numbers to call to find a shuttle to the demonstration from twelve different locations: universities, cities, and villages. All of these shuttles were coming from inside Israel. Organizers would not have even considered having shuttles come from the West Bank, because so few Palestinians would be able to enter—and no ordinary bus would be able to break the siege to move from Gaza to Israel. Israel’s permit system, in operation in the West Bank, is very restrictive (Hammami 2010; Peteet 2017), and certainly does not give permits for people to protest. Entering illegally is difficult and risky (Bishara 2015). These restrictions on movement are one factor that naturalizes the border between the West Bank and Israel.

When I arrived at the protest, the demonstrators were gathering in a park in an area cordoned off by a plastic police line, a physical indication of how our collective speech was both permitted and contained. Dozens of counterdemonstrators waved Israeli flags perhaps 50 meters away. Israeli police stood in the shade. A plainclothes police officer stood immediately next to the demonstrators pointing a video camera at them. I almost always found such a figure at demonstrations taking pictures, and I always photographed him in return. I had never faced problems for doing this, but I was aware that as a light-skinned, apparently secular woman who was often identified as being an American, I had more leeway in doing so than others. In contrast, I certainly kept my distance from the counterdemonstrators, whom I instinctively regarded as dangerous. At first, as we left the park together, several police officers in regular uniforms (i.e., wearing sunglasses rather than helmets and bearing handguns rather than machine guns) blocked the path out of the park onto the street, but then one appeared to receive a call. They let the protesters into the street. The momentary delay was a reminder that the authorities were allowing this protest to take place.

For the next hour, the street rang out with the protesters’ call-and-response chants, all in Arabic. One of the longest chants riffed upon a poem by the prominent Palestinian poet Said Al Mazeen, “Ana Saamed” (I’m Steadfast), written in relation to the events of Black September in 1970–71. Like the Facebook invitation, the adapted version of the poem—unlike the original—included a long list of Palestinian placenames:

Ana saamed, saamed / Law qatalu khayye / Saamed / Law qatalu bayye / Saamed / Law qasafu hayyi / Saamed / Sha‘bi bi Ghazza / Saamed / Fi Al-Lidd wa Ramle / Saamed / Bi Yaffa wa Akka / Saamed5[314]
I’m steadfast, steadfast / If they kill my brother / Steadfast / If they kill my father / Steadfast / If they bomb my neighborhood / Steadfast / My people in Gaza / Steadfast / In Lydda and Ramla / Steadfast / In Jaffa and Acre / Steadfast

After naming these historically Palestinian cities inside Israel, this chant called out names of Palestinian villages in Israel and the West Bank and refugee camps in the West Bank and Lebanon: ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, Kufr Ber‘am, Mukhayyam Balata, ‘Arraba. This chant established that all of those places were Palestinian, and linked these places to Lydda, where the placenames reverberated in the summer evening air.

Elliott Colla, writing of the 2010 protests in Egypt, reminds us that slogans and chants “are not merely linguistic texts” but “public performance . . . shouted and sung by embodied people moving, often in coordinated ways, in and through public spaces,” and that “these movements and actions are not mere context for the production of slogan meaning” (2013: 47), but rather part of the meaning of the protests themselves. Similarly, the embodied performance of the Lydda chant, in the context of a protest march, provided a crucial aspect of its meaning. This chant was steeped in the locality of the protesters’ region, their town, and their streets, and, as protesters called out the rhymes together, it created a collectivity. Moreover, it was just as fiercely asserting connection with other Palestinians with whom they could never join in protest. Through words spoken together, they did what they could not do in actuality; they created a cohesive Palestinian geography, based this time in the small, impoverished city of Lydda, where Palestinians usually felt marginalized by racist real estate policies and a right-wing Zionist mayor. This imaginative geography exceeded the outlines of the Palestinian state-in-making in the occupied territories, incorporating not only all of historic Palestine, but also Palestinian places elsewhere in the Arab world.

