Published on March 3rd, 2019 | by Engin Isin


Cross-border Grassroot Activism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Alexander Koensler, Senior Researcher at University of Perugia (Italy). [1]

According to the Peace NGO Forum [2], over the last decade more than a hundred different Israeli and Palestinians groups and institutions have been working across the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lines. But beyond these ‘official’ cross-border solidarity exists a plethora of often overlooked and more intimate forms of solidarity between individuals, networks of friends and/or political activists. What is their role in the wider context of the conflict? What might they achieve? What are their limitations? During my long-term ethnographic fieldwork in the Israeli-Palestinian space, I have been investigating how such acts of solidarity ‘from below’ create, to varying degrees, experimental spaces of autonomy and what are their ambiguous, and sometimes counterproductive, effects.

Some acts of solidarity are particularly impressive here. For example, between 2006 and 2007 I accompanied regularly the visits of a group of three to five Israelis who visited their Palestinian friends in the unique setting of the occupied, partly destroyed urban center of Al-Khalil (or, to use its Western name, Hebron) in the oPt. The group did not belong to a political group or NGO: some met at university, others in alternative cultural circles. In interviews and informal conversations, we talked about what it means to expose themselves to what appears as ‘the other side of the story’. A sense of ethical responsibility seemed to play a part. ‘The first time I came here, I could not believe what was happening in Palestine. Now I try to come every Saturday. […] I am not coming with an organization. I come simply as a friend and we meet our friends in Hebron. That’s all’.

In these rather simple words Maya, a student of desert sciences from Be’er Sheva who grew up in a ‘mixed’ misrahim/ashkenazim family in southern Israel, explained her role in the trips [3]. The decision to engage in these acts is here an expression of individual ethic attitudes in the first place rather than collective beliefs. However, her interest in the Westbank has been initially mediated by a political organization. Four years earlier she participated in a trip to the Westbank organized by the Israeli human rights NGO B’tselem that ‘opened her eyes’, as she puts it. Her mate and university colleague Eyal, on his part, grew up in one of the most deprived mizrahim cities in central Israel and made his way up to university thanks to several grants for ‘disadvantaged’ people. His own experiences of deprivations, he contends, made him particularly ‘sensitive’ for questions of social justice.

I participated with Eyal and Maya in what was originally supposed to be an informal, personal visit among their Palestinian ‘friends’ in the city. After a coffee, Eyal noted on social media the announced visit of Hebron of a group from Jerusalem who came with B’tselem. We decided to join the group. Not an hour later, we walked together with about twenty Israeli citizens from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem towards the historic center of the destroyed city. Some of them had been here previously in similar ‘tours’, for others it was their first time to be exposed to the ‘Palestinian side’. The streets were strewn with rolls of barbed wire and household waste. Concrete blocks had been placed by the army along the streets in order to protect soldiers and by-passers from potential gunfire. In this area, a group of extremist settlers had taken over some blocks of houses.

Acts from below and mainstream voices

At a deeper psychological level, meetings like the one mentioned above often produce profound self-changing experiences at the personal level, which in turn opens up new spaces for other forms of exchange. During our visits in Hebron, in more than one occasion also an Israeli television team joined us. In fact, the access of journalists to Westbank events is often a result of contacts to Israelis who are engaged in solidarity activism. Many international journalists are based in Jerusalem where they develop social network that reach typically into the Israeli left. Probably everyone who knows the social scene of Jerusalem’s secular nightlife is aware about the delicate intermingling’s between international peace activists, journalists and left and secular Israeli subcultures. Journalist’s accounts are based on hectic schedules and often these leave no space to engage in direct friendship within Palestinian citizens, so the ‘activist’ contacts turn out to be more efficient. Vivid accounts of divisions and collisions, including in mainstream television and accounts of advocacy organizations are an almost direct outcome of acts of solidarity. The positivist attitudes of journalism towards ‘information’ tendency excludes these vital mediation in their final representations (Hannerz 2004). Here, the representation of the conflict perpetuates a strictly dichotomous vision of Israeli-Palestinian relations, overshadowing precisely those cross-cutting relations which enabled the documentary to be realized.

This example shows how the impact of acts of solidarity on public discourses remains ambiguous: very often they enable public attention, but this attention in turn reinforces the separatist imagination or stereotypes. These spaces of acts of solidarity are lived by individual social actors with their hopes and fears, frustrations and small success stories.

Ambiguous Implications

This case and others highlight what is often overlooked: acts of solidarity in conflicts continuously create ties of solidarity and communality, forcing us to think beyond dichotomies of self/other, Jews/Arabs and think of, as Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish (1996: 196, in Hochberg 2007, 128) puts it, as ‘dwelling into each other’. Both in academic and public discourses, the significance of such acts is either diminished and understated (‘insignificant vis-a-vi the power of partition’) or idealized and overstated (‘disrupting the separatist imagination’).

Experiencing a sort of inverted ‘state of exception’ (Agamben 2005), the encounters subvert partially dominant power asymmetries and the dominant ethnonational imaginary: In contrast to mainstream images, Jewish-Israeli citizens appear often frightened, timid or self-reflexive. In other words, these acts contribute to distance participates from central elements of the mainstream ethnonational imaginary. Interestingly, the public impact of these acts of solidarity produces often ambiguous effects. In many circumstances, journalists often gain access to their field only through their valuable contact to activists. The encounters chosen here are not ‘high-profile’ activities, but nonetheless they mediate broader public attention on specific issues of the conflict.

In sum, experimental forms of collaboration, friendship and solidarity have been crucial in creating widely circulating media accounts about the perpetuation of violence, including the demolition of houses in Hebron, the violence of particularly radical settlers and other aspects. One unintended consequence can be that the experimental spaces based on different forms of cooperation and solidarity produce knowledge framed in more sectarian ethnonational terms, reinforcing those divisions that they actually aim to overcome.


[1] This contribution is a short excerpt of a longer reflection on the often complex and ambiguous effects of acts of solidarity in Israel/Palestine: Koensler, A. (2016). “Acts of Solidarity: Crossing and Reiterating Israeli-Palestinian Frontiers”. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40(2), 340-356.

[2] See ‘Peace NGO Forum’,, consulted 22 June 2015.

[3] Names are changed. Field notes of an informal conversation during a trip to Sede Boker, 23 April 2007.


Agamben, G. (2005). State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hannerz, U. (2004). Foreign news: exploring the world of foreign correspondents. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Herzfeld, M. (2015) Anthropology and the inchoate intimacies of power. American Ethnologist 42, 18-32.

Hochberg, G.Z. (2010) In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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