I’m going to discuss the utility of non-violent resistance as it applies to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict and, specifically, the occupation and blockade of the Gaza strip. Even more specifically, I’m going to discuss the Gaza Freedom March (GFM), of which I’m one of the organizers. But before discussing Palestinian non-violence, several things must be clarified. One is that no one — least of all me, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn — has the slightest right to dictate to the Palestinians how to end the blockade or resist the occupation. Another is the need to avoid the nearly inevitable antiseptic air to talk by Westerners discussing Palestinian non-violence. Antiseptic, because it is cleansed of the complicating grit of the occupation within which non-violence must take place. There’s also usually a tacit subtext, usually a four-word question: Where Is Their Gandhi? That question could not be more in error. I hope to show why.
Furthermore, the justification for non-violence that I want to get at is not a principled justification rooted in an unyielding commitment to pacifism, roughly the Quaker position. Most people do not espouse non-violence because it is inherently superior to violence. Non-violence is only better than violence if it can reach the same goals with less human suffering — counted up with the starkest metrics: less death, fewer mangled children. Absolute commitment to non-violence is not a position I’m going to discuss here, except to suggest that a tactical commitment to non-violence can move close, edge up, to the very edge of principle — if indeed it can be shown, or at least suggested, that situations that are resolved violently could be resolved non-violently, at a lesser price in blood, the only consideration worth attention. This is Howard Zinn’s non-violence. It is also, against prevailing interpretations, Gandhi’s.
It’s not that violence never works. In fact, it works really well. Anthropologist David Graeber comments, “violence is veritably unique among forms of action because it is pretty much the only way one can have relatively predictable effects on others’ actions without understanding anything about them.” Want some land? Carry out a terror attack on its inhabitants. They’re likely to flee. They try to reclaim it? Shoot the first one who tries in the head. After a while, they stop trying. Then, it’s yours. Until someone with a bigger gun comes along. It’s cyclical. Most Palestinians know very well why Israel is no longer occupying southern Lebanon. It’s because of Hezbollah. And Palestinians and Israelis both know that Hezbollah repulsed the summer 2006 invasion through violence. It works. The question is if something else can work better.
In discussing Palestinian non-violence, however, we do nothing but insult the Palestinian struggle if we forget its background: the occupation. The occupation is tragic, permanent, perpetual, unyielding violence. Tel-Aviv University Professor Eyal Benvenisti comments that the “continued rule of the recalcitrant occupant” should be characterized as an “aggression.” That is what the people living in Gaza and the West Bank are resisting. And that was the Cast Lead operation: 1,400 dead, threats of a Shoah from Israeli military officers, the ecology and economy of Gaza shattered, the land “dying,” according to one of the authors of the Goldstone Report, with Gaza’s water source on the verge of collapse, the people, the victims of deliberately injurious policies intended to get them to overthrow their legitimately elected government. Subject to de-development, massacre, and occupation, it would be weird, or insolent, to discuss non-violence, except for one fact: Palestinian civil society very much supports non-violence. The non-violent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement — which the GFM does not take a stand on — has garnered immense support in Gaza and the West Bank, and in the Palestinian Diaspora. So have the Free Gaza ships, by now a flotilla of them, which have arrived in the Gaza City seaport. As have innumerable marches and demonstrations.
Palestinian civil society hasn’t embraced non-violence out of some strange, inexplicable, dreamily Utopian impulse, either. It has embraced non-violence because it’s well aware that non-violence often works, very well. A recent study, investigating the “strategic effectiveness” of violent and non-violent campaigns in struggles between “non-state and state actors,” examined hundreds of conflicts from 1900 to 2006. The results showed that “that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.” There are good reasons for this, reasons directly related to the thinking underlying the Gaza Freedom March.
Non-violence contributes greatly to a movement’s legitimacy both in the eyes of potential participants and in the judgment of the world. More legitimacy means more participants. More participants means more pressure on the target. Non-violence can impel greater recognition of grievances and, in turn, great and greater support from both inside and outside the conflict zone for the group engaging in non-violence. This can lead to the “alienation of the target regime.” Furthermore, governments are able to easily justify “violent counterattacks against armed insurgents,” whereas state repression against practitioners of non-violence can quickly backfire.
