This article examines the strategies, structures, and practices that allowed for the emergence of communities without police institutions during two Palestinian uprisings, the 1936–39 revolt and the 1987–91 intifada. For each period, the article identifies efforts to disengage from and disempower the state police, to establish alternative systems of anticolonial justice, and to employ disciplinary violence to serve the imperatives and enforce the decisions of Palestinian nationalist bodies. In particular, Palestinian systems of anticolonial justice drew on communal reconciliation (sulh) and other preexisting local iterations of communal justice. These local forms relied on discourses of egalitarianism and consensus, which produced stability in periods of upheaval but also obscured the inequalities they reproduced. Ultimately, the anticolonial structures that Palestinians established proved unable to withstand intense internal and external pressure, and some elements of the coercive forces that served them were absorbed into state police institutions.
Palestine recently marked a centennial of colonial rule, from Britain’s conquest during World War I to Israel’s establishment in 1948 to the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestine’s colonial century has been punctuated by rebellions—some brief and others sustained, some characterized by civil disobedience and others by armed struggle, some forcing concessions and others achieving few meaningful results. This article examines two periods of widespread anticolonial uprising in Palestine: the 1936–39 revolt against British rule and Zionist colonization; and the 1987–91 uprising against Israeli rule, widely referred to as the intifada or, following another uprising in 2000, as the “first intifada.” During each uprising, Palestinians disengaged from colonial institutions—including the police and courts—and turned to alternative practices to serve Palestinian communities and resist British and Israeli authorities. Alternatives drew on local formations of justice, rooted in customary law (‘urf) and communal reconciliation (sulh) predating colonial rule. Disciplinary force of different kinds, too, punished Palestinian cooperation with colonial authorities and enforced decisions of anticolonial institutions, at times replicating the coercive power of police within the context of anticolonial struggle.
As these Palestinian resistance movements challenged institutionalized policing, tensions emerged between efforts to assure security and stability, on the one hand, and the struggle for sociopolitical transformation, on the other. Grappling with these tensions, however, requires shifting from the state-building framework that has guided much of the literature on these uprisings.1 This is not to minimize Palestinian nationalism: these uprisings sought to establish a Palestinian nation-state, not to build a society without police. However, in the Palestinian case, a focus on state-building inevitably produces a narrative of failure. Moreover, such an approach is grounded in an unstated assumption that a nation-state with rationalized bureaucratic institutions—representing “modernity”—is the natural and desirable culmination of such movements. Nonstate formations, by contrast, are cast as destabilizing or, at best, presenting opportunities for state co-optation.2
This article rereads the 1936–39 revolt and the first intifada not as unrealized projects but as qualified successes. Sulh and related forms of conflict resolution played a central role in Palestinian efforts to disengage from colonial policing infrastructures and build an alternative order founded on local articulations of morality and social solidarity. Sulh accrued legitimacy by referring to practices predating the Zionist settler-colonial project, but other factors made it a powerful tool within Palestinian uprisings. Sulh’s decentralized and personalized authority, which derived from mediators’ status and disputants’ willingness to engage them in reconciliation, proved well suited to the necessities of anticolonial struggle. Reconciliation practices also fortified communities by emphasizing the equality of disputants and an ethos of communal (rather than individual) justice rooted in reconciliation. Meanwhile, anticolonial leaders—many of them marginal within preexisting power structures—gained authority by engaging in mediation, which integrated new social formations into preexisting traditions and offered stability in highly unstable periods. Sulh thus conferred legitimacy on decidedly untraditional power arrangements during both the 1936–39 revolt and the first intifada.
These uprisings were neither free of intra-Palestinian conflict nor were their practices necessarily egalitarian or antithetical to colonial rule. Palestinians employed disciplinary violence to coerce those who benefited from the colonial order to abandon it and to ensure adherence to the alternative systems. Groups formed to safeguard the uprisings, drawing their ranks largely from economically marginalized young men and deploying tactics reminiscent of state police. These police-like forces frequently engaged in uneasy relationships with those they policed, especially those who found the material impact of anticolonial revolt onerous. At times, they also clashed with the political leadership of the uprisings, which sought to direct and restrain the activity of youth activists. As internal and external pressures exacerbated divides within Palestinian society, violence became increasingly undisciplined, exposing gender and class hierarchies obscured by sulh’s inclusive rhetoric. As anticolonial movements crumbled and colonial power ascended, some who had imposed anticolonial discipline improved their lot by entering the service of state police forces.
This article considers the implications of the interplay between communal justice and disciplinary violence for Palestinians’ anticolonial struggles and, more generally, pursuing alternatives to the police. During each uprising, Palestinians disengaged from colonial police, established alternative institutions of communal justice, and meted out disciplinary violence to discourage interactions with the former and encourage engagement with the latter. As each uprising was quelled, external and internal pressures detached forces of disciplinary violence from projects of communal justice and integrated them into new state police apparatuses. Before examining these dynamics in greater detail, the following section discusses local structures and practices that formed the backbone of anticolonial efforts to resolve conflicts and forge social order among Palestinian communities during the 1936–39 revolt and the first intifada.
