On Friday, 8 July 2011, in the heavily air-conditioned international arrivals terminal of Ben Gurion Airport outside of Tel Aviv, dozens of press photographers clamored to get the best shot of an Israeli activist from Tel Aviv holding a small sign which said, “Welcome to Palestine.” Inside the terminal, Israeli police and immigration authorities were busy processing hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists who had arrived from various European cities with the expressed intention of traveling to the occupied West Bank, a trip that normally requires the permission of the Israeli military.
In the days leading to the event, the Israeli press ran stories about the European activists who were challenging Israel's control over the West Bank by demonstrating their inability to openly travel there. Panic characterized the headlines of virtually all the country's newspapers as the latest in a series of nonviolent efforts by Palestinians and their supporters approached. Despite the hysteria kicked up by the press, none of the activists presented a real challenge to Israeli security. In fact, many were jailed for days in cockroach-infested and sweltering cells before being deported to their home country. Given the media gravity of the event, it is difficult to understand why Israel would treat the passengers, including journalists, so badly except as part of the overreaction to the event as a challenge to Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.
Since the fall of Mubarak's Egypt, reformulations of Palestinian nonviolent resistance to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have enjoyed renewed momentum. On the May 15 anniversary of the Nakba – the commemoration of the Palestinian displacement in 1948 during the creation of the state of Israel – Palestinian refugees walked into Israeli-controlled territory on the Golan Heights, the Lebanese border and inside the West Bank. Israel's reaction to the demonstrations was violent as the Army killed 23 unarmed demonstrators and wounded hundreds with live bullets, tear gas canisters and sound grenades. Since the Nakba day demonstration, other demonstrations have enjoyed renewed interest inside the West Bank, and international supporters of the Palestinian struggle have joined nonviolent efforts to highlight Israel's occupation.
“Stay away from the word leader, we do not have leaders,” Diana Alzeer, a 23-year-old Ramallah-based activist said, as we started our conversation. “We are using new means of nonviolence that Palestinians have not used in decades and Israel feels cornered by it all.” Alzeer is a part of the March 15th movement, a Palestinian youth movement which emerged after the tumultuous events in the Middle East and represents the new face of Palestinian nonviolence in the West Bank.
The recently stifled flotilla of ships sailing from Greece to Gaza in an effort to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza's waters is the latest attempt at this form of international nonviolence. Throughout June, in the run-up to the flotilla, the Israeli government released a variety of statements. From threatening journalists covering the event with a ten-year travel ban, to claiming that flotilla activists would use chemical weapons on Israeli Navy Seals, Israel's hysteria and panic was clearly palpable to even the casual observer of the Middle East. In the end, only one boat – a private French-flagged vessel carrying 16 passengers called the Dignite – managed to sail to Gaza. Israel sent ten war ships and over 150 soldiers to intercept the boat. The passengers were arrested on the charge of “illegal entry to Israel” and deported within 48 hours. A sense of triumph consumed the air in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that Israel was able to avoid an episode of violence such as typified last year's flotilla.
Israeli reactions to Palestinian nonviolent resistance have been swift and explicit. Underlying the Israeli response is the desire to maintain control of the carefully crafted narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The narrative of a human rights struggle overshadowing the current peace process is one that Israel has long feared. In fact, the mainstream understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been framed as both sides striving for peace, sometimes in good faith and sometimes not. However, Israel's recent reactions to Palestinian nonviolence, both locally and on an international scale, reflect the existence of Israel's internal problem of maintaining an ethnic democratic state battling increasingly visible expressions of nonviolent resistance to its colonial management of the territories.
This tension is demonstrated clearly in Israel's reaction to Palestinian-led boycotts of Israel. Starting in 2005 with the support of over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has grown to prominence by hampering Israel's ability to maintain itself in the international community as a normal state – much like the way the South African boycott worked against the Apartheid regime. Dozens of musical and cultural performers have canceled appearances; major European companies such as the French transportation company Veolia have lost billions of dollars in contracts due to pro-BDS pressure and Israeli produce exports to the West have declined in recent years.
