Nonviolent Resistance in Palestine: Pursuing Alternative Strategies


The Palestinian people have a genuine chance to achieve their national goals, in spite of the enormous gap between them and their foes, if they pursue a conscious, organized strategy of nonviolent resistance to the occupation on a massive scale. Such a strategy would provide a role for the entire Palestinian people, both inside and outside of Palestine, and would include the Arab world, the international community, and even genuinely peaceloving Israelis. It would focus the energies of the entire nation and move the struggle into an arena that maximizes our natural advantages and neutralizes much of the power of our opponents.

For this strategy to succeed, it must be adopted on a massive scale by large segments of the Palestinian population and by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) itself. It must involve a strategic, long-term commitment and not be simply symbolic or episodic in character. To achieve this commitment, we need broad public 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.

To this end, we must call for immediate national elections, even if it means that Hamas and other extremist groups win many votes. The armed factions must be transformed into political parties, and a new Palestinian Social Democratic party must be established to provide a political home for those who are dissatisfied with the current factions. Elections have to be planned and carried out regularly, instead of being one-time affairs as in the past. If the Israeli authorities try to block such elections, the elections themselves will become a battlefield for the nonviolent struggle as the Palestinians’ peaceful struggle for democracy, is pitted against the might of the occupation’s war machine.

International Support: The role of the Arab and Muslim worlds is crucial. Nonviolence, in the form of boycotts, protests, and diplomatic pressure, must be applied to translate their support into concrete pressure on Israel. Fiery speeches and futile threats of war against Israel are counterproductive. A principled campaign of nonviolent support, however, can bear results. Massive marches toward the borders in support of the Right of Return must be planned. While the governments in neighboring Arab states can easily prohibit armed incursions across their borders, they would be very hard pressed to stop Palestinians from attempting to peacefully return to their homeland.

The international community, especially churches, should be enlisted in the struggle, focusing on the settlements and the occupation. The Palestinian cause is just and is based on morality and international law. Every opportunity should be taken to frame the question in these terms and to challenge the illegal nature of the occupation. The past year has yielded numerous instances of war crimes for which Israel and specific commanders should be held accountable before war crimes tribunals. We must insist that the UN take action on these issues.

Those who support occupation and its crimes must be shamed and challenged everywhere. This creates a worldwide arena for a nonviolent struggle based on morality and international law. South Africa’s apartheid regime faced such a fight and ultimately collapsed. Israel is far more vulnerable because it is highly dependent on the rest of the world, particularly Europe and the United States, and cannot afford to ignore these voices. Massive boycotts of Israeli products and services, as well as cultural, sports, educational, and diplomatic activities, should be conducted. These protests must be linked to specific individuals or to specific policies. Each activity or event can become a focus for protest and a pressure point. Broad general boycotts that oppose all Israelis are unfair and unworkable.

Such a campaign would set the struggle in its proper context and enlist the participation of people of goodwill all over the world, including many Jews and others who would support Israel as a victim of violence, but contest its oppression of Palestinians and its occupation and settlement policies.

Obstacles to a Nonviolent Approach: One problem with convincing Palestinians to adopt nonviolence is the “Hezbollah argument.” Under Hezbollah, the Lebanese resistance successfully ended the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon by armed resistance, which made the continued occupation too costly for Israel. Hezbollah’s satellite television channel Al Manar constantly reminds Palestinians of this success and urges them to follow Hezbollah’s example. However, the Israelis never considered south Lebanon part of Israel and they did not settle it. For them, the occupation of south Lebanon could easily be abandoned once the cost in lives was too great and outweighed the military benefits of its continuation. On the other hand, the Palestinian armed struggle is often interpreted as a threat against Israel itself, and not only its occupation and settlements.

When the issue is the existence of the state of Israel itself, Israelis and their supporters abroad will present a united front and fight with no regard to cost and the number of casualties. However, if the issues are the settlements and the occupation, more than half of the Israeli population may be flexible. Only 30 percent of all settlers are ideologically motivated. The other 70 percent are attracted to the financial advantages of settlements. A fight against the hardcore 30 percent of settlers is winnable, but a fight against all Israelis, afraid that their very existence is being threatened, may not be.

Some may argue that the goal of armed resistance is not to destroy Israel, but to end the occupation, but that is unconvincing to Israelis, particularly when average Israelis are being killed and wounded, and when military activities spill over into Israel itself. In contrast, a nonviolent struggle cannot be misunderstood as a physical threat to Israel. Large masses of Israelis who truly yearn for a just peace can be enlisted in a nonviolent struggle against occupation and settlements, while there is almost no chance of enlisting them in any armed Palestinian activity.

It must be understood that Palestinians would ultimately choose nonviolence as a practical and useful tool to fight occupation and not in order to appease Israeli liberals or the United States. Although Palestinian armed struggle against the occupation is both morally and legally legitimate, it may be ineffective, futile, and counterproductive. If Palestinians choose nonviolence, it would only be because they are convinced that it can achieve results. It must be engaged in as a serious, militant, and difficult choice in favor of resistance and struggle. Submission to occupation and surrender is not an option for us.

What are the chances that such an approach will work? There is no more assurance of ultimate victory in a nonviolent struggle than in an armed struggle. However, in an armed struggle, the Israelis have overwhelming military superiority and would restrict the battle to the military arena, far away from the limits imposed by law, morality, and principles. The Israelis know how to fight against an armed antagonist, but have no understanding of how to deal with nonviolent resistance. They expect, and need, the Palestinians to be either submissive or violent. A nonviolent approach would neutralize much of Israel’s military might.

In the early 1980s, Mubarak Awad was able to convince many Palestinians as well as other Arabs and Muslims that nonviolence can work and that it is more powerful than any other weapon we have. Because of his work, the Israelis considered him dangerous and he was arrested and subsequently deported. Nonetheless, there continues to be a great interest in nonviolence. What is lacking is an overall strategy and commitment to do it on a massive scale. People are still trapped in the rhetoric of armed struggle, and many, especially abroad, would rather applaud the armed struggle from afar than actively engage in nonviolent struggle and take responsibility for the future.

Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian American, is the founder and director of Nonviolence International, a nonprofit organization providing assistance to individuals, organizations, and governments seeking nonviolent means to achieve their social and political goals. He also opened the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence (PCSN) in Jerusalem. Jonathan Kuttab is a Palestinian human rights lawyer and peace activist. This article was issued by the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine.