Wednesday, August 25, 2004


Non-violence in the Palestinian Territories

There is always lots of talk about "why can't the Palestinians be more like Ghandi and use non-violence instead of violence to achieve their goals?" It is an interesting question, and Amira Hass uses the occasion of the grandson of the Mahatma Ghandi visiting the Palestinians to talk to them about non-violent popular struggle to address some of the obstacles that face a non-violent Palestinian movement.
They face two main obstacles. The first is an Israeli talent to excuse everything with "security concerns" or "military needs" - which in turn relies on the brainwashing that the Palestinians only want to destroy us, and that the current conflict has nothing to do with the Israeli occupation.

Let's assume that as part of a non-violent popular struggle, the Palestinians decide to send out 50,000 people one day to plant olive trees in an area defined as "state lands" near their villages.

Would the IDF impose a curfew or closure on the villages and roads on the grounds that armed men might infiltrate the planters, or that there is a risk to a nearby settlement? And let's assume that 20,000 Palestinian planters decide to take the chance and ignore the army's order closing the area; can we be sure that no Israeli commander would order soldiers to shoot - first tear gas, and then live fire - on the thousands of people carrying only hoes?

And assume that there would be a few hundred people carrying olive saplings ready to be wounded, indeed even killed. Would they, as casualties, manage to shake Israeli society? And let's say that the IDF makes do with uprooting the saplings, over and over, and not shoot? Would Israeli society then understand that it is the Palestinians' right to develop their land, even if it is not privately owned?

That is the second obstacle, and it is much tougher. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis - and possibly more - have an interest in the settlements remaining in place, constantly expanding, and in new highways that connect every remote settlement to Kfar Sava and Beit Shemesh, and Israeli control over all the water sources in the West Bank.

There is the interest of Israelis whose country does not offer them any hope for improvement in their standard of living unless they move to settlements in the territories. There is the interest of Israeli companies that build the settlements, the security industries that manufacture equipment and trains people to defend the safety of the settlers, and of anyone who has a direct or indirect connection to settlers: family, employers, employees, Shin Bet officers and their families, officials from the educational and health systems.

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 - as opposed to the real, personal risk faced by soldiers and civilians - 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.
Non-violent struggle, when met with violence, only becomes effective when there is enough pressure from the group that accepts oppression as a necessity starts to feel that the actions being taken in their name are no long necessary or go beyond the bounds of acceptability. At this point the Israeli public has had that limit and those bounds pushed very very far by the actions of the Palestinian militants and by the Israeli government, media, and public discourse. One hopes that it hasn't been pushed so far, like elastic, that it has broken and cannot come back.

What is striking about the Israeli-Palestinian interface is that every time there is a suicide bombing, the Palestinians as a whole are tarred with that brush. But when there is an incident like the IDF killing a Palestinian child by 'mistake', the mistake doesn't redound upon all IDF soldiers or all Israelis. There's a similar defensive mechanism at work in the way the torture of Iraqi and Afghanistan prisoners and detainees is talked about in this country.

I'm not hopeful that either we or the Israelis can return to a recognizably moral position.
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