By the end of summer, almost all the journalists were gone. They had descended en masse around June 5, the twentieth anniversary of the Israeli military occupation, crowding the streets of the West Bank and Gaza in quest of photogenic unrest. The preceding winter and spring had been tumultuous. Seven young Palestinians were dead and scores injured, with many more detained in clashes with the Israeli army. Now, in June, the towns seemed calm. Only a merchants’ strike and scattered demonstrations marked two decades of occupation. In Ramallah, television crews clustered around shuttered shops to photograph the locks.

As the twenty-first year of the occupation commenced, near midnight on June 6, Israeli settlers invaded the narrow alleys of Dahaysha refugee camp, breaking into houses, beating youths and terrorizing the population, in “retaliation” for stone throwing on the nearby highway which leads to southern West Bank settlements. In a bizarre twist, one of the Gush Emunim attackers was an Arab convert to Judaism and a member of the influential Ja‘bari family in Hebron. The Israeli press criticized the incident because the settlers had also attacked Israeli soldiers, but quarrelled over the use of the word “pogrom” to describe the raid.

The streets of Nablus were a revolving scene of soldier-youth confrontations and brief curfews this summer. Gaza was even more tense. Residents spent the first days of the Muslim feast of ‘Id al-Adha under curfew following the assassination of the head of the military police on August 2; the curfew was followed by a travel ban on Gaza residents when another soldier was wounded near Jabalya camp. In Gaza, the war without boundaries between the occupied and the occupier is marked by sporadic, sometimes lethal, violence.

Throughout the summer, the almost continuous din of building filled the streets of many West Bank towns and some villages. New villas and apartment blocks attested to a construction boom that seemingly has no end in sight. It is an eerie echo of the settlement boom, and attests to the prosperity of some sectors of the occupied population. The “underworld” of land deals, with its seamy alliances between the occupation authorities and private middlemen, came into brief focus on June 28 when one villager was killed and seven wounded in an incident in the West Bank village of ‘Ubaydiyya: when occupation officials and an Arab and a Jewish land dealer arrived in the village to survey land, their private guards opened fire on protesting villagers.

In Ramallah, site of the temporary offices of Birzeit University during its four month military-ordered closure (April 13-August 13), the central streets swarmed with American-Palestinian visitors, some seeking marriage partners, some in search of their roots. An occasional military patrol waved at young women in their summer dresses. Nobody waved back.


By October, the summer lull was decidedly over. A shootout in the Shaja‘iyya quarter of Gaza on October 6 left four Palestinians and one Israeli intelligence officer dead. Three other Palestinians were fatally wounded by army gunfire in Gaza four days before, allegedly for failure to stop at a checkpoint. Two of the October 6 victims had escaped from the Gaza central prison in early summer: All were alleged to belong to the Islamic Jihad organization, and its name was suddenly on the lips of journalists and political analysts. Israeli press officers had found a new, convenient explanation for the uncentered surge of resistance in the West Bank and Gaza.

Two waves of demonstrations and strikes swept the area, sparked by the Gaza killings and by an army sweep of Dahaysha camp on October 26. Characteristically, both were fueled by international factors (the visit of Secretary of State George Schultz to Israel in mid-October) and by Palestinian national occasions (the October 29 anniversary of the Kafr Qasim massacre, and the seventieth anniversary November 2 of the Balfour Declaration). The army’s harsh response to these events added a 35-year old woman and a Bethlehem University student to the rising toll of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army or border police in the past two years. In the West Bank alone, 19 Palestinians have been killed and 100 wounded by army bullets in 1986 and 1987 (as of November 11), over 80 percent in the course of demonstrations. [1]

Underlying both the tumultuous autumn and the somnolent summer is the steady erosion of individual Palestinian and collective rights. This has become a structural feature of the occupation. There may be a year when universities are not closed, a period when deportation ceases as a practice. Sometimes freedom of expression or assembly can surpass the occupier’s formal constraints. But the unsolved contradictions between Israel’s colonial project and Palestinian nationalism lead almost inevitably to mounting systemic violations (land confiscation, takeover of infrastructure) and individual abuses. The passage of time lends a further dynamic, what Meron Benvenisti calls “the significance of routine.” The current phase, the “iron fist” policy introduced in August 1985, has brought a substantial increase in clear-cut human rights violations. One of the most striking features is this routinization of repression.