Other chants took up questions of how resistance should operate. For Colla, “ambiguity is key to the study of slogans and slogan performance” (ibid.: 39). One chant concerned chanting itself:

‘Ali ‘ali ‘ali suut / Min al-Lidd libayruut / Alli biyihtif maa biymuut
Raise your voice, raise your voice / From Lydda to Beirut / You who chant will not perish6

The ambiguity here is in the need to point out that those who speak will not die, indicating the level of tension that exists around political speech. Everyone knew that in the current atmosphere, speaking out could cost one a job or a trip to the police station. Israeli police arrested and detained about 1,500 people, almost all Palestinians, for protests during the war (Adalah 2014). Through their chant, these protesters reclaimed the innocence of the act of speaking.

Another chant concerned a tactic that these protesters would not engage in that day:

Wale‘ Wale‘ Wale‘ Wale‘ / Al-yom taskeer al-shawaare‘
Light it, light it, light it, light it / Today we will shut the streets[315]

Burning tires and road closures are global tactics for disrupting business as usual. They are particularly poetic in the Palestinian case since Israeli authorities have fragmented Palestinian spaces with a great variety of road closures. Yet this chant as voiced in Lydda that day contains a contradiction: these protesters did close the streets, but they did so with the acquiescence of the police, and they did not light anything on fire. Still, to articulate this chant in a protest in the streets of Lydda is not just to reference a history of Palestinian popular resistance. It is to take part in that history and hold open a potentiality for future action. In fact, some smaller protests in Palestinian towns in Israel did involve closing down streets with burning tires. Chanting about resistance suspended protesters between language and bodily action corresponding to that language. This collective movement through the streets suggested a momentum to something bigger.

Another chant that briefly rang out explicitly supported the bombing of Tel Aviv:

Yaa fida’ee ya habeeb / Idrub, idrub Tel Abeeb
You fighter, my dear / Hit, hit Tel Aviv

This chant referenced a 2012 song by the Palestinian singer Qassem Al-Najjar. It was a dangerous kind of solidarity on multiple levels. First, even roundabout support for violence against Israel has led to legal action against Palestinians in Israel (Adalah 2015b; Berman and Times of Israel staff 2014). Second, this kind of expression of solidarity could be understood as an incitement to these Palestinians’ own physical endangerment, given our proximity to Tel Aviv. Still, the risk of arrest or recriminations likely felt more intense than the threat of rockets: only six Israeli civilians died in rocket attacks during the entire war. When I was with Palestinians in Jaffa as sirens went off warning people to take cover, we went about our business outside. Even if their nerves were rattled, Palestinian citizens of Israel tended to resist the Israeli state’s call to its citizens to be afraid of Hamas rockets.7 On top of this, through protest, activists made themselves vulnerable to Israeli state recriminations. Even in the risks they took, they were foregrounding a collectivity with other Palestinians, rather than with Israeli Jews.

Soon, we arrived at Martyrs’ Circle/Palmach Square, where another prowar counterdemonstration awaited us. Again, dozens of people waved Israeli flags as they chanted anti-Arab slogans. This was a more energetic demonstration than the first one, and I was glad for the space between us, and even for the several security forces who stood in a loose line in the road between the two gatherings (Fig. 1). This moment underscored for me that police both enabled and restrained the protest as an act of collective expression. The security forces were both protecting us from the right-wingers and surveilling us. The presence of border security forces—armed with both handguns and M-16s—was also a tacit threat to the protesters. They and their guns were familiar eruptions of military occupation inside Israel. They were a reminder of how, in Israel and elsewhere, militarized violence that is or seems to be outside the officially recognized boundaries of the state enables and perpetuates the possibility of such violence within the state, both because of [316]the availability of equipment and personnel and because, in this case, of Israel’s simultaneous cultivation of an enemy at home and abroad. Yet the police and border patrol were not visible in very large numbers or in full riot gear, as I had seen them at other demonstrations that summer at which arrests ensued. This is an example of how the state—through its policing—shapes the forms of public speech that are possible, and thereby shapes what Tilly calls the repertoires of contention.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Israeli security forces stood in the road dividing the protesters and the counterprotesters at the protest in Lydda, Israel. Other Israel border patrol at the protest carried M-16s. (Photo: Amahl Bishara.)

