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Passive Resistance


In Tunisia and Egypt, passive resistance seems at this moment to have brought about change. In Iran and Libya, where the rulers believe it is acceptable to murder peaceful protesters, it has so far failed to dislodge cruel oligarchies. In other parts of the Arab world the jury is still out.

Sometime ago I wrote an essay jointly with Yair Ronen (then of Bar-Ilan, now of Ben Gurion University). Entitled On the Child’s Right to Protection of National Identity During Political Conflict: Lessons from the Case of Mubarak Awad, it addressed the question of whether “passive resistance” might not be a more effective way than violence in dealing with Palestinian rights. Mubarak Awad, is a Palestinian-American psychologist who advocates nonviolent resistance. He was born in Jerusalem under the British Mandate. His father was killed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. After high school, Awad completed his education in the USA. His work concentrated on children’s rights around the world and he helped develop programs for troubled and abused children in the USA.

Awad returned to Israel in 1985; there he established the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence, which sponsored several nonviolent actions during the early months on the first intifada. He believed that nonviolent tactics could be used to resist the Israeli military occupation. In what was a typical misjudgment, Israel deported Awad in 1988, after refusing to renew his visa. He now teaches in Washington, DC. Had he been encouraged instead of deported, he might have helped prevent the intifadas and saved countless lives.

In a recent article posted on the New York Review of Books online site, David Shulman discusses the latest book by Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian academic, president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, and one of the few very reasonable voices in the Palestinian world, respected on both sides of the divide. Nusseibeh’s What Is a Palestinian State Worth? describes an earlier stage of organized Palestinian civil disobedience, in which he had a significant part–the popular struggle of the first intifada in 1988 and 1989. But, as we know, violence triumphed and so did Israel.

Shulman mentions Ali Abu Awwad, a young activist who has followed in Mubarak’s footsteps. He runs the Palestinian Movement for Non-Violent Resistance, which has offices in Bethlehem and increasing influence throughout the occupied territories. Shulman quotes him as saying, “Peace itself is the way to peace, and there is no peace without freedom.”

Another champion of passive resistance is Abdallah Abu Rahmah. Once again the Israeli authorities have shot themselves in the foot, by arresting Abu Rahmah. He was prosecuted by the military, and on January 11 the judge sentenced him to sixteen months in jail. The response in Israel has been deafening silence. Sometimes I really do believe we are our own worst enemies.

If we accept that everyone has the right to free speech and peaceful political activity, I cannot for the life of me see why Palestinians should not have that right too, even if our ideologies are in conflict and we are, to use the old metaphor, two families fighting for possession of the same house.

Many will readily blame the current situation on the cumulative trauma resulting from Arab (including Palestinian) violence against Jews, going back to the beginning of the conflict, and the virulent anti-Semitism of much of the Muslim world. This, together with the escalating anti-Israel sentiment in Europe and the West, stoked whether intentionally or not by the BBC and other pan national media, explains a great deal. So does Israeli cultural prickliness. And one cannot help but wonder why Israel is regarded with odium by so many when the whole world has been seeing for itself what obnoxious regimes surround it and how they treat protestors far far worse than Israel does.

Nevertheless, given there is a conflict and it will not go away however hard one might wish it to, wouldn’t one logically prefer peaceful demonstrations rather than violent ones? Why, therefore, should not Israel encourage passive resistance rather than allow violence to be the only tool available? Is it the same miscalculation that led them to encourage and finance Hamas in its early days to emerge as a rival to the secular PLO? Or the arrogant overconfidence that, in recent years, has led to more reversals than successes?

The issue is whether passive resistance can achieve anything in the case of the Palestinians. The fact is it only works where the authorities, like the British in India (after the Amritsar massacre), are not ready to shoot to kill peaceful demonstrators. And in truth many historians question the extent to which Gandhi’s passive resistance was what led the British to leave India. In the case of evil regimes which have no compunction in massacring their own citizens, clearly passive resistance is a risky tactic. Sadly, it must be admitted that in Israel, too, unarmed protestors have in the past been shot and the army is simply not doing its duty by allowing a band of violent pathological settlers to run riot at will and usually unpunished. Though in no way is there any comparison between a state at war with its neighbours and one at war against its own citizens.

Israel is fighting overwhelming odds for its survival. Even if it is well armed, the threats remain visceral and constant, if unsuccessful so far. The majority of the population is committed to survival and will do whatever it takes to meet any existential threat. It is not a scenario in which I can see passive resistance winning.

The Palestinian struggle is not simply one of changing a political system. It has become, in the minds of many, a battle between Islam and Judaism. The Arab world should, in theory, be ready to march from all directions, millions on foot, towards Israel and there would be no way Israel could deal with that threat. It is fortunate indeed that they often hate each other more than they hate the Jews. But in the meantime, why should Israel see passive resistance on the West Bank as such a threat.

But then I cannot understand why Israel did not, from the very beginning in 1967, try to woo the West Bankers and solve the issues through positive measures rather than negative ones. It may be too late now; Hamas may not be prepared to play that game. But at least on the West Bank the evidence is that economic progress achieves more than petty, cruel restrictions and the almost free reign of nationalist bullies.

Even if Peace Talks continue to get nowhere, surely it must make sense to minimize conflict rather than exacerbate it. Who would not rather face a genuinely peaceful protestor than an armed one?

2 thoughts on “Passive Resistance

  1. There is a very big problem with State endorsed/initiated violence in the new digital age and this is that these events will trigger responses for decades and probably centuries forever after. Time was when such things passed through the newspapers, into the history books (for the literate) and folk memory (for the others). They lost their power to motivate. Now they're there at the click of a mouse as if it all happened yesterday. It warps the human memory and becomes a part of everyday consciousness, and maybe to be acted on by some who have a need of a cause. A scary thought when you consider how much axe-grinding history there is out there. Google 'Amritsar' and you'll see what I mean.

  2. My mistake, not 'Amritsar' as that's what we call it, the local name is 'Jallianwala Bagh', which is the site of the massacre.

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