One of the major threats that the BDS movement presents for the Israeli government is that it highlights the depth of economic integration the occupied Palestinian territories represents for Israel. In other words, virtually every major business in Israel, from the popular Aroma Café chain to international building company Africa Israel to the national bus service, is doing business in the occupied territories. The BDS movement advocates boycott as long as Israel's noncompliance with international law, which allows the Israeli economy to benefit from the occupation, continues.
Last week, the Israeli government passed a controversial bill that criminalizes support of the BDS movement by Israeli citizens. The bill, which is being labeled as anti-free speech legislation by civil liberties groups in Israel, will hold Israeli citizens personally and financially responsible for successful boycotts. The bill, passed by 47-37 in a late night Knesset vote, allows companies that have suffered economically from political boycotts the right to sue Israeli citizens who publicly support the boycott. The plaintiffs only have to prove intent to harm business through economic boycott and do not have to prove any actual damages. Naturally, criminalization of this nonviolent movement is sure to create enormous publicity for the BDS movement, while raising questions about the quality and permanence of Israel's democratic institutions.
Not only is Israel providing the greatest publicity push that the BDS movement has ever experienced, it is demonstrating the effectiveness of the movement. Internal Israeli criticism of the BDS movement has long been founded on the idea that the movement is simply not effective at challenging Israel's occupation through boycott. The bill, which raises serious questions about the health of Israel's laws protecting free speech, is proof positive that not only is the movement effective, but it has Israeli lawmakers in such a panic that they would risk the bad publicity of an anti-boycott law.
Ofer Neiman, an Israeli citizen active with the pro-BDS group “Boycott From Within,” explained the anti-boycott bill in relation to Israeli reactions to Palestinian nonviolence. “It is increasingly difficult for Israel to get away with its punishment of Palestinian nonviolence,” Neiman argued in an email conversation. “The world is awaking to the fact that [the] Israeli government will sacrifice democratic standards for Jews in order to stop Palestinian nonviolent initiatives like the BDS movement.”
Indeed, the anti-boycott bill is just one in a slew of bills directed at the support structure of Palestinian nonviolent movements which exist in Israel. On 20 July 2011, the Knesset rejected a bill which would allow the government to investigate the funding sources of the biggest “leftist” NGOs in Israel working on issues relating to Israel's occupation such as ACRI, B'tselem – the Israeli center for human rights and Physicians for Human Rights, among others. Although this particular bill was rejected, more legislation is waiting in the wings which would allow the Knesset power over the appointment of Supreme Court justices based on their allegiance to “Zionism,” as well as make criticism of the Israeli armed forces a crime.
For decades, Western pundits have argued that the Palestinians need to adopt Gandhian nonviolent tactics in their struggle for national liberation. If this were to take place, the arguments went, then the world would side with the Palestinian people and understand their legitimate battle for freedom from occupation. Palestinians are now embracing these tactics of nonviolence. The overwhelming support for the BDS call, which, if fully realized, would create severe hardships for Palestinians given their connection to the Israeli economy, is proof that they are willing to take risks to avoid violence and achieve freedom.
At the height of the second intifada as cafes were being blow up, it would have been difficult to imagine that a Palestinian nonviolent initiative such as BDS would be able to cause so much panic inside Israel or that the flotilla as well as the nonviolent protests which engulf the West Bank on a weekly basis would provoke such hysteria.
Israel has successfully deflected criticism of its actions by stressing its exceptional position in the Middle East as the only democracy. In a region of authoritarian dictatorships, the logic goes, Israel's maintenance of a liberal democracy has provided the rationale for giving the country wiggle room in its dealing with difficult security decisions, including the maintenance of a 44-year-old occupation of land secured in a pre-emptive war. Palestinian nonviolent resistance is cracking away at Israel's exceptional position in the Middle East by demonstrating the power which nonviolence has in situations of oppression. In the build up to the September vote on Palestinian statehood, Palestinians will continue to use nonviolence while the looming question hangs in the air – will Palestinians be able to sustain their nonviolence in the face of violent Israeli provocations?