Five months into Beita's protests: The human story behind the 'resistance icon'
Last Friday marked 150 days since the start of the popular protest movement in the Palestinian village of Beita, South of Nablus, that transformed it into the focus of attention in the West Bank. Since early May, the people of Beita have been protesting on almost a daily basis against the Israeli outpost on the hilltop of Mount Sabih, which was meant to become the first foothold for Israeli settlers on Beita’s lands.
The Mount Sabih hilltop is located in area ‘c’, under the direct control of the Israeli army, which issued a military order in 2018 to confiscate 24 dunums of land for military purposes. The order never took effect and expired the same year. Last May, however, Israeli settlers inaugurated an outpost on Mount Sabih they called ‘Evyatar’, with several Israeli families moving in, sparking Palestinian protests that continue till today.
Over the past five months, Beita has attracted local and international attention, becoming a social media trend, a hot subject for photographers and activists, and even making it into the speeches of Palestinian politicians. This ‘trendiness’ of Beita consolidated even more after the Israeli government evacuated all settlers from Mount Sabih in early July, marking a step back, although maintaining the outpost itself.
I met with Beita's Mountain Defenders, the resistance movement which was able to reclaim the image of the Palestinian freedom fighter and unabashedly reintroduce it to the world, despite Zionist repression and Western demonization. Read all about it. https://t.co/hkcLb6eRmb— Mohammed El-Kurd (@m7mdkurd) September 15, 2021
Beyond the ‘Icon’
However, beyond the media image, the impact of Beita’s battle on its inhabitants reveals the real story behind the “popular resistance icon” as described by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. One of human striving by a community with its own little resources, and with a lot of sacrifices.
“We all became involved early on,” says Amal Bani Shamseh, a resident of Beita in her forties. “Some youth would come and ask their mothers to prepare sandwiches for their fellow protesters at Mount Sabih, so spontaneously we began to organise and cook together for all the protesters.”
Amal Bani Shamseh became the coordinator of a group of women that assumed the role of a collective kitchen for the protest movement. “We reached up to 120 women, all active on Fridays, taking turns the rest of the week to prepare food,” explains Amal. “We would prepare up to 2,000 to 3,000 meals every week, costing around 6,000 shekels weekly.”
According to Amal, nobody from outside the village funded her group’s activity. “Most of the money came from women themselves. Some took it out of their savings, and some donated their marriage jewellery,” she reveals. “But due to the dire economic situation of the town, things became more difficult. Donations went down and we could only prepare around 1,000 meals a week."
The brave people of Beita, Palestine. 3:1 format. pic.twitter.com/r0tCYbYOys— Sakir Khader (@sakirkhader) October 5, 2021
This difficult situation was first due to the fact that the Israeli army imposed a partial closure on Beita, which was eventually lifted in late June. The authorities then began to exert pressure on Beita by revoking working permits for its residents.
“At least nine out of ten men in Beita are construction workers, so we depend on working permits,” Ibrahim Khabisssa, a resident of Beita in his twenties tells The New Arab.
Working permits allow Palestinians to work inside Israel, a necessity in such difficult conditions, and how around 200,000 Palestinian workers make their living, mostly in construction.
“I’m good at brick building,” explains Ibrahim. “My father has experience in platting and my brother Mohammad was the best at painting. We were going to begin to work as a family business to help improve our life situation."
Like many Beita residents, Mohammad Khabissa’s work chances were limited on the Nablus region, where work is rare and payment is low. And like many others, he took part in protests, almost every day.
“Mohammad was involved in the protests to the bone,” recalls Ibrahim Khabissa. “He used to say that it would be a disgrace to our generation if we allow the first settlement in Beita to become a fact.”
In late September, 27-year-old Mohammad Khabissa was killed by an Israeli bullet while protesting at Mount Sabih, leaving behind a one-year-old daughter, and a devastated home. “Mohammad was my big brother, my second father and my friend. The emptiness he left cannot be filled,” says Ibrahim as he breaks down. “He was also the main source of income. His death is a tragedy on all levels."
Amal Bani Shamseh explains that “at some moment, all the fallen at Mount Sabih became everybody’s personal loss. People would spontaneously look for ways to help the family in grief.”
Ibrahim Khabissa adds, “All the people in the village began to offer their help, telling us they’re ready for anything. They would visit us without a reason, ask if we ever needed anything and act as if they were all our family members, although many of them are in similar situations."
According to Ibrahim, the most important force that Beita has had is "the fact that the movement has no leader. No organisation behind it, no one to claim its resistance as their own.”
Ibrahim describes Beita’s movement as “self-organised and spontaneous. Every group of friends would for example set out for Mount Sabih after the Friday prayer. Someone on the way would offer them water, someone else would join with tyres to burn, and someone else would be at the women’s kitchen offering a lift to take meals, all out of their own personal initiative.”
'It’s hard to resist, but it’s harder to submit'
Sacrifices that have left their mark on the village’s life, according to Ibrahim Khabissa, “weddings are less than before, and almost without partying, out of respect to the families in grief.”
Amal Bani Shamseh notes that families have become closer to each other, and more modest in their way of life too. "Some women in our group have told me that they stopped cooking meat at their homes as often as before, for example.”
A modesty that resembles the house of the Khabissa family, of raw concrete, unfinished columns rising from the rooftop, and a huge banner with the picture of the family’s ‘martyr’, proudly hanging on the side of the house facing the street, under Palestinian flags. “It’s hard to resist,” says Ibrahim Khabissa, standing in front of the house, “harder than people outside think it is, but it is even harder to submit,” he concludes.
Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's West Bank reporter, covering political and social developments in the Palestinian territories since 2014 in Arabic, English and French. He has co-authored two books in French, Terre Sainte Guerre Sainte? and Taybeh, dernier village Chrétien de Palestine. He is also the founder and editor of the 7ara36 blog in Arabic.