Palestine is home to a variety of practices of justice predating Zionism’s settler-colonial project and its British sponsor. In addition to Islamic law, a number of local systems—such as sulh, ‘urf, and tribal law (qada’ ‘asha’iri)—derive power from sources largely external to state or religious authority. These forms of communal justice—that is, justice based on principles rooted in local communities and engaging social groups rather than focusing on individuals—are intimately intertwined.3 Palestinians use communal justice to address a variety of violations of social order, from murder and assault to violations of family honor to disputes over property. The parties involved vary from individuals to tribes, though lasting resolutions are generally made between parties of equivalent kind.4
These systems share a view of injury as socially embedded and seek to restore social order through the intervention of mediators. Sulh refers to mediated reconciliation wherein disputants accept a resolution facilitated (but not imposed) by mediators. Customary and tribal law, by contrast, are forms of arbitration, whose parties agree to terms decided by the arbitrator.5 Decisions are expected to conform with communal precedent on matters such as the degree of co-liability within kinship groups and the financial obligations of parties responsible for the death or injury of others, but individual cases allow room for negotiation. Sulh procedures organize interactions between mediators and disputants, delimit periods of negotiation, and designate the rituals that signify a dispute’s resolution, but great flexibility exists regarding the substance of agreements.6 Mediators are empowered by the disputant parties and the community at large, and their status serves to enforce the outcome. Mediators’ status can derive from multiple sources: age, access to state power, religious authority, and the backing of a large or powerful family or tribe. But, as anthropologist Sharon Lang writes, “prestige and power . . . derives ultimately from . . . participation in sulha activity above all else.”7 This produces a circular formula: mediation requires status, status is gained by mediation. It also allows emergent and recently empowered actors to cement their legitimacy through mediation, thereby reinscribing new power arrangements as “traditional.”
While sulh validates mediators’ social power, it also puts these mediators at the service of disputants, aggrieved parties in particular, and emphasizes the restoration of parity between them. Sulh thus engenders what Lang calls a “hierarchy-egalitarian tension,”8 which pulls between the rhetoric of reconciliation as a practice that restores a balance of honor among all parties involved (i.e., society is best served when everybody has equal honor) and the hierarchy of honor that empowers the mediator (i.e., society is best served by those of exceptional honor). The egalitarian rhetoric that suffuses reconciliation procedures often obscures significant power differentials between mediators and disputants, among disputants, and within Palestinian society more generally. For example, as a male realm, sulh reproduces gender inequality. Women are not agents in its rituals but are approached as pure objects to be protected or polluted ones to be cleansed.9 Yet many participants and observers, even those who do not benefit directly from sulh’s preservation of patriarchal and other social hierarchies, often accept its egalitarian rhetoric—which highlights social values of peace, equality, and balance between disputant parties—at face value.10
During the 1936–39 and 1987–91 uprisings, anticolonial forces mobilized sulh’s rhetoric of egalitarianism, appealing to disaffected Palestinians, and of restoring honor, which corresponded with gendered nationalist and anticolonial discourses.11 Meanwhile, youth activists were largely responsible for empowering and enforcing the sulh-based rebel justice system. Yet because their power derived largely from their ability and willingness to mete out disciplinary violence, rather than deep-rooted local practices with established procedures and widespread legitimacy, they were more prone to abuse their positions, undermining the social solidarity that sulh sought to produce and ultimately destabilizing the uprisings. As the following section shows, sulh and disciplinary violence interacted at different moments in synchronous and conflicting ways during the 1936–39 revolt.
The 1936–39 Revolt
After World War I, Britain’s military occupation of Palestine transitioned to civilian administration that was colonial in all but name. The text of the British Mandate affirmed the 1917 Balfour Declaration, committing Britain’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The arrangement contradicted Britain’s wartime promises of Arab independence and the desires of Palestine’s majority-Arab population. Palestinians launched protests—from petitions to elite delegations to violent demonstrations—and established new political parties and civil society groups to oppose British policies that, at best, neglected Palestinians’ needs and, at worst, actively undermined them to support Zionist nation-building.12
In May 1936, after almost two decades of British rule, Palestinians launched a widespread general strike to protest the British government and the Zionist project. Palestinian political and civil society activists established national committees in cities and towns to coordinate the strike, and Palestinian commercial activity ground to a standstill. Armed groups, comprised primarily of young men from rural backgrounds, attacked British and Jewish targets. In October, after intense British efforts to quell the insurrection, Palestinians’ political leadership suspended the strike, engaged in negotiations brokered by other Arab leaders, and agreed to meet with a British royal commission of inquiry. In July 1937, the commission recommended Palestine’s partition into Jewish and Arab states, confirming that Britain was deaf to Palestinian demands and thwarting Palestinian hopes that negotiations could lead to independence. The armed insurgency reignited, displacing British control over vast expanses of Palestinian territory.
Britain ramped up its counterinsurgency, wreaking havoc on Palestinian communities through expanded police, military, and paramilitary units. Meanwhile, with war looming in Europe, Britain sought to end the conflict in Palestine: in fall 1938, the British government retreated from partition and in May 1939 proposed limits on Jewish immigration, protections for Palestinian landholders, and an independent, unitary state in Palestine after ten years. This combined military-diplomatic offensive exacerbated rifts between Palestinians who remained committed to the uprising and those who, because of exhaustion or ideology, placed hope in compromise with the British. The revolt began to unravel, and the British turned up the pressure by recruiting Palestinians disenchanted with the revolt into paramilitary and auxiliary police units to aid the counterinsurgency.13 By late summer 1939, the British quelled the revolt, having exhausted its rural support base, and imprisoned, killed, or exiled many of its leaders. More than five thousand Palestinians had been killed and nearly fifteen thousand wounded. But Palestinians had also maintained a widespread movement counter to colonial institutions, including police and courts.
