Ask Palestinians what they think of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. and the answer will most likely be full of admiration and respect for the two activists. Some Palestinians have even memorized the famous phrase, “I have a dreamé” coined by King in his fiery speech in August of 1963.
In the same breath, however, most Palestinians will tell you that they do not have a Gandhi or King of their own nor do they think these men’s ideologies could ever be emulated in the Palestinian resistance movement.
The subject of non-violent resistance has recently become recurrent in Palestinian discourse, mostly among intellectuals, expatriates, politicians and internationals who have come to the Palestinian territories in solidarity with the Palestinian people and in protest of the ongoing Israeli occupation. As Palestinians enter the 17th month of the Palestinian uprising, local and international individuals and groups are thinking up alternative ways to fight the injustices of the occupation without shedding so much blood.
“Our tools of resistance have been wrong,” contends Haidar Abdel Shafi, former Palestinian negotiator and head of the Palestine Red Crescent Society. “It is wrong if we think we can win militarily – it is not realistic.”
But Abdel Shafi does not say that the Intifada must take on completely nonviolent methods, for the simple reason that he believes fire must be fought with fire. “You can fight through armed struggle,” he says. “If an armed settler comes to take your land or home by force you can meet him with arms. This is self-defense.”
He believes, however, that the armed struggle must draw a more direct cause and effect relationship between Israeli actions and the Palestinian response. Self-defense, Abdel Shafi says, must be focused against Israeli actions such as home demolitions, the uprooting of trees and the overall Israeli goal of breaking the Palestinian will. This responsibility falls on the shoulders of the leadership, says the Palestinian personage.
When Abdel Shafi speaks of nonviolence, he speaks in terms of resistance through endurance. “[The leadership] must help the people to remain steadfast,” he says, since the battle will be long and difficult. This entails aiding the Palestinian people economically and with moral support in the face of the Israeli assault.
But Abdel Shafi shuns the suggestion that Palestinian circumstances are comparable to that of the Indians under British colonialism when asked if those same nonviolent methods of civil disobedience could be incorporated into the Palestinian resistance.
“The British were not in India as a colonial occupation,” he notes. “Their goals were economic.” In contrast, Palestinians are fighting a battle for their very survival, he points out. Israeli intentions, implemented through settlement construction and making Palestinians illegal on the land, remain expansionist in nature.
Fateh general secretary in the West Bank Marwan Barghouti also rules out substituting military actions with nonviolent demonstration. “An occupation that is so heavily armed cannot be answered with nonviolence,” he says definitively.
But, he compromises, the Palestinians can and do utilize peaceful means in their struggle against Israeli occupation. “All resistance is legitimate for the Palestinians – strikes, sit- ins and conferences, alongside armed confrontations.”
Historically, the Palestinian revolution has never adopted nonviolent resistance as an ideology. From the start and with the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, Palestinians pledged armed struggle against the usurpation of their land. Even when PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat made his dramatic appearance before the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, he made it clear that if forced, the Palestinians would continue their armed struggle against Israel.
“I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun,” he told the international community. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
With the continuation of Israeli occupation over Palestinian land captured in the 1967 War, Palestinians felt they had no other choice but to resist this occupation, a right enshrined in the Fourth Geneva Convention. As the Palestinian leadership in exile continued to support armed struggle against Israel, some voices emerged inside the occupied territories calling for a less violent approach.
In the early eighties, a soft-spoken Palestinian-Christian by the name of Mubarak Awad began to address Palestinians on the virtues of nonviolent resistance. In 1985, two years before the outbreak of the first Intifada, Awad started the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence. Although Awad’s views found a limited audience among Palestinians, they were never fully implemented.
Israel, however, saw the activist as a threat. In June 1988, Awad was deported and settled in the United States where he set up an organization called Nonviolence International.
Awad’s views did not get the widespread support that he had been hoping for among his fellow Palestinian citizens. Today, Awad attributes this to his people’s lack of knowledge and understanding of nonviolence ideologies. “In the Arab mind, nonviolence is just surrendering to the one who has more power,” he told a Canadian interviewer.
