In his book Enclosure: Palestinian Landscape in a Historical Mirror, Gary Fields tells the story of Mona and Fayez, who farm in the West Bank. Their efforts to work the land has suffered many of the difficulties experienced by other farmers. In the 1990s, an Israeli waste and recycling plant was moved from inside Israel to the West Bank, adjacent to their farm. Untreated wastewater polluted much of their land. Later, Israel built the Wall through their farm, so they lost half of it. Then Israel declared their farm a “closed military zone,” a common device used to grab Palestinian land. Bulldozers, protected by armed soldiers, came and plowed up all of their crops, a loss estimated at $350,000. This happened two more times over the next ten years. But on the small acreage remaining, Mona and Fayez developed an organic farm producing vegetables, fruits, and nuts. This is an example of Palestinian attachment to the land, and their everyday resistance to the Israeli government’s purposeful attempts to push them out. “When we cultivate crops, we plant ourselves in our land,” they said. “We will not be moved.”
Palestinians call this determination to remain despite everything sumud, meaning steadfastness or tenacity or resilience.
Palestinians call this determination to remain despite everything sumud, meaning steadfastness or tenacity or resilience. It is by far the most widespread form of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. But it is easily missed. It is non-violent and collective but largely unorganized. Sumud is a defiant and courageous commitment to refuse being forced off the land, in spite of severe restrictions on movement and on human rights—despite often daily humiliation at checkpoints, despite rejection of permits to build homes, despite Israeli seizure of Palestinian land, and much more.
I have lived several months with a family in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. They are not politically active. Never go to protests, never throw stones. Why, I asked Mazin Qumsiyeh, a professor at Bethlehem University, are they and most Palestinians not politically active? He told me that nearly all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are engaged in resistance by just living there, raising families, and refusing to leave. Sumud.
My friend Michael was born in Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank. Since the Wall was built in 2003, he is not allowed to enter Jerusalem, five miles away, so he can’t live with Carmen, his wife who was born in Jerusalem. She is “allowed” to live in Jerusalem but can’t live with her husband in Bethlehem. She must prove that Jerusalem is the center of her life. Any time of day, there can be a knock on the door to see if she is there. The Israeli government decades ago developed a demographic goal of 70 percent Jews in Jerusalem, 30 percent Arabs. Efforts to reach that goal have resulted in pressure to evict Palestinians from Jerusalem.
They are samedin, people who practice sumud—everyday resistance. They put up with an awful lot to stay there.
Carmen is not a citizen of Israel. When she leaves the country, she needs an Israeli visa to return to her home. Even though she was born in Jerusalem and has spent her life there, she is treated like a visitor. Her husband can visit her, but only by walking through a long cage at the checkpoint. When they visit me in the U.S., they dream of all the opportunities they would have here. Nothing stops them from emigrating, but they refuse to leave. They are samedin, people who practice sumud—everyday resistance. They put up with an awful lot to stay there. They know they are not wanted, that the Israeli government wants to get rid of them. That they raised six children in this place, under these conditions, is a sign of sumud: they not only will stay, they will multiply.
Elaine is an American married to Michael’s brother. She met him when he was studying at Notre Dame University in Indiana. They lived together in Bethlehem for thirty years and raised their four children there. Recently, after visiting family in the U.S., she returned to Israel, but was turned away at the Ben Gurion Airport by security personnel, despite her American passport. She asked why. They said, “Because you married a Palestinian.” Whether that was really the reason, we don’t know. She was told she would never be allowed to come back. Israel’s leftist daily, Haaretz, featured Elaine’s story on the front page of its English edition on April 20, with the mocking headline, “This American-Palestinian Endangers Israeli Public Security.” Even Americans connected with Palestinians need to be samids.
