The overwhelming and ceaseless atrocities of Israel’s government leave most Palestinians with little opportunity to reflect on the moral aspect of our resistance. Most often our reactions to events are immediate, instinctive and emotional. The few who still manage to consider the moral, political and strategic aspects of our struggle may find themselves all but stymied by the contradictions, the lack of choice, and the damage done by war to both reason and conscience.
How can Palestinian resistance be fairly assessed, then, with due consideration given to the entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The occupation of Palestine is based on a 19th century ideology that denied the very existence of the Palestinian people and pursued a colonial agenda asserting divine claims to a “land without a people.” In response to this “theo-colonial” aggression, the Palestinian resistance adopted the strategy of “a protracted people’s war” to regain recognition as a dispossessed, rather than “nonexistent” nation.
To this day Palestinians still have no state or armed forces. Our occupiers subject us to curfews, expulsions, home demolitions, legalized torture, and a highly imaginative assortment of human rights violations. No justifiable comparison can be drawn between the level of official accountability to which Palestinans are held for the actions of a few individuals and the responsibility for the systematic and intense violence against the entire Palestinian population practiced with impunity by the state of Israel. The American media call our search for freedom “terrorism,” thus casting the Palestinian in the role of the international prototype for the terrorist. This has shaped Western public consciousness and resulted in an international bias that tends to describe instances of violence against Palestinian civilians in neutral language, reducing Palestinian losses to mere faceless statistics, while using emotional language and visuals to describe Israeli losses.
This distortion of the Palestinian resistance has clouded all reasonable dialogue. Many of our efforts to defy the arbitrary rules of the occupier are reflexively dismissed as “terrorism,” and we are always expected to apologize for and condemn Palestinian resistance–”despite the lack of agreement on a definition of terrorism, and the fact that the right to self-determination by armed struggle is permissible under the United Nations Charter’s Article 51, concerning self-defense.
Why is the word “terrorism” so readily applied to individuals or groups who use homemade bombs, but not to states using nuclear and other internationally prohibited weapons to ensure submission to the oppressor? Israel, the United States and Britain should top the list of terrorism-exporting states for their use of armed attacks against non-combatants in Palestine, Iraq, Sudan and other parts of the world. But “terrorism” is a political term used by the colonizer to discredit those who resist–”as the Afrikaaners and Nazis named the Black and French freedom fighters, respectively.
There also is a trend among those who oppose Palestinian resistance to use the term “jihad” as a synonym for terrorism. In doing so, they reduce the meaning of jihad to mere death. Jihad is a rich concept which includes struggling against one’s lesser self, the effort to do good deeds, actively opposing injustice, and being patient in times of hardship. It is not about violence against God’s creatures, or not fearing death in defending the rights of God’s creations. Violence can, however, be a rational human’s means of defense. When a woman reacts violently when threatened with rape, that is a form of jihad.
Moreover, jihad is an Islamic value–”and not all Palestinian fighters are Muslims. The reason why young, sincere altruistic Palestinians blow themselves up is a secret they take with them to the grave. Perhaps it is the strange fruit of revenge growing in the fertile soil of oppression and occupation, or their profound protest against merciless cruelty; or a desperate attempt at attaining equality with Israelis in death, since it is impossible for them in life. Those who live under inhuman conditions all their lives are, unfortunately, capable of inhuman acts. What is left for the homeless thousands in Rafah except their resistance? It is not Islam; it is human nature, shared by religious, secular and agnostic Palestinian men and women. Certainly our women bombers do not die in the expectation of 70 virgins awaiting them in Paradise.
Another factor influencing Palestinian resistance is the gloomy history of peace talks and the lack of international support. Negotiations with Israel have given us nothing but promises of autonomy over our impoverishment, while enforcing the will of the powerful and establishing illegalities, as the basis for a lasting settlement. The most glaring absence in this peace process was an honest peace broker. The United Nations has been unable to take steps to ensure the implementation of Palestinian rights. The world has offered not a single remedy for the numerous wounds the Palestinians have suffered; Washington repeatedly has used its veto in the Security Council to thwart the broad consensus calling for an international monitoring presence in the West Bank and Gaza. The relentless denial of Palestinian rights without an effective verbal or actual international response has left us acutely aware that self-defense is our only hope.
