The Palestinian people have tried all means of resistance an occupied people can think of. One dangerous and effective way involved a lot of people and made the Israeli occupying power so full of fear it threatened and banned the act of resistance. That was when the Palestinian people wove a web of participation, creativity, responsibility and resistance and created a participatory democracy in the occupied villages and cities – that was when the popular committees rose during the first intifada.
The first Intifada started in December 1987. Al-intifada means to rise and shake off. The Palestinian people rose and the uprising implied violent confrontation with the occupying forces and repression from the same. One of the most important steps against the intifada from Israel was to introduce permanent curfew in the most active refugee camps. That couldn´t kill the intifada but it got harder to get hold on food and other basic necessities. In cities and villages initiatives started to organise committees whose mission was to collect money, food and medicines to the camps kept under surveillance and curfew. Committees were organised inside the camps to handle the distribution of food and supplies. Guard committees were constituted to keep guard duty to prevent night attacks from settlers and the Israeli army.
Mass demonstrations and popular uprising continued with intensified strength and the Israeli occupation force answered with huge repression that had enormous psysical consequenses not only in the number of death and injured (10% of the population after six years of intifada) but also a health disaster due to lack of food, water and medicines.
Another institution that was prevented from working was the school; during curfew schools couldn´t open, and children spent weeks and months without going to school – school buildings were targeted as well as hospitals. Unemployment started to rise dramatically due to strikes and boycott campaigns from the Palestinian side and barriers on the Israeli side. At that time no authority existed, no help was to be expected. If the Palestinians wanted to save their society thay had to organize it themselves on their own.
During the first months of 1988 the Palestinian people organised more and more committees, a system of committees was developed. Their name was lijan sha´biya. Lijan is the Arabic word for committes, and sha´biya is an adjective that comes from sha´ab, people.
A typical popular committee in a city or a village had five subcommittees: 1) health committee, 2)education committee, 3) help committee, 4) guard committe, 5) agriculture committe,. A coordination committee coordinated these five subcommittees. In small villages there was only one, in cities several: in Ramallah, for example, you could find more than one hundred popular committees.
They cleaned the streets, organised garbage collection, gave information to media, helped the rural workers, kept hospitals and schools functioning. All problems were discussed in the committees and common solutions were approved. In some places, political parties from the main factions in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – Fateh, PFLP, DFLP and PCP – appointed representatives, in other places elections were held to choose representatives to the coordination committee.
The democratic rise was both successfull and contagious, more and more people participated – a parallel power was established and the threat was evident. The army considered that the committees undermined the Israeli State. In the summer of 1988 the Israelis made a law, stating that involvement in a popular committee was to be punished with ten years in prison. However, the committees were difficult to erase – and the Israeli army itself gave the best explanation: ” it is impossible to place one soldier next to every Palestinian”.
The first intifada ended with the Oslo Agreement, in September 1993.
From 1994 and on the Palestinian Authority has tried to build a state.
The Authority´s non-interest in the popular committees along with the expectation from the Palestinian people that “a state” would take care of social needs finally ended the popular committees.
Today the West Bank and Gaza are totally reoccupied; the Israeli occupation forces have transformed the once self-ruling enclaves into 64 small cantons, each of them surrounded with barriers. Neither the Israeli government, nor – which is more surprising – the Palestinian Authority has an interest in democracy in Palestine. Democracy has been shoved aside waiting for better times to come by the Palestinian establishment.
Some people say that Arafat still acts as if he was leading a guerilla war and not taking responsibility for a state. During the first intifida, the Palestinian people organised themselves in popular commitees since there was no Palestinian administration and society was about to break down. The second intifada that started in September 2000 has been much more violent and violence gives less space for both popular mass struggle and democracy. The same Palestinian Authority that has asked the people to wait for democracy no longer has the capacity to take responsibility for society, and the Israeli army has targeted everything that makes a society work.
Three million occupied Palestinians are trying to solve a lot of problems in their day-to-day life – now they have stopped waiting and the popular committees have started to rise again.
While a popular committee in Jenin was trying to solve all the miserable problems that arrives after a massacre, the president of the United States of America, George W Bush, stated that the Palestinians need more democracy.
The Palestinian Authority needs to democratize and reform, elections need to be held and Yasser Arafat should become a mere symbolic president and a prime minister should be elected – according to President Bush. The state of Israel is said to be the only democracy in the Middle East, (and Sharon is called a man of peace by the president of USA) and the US supports democracy – but the Palestinian people’s scepticism of Bush´s interest in democracy in Palestine is nevertheless sky-scraping.
Along with the global debate on whether the US has the right to decide about elections in Palestine, the participatory democracy to make society work in a democratic way has continued locally in the West Bank and Gaza. Popular committees that exist today are small, and involve fewer people than during the first intifada. Many say that they are incomparable.
When we ask people about the ‘lijan sha´biya’ they all burst into a huge smile and remember the wonderful days of the popular committees – before the corrupt authority. In Ramallah we meet several leaders of popular committees. They have started to organize more seriously after the beginning of the second intifada. In a neighbourhood in Ramallah they have, apart from the coordination committee;
1) art committee, 2) social committee, 3) workers committee, 4) committee for relations with other organisations, 5) mediation committee, 6) community bank committee.
A popular committee in a neighbourhood in Ramallah organised elections and the vast majority participated to elect the representatives for the coordination committee. The work is done in the interest of the community, the representatives are elected on revocable mandates, and they have a duty to inform the community about their work.
In Ramallah in the month of July they were forming a network of popular committees, to work together among the neighbourhoods and coordinate before talks with the governor and the authority. In Jenin it was the popular committee that provided shelter and housing for 4000 thousand people that were left without homes after the massacre in April.
Fear of Israeli repression because of activity in popular committees still exists. One member of the coordination committee in a neighbourhood in Ramallah was imprisoned – there he was asked about the popular committÃ©e by the Israeli secret service Shin Bit and they told him to quit his activities. He answered that it´s a popular committee and it doesn´t belong to him but to the people. ‘You can arrest me but the committee will remain.’ The leader we speak to say he is not afraid of being arrested but he is expecting it – for no other reason than his work in the popular committee.
In the Bush’s demand for democratisation in Palestine, we can read several things between the lines – one of them is that the Palestinians dont have a democratic tradition and a democratic need: democratisation has to be initiated from outside. Since that is not true, all commands from the outside should be systematically opposed. No one else than the Palestinian people can build a popular democracy in Palestine: what the outside world can do is to provide necessary conditions for elections.
How could you campaign without leaving your house or your village, how could you vote with tanks standing outside the election hall, how could you vote to elect representatives knowing that they will have their ministeries destroyed and no sovreign power to decide with. All Palestinians know that occupation has to end before national elections can be held, but the citizens’ democratic activities have not seized.
Making an interview in the home of one popular committee leader, he says that the popular committees should be part of the democratic construction in the future. The close relationship with the people makes it easy to know the needs and demands, and to make people participate. All of a sudden shots, and jeeps. The men turn pale, sigh, shiver of fear – they hide the papers from the popular committee meeting under the sofa and jump out through the toilet window.