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Last updated: October 13, 2014

On the possibility of non-violent resistance in Palestine

Banner Icon How real is that possibility? And how great are the obstacles against non-violence as a disruptive force in a stifled peace process? These are some of the difficult questions discussed in this ambitious analysis by Georgia Travers.

As the dust settles, literally, from this summer's war in Gaza, many have speculated about the critical need for, and apparent lack of, Palestinian leaders who espouse the methods of non-violent resistance championed by international heroes such as Gandhi, Mandela, and Dr. King.  These observers posit that over time - much as in India, South Africa, and the United States - the widespread adoption of strategic civil disobedience will provide Palestinians with a compelling alternative to the current norm of cyclical, and increasingly lethal, violence.

AT FIRST GLANCE, it's hard not to agree with them. Given the staggering asymmetry of financial resources and military capabilities between Hamas and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), non-violent resistance may in fact be the only route through which Palestinians can pursue justice and end the occupation without jeopardizing their survival. 

If one thing is for certain, it is that in a military confrontation with Israel, Palestine will lose. That is not to diminish the resilience displayed by fighters in Gaza this summer.  Rather, it is to draw upon the countless statistics that illustrate the staggering financial and military imbalance between the two sides.  For example, although Israel has a wealthy, industrialized economy, the US nonetheless supplies the state with vastly more direct aid than any other country: approximately $3 billion annually, or one-fifth of the US foreign aid budget.  In addition, Israel is the world’s ninth largest weapons supplier, earning approximately $4.4 billion annually from its defense industry alone. By contrast, the Palestinian Authority recently announced that the reconstruction of Gaza following this summer’s war will cost about $7.8 billion, or 2.5 times the territory’s entire GDP.  Which is to say that Gazans quite literally cannot survive another assault of this summer's scale.

"...in a military confrontation with Israel, Palestine will lose"

Based on this information, many Palestinians accurately guess that Mahmoud Abbas’ hands have been tied during the ongoing negotiations with Israel.  It seems as though the Palestinian leader has no leverage whatsoever, no cards left to play, and thus must concede to Israeli demands.  The feeling of futility that such an atmosphere engenders in Palestinians is indeed as dangerous as the radicalism fomented by the indiscriminate destruction of Gaza this summer. It is, perhaps, the slow burn of voicelessness which most imminently threatens to reduce Palestine psychologically to rubble.

As Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist killed in 2003 by an IDF bulldozer in Gaza, observed days before her death,

“What I’m witnessing here is a very systematic destruction of people’s ability to survive.” 

On the one hand, the adoption of collective civil disobedience strategies could have the ability to restore hope and purpose to the resistance of many Palestinians whose livelihoods are strangled by the occupation, while their leaders equivocate, mired in polarizing external (and internal) disputes.  If successful, mass non-violent organizing by Palestinians and Israeli allies could transform the face of the conflict and obligate the Israeli government to change course.  However, executing such a strategy is exceedingly complex, and unfortunately, the rhetoric of non-violence around this particular conflict is, in many cases, simplistic to the point of being counter-productive.

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First of all, any effective advocacy of non-violent resistance must first acknowledge, from an ethical perspective as well as under international law, the right of the Palestinian people to armed resistance. As Linah Alsaafin writes in her critique of nonviolence,

“Oppressed people do not and should not have to explain their oppression to their oppressor, nor tailor their resistance to the comfort of the oppressors and their supporters.” 

AS LINDA BRAYER, a South African, Israeli-trained human rights lawyer argues,

“This is the question of the right of a people to resist an aggressor and/or an oppressor, and the legitimacy of such resistance.  I would argue that according to international law today, Israel has no rights to or in the Occupied Territories of Palestine.  According to the same international law, the occupation ought to have ceased one year after its beginning, that is by June 1968 (United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, November, 1967).”

Brayer concludes by stating that if the Palestinian people have a right to self-determination, as she believes they invariably do, they also have the legal right to armed resistance for personal and collective defense.  This observation actually illustrates a critical attribute of non-violence in the context of the Palestinian cause: it may not be a moral obligation, but it is a shrewd tactical move.  As Yousef Munayyer writes an op-ed for Al Jazeera on the subject,

“Non-violent resistance is like Judo - the Japanese martial art based on using an enemy's strength and momentum against him - and the Palestinians find themselves facing a 300 kg Sumo wrestler. It is a strategic choice to resist the occupation.”

Yet even if one recognizes non-violence as an optimal strategy, definitions of the approach vary significantly.  For many, the term evokes Gandhi’s iconic hunger strikes or the legendary Civil Rights marches of the 1960s.  And while these tactics were ingenious and exemplary, such structured efforts are not the only form that non-violence can take.

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In a situation of extreme oppression, dispossession and deprivation, such as is currently the case in Gaza, sometimes the simple conviction to survive, renewed daily by ordinary people facing extraordinary hardships, itself constitutes a remarkable example of non-violent resistance.  In fact, I would argue that maintaining one’s will to live can be so exhausting under these circumstances that the delicate and sustained mobilization required for organized forms of non-violence can appear an overwhelming task.  This is, perhaps, why radicals preaching the dramatic and immediate alleviation of Palestinian suffering gain ground more easily than moderates with highly contingent long-term plans.

