Sunday, July 11, 2010

Discussion of Non-Violence in Palestine

Nicolas Kristof in NYT
Despite being stoned and tear-gassed on this trip, I find a reed of hope here. It’s that some Palestinians are dabbling in a strategy of nonviolent resistance that just might be a game-changer.

The organizers hail the methods of Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., recognizing that nonviolent resistance could be a more powerful tool to achieve a Palestinian state than rockets and missiles. Bilin is one of several West Bank villages experimenting with these methods, so I followed protesters here as they marched to the Israeli security fence.

Most of the marchers were Palestinians, but some were also Israeli Jews and foreigners who support the Palestinian cause. They chanted slogans and waved placards as photographers snapped photos. At first the mood was festive and peaceful, and you could glimpse the potential of this approach.

But then a group of Palestinian youths began to throw rocks at Israeli troops. That’s the biggest challenge: many Palestinians define “nonviolence” to include stone-throwing.

Soon after, the Israeli forces fired volleys of tear gas at us, and then charged. The protesters fled, some throwing rocks backward as they ran. It’s a far cry from the heroism of Gandhi’s followers, who refused even to raise their arms to ward off blows as they were clubbed.

(I brought my family with me on this trip, and my kids experienced the gamut: we were stoned by Palestinian kids in East Jerusalem, and tear-gassed by Israeli security forces in the West Bank.)

Another problem with these protests, aside from the fact that they aren’t truly nonviolent, is they typically don’t much confound the occupation authorities.

But imagine if Palestinians stopped the rock-throwing and put female pacifists in the lead. What if 1,000 women sat down peacefully on a road to block access to an illegal Jewish settlement built on Palestinian farmland? What if the women allowed themselves to be tear-gassed, beaten and arrested without a single rock being thrown? Those images would be on televisions around the world — particularly if hundreds more women marched in to replace those hauled away.

“This is what Israel is most afraid of,” said Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, a prominent Palestinian who is calling for a nonviolent mass movement. He says Palestinians need to create their own version of Gandhi’s famous 1930 salt march.

One genuinely peaceful initiative is a local boycott of goods produced by Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Another is the weekly demonstrations in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah against evictions of Palestinians there. And in Gaza, some farmers have protested Israel’s no-go security zones by publicly marching into those zones, even at the risk of being shot.

So far there is no Palestinian version of Martin Luther King Jr. But one candidate might be Ayed Morrar. A balding, mild-mannered activist, he was the mastermind behind the most successful initiative so far: nonviolent demonstrations a half-dozen years ago in the West Bank village of Budrus against Israel’s construction of a security fence there. More than many other Palestinians, he has a shrewd sense of public relations.

“With nonviolent struggle, we can win the media battle,” Mr. Morrar told me, speaking in English. “They always used to say that Palestinians are killers. With nonviolence, we can show that we are victims, that we are not against Jews but are against occupation.”

Mr. Morrar spent six years in Israeli prisons but seems devoid of bitterness. He says that Israel has a right to protect itself by building a fence — but on its own land, not on the West Bank.

Most Palestinian demonstrations are overwhelmingly male, but in Budrus women played a central role. They were led by Mr. Morrar’s quite amazing daughter, Iltezam Morrar. Then 15, she once blocked an Israeli bulldozer by diving in front of it (the bulldozer retreated, and she was unhurt).

Israeli security forces knew how to deal with bombers but were flummoxed by peaceful Palestinian women. Even when beaten and fired on with rubber bullets, the women persevered. Finally, Israel gave up. It rerouted the security fence to bypass nearly all of Budrus.

The saga is chronicled in this year’s must-see documentary “Budrus,” a riveting window into what might be possible if Palestinians adopted civil disobedience on a huge scale. In a sign of interest in nonviolent strategies, the documentary is scheduled to play in dozens of West Bank villages in the coming months, as well as at international film festivals.

I don’t know whether Palestinians can create a peaceful mass movement that might change history, and their first challenge will be to suppress the stone-throwers and bring women into the forefront. But this grass-roots movement offers a ray of hope for less violence and more change.

