Palestinians and Satyagraha

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For several weeks, Israelis waged an “alleged war on terror” which destroyed the civic infrastructure of Palestinian society and resulted in the killings of hundreds of Palestinians. They said this was to teach Palestinians that they couldn’t kill Israelis with impunity. In retaliation, Hamas sent in a suicide bomber who killed 16 Israelis. The message was that Israelis couldn’t kill Palestinians with impunity. The Israelis are expected to retaliate to this retaliation. The Palestinians will inevitably follow-up with retaliation to the retaliation of the retaliation. And so on and so on.

How will this never-ending cycle of violence end? First, by diagnosing the disease. And contrary to Israel’s claim, the disease in this conflict is not terror but Israeli occupation. So how does one treat this disease?

While international law sanctions armed struggle, it has become increasingly clear that Palestinians need to emphasize the concept of Satyagraha as a potential cure to the disease of occupation.

Satyagraha is the policy of passive resistance as a method of gaining social and political reforms. Inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1919, ‘Satyagraha’ has been seized upon to describe many forms of opposition to government, and to explain almost any direct social or political action short of organized violence. This may well be an effective way to Palestinian freedom. It will certainly reduce the number of deaths. And nobody has more of an interest in reducing deaths than Palestinians, who have lost more than 1,700 people during the last 20 months of the Palestinian uprising for freedom. Not to mention the nearly 25,000 who have been wounded.

Satyagraha has actually been tried in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the form of school and commercial strikes, petitions, protest telegrams, advertisements and condemnations in the daily papers, and attempts to boycott Israeli goods.

Passive resistance has continued throughout this uprising. Consider that groups like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which is made up of Palestinian and international activists, have raised awareness of the Palestinian struggle to end Israeli occupation through non-violent, direct-action methods of resistance. And while the ISM recognizes the Palestinian right to resist Israeli violence and occupation through armed struggle, the ISM has demonstrated that nonviolence can be a powerful weapon in fighting oppression and getting publicity for humanitarian crises.

In recent weeks, ISM activists have defied the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) by helping ambulances get through to sick Palestinians, and trying to bring food to the besieged in the Church of the Nativity — which the foreign media witnessed.

There is Mustapha Barghouti, president of the Palestinian Medical Relief committees and director of the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute in Ramallah. An advocate of non-violence, Dr. Barghouti once wrote, “The existence of this movement demonstrates the Palestinians’ commitment to real peace and democratic values. Herein lie internal Palestinian unity and the key to a peaceful resolution to this conflict.”

There is human rights lawyer, Jonathon Kuttab, and peace activist, Mubarak Awad, who co-wrote a widely disseminated paper about non-violence resistance. They suggested that the Palestinian community hold discussions involving unions, students, civil society institutions, and the local Palestinian media. “Political discussion within the community must be revived so that participation is universal and everyone has a voice instead of a gun,” they wrote.

So many examples. Non-violence has, in fact, been used throughout Palestinian and Arab history. The famous strike of 1936 against the British, as well as the Arab World’s boycott of Israel are two prominent examples of the use of non-violence.

Interestingly, the Israelis do not always appreciate the efforts of non-violence resistance. Currently, there are two ISM activists in an Israeli detention cell. Briton Joanna Harrison and Palestinian-American Huwaida Arraf.

Dr. Barghouti was arrested and beaten twice by the IDF while in Jerusalem for a meeting earlier this year. In the recent Israeli invasion, his office was vandalized by the IDF. Computers were destroyed, including more than 13 years of bibliography research data; shaving cream was sprayed in a big pile in the bathroom; Hebrew graffiti on the walls read: “This eating area is for whores”; and photos of Barghouti were burnt with cigarettes, as well as bullet holes to the head area. This type of barbaric behavior was recounted throughout the West Bank in so many institutions.

Mubarak Awad was seen as such a threat that he was deported — the harshest type of punishment a Palestinian can receive.

The fact is that the Israeli government and army do not distinguish between those who use armed struggle as a means to freedom or those who opt for non-violence. Still, Palestinians should consider building on a long history of direct non-violence by adopting this tool on a more massive scale.

First, direct non-violence by the masses would help secure more international support. International attention would be directed to the reality of Israeli occupation and the Israeli violence accompanying it.

Second, it would demonstrate that Palestinians will not play into the dehumanized stereotype made popular by pro-Israeli spokespersons and military spin-doctors. The Palestinian society is a resilient community, which has withstood brutality and daily humiliation. Most have overcome amazing odds to be productive and contributing members in the world. This is the true face of the Palestinians.

Further, by not playing their anticipated roles, it will likely throw Israel’s leadership into confusion since the rules of the game will have changed. Military might may be on the side of the Israelis. However, morality is on the side of the Palestinians.

Third, as Kuttab and Awad stressed, the average Palestinian ‘Joe’ can comfortably take part in such a movement. Currently, many Palestinians feel like bystanders in the Uprising. Action is conducted by a few, but repercussions are felt by all. If Occupation is to be beaten, a fully engaged population must combine forces to do it.

Fourth, if for any other reason, save the lives of this and future generations! Palestinian blood should not flow so freely. Too much has already been shed. And nobody has relished such blood flowing as leaders like Ariel Sharon. Each suicide bombing has become an invitation to kill more Palestinians. The RSVP is guaranteed to be in the affirmative.

It will not be easy to build on the non-violence movement. Preaching morality to the demoralized is difficult. So is suggesting reasonable strategies to those who live in a crazy world.

Consider one exchange noted in the Toronto Sun. A reporter asked 18-year-old Palestinian Hebronite, Aida Joulani, “Do you think nonviolence can work against the Israelis?” The reporter had mentioned that examples of non-violence include mass demonstrations, or women ululating throughout the night so that heavily guarded Jewish settlers can’t get any sleep.

Joulani answered, “What do we want to use nonviolence for? I was being nonviolent. I was almost asleep watching TV, but I was shot anyway.”

And with Palestinians facing the wrath of the world’s fourth-most powerful army in their neighborhoods on a daily basis, is it even practical to ask people to wage peaceful protests on the streets?

Such is the debate now in Palestinian circles. Undoubtedly, legitimate armed struggle against Israeli combatants and illegal settlers will continue to be supported by the wide majority of Palestinians. And so must Satyagraha.

Satyagraha is greatest patience and brightest faith. Palestinians have withstood 35 years of Occupation with the sort of dignity and patience symbolic of Satyagraha. Their faith in themselves and in a better future has been unwavering. Let the momentum of Satyagraha continue to build in the name of strategy and most importantly, in the name of Palestinian humanity.

Sherri Muzher, who holds a Jurist Doctor in International and Comparative Law, is a Palestinian-American activist and free lance journalist.

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