On the cusp of the revolt, nearly twice as many Palestinians as Britons served in the Mandate police force; Palestinian policemen outnumbered Jewish policemen four to one and undertook the majority of day-to-day policing in Palestinian communities.14 From the revolt’s start, Palestinian policemen were reticent to take punitive action against the general strike or the rural insurgency. Less than a month into the strike, Arthur Wauchope, Palestine’s high commissioner, gauged: “Arab Police have given clear signs of disaffection and [the] Inspector General feels that he can now place little reliance on their continued loyalty. It is possible that a number will refuse to perform their duties within the next few days.”15 British officials feared a mass defection would paralyze the Mandate justice system and necessitate martial law.16
Despite British anxieties and Palestinian discontent, Palestinian policemen did not resign en masse, though their role in maintaining colonial control was seriously curtailed. In May and June 1936, a group of Palestinian policemen sought to organize their colleagues to join the general strike, but at least some rebels opposed the effort, arguing that they were too valuable as conduits for intelligence and arms.17 Even when rebels later issued a “blanket call” for Palestinian police to quit, they still encouraged those capable of aiding the rebels while on the job to remain.18 Rebels applied social pressure on Palestinian policemen who arrested or helped prosecute rebels, or were suspected of feeding intelligence to the British, and, if they persisted in their service, targeted them for assassination.19 Meanwhile, Palestinians launched a noncooperation campaign, discouraging compatriots from going to the police or generally interacting with the Mandate administration.20 The Central Committee for Jihad, formed by exiled Palestinian political leaders to support the revolt, ordered village heads and elders to “sign a declaration that no criminal cases are to be reported to Government.”21
By late summer 1938, British authorities determined that Palestinian policemen were either unwilling or unable to perform their duties and, fearing that their weapons would fall into rebel hands, disarmed them. Police stations in predominantly Arab areas—the majority of Palestine—were closed, except in Gaza and Hebron, where the British army manned them.22 Rebels continued to target Palestinian policemen deemed antagonistic to the revolt, whether because they contributed to searches, raids, and arrests, or because they belonged to families that maintained close relationships with the administration even during the revolt. British and Zionist officials saw attacks on Mandate forces as lawlessness and described the rebels as gangs and bandits, thereby delegitimizing Palestinians as political actors and justifying the escalation of policing, both in terms of numbers and activity.23 Having effectively sidelined the colonial police, Palestinians in rebel-held areas established alternative systems to maintain order.
From 1936 to 1939, Palestinians established an array of institutions to carry out the anticolonial revolt, from collecting funds and providing aid to conscripting, provisioning, sheltering, and transporting fighters. A system of dispute mediation and adjudication emerged out of an ad hoc network coordinated with national committees leading the strike.24 From summer 1937 through autumn 1938, the rebel justice system enjoyed widespread legitimacy. In September 1938, the British admitted that “the system of rebel courts . . . is increasing daily in popularity. The majority of villagers no longer complain to the police.”25 The rebel system of justice relied on participation more than policing. It did not seek out lawbreakers and punish them according to a penal code. Instead, aggrieved parties took their complaints to political and military leaders of the revolt, who, drawing on sulh, engaged disputants in processes that drew on local conceptions of justice to arrive at socially acceptable solutions.
Preexisting structures of communal justice enabled the rapid expansion of rebel jurisdiction, providing the foundation for a decentralized system free of colonial funding, personnel, or law. According to Bashir Ibrahim, a rebel judge, village reconciliation committees dealt with “minor” cases, such as disputes over “land, inheritance, and other family affairs.” Rebel leaders, meanwhile, addressed “serious” cases: “murder stemming from blood feuds, violations of family honor, or betrayal of the national ideal.”26 As the revolt proceeded, its leadership worked to forge an integrated system of justice, one rooted in local networks and the personalized authority of rebel commanders.27 Rebel justice personnel—from village-level reconciliation committee members to political and military leaders who presided over courts—reflect the diverse actors behind the revolt, including wage workers and peasants, nationalist activists and Islamic reformers, and some urban and rural notables. Figures experienced in sulh before the revolt presided over venues of rebel justice, but so did leaders of armed bands from more humble backgrounds. A number of band leaders were disaffected rural-urban migrants working in Palestinian port cities as porters, day laborers, street vendors, and the like, and would otherwise have lacked the social clout to mediate sulh.28
The substance of rebel justice was not merely reactive, seeking to fill the gap left by the repudiation of colonial institutions or merely to respond to conflicts as they arose. It was proactive, serving an anticolonialism that looked to the future and to the past.29 In addition to “revolutionary necessity,” reconciliation committees and rebel courts drew on Islamic law and customs embedded in local society. The rebel justice system frequently prioritized communal solidarity, including the social rehabilitation of offenders.30 Akram Zu‘aytir, a nationalist activist who presided over a rebel court in Nablus, recorded one such case. A Palestinian policeman stood accused of betraying the nation. Worried that conviction would lead to execution, Zu‘aytir ruled that the man “must resign immediately . . . and announce his repentance and his determination to join the nationalists, which he did to the applause of those gathered.”31 Such benevolence served practical and ideological purposes, bringing the accused into the ranks of the revolt, avoiding fallout with their kin, and promoting a reputation for magnanimity. Rebel justice did not depend solely on nonpunitive measures, however. Its judges also imposed punishments, carried out by rebel fighters, that conformed to Islamic and Arab customary practice, including lashes, fines, exile, and in some cases death.32