International law grants a people fighting an illegal occupation the right to use “all necessary means at their disposal” to end their occupation, and the occupied “are entitled to seek and receive support” (I quote here from several United Nations resolutions). Armed resistance was used in the American Revolution, the Afghan resistance against Russia (which the U.S. supported), the French resistance against the Nazis, and even in the Nazi concentration camps, or, more famously, in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Palestinian resistance arises out of a similarly oppressive situation. The degree of violent response varies from case to case–”indeed, in many instances resistance is mainly nonviolent. Despite all the odds against them, people resiliently continue to live, study, pray and plant crops in occupied land. In a few cases, they actively resist and resort to violence. This violent resistance may be defensive (and, thus, to my mind, morally acceptable), such as the resistance of the Jenin refugee camp fighters as Israeli death machines approached; or it may take the form of unacceptable offensive acts, such as the bombing of Israeli civilians celebrating a Passover meal.
In all cases, however, it is individual Palestinians who choose the form of resistance, and the choices they make should not characterize the entire nation. Also, as we have seen, both peaceful and violent resistance are met with sanctioned, deliberate state violence by the democratic and free Israeli government and its forces. The death of American peace activist Rachel Corrie is evidence enough of that.
“Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” some people wonder. Our Gandhis are either in prison, in exile or in graves. Nor do we have a population in the hundreds of millions. We are 3.3 million unarmed, defenseless individuals facing 6 million Israelis, virtually all of them soldiers or reservists. This is not industrial colonization; the Israelis are practicing ethnic cleansing to secure the land for Jews alone.
It is ironic that few of those who exhort Palestinians to emulate Gandhi question Zionism, the root cause of the Israeli occupation. In 1938, however, Gandhi himself questioned the premise of political Zionism. “My sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice,” he said. “The cry for the national home for the Jews does not much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the Bible and in the tenacity with which the Jews have hankered after their return to Palestine. Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood?”
Gandhi clearly rejected the idea of a Jewish state in the Promised Land by pointing out that the “Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract.”
Violent resistance arises from an inhuman military occupation, one that levies punishment arbitrarily and without trial, denies the possibility of livelihood and systematically destroys the prospects of a future. The Palestinian people have not gone to another people’s homeland to kill or dispossess. Our ambition is not to blow ourselves up in order to terrify others. We are asking for what all other people rightfully have–”a decent life in the land of our birth.
What is most troubling about the criticism of our resistance is that it cares little for our suffering, our dispossession, and the violation of our most basic rights. When we are murdered, these critics are unmoved. Our peaceful, everyday struggle to live a decent life makes no impression on them. When some of us succumb to retaliation and revenge, the outrage and condemnation is directed at us all. Israeli security is deemed more important than our right to a basic livelihood; Israeli children are seen as more human than ours; Israeli pain more unacceptable than ours. When we rebel against the inhuman conditions imposed upon us, our critics dismiss us as terrorists, enemies of human life and civilization.
But it is not to appease our critics that we must revisit our resistance. It is because we care about Palestinian morality and morale.
International law and the historical precedent of many nations sanction the right of a people suffering from colonial oppression to take up arms in their freedom struggle. Why should it be different in the case of Palestinians? Is not the point of international law that it is universal?Americans claim life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as their most fundamental human rights. It is fitting that the right to life should be mentioned first. After all, without the right to remain alive, to be safe from attack, to defend oneself against attack, the other rights become meaningless. Fundamental to that right is exercising the right of self-defense.
We Palestinians continue to face a brutal occupation with exposed chests and empty hands. I believe in dialogue in the Israeli-Palestinian encounter, but negotiations should never be the only option; they must go hand-in-hand with resistance to the occupation. While the Israelis talk to us they continue to build settlements and hastily construct a wall that will further constrict and violate our rights. Why should we abandon our right to resist and remain living in the realm of the murderously absurd?
To live under oppression and submit to injustice is incompatible with psychological health. Resistance not only is a right and a duty, but is a remedy for the oppressed. Even if not as a strategic, pragmatic option, we should resist as an expression of–”and insistence on–”our human dignity.Violent resistance must always be in defense, and as the last resort. It is important, however, to distinguish between permissible (military) and impermissible (civilian) targets, and to set limits for the use of arms. Nor must the oppressor be exempt from these same principles.
The history of our resistance must be explored and assessed from the perspectives of law, morality, experience and politics, taking timing and context into account and with due regard for human rights, international law and widely shared norms of behavior. Palestinians must be creative in providing effective peaceful alternatives for resistance that can invite the progressives of the world to join our struggle.
Ultimately, the strength of the Palestinian plight lies in its moral, humanitarian characteristics; it is to our benefit to find moral, humanitarian means to protect that strength.