Nonviolence in the Abu Mazen era

This would appear to be an appropriate time to discuss the potential for Palestinian nonviolence and its ramifications for Israel. First, because there is a growing number of people and groups in Palestine that believe in nonviolent struggle against Israel. Secondly, because in a few instances in the central West Bank in recent months nonviolent demonstrations proved effective in drawing the attention of the media and the courts to the injustices of Israel’s security fence as originally located at the local, village level.

Thirdly, the emergence of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as leader of the PLO and leading candidate for the Palestinian Authority presidency points to the relevancy of nonviolent tactics of resistance. Abu Mazen unequivocally denounces Palestinian violence as a counterproductive approach; by default, the only appropriate form of resistance in his eyes would be nonviolence (coupled with a diplomatic campaign for a peace process congenial to Palestinian terms). Indeed, if Abu Mazen’s current efforts bear fruit and Palestinians agree to a comprehensive ceasefire, the nonviolent approach may come to the fore as a means of protest or resistance.

The most famous, and successful, nonviolent campaign in modern history was led by Mahatma Gandhi in India against the British, and culminated in Indian independence in 1947. It is generally understood that the campaign succeeded because, at the end of the day, the British were a civilized occupier that could not for long stomach shooting at point blank range at masses of nonviolent Indian demonstrators, and because Gandhi employed effective forms of economic boycott, and got global publicity.

Are we Israelis a "civilized" occupier? Despite all the casualties we have inflicted in four years on Palestinian civilians and their property–yes. We are no worse than any other occupier. But the difference between Israel in the West Bank and Gaza and the British in India is that even those of us who oppose the settlements and seek to end the occupation, strongly believe that we are defending our homes and our families, which have been under intense and brutal attack, rather than some distant "jewel in the crown" of an empire.

A veteran Israeli general once related to me how, in 1949, leaders of the Palestinian refugee population, freshly arrived in Gaza, threatened to launch a "green march" north up the Mediterranean coast to homes they had abandoned in Ashdod and Jaffa. The general’s response was to threaten to open fire on the marchers, and the march was cancelled. Today the response would feature tear gas and rubber bullets, but the principle would be the same: if the purpose of Palestinian nonviolent tactics were to endanger Israel and Israelis and rekindle a conflict, it would undoubtedly be opposed by all available non-lethal means.

On the other hand, it is possible to perceive a nonviolent strategy that could potentially be successful for Palestinians. Its point of departure would be the premise that, as the weaker actor, the Palestinians need to find a more effective tactic of mass resistance than force. The purpose would be to draw Israeli and international attention to Israeli injustices, such as the settlements and bypass roads and the roadblocks they engender. The protest would be confined to the territories, and no Israeli lives or property would be threatened. The backdrop would be a total absence of violent attacks against Israelis by organized Palestinian groups like Hamas and the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, as well as of stone throwing and Molotov cocktail attacks, which are potentially lethal. And the media would have to be heavily involved in covering the protest.

If all these conditions were met, a Palestinian nonviolent campaign could be effective, particularly if Abu Mazen gets a popular mandate for his rule. Yet this does not appear to be an easy option for Palestinian society under current social and political conditions.