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Nonviolent protest offers little hope for Palestinians

International Herald Tribune – 31 August 2004

The arrival in the Middle East of Arun Gandhi, preaching his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi’s message of love, brotherhood and nonviolence to conflict-weary Israelis and Palestinians, has raised tentative hopes that the bloody conflict may be entering a more reflective phase.

But few Palestinians are likely to embrace peaceful protest as a way of attaining statehood – not because Palestinians are hellbent on mindless retribution against Israelis, but because nonviolence is unlikely to be effective as a strategy.

At a rally in East Jerusalem on Friday, Gandhi led thousands of Palestinians, including Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, and a handful of Israeli peace campaigners on a march in opposition to the wall being built across the West Bank. Under the banner “No to violence, yes to peace,” the protest and others like it were designed to promote the path of Palestinian peaceful resistance to Israel’s military occupation.

The organizers hope Gandhi’s presence in the region can convince the world that Israel’s military actions in the occupied territories are a form of violence against the Palestinian people that will not bring a solution closer and that the Israeli public is wrong to believe that there is “no partner for peace.”

After four wearying years of armed intifada, there are sure to be Palestinians ready to listen to Gandhi’s philosophy that nonviolent struggle is the better path. Some observers even suggest that the recent fall in Palestinian attacks is a sign many Palestinians have already reached the same conclusion.

But for most of the 37 years of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians were nonviolent – and it did them little good. Israel simply entrenched the occupation, illegally moving hundreds of thousands of settlers on to Palestinian land.

Even when Palestinians turned violent in the first intifada of the late 1980s, it was to throw the stones of a David rather than flex the muscles of a Goliath.

The sad truth is that over the last four years, in the second intifada, the Palestinians have learned that there is no necessary correlation between the violence they inflict on Israelis and their own suffering at the hands of Israeli forces. Despite the current lull in attacks on Israelis, Palestinian deaths continue daily.

Palestinians also now understand that violence is the surest way to get their struggle noticed. Bombing buses is immoral, but it makes the front pages, reminding the world that there is a conflict. When Palestinians alone are the victims, the world switches off.

Conversely, when Palestinians adopt peaceful strategies, the news media can barely stifle their yawns. The current hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners protesting the violation of their rights is a case in point. It has utterly failed to ignite international interest, except briefly when the Israeli authorities decided to sizzle kebabs outside cells.

Equally, the dozens of mostly nonviolent protests in the West Bank against the Israeli security wall rarely flicker on to the Western news media’s radar. And once the wall is completed, most avenues for peaceful resistance to the occupation will be blocked for good. Neighbors cut off from each other in a series of isolated cantons will be in no position to stage the kind of mass demonstrations needed to bring about change.

The efficacy of nonviolence might look different to Palestinians were they receiving the steadfast support of leftist Israelis. But in reality it is the Israelis, not the Palestinians, who are the missing peace partners.

Apart from a handful of radical peace groups, Israelis have rejected the legitimacy of all forms of Palestinian resistance, whether peaceful or not. Neither the solidarity tents for the prisoners nor Gandhi’s rallies have been graced by members of Israel’s largest peace bloc, Peace Now.

In South Africa, nonviolent protests helped defeat apartheid because a growing number of whites joined the black and colored population in speaking out against the regime, standing on the front lines and risking jail or death. Israelis, even on the far left, appear a long way from taking this kind of stand against the 37-year occupation of Palestinian land.

Gandhi told his followers in East Jerusalem that what is needed in the region is more love and understanding. But what is required even more urgently is a little more anger and courage – from Israelis who can see the folly of the occupation.

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