Even at the end point of the protest, the chanting continued. One young man climbed a lamp-post to raise a Palestinian flag, enacting another chant I heard at protests in Israel that summer: “‘alimnaa ‘alim falasteen / waajib ‘alaynaa nerfa‘haa (The Palestinian flag is our flag / It’s our duty to raise it high) (Fig. 2). Protest organizers urged caution as we went into the night and as we went home to post pictures on Facebook. They recognized that some of the audiences for this protest might endanger the protesters, even after we went home. Walking back to the car, I thought of the counterdemonstrators behind us and of the July 2, 2014, kidnapping and lynching of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir. I felt sure that this was the most dangerous time of the night. But then I was reminded of ways in which I, at least, felt quite safe. When I approached my car, I saw a police officer leaning against it. I asked him in English to move. My ability to speak to him in this way underscored the presumption of “normal” relations between security forces and protesters, enhanced in this interaction by my Americanness and femininity.[317]

Figure 2
Figure 2: A protester climbed a lamp-post to raise a Palestinian flag at the end of the demonstration in Lydda, Israel. (Photo: Amahl Bishara.)

The fact that a public is “self-organized,” “exist[ing] by virtue of being addressed” (Warner 2002: 67), itself suggests the deep heterogeneity of publics. How do we conceive of audiences for protests? These protests, like other performances, were “dialogic . . . between and among performers and audience” (Askew 2002: 23). Some audiences were immediate, and some were mediated; some the protesters assumed would be supportive and others would be critical or even threatening. One primary audience of the protesters was themselves. Protesters were moved by hearing each other speaking these chants, in Arabic, together. In this manner, this protest was also transformative of space. Writing about Tahrir protests, Judith Butler (2011) observes, “Collective actions collect the space itself, gather the pavement, and animate and organize the architecture . . . assembly and speech reconfigure the materiality of public space, and produce, or reproduce, the public character of that material environment.” Here, in a segregated city in a time of war and intense enmity against Palestinians, these protesters not only took over space, they renamed it, and connected it with a Palestinian geography that completely countered Israeli organization of space. Israeli Jews who participated in the protest acquiesced to and participated in this radical reordering. Others who heard the protest or read the handful of protest signs that were written in Hebrew—whether from their balconies, from which many people looked on, from the street, or as police—surely would have been struck by this public assertion of Palestinian voice and space. Indeed, Palestinian citizens of Israel have designed public art and written graffiti under the assumption that language itself signifies. Protesters would be aware that the ringing out of a language that many could not understand might be as profound as any specific message sent.[318]

The other audiences for the protest were mediated, especially through social media and through news articles published on the Internet. Protesters were certainly aware of these audiences, and indeed they cultivated them, taking pictures of each other. One young man asked me where I would publish the photographs I had taken, because he proudly expected that he would figure prominently. The protest was covered in Arab48, a prominent online Palestinian news outlet in Israel (Arab48 2014). The article focused on the text of the call to protest and attendance at the protest and counterprotest. It also included a lengthy quote from the right-wing mayor of Lydda, who had tried to prevent the protest from happening at all. The article repeated some of the key place- and collectivity-making tactics of the protest, referring to the streets and squares of Lydda by their Palestinian names. However, it was conventional in that it did not seek to in any way attend to the actions and chants of the protest itself. In this way, the article maintained the norm of mainstream news of marginalizing voices from the street.

In sum, the protest was a way of “poetic world making” (Warner 2002: 114), of creating a “large-scale political subject” (Cody 2011: 38) through a face-to-face event that participants knew would be mediated. The call-and-response chants allowed people to speak together as they moved together, transforming space. This expression certainly did not meet the qualifications of the liberal public sphere of being a communication based in rational, disinterested deliberation. It was poetic, interested, and emotional. Yet this kind of speech is common and recognizable in democracies and elsewhere. The gathering was remarkable in the Israeli context because it was simultaneously an assertion of Palestinian presence in Lydda and an assertion of a Palestinian collectivity across political boundaries. It was as though Palestine could be summoned into existence by hands cupped around mouths and feet moving through the street. Protesters also implicitly grappled with the question of how to legitimately resist Israeli rule. While they chose the path of a protest that authorities allowed to occur, they took risks by evoking other kinds of Palestinian resistance.


