Last weekend, as tens of thousands of unarmed refugees marched toward Israel from all sides in a symbolic effort to reclaim their right of return, the world suddenly discovered the power of Palestinian nonviolence. Much like the "Freedom Flotilla," when nine activists were killed during an act of nonviolent international disobedience almost a year ago, the deaths of unarmed protesters at the hands of Israeli soldiers drew the world's attention to Palestine and the refugee issue.
The world shouldn't have been so surprised. The truth is that there is a long, rich history of nonviolent Palestinian resistance dating back well before 1948, when the state of Israel was established atop a depopulated Palestine. It has just never captured the world's attention the way violent acts have.
Indeed, by the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, well before the establishment of the state of Israel, and during a period when the Jewish population of historic Palestine had yet to reach 10 percent, the native Arabs of Palestine could already see that their hopes for self-determination -- in a homeland where they constituted a vast majority -- were being jeopardized by their soon-to-be colonial master.
Resistance to Zionism during this period was characterized by various efforts led by elite members of Arab society who raised awareness about the dangers Zionism posed. Just before the war, Palestine saw a huge spike in new newspapers, and writers and editors such as Ruhi al-Khalidi, Najib Nassar, and Isa al-Isa regularly zeroed in on the threat of Zionism to Palestinian life. Diplomatic efforts to lobby the mandatory government ensued while concurrently peasants occasionally clashed with the European newcomers, but violence was largely localized and communal and took place amid larger, more peaceful, and political efforts to resist Zionist aims.
As Jewish immigration into Palestine increased and the implementation of the Balfour Declaration became more apparent, Palestinians who feared marginalization (or worse) under a Jewish state continued to resist. In the early 1930s, numerous protests and demonstrations against the Zionist agenda were held, and the British mandatory government was swift to crack down. The iconic image of Palestinian notable Musa Kazim al-Husseini being beaten down during a protest in 1933 by mounted British soldiers comes to mind.
It wasn't until nonviolent protests were met with severe repression that Palestinian guerrilla movements began. After the 81-year-old Husseini died a few months after being beaten, a young imam living in Haifa named Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam (the namesake of Hamas's military wing) organized the first militant operation against the British mandatory government. His death in battle with British soldiers sparked the Arab rebellion that began in 1936 and lasted until 1939.
The first phases of this revolt began with nonviolent resistance in the form of more strikes and protests, and the economy ground to a halt for six months when Palestinian leaders called for a work stoppage. This was put down harshly by the mandatory government, according to British historian Matthew Hughes, including the bombing of more than 200 buildings in Jaffa on June 16, 1936. The repression of both violent and nonviolent Palestinian dissent significantly destroyed the capacity of Palestinian society, paving the way for the depopulation of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel a decade later.
During the Nakba, which is what Palestinians call the period of depopulation from 1947 to 1949, nonviolent resistance became harder to see again, as armed conflict and violence dominated headlines. But one anecdote, which hits close to home, suggests that thinking about nonviolent resistance in the Palestinian context requires broadening our conventional understanding of the concept.