Palestinians have employed various strategies throughout the last two decades to grapple with repression and to reclaim their rights. In the 1980s, work with a specific human rights focus has developed in the West Bank and Gaza. The components include defined human rights institutions, like Al-Haq/Law in the Service of Man (founded in 1979) and the Arab Studies Society’s Palestine Human Rights Information Center (founded in 1985), small activist or support committees that develop around specific issues (Family Reunion Committee, the Committee to Confront the Iron Fist, prisoner support committees), and the information work of universities, trade unions and the Palestinian press. These developments were influenced by the expansion of human rights organizations and a human rights perspective worldwide since the mid-1970s, but they also stem from local imperatives. The political stasis that has characterized the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since 1982 lends an important role to the “struggle for rights” — whether the right to education, to unionize, to freedom of expression or indeed to self-determination. The same political stasis has also spurred the development of populist movements, particularly the women’s committees and a grassroots health movement, and these developments are related.

The main impetus for these fledgling institutions and movements is also their greatest challenge: the dynamics of a long-term occupation which previous strategies have so far been unable to stop. These local initiatives thus coexist uneasily with the stagnant “steadfastness” strategy. They also implicitly assume that liberation — whether through international diplomacy or armed struggle — is not on the immediate agenda. These “between the wars” strategies challenge the status quo but do not offer a new political program for liberation and operate within the current nationalist framework. [2] This status quo for the past two years has been defined by the “iron fist” policy.

Iron Fist

Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced the “iron fist” on August 4, 1985, and issued 62 administrative detention orders within the space of a month. The “iron fist” policy reintroduced or intensified extrajudicial administrative measures against Palestinians and their institutions. The five main measures have been:

  • Administrative detention: Imprisonment without charge or trial for a specific (renewable) period, usually six months. Orders are issued by the area commander and confirmed by a military committee. Evidence is secret. Between August 4, 1985 and June 6, 1986, authorities issued 241 administrative detention orders.
  • Deportation: Deportation orders are issued by the area commander. Evidence is secret. Appeals to the Israeli High Court have not halted any of the 40 deportations since 1985.
  • Restriction orders (town arrest): These orders restrict an individual to a certain area, usually a home town, or in some cases ban him or her from an area (e.g., a university) for a period, usually six months. In 1979, town arrest orders replaced administrative detention orders as a means of administrative punishment; today authorities alternate the two methods. Former Birzeit student council president Jamal Salqoun received a six-month town arrest order on April 27, 1987, the day before his release from serving six-months administrative detention.
  • House demolitions and sealings: The area commander issues an order under the provisions of Article 119 of the 1945 Defense Emergency Regulations either to demolish or seal the home of an individual suspected of a security offense, often before the individual is tried and sometimes before he or she is apprehended. Occupation authorities demolished or sealed 102 houses for “security” reasons in 1985 and 1986, affecting roughly 800 people.
  • Closure of Institutions: Institutions in the West Bank are closed by orders issued under the provisions of Military Order 378; in Jerusalem, the 1945 Defense Emergency Regulations serve this purpose. Closure of universities, schools and trade union offices became a major tool of the “iron fist” policy in the fall of 1986, and characterize the policy’s second phase. In the 1986-1987 academic year (which is still not over for al-Najah and Birzeit Universities), 15 closure orders were issued against the five universities; a large number of post-secondary institutions in the West Bank and Gaza were also closed for varying periods by military order, most of them more than once. For the first time, “preventive” orders were widely employed — closures to prevent a presumed event from occurring, rather than after a "disturbance" has taken place. Also for the first time, all five universities received closure orders at the same time — in mid-February and again (with one exception) on Land Day (March 30).

The fall of 1986 also witnessed four extended closures of trade union offices. In Jerusalem, al-Hakawati Theater has been subject to 24-hour closure orders to prevent particular meetings or cultural events from being held.


The Politics of Security

Israel imposed military government on the Palestinian population in Israel from 1948 to 1966. But after 18 years in the Occupied Territories, Defense Minister Rabin found it necessary to launch the “iron fist” policy, in essence a military/security response to the continued assertion of an independent Palestinian nationalist politics. The “iron fist” was also in part a response to immediate pressure from the extremist settler movement, and settler politics continue to interface with army policies and practices. [3] (Ironically the original incident considered to have provoked the “iron fist” — the killing of two Israeli schoolteachers near Afula — later proved to have been an ordinary crime rather than a political one.)

Two years later, the political functions of the “iron fist” are apparent. “Administrative measures” target those who have committed no specific offense, even under the wide-ranging security legislation governing the Occupied Territories. Detention, town arrest and deportation have been used primarily against political activists: Of the first 62 administrative detainees, 33 were students (most present or former student council members). Administrative detention also targeted trade unionists, journalists and community leaders. Al-Haq listed 18 trade unionists currently under restriction orders and four imprisoned under administrative detention as of mid-March. Two trade union leaders were deported in 1986.