We know that this is true. A baton slammed down upon a non-violent resister evokes more sympathy than a guerrilla fighter shot down by a helicopter gunship. Why this is so isn’t entirely clear. Nor is it entirely justified. When the issues are clear and the cause is pure in our collective imaginary, as with John Brown’s heroism at Harper’s Ferry, we stand by violent insurgents. The Israel-Palestine conflict, to many people, is not as clear-cut as the struggle against Southern slavery, nor is the Palestinian national liberation struggle, given its historical and contemporary leadership, without moral and political ambiguities. Still, no one, almost no one, can support land theft, or the attempted destruction of national consciousness. And a group of people non-violently protesting the seizure of their land cannot be demonized like guerrilla fighters. But they could be still ignored.
The Gaza Freedom March aims to make sure that this round of Palestinian non-violence will not be ignored. Others have been. We are following a path blazed by Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., sure. But it’s also a path that’s been blazed in Beit Hanoun and Gaza City, in Ramallah and Nablus, in Ni’lin and Bil’in. Non-violence is not an import from Planet Gandhi. In March 1920, Palestinians protested the Balfour Declaration with testaments, declarations, petitions, manifestos, assemblies, delegations, processions, marches and motorcades. In 1936, Palestinians held a conference to organize an overwhelmingly non-violent General Strike to protest the encroachment of nationalist settlers on Palestinian land. They were told to simmer down by neighboring Arab states — a recurring pattern. For 50 years, their existence, their clinging to national consciousness was a form of non-violent resistance itself, too.
But passive resistance, what Palestinian scholar Salim Tamari calls sumud, steadfastness, “a development strategy of survival and communal preservation until the unfavorable political conditions allow for an external intervention,” would soon change to active resistance, what Gandhi called satyagraha, as the First Intifada erupted. Overwhelmingly non-violent, Palestinians engaged in mass demonstrations, transportation strikes, fasting, flag-raising, and other forms of non-violent civil disobedience. Teenagers would refuse to disperse when tear-gassed, or shot up with live ammunition. Israel resorted to this regularly, responding to the Intifada with mass arrests, murders, curfews, assassinations. Yitzhak Rabin said that he would hammer the largely non-violent mobilization with “force, might, and beatings.” By December 1989 the IDF had killed over 600 Palestinians, injured perhaps 20,000, jailed perhaps 50,000. It assassinated Khalil Ibrahim al-Wazir, gunning him down in Tunis as he was contemplating re-emphasizing non-violence, well aware of the stunning impact that melees between non-violent Palestinians and the Israeli Defense Forces were having on the world’s consciousness. Some contend that this non-violence broke the IDF, sending it into disarray, until the Palestinian leadership subverted this grassroots process. Indeed, it was only due to the Intifada that the Oslo talks took place, flawed as they were. It could have been otherwise.
More recently, the people of Ni’lin and Bil’in have been demonstrating weekly against the theft of their land by the separation Wall. And in Gaza, in the thick of imprisonment and collective punishment, they have formed human chains, with thousands of participants, and gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures, organized candle-lit protests, children and adults chanting in Arabic, demonstrating against the closure of their power plants due to insufficient fuel. The point of all this is not to genuflect to Palestinian ingenuity before moving onto Western intervention, nor to fetishize Palestinian resistance. The point is to show that right now, there is constant non-violent resistance. The point is to make sure it can’t be ignored. The point is to amplify it. That’s the question before us.
