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Solidarity Intervention

Monique Jo Beerli

1. Introduction

Texte intégral

  • 1  Arendt, Hannah. 1987. “Collective responsibility”, in Bernauer, James William (ed.), Amor mundi: e (...)

This vicarious responsibility for things we have not done, this taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of, is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves but among our fellow men, and that the faculty of action, which, after all, is the political faculty par excellence, can be actualized only in one of the many and manifold forms of human community.
– Hannah Arendt1

1In an international initiative published in fourteen languages, Palestinian civil society organizations in the West Bank invited the international community to unite in Bethlehem to participate in a weeklong campaign aimed at solidarity-building and to draw attention to living conditions under occupation. Marking its third summoning, the “Welcome to Palestine 2012” campaign sought to bring together local Palestinian activists and marginal global sympathizers in an act of symbolic nonviolent contestation of the Israeli occupation while providing a transnational advocacy and networking platform for the Palestinian cause. On April 15th 2012, the declared day of action, approximately 1,500 European and North American citizens headed to international airports with the anticipation of participating in the “flightilla” to Israel. Though relatively few international solidarity activists successfully partook in the campaign due to repression by the Israeli authorities and the enforcement of a no-fly list by compliant private airlines, their actions testify to a particular form of collective action. Seemingly passionate about their chosen political cause, participants mobilize for collective goods of which they are not the direct beneficiaries, posing a direct conundrum to much collective action theory which asserts that an individual’s rational interest is to mobilize based on the benefits to be gained (Olson 1965). Furthermore, just as the conflict itself has traversed its geographical boundaries, these activists are operating outside their national borders in the name of “the Palestinians”.

2Since the beginning of the second Intifada in late September of 2000, the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign represented just one episodic event of a wave of many international nonviolent direct action grassroots efforts to contest the Israeli occupation. In an effort to transform the interpretation of Israel’s policies toward the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) to a human rights and justice-based perspective while diffusing a Palestinian narrative, an expansive network of individuals and organizations have become involved, both actively and passively, in the struggle for Palestinian rights. International activists have showed solidarity with the Palestinians in a variety of fashions, including coordinating global campaigns such as the Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, the Free Gaza Movement flotillas, the annual Israeli Apartheid Week, etc., and participation in local pro-Palestinian support groups which organize their own actions and try to appeal to their governments and international organizations to put pressure on the state of Israel. Another approach has been the formal institutionalization of “transnational social movement organizations” (TSMOs) (Pagnucco and McCarthy 1992; Sikkink 1993; Smith, Pagnucco and Romeril 1994) based within the West Bank and Gaza and which are involved primarily in protective presence missions, documenting and reporting human rights abuses, advocacy, and direct action. In an effort to understand the “social movement industry” (SMI) (McCarthy and Zald 1977) advocating for Palestinian rights through solidarity activism as well as the increased level and range of civilian activities now directed against the occupation, and though this is only one example of transnational solidarity’s activism, this study will focus on the work of TSMOs active in the West Bank and the volunteers these organizations recruit.

3At first glance, and seeming contradictory to the limits of rationality given that the participants of concern are not the direct beneficiaries of the fruits of their labor, solidarity activism poses several paradoxes requiring an alternative means of analysis which takes into account both motivational and structural factors. On the one hand, given the apparent contradiction implicit within this form of activism, an attempt to demystify an individual’s decision to participate in transnational solidarity activism is a necessary direction of research to unpack the phenomenon at hand. Such an investigation aspires to lead the researcher to an understanding of the actors’ rationales for action and thus a revelation of what it is that motivates these activists and how they justify their volunteerism. Furthermore, strong attention will be paid to the “epistemological resources” inherited or adopted by activists which induce one’s propensity to act, and which provide a logic and vocabulary to make sense of one’s engagement. On the other hand, rejecting agency as the only means of explaining transnational activism, political processes and opportunity structures that enable and facilitate such activity must also be taken into account. Here my interest is to explore more general global trends as well as specificities of the Israel/Palestine case in order to explain how it is that activists end up where they do.