Like other anticolonial efforts, the 1936–39 Palestinian revolt relied in part on coercion to maintain adherence to a struggle that required significant sacrifices of the population. ‘Izzat Darwaza, a Palestinian educator and member of the Central Committee for Jihad, described nearly universal Palestinian support for the revolt but acknowledged that deviance from the national cause was “met with the appropriate forceful and swift disciplinary punishment [ta’dib].”33 Rebel fighters and youth activists often took such action, at times resembling formal police, by employing public shaming, threats, appropriation of goods and money, and physical violence to impose order and enforce adherence to the spirit of the revolt and the directives of its political and military leadership. Early in the uprising, youth activists affiliated with national committees enforced the general strike. Strike enforcers prevented goods from being transported to market and shops from opening. Merchants who refused to comply with the strike were pelted with rubbish and beaten up and their shops bombed.34 These youth activists were not homogeneous but came from a mixture of emerging professional, working-class, and village backgrounds. Direct action challenged the perceived inaccessibility and ineffectiveness of elite politics, dominated by notable families. In this way, disciplinary violence defied both colonial and social elites.
Beyond strike enforcement, youth activists and fighters also sought to impose social norms drawn from the rural and rural-urban migrant milieu that comprised the revolt’s base. Most famously, rebels banned the tarboosh worn by urban elites and imposed the kaffiyeh headdress worn by rural Palestinians, allowing rebels to blend into urban settings and symbolically asserting the dominance of rural cultivators over urban merchants, bureaucrats, and manufacturers. Though politically radical—advocating debt cancellation, for example, in addition to an end to British rule and Zionist encroachment—the revolt’s base of agricultural and urban wage laborers tended to uphold conservative social norms.35 Harold MacMichael, who replaced Wauchope as high commissioner in March 1938, noted that rebel decrees “forbid strong language and loose morals and invite the wives of faithless husbands to seek redress in the rebel courts.”36 Despite MacMichael’s reference to faithless husbands, rebel enforcers often targeted Palestinian women. Rebel disciplinarians privileged a patriarchal framing of honor, discouraging women from wearing Western dress and makeup or going to the cinema.37
As the counterinsurgency intensified, British forces searched and raided Palestinian towns and villages, destroyed homes and movable property, imposed curfews and restricted movement, and conducted mass arrests. The counterinsurgency drove Palestinian communities ever closer to destitution and effectively severed communication and supply channels on which the uprising depended. Increasingly atomized rebel units reacted by squeezing support from increasingly reluctant villagers and punishing any perceived collaboration with the British or the Zionist movement. The revolt’s military and political leadership ramped up efforts to check theft and score-settling undertaken by renegade fighters and by parties exploiting the disorder for personal gain, encouraging bands more directly linked to the leadership to take on a greater police role. The British administration noted in September 1938 that the rebels had “noticeably tightened up their own internal discipline and shown increased severity with armed robbers who oppress the villagers without authority from the leaders.”38 The following month, rebel leaders promised a crackdown on “criminals and thieves” in Nazareth, reiterating that the revolt was the sole authority in the city and threatening the “most severe punishment” for any who disputed that order.39 Rebel units arrested accused extortionists and, at times, carried out public executions and displayed offenders’ corpses.40
Britain’s continued punishment of rebel leaders and Palestinian communities fractured rebel structures, devolving decision making to local bands under immense pressure. Intra-Palestinian tensions flared, fueled by elite factionalism and rivalries among band leaders, but also by conflicts between political leaders and local fighters who chafed at being reprimanded for (in their eyes) requisitioning support from Palestinians who could afford it.41 The boundaries blurred between legitimate and excess revolutionary violence and between police and counter-police enforcement. Growing chaos within the revolt, the brutality of the counterinsurgency, and British promises of amnesty and financial support pushed some fighters to join the counterinsurgency. Defectors were offered positions in the Mandate police force; former rebels ultimately executed the disciplinary violence of the colonial state.42 The revolt sputtered out, its leadership and cadres depleted. Yet it remained significant in Palestinian popular memory and nationalist mythology. A half century later, when Palestinians launched another uprising, it drew immediate comparisons to the 1936–39 revolt.43
The First Intifada
In December 1987, an Israeli military truck collided with a car in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp, killing four Palestinians and sparking protests that turned into a concerted rebellion now known as the first intifada.44 Echoing 1936, Palestinians called a general strike, combined with refusals to pay taxes or otherwise engage with Israel’s administration in the West Bank and Gaza. Decentralized actions evolved into organized civil disobedience led by popular committees, which operated on the level of neighborhoods and villages, and coordinated under the banner of the United National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU). This umbrella group included representatives of major factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which had emerged in the 1960s as the most important Palestinian organization on the international stage. However, the intifada’s base, and the backbone of the popular committees, comprised grassroots institutions—trade unions, professional organizations, student and alumni groups, and women’s committees among them—with limited operational ties to the PLO’s leadership in exile.45
Israel, like Britain in the 1930s, first sought to crush the uprising by force before turning to a joint military-diplomatic response. It deployed some eighty thousand soldiers in the occupied territories, assaulting Palestinians, destroying property, and imposing curfews and closures to suppress the intifada. The PLO, challenged by autonomous activists within Palestine and marginalized internationally, recognized the state of Israel and entered into negotiations with it. Israel’s brutality in the Palestinian territories and the PLO’s political decision making divided Palestinian society into those committed to continuing the uprising and those who favored negotiations. Fractured, the intifada stalled while the PLO leadership negotiated the establishment of a Palestinian Authority with limited administrative and security responsibilities in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. The intifada’s overarching trajectory thus parallels that of the 1936–39 revolt, as did the intifada’s dynamics of disentangling from colonial policing and establishing alternatives.