That night I returned to Bethlehem, located on the southern border of Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The Bethlehem metropolitan area is made up of about four municipalities and three refugee camps totaling a population of just under eighty thousand. My returns always felt extremely fraught, since I—with my U.S. and Israeli passports—was virtually the only one in my circle who could enter Israel legally. Still, I told them that I had been at a demonstration that consisted of nearly an hour of chants—poetry in the streets! I exclaimed—that the chants had been old and new, that they had called out to Gaza, to the West Bank, to Beirut, to all Palestinians, everywhere. I told them also about the police officer leaning against my car. Once I was in Bethlehem, conjuring the sheer proximity of police and protesters in Lydda was dizzying.

In Bethlehem, protests of various types took place nearly every day during the Gaza war. One evening, children gathered with their parents and other community members in front of the Church of the Nativity in the middle of town—and thus [319]away from Israeli soldiers—to commemorate the loss of children’s lives in Gaza. Children held posters, lit candles, and spoke in English and Arabic about the injustice of the conflict. Early on the morning of Eid al-Fitr, the celebration after Ramadan, residents of Aida Refugee Camp painted a mural of names of the children who had been killed by Israel during the war. On another occasion, camp residents gathered water and raised money for donation to Palestinians in Gaza.

However, the dominant form of protest—in terms of both frequency and perceived seriousness—was certainly clashes with the Israeli army. These occurred on a nightly basis. Because they were so frequent, I was less aware about the call for them being made on social media, though one of the organizers assured me that such calls did take place. Facebook groups that purported to be local news networks spread calls for protests among a network of camp-, city-, and village-based groups; group text messages also spread the word.

On most days, young men and boys over the age of about fifteen—including many of the same people who went to the Church of the Nativity or took part in the events in Aida—would gather near Rachel’s Tomb, a shrine and Israeli military base embedded in the 8-meter concrete separation wall that had for almost a decade closed and rerouted the main road in Bethlehem. There protesters would confront the army after the evening taraweeh prayers for Ramadan concluded. Sometimes an organized procession would start off from a location in the city and process toward Rachel’s Tomb. In this case, the participation was wider, with people of all ages and genders participating, though there would still be a prevalence of young men, and especially socioeconomically disadvantaged refugees. Here too, chants concerned unity:

Wehda wehda wataniyya / Kul al-quwwa thawriyya
Unity, national unity / All the power is revolutionary power

Yet this was a narrower conception of Palestinian unity than I heard articulated in Israel, alluding mostly to the split between Fatah and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. Their political identity did not rely on embracing Palestinians in other locations.

Again, protest chants encouraged a range of modes of resistance. Protesters saw speech as a means of recovering lost dignity.

Irfa‘ eedak wa ‘alleh / Al-mowt walla al-madhalleh
Raise your fist and your voice / Death is better than disgrace

As in the “Raise your voice” chant in Lydda, this chant addresses the power of protest itself, but this chant’s tone is grimmer, suggesting that death may be the price of speaking out. Death hung over other chants, as well:

Lil-Quds raayheen / Shuhadaa’ bil-malaayeen
To Jerusalem we depart / A million martyrs

Protesters were indeed marching in the direction of Jerusalem, on the very road that used to lead from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Yet, rather than entering this symbolically dear city, they would be stopped by the wall. This chant asserts that Palestinians were willing to risk death to reach Jerusalem. Though they were not trying to enter Jerusalem, these were dangerous protests. During the 2014 [320]war alone, thirteen Palestinians were killed in the West Bank, mostly at protests (Human Rights Watch 2014).