4As such, with a clear topic of research in mind, the next section will attempt to provide a more thorough presentation and transmission of my ideas in an effort to articulate the central research question and related sub-questions structuring this work. I will then continue to an exploration of the theoretical grounds and related thinking tools, extracted for the most part from social movement theory and more specifically works on solidarity movements as well as transnational activism, that have framed the thought process which has gone into the analysis of this research. After an exploration of the theoretical basis upon which this work attempts to construct itself, I will then provide a quick overview of existing works on transnational solidarity in Israel/Palestine, moving on to a clarification of the primary aims and justifications of this research. Next, I will explain the methods used in order to extract the empirical data, without which this study would not have been possible, and I will conclude with a plan indicating the manner in which the rest of this work will proceed.

1.1. Research Question

5Using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the solidarity activism organized around it, I conduct a sociological study of activism, focusing both on the organizational and individual level. In a first step, while bridging social movement theory on solidarity movements and transnationalism, I intend to question the processes and resources that enable international solidarity institutions to take shape in Israel/Palestine and which motivate international activists to take part in nonviolent direct action activism. In a second step, I use Bourdieusian analytical tools to address issues at the deeply quotidian, micro-level which theories of organizational sociology do not sufficiently address. In this way I investigate the manner in which activists interact with the spaces of occupation, more deeply analyzing their practices while abroad, and focus on the discourses mobilized to justify their actions while attempting to contextualize the strengths but also the weaknesses of their self-induced involvement in the conflict. Most scholars analyzing transnational action in the region begin with an ontological acceptance of the presence of internationals in spaces of resistance throughout Israel/Palestine, but my work seeks to understand the factors behind their transformation into solidarity activists.

6Furthermore, having been an outsider using my physical presence as a symbolic channel of change, my reflection on my own subsequent participation has raised a number of questions as well as doubts about the practices of internationals in the field. In some respects, occupation is just one system of social injustice among a number of others and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one example of conflict among many. In light of this, why do individuals feel responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How do the actions of internationals in the OPTs relate back to their previous experiences, their socio-economic background, their plans for the future, etc.? To what extent are the activities of internationals politically meaningful?

7These questions indicate the principal issues which my research will address. Linking them together, I aim to focus on what resources, processes, and epistemological beliefs enable and motivate individual international actors to participate in nonviolent solidarity activism against the occupation in Israel and the Occupied Territories in addition to what factors challenge and limit their practices.

8To address this question, I will focus on the participation of internationals in organizations and social movements still operational today. The majority of social movement organizations active in the region, both local and global, emerged following the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000, however, a few cases date some years before in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords. As such, my study will primarily be concerned with the subsequent institutionalization of a transnational anti-occupation network in Israel/Palestine that took place between 2000 to the present day. Having established the principal research question driving this endeavor, this chapter will now move on to develop a few conceptual issues which have been central to the delimitation of the research included in this study.

1.2. Towards a Conceptualization of Solidarity Movements

9Though the number of works treating solidarity movements and their participants are relatively limited within the social sciences, there are several terms and concepts which prove meaningful for the framing of this study. The term “solidarity”, derived from the literature on social movement theory, is used to describe “social movement organizations” (SMOs) (McCarthy and Zald 1977) and more generally social movements (SMs) in which groups of individuals participate in contentious collective action despite not being the direct, principal beneficiaries of those efforts. In the last three decades, this category of participants has increasingly preoccupied social scientists. Reynaud labels them “moral activists”, describing the arrival of new forms of “partial” and “non-exclusive” collective identities in the mid-twentieth century (1980: 280). McCarthy and Zald refer to “conscience constituents”, defining them as the “direct supporters of a SMO who do not stand to benefit directly from its success in goal accomplishment” (1977: 1222). These individuals could thus be considered to be altruistic advocates.

10Yet, in contrast to solidarity movements of the 19th century and early 20th century, some scholars suggest that contemporary solidarity movements have undergone a process of politicization as a result of the rise of new social and political cleavages within post-industrial societies in the mid-20th century (Passy 1998). As opposed to merely providing disadvantaged populations with material goods and moral support, contemporary solidarity movements are also involved in actions targeting power holders with specific political claims and demands (Passy 2001: 11). Based on these developments, Passy (2001) characterizes solidarity movements as conduits of “political altruism,” which she defines as an activity carried out collectively with a clear political objective and satisfying Bar-Tal’s five characteristics of altruism. Though Passy relies on Bar-Tal’s conceptualization of altruistic behavior, she equally scrutinizes whether individuals can act without egoistic self-interest. To balance this paradox, Wuthnow’s (1991) theory of “acts of compassion” is employed to highlight the underlying individualistic orientation inherently implicit in volunteerism and altruism. Moreover, Passy derives the origins of solidarity movements to three specific epistemological traditions: Christianity, Humanism, and Socialism. As participants in solidarity movements do not themselves experience the grievances, which the movement is in opposition to, their mobilization is instead based on these three “master frames” (Snow and Benford 1992) which provide material as well as symbolic resources.

