For some time the Palestinians have been divided on how to pursue their cause. Their choice, it seems, is between winning the support and favour of the international community and actually pursuing their rights, but not both.
The problem is that developments in the region, in addition to intensive misleading propaganda, have created a polarisation, an “either or” situation. Neither is their choice simply between violence and nonviolence. It seems the Palestinian choice is actually between keeping entirely quiet about their rights and being rewarded with a certificate of good conduct from the international community, or struggling for their stolen rights (not necessarily by resorting to violence though) and being labelled outlaws, enemies of peace and terrorists.
I was stunned once while watching a debate on an American TV channel. When the programme moderator referred to the Arab participant as a “known moderate”, the other participant, an American supporter of Israel became furious, protesting that description. He asked how someone who constantly advocates the right of return of Palestinian refugees — which in his view meant the destruction of the state of Israel — could be described as a moderate, and not a straightforward terrorist. So the meaning of terrorism has been stretched so wide so that it is no more the action, but the intent and the attitude; not the intent to do anything wrong, but merely to demand justice and restoration of legitimate rights according to the law.
Until recently, only committing an actual crime would have subjected the perpetrator to pursuit and sanction. Nowadays, merely demanding the restoration of lost rights — if the violator of those rights is Israel — is enough for one to be accused of “incitement”, and so talking about rights is extremely risky. Instead, one should talk only about “reform” and “democracy” and only blame oneself for the absence of democracy, never the occupier who has destroyed, oppressed and plundered for decades.
Making a financial contribution to an organisation or an individual in normal conditions would be positive and humanitarian. Nowadays, any such contribution, particularly if made to an Arab or a Muslim recipient, could pose a grave risk to the donor, should any suspicion be ever raised as to the relationship of that recipient to the loose description of “terrorism”. Of course, this does not apply to several organisations openly raising money in the United States to support the Israeli army, which daily commits war crimes, or for the racist settlers who admire and celebrate the murderer Baruch Goldstein even as they commit new crimes against innocent Palestinians.
The current Palestinian leadership, particularly the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has made it very clear that its strategy is to avoid all forms of violence against the occupiers. This strategy is accepted and strongly supported by the international community at large and by the majority, if not all, of the Arab states, and, most importantly, by Washington.
The view of the proponents of such a strategy is that by resorting to violence, the Palestinians offered Israel the excuse to retaliate with brutal force against the poorly equipped Palestinian resistance and more often against innocent civilians. In other words, Palestinians are responsible not only for their own acts, but also for Israel’s. Israel remains absolved of any practical responsibility and is never held accountable, even if occasionally it receives mild criticism from the hordes of diplomats and leaders who continue to flock to be photographed with the smiling Ariel Sharon in occupied Jerusalem.
Opposition to all violence sounds progressive and peace loving, but when not accompanied by action to redress the imbalance in power in other ways, it effectively translates into offering support for the status quo and for the stronger side. In any minimally fair situation, Israel would be under sanctions for all its violations of international law.
Those that favour continued resistance offer a counter-argument that deserves careful examination. In their view, despite the overwhelming public opinion and the mass of legal decisions supporting Palestinian rights, the international community has never done anything to help the Palestinians regain their rights, and is simply giving useless lectures as Israel continues to kill, destroy and colonise. Supporters of armed resistance also argue that while violence should never be sought as an end by itself, or as a first resort to conflict resolution when other options are available, the use of violence has not been outlawed by the international community, and has been the only effective means to reduce the imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians.
In fact, international law and the UN Charter specifically call for violence in certain cases when there is a threat to international peace and security. In 1990-91, the UN approved the use of force to end Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. Nowadays, the US and the UK do not bother with formalities like UN authorisation. They explicitly endorse, but only for themselves, of course, the right to use violence against anyone they choose, at any time, anywhere in the world, and they alone decide when this is justified. They do not even bother to count the innocent victims that they kill in the process. They argue that the sacrifice of innocent lives is a tragic necessity for the greater good.
Notwithstanding such egregious violations, force still exists as a legal option, and this includes the right to resist foreign military occupation. But the Palestinians are the exception. The PLO had to renounce violence in abstract and absolute terms before Washington agreed to talk to its leaders in the late 1980s. It had to do so again as a precondition for entering into the secret talks that led to the Oslo accords. And Chairman Yasser Arafat had to do that over and over again to avoid being relabelled a “terrorist”.
Realistically, rightly or wrongly, the international mood has little tolerance for any use of force by the Palestinians, no matter how slim the opportunities for advancing the political process may be or how violent Israel is. The overwhelming trend (recently expressed by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw during his visit to the region) is that it is far from adequate for the Palestinians only to observe a truce and protect the occupiers from the justified wrath of the victims; they should also disarm unconditionally and unilaterally. The Palestinian leadership accepts that.
The danger is in putting the Palestinians before an uneven choice: abandon violence, not to achieve a fair resolution but only to avoid lectures from the international community, or fight for their rights and be seen as pariahs.
There is a middle course, but it requires a different strategy. The Palestinians, while affirming their commitment to non-violence, should abstain from any negotiations as long as Israel continues to create new facts on the ground with the declared purpose of taking all the land. The Palestinians would, and should, rally around a leadership that renounces violence but at the same time renounces the futile and fraudulent “peace process” whose only concrete achievement is that it has given Israel limitless time to complete its colonisation plans. The Palestinian leadership should renounce the gimmicks of the roadmap and other tranquillisers, and insist that all international efforts be focused on ending Israel’s violations and returning all its soldiers and settlers behind the line of June 4, 1967, forthwith as the first step to a full and fair peace.
If Israel doesn’t want to do this, the Palestinian leadership should declare the end of all efforts to create a two-state solution. But such a strategy requires a Palestinian leadership prepared to demand and fight for its people’s rights, and that unfortunately is nowhere in sight.
Hasan Abu Nimah is former Permanent Representative of Jordan at the United Nations