Dr Mazim Qumsiyeh is Palestine’s leading intellectual. His recently published book Popular Resistance in Palestine is a meticulous history of non-violent resistance in Palestine since Ottoman times.
A professor who teaches and does research at three Palestinian universities (Bethlehem, Birzeit, Al-Quds), Qumsiyeh previously served on the faculties of the University of Tennessee, Duke and Yale Universities. He is also chair of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between Peoples.
Qumsiyeh agreed to meet me in the midst of preparations for a series of lectures in the United States. In his spacious flat in Beit Sahour, a small town outside Bethlehem, he tells me he was raised in Beit Sahour, studied in the US, and, despite a taste of the “good life”, chose to return to live under occupation.
He wrote Popular Resistance in Palestine because he saw that the non-violent resistance he was part of was totally unreported and not discussed in the US.
He said Palestinians have been resisting since the first Zionist colony in 1881. He said: “It is more like a people’s history … not a history of governments and what they did or of politicians.”
We discussed the recent municipal elections in the West Bank. These had not been held since 2005, as the ruling Fatah party was concerned it would lose support. However, the Palestine Authority High Court ruled that it must hold elections.
The overall turnout was less than 55%. This is a very low figure for Palestinian elections, which normally attract more than 80% of voters.
Hamas had called for a boycott, which was one reason for the low turnout. But people were also disappointed in the status quo and did not believe that these elections were the way to achieve change.
Qumsiyeh said: “With Hamas hegemonic in Gaza and Fatah hegemonic in the West Bank and neither willing to budge from their hegemonic positions, people are a little frustrated. We are still under occupation and our lives are controlled by the Israelis.”
I noted there appeared to be a festive atmosphere in the streets in Beit Sahour on election day and people were pretty excited. He said Beit Sahour was atypical. Being 85% Christian, there is little Hamas presence. They had a nearly 80% turnout.
“People are pretty frustrated with the situation and were venting their emotions,” Qumsiyeh told me. “I thought it was over-emotional and it should not be like that. We have serious problems and these elections are maybe a distraction.
“So in some sense, I can see the point of Hamas not participating in these elections.”
I noted that the Fatah bloc of parties had tied with the Left Bloc in Beit Sahour with six seats each, with one seat going to an independent group.
Qumsiyeh said Fatah had nominated the existing mayor in Beit Sahour and people, including many Fatah members, were dissatisfied with him. A minority group of Fatah broke away and put up another candidate for mayor.
“Fatah has the most money and networks and biggest resources generally in the West Bank, but they still don’t command a majority, as we see in Beit Sahour.
“This time, the Left parties, usually very divided, managed to put together a coalition in support of a mayoral candidate who was independent of any one of them. By combining their forces, they strengthened their position.”
I asked Qumsiyeh about the political character of these three groupings. He said they were largely the same and the position of mayor and local councillors was essentially apolitical, being concerned with service delivery only.
Asked if he thought the election was irrelevant to the broader Palestinian struggle, he thought it was. But at the same time, he said that every municipality was under occupation.
Qumsiyeh said candidates avoided the question of resistance to the occupation. They offered vague statements in support of the popular resistance, but offered no specific strategies to apply it in practice.
I asked Qumsiyeh what role these local leaders had played in the popular resistance. He said: “Popular resistance never comes from this kind of leadership. It never comes from political leaders. That is the main point of my book. Popular resistance comes from the people.”
Turning to the prospects for the broader Palestinian struggle, Qumsiyeh said: “Colonial struggles have three possible ultimate outcomes. The first scenario is as in Australia and New Zealand, where the indigenous people are in a minority and they are defeated.
“The second scenario is as in Algeria, for example, where 1 million colonists had to pick up their bags and go to Europe. More than half of them had never been to Europe.
“The third scenario is as with South Africa, where the colonisers remain and integrate with the local landscape. Obviously, the third is my preference, but history is undecided yet.
“The likelihood of the first two scenarios are remote or small. Systems such as apartheid involve pacification and are not stable.”