HIGHLIGHT          Patrick Connors         July 11th, 2010
Dear Mr. Kristof,

Thank you for writing about the Palestinian protest movement against Israeli apartheid. You did convey some valuable information, but missed some important, larger context.

First, Palestinians are not "dabbling" in nonviolent protest. They have a long. rich history of nonviolent protest, and Israel similarly has a long history of brutally repressing nonviolent Palestinian protest, a sign indeed that Israel fears nonviolent protest.

The first intifada, as just one historical example, was largely nonviolent, with strikes, marches, refusal to pay taxes, etc., in addition to youth throwing rocks at armed Israeli soldiers.

In this more recent intifada, as another example, Palestinians have held thousands of largely nonviolent protests from 2002 to present against Israel's wall built on West Bank land. The protests you mentioned in Budrus and Bil'in are some of the more prominent campaigns during the last eight years, but are not at all the only ones. Budrus was indeed unique in the success that was achieved there, and Ayed Morrar, Iltezam Morrar and others - friends of mine - deserve tremendous credit for that great success. They did mobilize their entire community in a very effective manner, with women and girls playing extremely important roles.

Still, you are missing vital information when you set Budrus as the good example and Bil'in as the bad example of Palestinian protest. The reality is much more subtle and explains some major Palestinian problems in conducting nonviolent campaigns against Israeli repression. Israel routed its wall was routed through Budrus' land in the West Bank to eat up land for an Israeli military area - as I remember, a firing range - and not for the expansion of a Jewish settlement. In Bil'in and many other places where protests are being held, Israel built the wall deep in the West Bank to steal more of those village's land for settlement expansion. The settlement enterprise, homes for thousands of settlers and the fortunes of Israeli real estate companies like Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev's Africa Israel depend upon completing those settlements - in Mattityahu East on Bil'in's land, as just one example.

Thus while Budrus' mobilization was excellent, it was against a target with fewer vested Israeli interests behind it. After ten months of powerful protests in Budrus, the Israeli government decided it was not worth it to hold onto a military area, whereas, to my knowledge, the Israeli government has not substantially conceded and rerouted the wall anywhere in the West Bank where the Wall's route was designed to create more space for settlement expansion.

Ayed, Iltezam and Budrus deserve all the credit for the reasons you note, but Bil'in and other villages do not deserve to be cast as failed examples of Palestinian nonviolent leadership and protest. Due to the importance to Israel of the Mattityahu East settlement, the people of Bil'in have been forced to continue their protest campaign for five years against the wall and settlements on their land, and have weathered a ferocious assault by the Israeli military, leading to the death of one nonviolent Palestinian protester, injuries to hundreds of others, and the arrest of tens of protesters. This Israeli strategy of crushing Palestinian protest in places like Bil'in and Ni'lin, arresting and harrassing the protest leaders (Abdullah and Adeeb Abu Rahmah from Bil'in are still sitting in Israeli jails), has achieved some success in fragmenting protests over time, resulting in more chaotic scenes like those you witnessed in Bil'in.

Yes, an important lesson of Budrus and Bil'in is the value of the whole community, including women, participating in protests, but other major lessons include Israel's refusal to give up on settlement expansion despite Palestinian protests, and the systematic strategy that Israel employs to attempt to break any sustained, long-term campaign of Palestinian protests.

Finally, thank you for mentioning the growing Palestinian and international boycott movement as another example of nonviolent Palestinian protest. However, by focusing on the boycott of settlement products recently championed by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, you have only recognized a small portion of the large and growing international boycott movement, which focuses on all Israeli products, as well as a boycott of Israeli cultural and academic institutions. The Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Movement was founded by Palestinian civil society groups five years ago, has been endorsed by a wide range of Palestinian and international organizations, and has achieved many successes worldwide. Information on this growing movement can be found at

Thanks again for your column. It conveyed a brief snapshot, but missed some important context and history that I'm sure you were unable to glean during a very brief visit.

Patrick Connors

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