Palestine's Hidden History of Nonviolence

You wouldn't know it from the media coverage, but peaceful protests are nothing new for Palestinians. But if they are to succeed this time, the West needs to start paying attention.

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.

My hometown, Al-Lyd, (which is today called Lod), was besieged by Haganah troops in mid-July 1948. As part of Operation Dani, Al-Lyd and the neighboring town of Ramla were depopulated of tens of thousands of Palestinians. At the time, the city was filled with at least 50,000 people, more than twice its usual population, because it had swelled with refugees from nearby villages. After the siege, my grandparents were among the 1,000 original inhabitants who remained. They and many others refused to flee during the fighting and hid in the city's churches and mosques. Unlike their neighbors, who were hiding in the Dahmash mosque where scores of refugees were massacred by Haganah troops, they managed to survive and walk out of their refuge into the destroyed ghost town they called home.

We tend to think of nonviolent resistance as an active rather than passive concept. In reality, even though the majority of the native inhabitants were depopulated during the Nakba, thousands of Palestinians practiced nonviolent resistance by refusing to leave their homes when threatened. Today, through its occupation, Israel continues to make life unbearable for Palestinians, but millions resist the pressure by not leaving. This is particularly notable in occupied Jerusalem, where Palestinians are being pushed out of the city. For those who have never lived in a system of violence like the Israeli occupation, it is hard to understand how simply not going anywhere constitutes resistance, but when the objective of your oppressor is to get you to leave your land, staying put is part of the daily struggle. In this sense, every Palestinian living under the Israeli occupation is a nonviolent resister.

The first and second intifadas were very different. In the first intifada of the late 1980s, Palestinians employed various nonviolent tactics, from mass demonstrations to strikes to protests. Even though the vast majority of the activism was nonviolent, it is the mostly symbolic stone-throwing that many remember. The Israeli response to the uprising was brutal. In the words of Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli defense minister, the policy was "might, power, and beatings" -- what became known as the "break the bones" strategy, depicted in this gruesome video. Mass arrests also ensued, and according to the NGO B'Tselem more than a thousand Palestinians civilians were killed from 1987 to 1993. Thousands more were injured or crippled at the hands of Israeli troops. Yet, only 12 of the 70,000 Israeli soldiers regularly posted in occupied territories during the intifada died in the four-year uprising, clearly demonstrating the restraint with which Palestinian dissent was carried out.

The second intifada, which began in 2000 after a decade of negotiations yielded only more Israeli settlements, violence was used much more readily, including armed attacks. Yet while the acts of violence by both sides were more likely to feature in the headlines, many Palestinians were still employing nonviolent means of resistance; protests and marches, many at nearly daily funerals, were commonplace. It is during this period that the seeds of present-day nonviolent resistance in Palestine were planted.

Before we can think about whether nonviolent resistance is likely to factor heavily in the next chapter of the Palestinian struggle, we must first consider its aims. Nonviolent resistance, like armed resistance, is a tactic or tool primarily used to draw attention to a cause. The difference between the two is, of course, more important than the similarities. While armed resistance is likely to draw more attention to a cause by grabbing headlines, it's also likely to bring with it plenty of negative attention. Nonviolent resistance is far less likely to make it into the international news, though when it does get coverage, it's usually overwhelmingly positive. But a strategy of nonviolence only works if the world is paying attention and rewarding nonviolence with meaningful action.

The atmosphere in the Middle East and North Africa today is electric. Thanks to the scenes of peaceful protesters ousting dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, belief in nonviolent people power is at an all-time high. But for Palestinians to continue making the same decision, they have to believe they will succeed. If nonviolent Palestinian protesters are crushed by force and their repression is met with silence from the Western states that support Israel, many might choose an alternate path. That's why the U.S. response to the Nakba Day protests -- pointing the finger at Syria instead of criticizing Israel for shooting unarmed demonstrators -- is so disappointing.

If ever there were a moment for Palestinians to overwhelmingly embrace nonviolence, that moment is now. The new media environment has created space for peaceful Palestinian voices that would never have been heard in the past. Many nonviolent protests continue to take place regularly: from the aid flotillas and convoys, along with repeated demonstrations against buffer zones in Gaza, to protests against the separation wall in Bilin, Nilin, Nabi Saleh, and al-Walaja; to demonstrations against home eviction and demolition in Jerusalem neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan; to regular marches in refugee camps inside and outside of Palestine.

But Western governments need to end their silence. By condemning Palestinian violent resistance while failing to condemn Israel's repression of nonviolent resistance, Israel's allies -- above all the United States -- are sending the dangerous message to young Palestinians that no resistance to Israeli occupation is ever acceptable. The fact that the nonviolent protest of the Arab Spring has come to Palestine is not a threat. It's a historic opportunity for the West to finally get it right.



President 'Yes, I Can' Meets Prime Minister 'No, You Won't'

In a parallel universe, the Obama-Bibi meeting in Washington might actually move the needle forward on Middle East peace. It won't -- and Obama shouldn't press the issue.

This week at the White House, President "Yes, I can" will sit down with Prime Minister "No, you won't." The main agenda item will be the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, an enterprise that might be best described -- at least for now -- as the walking dead. 

But no matter. When you're the change president, you must believe even when reality tells another tale. Energized by transformative changes in the Arab world and genuinely worried that no negotiations spells trouble for America, President Barack Obama wants to push for big things on the peace process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is equally determined to push back against big ideas that cross his own ideology, gut instincts, and coalition constraints. The recent Palestinian unity accord and the Syrian-orchestrated Palestinian demonstrations along the Israel-Syria border will only help him parry any American pressure.

