Palestinians need a Gandhi-like figure to front non-violent protests against Israeli rule

Israeli soldiers are trained to kill and Palestinians to see them as brutal oppressors. It will take a powerful resistance leader to overcome the cycle of dominance and subordination, writes Hussein Ibish

Palestinians carry an injured protester during clashes with Israeli forces along the border with the Gaza strip east of Jabalia on May 18, 2018.  / AFP / MOHAMMED ABED

More than 60 Palestinians, mainly unarmed protesters, were killed by Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border on Monday, bringing the total to more than 100 since the end of March. The question echoes: why did Israel rely mainly and immediately on lethal force against unarmed protesters?

Why didn't Israel use its sophisticated non-lethal crowd control techniques and instruments? Why didn't Israelis try to defuse the situation between March 30 and May 14 or do anything to mitigate the loss of life, which instead intensified, as Hamas obviously hoped?

These questions reveal a failure to understand the structural nature of the occupation and the essential relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
Israelis hate to recognise it and Palestinians also usually shy away from the truth, both preferring to pathologise each other's supposed essential nature.

Yet this relationship is inherent in the very architecture of the occupation. These tragedies have happened before and they will keep happening as long as the occupation persists.

That has nothing to do with culture, politics or personalities on either side. Change all of those – or just imagine switching both sides, with Palestinians in the role of occupiers and Israelis as the occupied people – and each would adopt the role that the occupation scripts for them.

Each side blames the political culture and attitudes of the other for such tragedies. Palestinians cast Israeli troops as racists and brutal oppressors. Israelis claim that the dead Palestinians are mostly, if not all, terrorists or pawns manipulated by terrorists.

Each side ascribes to the other what the pro-Israel American lawyer Alan Dershowitz has cynically called a "dead baby strategy".

Palestinians claim that Israeli soldiers are happy to kill unarmed Arabs, including children. Israelis insist that Palestinians are trying to force and trick them into shooting unarmed people, including children.

Both are preposterous caricatures. No Israeli soldier, except the occasional psychopath, wakes in the morning plotting how many Palestinians they will be able to murder that day. No Palestinian, again except a few psychopaths, plots how to sacrifice their children or to take a fatal bullet while protesting unarmed at a border.

Yet both are plainly willing to do just that. Why?

The role of Israelis in the occupied territories, whether they admit it to themselves or not, is to discipline and control others through force – and ultimately deadly force, including against unarmed people – because the occupation cannot be enforced otherwise.

Israel has three choices: it could leave the occupied territories to their own devices; it could seriously negotiate a mutually acceptable peace agreement with Palestinians; or, for whatever reasons, it can maintain the occupation into the foreseeable future.

Israeli society has consciously and deliberately made the third choice, largely because it is not willing to make territorial sacrifices in East Jerusalem and the West Bank that would be required to end the conflict with the Palestinians.

Therefore, Israeli troops are transformed, structurally and inexorably, into the killers of unarmed people.

If the Israelis did not use lethal force in such moments in what is obviously a punitive manner and as a deterrent to larger and more sustained protests and a potential breach of the border with Gaza or the West Bank by any group of Palestinians with whatever intentions, the occupation would quickly collapse.

A few thousand soldiers cannot exercise a thorough regime of discipline and control over millions of people without being willing, when necessary, to kill them to reinforce the fundamental relationship of dominance and subordination.

Palestinians, by contrast, from time to time will inevitably rise up against Israeli rule. They might do it in an armed or unarmed manner, using terrorism or non-violence, or something in between. The essential Israeli response initially will be the same: they will be killed.

Both the most recent and the earliest history of the Israeli state demonstrates this irrefutably.


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Recent weeks, however, seem to suggest that if Palestinians ever used a massive and organised campaign of genuinely non-violent protest against Israeli rule – willing to die unarmed and without ever threatening, in any way, to harm, let alone kill, anybody else (a new and improved definition of "martyrdom") – the occupation would most probably fall apart.

Yet Hamas cannot lead a non-violent movement or even think a non-violent thought. Hamas leaders have been trumpeting bloodcurdling threats recently while simultaneously babbling about Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Non-violent is not the same as unarmed and even if it were, everyone can see that Hamas remains, at heart, a profoundly violent, malevolent organisation.

But if Palestinians can find a resistance leadership that is genuinely non-violent in the manner of Gandhi and launched such a campaign, the occupation would certainly collapse.

The structural relationship of dominance and subordination and the violence inherent in the occupation would be exposed in a way that most Israelis and their allies could simply not sustain in the long run.

What would follow isn’t clear, but, everything would utterly change.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National