Palestinians and nonviolence

If the Palestinians would just halt their attacks, the Israelis will finally end the occupation, I am told often.  

That assumes that Palestinians have never tried nonviolence tactics. But the reality is that Satyagraha, or the movement of nonviolence resistance inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1919 to gain social and political reforms, has been used and continues to be used by Palestinians.  

In fact, satyagraha has been used in the occupied territories in the form of school and commercial strikes, protest advertisements and condemnations in the daily papers, and boycotts of Israeli goods throughout much of the 36 years of Israeli occupation.  

Passive resistance has continued throughout this uprising for freedom. Consider recent nonviolent demonstrations by Palestinians and international supporters, including Israelis, to protest the new Israeli wall that is cutting far into the West Bank and causing undue hardship for Palestinian families.  

There are also groups like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), consisting of Palestinian and international activists, who have raised awareness of the Palestinian struggle to end Israeli occupation through nonviolent means. ISM activists have defied the Israeli army by helping ambulances get through to sick Palestinians and they tried to bring food to the besieged in the Church of the Nativity a few years back.  

There is Mustapha Barghouti, director of the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute in Ramallah. A community leader and advocate of nonviolence, Dr Barghouti once wrote: “The existence of this movement demonstrates the Palestinians’ commitment to real peace and democratic values.”  

Just this past week, hundreds of Palestinian workers blocked access to the Erez industrial zone to protest lengthy security controls which cost the life of one of their colleagues who was crushed to death the previous day.  

Nonviolence has, in fact, been used throughout Palestinian and Arab history. The famous strike of 1936 against the British, as well as the Arab world’s boycott of Israel, are two prominent examples.  

Sadly, the Israeli government hasn’t appreciated nonviolence measures. During the demonstrations against the wall, live gunfire was used by the Israeli army, resulting in the killing of an Israeli activist. American Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer for trying to prevent home demolitions. British Tom Hurndall was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier while shepherding young Palestinian children out of the line of fire. Barghouti was brutally beaten during a visit to Jerusalem a couple years ago.  

And while the media have reported about months of “quiet” for Israelis, the Palestinians have continued to be killed or have had their homes demolished.  

The definition of “quiet” has raised valid questions about the value of Palestinian humanity in our own media. But assuming that “quiet” is defined by tranquillity for Israelis, a question needs to be asked. The Israeli occupation is in its 36th year, and 27 of these years have been marked by nonviolent uprising. Why didn’t the Israelis withdraw during the 27 years of relative “peace”?  

The reality is that until violence visited Israelis on their own doorsteps, there was little concern about their suffering neighbours next door. The Israelis unwittingly rewarded Palestinian violence by only acknowledging that a withdrawal is necessary when Israelis have become victims. Even the sudden announcement by Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon that he will evacuate Israeli settlements in Gaza is viewed as a victory for Hamas, because it was their military operations that drove this announcement. These facts obviously make it difficult for nonviolence advocates.  

Still, Palestinians should consider building on a long history of nonviolence by adopting it on a more massive scale. Among the many reasons that Palestinian advocates of nonviolence continue their work:  

– Nonviolence would secure more international support  

– It would demonstrate that Palestinians will not play into the dehumanised stereotype made popular by pro-Israeli spokespersons. Palestinian society has withstood brutality and daily humiliation. Most have overcome amazing odds to be contributing members in the world. This is the true face of the Palestinians.  

– The average Palestinian can comfortably take part in such a movement. Right now, action is conducted by a few, but repercussions are felt by all.  

– It would save the lives of this and future generations. Each suicide bombing has become an invitation to kill more Palestinians.  

Undoubtedly, legitimate armed struggle as sanctioned under international law will continue to be supported by the overwhelming majority of Palestinians. But there is also a long history of satyagraha that needs to be acknowledged.