Non-Violence Takes Two Sides

Regularly, we hear the same complaint and critique come from many would-be friends of the Palestinian people that, if only the Palestinians would embrace non-violence and abandon armed struggle, their demands would be met. But is that necessarily so?

Such arguments are based on what we see in the press; endless accounts of the horrible violence of the Palestinians versus the (sometimes overly harsh but always justified) reaction of the peace-loving Israelis.

Of course, this ignores all of the history that we don’t see or hear about in this country. In the years after the birth of Israel, the tactic of ‘sumud’ (steadfastness) developed among the Palestinians under Israeli rule. In this conception, every individual Palestinian was to use passive, non-violent resistance to Israeli rule. When the First Intifada began in December 1987, mass non-violent resistance spread throughout the Occupied Territories. There were general strikes, sit-downs, and protests. How did the Israelis respond?

The first Palestinian to be identified by the Israelis as the ‘leader’ of the Intifada, Mubarak Awad, was jailed, deported to the USA, and banned from returning to his homeland. What was his crime? A Quaker, Awad had organized peaceful demonstrations such as planting olive trees.

Consistently, the Israeli military has responded to non-violent demonstrators with violence. We need only remember the fates of non-Palestinian peace activists like Rachel Corrie (American), Tom Hurndall (Briton), and Gil Nima’ati (Israeli), all killed in the past year while participating in non-violent resistance to the Occupation. Hundreds of Palestinians have also died during non-violence demonstrations.

While there is no Palestinian leader today calling for an exclusively non-violent struggle for Palestinian freedom on a level of prestige with King or Gandhi, we must also realize that there is no Israeli leadership willing to listen. King’s non-violent movement succeed not simply because it was non-violent but because white people in the South and throughout the USA were willing to listen; many brave southern politicians like Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen accepted the moral argument for desegregation even if, as Lyndon Johnson noted when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the coming of civil rights could mean the end of their political future. As of the present, there is no Israeli leadership willing to abandon their positions of power to do what seems morally right.

Instead, what we see today is a situation more akin to that of the Deep South fifty, seventy-five, or a hundred years before the successes of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Had mass non-violent resistance spread across the South then, we can, I believe, safely assume that it would have been quickly ended through brute force. Something very like that actually did happen at the end of Reconstruction when campaigns of terror, lynching and horrific violence were launched by the Klan and other white supremacist groups to drive African-Americans out of the political process.

Until the Israelis advance to a receptive state on a par with what the white South had achieved by the 1950’s and 1960’s, I think advising Palestinians to lead non-violent marches is simply an invitation for more repression. A mass campaign launched today using King’s tactics would not meet the success that his movement did. Instead, it would be an open invitation to hundreds if not thousands of Palestinians to go to their deaths. While we should not discourage Palestinians from continuing to use non-violence as a key part of their freedom struggle, we do not need to tell them that this will guarantee their success.

Instead, if we really care about the fates of both peoples, we should be urging the Israelis to listen to the Palestinians and to respond positively to their struggle.