During the intifada, Palestinians withdrew from Israel’s legal and judicial system in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and pressed their compatriots serving in the police to resign. This call was more emphatically raised and responded to than during the 1936–39 revolt, due to fundamental differences in the policemen’s roles. The British Mandate, despite its colonial structure, held out the promise of self-governance, and its civilian administration, including the police, offered social and professional advancement. Forming a majority of the police at the revolt’s outset, Palestinians were well positioned to funnel information and supplies to the rebels. Under Israeli occupation, by contrast, Palestinian policemen did not link their position to future independence—civilian rule itself seemed a far reach, as the military remained the de facto governing force—and Israel offered little access to information or supplies of value to the intifada’s activists. By mid-March 1988—after the UNLU called on Palestinian employees of the Israeli administration, especially police, to quit their posts—almost half of the thousand Palestinian policemen in the West Bank and Gaza Strip resigned.46 One year into the uprising, only six or seven police stations operated in these territories.47
Following the police resignations, crime in Palestinian communities declined. In Gaza, where between two-thirds and 95 percent of policemen resigned, crime reportedly dropped by 25 percent.48 Acknowledging the limitations of crime statistics, Palestinians certainly felt greater security after police resignations, undermining simplistic associations of police presence with safety or crime reduction. Palestinians forged this social order by suppressing interpersonal conflicts in service of the national struggle, and through the popular committees formed throughout the West Bank and Gaza to support the uprising.49 These committees addressed communities’ essential needs, including education, public health, medical care, food distribution, and safety and security.50 As F. Robert Hunter, a historian based in Jerusalem during the intifada, put it, “If Israeli observers saw paralysis, chaos, and anarchy resulting” from the resignation of Palestinian policemen and disengagement from Israeli-run courts, “Palestinians found only opportunity.”51
Three phenomena in particular threatened Palestinian safety and security: Israeli incursions; property crime, particularly burglary and theft; and interpersonal conflicts that risked destabilizing the unity on which the uprising depended. Palestinians formed local guard committees to combat Israeli attacks and property crime.52 In villages, youth activists (shabab) organized perimeter guards and posted lookouts to alert the villagers to the presence of the Israeli military.53 In urban centers, popular committees mapped out neighborhoods and assigned teams of shabab to barricade their entrances to prevent incursions.54 In Bayt Sahur, a town neighboring Bethlehem, adult residents were assigned guard duty one night per week, to alert the town to raids.55 Conflicts within Palestinian communities required more complex structures. Judicial committees, peace committees, or mediation committees—all based on sulh—settled intra-Palestinian disputes, replacing the police and courts.56 Some committees formed specifically to deal with conflicts; elsewhere, umbrella committees that organized various aspects of Palestinians’ resistance took on this role because of their perceived authority.57 Most prominently, in Bayt Sahur, twenty-two organizations (clubs, clinics, PLO factions, municipal authorities, and so on) united to create a “parallel municipal authority.” Known as the Sulha Committee, it embodied communal ideals of anticolonial governance, with sulh (as the committee’s name indicates) central among them.58
As during the 1936–39 revolt, intifada reconciliation committees included established mediators and heads of powerful families, as well as representatives of a younger generation, primarily activists associated with political factions or local institutions.59 In Bayt Sahur, for example, the Sulha Committee and neighborhood committees reflected the rise of a new educated and professional elite active within nationalist bodies.60 Older notables, whose authority was based largely on kinship, did not readily relinquish this realm to the new guard. One committee member explained: “Mukhtars [village or neighborhood heads] and all elderly people opposed the Sulha on the grounds that its members were ‘not experienced,’ that the Sulha did not include those ‘who understand.’ Some felt the Sulha members, by their ‘inexperience,’ created more problems than they solved.”61 When Israeli authorities arrested five of the Sulha Committee’s seven members in July 1989, many saw the older municipal leadership as complicit.
