The need to assert non-violence in the Palestinian movement

Violent tactics might make some on both sides feel good, but they produce little political progress

A runner during the Palestine eighth international Marathon in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. AP
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A terrible and tragic drama is playing out across Israel and Palestine. It is a dance of death with Israelis and Palestinians engaged, each in their own way, in destructive violence.

The US media has focused on the 14 Israelis killed in recent weeks. But Palestinians have disproportionately been the victims of violence with more than 70 killed in the past few months and many more wounded, as Israeli forces have conducted night raids into Palestinian villages and responded to protesters with live fire. During this same time, hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested and detained, many without charges.

One could rattle off the Israeli provocations – from land theft and seizures of Palestinian homes to nightly acts of violence by Israeli settlers – or the Palestinian stabbings or shootings of Israelis at bus stops or check points. But whatever the provocations or intentions, nothing good will come from this violence. Nothing ever does.

If we should have learnt anything from this conflict, it is that just as Palestinian violence has not ended the Israeli occupation or its repression, nor has more Israeli repression or violence ended the Palestinians’ resistance to the occupation. If anything, the violence has produced the opposite. During the past several decades, the occupation has intensified and Israeli politics have become so hardline that it is impossible to even imagine a governing coalition that would be inclined to act with justice toward Palestinians. At the same time, the brutality and acquisitiveness of the occupation has hardened Palestinian attitudes, strengthened extremist currents and driven some to carry out violent acts of desperation.

Compounding this tragic dance of death are those who cheer the violence or seek to justify it. During this past bloody week, some Arab commentators praised the spate of Palestinian attacks on Israelis calling them “heroic acts of resistance", gloating that the killings had caused the Israelis to “cower in fear”. Supporters of Israel, on the other hand, applauded the repression, urging more forceful measures to “crack down” on Palestinians. Some called for more mass arrests or intensified settlement development, arguing that only tougher measures would put an end to the violence. Both views are dead wrong.

But it continues, with no lessons learnt and the behaviours of both sides playing into the fears of the other, setting the stage for yet another round of anger, revenge and violence.

During the second intifada, I warned that because violence was a dead end (literally), a new strategy was needed – a strategy that defines a goal and then develops a series of tactics that will lead to that goal. I understood that Palestinian anger was real and justified. But revenge is not a strategy. It might make some feel momentary satisfaction, but history has demonstrated that because the occupier has a monopoly on force, when it responds, it does so disproportionately, taking hundreds of lives for each one lost.

Violence begets more violence. One Palestinian leader noted to me: “When we use stones, they shoot us. When we use guns, they bring heavy weapons. And when we fire rockets, they bomb us with jets.” The lesson: when the tactics used don’t advance your goal, they do not constitute a strategy.

Back then, I also noted that Palestinian leadership also had no discernable strategy. Calls for a new UN resolution would never provide a solution because the US, for reasons of domestic politics, would block it. Relying on the EU was also pointless because the EU was weak and indecisive and had proven itself incapable of acting independently. The Russians, Chinese and the “non-aligned” might be counted on to pass resolutions denouncing the occupation, but because they had no interest in a direct confrontation with the US, their resolutions weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. And appeals to international law or “legitimacy” were hollow since there was no enforcement mechanism in place.

Revenge isn’t a strategy, but neither is complaining about injustice or passing toothless resolutions. Israel will not change by itself, nor will the US or the UN. Therefore, Palestinians must identify what they can change and lay out a path to produce that change. That’s the definition of a strategy.

Martin Luther King once observed that when confronting a more powerful foe, one must never play into their strength. Instead, use “jiu-jitsu” by turning their power into a weakness. What I proposed then and propose again is a mass non-violent resistance campaign. Imagine the power of a peaceful march of tens of thousands of unarmed, non-rock throwing Palestinians converging on Jerusalem saying: “Let my people pray.” Or marching from the refugee camps saying: “Let my people go home.”

Palestinians have tried such an approach in the past, for example, at Al Aqsa in July 2017. And instances of nonviolent resistance are in evidence across Palestine on a weekly basis. What is needed is to grow and sustain such an effort, making it the new definition of Palestinian resistance. It will require the combined support of the Palestinian leadership acting to project this new strategy and imposing the necessary discipline to control any counter-productive violence.

Consider how it would play out. The Israeli hardliners are likely to attempt to provoke violence. They may shoot demonstrators and make more arrests. But if the non-violence continues, it will put the Israeli government in a bind that neither their military might, nor their hasbara campaigns will be able to conquer. They won’t be able to claim victimhood. And they will not be able to defeat an empowered Palestinian constituency. Such a campaign will have a transformative impact on Israeli and US politics. That’s the strength of non-violence. It turns the tables, making the powerful weak and the oppressed stronger.

It will no doubt be hard to do. But it should be tried because what’s been done to date isn’t working and a new approach is desperately needed.

Published: April 18, 2022, 2:00 PM