The larger Israeli political objective is to eradicate pro-PLO political activity in the Occupied Territories; less clearly (because of rival Israeli strategies vis-à-vis an international conference), it is to bolster pro-Jordanian forces.

Security is the stated justification, and military eyes tend to view political activity as a security threat. Witness the scene on Israeli television on May 27: Two students, Marwan Barghouti and Khalil ‘Ashour, whose deportation orders charged them with crimes like giving agitating speeches, were presented in chains as if extreme force was necessary to restrain them. Politics and security are conflated. Citing a conversation with Gen. Ehud Barak, head of the Central Command (and thus responsible for the West Bank), Jerusalem Post military analyst Hirsh Goodman observed:

No longer is the IDF pitted in battle in the territories mainly against terrorism, but against indigenous ideologies and ideas that flourish, not die when countered with force. The “enemy” has been transformed from well-trained infiltrators and saboteurs, whom the IDF and security services were well-equipped to deal with, to students and school children; the weapons from bombs and grenades to stones, placards and slogans. [4]

The military does in fact have a real problem in confronting the “new enemy” and its locally generated, often spontaneous and uncoordinated “homemade” violence, although the extent and effect of this violence is often exaggerated. Benvenisti’s 1987 report notes several indicators of this “new trend in resistance,” including “ratio of terrorist/spontaneous acts” (i.e., planned violent acts of organized cells versus spontaneous rock throwing and violent demonstrations), and types of weapons used (less guns and more knives). [5] Whereas he aptly concludes that local initiative predominates over externally controlled violence, his catchy characterization of this trend as “intercommunal violence” bears further examination.

The image of soldiers battling ideas, however, has a resonance that extends beyond this confrontation and into a wider battlefield — Palestinian institutions that have developed since 1967, particularly universities and other educational institutions.

“Centers of Unrest”

On January 12, 1987, Defense Minister Rabin met with settlers who were incensed that a militant, peaceful rally to mark the January 1 anniversary of the Palestinian resistance movement had been allowed on the Birzeit University campus. He assured them that the authorities will no longer allow political demonstrations openly supporting the PLO or “Palestinian flags.” In a meeting a week later with heads of the universities, Rabin went on to threaten that he “can close the universities completely if need be.” He amplified in comments to the press that “in the last four or five months, the universities have again become the centers of unrest in the area.” On August 13, when Birzeit University reopened after four months of forced closure, a military spokesman in a Beit El press conference threatened the university with “permanent closure” if “the administration cannot control the students.”

Occupation authorities explain closures of universities and other Palestinian institutions to the public by asserting that these institutions have no function other than (illegal) political activity. When Al-Haq protested the closure of the building of the Federation of Workers in Nablus, the legal adviser told Al-Haq co-director Raja Shehadeh: “The way you presented this matter is very simplistic. The activity that took place in that federation is as far removed from the activities in which a professional union should be involved as east is from west.”

To counter administrative punishment against individuals and collective closures of institutions means to challenge the politics of security. Administrative detention, deportation and house demolitions were measures widely used in the first decade of the occupation but discontinued in the late 1970s, presumably in response to international censure. Western human rights organizations, the media and some states had begun to make more forcible intervention on human rights issues in the Occupied Territories. For example, Amnesty International’s 1987 report, reviewing the year 1986, focused on the issue of administrative detention, noting that the 144 cases it received “were mainly students and trade unionists.” In this current period, international protest (primarily from human rights organizations) over “iron fist” measures has had little visible impact. Either the policy objectives are more crucial to the Israeli government than public relations, or human rights protests are predictable and inherently dismissible. [6]

New strategies are needed to counter this “routinization of repression.” One aspect of this is the normalization of relations between the occupier and the occupied, at least on the surface. Israeli journalist Joel Greenburg, reporting on his experience while on reserve duty in Hebron, related how many young Hebron men respond readily to the “question and frisk” procedure. “One said in Hebrew, ‘Ani ba. I’m coming,’ as he sauntered over to us. Another matter-of-factly rattled off his ID number in Hebrew as we filled in a form.” [7]

There are, of course, attacks on soldiers and settlers in Hebron as well, but perhaps a more instructive counterpoint occurred on December 4, 1986. Soldiers erected a checkpoint at the university gate, an occurrence so routine that Birzeit University’s public relations office spoke of a “de facto policy of closure by checkpoint” in a press release issued on December 1.

