Nonviolent resistance a means, not the end

Palestinian Muslim worshippers pass through a narrow corridor of soldiers to cross an Israeli army checkpoint in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on the way to Jerusalem to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third most holy site, on the fourth Friday of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, 5 October 2007. (Luay Sababa/MaanImages)


In a recent article on the openDemocracy website, the rewritten Palestinian Authority policy document that replaced “muqawama” (resistance) with “popular struggle” was hailed as having “the potential to dramatically transform a conflict whose just resolution has continually eluded diplomats and militants.” [1] The writer Maria Stephan may be admired for her optimism about the possibility of large-scale mobilization in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) for a program of nonviolent resistance, but there is a twofold failure of contextualization that compromises her analysis.

The first problem is that the article does not do justice to the rich tradition and contemporary practice of nonviolent resistance, or popular struggle, in Palestine. The first intifada and the protests in Bil’in are cited, but the Palestinians draw on a far deeper reservoir of experience, dating at least as far back as the 1936 Revolt against British occupation and creeping Zionist colonization. As writer Mazin Qumsiyeh has noted, part of the Revolt included “a conference of 150 delegates representing all sectors of the population calls for a general strike and refusal to pay taxes to the British occupation authorities.” [2]

Whether under the British, Jordanians or Israelis, Palestinians have always frustrated their would-be overlords with non-cooperation and resistance. The first intifada is rightly seen as a watershed moment, when, as one nonviolence expert has estimated, around 85 percent of resistance was of the nonviolent form, including “commercial boycotts, labour strikes, demonstrative funerals, the hoisting of Palestinian flags, the resignation of tax collectors, and many types of political noncooperation.” [3]

The second intifada has been noticeably more militarized, but also not without widespread examples of popular struggle, from physically preventing settlers vandalizing Palestinian farmland to marching en masse to “closed military zones” or land marked for confiscation. If Abbas and Fayyad are sincere in calling for “popular struggle” therefore, we would expect them to have a track record in supporting nonviolent resistance to date.

In fact, the opposite is true, and so the second error in Stephan’s assessment is to misread Abbas’ intentions, naively believing that the Fatah leadership is interested in pioneering such a strategy. The Electronic Intifada published an interview earlier this year with Abd al-Nasser Marrar, a coordinator of the popular resistance committee formed to confront the wall in Budrus, who complained that “the PA didn’t help at all,” not even with “the simplest thing.” [4] Moreover, the PA had “lapsed in its responsibilities toward all the villages west of Ramallah generally and in fact, in the entire West Bank,” a failure he described as “abnormal and unnatural.” “The PA just doesn’t have the interest,” Abd al-Nasser concluded.

Stephan shows that she is indeed aware of how, post-Oslo, the newly formed PA channeled resistance into cooperation, and dynamic struggle into corruption and personal advancement. It is not quite correct, however, to describe this as a result of the PLO’s inability to achieve gains at “the negotiating table.” The agreements on paper and the PA’s subsequent disinterest in “mobilizing people to challenge the economic, political, and military pillars underlying the occupation” were intrinsically related, representing capitulation first in word then in deed.

The PA’s lack of support for popular struggle at the official level is reflected in a general apathy amongst a middle-upper class, who are financially prospering and do not wish to rock the boat. This is to be sharply distinguished from the multitude of jobless, hungry, and exhausted Palestinians, whose “apathy” towards popular struggle is the outcome sought by the cumulative effect of the Israeli occupation’s siege, humiliations and life-draining injustices.

It is not just contentment (for the few) or sheer fatigue (for the many) that makes mass mobilization a challenge. Palestinians also fear that two critical elements for the success of nonviolent popular struggle are missing in their case: international coverage and limited repression on the part of the oppressor. As previously mentioned, “popular struggle” has always been a part of Palestinian resistance to occupation and colonization — but receives only a fraction of the press coverage afforded to violent resistance.

Not only do nonviolent actions get no or minimal coverage, but when Israeli occupation forces retaliate with violence, and even deadly force, the international outcry barely rises above a whimpered plea for “restraint.” In the first month of the second intifada, 141 Palestinians were killed even before Palestinian resistance groups had begun serious militarized self-defense. [5] Or recall the massacre in Rafah in May 2004, when Israeli helicopters fired on a peaceful march. [6] Despite the chaotic, bloody aftermath being captured on film, the most the “deeply troubled” US State Department could muster was an expression of “concern.” [7]

Mark LeVine provides further examples in an article on CommonDreams.org, citing the famous forcible deportation of Mubarak Awad, founder of the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence in 1988, as well as the more recent jailing without charge of Ahmed Awad, a leader of the “nonviolent Committee for the Popular Struggle against the Separation Fence.” [8] In a detailed piece in Middle East Report in 2002, Lori Allen quoted Elias Rishmawi, “a leader of the tax resistance movement during the first intifada,” explaining the difference between then and now:

