Breaking the Cycle and Myth of Violence

James Zogby’s Column

It is now ten years after Madrid and eight years after Oslo, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which once seemed close to resolution, has deteriorated into raging violence.

There is, of course, a tragic pointlessness to all of this. The violence, in the end, will yield nothing but wasted and lost lives and greater anger, fear and despair for all sides. The force used by either party cannot resolve this conflict. It will only prolong and deepen the conflict. This is a lesson, which though often preached by the Israelis has never been learned by them.

While everything the Israelis do is couched in the artful propaganda language of self-defense and security-it is, in fact, nothing more than the use of overwhelming violence designed to subdue the Palestinians and force them to accept their will. This was true from the beginning of the Zionist presence in Palestine and it is true today.

For decades now Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians has been defined by violence. Confiscating land, demolishing homes and property, using collective punishment against entire communities, torturing prisoners, expelling or arresting without trial or assassinating Palestinian leaders and imposing armed settler communities in Palestinian territories-all of these practices involved the use of violence designed to subdue Palestinians. And all were used to no avail.

Even after all this violence, Palestinians remain firm in their determination to live as a free people in their own independent state.

How many times have the Israelis tried to convince themselves that if only they used a little more force the Palestinians would finally accept Israel’s will? The Israelis attempted to liquidate the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza through massive expulsion in the 1970s. They used the “Iron Fist” in the early 1980s-recall General Eitan saying “we will break their arms and legs in the territories and rip out their hearts in Beirut.” In the late 1980s, Rabin also tried to use expulsion and broken bones to subdue the Palestinians. And now Sharon is back for one more try at beating this willful people into submission.

And always, at the end of every one of these violent episodes, Israelis are forced to recognize an uncomfortable reality. Their violence only creates a violent response and, in the end, brings no solution.

Palestinians have neither gone away, nor have they been subdued. The families of the thousands who have been killed are angry, the hundreds of thousands who have had their property destroyed or confiscated are angry, and the millions who have been denied the freedom to live a normal life are also angry.

At the same time, the settlements and roads that were to create security for Israel, have instead become a source of insecurity. The bottom line is that the more Israel has used force to impose its will, the more willful and determined the Palestinians have become.

And the solution after all of this violence and anger is no different than it was at the beginning-though maybe harder to achieve because of the violence and anger.

The only end to the violence is for Israel to leave all of the occupied territories, to recognize that the Palestinians are an equal people who deserve their full rights to self-determination.

It is profoundly disturbing to hear the political discourse of Israel’s right wing-that is, most of its current governing coalition. There are calls to “eliminate the Palestinian leadership,” “to squash the Palestinian resistance,” “to reconquer the Palestinian Authority,” and to subdue and wait for a more accommodating Palestinian leadership to emerge! It is as if they are saying-“what we have tried to do and failed to do for more than 30 years, we should try to do once again.”

And to what end? The choices that Israel will face are the same choices they have always faced:

to attempt to retain control over a captive people who will very soon outnumber the Israelis;

to force this captive people to accept, as Barak sought to do, Israel’s dictate-a peace that denied them their full rights and freedom; or

to recognize Palestinian rights and withdraw from Palestinian lands.

The first two options have been tried and failed. Only the third remains untried.

If the failure to understand that violence cannot bring about a solution is an Israeli fault, sadly it is a Palestinian fault as well.

Just as Israel’s bombings of Palestinian offices and killings of Palestinian demonstrators makes peace more difficult to achieve, the bombs that take the lives of Israeli civilians also make a solution less likely. As King and Ghandi and the remarkable mass movements that transformed eastern Europe showed, the political and moral force of nonviolent direct action is the strongest weapon of an oppressed people.

Just as Israel’s violence against Palestinians has made the Palestinians more determined, the violence done to the Israelis has made that people more extreme in their resolve and more eager to see their leaders respond with overwhelming violence.

This is a political struggle that can only be resolved by political means. Neither side can ultimately defeat or subdue the other. And each time violence is used it only makes a political solution built on justice more difficult to achieve.

What is especially disturbing is that those who advocate violence lack any real political strategic vision. Ask them how their tactics will produce results and they fall back on myths or fantasies of spontaneous change. What they cannot describe is precisely how what they advocate or do, will move the current situation toward their desired end. This is not south Lebanon. The stakes for Israel are quite different. And Israel must know that in the 21st Century, in the heart of the Arab world, they will not get to play the part of victorious cowboys or cast Palestinians in the roll of defeated Indians.

In the ensuing cycle of violence, individual actions are described as revenge. But revenge is not political-it is a psychological need—and it produces nothing in the way of political change. In fact, it only brings more violence and revenge in response.

The ultimate responsibility to end the conflict, of course, ought to fall on the shoulders of the stronger party, the party that has systematically used violence to achieve its ends. The real tragedy in this situation is not that the Palestinians are too weak and the Israelis are too strong. It is that neither side has the political ability or will or vision to alter the current dynamics.

Up until now, the United States and Israel have unfairly placed the burden on the weaker party, the Palestinians.

The Palestinians have been called on to stop their violence. But Palestinians have been too angered by decades of Israel’s violence and domination. The political options available to their leadership are, therefore, too limited.

But Israelis too are caught in a political and psychological maelstrom. Weaned on fear and insecurity, which have only been fed by each new act of violence in their midst, they have come to support more, not less, extreme responses. The Israeli political situation is, therefore, also not ripe for corrective positive action, as evidenced by the election of Sharon and the collapse of Israel’s peace bloc.

In this context the passive approach adopted by the United States only contributes to the continued impasse. If neither party can or will take the political steps necessary to reverse the current course of events, then an external source of political leadership is needed. What the Israelis and Palestinians cannot do for themselves the United States must help them to do. The proposed course of “Tenet, Mitchell and negotiations” will not come about on its own. Nor will needed political change, especially in Israel, occur spontaneously.

What the United States must provide is more than rhetorical leadership. It must reconvene the parties and provide them with political vision and guarantees that can challenge existing myths, break the back of despair, and inspire new hope.

Otherwise, the violence and the myths that violence can succeed will continue to define this tragic conflict.