On this occasion, students and a few faculty members descended from cars and buses and began an impromptu sit-in at the checkpoint. A faculty member told the officer-in-charge that this was not a demonstration, but students were insisting on their right to education, their right to enter the campus freely and without military interference. The sit-in was an unusual response to a “normal” instance of military harassment. It immediately evoked tear gas and the detention of a faculty member, Salih ‘Abd al-Jawad. An hour later, when students on the old campus began a demonstration to protest the incident, soldiers opened fire, killed Jawad Abu Salmiyya and Sa‘ib Dhahab and wounded ten other students.

The killings sparked protests throughout the Occupied Territories (in which two more young people were killed), a three-day commercial strike, international media attention and strong reaction among Israeli peace circles. But on April 13, when a soldier shot and killed senior student Musa Hanafi, there was a subdued, almost apathetic response on all these levels — another example of the routinization of repression. Certainly, the “standard operating procedure” of the IDF toward student demonstrators now routinely employs what a Birzeit University report (May 1987) calls “battlefield tactics,” treating students as if they were armed combatants. In Meron Benvenisti’s 1987 report (West Bank Database Project), he notes that these tactics have been legalized in a recent change of IDF regulations permitting soldiers to open fire on demonstrators.

Mass Mobilization and Rights

The mass response to the December 4 killings at Birzeit was followed by waves of demonstrations and other protests throughout this spring. In rapid succession, the Occupied Territories reacted — in a stronger and more widespread fashion than anytime since 1982 — to attacks on Arabs in the Old City of Jerusalem (December-January), the Amal siege on Palestinian camps in Lebanon (February-early March) and a sustained strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails (March 25-mid-April). With the addition of several national occasions (particularly Land Day, March 30), the sequence left people almost breathless.

This spring mobilization was less a new stage of civil disobedience than a new phase in the history of mass resistance in the Occupied Territories. Both the prisoners’ strike and the support actions surrounding it reflected a new level of collective solidarity and action on a specific rights issue of great concern to the population. Support actions during the strike included women’s sit-ins and demonstrations at Red Cross offices (some brutally dispersed by soldiers or police), commercial strikes and street protests. An anonymous leaflet even offered a weekly schedule for mass (peaceful) action that was somewhat erratically followed.

The question is whether this high point of collective solidarity can serve as an effective measure of mass mobilization around the struggle for rights. Birzeit University lecturer Musa Budeiri suggested recently that “Palestinians under occupation have not exhibited a strong sense of national solidarity in the face of selective Israeli punitive measures such as the demolition of houses, [or] the imposition of collective punishment on villages.” [8] Certainly the struggle for rights in the occupied territories is uneven, retarded currently by political fragmentation and a lack of a coordinated leadership, and thus difficult to sustain.

Human Rights Strategies

Local human rights work here operates in a peculiar setting: Nationalist consciousness is high, but consciousness of rights and mass mobilization are erratic despite the well-entrenched system of rights denial. New human rights institutions as well as local activists have employed, sometimes unevenly, a framework of international human rights as a tool in analyzing rights and their violations and informing international and local communities of their findings. Although the applicability of this Western framework with its narrow accounting system is debatable, an examination of human rights work in the Occupied Territories yields potentially dynamic models.

In a recent editorial, the Al-Haq Newsletter notes that

a human rights organisation operating under these circumstances [foreign occupation] must play two roles, which can be broadly characterized as external and internal, respectively. On the one hand, it must do its best to act as a watchdog for the rights of the population, living under the rule of a foreign power. On the other hand, it should also work toward ensuring that the society of which it is a part maintains and develops its own standards of human rights, equipping it for the future, as well as for the present. [9]

Attorney Muna Rishmawi, a member of Al-Haq’s executive committee, added in an interview that the methods of a human rights organization located in a society under occupation must necessarily be creative. “The usual channels of the legal system,” she notes, “whether lobbying politicians or working for changes in legislation, are closed.” On one level, this leads to an increased emphasis on information work in the international community, “especially non-governmental organizations.” Al-Haq has pursued this route perhaps more systematically than any other organization in the Occupied Territories to date. Its publications are geared to this audience and are characterized by closely argued legal rebuttals of Israeli positions based on international law (particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Hague Conventions of 1907) and local law, as well as on a careful analysis of data on rights violations presented in a framework based on international law and human rights covenants.

Al-Haq is also in the process of developing two programs that reach out to the society the organization serves, a human rights education program and a center of applied legal studies, with the aim of analyzing the current state of the “rule of law” in Palestinian society under occupation and of helping to lay the basis for a “Palestinian legal system” in the future.

