Violence in its various forms was and remains the principal permanent characteristic of the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Land of Israel/Palestine since the conflict began in the late 19th century. More precisely, violence was the most prominent attribute of the Arab reaction to the political, material and cultural challenge presented by the Zionist enterprise.
The violence employed by individuals and groups of Palestinian Arabs against the Jewish settlers was a response to a sense of threat projected by an immigrant society that was culturally foreign and possessed an advanced organizational, economic and technological capability. Moreover, the Zionist enterprise had the goal of turning the entire country into a Jewish state, with the threat–that over the years appeared to be a self-fulfilling prophecy–to dislodge the Arabs from their material and spiritual assets.
Arab violence toward Jews generally involved sporadic, temporary and uncontrolled popular uprisings, alongside a routine of murders carried out by individuals acting on their own. Together they evolved into a mode of violent activity devoid of any distinction between target categories and directed at civilians. A considerable portion of the more extended violent Palestinian Arab outbreaks also involved internal bloodletting; this derived from traditional societal tensions that even the struggle against the Zionist enemy could not stop.
In the Palestinian collective memory, the extended violence directed against the Jews became a legitimate weapon within the context of a just struggle to protect the basic rights of individuals and of a people. The violent conflict to defend Palestine and its Arab nature against the Zionist invaders, whether defined religiously as a “jihad” or in a national-secular sense as armed popular struggle, took on a peremptory moral significance that shaped the consciousness of generation upon generation within Palestinian society. Thus Sheikh Ez a-Din al-Qassam, who pioneered the fulfillment of jihad as an obligation for all Muslims, became both symbol and paragon for the secular and religious Palestinian resistance movements alike, as they raised the banner of total and uncompromising struggle against Israel.
Violence and terrorism were always presented by Palestinians as the weapon of the weak and as a response to aggression by foreign invaders who were supported by international forces. In the absence of the capacity to directly confront Israeli security forces, the strategy of armed struggle that was selected featured political and propaganda objectives that bore unmistakable characteristics of terrorism against innocent civilians–who were defined as part of the “Zionist military entity.”
The Palestinian national movement has adhered to a violent mode of action since the mandatory period, despite the failures and disasters that have befallen it. At the receiving end, violent outbreaks by Palestinians honed the existential fears of the Zionist founding fathers and drove them to develop, in any way possible, the political, organizational and military capacities of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) and then the State of Israel, in anticipation of an all-out and decisive confrontation. Indeed, non-discriminate Arab violence helped develop and rationalize the power components of Zionism, and to base them on the moral ethos of “defense”, “purity of arms” and the ultimate necessity of the use of force.
Palestinian Arab violence against Jews and Israelis usually featured an unbridgeable gap between goals and means that inevitably led to self-destruction. With the exception of the 1929 riots, when the Yishuv was in real danger, Arab violence and terrorism were not able to strike a mortal blow at the Zionist enterprise. Nor, with the exception of the invasion by Arab standing armies in 1948, did the State of Israel ever confront an existential threat by an Arab military coalition. But in historical perspective, the violence invoked by generations of Palestinian Arabs emerges as a disaster for their own national interests. Even when, in the short term, it appeared that violence had yielded political fruit, such as the 1939 White Paper or the opening of a dialogue between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1988 during the first Intifada, in the longer term the Palestinian national leadership failed the historic test of distinguishing between vision a! nd reality, and repeatedly missed the opportunity to achieve part of its objectives.
Nor did the Oslo process bring Palestinian society to recognize the need to abandon violence and turn to peacemaking, if only in accordance with a calculation of costs and benefits. Despite bitter historical experience, the Palestinian leadership continued to rely on the support of the Arab and Muslim world in its struggle with Israel, and to anticipate its assistance in internationalizing the conflict. True, the culmination of the Oslo process bitterly disappointed most of those Palestinians who supported it from the start. But in the final analysis the al-Aqsa Intifada will probably not be remembered by many Palestinians as their greatest hour, and particularly not as the greatest hour of the Palestinian Authority headed by Yasir Arafat. The latter was supposed to serve as a responsible national leadership, but instead acted as a service provider to local entrepreneurs of violence and terrorism, and adhered to unrealistic sacred ideals rather than trying to change them.
Palestinian violence and terrorism, which in the current Intifada reached new heights in terms of frequency of attacks and the scope of murder of Israelis, are more disastrous than ever, first of all for Palestinians themselves. Given the extent of loss of life caused both to them and to Israel, the economic and institutional destruction they have brought upon themselves, to say nothing of the damage to Israeli public trust in any sort of agreement with them and the Israeli public’s inclination to rally round right wing forces–it remains only to contemplate how far along the Palestinians could have been today in their drive to realize their goals if, prior to and during the first Intifada, they had adopted a strategy of civil disobedience and non-violence from the school of thought championed by Gandhi and his Palestinian disciple, Mubarak Awad.
Dr. Avraham Sela is Chair of the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.