Dr. Gandhi in the Holy Land

Ramallah – The firetruck at the edge of the football pitch was being used to spray water on the gathering crowd. It was hot in midday Ramallah, but there were a few vendors from Rukab’s ice cream milling about in traditional clothes. Women were walking down the hillside towards the political rally with pictures of the dead. The Palestinians were waving the national flag as the loudspeakers were blaring Arabic music in anticipation of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson. In the world’s longest running international relations chess match known as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Dr. Gandhi’s visit left a ripple. He told the Palestinians not to respond to Israeli aggression and to set their own agenda. The night before he had quoted Napoleon saying, “the general who holds the initiative wins the war.”

As Dr. Arun Gandhi took to the stage with the Mufti of Jerusalem, a representative from the Greek Orthodox Church and others from the Palestinian Authority and human rights organizations behind him, the audience had reached over 5,000. He came with a message of non-violence, as he had done the night before at the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, and told the crowd, “Freedom is our birthright.”

The crowd had arrived on buses from the villages throughout the West Bank in support of the prisoner’s hunger strike for better conditions that was closing in on its second week. Earlier in the month, activists had marched through the West Bank from Jenin to Jerusalem in a Freedom March.

Dr. Gandhi, head of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in the United States, told the crowd that in this Holy Land where Moses, Jesus and Mohammed roamed, Jews and Arabs needed to learn to live together and that they should learn from South Africa and India.

Gandhi spoke about how his grandfather had been politicized by the 1919 massacre in Amritsar, India when General Dyer’s British troops fired into a protesting crowd and killed over 300 people. General Dyer had ordered medical personnel not to treat the injured for 72 hours. Non-British people were ordered by troops to crawl on the sidewalks and were whipped publicly. Mohandas Gandhi later said, “We cannot do to the British, what they did to us. Let us liberate them from their colonialism.”

Mahatmi Gandhi had originally been invited to Palestine in 1931 when stories of his non-violent methods in resisting the British had reached the Middle East.

Dr. Gandhi told the crowd that they should not protest violently, that they needed to be better than their oppressors if they wanted to establish real change. Instead they needed to channel their anger into a popular non-violent struggle that had long term objectives.

He cited further examples of non-violent resistance such as when the protesting German spouses of Jewish prisoners won the release of their partners from a Berlin prison after the Nazi troops refused to fire on them. He also gave a Norwegian example of how teachers had refused to implement the Nazi curriculum.

Dr. Gandhi’s visit came as South African law professor John Dugard, the special rapporteur for the United Nations on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territories wrote in a report to the UN General Assembly that there is “an apartheid regime”in the territories “worse than the one that existed in South Africa.”

This was also the week that Israel announced 1,500 new housing units in West Bank settlements despite all the talk of the Gaza withdrawal. With the US led Roadmap to Peace dead in its tracks, the facts on the ground shifting towards Israeli expansionism in the West Bank and all the supporting infrastructure that it entails, over 4,000 dead Palestinians and Israelis since the outbreak of violence in October 2000, some believe there is a vacuum building in how to respond effectively to the Occupation.

After the assassination of Hamas leaders Sheikh Yassin and Abdel Rantisi earlier this year, Israel has continued to beat down violent forces in the territories and expand its holdings in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The ground has shifted so far from even the Camp David Accords that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Likud faction is openly engaged in a land grab with tacit US support. Despite the recent International Court of Justice decision condemning Israel’s construction of the Separation Wall, and the Supreme Court’s decision to reroute part of the wall which runs through Palestinian territory, there is still wide ranging and legitimate evidence to suggest that Israel has effectively annexed the southern West Bank south of Jerusalem, is expanding its territory in Jerusalem and has engaged in further land confiscation through methods including home demolitions, taking over territory for bypass roads, new settlement construction and infrastructure development to service the expansion.

In the name of upholding Israeli security, they have solidified the Occupation on the ground through the use of bombs, tanks, bulldozers, movement restrictions, construction of the Separation Wall and through coercive methods of information gathering from collaborators.

It came as a surprise to many this week when Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, responding to the fallout from the International Court of Justice decision on the Separation Wall, recommended that Israel consider adopting the Fourth Geneva Convention which outlines responsibilities under international law for an Occupying power of a civilian population under its control. If Israel proceeded with the Attorney General’s recommendation, there would be greater enforcement mechanisms for violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law. Israel still contends that it is not an Occupying force because the international community never officially recognized Egyptian and Jordanian rule over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and as such, is not violating any international agreements it has signed on to.

Dr. Gandhi spoke often of the civil rights movement in the United States and the Apartheid system in South Africa in the context of the 37 year Israeli Occupation. Dr.Gandhi’s own father spent fifteen years in jails in South Africa fighting against apartheid.

“The first intifada was a better success because it involved the whole Palestinian population and it brought the masses to the streets,” said Mohammed Alatar, leader of the US group Palestinians for Peace and Democracy and one of the organizers of Dr.Gandhi’s trip with East Jerusalem principal Terry Boulata and another Ramallah based peace group formed after the International Court of Justice decision regarding the Separation Wall at The Hague.

The night before, a person in the audience at the Ambassador Hotel welcomed Dr. Gandhi’s message and said, “When you combine the power of popular non-violent resistance with the enforcement of international law, it can be very effective in bringing about change.”