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Palestinians weigh the non-violent option

Lawrence Smallman | 05.09.2004 20:03 | Repression

If Palestinians had adopted a non-violent struggle against Israeli occupation, their conflict would have been over by now, says Mahatma Gandhi's 70-year-old grandson Arun Gandhi.

The director of the Institute for Non-violence in Tennessee and naturalised American citizen visited thousands of people in the occupied territories last week with a simple message: Throwing a brick at a Merkava tank is just a waste of time and energy.

"I don't think Palestine has the economic and military capacity to confront a huge state like Israel, which has not only a powerful military arsenal but powerful friends," he told the crowd at Abu Dis, next to the illegal separation barrier.

But during a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Gandhi also criticised the Israeli Government for continuing to promote anti-Palestinian sentiment.

He observed that Tel Aviv was not using the Holocaust to fight prejudice and hate, but rather to promote anger and a fear of victimisation.

Reaction to visit

His visit proved to be a huge boost for a movement that is already making substantial progress,'s correspondent in Palestine, Khalid Amayreh, said.

"Most Palestinians I have met have nothing but praise for Gandhi. The solidarity he demonstrated and his understanding of Palestinian suffering was truly extraordinary from a well-known public figure."

Amayreh believes many ordinary Palestinians are totally convinced of the strength of passive resistance.

"He won many converts when he spoke to a crowd of thousands next to the separation barrier, and made the analogy with apartheid and the success of non-violent protest in South Africa.

And since the visit, various non-violent resistance movements have reported a surge of requests for training and information.

Preparation and growth

Speaking to on Thursday, the director of Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, Sami Awad, said the demand from Palestinians to learn how to practise passive resistance was greater than his six trainers could provide.

"Currently all our training programmes are oversubscribed. We are also greatly encouraged by attendance from scores of former Fatah Brigades members, who are convinced this is the way to progress after years of fighting in the al-Aqsa Intifada," he said.

According to Awad, the trust's latest two-week course at Qurayat Bani Zaid was attended by a quarter of the village's 2500 inhabitants.

The majority of the training focused on strengthening solidarity among Palestinians themselves, particularly in dealing with internal disputes and disagreements, Awad said.

"About 30% of the course deals with what to do under live fire, a tear gas attack, boycotts, sit-ins, how to organise demonstrations etc."

Current difficulties

Although Awad says he believes all resistance in Palestine will be passive one day, he acknowledges a major frustration.

"Each time a charismatic leader capable of leading non-violent resistance has begun to come to prominence, he has either been expelled or imprisoned. I think the most recent example of this is Marwan Barghuthi.

"The Palestinian Authority needs to modify its approach accordingly. They are our elected leaders, and they really need to take a lead on this," Awad said.

Addressing the same lack-of-leadership issue, Egyptian journalist Khalid Diab writes that the Arab world needs a leader "with the charisma of Nasser in the mould of Gandhi" to make the political and cultural case for peaceful resistance.

"Unfortunately, the only people who have so far made that case are some Arab intellectuals and outsiders".

However, there are signs that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the Fatah leaders, in consultation with the Islamist groups, do appreciate the power of passive resistance.

Certainly at grassroots level, support is growing. Mass protests against the illegal separation barrier and a hunger strike by thousands of prisoners about conditions are the most recent examples.

Condition for success

Based in the US, editor of Tikkun magazine Rabbi Michael Lerner told that non-violent resistance to occupation would have a dramatic effect on support for Israel among the Jewish community in the US, but with one condition.

"Peaceful protest is the only way the Palestinians can ever win. But it will have to be an all or nothing. It cannot be that some sections of the community resist non-violently while others do not.

"Imagine a parallel with Martin Luther King Jr: if blacks had been adopting violent methods at the same time as he was giving speeches in Washington, could he have achieved what he did?"

But a sizeable number of American Jews have their doubts that passive resistance in Palestine can work.

Settlement doubts

Following the death of Rachel Corrie by an Israeli bulldozer, an associate professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, Susannah Heschel, wrote about her views regarding the future of passive resistance.

"Her [Corrie's] death is another crack, a recognition that there is ruthlessness in Israeli actions that leaves no room for radical non-violence."

She wonders if conditions in illegal Jewish settlements have made non-violent Palestinian protest unlikely to succeed.

"Given the radicalisation within the Jewish community in recent years, there is barely any possibility left for a peaceful, non-violent protest on the part of Palestinians … because non-violent protest is predicated on the existence of a conscience within the hearts of the oppressors, and I fear we are losing ours.

Heschel wrote: "Conscience is left no breathing room when racism takes over a society, and support for Israel has become rooted in a horrific Jewish racism toward Palestinians."

Israeli comment

Writing about Gandhi's visit in Haaretz last week, journalist Amira Hass also expressed her doubts about a conventional non-violent resistance working in the occupied territories for two reasons.

She suggests that Israeli society would not be shaken by the deaths of a few hundred Palestinians, nor would it understand that it is the Palestinians' right to develop their own land.

Secondly, she says, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have an interest in all the settlements remaining in place, if not constantly expanding.

"For decades, a complex web of interests has grown. This complex network, combined with the well-known mantra about an existential security risk emanating from the Palestinians ... has made the Palestinian resistance silent to most Israelis.

"Those interested parties will back the army, whatever means it uses to put down any popular struggle."

Lawrence Smallman


Display the following 3 comments

  1. suggestion — Chris
  2. Huh? — Steve B.
  3. Indeed — Krop