But during the uprising of 1987, there were tangible signs that Palestinians were exercising some of the general concepts of non-violent resistance. The underground leadership of the Intifada called on Palestinians to boycott Israeli goods and work towards self-sufficiency by planting their own gardens. Neighborhood committees popped up throughout the different Palestinian cities, villages and camps, teaching children whose schools had been shut down and showing housewives how to can their own tomatoes, make their own pickles and knit their own sweaters.
But it was in the town of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem that the residents showed the most determination to fight the occupation using nonviolent means. In 1988, the residents not only boycotted Israeli goods, but started a town-wide refusal to pay Israeli taxes. As their civil disobedience continued, Israel raided Beit Sahour, seizing cars, refrigerators, televisions and other properties.
That movement and its tactics never spread to other areas and eventually died off. Its memory, however, has not. As Palestinians and the outside world assess the approaches of the current Intifada, Beit Sahour is an experience that has not been forgotten.
“I think this is a more courageous act than shooting at Gilo [Israeli settlement],” says Italian European Union parliamentary member Louisa Morgantini. “Their act of civil disobedience had a very strong effect in the first Intifada.”
Morgantini does not deny that Palestinians have the right to resist the occupation. However, she feels that shooting, even at Israeli military targets, will not bring about positive results.
“There is no strategy in this Intifada,” she says, mirroring Abdel Shafi’s thoughts. “The Intifada came as a reaction; people were fed up.” She says that the leadership must think in political terms of what could help the struggle, which she adds regretfully, has not happened in this uprising.
Morgantini still expresses hope that nonviolent tactics could eventually take over the guerilla activity prevalent in this Intifada. As part of an international campaign in support of the Palestinians, Morgantini has forced herself through Israeli checkpoints, brought down roadblocks and–along with Israeli peace activists–broken through the blockade around President Yasser Arafat to meet with him in his Ramallah headquarters.
Still, she does not romanticize her actions and knows that the real beneficiary of these protests will be the audience in her own country.
“We know that when we open a roadblock, the Israeli soldiers will come and close it again,” she says realistically. “But we were there and we take this back to our own countries and try to put pressure back home.”
She believes these kinds of supportive activities are important because Palestinians are less at risk when internationals are involved. Israeli soldiers are more wary of shooting live ammunition into a crowd when there are Europeans, Americans or Israelis among the Palestinian protestors.
But she does not blame the current atmosphere on Palestinians alone. She believes that developing a culture of nonviolence is a matter of concern for the whole world–not just Palestinians. At this moment in time, she says, the world is far from this goal. “The culture in Europe and in the US is a culture of war not of peace,” she says.
Besides, she continues, the world demands too much of Palestinians. “Everyone in the world asks of the Palestinians – who are the most oppressed – to be perfect. I don’t ask that.”
Other foreigners engaged in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are more passionate about the option of nonviolent resistance on the ground. In an article published on the website Palestine Chronicle, American writer Paul Larudee says in simple terms why nonviolent resistance should be given a chance in the Palestinian uprising.
“It is not that violence or even certain types of violence are immoral or that nonviolence is somehow nobler. It is that violent resistance plainly is not getting the job done,” he writes. By obeying Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints and producing their identification cards on demand, he says, Palestinians are following the rules laid down by the occupier.
“The power of an occupier, an oppressor or a government is its ability to control a population. In order to do so, the people must consent to be controlled. Once this consent is removed, the occupier is powerless,” Larudee writes.
On the ground, these ideas seem to be taking root within a limited circle. The International Solidarity Movement – a group of international, Israeli and Palestinian activists – come together periodically to protest the ongoing Israeli occupation and to show their support for the Palestinian struggle for freedom. According to their press material, they break through roadblocks, stop tanks, rebuild demolished homes and peacefully protest unjust Israeli measures. Their coordinated actions are based on the idea that without internationals among them, Palestinians would be much more vulnerable to Israeli violence.
But according to some Palestinians, what is needed more than a shift to nonviolent methods of resistance is a reorganization of strategies for this resistance. If this were accomplished, the resistance would develop a life of its own, they say.
“We can tolerate and endure suffering much longer and much better than the Israelis,” says Abdel Shafi confidently. The battle, he argues, is an extended one and Palestinians need better planning to persevere.
“I think the Palestinian people are a miracle,” says Louisa Morgantini. “I don’t understand how they can continue to resist such aggression – how do they not explode.”