Palestinians were able to present the Palestinian nation to the world as being a civilized nation applying the human values determined by the international community, including the American community. As a result, there was clear international sympathy with the Palestinians on both the official and popular levels … [Now] the circumstances are driving every Palestinian into a corner. To be realistic, how can you think rationally in an irrational situation? How do you expect someone being treated worse than a dog to behave? Is he expected to send you a kiss? [9]

“Popular struggle,” in its broadest possible context, has as many meanings as the rich, resolute Arabic word sumud (steadfastness) suggests. It is the Palestinian farmer who returns day after day to his confiscation-threatened land, works the soil in the blazing heat, and lives out his stewardship to the moment when his body lies outstretched before the bulldozer. It is also the mother who makes it through the checkpoint, over the dirt mound, and sells enough fruit at the market to feed and clothe her children for another week. In effect, Palestinian popular struggle is a refusal to give up hope, and a determination to live life on the land coveted by the colonizers.

More specifically, as Stephan noted, “popular struggle” in Palestine is “a method of prosecuting conflict by mobilizing civic pressure where the ‘foot soldiers’ are ordinary civilians and the ‘weapons systems’ include boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of non-cooperation and organized defiance.” She is right to stress that “such methods … do not compromise a meek submission to oppression” but rather a way of struggle that “actively challenges oppressive practices using widespread civic disruption.”

But seen in this light, the essence of Palestinian popular struggle is directly contrary to the methods of Abbas and Fayyad — the way of diplomatic privileges, backroom compromises and appeasement of Washington and Tel Aviv. Their track record has been to muzzle the collectively expressed desires of their people, from Oslo to the boycott of the elected Hamas government. Additionally, just as popular struggle has nothing in common with the Abbas-Fayyad regime, so too the November “peace conference” has little to do with securing Palestinian self-determination.

Stephan views US policy towards Palestine/Israel as having shifted (temporarily) during the first intifada, inferring that this was a result of the Palestinians’ embrace of popular struggle. Thus, “a similar shift could occur if Palestinians can show that being ‘pro-Israel’ and ‘pro-Palestine’ are mutually reinforcing goals.” This smacks of Road Map logic; if the Palestinians only “do” enough, or jump through the right hoops, then maybe, just maybe, their right to freedom and protection under international law might be acknowledged and acted upon.

The problem has never been a Palestinian failure to meet the demands set by the US or international community, a display of colonial arrogance that repeats itself in every successive “negotiation.” Popular struggle, like violent resistance, is not an end in and of itself; it is a method, a strategy. It is the end goal, decolonization and liberation from occupation and Zionist apartheid, that is ferociously opposed by the self-declared international guardians of the “peace process” and their friends in the Palestinian elite. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.

Ben White is a freelance journalist specializing in Palestine/Israel. His website is at www.benwhite.org.uk and he can be contacted directly at ben@benwhite.org.uk

Endnotes
[1] Stepha, Maria, “Dropping ‘muqawama,’” openDemocracy, 27 September 2007. (http://www.opendemocracy.net/terrorism/article/palestine_muqawama)
[2] http://qumsiyeh.org/palestiniannonviolentresistance/, accessed 10 October2007.
[3] Gene Sharp cited by Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta, “Some Thoughts on Nonviolence and on the ‘Imperative of Joint Struggle’ Against the Israeli Occupation of Palestine,” Tikkun, 13 February 2007. (http://files.tikkun.org/current/article.php?story=2007021321115376)
[4] Audeh, Ida, “A Village Mobilized: Lessons from Budrus,” The Electronic Intifada, 13 June 2007. (http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article7005.shtml)
[5] MIddle East Policy Council, http://www.mepc.org/resources_counts/00_10_2.asp, accessed 10 October 2007.
[6] BBC News, “Gaza town in shock at bloodshed,” 19 May 2004 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3730197.stm) and Al Jazeera English, “Isreli forces massacre protesters in Rafah,” 20 May 2004
(http://english.aljazeera.net/English/archive/archive?ArchiveId=3867)
[7] US Department of State Daily Press Briefing for 19 May 2004. (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2004/32624.htm)
[8] LeVine, Mark, “The Death of Arafat and the Myth of the New Beginnings,” 13 November 2004. (http://www.commondreams.org/views04/1113-24.htm)
[9] Allen, Lori A., “Palestinians Debate ‘Polite’ Resistance to Occupation,” MIddle East Report Online, Winter 2005. (http://www.merip.org/mer/mer225/225_allen.html)