Yet the division between “traditional” and “new” leaderships in the intifada can be overstated. Kinship structures were key to the success of Bayt Sahur’s neighborhood committees, despite the influence of younger educated elites. Committees were most effective where preexisting kinship structures were strong, and weaker in neighborhoods not dominated by a single extended family—including those with greater numbers of refugees displaced in 1948 from territory inside Israel. Successful committees were hybrid: “new elites” from dominant families drew on kinship ties, while implementing democratic decision-making models to reconstruct relations within family networks.62
As during the 1936–39 revolt, the turn toward local forms of conflict resolution was not a simple return to tradition, nor a reactive stopgap to fill the vacuum produced by the resignation of Palestinian policemen or the boycott of Israeli courts. Sulh served as a basis for communal justice, and by extension, resistance to Israeli oppression—even where popular committees were less influential, policemen remained on the job, and courts continued to function. Palestinians’ participation in resolving disputes and maintaining social order without police served to assert political legitimacy and social solidarity. The consent of disputant parties was not always easily elicited, however. When it was not forthcoming, youth activists enforced sulh committees’ decisions, often wielding force.63 Absence of police did not mean absence of coercion. “Strike forces” emerged during the intifada alongside popular committees, wielding disciplinary violence to maintain strikes, enforce edicts of the UNLU and local committees, and discourage collaboration with colonial authorities. As during the 1936–39 revolt, youth activists were at the forefront of disciplinary units, which drew from working-class, poor, and refugee families. The forces engaged in protective action—such as guard duty and patrols—but they also meted out punishment, targeting those deemed to have violated the intifada.
The strike forces’ dual nature can be seen in their support of the UNLU’s commercial regulations. When the UNLU called strikes, the Israeli military attempted to break them by forcing open the shutters on Palestinian shops, leaving their merchandise exposed. Strike forces protected unattended stores, thereby enabling the strike.64 But the relationship between strike forces and shopkeepers was not always amicable. The UNLU also called for boycotts of Israeli goods, and strike forces cleared stores of Israeli merchandise and burnt it in the streets. Shopkeepers, already financially distressed because of the strikes, could hardly suffer further losses.65 The strike forces also enforced UNLU edicts against working for Israeli employers, collecting “fines” from those who insisted on working in Israel and setting up checkpoints where they turned away vehicles carrying workers to Israel.66 In Gaza, Israeli authorities issued identity cards permitting Palestinians to work inside Israel, and shabab collected them to prevent the same, sparking complaints and, in some cases, violent clashes.67
Strike forces also worked to prevent or punish collaboration with Israel, whether this meant working for the Israeli administration, feeding information to Israeli authorities, or acting as an agent provocateur in Palestinian communities. Initially this enforcement received the imprimatur of the UNLU, which in a July 1988 communiqué “salute[d] the strike troops for their active role confronting the forces, apparatus, and agencies of the occupation, and those deviating from the will of our masses, and calls upon them to strike all who have not resigned with an iron fist.”68 Strike forces targeted “known collaborators” (who served the Israeli administration or maintained public relationships with Israeli officials) and gathered information on other suspected collaborators via interrogation, informants, and surveillance.69
Various disciplinary methods included public shaming (remedied by public repentance) and exertion of pressure through family members and local notables; ostracism, including confinement via popularly enforced “house arrest” (iqama ijbariyya); and corporal punishment, such as beatings.70 Death sentences also proliferated, increasing from around 20 documented collaborator killings in the intifada’s first year to some 150 in the next.71 Strike force cells executed some suspects without trial or forewarning; other times, they interrogated and tortured them before carrying out a death sentence. Less commonly, public executions followed “people’s trials,” in which accusations of collaboration were read out to spectators, who in some cases were called upon to decide the sentence.72
Like Britain before it, Israel assassinated, imprisoned, and exiled Palestinian leaders during the intifada, undermining discipline and exacerbating suspicion within Palestinian organizations. As Israel’s diplomatic pressure inflamed fault lines among Palestinian political factions, UNLU influence over the strike forces diminished. Instead of enforcing the nominal consensus of the intifada’s constituent elements, strike forces asserted independent decision-making power, drawing authority not from grassroots support but by wielding violence. In Nablus, splinter factions exacted rough justice in the streets of the Old City, eliciting both fear and admiration. Many felt charges of collaboration were being used to settle personal scores or disguise criminal activity.73
By August 1989, the UNLU tried to assert greater control over strike forces, especially their anticollaborator violence. One communiqué appealed to Palestinians “not to liquidate any collaborator without a central decision from the higher leadership, or whose conviction was not guaranteed by national consensus, or before giving him prior warning and an opportunity to repent.”74 Another reaffirmed the need for strike forces to maintain discipline (indibat) vis-à-vis collaborators, and emphasized “taking time and making sure before issuing hasty accusations, then consulting the highest office before executing the judgment.”75 In a nod toward restorative justice, the UNLU stressed the importance of giving offenders “an opportunity to repent and agree to moral rectification [islah] and monitoring as a first option, before imposing punishment.” A UNLU leaflet lauded the handling of four suspected collaborators in the West Bank village of ‘Abwayn: initially sentenced to death, local lawyers negotiated lesser sentences, which the intifada leadership confirmed.76 Any decline in collaborator killings, however, was only temporary.77
Strike forces and splinter factions became more aggressive, too, in soliciting “donations” and “taxes” from shopkeepers and wealthier individuals.78 They also enforced public propriety, attacking suspected drug dealers and users, sex workers and adulterers, and others deemed to have engaged in immoral behavior. There was a practical dimension to these efforts: such individuals were seen as vulnerable to exploitation by Israeli intelligence (via addiction or blackmail, for example).79 There was also an ideological component: some Palestinians saw the intifada as an opportunity to cleanse society of social and political deviants. French sociologist Laetitia Bucaille linked the intifada’s “strongly puritanical dimension” to class antagonism that the youths of the strike forces felt toward middle-class and elite Palestinians. For these shabab, “compelling the bourgeoisie to adopt the behavior of ordinary conservative working people was a triumph and an indication in itself.”80
