The myth of Gandhi and Palestinian reality

The recent visit of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, to Palestine has sparked new discussion about the role of nonviolence in the Palestinian struggle for freedom. In a speech before the Palestinian Legislative Council, Gandhi called upon 50,000 Palestinian refugees to march back home en masse from their exile in Jordan, forcing the Israelis to choose between relenting to a wave of people power, or gunning the marchers down in cold blood.

In an editorial, the English-language Jordan Times gently endorsed the idea, arguing: “Perhaps it’s time for the world to accept that the refugees need to have a say in their own fate. Perhaps it’s time for them to make their voices heard. Perhaps they should march.” However, the newspaper also warned that such tactics could lead to “losses to the Kingdom,” and recalled Israel’s harsh military retaliation against Jordan and Lebanon when the Palestinian Liberation Organization used those countries as bases.

While one can admire Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent principles, one can hardly point to the Indian experience as a demonstration of their usefulness in overthrowing a colonial regime. Indeed, Gandhi’s concepts of satyagraha, or soul power, and ahimsa, or nonviolent struggle, played an important role during the Indian independence struggle, however the anti-colonial period in India was also marked by extreme violence, both between the British and Indians and between different Indian communal groups. Anti-colonial Indians committed a wide variety of terrorist acts; the British government was responsible for numerous massacres and other atrocities; and communal violence before, during and after independence claimed the lives of millions of people. One simply cannot argue that Indian independence was achieved in a nonviolent context.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Palestinian leadership has never seriously sought to use mass, organized nonviolence is yet another example of its monumental lack of creativity. Imagine, for example, if the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, instead of abjectly and unsuccessfully begging his Israeli captors to allow him to attend the Christmas services at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity last year, had simply announced he would walk there without their permission, and invited all the people of Ramallah, international figures, clergymen, and the world’s press, to walk with him? What if Palestinian ministers slept in and defended with their bodies the houses and farms of their people, slated for demolition or seizure by Israel?

We had a tantalizing glimpse of the potential power of such action on the bittersweet day the late minister Faisal Husseini was buried in June 2001, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flooded into occupied Jerusalem, and Israel was powerless to stop them. For those brief hours the people made Jerusalem free and whole.

The call for nonviolent resistance by Palestinians has also been taken up in Israel, although more disingenuously. Yoel Esteron, a columnist and former managing editor at Ha’aretz, lauded Arun Gandhi in a recent column, and wondered, “what would have happened if four years ago the Palestinians had chosen passive resistance?” Esteron lectured the Palestinians: “It is worth it to them to choose Gandhi’s way. And it is worth it to us. If the Palestinians stop committing suicide on our buses, this will be a more effective weapon than explosive belts … Ostensibly, the key rests in the hands of the stronger side. Wrong. If Israel were to lay down its weapons, it would be forced to pick them up again after a few murderous terror attacks … The key is in the Palestinians’ hands.”

On October 14, 2003, over 100 Birzeit University students and faculty members held a makeshift class at the checkpoint on the Ramallah-Birzeit Road which remained closed by Israeli troops for the 7th consecutive day. Students, frustrated at their inability to reach the University, and at the loss of yet another day of classes, came together carrying placards with statements such as Yes to Education, No to Occupation and Open Minds: Open the Way to Education. The students sat on the ground to listen to a 45 minute lecture given by Dr. Abdalkarim Abukhashan, a professor in the Arabic Language Department at the University. (Dan Richards/FoBZU)

While apparently embracing Arun Gandhi’s call for nonviolent actions, Esteron would not actually want Palestinians to act on Gandhi’s suggestion that refugees return home in force. Esteron has argued forcefully that the refugees must give up their right of return. Nor is it necessary to wonder, as Esteron does, what would have happened had the Palestinians opted to engage in nonviolent resistance. From 1987 to 1993, during the first intifada, they did exactly that. And despite it all, their mass protests and strikes were met with brutal repression. Israel did not have bus bombings to use as an excuse for its retaliation, since the first bus attack occurred in 1994.

While the first uprising that began in 1987 shifted international public opinion toward the Palestinians, it did not result in gains on the ground. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, from the beginning of the first intifada in 1987 until the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993, Palestinians killed a total of 100 Israeli civilians, half of them inside the Occupied Territories. During the same period, Israeli occupation forces and settlers killed more than 1,160 Palestinian civilians. The Israeli answer to what was then a largely peaceful mass uprising was what is commonly referred to in Israel as “the appropriate and Zionist response” - the violent confiscation of more land and the building of ever more settlements.

The present conflict preserves this gross imbalance, where the victims of violence are overwhelmingly Palestinian, but at far higher levels of violence all around. The conflict is also increasingly characterized by nonviolence, even if this remains invisible to most Israelis and to the world’s media. For Palestinians, circumventing barriers and checkpoints in order to get to school, to work, or simply to visit family or worship, is a daily act of resistance. The recent hunger strike by thousands of Palestinian prisoners and their families was another example that was largely ignored internationally. The wire services carried dozens of photographs of silent vigils and protests by prisoners’ families, but few of those made it into newspapers.

On 30 August, China’s Xinhua news agency reported the death of 55-year-old Aisha al-Zaban. She had been on hunger strike for 12 days in solidarity with her imprisoned son and his comrades. Doctors had advised her to end her fast, but she refused and died of a heart attack. I was unable to find her name in any of the dozens of American newspapers that routinely echo the calls for Palestinians to follow the way of Gandhi.

It is important to distinguish between those like Arun Gandhi and the Palestinians with whom he is in dialogue, who are genuinely seeking new and creative ways to energize the freedom struggle; and those like Esteron, whose calls for nonviolence are simply another bankrupt exercise in shifting the blame from the occupier to the occupied, while still posing as advocates for peace.

Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. This article first appeared in The Daily Star

Related Links
On violence and the Intifada, Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 22 January 2003