The Palestinian nonviolent movement is as old as the Palestinian liberation
movement itself. As far back as the 1930’s, Palestinians engaged in
nonviolent protests and demonstrations against the British Mandate
authorities. This form of protest peaked with the breakout of the 1987
intifada. That uprising, which was for the most part nonviolent in nature,
brought immediate international recognition to the Palestinian people,
forced Israeli society to recognize Palestinians as a “people” and to
recognize their legitimate leadership, and finally led to the post-Madrid
The failure of that peace process, and particularly the Oslo Accords, was
not due to the means that led to the negotiating table. On the contrary, it
was largely due to the lack of continued mobilization and support by the
Palestinian leadership of the popular Palestinian nonviolent resistance
movement. Nonviolent resistance should have continued as a means of
balancing the imbalance at the negotiating table, where negotiations were
viewed by the leadership as the only way of attaining the legitimate rights
of the Palestinians.
The failure of the peace process led to the breakout of the second intifada
in 2000. Again, Palestinians initially engaged in nonviolent forms of
resistance, but the Israeli military response to these protests was more
brutal and forceful than at any time before or during the occupation. This
convinced some groups within the Palestinian community that only the use of
arms and suicide attacks to balance out the pain being heaped upon
Palestinians would be effective in making the occupation as costly as
possible for the Israeli public.
This attitude, however, combined with the lack of a clear strategy and clear
vision to mobilize the Palestinian population in nonviolent forms of
resistance, emboldened the Israeli government to take full advantage of the
change in the rules of engagement after Sept. 11, 2001, and attempt to
delegitimize the entire Palestinian liberation movement, linking its goals
with the means used to achieve them. The Palestinian armed resistance,
labeled “terrorism” by Israel, was portrayed as the goal of the Palestinian
liberation movement rather than a means to achieve other goals, justified or
The legitimacy of the goals of Palestinian freedom and independence should
not be viewed through the lens of the means used to achieve these goals. The
struggle to end the occupation and establish an independent Palestinian
state does not gain or lose legitimacy if nonviolent means are preferred
over violent means and vice versa. Even with the changes in international
politics and steadily growing voices within the Palestinian community
criticizing and condemning armed resistance, particularly those actions that
target Israeli civilians, the legitimacy of the Palestinian struggle is
embedded in international law, international conventions on human rights and
numerous UN resolutions, up until and including the most recent ruling by
the International Court of Justice regarding Israel’s separation wall.
A more important question deals with the issue of efficacy. Is armed
resistance effective in achieving the legitimate aspirations of the
When discussing armed resistance, Palestinians must recognize both the
internal and international implications of continuing this strategy. The
gross imbalance of power, the unrestrained and brutal actions of the Israeli
military and the change in the direction of world politics have left
Palestinians defenseless and isolated in the face of daily aggression. The
armed resistance, even armed defense, has been effective only in creating
excuses for more Israeli aggression.
But to say that one is ineffective is not to show that the other isn’t. When
it comes to nonviolent resistance, the question most people ask is how do
you nonviolently resist your prison guard when you are in prison? How do you
resist the occupation when you are surrounded by walls and fences? Examples
of nonviolent resistance from across the world highlight one important
factor: Direct confrontation and contact with the enemy is vital to expose
that enemy’s brutality and unjust policies. In Palestine today, however,
Palestinians are trapped in a prison. Going on hunger strike means
absolutely nothing, while protesting and marching means walking around in
circles. So what nonviolent tactics can be used effectively to expose the
occupation and effect its end?
The answer is threefold. First, a strong leadership committed to the
principles of nonviolent resistance and community building must be
established. The initial focus will be on the need to unify Palestinian
communities and re-establish trust between the leadership and the people.
This should be followed by the development of a long-term internal strategy
to build a nonviolent resistance movement on a massive scale.
Secondly, the Palestinian population inside and outside of Palestine must be
mobilized in mass campaigns, beginning with a boycott of Israeli products
and moving on to more dangerous protests at checkpoints, on settler roads
and near international border crossings.
Finally and simultaneously, the Arab, Muslim and international community, as
well as the Israeli peace camp, must also be mobilized to support this
nonviolent Palestinian movement. Sustained and significant popular protests
against Israel will eventually pressure the Israeli government to take the
necessary steps toward peace.
Nonviolent resistance is never easy. It takes tremendous dedication,
discipline and sacrifice. And while no means are guaranteed to be effective,
the nonviolent approach attempts to neutralize the power of the enemy and to
target the collective consciousness of the populace rather than empowering
enemy extremists by handing them the blind and unconditional support of a
people fearful of annihilation.
The international community declared that the death of the late Palestinian
Authority president, Yasser Arafat, was an opportunity to revive the
Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The Palestinian community needs to see
the death of their president as an opportunity to reinforce the commitment
to the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, and to achieve
these aspirations by engaging in effective nonviolent means of resistance
and community building.