Steadfastness as Everyday Resistance

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Tayba checkpoint

Waiting to cross Tayba checkpoint in Tulkarm around 5 a.m.

Courtesy of Runa Johannessen
Runa Johannessen

Sumud, meaning “steadfastness” or “steadfast perseverance” in Arabic, is a common term used to describe Palestinian nonviolent everyday resistance against Israel’s occupation. The term itself entered political discourse as a national symbol during the 1960s, but the collective Palestinian consciousness of struggle for staying on Palestinian land is part of a longer historical development of resistance to oppression and dispossession. This history dates back to the 1936-39 revolt against the British Mandate (1917-48) and the 1947-49 Palestine War, referred to by Palestinians (and Arabs generally) as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

The concept of sumud has acquired several meanings and applications at various junctures of the Palestinian struggle against ethnic cleansing. Rather than having a fixed definition, sumud is a continuum of goals and practices of resistance that have been responsive to changes in the dialectic of oppression and resistance. It covers a wide range of cultural, ideological, and political practices and values. Potential areas of sumud are manifested in concrete activities such as building and rebuilding of houses despite the risk of demolition; commuting for work or pleasure despite the aggravation of checkpoints; investing in education; creating and reinforcing non-governmental institutions; investing in economic projects in Palestine to strengthen self-reliance; ensuring social responsibility of companies; arranging or partaking in Palestinian cultural activities; and organizing activist campaigns. In some instances, sumud is explicitly articulated, as seen with the creation of the Sumud Story House in Bethlehem; in others it is implicit in the determination to live as normally as possible.

Sumud thus spans covert, unrecognized, and routine-based practices in the everyday, to outright articulation of defiance in events such as demonstrations. Although sumud is not limited to everyday practices, it shares characteristics with everyday resistance and resilience in other contexts, for instance with the South African concept of ubuntu (“humanity”).

“Active” and “Passive” Sumud

Sumud was adopted as a national symbol in the 1960s and further promoted as a political term by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s and 1980s. The denomination samidun (“those who are steadfast”) was first used to identify Palestinians living in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon and those who lived in Israel. During the 1970s the term samidun came to be associated in particular with Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

In the early discourse on sumud as a national symbol of resistance, emphasis was placed upon commitment to the national cause through remaining on Palestinian land or in the refugee camps despite hardship. This commitment included resistance to forced expulsion and the encouragement of reproduction as a strategy in the demographic struggle. However, the nationalist symbolism promoted by the PLO was criticized by many Palestinians for being passive nonresistance that focused only on survival and for over-romanticizing rural society and the fecundity of women.

At the same time, the initiative of the Jordanian–Palestinian Joint Committee to financially support Palestinian steadfastness through hand-outs given by the Sumud Aid Fund, established in 1978, caused sumud to be associated with political rhetoric and corruption. This form of sumud was seen as a mere tactic of survival and labelled “static sumud” by Palestinian activist Ibrahim Dakkak, who co-founded of the Palestinian National Initiative Movement. According to Dakkak, static sumud was predominantly promoted from the diaspora and from vested interests outside of the occupied Palestinian territories, while Palestinians inside the territories were more inclined toward a “less orthodox and more aggressive approach” to resistance.

A distinction between “active” and “passive” resistance emerged and created a polarity between resistance as an offensive strategy and sumud as a protective and defensive strategy. Sumud muqawim (resistance sumud) developed from within this polarity when grassroots movements re-appropriated sumud as an activist concept in the early 1980s. In this reconceptualization, sumud was expanded to encompass strategic development and various forms of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, moving beyond symbolism to become a more articulated ideology and practice that focuses on self-sufficiency strategies.

These collective efforts within the frame of sumud muqawim were decisive for building momentum toward the first intifada, the Palestinian popular uprising of 1987-93. According to sociologists Samih K. Farsoun and Jean M. Landis, the mobilization of resistance through building alternative institutions in the 1980s was part of a process of “transforming a war of position into a war of maneuver”: of moving from a strategic building-up of forces to open conflict. The strategic implementation of sumud muqawim before and during the first intifada constituted a capacity to destabilize the structure and conditions of the occupation. The uprising was brought to an end by the signing of the Oslo Agreements during the mid-1990s, which promised a restructuring of power that would lead to self-determination. However, the outcome of this restructuring was not a sovereign Palestinian state but rather a new phase of occupation that transferred daily administration of the colonized population’s lives to a new Authority while retaining overall and ultimate control.

As a political term spanning the 1960s-90s in discourses on resistance, sumud appeared as a polyvalent concept to which divergent and shifting meanings were attributed. It was subject to disagreements over whether it represented an effective form of resistance or merely static and characterized by resignation.

Sumud as a State of Mind

Parallel to these debates, another meaning of sumud was articulated by the Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh, who introduced the term to an international audience in The Third Way: A Journal of Life on the West Bank (1982). Shehadeh described sumud as a state of mind, a “third way” between violent resistance and passive acceptance. According to Shehadeh, sumud has been practiced by anyone living under and coping with occupation long before it entered political discourse. The “third way” is to reject choosing between “exile or submissive capitulation” and “blind, consuming hate,” wrote Shehadeh, to whom being samid is a test of daily living.

The “third way” should thus not be understood as an alternative position between “active” and “passive” sumud, but rather as a form of resistance that differs both from violent resistance as represented by the fedayeen (Palestinian freedom fighters) and submission to Israeli power. Shehadeh’s book, published in English, was an important contribution that brought a degree of nuance to otherwise relatively one-sided media depictions that equated Palestinian resistance to terrorism for an international public.