Some forms of sumud are more visible and assertive. Emad Burnat and his family live in the village of Bil’in, northwest of Jerusalem in the West Bank. In addition to his everyday resistance of staying there, Emad films everything he can, especially Israeli efforts to stop the weekly demonstrations in Bil’in against Israel’s seizure of Palestinian land, demonstrations that have been going on for fourteen years (and have won a small but meaningful victory). He has lost five cameras but keeps filming. A video of his persistent exposure of Israeli violence against Palestinians was nominated for an Academy Award. Despite being shot at and injured, Emad says, “I film to heal” and “by healing you resist occupation.” (You can view this remarkable and frankly rather scary hour and a half video, titled Five Broken Cameras.)
One of the symbols of Palestinian sumud is the olive tree. It is a tree that can survive minimal moisture and much abuse, and can live thousands of years, still producing.
One of the symbols of Palestinian sumud is the olive tree. It is a tree that can survive minimal moisture and much abuse, and can live thousands of years, still producing. Palestinians are deeply attached to their olive trees. In fact, Palestinians by heritage are farmers, attached to the land like olive trees. Israeli settlers have destroyed thousands of olive trees and are rarely prosecuted by Israel. Palestinians simply plant more trees.
Building institutions is also an expression of sumud. Mazin Qumsiyeh, mentioned earlier, created and directs the first Palestine Museum of Natural History and a related program, the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability. Palestinians are learning how to more effectively use the little land left to them, and to renew love of the land and the natural environment. He works with Vivien Sansour’s Palestine Heirloom Seed Library to aid farmers continuing traditional Palestinian farming practices. These, too, are expressions of sumud.
Dar al-Kalima is a new university in Bethlehem that focuses on the arts. Why the arts? Because, says founder Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor and director of the Diyar Consortium, an ecumenical service and educational organization, the arts are about imagination, about freeing minds that can get boxed in by Israel’s occupation, fixated on what seems impossible in the present, rather than what is possible in the future. The arts are intimately connected with sumud. By visioning a future that is free and fruitful, Palestinians draw the strength to persist in their current circumstances. By remaining creative, they are able to innovate and adapt to current circumstances while maintaining their identities and even their faith.
Sumud can have a multiplier effect, just as standing up to a bully can embolden others.
Sumud can have a multiplier effect, just as standing up to a bully can embolden others. This is especially true when sumud becomes overt and assertive.
Israel has thousands of Palestinians in prison, mostly young men who may never be charged, but remain in prison under very difficult conditions, including torture. Lena Meari, a professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, interviewed Palestinian prisoners. Her research revealed an interesting dimension to sumud. Prisoners who refuse to inform on other Palestinians, despite being tortured, become emboldened and dismissive of their torture. Their dignity has been asserted despite efforts to deny it.
In a YouTube video called Sumud— Everyday Resistance, an older woman who earlier in the video held up a notice that her house would be demolished, said with a smile, “This is our land. We won’t leave.” Her smile suggested that exercising sumud had enabled her to be resilient.
It may be that some kinds of sumud are not helpful—in fact, may be negative. The Israeli occupation has helped entrench Palestine’s traditional patriarchal system, a system with deeply problematic consequences for men, far more for women and girls. One response to threats to identity is to reassert traditional social patterns as a stabilizing and resistant force. Though fairly common, this is by no means the main Palestinian response to occupation, but it is there. However misguided, a re-entrenchment of patriarchy is a form of resistance.
That Gazans keep coming and dying is an expression of sumud born of desperation.
While most commonly understood in terms of everyday resistance, sumud, as an expression of desperation, can also be identified with more open acts of political protest. For over a year, there have been weekly protests near Gaza’s border with Israel associated with a movement called The Great March of Return. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth. The reason for this heavy density goes back to 1948, when thousands of Palestinians were pushed into, or fled to, Gaza as villages were emptied in areas that would become Israel. Most Gazans are refugees or their descendants. The United Nations says Gaza is virtually uninhabitable now and has been under siege by Israel since 2007. The people want to return to the villages they left in 1948. Thus began the protests associated with the Great March of Return which have resulted in the deaths of over 250 people—including medics, members of the press, and children—and over 6,500 others injured. The protests are a cry to the world to pay attention to Gaza. That Gazans keep coming and dying is an expression of sumud born of desperation.