It would be nice to imagine that out of this American-Israeli yin and yang might come a common way forward. And if this were some more enlightened parallel universe, Bibi and Obama just might find it.

The prime minister would confide in the president that he was prepared to be bold on borders and Jerusalem; the president could then use that with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the next several months to set the stage for negotiations and an agreement. The coming train wreck at the United Nations this fall on Palestinian statehood could then be avoided.

Back on Earth, however, it's more likely that the meeting will produce neither breakthrough nor breakdown. Nobody wants a fight now simply because there's no peace process to fight about. Even the president understands how complex the Palestinian unity accord has made matters.

But neither the president nor the prime minister has a strategy, except to give speeches; and because the Palestinians do have one -- a U.N. initiative on statehood --we're likely to drift toward that default position unless something better turns up.

Mark Twain famously claimed that history doesn't repeat; it rhymes. And we've seen several versions of the Obama-Bibi meetings before.

There's not a great deal of personal chemistry or trust there. Bill Clinton didn't much care for Netanyahu, but understood the politician in him. Obama doesn't care for or understand the Israeli prime minister. He sees him as a con man and an obstacle -- a kind of big speed bump on his way to solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the president is cold, with little empathy when it comes to understanding Israeli needs; he sees the president as situating Israel along the continuum of American interests, not its values. For Bibi, Obama falls somewhere between Jimmy Carter and Bush 41 on the Israeli sensitivity scale.

This interpersonal dynamic hasn't changed, but circumstances have made it worse. Two years in, Obama is even more frustrated with his failure to move the peace process forward. The Arab spring has roiled the region with big changes; somehow the president believes there should be a big peace-process transformation to accompany it. After all, Fatah and Hamas are moving toward unity; the Libyan and Syrian regimes are on the ropes. And if something isn't done on the peace process, the new Arab democrats may be thwarted by Islamic radicals.

The president feels Palestinian pain, but worries that the U.N. initiative on statehood will make matters worse. He's tired of catering to the Israelis but isn't quite sure how to move things forward. The Palestinian U.N. statehood initiative is a problem because the Americans don't have an answer to it; indeed, it reflects a painful reality that Washington has lost real leverage on a signature issue. From Obama's perspective, after his triumph over Osama bin Laden, meeting Netanyahu and dealing with the peace process is a real downer.

Netanyahu doesn't exactly see the world this way. More than most Israeli prime ministers, he sleeps with one eye open. Everywhere he looks the glass is half-empty. The Arab spring has brought uncertainty: Hosni Mubarak is gone; maybe Bashar al-Assad too. Abbas has climbed into bed with Hamas, and now Obama -- whom he doesn't trust -- seems ready to push the peace process at Israel's expense.

For Bibi, the peace process is a headache. If it gets serious, his coalition will break; he'll have to confront his ideological red lines and his fundamental suspicions of the Arabs. Without a peace process, particularly if he's blamed, he could see his relationship with the United States head south. At the moment, he's actually in a pretty good position to walk that fine line.

Yes, the Republicans and much of the organized Jewish community will stand by him. But it's the Palestinians who are Bibi's real allies. Abbas has given him an incredible gift by unifying with Hamas. Unless Hamas abandons the armed struggle, releases the kidnapped Israeli soldier it has held as hostage, and recognizes Israel, Netanyahu is more or less untouchable at home and can parry American pressure should there be any. He can say more in sorrow than in anger that Abbas has made a grave mistake and should return to negotiations rather than snuggle up to Hamas or the United Nations. As long as Hamas officials continue to glorify bin Laden and call for the liberation of all of historic Palestine, Netanyahu won't have to worry much about U.S. pressure.

The one wild card in all this would be a Palestinian version of the Arab spring. Syrian-orchestrated Palestinian incursions across the border actually help the prime minister fend off pressure from inside Israel and out. But a massive and sustained Palestinian uprising -- civilian and peaceful -- in which, day after day, hundreds of thousands press against the checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza, would create real pressure. It's a dangerous tactic and could easily lead to violence, and it's unclear how or why it would create pressure for negotiations. But it could become part of the Palestinians' strategy as they contemplate their U.N. statehood initiative in the fall.

The Obama administration really is in a box when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. There has been a lot of talk about the president giving a major speech to lay out the principles the United States supports on the big issues, such as borders and Jerusalem.

But you have to wonder what this would actually accomplish. It will upset the Israelis (and the Palestinians, too, when the administration talks about the refugee issue and rules out the right of return). And why would any would-be mediator -- with the chance of negotiations anytime soon near zero -- want to put out positions only to have them attacked, devalued, and marginalized? A speech would only highlight the gap between American words and actions; it could become the foreign-policy equivalent of BP's Deepwater Horizon: It's day 50 and nobody has yet accepted the president's peace plan.

Any honest person would admit that there's no chance of successful negotiations or a peace process now. A big idea or initiative to try to launch them will fail; indeed, putting Abbas and Netanyahu in the same room given the gaps between them would be a disaster.

Instead of public diplomacy, the president should run silent and deep. No deadlines, no big speeches, no threats. Quietly see what Bibi and Abbas will put in your pocket on the big issues; see where Palestinian unity goes and where the Arab spring is headed. For now, keep your powder dry and revisit your big speech later in the year. It may come in handy as an alternative vision of how to actually produce a real state through negotiations rather than the virtual one the Palestinians are planning at the United Nations.

That there are no good ideas to make the peace process work now is no reason to run with half-baked ones. Woody Allen was wrong: 90 percent of life isn't just showing up -- it's showing up at the right time. And now isn't the right time for a major peace-process move.

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