For example, a friend of mine in Gaza has been studying for three years to become a teacher at a local university.  Unfortunately, during the summer’s offensive, her school was bombed and many of her classmates and faculty were killed.  My friend explained to me that she did not attend her graduation in August, because the ceremony had been more like a funeral, and the university was destroyed anyway.  Her LinkedIn profile reads “Teacher At Nothing, Palestinian Territory.” In the face of such corrosive loss, what can we – as allies, onlookers, advocates of non-violence – really do? As the 2011 film by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki famously asks us, “Where do we go from here?”

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Where we will go must be guided by reliance on relevant precedents, as well as by appreciation of this situation's peculiarities. For example, the discursive differences, and noticeable omission of Gaza, observed in the tweet above, allude to the Western media’s apprehension about legitimizing the Palestinian liberation struggle by affording it the status of a “revolution.”  Likewise, much as Palestinian acts of terrorism are motivated by deep, and well-justified fear of extermination, by the same token, so too are Israel's violent acts of aggression against Palestinians. Whether one believes either side to be justified is almost irrelevant. The collective psychological reality at play is one of highly reactive fear.  And the presence of this quality - on both sides - has arguably been the preeminent factor impeding Palestinian non-violent resistance up to this point.

IN THE ABSENCE of cohesive political leadership, secure communication networks and reliable public infrastructure, organizing and sustaining a disciplined movement of civil disobedience in Palestine is a daunting task. How to rigidly enforce, among the disenfranchised youth of a nascent non-violent movement, that rock-throwing, for example, will not be tolerated? How to prevent extremist Palestinian groups from hijacking such a movement to advance their own political objectives? How to persuade citizens to maintain a course of non-violence if, as is likely, Israeli armed forces retaliate against protesters with violence? 

Instructively, Israeli policy systematically obstructs solutions to these questions. Just as other colonial regimes have deployed a “divide and conquer” strategy on indigenous peoples for centuries, so too has Israel, most notably by chopping up the Palestinian Territories into an incoherent jigsaw puzzle of inaccessible roads, checkpoints, settlements and even a wall (illegal), as well as by actively opposing the political unification of Gaza and the West Bank.

"Israel tend to excuse the state’s illegal confiscations of land out of fear of their neighbors"

Other Israeli tactics, manifestly motivated by the same fear, include the annexation of 1,000 additional acres for settlements in the West Bank immediately after this summer’s war, and the subsequent revelations of extensive and invasive Israeli surveillance over residents in the Occupied Territories. Just as Palestinian violence is rationalized, supporters of Israel tend to excuse the state’s illegal confiscations of land out of fear of their neighbors, rather than out of malice or some caricatured conception of Zionist manifest destiny.  It makes sense, after all, if one believes all Palestinians to be violent terrorists, to want to create as substantial a buffer zone between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as possible. As writer Jonathan Chait explains in the New Republic,

“The Israeli experience of the last decade has seen withdrawals from occupied territory quickly followed by terrorist attacks launched from that same territory. Israelis may be misguided in thinking they're helping their own security by remaining in the West Bank, but it's no mystery why they think this. And if it became clear that the Palestinians' primary goal was to create a homeland living peacefully next to a Jewish state, the Israeli political spectrum would shift back toward a more dovish government.”

Likewise it makes sense, if Israel systematically undermines the possibility of unified social and political organization, and makes the obstacles to sustaining a non-violent movement appear insurmountable, that Palestinians would pursue a violent alternative, even if experience shows such an approach to be self-defeating. As the first Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, presciently remarked,

“If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel.  It is normal; we have taken their country. It is true God promised it to us, but how could that interest them? Our God is not theirs.  There has been Anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see but one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country.  Why would they accept that?”

THUS IN ORDER to succeed, an initiative of civil disobedience in Palestine will require a host of sympathetic conditions whose presence mediates the overwhelming fear at the roots of both sides’ belligerent behavior . This is, unquestionably, a tall order. 

Fortunately, contrary to western public opinion, there are many precedents of autochthonous Palestinian non-violence to look to; the phenomenon is not new.  Many trace its origins to the First Intifada, or uprising, which broke out in 1987.  By all accounts, the First Intifada began as a non-violent popular movement of marches and protests, organized by Mubarak Awad, often referred to as the “Palestinian Gandhi” and others, who collectively founded the United National Command for the Escalation of the Uprising in the Occupied Territories (UNC).  At the beginning of the First Intifada, UNC volunteers distributed leaflets throughout Palestinian neighborhoods delineating strategies for collective civil disobedience, from boycotting Israeli goods, to striking at work, to refusing to pay taxes. As Aden Telda writes in an article on the 1987 protests,

“Such assemblies were deemed illegal by the Civil Administration, and the IDF attempted to break up the crowds by firing rubber bullets at the protesters. The protesters scattered as the IDF closed off exit roads and began making arrests, but many of the youthful protesters retaliated by throwing rocks at the Israeli soldiers…”

At this point, the confrontations between protesters and the occupying forces quickly became violent.  Despite this unfortunate turn of events, the initial peaceful approach espoused by the protesters rendered the First Intifada more productive in the long-term for the cause of Palestinian liberation than the violent, Second Intifada, which served largely to increase the hatred and distrust, in addition to incurring thousands of casualties on both sides.

