The Indian example

Israeli soldiers arrest Palestinians suspected of throwing stones during a protest in the West Bank city of Hebron, 30 December 2008. (Mamoun Wazwaz/MaanImages)

In Gaza, Palestinians have once again been blamed for their own deaths. The British made a similar argument 151 years ago when they killed thousands of Indian civilians — 1,200 in a single village — in response to the largest anti-colonial uprising of the 19th century. If Israel truly desires peace with the Palestinians and safety for its citizens, it should look back to one of the greatest, and misunderstood, independence movements in history.

Most people believe India won its independence from the British exclusively through Gandhi’s famous strategy of nonviolence. They’re wrong; armed resistance has deep roots in India. During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, also known as the First War of Independence, Hindus and Muslims serving in the infantry for the British East Indian Company revolted against the British Empire, killing British officers and civilians alike. While the majority of these cavalrymen were Hindu, Muslims also partook in the rebellion. These Muslim fighters called themselves “jihadis” and even “suicide ghazis.”

The British quashed the revolt, but for the next 90 years Indian violence, even terrorism, in response continued. In the early 20th century, Indian militants, frustrated with the Congress party — the party of Gandhi and Nehru — regularly resorted to acts of violence to overthrow the British. Official government reports note 210 “revolutionary outrages” and at least 1,000 “terrorists” involved in more than 101 attempted attacks between 1906 and 1917 in the state of Bengal alone (see Peter Heehs, “Terrorism in India During the Freedom Struggle,” The Historian, 22 March 1993). One young revolutionary, Bhagat Singh, later referred to as “Shaheed” Bhagat Singh, bombed the Legislative Assembly in 1929.

On the other hand, Palestinians are usually portrayed in Israel and the West as exclusively militants or terrorists. Yet Palestinians have a vibrant, albeit unsuccessful, history of nonviolent resistance. In 1936, the Palestinians maintained a six-month general strike, the beginning of what became known as the Great Arab Revolt. The British retaliated by declaring martial law, jailing and killing large numbers of Palestinians, and destroying numerous Palestinian homes. The revolt lasted for three years and was the largest and longest anti-colonial uprising in the British Empire.

Fifty years later, the first Palestinian intifada was largely nonviolent and included acts of mass civil disobedience like flying the Palestinian flag, organizing strikes and boycotting Israeli products. In 1985, Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian-American psychologist from Jerusalem established a center for nonviolent resistance on the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was deported by Israel in 1988 (see Mubarak Awad, “Non-Violent Resistance: A Strategy for the Occupied Territories.” Journal of Palestine Studies. Summer 1984). A year later, Beit Sahour, a town near Bethlehem, engaged in a tax revolt against Israel, under the famous American slogan “No taxation without representation.” The Israeli army responded by arresting over 80 Palestinians, cutting telephone lines, blocking food shipments into the town and confiscating millions of dollars in Palestinian goods.

What about the current conflict? All the public hears about are the small, makeshift rockets Palestinians fire into southern Israel. But farmers, fisherman and children had been nonviolently resisting the Israeli occupation for years.

Up until the Israeli invasion, Gaza fishermen had been disobeying Israeli orders by fishing in their waters — not unlike Gandhi when he urged Indians to march to the sea to collect their own salt against British orders. In response, the British beat and imprisoned Gandhi’s marchers. Likewise, the Israeli navy repeatedly forced Palestinian fisherman to strip to their underwear and swim to Israeli navy ships, where they are detained and their boats confiscated.

Since 2002, Palestinian men, women and children have been sitting in front of Israeli bulldozers flattening their olive groves to construct a wall deep into the West Bank. The Israeli army has responded to these peaceful protestors with tear gas, beatings, arrests and even death.

The pattern occurred time and again: nonviolent Palestinian resistance would be crushed by Israeli force and ignored by the West. With nothing to show for their efforts, is it any surprise that the Palestinian peaceful protest movement founders? Violence has always been a historical response to colonialism and repression, in conflicts from India to Algeria to South Africa. That doesn’t make attacks on civilians right — or strategically effective, for that matter. In fact, as we all know, the Indian revolt against the British Empire only finally succeeded when Gandhi convinced his countrymen to resist peacefully. Extremist factions, like those during the Indian independence movement, only gain strength and popularity when Israel flattens even the most harmless dissent.

Radhika Sainath is a civil rights attorney and an editor of Peace Under Fire: Israel/Palestine and the International Solidarity Movement. She lived in the West Bank from October 2002-December 2003.