It is a fact that most people in the Palestinian territories are not happy with their current situation. They are tired of Arafat and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). The level of trust in Palestinian politicians is at an all time low. Yet, there are exceptions to the dissatisfaction and sorrow that pervade the occupied territories. Militants, for example, feel gratified that they may have increased their popularity with the Palestinian masses. They have challenged the authority and popularity of the PNA and undermined decades of supremacy asserted by the PLO.
As a general rule, Palestinians rally behind Arafat only when he is under external threat. Today, as Sharon intensifies the Israeli siege, Arafat’s role has been confirmed as the symbol of Palestinian aspirations for independence. The majority of Palestinians do not generally support Hamas or the Islamic Jihad as an alternative to Arafat and the PNA. While some believe that they must fight fire with fire, the Palestinian people know that the militant groups will lead them to further disasters with no tangible results like others have done before them for over half a century.
Unfortunately, while the Palestinian majority in the West Bank and Gaza could be convinced to follow the route of non-violence and civil disobedience, they remain largely unorganized and incapable of spontaneously adopting such a response to the Israeli occupation. Should such organization materialize, the apprehensive masses would still demand proof that such a movement would have a chance of succeeding. These everyday citizens are sitting on the sidelines and are reluctant to participate in the violence. This group, and potentially others, could eventually be convinced to follow non-violent methods because violence, or the call for violence, has not produced any results during the 53 years of dispossession or the last 35 years of occupation.
All we need is a small but strong non-violent group of activists to start engaging in non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. By their example, they would draw others to the movement. A leader of such a group does not have to be, and should not be, a politician; nor should he or she be an alternative to either Arafat or the Islamic militants.
Civil disobedience and non-violent resistance are more contagious than most people think; they are always justifiable by a larger cross section of a nation, and to a much larger and more influential international community. To most Palestinians, non-violent resistance and civil disobedience are more justifiable than violence. Belief in these principles can spread within a short period throughout the Palestinian territories. Add to that movement the peace activists in Israel itself, Arab and Jewish citizens alike, and you will have a viable movement on both sides that can seek common ground peacefully and very effectively. Add to that the international peace activists, especially those in Europe and North American, who are willing to travel at their own expense to participate in supporting such a peace movement, and you will have an unstoppable force that the Israeli government would not dare to fight. Israel and the IDF can only fight with weapons: guns, helicopters, tanks and F-16s. Like most military occupiers throughout the history of the world, they do not know how to handle peaceful demonstrations, nor would they be capable of rationalizing any military action they take against such peaceful protests.
Israel is not unique in its inability to fight peaceful resistance and civil disobedience. We all can learn from the lesson of India when Gandhi organized against the British occupation. We also know how Martin Luther King fought the bigoted white supremacists in the American South, with the help of peace activists of all races from throughout the nation. We know that the entrenched regime of apartheid in South Africa fell not because of the military might of the African National Congress, but because of their peaceful, non-violent resistance (although no one can deny that there were incidents of violence). The white supremacists in America, the British colonialists in India and the apartheid regime in South Africa were not able to respond, and each lost in the face of the patience and perseverance of their opposition.
What can such a movement do in Palestine? The Palestinian people with the encouragement and support of the Israeli and international peace movements can march. They can demonstrate peacefully in the streets of West Bank, Gaza and Israeli towns and cities. They can hold sit-ins and teach-ins. They can send their activists to lie down on the roads and highways that divide the West Bank into the isolated enclaves. They can peacefully march on the illegal Jewish settlements and disrupt the settlers’ lives. They can camp on the lawns of government buildings and disrupt government activities. They can, everyday, target and peacefully disrupt a different part of “normal” Israeli life by disrupting, again peacefully, public utilities, communication, transportation and entertainment. They can make non-violent, peaceful resistance part of Israeli life. These methods will give credence to the demands of the Palestinians. The means will be easily justifiable by all Palestinians, by many Israelis and by most international communities. The movement will eventually attract all of these groups to participate in or defend the movement. After a short period of time, shorter than the life of the (violent) intifada, the Israeli right and the Jewish supremacists will no longer be able to justify their methods, and their arguments can no longer hold water before the world community.
What will the IDF do? Will they sit idle? Of course they will not. They will intimidate, arrest, beat and imprison the peace activists and their leaders, whether they are Palestinian, Israeli or citizens of other nations.
What will the cost be to the Palestinians and to the Israeli public? The cost will definitely be less in terms of lives and property when compared to the cost of the current mindless violent means of the militants, who have played into the hands of Sharon by destroying the intifada with misdirected violence. Even if the cost of the non-violent resistance is the same in the number of lives lost or property destroyed, the Palestinian peace movement will at least have produced some tangible results which the militants so far can not claim to have accomplished. The violence has given Sharon a justification to keep his promise to restore Israeli security, and at the same time has made his actions justifiable in the eyes of America and Jewish communities around the world.
I am convinced, that peaceful, non-violent resistance and civil disobedience will strike terror into the hearts of people like Sharon and the generals of the IDF. Such a scenario would be their worst nightmare. The whispers about such a movement are getting louder. All that needs to happen now is for the whispers to become screams and for the militancy to give way.
Michael S. Ladah is a Friends Boys School graduate (class of 1958). He is the author of “Quicksand, Oil and Dreams: The Story of One of Five Million Dispossessed Palestinians.”