“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come.”- Martin Luther King Jr.
The Foot Trails of the Oppressed
Although Dr. King wrote about conditions in Birmingham, Alabama during the 1960’s and, in general, the racial oppression bought on by segregation and economic insecurity in America. His depiction of how people respond to injustice is captured in the lives and narratives of Palestinian people living in Israel. In Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. illustrates the affects oppression has on people and the variety of responses an oppressed group can have in response to their oppression. In Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation, narratives of oppressed people in Palestine embody the responses that Dr. King outlines in Letters.
One of the main themes Dr. King presents in his essay deals with the conscious or unconscious response oppressed people has towards injustice. King writes, “…he[Black Americans] is moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. Recognizing this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand public demonstrations. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out. So let him march sometimes; let him have prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit-ins and freedom rides. If his repressed emotions do not come out in these non-violent ways, they will come in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history” (Martin Luther King Jr 4). This quote serves as a warning to his critics and depicts the underlying urge for liberation that compels the people.
In this quote, Dr. King exclaims, “the negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out…If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence” (Martin Luther King Jr 4).
Dr. King calls this frustration a “normal and healthy discontent” (Martin Luther King Jr 4). The idea that Dr. King raises is one of deep importance in relation to us as psychological, social, moral, and political beings. This idea recognizes that people have a human instinct that responds to injustice. This intuition compels one, with a sense of urgency, towards liberation and justice. Discontent, although healthy, can be employed in constructive measures or be the fuel for rage, violence, or destruction. This explains why people in various locations and histories respond similarly to their particular experiences of injustice in the form of systematic oppression.
The people of Palestine display this healthy discontent; in particular we find the latent frustrations in the son of Ebtihaj Be’erat, Abdal Aziz.
In Ebtihaj Be’erat’s narrative she shares the communities’ weariness towards the Israeli soldiers who aggravate the people in Kafr Malek, West Bank. The armed soldiers forcibly enter the homes of the people and remove the occupants out onto the streets at their own free will. In this particular social context and in the midst of the First Intifada, the epoch marked by Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, Be’erat gave birth to her middle son, Abdal Aziz.
After the First Intifada, the presence of Israeli soldiers/occupation in the West Bank increased. Checkpoints were set up to restrict travel, people in her village were arrested more frequently, and men would become the targets of soldier brutality. All of these acts were to keep the Palestinian people under pressure.
Being born during the First Intifada and being living through the Second Intifada, Aziz experienced how people like him were treated. The oppression he experienced was realized in several ways. One is the fact that the Palestinian people did not have the weaponry to defend themselves. The soldiers would patrol the village that Aziz lived in with assault rifles and tanks, while he and his friends only had sticks to protect themselves from the constant harassment. Teenagers in the village were arrested; some of them, a part of Aziz’s family, were imprisoned for up to twenty-five years for throwing stones at soldiers, yet it was unclear as to what repercussions the soldiers were dealt with in their own violations. The constant threat of the possibility one could get shot or arrested because of a curfew is problematic, especially for the youth who may lack understanding on why they are being treated unfairly.
The type of environment that Aziz was nurtured in can promulgate a sense of inferiority or some type of resistance against that inferiority. As Dr. King notes, oppression is felt unconsciously or consciously and the urge for freedom will inevitably come. For Aziz his oppression was consciously understood. His mother shared an account of his expression: “He would say that if a patrol came into the village and he didn’t throw a stone at it, it would hurt his conscience. He wanted to protect his country. He wanted to express what he felt through the stone, that this is our country and not theirs” (Malek and Hoke 139). Aziz’s discontent needed to be expressed and Aziz expressed his discontent by throwing stones at the soldiers.
Former political prisoner, Abdelrahman Al-ahmar, shared a similar account of retaliation: “Refugees in the camp would retaliate against the settlers by throwing stones…when they saw us throwing stones, the soldiers or settlers might shoot. When they shot at us, yes, we were afraid. But with time, with all the injustice and the frustration, we were just struck, and we didn’t care if we died. But we thought throwing stones made a difference. We saw the settlers as the occupiers, and they were the source of injustice and deprivation, so we had to fight back” (Malek 80–81).
Al-ahmar and Aziz’s actions may be considered uncouth and unconstructive-and these are fair assessments, but if they did not respond, what remain are the affective consequences of being treated unjustly. This sense of being treated unfairly can be funneled to other areas of life as Dr. King has outlined. One is a place of complacency, where the oppressed accept their oppression and deny themselves self-respect. Or it is those who are complacent because they live comfortably because they profit from oppression and privilege, and they feel or simply see no need to become sensitive to the problems of the oppressed. There is also non-violent direct action, which Dr. King prefers. Then there is the other force; the one of hatred, a force that fuels repudiated behavior and violence. Aziz’s response does not neatly fall into the categories that Dr. King has provided, however Aziz’s actions can be categorized as violent. Aziz throws stones at soldiers out of love for the people in his village and out of a sense that he is being treated unfairly.
Aziz method for dealing with the soldiers should be contextualized by the fact that Aziz is a young man with not many readily available ways to respond. He may not realize that he has other ways to respond to his oppression that would have kept him from being killed by the soldiers. Nevertheless, he did not succumb to complacency or an internalized self hatred that could affect his own well being or the people within his community.
In Palestine Speaks, we are shown other ways people can respond to oppression. Some take the non violent form of activism/civil disobedience that Dr. King preferred, through public demonstrations and boycotts, such as Tali Shapiro. Also there is Muhanned Al-Azzah, who uses art as a form of political resistance, in the form of graffiti drawing. In his narrative he said, “ I grew up seeing art as a way of resistance, through graffiti. During the First Intifada, in 1987, there was a no media, there was no radio to cover all that was happening in Palestine. But there were the walls of the houses. They were the only place for media” (Malek 231).
Martin Luther King Jr. addresses in his own treatise that it is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but he empathically adds it is more unfortunate that the white power structure of the city left the people with no other alternative. His address can be translated to the plight in Palestine. It is unfortunate that the youth are throwing rocks at occupying soldiers, or that there are demonstrations held against Israeli occupation, or that there is a BDS movement that targets Israel, but it is even more unfortunate that these major political entities and governments are unwilling to negotiate with the people who are suffering.
Direct action, nonviolent or violent, seeks to produce a crisis that calls for attention. The preferred form of organization is nonviolent, according to Dr. King, but violent direct action can perform the same function. Palestinians have utilized both methods of direct action, as we have seen in the actions of Tali Shapiro and Abdal Aziz.
In the First Intifada, Palestinian frustrations erupted into non-violent demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank. In time, Israel responded with violence leaving approximately 200 Israelis and 1000 Palestinians dead. The non-violent form of civil disobedience dissolved by the year 2000, when the Second Intifada erupted. The second Intifada emerged because the leaders of Israel and the members of the Palestinian Liberation organization could not undergo negotiation that would institute a peace plan with the Oslo Accords. In effect, Palestinian protests took place in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. The Second Intifada resulted in a higher number of deaths and violence. According to the textbook, there were “greater incidence of shootings, suicide bombings by Arab Militias, and targeted assassinations of Palestinian political leaders by the Israeli defenses” while 1000 Israeli’s and 3000 Palestinians died. (Malek 301–308). History suggests that if there is no proper address to the oppression in Israel/Palestine, violence will increase.
It is dire that Israel and the world respond to what is going on in Israel. We too can not be complacent when others are suffering, and this is shown through the works of many who are involved in the movement of liberation in Palestine within Israel and Abroad.