The Palestine Human Rights Information Center (PHRIC), a branch of the Jerusalem-based Arab Studies Society, has a more activist agenda and focuses less on legal research than Al-Haq. The Center emphasizes “networking” with national institutions and local committees as well as with solidarity groups abroad. It takes a descriptive approach in its human rights information work. [10]

Director Jan Abu Shakra emphasizes that the Center sees its primary constituency as local, because “rights must be claimed.” The Center’s role is to inform the Palestinian community in order that it may “develop effective strategies to claim these rights as a group.” Two upcoming projects underline this priority: a special report on exorbitant fines levied in military court, and a survey of Bethlehem-area villages to document methods of resistance to land confiscation. This documentation on fines is intended to spur discussion on a counter-strategy (i.e., a campaign not to pay the fines). The survey is intended to locate possible strategies on the vital issue of land confiscation. Abu Shakra explains that passive recourse to the legal system, without other forms of collective action, has often been “ineffective and costly.”

Despite differences in approach, both Al-Haq and the PHRIC are attempting to develop dynamic strategies for human rights work. Whether the documentation, action projects and educational programs of these small organizations will interface with a larger struggle for rights depends on a number of factors, including the issues and tactics of mass mobilization and the perspective and programs of national and community institutions. This approach was reflected, for example, when the Gaza trade unions held their first elections in 20 years in February and March 1987, despite a ban by the authorities. The unions rallied a number of human rights observers to support their right to unionize and have begun to develop a support network with unionists abroad. Human Rights Balance It is difficult to weigh the balance of forces in the struggle for rights in the West Bank and Gaza — even if limited to strictly defined human rights issues. The case of the Occupied Territories fits neither the categories of “supervisibility” (such as Poland) or “invisibility” (such as East Timor) used by Richard Falk to describe the politics of human rights. [11] Especially in the case of the United States, the problem is one of distorted (and distorting) visibility. In the US government in particular, there is literally no political “space” for a debate on Palestinian rights: The tension between the White House and Congress, for example, that allowed discussion and action on South Africa and Nicaragua does not exist in the case of Palestine.

The international community has played a marked role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since World War II, ever since the fledgling United Nations took on the responsibility for an international solution and issued the Partition Plan as one of its earliest substantial interventions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the basic human rights document of this era, came out of the same post-war United Nations. Despite this responsibility, this community has been singularly ineffective in applying international standards of human rights and legality to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or to issues within it like the occupation. On the other hand, non-governmental organizations, especially in Europe rather than the United States, have become more active since the late 1970s.

Solidarity and peace groups in both the US and Israel share one important feature: Both have been weakened to some extent since 1982 by the political paralysis of this period. At the same time, both American and Israeli public opinion has increased its general consciousness of human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories. They also share a studied inactivity on the issue of Palestinian rights, although some cracks in this passive consensus are beginning to occur. Only one human rights report on the Occupied Territories has been produced in Israel in the last 20 years (“Research on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 1979-1983,” International Center for Peace in the Middle East), and no consistent human rights monitoring is done by any Israeli group, although the Association for Civil Rights in Israel intervenes on specific cases. [12] This conflicting situation is fluid, and a strategy based on a struggle for rights, coordinated and responsive to the priorities of the population, may serve as a focus for oppositional forces to intervene more actively.


[1] “Shooting by the Israeli Armed Forces: A Press Briefing,” Al Haq/Law in the Service of Man, October 19, 1987.
[2] In a yet unpublished article, Cambridge historian Jay Winter uses the Gramscian concept “war of position” to explain grassroots organizations and human rights work in the West Bank today.
[3] This is clear from the army’s bloodletting mood at Birzeit on April 13, two days after the death of a woman settler in Qalqilya. The Qalqilya incident also spurred a roundup of Palestinian political activists the night of April 12.
[4] Jerusalem Post, February 20, 1987.
[5] West Bank Database, Annual Report 1987, p. 42.
[6] Israeli Attorney-General Harish replied to an Amnesty International release on torture in Israeli prisons by calling it “part of a politically motivated propaganda strategy” that “can be expected to continue.” Jerusalem Post, January 25, 1987.
[7] Jerusalem Post, December 5, 1987.
[8] Jerusalem Post, June 10, 1987.
[9] November-December 1986.
[10] The Center’s director, Faisal Husseini, was placed under his second administrative detention order in mid-September.
[11] Richard Falk, Human Rights and National Sovereignty (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981), p. 4.
[12] Indeed, it took a government commission appointed under the Likud to affirm what was widely known and rarely acknowledged: The Landau Commission report, issued at the end of October, affirmed that the Shinbet has been lying in court for 16 years. The document goes on to legitimize physical brutality during interrogation and absolves the political echelon of all knowledge and the Shinbet of any evil intention in interrogation and court testimony.

How to cite this article:

Marilyn Johnson "The Routine of Repression," Middle East Report 150 (January/February 1988).

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