The Middle East Channel

Nonviolence from the bottom up

Nonviolence from the bottom up


The world woke up Monday morning to a shocking and tragic scene, as Israeli commandos launched an unprovoked raid on a flotilla carrying nonviolent activists attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. The latest Israeli provocation has further demonstrated the fundamentally asymmetric nature of this conflict. Yet if this weekend’s news shows us anything, it is that the Palestinian cause, and the infrastructure of occupation and indignity that it opposes, is best served by a commitment to grassroots nonviolence which has lately been reflected in the Palestinian leadership itself.

In the last few months we have seen a tremendous rise in interest by the Palestinian leadership in nonviolent resistance as a tactical and strategic response aimed at ending the occupation. The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has mentioned nonviolence as a strategic option for the Palestinian community in several of his speeches; Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has actively participated in many nonviolent demonstrations and protests, from boycott campaigns of Israeli settlement products to direct action in villages where land is being confiscated for expanding illegal settlements or the Separation Wall. These actions and statements were not expected even a few months ago, much less a few years ago, when they were completely ridiculed by some of the very same leaders.

This begs the question: what happened? What has created this shift in attitude towards nonviolence in the Palestinian leadership?

The first and most apparent answer deals directly with the political reality faced by the Palestinian community. The underlying ‘strategic option’ for the Palestinian political leadership, at least since 1993, had been to engage in negotiations as the means of ending the occupation and establishing an independent state–irrespective of the leader on the Israeli side. The breakdown of this arrangement came from Israel in the form of its current extreme government, which has elected to throw up roadblocks in order to prevent negotiations from even starting. No matter what the Palestinians have tried since Netanyahu’s election, no matter what pressures have been imposed by the international community in general and the US in particular, (putting all political rhetoric aside) the current Israeli government refuses to create a climate conducive to re-starting negotiations. In the absence of a viable partner, the Palestinians have realized they need a new option.

On the other hand, armed resistance had lost much of its strategic appeal already in the early 1990’s. This was based on a political strategic choice made by the Palestinian leadership to move to negotiations. This is not to say that certain Palestinian political factions or militant groups did not engage in armed activities, but rather that they no longer represented a comprehensive strategic option for most political factions and especially for the Palestinian community itself–especially after the appeal of nonviolence as witnessed during the first uprising in 1987. We still hear plenty of militant rhetoric, but very rarely is this translated into practice. Of course I do not underestimate the suffering caused by violence–Palestinian and Israeli families have suffered tremendous pain from violent acts–but the distinction between rhetoric and action lies in the strategic choice of whether armed resistance is employed. Even before the Separation Wall was built around Palestinian cities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian leadership, even the Hamas leadership, had acknowledged the fact that armed resistance was not a fruitful strategic choice and had made calls to minimize, if not end, all such actions.

We are now witnessing a rise in the choice of nonviolence. When the gap was created with the Israeli government refusing to engage in real negotiations, Palestinian leaders began to search for what options were available to them and their community. This is what the Palestinian community engages in on a daily bases, this is what keeps resiliency and steadfastness alive in a community that is literally facing destruction (most acutely suffered in the ongoing siege on Gaza). When leaders looked, they found this value being practiced in villages across the West Bank; they saw people from different political backgrounds unite together in order to save their villages; they saw men and women walk as equals; they saw communities that were empowered to stand and face the harshest of violent responses from the Israeli military; they saw Israelis and internationals join Palestinians in their struggle. As a result, these leaders began to see the value of nonviolence, not only for their limited political survival, but also for the nation of Palestine.

The challenge now, particularly in the aftermath of Israel’s criminal provocation in international waters, will be to keep the momentum of nonviolence going. We are at a potential turning point internationally, and it is vital that all those concerned with the Palestinian cause and peace in the region double-down in defense of our right to nonviolent resistance.

Sami Awad is the Executive Director of Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian nonviolence organization based in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

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