How Israeli Checkpoints Galvanized a New Form of Civilian Protest

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Eun A Jo, covers the new article by Emily Kalah Gade, Emory University,  “Social Isolation and Repertoires of Resistance”. 


In response to increasing Israeli policing and encroachment on Palestinian territory, in 2015, Palestinian civilians began to engage in a new type of resistance. Rather than mentioning a specific political goal or organizing into armed groups, some Palestinians simply approached Israeli checkpoints and attempted to stab soldiers with kitchen knives. Most were killed on sight.

This wave of attacks was puzzling for a number of reasons. The violence was not carefully coordinated; it appeared spontaneous and sporadic. Moreover, the Israeli soldiers easily quelled attacks and the attackers faced lethal consequences—two conditions that should have, theoretically, thwarted resistance. So why did some Palestinians still pursue this avenue of resistance? Why not engage in more conventional forms of resistance, as part of a group (which makes protest less risky)? “’Change is only possible if you’re talking about change for the worse’.In their view, violent retaliation against Israeli oppressors was the right thing to do, regardless of its (lack of) impact”.

In her new article, Emily Kalah Gade builds a theory of protest in which physical barriers to social connection—checkpoints—can change the way people think about resistance. When freedom of movement is restricted, not only do individuals face difficulties collectively organizing, they lose faith in the possibility of change and hope for the future, as change for the better and hopeful outcomes are not mirrored in their daily life. This, according to Gade, fundamentally alters people’s thinking about how to protest: feeling like they have little left to lose, isolated individuals can consider any act, no matter how fruitless, against the opposition as having value—and also as a way to express their grievances.

To build this theory, Gade compared two communities in the West Bank: H2 in al-Khalil and Firing Zone 918 in the South Hebron Hills. Each is controlled by Israeli checkpoints, imposing different levels of isolation: those in H2 restricted residents’ movement within the community while those in Firing Zone 918 did not.

“Crucially, it suggests that state control can discourage some protest efforts while emboldening others.”Through extensive interviews, Gade examines the lived experiences of the residents in these two communities, and finds stark differences in why and how they protested against Israeli control. Residents in Firing Zone 918 supported collective and nonviolent forms of protest. They did not participate in the Intifada of Individuals, because they believed such violence would not advance their goals; instead, they doubled down on community efforts, expressing hope for the future.

By contrast, residents in H2 supported smaller and self-directed acts of violence, even as they acknowledged the futility of their actions. One of the residents stated, “Change is only possible if you’re talking about change for the worse.” In their view, violent retaliation against Israeli oppressors was the right thing to do, regardless of its (lack of) impact.

Social connection and isolation are central to how people choose to protest. Individuals with access to social support are more resilient in the face of struggles; the trust and hope it engenders also allow people to resist together. Meanwhile, socially isolated individuals feel angry and powerless—and often, this manifests in their reckless and seemingly pointless acts of violence.

Gade’s new theory provides powerful insights into how people protest. Crucially, it suggests that state control can discourage some protest efforts while emboldening others. In her study, checkpoints that separated social ties, rather than enforcing compliance, inspired a new form of violence—individualized and unstructured. This demonstrates that we must look more closely at people’s day-to-day interactions with the state to understand why and how they decide to resist.


  • Eun A Jo is a PhD student in the Government Department at Cornell University, specializing in international relations and comparative politics. She is interested in political rhetoric, emotions, and the domestic politics of international reconciliation, with a focus on East Asia. Currently, Eun A is working on two papers, exploring the drivers of South Korean responses to (1) Japanese apologies and (2) Chinese economic retaliation. She is the 2019-2020 Director’s Fellow of the Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Cornell and the editor of The Asan Forum, a bimonthly journal of the Seoul-based think tank Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Prior to her study, Eun A worked as an advisor in international security at the South Korean Permanent Mission to the United Nations. She holds a BA from University College Utrecht and an MPP from Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.
  • Article details: American Political Science Review, Volume 114 , Issue 2, “Social Isolation and Repertoires of Resistance”Published online: 23 July 2020
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.