Just as in Lydda, there was a protest chant supporting the bombing of Tel Aviv that referenced the song by Qassem Al-Najjar:

‘An Ghazza maa fee badeel / Idrub, iqsuf Israel
Gaza is irreplaceable / Hit, bomb Israel

The voicing of this chant in Bethlehem was quite different than in Lydda. It referenced a more prominent and more proximal history of armed resistance in the West Bank, as during the second Intifada. Also, it flirted with self-endangerment from rockets somewhat less than the Lydda protesters did. Clearly Hamas was not targeting the West Bank in the same way it was targeting Israeli cities. Yet, in Bethlehem, we, too, occasionally saw Hamas rockets flying through the air, perhaps targeted at the settlements we could see nearby. When we did, some ran outside in excitement, as though to greet one of the few objects from Gaza drawing anywhere close to the West Bank during these years of siege. People completely ignored the possibility that they could be hurt by Hamas rockets. It was as though the laws of physics were trumped by the laws of politics.

Soldiers would never have heard the chants at this Bethlehem protest, because long, long before protesters reached the separation wall, Israeli troops would disperse the crowds with sound bombs and tear gas. My field recordings are almost comical in this regard. Just as I would start recording a particular chant, the staccato of tear gas canisters fired in the air would interrupt the recording and scatter us down into side-streets. My recordings demonstrate that these weapons affect not only the movement of people, but also, of course, their abilities to express themselves. These Palestinian protesters rarely can sense that they have an Israeli Jewish audience. Here, the repertoire of contention takes the form it does because of the differences in audience and, ultimately, because state violence and restriction takes a different form than it does inside Israel.

This point helps me to analyze one chant that I was initially surprised to hear, because it included a mild curse. I knew from watching other protests that during stone-throwing clashes, individual protesters also may hurl obscenities at the army. At the time, I took this chanted curse as a sign of the lack of organization of these protesters and of a degradation and disorganization of contemporary Palestinian politics, as well as of the masculine dominance in the protests, since cursing is associated with masculinity in this context. Certainly some experienced activists with whom I spoke agreed with this perspective. From another angle, though, we might see the obscenity as itself a statement about the communicative circumstances in which these Palestinians find themselves. The Israeli army allows no way for Palestinian protesters to be heard. More broadly, Palestinians in the occupied territories lack any effective way to be heard in the Israeli public sphere. These protesters sensed that the Israeli army deals with all attempts at speech with force, and this may make rational deliberation or even poetry in the street seem less meaningful. Colla notes that invective “strikes at the legitimacy and rectitude of the power . . . by way of familiarly regressive categories of masculinity and femininity, sexual activity and passivity, moral purity and filth” (Colla 2013: 44). For Hamid Dabashi, the word “obscenity” itself has to do with “incomprehensibility . . . a vast discrepancy [321]between what one sees and what one reasons” ( 2006: 133). “Now suppose, for the sake of argument,” he writes, “that the obscenity in question is the very idea of ‘Israel,’” owing to its combination of state violence and its parading of its own righteousness (ibid.). Curses are a rejection of Israel’s claim to righteousness in the face of what many Palestinians see as the obscenity of Israeli violence, and of the very representational lopsidedness of the conflict.

After the first volley of tear gas, the crowd would separate into those who were engaging in direct confrontation with the army and those who stood back, watching. Those in the front threw stones and Molotov cocktails and lit firecrackers in the direction of Israeli positions. They used their arms and slingshots. Protesters rarely threw pipe bombs in protests, because this, they knew, would escalate danger to Palestinians dramatically. Soldiers mostly stayed in jeeps, but they sometimes were on foot, shooting tear gas, rubber bullets, rubber-coated metal bullets, and live ammunition. These clashes would go on for hours and hours, often starting around ten and continuing until two in the morning. The Israeli army injured dozens of people at these Bethlehem protests. Notably, though, few if any people were arrested at these demonstrations, because protesters were fierce enough to prevent soldiers from drawing close enough to them to do so. Arrests would come in the following weeks and months, in raids conducted in the middle of the night.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Protesters on the main street in Bethlehem blocked the road with dumpsters, planters, and the shell of a car during a nighttime protest. (Photo: Mohammad Al-Azza.)

The near impossibility of Israeli arrests during the protests is a hint to the way in which, somewhat differently than in Lydda, these protests rearranged space. Protesters closed down the main road to all car traffic, for hours. They transformed the street into a battleground, moving old car frames, dumpsters, and large planters into the streets to be used as shields against the soldiers (Fig. 3). They lit fires [322]in dumpsters and tires. Protests transformed space in another way, too. When no protest was going on, the location to which they were walking seemed to be just another bend in the looming concrete separation wall. However, when demonstrators approached, the gray gate in the gray wall would open, revealing soldiers and the full violence of the occupation. The protest made visible the omnipresence of the soldiers inches away from everyday city life. Night after night, the protesters reanimated the street as a space of struggle. Importantly, just as protesters in Lydda began their chanting with some limited forms of freedom of expression in place alongside awareness of a set of restrictions on Palestinian expression, Palestinians in Bethlehem began the struggle for space with the limited control over space offered by the Palestinian Authority alongside the awareness that Israel is ultimately sovereign over their streets and their city.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Three Israeli soldiers stood behind the truck that sprays foul-smelling “skunk water” at protesters at one of the nighttime demonstrations in Bethlehem. (Photo: Mohammad Al-Azza.)

The army presence transformed space, as well. The Israeli army repelled protesters using “skunk water,” a chemically engineered substance that smells like a mixture of sewer water and rotting flesh (Fig. 4). This was worse, even, than tear gas. Fired in large quantities, tear gas residue settled into the street and the sidewalk and lightly stung the nose for days; the putrid skunk water stained space for weeks. The business of nearby tourist hotels was badly damaged. These are very different tactics than were used to repress protests in Israel. As one of my interviewees pointed out, skunk water would never be used in Haifa or in Lydda, because in these mixed cities such a killing of public space would be unimaginable.

Covering these protests challenged standard definitions of news, in that they occurred with basically the same pattern night after night. Certainly the messages [323]of the protests were hardly newsworthy: Palestinians in the West Bank have been vocally and collectively opposing Israeli military violence since 1967. So Palestinian news media coverage of these protests tended to focus on Palestinian injuries and on Israeli weapons of counterinsurgency. As with the community-based media in Lydda, YouTube posts by local videographers captured the feel of the protests: the risks taken by young people, the density of Israeli violence.

At least some of the activists involved with the protests saw their importance not as saying something but as opening a second front against the army, so that Israel would have to fight not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank. According to this perspective, the protests were performative, but differently so than in other kinds of Palestinian protest, in that protesters’ own personal risk was integral to the performance. As with protesters who slept in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Palestinians’ protest was “not only a way to lay claim to the public, to contest the legitimacy of the state, but also quite clearly, a way to put the body on the line in its insistence, obduracy and precarity” (Butler 2011). Many have commented on the theatricality of protest in the West Bank, especially in villages like Bil‘in, where protests against the wall have thrived. As Rania Jawad points out, “The performance of Bil‘in’s demonstrations defies the distinct separation between theater and resistance action” (2011: 138). Yet, in Bil‘in, the performative dimension is seen as being linked to the village’s claim to nonviolent resistance (ibid.: 141). Here, in contrast, we saw direct confrontation as performance, a perilous clash that was simultaneously an assertion that confrontation is necessary.

In this light, the chants of Lydda seem almost luxurious. The Bethlehem protests were a complete rejection of the norms of the liberal public sphere by oppressed people who “have no necessarily unmediated access to ‘correct’ resistance” (Spivak 2010: 62). Rational discourse—even poetry—is replaced here with a curse and a stone. Rather than constituting themselves as a collective—something which is already well established for Palestinians in the West Bank, who are at the center of the state-building project—they saw what they were doing as a struggle over territory. On one occasion I showed a friend in the West Bank pictures of a Palestinian vigil against the war inside Israel. He read the signs the Palestinians held, and I noted that there were few if any signs at the nightly protests. How, then, I asked, did they send a message to the Israelis? He replied, “Just in that we go out and do a demonstration against them. That is the message.” If the chants in Lydda were strategically ambiguous on what the appropriate means of resistance were, here protesters were clear that resistance should entail direct and dangerous confrontation with the army.


