Non-violence as an alternative

By Atul Aneja

How effective non-violence will be in the Palestinian context is uncertain given Israel’s track record.

THE RECENT visit to the Palestinian territories by Arun Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, has stirred a debate among Palestinians looking for alternative methods of agitation to achieve self-rule. With the Israeli Government distancing itself from a dialogue, and making clear its intent to quell armed resistance through the use of force, Palestinians are beginning to take a fresh look at non-violent action as advocated by Mr. Arun Gandhi. Many war-weary Palestinians, therefore, paid considerable attention to his appeal for passive resistance as an alternative to violent struggle.

During his speeches, Mr. Gandhi, who heads the M.K. Gandhi Institute For Non-Violence in Tennessee, stressed that so great was the asymmetry of power that Palestinians were in no position to free themselves from Israel by using force.

Despite the attention Mr. Gandhi received, opinion on the efficacy of non-violent action in the Palestinian context is mixed. More so since it is expected that Israel will not hesitate to use brute force to prevent a non-violent movement from taking root.

Many Palestinians point to the case of Rachel Corrie, an American citizen, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer during a peaceful protest. Similarly, the Israeli army earlier this year killed British photojournalist and peace activist Tom Hurndall who was on an assignment in the Rafah area, close to the Egyptian border with Gaza. Mr. Hurndall was associated with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) that advocates non-violent methods of resistance against Israeli occupation.

Illustrating the Israeli attitude towards non-violent protests, a study by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, said that from the beginning of the first Intifada in 1987 until the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 — a period when the Palestinian mass uprising was mainly peaceful — Israeli forces and settlers killed more than 1,160 Palestinian civilians.

Expressing reservations on the success of conventional non-violence, Amira Hass wrote in the Israeli daily, Haaretz, that Israeli society was unlikely to be moved by the death of a few hundred Palestinians taking recourse to non-violent action.

Besides, she asserted that there existed “a complex web of interests” which had a stake in the existence and expansion of Israeli settlements on the Palestinian land. “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.”

Nevertheless, a large number of supporters of the Palestinian movement agree that non-violence could emerge as the nucleus around which the fractured Palestinian society could regroup. “It cannot be guaranteed that non-violence would be successful but choosing and implementing a national non-violent strategy for full community participation can be useful within Palestinian society, in mobilising international support and public opinion,” Adam Shapiro, a peace activist with the ISM told The Hindu .

Some Palestinian community leaders who are familiar with the non-violent methods of struggle, and are involved in training people in the art of passive agitation have expressed similar views.

Sami Awad, Director of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, which conducts courses in non-violent struggle told Al Jazeera television that the most of his training focusses on strengthening solidarity among Palestinians themselves, particularly in dealing with internal disputes and disagreements.

He pointed out that following Mr. Gandhi’s visit, there has been a surge of interest among Palestinians about non-violent resistance, and all his courses had been oversubscribed.

The success of non-violent agitation in unifying Palestinians was demonstrated during last month’s mass hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israel’s Ashkelon Jail. The prisoners’ demands for mandatory visiting rights, better sanitary conditions, public telephones and an end to strip searches had a powerful impact among the Palestinians. Most Palestinians could readily identify with the inmates. In the Palestinian territories it is difficult to find a single family which does not have at least one of its members either serving or having served a prison term.

Conscious of the opportunities and formidable impediments ahead, there have been suggestions within the ISM that aggressive non-violent “direct action” might work provided the liberal stream of Israeli citizenry, protected by Israeli laws, also participate in the movement.

That process, however, is likely to be time-consuming because of the domination of right-wing sentiments among Israelis in recent years.


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