In After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1986), Edward Said similarly emphasized the importance of sustaining daily life, notably the way in which work “becomes a form of elementary resistance, a way of turning presence into small-scale obduracy.” To sustain oneself through work, Said wrote, however limited this might seem, is thus a strong expression of sumud as “an entirely tactical solution to a predicament for which no clear strategy is available for the moment.” In this view, the maintenance of, and investment in, everyday activities is a tactical form of resistance in the absence of a political strategy.

A Strategy within a Non-strategy

Political strategic solutions to the Palestinian predicament are still absent. This must be understood in light of the restructuring of political power in the post-Oslo era, where resistance is thwarted not only by Israel directly but also by the Palestinian Authority (PA) acting as a quasi-authority under Israel. In a critique of the Palestinian leadership’s lack of thought-out strategies for combatting Israeli hegemony, Israeli anthropologist and activist Jeff Halper has dubbed sumud a “strategy within a non-strategy.” This "non-strategy," comprising sumud, negotiation and attrition, is not consciously formulated, according to Halper, but is a collective reaction to the occupation that has—so far—prevented defeat.

A similar critique is voiced by social anthropologist Ruba Salih and social scientist Sophie Richter-Devroe, who argued that the PA not only lacks a strategy, but that it has held a contradictory position in relation to resistance: it sponsors “resistance culture” even as it normalizes the occupying power that is being resisted. Cultural and symbolic expressions of sumud have been promoted, while direct political forms of opposition to the occupation such as demonstrations and civil disobedience have been repressed.

Contemporary Meaning of Sumud

Shehadeh and Said’s conception of sumud as closely connected with the individual’s tasks in daily life is consistent with its contemporary meaning. According to social scientist Alexandra Rijke and anthropologist Toine van Teeffelen, many Palestinians today see no contradiction between resistance as direct confrontation with the apparatus of occupation and resistance as a form of survival. In this view, the polarity of “active” and “passive,” as previously seen in the opposition between static sumud and sumud muqawim, becomes redundant as determinants for designating a “proper” mode of resistance. Sumud appears rather as a continuum of a wide host of goals and practices that are weaved into one another in everyday life.

Present-day practices of sumud range from what are perceived as normal everyday activities like going to school, building a house, keeping culture and memory alive, and cultivating the land to activities that have more distinct political expressions, such as going to demonstrations, writing graffiti on the separation wall, or exercising noncompliance with authorities. Whether these practices are perceived to be in direct confrontation with the apparatus of the occupation or not, they are different aspects of the same concept: interconnected by the insistence on being steadfast despite restrictions and obstructions. To build a home, for instance, is an act of creating material steadfastness and thereby attaching oneself to the ground through a building and, by doing so, contributing to the collective cause of remaining on Palestinian land through an individual act. To build when there is reason to believe that Israel might very well demolish it (on the pretext that it lacks the required administrative permit) becomes an act of defiance and steadfastness. To be steadfast—in the very literal sense of simply staying—requires active and persistent engagement with maintaining a presence in the occupied territories. In this sense, sumud appears as a mode of inhabitation responsive to the pressure of forces that takes the displacement of Palestinians as its objective.

Today sumud is broadly understood as a concept that comprises the many various actions people take against politics of erasure. It is expressed in the common refrain al-hayat lazim tistamirr (life must go on) and has also been explained as a way-of-life, as an agency of everyday acts against subordination, or as a Palestinian anticolonial mode of being. Together, these expressions weave the resisting subject into the object of resistance in such a way that they appear as one: resistance is a form of life, and the body itself is a site of resistance from which resistance emanates.

Sumud is a concept that has embraced shifts in the way that nonviolent resistance against occupation is defined. It is enunciated as a symbol or political ideology, an indicator and call for concrete action, a collective consciousness, a state of mind, or a way of life. The continuum of sumud elides any singular specific signification, yet it is characterized by an emphasis on the subject as the locus of resistance and on sumud as a way of life.

Selected Bibliography: 

Ali, Nijmeh. “Active and Transformative Sumud Among Palestinian Activists in Israel.” In Ala Tartir and Timothy Seidel, eds., Palestine and Rule of Power: Local Dissent vs. International Governance. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Dakkak, Ibrahim. “Development from Within: A Strategy for Survival.” In George T. Abed, ed., The Palestinian Economy: Studies in Development under Prolonged Occupation. London: Routledge, 1988.

Farsoun, Samih K., and Jean M. Landis. “Structures of Resistance and the 'War of Position': A Case Study of the Palestinian Uprising.” Arab Studies Quarterly 11, no.4 (1989): 59–86.

Halper, Jeff. “A Strategy within a Non-Strategy: Sumud, Resistance, Attrition, and Advocacy.” Journal of Palestine Studies 35, no.3 (2005/6).

Johansson, Anna, and Stellan Vinthagen. “Dimensions of Everyday Resistance: The Palestinian Sumūd.” Journal of Political Power 8, no.1 (2015): 109–39.

Rijke, Alexandra, and Toine van Teeffelen. “To Exist Is to Resist: Sumud, Heroism, and the Everyday. ” Jerusalem Quarterly 59 (2014): 86–99. 

Said, Edward W., and Jean Mohr. After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives. London: Faber & Faber, 1986.

Salih, Ruba, and Sophie Richter-Devroe. “Cultures of Resistance in Palestine and Beyond: On the Politics of Art, Aesthetics, and Affect.” Arab Studies Journal 22, no.1 (2014): 8–27.

Shehadeh, Raja. The Third Way: A Journal of Life on the West Bank. London: Quartet, 1982.

Tamari, Salim. “The Palestinian Movement in Transition: Historical Reversals and the Uprising.” Journal of Palestine Studies 20, no.2 (1991): 57–70.