There is not necessarily anything essential dividing Israel’s forms of rule in the West Bank, Israel, and, we can add, Gaza; in fact they are constantly though subtly shifting, and they change in relation to each other. The “cohesion” of Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel with Palestinians in Gaza may be tacit acknowledgments of this. Recalling the killing of thirteen Palestinian protesters in Israel at the start of the second Intifada, Hassan Jabareen, then executive director of the Palestinian human rights organization Adalah (based in Haifa, Israel), commented:[324]

The problem isn’t Arab protesters. The problem is that the Israeli public sees them as an enemy against which force must be used. The police use lethal force against Arab protesters not by chance, but because the police are part of the Jewish public and internalize its racism. Of course there are members of the Israeli public who oppose this sort of hostility toward Arabs, to the use of violence, and who support equality, but these are a minority. The majority does not distinguish between legitimate solidarity and violence—the only question being if you are Jewish or Palestinian. (Sheizaf 2015)

He suggests that most Jewest Israelis do not distinguish between protests of the state and violent acts taken to undermine it, and that Israel responds similarly to both. Jabareen was speaking in October 2015 with the events of the 2014 Gaza war and the fall 2015 upsurge in violence in mind. This suggests a kind of friendly amendment to the assignment of the violence of the pen to Israel and the gun to the West Bank. This dichotomy may describe the dominant form of violence in each of these locations, but not the singular one, as Mbembe and Shalhoub-Kevorkian would confirm. The necropolitical operates inside Israel as well. Israeli state rhetoric against Palestinians—especially those living in the occupied territories—legitimizes and enables military violence against them. Militarized violence erupts against Palestinian citizens of Israel often enough that it is always a threat. Racialized state violence in one location implicitly legitimizes racialized state violence in another location on another scale, because in state rhetoric Palestinians are painted everywhere as the enemy. Increasingly, Palestinians recognize the similarities between Israeli rule in the occupied territories and in Israel, similarities that disrupt dominant Israeli and Palestinian statist performances of a hard separation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Yet, for a variety of reasons, for now, Palestinians in Israel and those in the West Bank still are not protesting together.

Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank resist Israeli rule with what Tilly would call different “repertoires of contention” even as they draw on a shared heritage of resistance. In Israel, the primary forms of public opposition to the 2014 Gaza war were vigils and processions, with a few demonstrations involving confrontation with Israeli police. In contrast, while people in the West Bank held vigils, they poured most of their energy into direct confrontation with the Israeli army. When one larger protest in Nazareth, inside Israel, erupted into stone throwing, I heard different explanations among Palestinians in the West Bank than among Palestinian citizens of Israel. The former praised the step. The latter said that it had been musta’rabeen, or Israeli undercover officers, who instigated the violence to make the protest more dangerous. However, on other occasions, Palestinian citizens of Israel argued that Palestinians there should also open lines of direct confrontation, and that when they did, this would be even more effective than similar protests in the West Bank. As one activist inside Israel explained, “We just do not have the culture of resistance to make this happen now.”

Palestinians’ inability to express themselves collectively across these two communities is partially due to Israel’s closure policies, which limit actual copresence, but it is also due to Israel’s different communicative restrictions on these communities, which yield distinct repertoires of contention. What looks like a successful protest in each place is quite disparate. Fragmentation—in geography and political [325]culture—is a key factor producing Palestinian subalterneities, compounding the obstacles to expression that come from either being a minority excluded from the national project, as are Palestinian citizens of Israel, or being subjects of military occupation, as are Palestinians in the West Bank. The more general point, then, is that state-produced divisions between related polities affect conditions for group expression. It is not only that states set limits for political expression in a variety of ways. It is also that the naturalized sense of separation between people into different polities—in this case, Israel and the West Bank—acts as another limit on expression. The differences between two Israeli modes of repression multiply their effectiveness. This is one key dimension by which the state produces publics, counterpublics, and their norms.