Such campaigns targeted women in particular, demanding, for example, that they cover their hair in public. Especially in Gaza, youth activists intimidated and coerced women who did not adhere to such calls for “modesty.”81 Tension among Palestinians mounted, some describing intimidation and even physical attacks on women as nationalist activity and others ascribing it to “agents provocateurs.”82 In a telling incident in July 1989, three young men accosted two women activists in Gaza, claiming their hair was not completely covered. To ward off the harassment, one woman warned the youths that she had a knife in her bag and would protect herself if need be. The men then announced to a gathering crowd that the woman was a collaborator with a tape recorder in her bag. The crowd intervened and searched the bag, finding no recorder. The women, vindicated, called the shabab of their local popular committee, who interrogated the harassers and initiated reconciliation. The three youths apologized and paid a fine to the women and their families, resolving the matter.83
The incident reveals how quickly attempts to impose public morality could morph into accusations of collaboration. It also highlights the development of competing forces of disciplinary violence, one seeking to impose a particular social order and the other characterizing this activity as a violation of anticolonial justice. Sulh emerges here as an attempt to mediate and reunite these rival forces. Meanwhile, both the impetus for the dispute and its resolution show how gender affected disciplinary violence and reconciliation: strike forces targeted women to adhere to particular standards, and when women resisted these strictures, the conflict was resolved via male mediators. As Palestinian anthropologist Rema Hammami noted, this resolution rankled Palestinians who felt that it “only feeds into traditional concepts of women by bringing in the women’s families and treating the issue as a question of honor and the women not as political individuals but as family property.”84 Despite women’s contributions to the intifada, they remained objects of—rather than partners in—communal justice.
As Israeli violence and internal conflict sapped key institutions of the intifada, namely the popular committees and the UNLU, the newly formed Palestinian Authority (PA) entered the scene and, with Israeli and US backing, exerted limited control over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Reining in renegade strike forces and splinter factions proved a challenge, and the PA’s efforts here also recalled British methods from the 1930s. Seeking to co-opt potential challengers, the PA enrolled hundreds of these young men into a bloated security sector, which it would later (with Israeli and international backing) use to target rival factions and political dissent.85 Once again, those whose efforts had helped secure a policeless order became police of a new pseudostate authority.
Sulh’s centrality within two significant periods of Palestinian struggle in the twentieth century is evidence neither of the embedded cultural obstacles to Palestinian “modernity” nor of the authentic essence of a nation in waiting, but rather of the modes of justice available to those who aspire to transformative change. Yet questions remain as to whether sulh can serve as the basis for justice without police. Does sulh hold within it the possibility to advance communal peace and stability, or does it merely obscure the hierarchical-egalitarian tension that allows those with power to wield it in extralegal venues? Does communal justice require disciplinary violence and, if so, does this merely reproduce the effects of policing outside state frameworks?
Sulh proved a flexible framework that empowered individuals marginal to preexisting kinship-based hierarchies to mediate disputes and shape communal justice within broader anticolonial efforts. Sulh also fit, if imperfectly, aspects of “insurgent safety” articulated by Meghan G. McDowell, characterized by “locally determined practices and ethics that refuse the logics of the carceral state and instead reconceptualize safety as a mode of sociability built through interdependence, mutual aid, counter-carceral communication, and play.”86 Sulh assumed and reinforced interdependence, imagining safety “as a collective, shared experience rather than as an individualistic, and/or interpersonal dynamic”; its rhetorical foundations, too, were consistent with counter-carceral communication, centering “mediation as a means of dispute resolution” to “support community generated responses to harm.”87 Yet other groups—especially women—remained marginalized within Palestinian anticolonial justice. Furthermore, the interdependence that Palestinian communal justice sought to produce during uprisings was facilitated by no small degree of coercion.
Disciplinary violence underpinned the successes of the 1936–39 revolt and the first intifada in disengaging from colonial institutions and establishing alternatives. In each uprising, Palestinians, especially youth activists, used violence to punish those who continued to serve in or make use of colonial institutions, including the police and courts, and to enforce public adherence to decisions made by the uprising’s leadership. In both cases, colonial violence exacerbated intra-Palestinian tensions and rebel violence expanded in scale and scope, becoming detached from communal decision-making structures and associated practices of reconciliation. That state police forces absorbed anticolonial enforcers into their ranks reveals the affinities between the two.
The tension between sulh’s potential for producing communal justice without police and the coercive violence of police-like forces during these twentieth-century Palestinian uprisings points to a broader issue in discussions of police abolition, namely that ends often take precedence over means. In other words, the emphasis is often on identifying models of justice that do not depend on police, including those, like sulh, that exist as concurrent alternatives to policing and prisons. Less easily imagined are the means by which concurrent alternatives to police can fully replace the police. Systems of communal justice can count on some degree of voluntary participation, but there will inevitably be those who refuse to engage them. Implementing their procedures and enforcing their decisions, then, would seem to require some kind of coercive force, reintroducing some of the same violence presently associated with police. The difficulties of making a full transition to a communally based order, meanwhile, are intensified and complicated by states’ resistance to any such project.