So when Gershom Gorenberg or other writers wax on about their search for a Palestinian Gandhi, about their desire to see a March to the Dead Sea in lieu of the Salt Marches, about the search for satyagrahis, about the failure of the Palestinian people to produce a non-violent response to occupation, there’s more than a bit of disingenuousness visible. It’s willful blindness: most Americans may not know about the First Intifada, but such writers surely do. But it serves its purpose. If you don’t discuss Palestinian non-violence, you don’t have to discuss the Israeli response: to the First Intifada, crushing violence. Or to current efforts: brute obstinacy, rubber bullets, real bullets, a refusal to enforce the rulings of its own High Court of Justice, continued occupation. Israeli politicians are not stupid. They haven’t forgotten the effects of the First Intifada. It is hard to sustain an image as a beacon of Middle Eastern democracy when video footage emerges of your armed forces pummeling children. It’s an untenable situation, in a way: repress non-violence and destroy your legitimacy, or let it bloom and encourage further resistance.
But there’s a caveat. If non-violent resistance has no visibility, it cannot be effective. The world’s publics can’t pressure a state to change its policies if they have no idea what those policies are. They can’t cause an uproar over murders that they don’t know are happening.
Some murders the world knows about. And some murders it doesn’t. Here’s one of the latter: Bassem Ibrahim Abu-Rahma. He was killed in April 2009 by a high-velocity tear-gas grenade that collapsed his chest in Bi’lin. Here are a couple of the former, the names that people are more likely to know: Rachel Corrie, plowed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer. Tom Hurndall, shot in the head by an Israeli sniper. Tom and Rachel were brave, no question, but we do not know their names because they are brave. Or not just for that reason. Brave Palestinian practitioners of non-violence are killed constantly, and we don’t know their names or their words or their faces. They don’t have plays written about them. They don’t have lectures named after them.
There’s a reason for this, and that reason is institutional racism. Western politicians and Western parliamentarians, Western press agencies and Western pundits, have the tendency to pay a lot more attention to the activities, the lives, the deaths, of those from the West, compared to those from the global South. There’s more mourning over a white corpse than a brown corpse — normally the shield protecting a lot of unpleasant actions perpetrated by the strong upon the weak.
But the Gaza Freedom March will appropriate that shield. We will appropriate that shield and re-forge it into a lever and wedge it into the wall of ignorance protecting the illegal blockade. That’s where Western intervention comes in. When 1,300 people from Europe and South Africa, from the Philippines and the United States, from Japan and Brazil and New Zealand, jump on jetliners, cross every ocean, fly into Cairo, get ferried in a convoy of 20 buses to el-Arish, then to Rafah, and ask the Egyptian authorities to let us into Gaza, they’ll let us in. And then we will meet 50 or 100 or 150,000 Palestinians. We will commemorate the Cast Lead massacre, and bear witness to the rubble of the winter attack. Then with musicians and writers, French and Filipino Senators, Alice Walker and Ali Abunimah, Rabbis and Holocaust survivors, members of the Palestinian Diaspora, we will march nearly to the threshold of the Erez crossing, together, and say: Israel, the whole world is watching. Lift the blockade. The trick, though, is making sure the whole world is watching.
So we hope that Palestinian bravery and our solidarity and your support will get the attention of the world: of the world’s press agencies and parliamentarians, presidents and prime ministers. We think we can turn institutional racism into a lever, a very long lever, reaching all the way to New York and London, Paris and Brussels and Berlin, the major political, military, and economic partners and supporters of Israel. Because it is tacit acceptance, tolerance, silence, including a too muted fury, that enables the blockade to continue. The blockade is a physical fact. But it’s a mistake to consider it merely a physical fact. The physical fact can be temporarily removed, only to be rebuilt. We know that, because Hamas blew up the southern wall in January 2008 in order to briefly alleviate the suffering of Gaza’s inhabitants. More than a physical fact, the blockade is guarded by another wall, a symbolic wall, a wall of legitimacy, or perhaps not so much legitimacy as apathy, or tolerance, or simply ignorance. That is the wall that we are targeting. If people push hard enough on that lever, the symbolic wall surrounding the physical barrier will come crashing down, and perhaps, if we are lucky, it will bring the physical wall crashing down, too.
Max Ajl blogs on climate change and Israel-Palestine at www.maxajl.com. He is one of the core organizers of the Gaza Freedom March. His views here are his own. This essay was adapted from a talk he gave at Amherst College on 3 December 2009.