11In conjunction, scholars have witnessed a general shift in the characteristics and the structure of social movements since the 1960s and 1970s. Like other “new social movements” (NSMs), contemporary solidarity movements are increasingly driven by the new middle class, as opposed to the working class (Parkin 1968), in pursuit of post-materialistic issues such as human rights, peace, environmentalism, etc. (Inglehart 1977). Furthermore, new social movements are managed in a far less centralized and hierarchical fashion, comprised of “supporters” as opposed to “members” (Byrne 1997). In terms of nature and function, solidarity movements embrace a strategy-oriented logic of action targeting external institutions in order to achieve their goals (Kriesi et al. 1995). Though these theorizations have principally been drawn from studies of solidarity movements within Western Europe at both local and national levels, the wide range of literature on transnationalism in social movement theory provides useful analytical tools to study transnational contentions exemplified within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

1.3. The Transnational Dimension of Social Movements

12Using Tarrow’s definition, “transnational contention” refers to “conflicts that link transnational activists to one another, to states, and to international institutions” (2005: 25). Although examples of transnational collective action can be drawn from history—such as the Anglo-American antislavery campaign in the early to mid-19th century, the international women’s suffrage movement from the late 19th to early 20th century, the anti-footbinding campaign in China led by Western missionaries and Chinese intellectuals from the late 19th to early 20th century, etc.—contemporary conditions foster more frequent and denser patterns of transnational collective action.

13Some scholars argue that the increase in the number and stature of intergovernmental political institutions and international organizations (IOs) in the last three decades has provided a new arena and, in some cases, a new target for contention at the international level (Keck and Sikkink 1998; della Porta, Kriesi, and Rucht 1999). Tarrow and della Porta suggest that the development of “complex internationalism” has stimulated cognitive recognition of the changing environment, prompting “relational changes” among activists and encouraging movements to organize horizontally in transnational coalitions in order to pursue “vertical” targets and assemble “cross-national resources and global strategies” (2005: 7-10). Furthermore, “rooted cosmopolitans”, that is “people and groups who are rooted in specific national contexts, but who engage in regular activities that require their involvement in transnational networks of contacts and conflicts” (2005: 237) are described as the forerunners of transnational activism.

14Transnational activism is also facilitated by “rapid electronic communication, cheaper international flights, diffusion of the English language, and the spread of the script of modernity” (Tarrow 2005: 5; see also Meyer, Boli, and Thomas 1987; Bennett 2003)) while challenging the state’s monopoly on the collection and diffusion of information (Keck and Sikkink 1998: 200). These catalytic enablers along with the internalization of liberal principles and values therefore intensify both the consciousness and concreteness of global interdependence (Robertson 1992; della Porta and Kriesi 2002: 3), supporting the materialization of a “global civil society” (Lipschutz 1992) in which national citizens voluntarily extend their sense of civic responsibility to an international scale.

15Sceptical of the inevitability of the increase in transnational activism due to the internationalization and globalization of the world system, many scholars have attempted to develop models based on political opportunities and actor-agency to address the phenomenon of transnational collective action. Keck and Sikkink hypothesize that transnational interactions are most likely to develop around issues where (a) domestic actors are blocked or hindered from appealing to their governments, activating the “boomerang” effect; (b) local activists or “political entrepreneurs” endorse transnational networking believing that it will advance their cause; and (c) conferences and other spaces for international contact advance networking opportunities (1998:12). Despite scattered examples of transnational collective action, the ascent of a truly transnational social movement is extraordinarily rare. Instead, transnational networks and coalitions are more likely, which require lower levels of formal organizational integration yet still permit the diffusion of ideas and information (Bandy and Smith 2005: 3).