Carceral states have many tools at their disposal to undermine, co-opt, or destroy challenges presented by communal justice. State intervention is generally premised on the claim that communal justice produces lawlessness. Certainly, the vigilante violence that emerged during both the 1936–39 revolt and the first intifada, often perpetrated by disaffected youth mobilized as enforcers during these uprisings, was a far cry from insurgent safety. Yet, the devolution of social order into vigilantism can be better understood as an outcome of state violence rather than a byproduct of customary law or communal justice. Intra-Palestinian violence became particularly inflamed when the organizational structures behind the uprisings (and the sulh-based arenas of communal justice that they legitimized) were shattered by the combination of political pressure and massive violence employed by British and Israeli regimes. Meanwhile, the allure of co-optation—which not only offers respite from violent confrontation with the state, but salaries and resources—can be difficult to resist.
Acknowledging the state’s role in destabilizing social order does not erase the violence used to establish and enforce rebel justice systems during Palestine’s twentieth-century uprisings. Still, identifying factors that created the conditions for this violence clarifies when, how, and how much coercive force might be necessary to maintain communal safety and social order. Insurgent safety requires thinking beyond the absence of police and prisons to prefigure alternatives to state violence.88 Such alternatives cannot, however, assume universal voluntary participation. Nor can we ignore the likelihood that states will exert massive pressure to resist the replacement of police by systems of communal justice. It is imperative not only to imagine structures and practices of justice that do not rely on police, but to consider the processes that might allow them to emerge without succumbing to or reproducing state violence.
I would like to thank Nimrod Ben-Zeev, Amahl Bishara, Robert Chlala, Sarah Ihmoud, and Randa Wahbe, as well as the RHR reviewers and issue editors, for their invaluable feedback on various drafts of this article.
Participants and observers tend to use terms like customary , tribal, and traditional interchangeably. Fares and Khalidi, “Formal and Informal Justice,” 509.
Fares and Khalidi, “Formal and Informal Justice,” 507–8; Zilberman, “Palestinian Customary Law,” 800. On the distinction between tribal judges and sulh mediators, see Birzeit University Institute of Law, “Informal Justice,” 63–65.
On Palestinian opposition to British rule preceding and during the revolt, see Anderson, “From Petition to Confrontation.”
Cypher telegram from the High Commissioner (HC) of Palestine to the Secretary of State (SoS) for the Colonies, June 2, 1936, 1, in the National Archives (UK) (hereafter TNA) Colonial Office (hereafter CO) 733/311/3.
Paraphrase telegram from HC Palestine to SoS for the Colonies, June 16, 1935, 1–2, in TNA CO 733/311/3.
Anderson, “From Petition to Confrontation,” 1000; “Secret. Note on the Leaders of Armed Gangs in Palestine,” undated [September 1938], 9, in TNA CO 733/370/9.
“Secret. Note on the Leaders,” 10.
Kabha, “Courts of the Palestinian Arab Revolt,” 210. See also “Secret. Note on the Leaders,” 10.
Anderson, “State Formation,” 46. The predominantly adversarial (rather than prosecutorial) character of the rebel justice system is consistent with both sulh and classical Islamic legal tradition. See Peters, Crime and Punishment, 9.
Narrative Despatch no. 10, October 24, 1938, HC MacMichael to SoS, 54, in TNA CO 935/21.
“Secret. Note on the Leaders,” 11.
Hiltermann, Behind the Intifada. Islamist groups remained outside the PLO framework; during the intifada, they coordinated with, but were not represented within, the UNLU.
See, among other communiqués, UNLU, “Nida’ raqm (10)” (Communiqué Number 10), March 10, 1988, info.wafa.ps/userfiles/server/pdf/bayan_10.pdf; “Nida’ raqm (11), nida’ yawm al-ard” (Communiqué Number 11, the Land Day Communiqué), March 31, 1988, info.wafa.ps/userfiles/server/pdf/bayan_11.pdf; and “Nida’ raqm (12)” (Communiqué Number 12), April 3, 1988, info.wafa.ps/userfiles/server/pdf/bayan_12.pdf.
See, e.g., Wing, “Intifada,” 65. Crime’s drop during the intifada fits the “social solidarity model” of criminology, which holds that times of war “increase social solidarity and, as a result, reduce crime rates.” However, “studies of wartime and postwar changes in crime rates have tended to be inconclusive,” in part “because of the large number of interdependent social changes which occur during most wars” (Archer and Gartner, Violence and Crime, 72–73).
UNLU, “Nida’ raqm (22), nida’ al-adha al-mubarak” (Communiqué Number 22, Communiqué of Eid al-Adha), July 21, 1988, info.wafa.ps/userfiles/server/pdf/bayan_22.pdf.
UNLU, “al-Nida’ (44), nida’ al-tahiya li-mu’tamar Fath” (Communiqué 44, Communiqué Saluting the Fatah Conference), August 15, 1989, info.wafa.ps/userfiles/server/pdf/bayan_44.pdf.
UNLU, “al-Nida’ (45), nida’ aylul wa al-shahada” (Communiqué 45, Communiqué of September and Attestation), September 5, 1989, info.wafa.ps/userfiles/server/pdf/bayan_45.pdf.