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Palestinian Nonviolence: Would It Work?

31 May 2002

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has settled into a predictable routine. For the leaders of each side it is tantamount to normalcy; neither Sharon nor Arafat have offered any forward-looking plan to move beyond the impasse.

The Israeli occupation continues. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offers the Palestinians hope that someday they ll have their own partial state, one with Israel still in control of population centers and strategic checkpoints. He not only believes that the Palestinians will accept what is obviously unacceptable, but that, in the meanwhile, they ll patiently accept their current situation.

A tiny minority within the Palestinian community responds to this dead-end situation with suicide bombings aimed at Israeli civilians. The Israelis retaliate with military incursions into Palestinian neighborhoods. This further enrages the Palestinians who send off more suicide bombers. And this leads - surprise! surprise! - to more Israeli incursions. The Israeli military has not been able to stop the bombings, though it has wreaked havoc on Palestinian life. The bombers have not sent the Israeli's fleeing into the sea, though it has made life in Israel frightening. This can go on forever and likely will unless new leadership, on both sides, emerges with a positive vision of peace and reconciliation that decisively breaks the cycle of ritualized-vengeance that drives this bloody conflict.

How can the two sides reverse direction and start looking towards the future? For the Israelis, the answer is obvious (even to many Israelis) though not easy. Declare the occupation over; recognize a Palestinian State including East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza; announce a quick time-line for dismantling the West Bank settlements; and, on this basis, offer negotiations to settle other differences.

An Israeli proposal such as this would likely incite civil strife with hard-line Jewish rejectionists. But there are Israelis willing to take the risk. What they need from the Palestinians is a total cessation of terrorism and violence. The Palestinians, in other words, have the power to make or break this kind of Israeli initiative. Waiting in the wings is Sharon s rival for power, Bibi Netanyahu. He proposes to ethnically cleanse the West Bank of all Palestinians a catastrophe for both Palestinians and Israelis.

What of the Palestinians? Their disgust with the existing leadership is palpable. Yasser Arafat s great accomplishment is his survival. Under attack by Israel, he becomes the symbol of Palestinian aspirations and, hence, is untouchable. Mere survival is no longer sufficient, however. Without a vision that offers his people a solution, Arafat has ceded power to the terrorists and suicide bombers who are perceived as at least doing something. Like Netanyahu, the Palestinian terrorists believe in the politics of riddance, that they somehow can make the other side disappear from history.

The Palestinians have one bold option that can break this futile violence. That option is nonviolent resistance. In a previous column I wrote that the Palestinians have never tried this option, but a number of readers informed me that I was wrong. In 1983 Mubarak Awad, an American- educated Palestinian with a doctorate in counseling, returned to Jerusalem, where he was born, and started a nonviolent movement. Through his efforts, the first Palestinian intifada had a small, experimental nonviolent component that incorporated acts of reconciliation with Israeli Jews with nonviolent direct action against the Israeli occupation.

Awad s nonviolence was not embraced by Palestinian leaders. They did not rally to his defense when, in June 1988, he was expelled by Yitzak Shamir s Likud government -- one of the many Israeli mistakes that has led to the current violence. Or maybe it wasn t a mistake. The Likud Party is opposed to a Palestinian state. Perhaps Shamir feared that Awad s nonviolence was the most likely way for the Palestinians to achieve their dream of statehood.

Fourteen years later, Awad still offers the best, and perhaps the only, solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His ideas draw inspiration from India and the American civil rights movement: marches, demonstrations, strikes and civil disobedience. I can imagine Palestinians nonviolently occupying settler land, planting olive trees, and declaring it Palestinian territory. Or Palestinians nonviolently surrounding Israeli checkpoints or blocking roads to West Bank settlements. How would Israel react? Possibly there would be brutality and casualties, though far fewer than in the current climate of terrorism and retaliation. Television now has a global reach and the whole world would be watching.

In an April essay, Palestinians Need to Adopt Nonviolent Strategy , Awad wrote, The Israelis know well how to fight an armed antagonist, yet they have little understanding of how to deal with massive nonviolent resistance. They expect and, in fact, need for Palestinians to be either submissive or violent. The violence, Awad notes, has not worked, and submission is intolerable. Nonviolence, it would seem, is the only alternative.

What Awad is promoting is not just new tactics. Nonviolence flows out of a moral vision, it can not be used as a Trojan Horse, to soften the opposition for another wave of violence. In a paper written in November 2000, Awad and a colleague, Abdul Aziz Said, described Eight Steps to Israeli Palestinian Peace. The steps include Apology and Forgiveness and Recognition and Acceptance. Each side would have to acknowledge and ask forgiveness for the hurt done to the other; each side would have to also recognize the humanity of the other. There is precedence for this in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Bits and pieces of the nonviolent vision have worked in countries and communities where the enmity between peoples were as harsh and violent as they are in the Middle East.

Palestinian nonviolence seems a romantic fantasy, an idealistic dream. But perhaps idealism is the most realistic approach at this time; and nonviolence the solution most grounded in reality. I challenge anybody to come up with an equivalent strategy, one that assures Israelis their security and Palestinians their state.

Marty Jezer
Published by © 2002 by Marty Jezer

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