It may at first seem as though these two Palestinian groups have different goals: Palestinian citizens of Israel seem to be seeking to articulate a shared identity as Palestinians, while Palestinians under occupation, their national identity firmly established, seem to be struggling for territory. It may seem that chanting and stone throwing are quite different forms of resistance. However, both saw protesting for Palestinians in Gaza during the war to be of crucial importance, worth significant risks. Though they never protested together, when they did chant, they used similar words. Each of these protests constituted a collective subject serially and intertextually with other protests that year and across decades of Palestinian resistance.8 The forms their resistance took differed somewhat, but each form of resistance was a means through which Palestinians worked through ideas about Palestinian collectivity and Israeli violence.

The predominantly linguistic and the predominantly bodily—or protests dominated by embodied talk and those dominated by physical action—are intimately related; they are ways to explore the same themes. They are by no means polar opposites; indeed we need to insist on recognizing the embodied in speech and the semantic in action, and the ways they blend, augment, or contradict each other in single performances. When we look at speech as embodied and emplaced and recognize the performative in a wide variety of protests, the relationships among practices of resistance can become clearer.


I am grateful to have received a Palestinian American Research Center (PARC) National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH/FPIRI) Award and a Wenner-Gren Foundation Post-Ph.D. Research Grant, which made this research possible. I deeply appreciate the insights, camaraderie, and patience of friends and interlocutors in Palestine who have helped me to do this research and to hone the ideas in this paper. I also wish to thank audiences at the University of Toronto, Scripps College, a Tufts University symposium on the Gaza war, and the University of Chicago’s symposium on Neoliberal Frontiers for helping me to develop the ideas in this article. The comments of Nidal Al-Azraq, Lori Allen, Frank Cody, Lara Deeb, Kēhaulani Kauanui, Alejandro Paz, and three anonymous reviewers greatly helped me to hone [326]my ethnography and arguments. I am especially grateful to Andy Graan, whose guidance and insights oriented revision of this article and whose organizational labor first created the dialogues that initiated this collection and then brought it into fruition.


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Parler ensemble et séparés: subalternités et politique fracturée en Palestine

Résumé : Pendant la guerre en 2014, les citoyens palestiniens d’Israël et les Palestiniens de Cisjordanie ont tous protesté en solidarité avec les Palestiniens de Gaza. Ils ont protesté en ayant recours à ce que Charles Tilly aurait appelé des “vocabularies of contention” distincts, bien qu’ils ont fait référence au même héritage de résistance. Je défends l’idée que nous devrions problématiser les frontières que les états créent afin de voir comment la souveraineté et la violence étatiques forment les modes de résistance et d’expression. L’approche que je propose insiste sur la capacité de l’état à instituer la sphère publique. Les subalternités distinctes de ces deux communautés palestiniennes sont le produit non seulement de leurs positions politiques respectives face au régime israélien, mais aussi des dynamiques plus larges de fragmentation qui les séparent les unes des autres. Une analyse de ces formes de protestation montre que dans les deux cas, les manifestants palestiniens se présentent comme une communauté politique, soit en établissant une voix commune ou en se saisissant de l’espace.

Amahl BISHARA is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Tufts University whose research revolves around settler colonialism, expressivity, place, and media. She is the author of Back stories: US news and Palestinian politics (Stanford University Press, 2013), an ethnography of the production of US news during the second Palestinian intifada, and the article “Driving while Palestinian in Israel and the West Bank” (American Ethnologist, 2015). She directed the documentaries Degrees of incarceration (2011) and Take my pictures for me (2016).

Amahl Bishara
University Department of Anthropology
5 The Green
304 Eaton Hall
Medford, MA 02155


1. Amal Jamal (2011) also argues for the relevance of the subaltern studies frame as a way of analyzing the condition of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

2. Building on Paley (2008) and other critical approaches, I find it productive to analyze the multiplicity of violences that occur under the banner of what is often regarded as liberal democracy.

3. East Jerusalem is regarded as part of the West Bank under international law, but Israel has annexed this territory.

4. My translation.

5. In my transliterations, I try to be consistent while also capturing colloquial accents and using accepted spellings for placenames.

6. Colla heard a chant similar to this one during the January 2011 protests in Egypt (ibid.: 41).

7. Of course, some Israeli Jews disregarded the sirens too. For more on how these ideologies of security operate, see Ochs (2011).

8. I thank Andy Graan for this insight.