Many of us with sympathies—and therefore blinders—on the side of the Free Gaza Movement’s work have been reluctant to accept the possibility that, indeed, people aboard the Mavi Marmara and other vessels attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip earlier this week were anything but nonviolent as Israeli soldiers descended from helicopters above. The facts of the incident remain very much in question, to be sure, and they will continue to be until a truly international, plausibly objective investigation takes place. While it cannot be taken yet as conclusive, there is some evidence provided by the Israelis that their soldiers met violent resistance before, during, or after their shooting spree that finally killed at least nine activists. This video of the events aboard the Mavi Marmara has been widely circulated:
Meanwhile, reports have begun to emerge from among the blockade-runners, including an Arab-Israeli Knesset member, a German activist, and a Turkish mother who brought her 1-year-old baby aboard. They insist that the Israelis fired on the Mavi Marmara before boarding, that those on board had no weapons short of wooden batons, and that the Israelis seemed intent on sending a bloody message.
But supposing the activists did try to defend themselves violently—how does that affect the ways we think about this incident in terms of nonviolence? As in any situation so tragic, and amidst a wider conflict so volatile, we’re faced with an array of perplexing questions. Encountering such questions is natural and, as much as one can muster, to be welcomed. For it is through them that we begin to grope after a way forward, a better way, one that has learned from the past and hopes for the future.
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It is disappointing to think that a brutal assault on the Gaza blockade-breakers was necessary to gain the world’s attention when they have been risking their lives, peacefully, to bring aid to Gazans since August of 2008. Worse, what if the thing that finally put Free Gaza on the front pages was some activists’ attempt to meet the Israeli soldiers’ violence with violence of their own? Before, the Free Gaza Movement’s resolutely nonviolent approach earned them mainly obscurity, but an act of self-defense—resulting in much more violence in reply—may have changed the equation. Suddenly, world leaders are paying notice, and institutions from the United Nations Security Council to The New York Times are issuing statements of support. Egypt is even lifting its side of the Gaza blockade. Has violence, in this case, worked?
In its way, yes, violence works; it destroys people and things, and it certainly draws attention. The crucial challenge of nonviolent resistance, however, is to develop creative tactics that will point eyes and minds not to the bloodshed but to the conditions of injustice. (That’s what Waging Nonviolence is for: to highlight struggles for justice against a mainstream media that would prefer to present a version of the news in which little happens or matters except when violence is involved.)
In the days to come, though, the judgment of the world will depend very much upon the extent to which the activists really did fight back and, in doing, partly justified the soldiers’ onslaught. (Nothing, however, can truly justify the use of such disproportionate force.) To the extent that the activists and their mission were nonviolent, they will earn the moral high ground. Their nonviolence thereby invites Israel to respond not with the violence it is so effective in dispensing, but to join in a common cause of bringing about justice. The fundamentally nonviolent purpose of the Freedom Flotilla—to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza and to break what much of the international community considers an illegal blockade—is already what has aroused the world’s sympathy and put Israel in a very uncomfortable situation, perhaps even more so than during the full-scale invasions of Lebanon and Gaza in the recent years. The fact that many aboard the flotilla were noted peacemakers and people committed to and trained in nonviolence makes their statement all the more powerful. The more insistent the activists are on eschewing violence and putting themselves in harm’s way to do right, the more any injustice at play in the situation will come to light for all to see—and the less any military power can justify aggressive action. Such power becomes undermined without a shot fired.
What is probably most at stake in the questions of violence and nonviolence surrounding this incident is the future character of the pro-Palestinian movement—among the international community of course, but foremost in the Palestinian territories themselves. A BBC report last month suggests that, despite growing interest in nonviolent methods among Palestinians, there is still a lack of willingness to make a comprehensive commitment. (In the days following the attack on the flotilla, there have already been skirmishes with Israeli troops resulting in Palestinian deaths.) Many leaders remain hopeful that acts of violence will help them make progress in securing independence and the kind of society they long for. These voices appear rather representative, speaking after attending a talk in Ramallah by Rajmohan Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson:
“I came to promote non-violent resistance,” said Mahmoud Ramahi, secretary general of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and a member of the Islamist movement Hamas.
“We support all types of resistance—non-violent, economic, political and armed resistance,” he said—apparently missing the point of strictly peaceful campaigns.
Hind Awad, 22, a campaigner for an international boycott of Israel, said non-violent methods had historically been a “major tool” of the Palestinians.
“I also think that under international law, armed struggle is just, for people that are living under occupation,” she added.
Yet the Palestine-Israel situation is a case in point of the endlessly cyclical and self-perpetuating nature of violence. From the 1940s onward, the more Palestinians and their Arab neighbors have tried to fight, the more Western-backed Israeli forces have been able to justify sweeping and decisive retaliation, as well as outright preemption. The international community can help break the cycle by exemplifying a kind of resistance that is at once effective and nonviolent. The BBC report tells of Najmadeen al-Husseini, a 62 year-old man who lives under occupation in the West Bank:
In his view, two decades of negotiations have yielded little, yet “military resistance will get us nowhere… what are Kalashnikovs against tanks?”
“If the world supports us, peaceful resistance will get us something back,” he says.
Providing that support will require nonviolent discipline and self-sacrifice, of a kind that demolishes any moral standing held by those who would support injustice with force. If that discipline broke on Monday, all the more reason to restore it for the future. Also needed, meanwhile, are the kinds of creative, courageous, and nonviolent tactics such as the Free Gaza Movement has been using since 2008, as well as ones that can make even more undeniable and unignorable the fact that more fighting is not the answer, justice is.
Nathan Schneider writes about religion, reason and violence for publications including The Boston Globe, Commonweal, Seed, Religion Dispatches, AlterNet, and others. He is also an editor at Killing the Buddha.