However, during the Second Intifada, peaceful mass protests did take place in the village of Bil’in – and continued for over three years – against the Israeli wall, which was being built illegally on Palestinian land. In addition, Palestine has continued a decades-long tradition of non-violent resistance through art, museums, poetry, rap, and hunger strikes, among other tactics. Despite the fact that these actions receive little attention in the Western press, they play a critical role in maintaining the morale, and ideological focus, of Palestine's non-violent movement.

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In addition, there are many positive indicators that suggest that this could be the opportune moment for civil disobedience in the history of the conflict. Under challenging circumstances, President Mahmoud Abbas has shown himself to be an eager partner for peace. The violent Palestinian elements exemplified by Hamas were decimated during the Israeli offensive this summer, their strategy for Palestinian liberation discredited. On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Netanyahu is widely regarded as a right-wing extremist, and will face considerable opposition in the upcoming elections, perhaps by Israel’s more moderate Minister of Justice, Tzipi Livni. 

I would also argue that public opinion on and in Israel is shifting.  The logic of the colonial state – that allows it to drive indigenous people from their lands, to imprison them in small, closed off, and tightly-controlled enclaves, to periodically level their entire civil infrastructure through bombing campaigns, to deny them the right to vote or to participate in the political process in any way, to explicitly deny them equal rights before the law, and then to maintain, nevertheless, that this state is a democracy – this logic is anachronistic and absurd.

And while the ideological shift required for non-violence must take place organically in the hearts of Palestinians and Israelis alike, the US also wields considerable diplomatic influence over global public opinion on the issue.

IT SEEMS TO ME that one of the United States’ greatest stumbling blocks with regard to Palestine is that acknowledging the validity of Palestinian suffering forces us to turn an uncomfortable mirror on own our fraught history.  The US and Israel share wonderful things: prosperity, freedom of speech and religion, democratic government.  But those privileges are asymmetrically available to our people. We are both settler countries whose promise of freedom and democracy is predicated on the expulsion and erasure of native peoples (Manifest Destiny, Zionism). That is not a legacy that can be easily atoned for. Perhaps, before we can be a legitimate critic of Israel, the United States must do more to redress our own decimation of native peoples, whether by signing the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or by prioritizing further settlements, such as the landmark agreement reached last month between the Obama Administration and the Navajo Nation.

In fact, on Monday, October 13, the United States will take a federal holiday to celebrate Columbus Day, a commemoration of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the Americas.  However for Native Americans, this event and its aftermath were cataclysmic, initiating centuries of genocide for their people and forced removal from their lands.  Perhaps, as the Seattle City Council recently voted to do, the US federal government should rename the second Monday of October “Indigenous People’s Day.”  (The Palestinian corollary to this, following Israeli Independence Day on May 14, 1948, is observed on May 15, and known as Yawm An-Nakba, “Day of the Catastrophe.”)

"We are both settler countries..."

Such a ground-breaking US shift – to publicly recognize the parallel (and immoral) foundations of our own national charter – would legitimize our critique of Israeli incursions into Palestinian land, and would signal to Palestinians that the US is a credible and impartial mediator. It would authenticate future US affirmations that if the Palestinians remain non-violent, we will not allow the Israeli government to act with impunity.

It is important to note that in such a context of moderate US and Israeli leadership, Palestinian leaders must also emphasize that opposition to Israeli policies is not an opposition to Jews.  Anti-Semitism is a very real pathology in the Arab World, just as prejudice against Arabs is in Israel and Islamophobia is in the US. And just as Palestinians need a guarantee that Israel will not resort to violence, so too does Israel need one from the Palestinians, even if the arms brought to bear by both sides in the conflict are hardly comparable.

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AS THE ENDLESS diplomatic impasse indicates, no piece of paper signed by two leaders is likely to solve the problem. The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be the work of thousands of ordinary people on both sides, as we saw this summer from the West Bank to Tel Aviv, marching in defense of each other’s right to exist. Unpopularly, this must, of course, include Israel, which, despite the unjust premise of its founding, exists now too, and the language of genocide thrown around (by both sides) with regard to it is counterproductive.

Thus with an optimal combination of "sympathetic conditions" – namely a charismatic Palestinian leader committed to non-violence (such as Abbas), a moderate Israeli government committed to a two-state solution, US international and domestic leadership, and most importantly, a sustained, integrated, grassroots organizing campaign by the Palestinian people and their Israeli allies – I believe that Palestinian independence, and the radical contention of regional peace, may be possible.

The views expressed are the author's own.

Georgia Travers
Georgia is a recent graduate of Dartmouth College interested in civil rights, entrepreneurship and foreign policy. She speaks fluent Arabic and French and lived for the past year and a half in Lebanon and Oman.
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