16Beyond transnational contention between European and North American countries, few empirical studies have explored aspects of transnational dissidence organized across the global North-South divide. Olesen (2004) recounts the integration of solidarity activists within the Zapatista struggle, describing their relationship as “highly globalised in the sense that it is based on mutuality”; whereas Third World solidarity activism common during the Cold War exhibited “a one-way character in which there was a clear distinction between providers and beneficiaries of solidarity” (256). Coy (1997) describes the work of Peace Brigades International, a TSMO providing international protective accompaniment for human rights activists in Sri Lanka as well as in other countries—such as Haiti, Columbia, Guatemala, Canada, etc.—where nonviolent political activists are targets of political violence. Although the literature on transnational action organized between the North and the South is increasing, there are nonetheless many opportunities for further research.

1.4. The Case of Transnational Solidarity in Israel/Palestine

17Despite the growing number of studies dealing with Palestinian and Israeli nonviolent direct action resistance since the beginning of the second Intifada (Hermann 2009; Pallister-Wilkins 2009; Lamarche 2010; Norman 2010; Hallward and Norman 2011), documentation on internationals participating in solidarity activism in the region and critical analysis of their role has been more limited. Perhaps the most sensationalized group of internationals active in the region, International Solidarity Movement (ISM) has received the most attention both from the media and scholars alike. Seitz (2003) describes the work and participants of ISM while underscoring the struggles met in the first years of its formation, focusing specifically on the coordination challenges and the management of differences in opinion between Palestinian and international activists. In particular, Seitz draws attention to fears maintained by internationals of being a “colonial activist” and the guilt of knowing that the Israeli army sees their blood as more “valuable” than a Palestinian’s.

18Pollock (2006) undertakes an analysis of ISM as an example of youth engaging in a dialogue with globalization, as opposed to its mere experience by participating in transnational activist networks aimed at combating social injustice and human rights abuses. Embracing the “think globally, act globally” mantra, ISM activists “both defy and utilize a global inequality” as a point of entry in order to participate in and support nonviolent resistance against the Israeli military and settler occupation in the OPTs (Pollock 2006: 191). Additionally, Pollock examines the tactics and strategies employed by ISM activists accompanied by a social analysis.

19Scruggs (2011), shifting the focus from ISM to Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT), a faith-based group providing nonviolent support in the West Bank, highlights the differing perspectives between CPT volunteers and Palestinian activists on the meaning and purpose of non-violence as a method of resistance. While these authors offer valuable insights into the activities of some internationals within the OPTs, some avenues of research remain unexplored. It is following a realization of certain shortcomings that my research question came to light, and upon which I justify the pertinence of my work.

1.5. Aims and Justifications

20The principal aim of my research is to use a constructivist approach taking into account both political opportunity structure and activists’ agency. Additionally, I hope to provide a descriptive and analytical account of international solidarity activists who bring their physical bodies into spaces of contention within a particular conflict situation as a means to promote peace and ease oppression. Recent criticisms in the media have labeled internationals coming to the West Bank and taking part in demonstrations as “occupation tourists” while others have extended full support to the courageous individuals who use their bodies has human shields. My research hopes to strike a balance between these two views as well as contributing fresh insights into issues which have been overlooked in previous studies.

21While most academic studies on transnational social movement organizations in Israel/Palestine have focused on the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), my research aims to adopt a more robust scope with regard to the TSMOs active in the region. As opposed to focusing solely on one organization, I will incorporate other less-sensationalized organizations carrying out similar work on the ground.

22With respect to terminology, I wish to demystify the term “pro-Palestinian” which is often used to describe international activists participating on site in the transnational campaign against the Israeli occupation. To what extent are theses individuals “pro-Palestinian”? Are these individuals accepting and promoting Palestinian culture and society on a broad level or are they reserved for showing support for specific individuals and groups internalizing practices and values which are similar to their own?

23Also, I aim to put the term “global civil society” within a sociological context. Though the term “global civil society” is often employed in an all-inclusive manner, giving the impression that every individual has equal access and participates similarly within this imagined society, I suggest that only certain strata of society are actively engaged in this paradigm. Furthermore, my research will be a commentary on the spread of liberal and post-materialist values and how these values draw actors into settings that do not relate to or impact on them directly.

24By combining both a meso-level and micro-level analysis, I wish to draw a distinction between the goals and missions of an organization versus individual motivations. While the organizations analyzed in this study will be described as proponents of political altruism, to what extent does the application of this philosophy correspond to the motivational incentives and actual practices of volunteers? Are the actions of international volunteers truly driven by altruism?

