Palestinian Stone Throwers and Israelis Speak Different Languages

With a West Bank Palestinian having been sentenced Thursday to 98 years for throwing a stone that caused Asher Palmer and his infant son to die in a fatal car crash, the issue of Palestinian resistance to occupation has again been thrust into the spotlight.

Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov
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Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

Waal al-Arja said he did not intend to murder anyone when he targeted a car traveling along a West Bank road. That may or may not be true; it may have been an act of impulse, but no doubt this incident will deepen the mental etching in the minds of many Israelis of Palestinians as being thirsty for Jewish blood.

For my part, I am thinking about Amira Hass’s recent Haaretz article, where the Ramallah-based Israeli journalist defended Palestinian stone-throwing as a form of legitimate resistance against occupation. Despite her attempt to make a distinction between soldiers and civilians, Hass’s article caused a small firestorm.

But what is lost amidst the anger at Hass’s contextual support for Palestinian resistance is an important point about the meaning of stone-throwing in the Palestinian political imagination. As Hass writes, “in the inner syntax of the relationship between the occupier and the occupied, stone-throwing is the adjective attached to the subject of “We’ve had enough of you, occupiers.”

Consider the word “syntax” which Hass deploys. Syntax itself is what gives a mess of words coherent meaning in a given language; it is a concept that propelled the success of the wildly popular grammar book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves for example.

For the Israeli family of a victim of a fatal act of stone-throwing, that momentary action represents an evil of unspeakable proportions. To continue the language metaphor, to the Israeli listener stone throwing is the language of murderous force.

But it is also crucial to understand the meaning of stone throwing to Palestinians. Within the mainstream Palestinian narrative, stone throwing is not considered murderous; it is considered a defensive act. So for the Palestinian speaker, stone throwing is an act of resistance against the violence of occupation.

It is this sentiment which led American-French anthropologist Scott Atran to sum up the Palestinian meaning of stone throwing in the first Intifada this way: “The stones are endowed with an almost mystical force to overpower the bullets launched by the iron fist.”

And this sentiment is why, in a 1988 article titled “A Profile of the Stonethrowers,” Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab wrote that Palestinian “children born in refugee camps under occupation drink their mothers’ milk while their camp is under curfew; they wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of rubber bullets and rumors of a possible settler attack.”

Clearly, Israelis and Palestinians are not speaking the same language when it comes to stones and barricades, strikes and night searches, graffiti and checkpoints. For each act of force, there are two starkly different interpretations: Israelis view the separation barrier as defensive, while Palestinians see it as a discourse of violence on their land and livelihood. Israelis see night searches as pre-emptive, whereas Palestinians see those searches as violence of the most capricious and humiliating kind. And so on.

A recent poll from the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre reveals that a strong majority of Palestinians -- 84%, supports “non-violent means of resistance,” with only 25% “favoring armed resistance.”

We may never all be able to agree on where stone throwing lies along this spectrum, either among Palestinians or Israelis.

But here are two things we can probably agree on: individually, no one wants to have to bury their dead from wounds inflicted by the other side; and collectively, everyone seeks freedom.

When Amira Hass was asked by Democracy Now which solution -- one state or two -- she considers most desirable, she replied with a note of hyperbolic idealism: If I were allowed to dream, she said, “I would dream about the United Socialist States of the Middle East.”

It’s a bit of fantastical wordplay on Hass’s part, no doubt.

But it doesn’t take imaginary language to provoke the political imagination necessary to bring forth a new day-to-day reality for Israelis and Palestinians, one that allows each side to flourish independently and with sovereign dignity, with skies unblemished by bullets or stones, and with nights unpunctured by rockets or raids.

A Palestinian protester throwing a stone towards Israeli troops during clashes in the West Bank city of Hebron April 4, 2013.Credit: Emil Salman