25On a more conceptual level, I want to use the example of transnational solidarity action in Israel/Palestine as an opportunity to forge a link between existing scholarship on transnationalism and solidarity movements. While a number of studies have reviewed solidarity movements within a national context, particularly in Western Europe, little attention has been paid to transnational extensions of solidarity, especially those outside of the European and North American context. As such, I hope to contribute to the fields of social movement studies and transnational studies, each of them thematic areas of research which find themselves at a multi-disciplinary crossroads.

1.6. Methods and Sources

26In order to approach my research question, I have adapted a primarily sociological approach using the ethnographic method. Second, I have consulted online texts and emails from relevant organizations and actors to gain a greater insight into the more structural and technical elements needed to answer my research question.

27In selecting the TSMOs which were the subject of this study, I focused on international and local organizations active in either Israel or the West Bank which take a firm political stance against the Israeli occupation, are volunteer-run as opposed to professionalized, and are predominately engaged in solidarity and support work with Palestinian communities. In other words, I focused on TSMOs evoking a strong discourse and engagement towards political altruism. Based on this criteria, I have compiled a list of the most active organizations whose main function is to bring in international volunteers to provide protective accompaniment, participate in and monitor demonstrations and other forms of direct action, monitor checkpoints, write reports, post film footage and photographs, etc. As such, though this list is not exhaustive, it is representative, incorporating the most visible and active TSMOs as examples of transnational solidarity in the region. Accordingly, I have selected the following TSMOs:

  • International Solidarity Movement (ISM)

  • Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT)

  • Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI)

  • Operation Dove Palestine Solidarity Project (PSP)

  • International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS)

28Additionally, I have also included local Israeli SMOs active in solidarity activism for Palestinian rights that, given certain circumstances, integrate a few international volunteers. Though these organizations will not be deeply discussed as the focus is TSMOs, testimonies of volunteers from the following organizations were considered in my analysis:

  • Solidarity

  • Ta’ayush

  • Anarchists Against the Wall (AATW)

  • Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR)

29Lastly, I have included international volunteer-activists who participated in nonviolent direct actions organized by Palestinian Popular Committees in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Only individuals who came explicitly to work with a particular movement or organization and consistently participated over a minimum of three weeks were considered.

30As random sampling was not possible given the nature of this project and the particular groups and individuals studied, I chose my interviewees by haphazard selection, based according to connections made while in the field and direct contact with pertinent actors. As a participant-observer in both Israeli-led and Palestinian-led direct actions, I either met internationals directly in the field or met individuals who then put me in touch with pertinent contacts.

31Once I was able to establish a network, I conducted a total of 17 formal interviews, 16 one-on-one and one group interview with four participants, with international solidarity activists over a period of two months (January 2012-March 2012). In these interviews, I asked a series of semi-structured, open-ended questions designed to address personally held beliefs and value systems of my sample as well as indicate mechanisms and processes for the phenomenon under study. Additionally, I interviewed one Palestinian activist and two Israeli activists to integrate their views on the presence of third party actors in the field. Furthermore, informal conversations also contributed to my analysis.

1.7. Plan

32I will proceed by presenting my results in four parts. First, I will provide a brief historical account of transnational solidarity in Israel/Palestine since the Oslo Peace Accords followed by an in-depth description of the principal transnational organizations with a focus on their operational capacity and organizational structure. Second, relying heavily on social movement theory, I will indicate the specific opportunities and processes that can be used to understand transnational solidarity activism in the Israeli-Palestinian context and put forward an analysis of the factors motivating internationals to take action, therefore bridging together structure and agency. Third, using Bourdieusian “thinking tools” to study the everyday, I will illustrate how international solidarity activists engage with their terrain, examining the relationships and interactions they partake in during their “transnational moment”, that is the temporal period in which international activists and/or volunteers enter a foreign country momentarily, forming transnational relations as they intermesh with local actors in activism. Lastly, I will review my findings and contributions while underlining the limitations of my work and suggesting potential prospects for further research.


1  Arendt, Hannah. 1987. “Collective responsibility”, in Bernauer, James William (ed.), Amor mundi: explorations in the faith and thought of Hannah Arendt. Boston: Martinus-Nijhoff.


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