An American activist once gave me a book she had written that detailed her experiences in Palestine. The largely visual volume documented her journey in the occupied West Bank, a place rife with barbed wire, checkpoints, soldiers and tanks. It also highlighted how Palestinians resisted the occupation peacefully – in contrast to the prevalent media depictions linking Palestinian resistance to violence.
More recently, I received a book glorifying nonviolent resistance and referring to self-proclaimed Palestinian fighters who renounced violence as “converts.” The book elaborated on several wondrous examples of how these “conversions” came about. Apparently a key factor was the discovery that not all Israelis supported the military occupation. The fighters realized that an environment that allowed both Israelis and Palestinians to work together would be best for Palestinians seeking other, more effective means of liberation.
An American priest also explained to me the impressive scale on which nonviolent resistance is happening. He showed me brochures he had obtained during a visit to a Bethlehem organization that teaches youth the perils of violence and the wisdom of nonviolence. The organization and its founders run seminars and workshops and invite speakers from Europe and the United States to share their knowledge on the subject with the (mostly refugee) students.
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Every so often, an article, video or book surfaces with a similar message: Palestinians are being taught nonviolence; Palestinians are responding positively to the teachings of nonviolence.
As for progressive and Leftist media and audiences, stories praising nonviolence are electrifying, for they ignite a sense of hope that a less violent way is possible, that the teachings of Gandhi are not only relevant to India, in a specific time and space, but throughout the world, anytime.
These depictions repeatedly invite the question: where is the Palestinian Gandhi? Next they invite the answer: a Palestinian Gandhi already exists, in numerous West Bank villages bordering the Israeli Apartheid Wall, where they peacefully confront the carnivorous Israeli bulldozers eating up Palestinian land.
In a statement marking a recent visit by the group Elders to the Middle East, India’s Ela Bhatt, a “Gandhian advocate of non-violence,” explained her role in The Elders’ latest mission: “I will be pleased to return to the Middle East to show the Elders’ support for all those engaged in creative, nonviolent resistance to the occupation – both Israelis and Palestinians.”
For some, the emphasis on nonviolent resistance is a successful media strategy. You are certainly far more likely to get Charlie Rose’s attention by discussing how Palestinians and Israelis organize joint sit-ins than by talking about the armed resistance of militant groups ferociously fighting the Israeli army.
For others, ideological and spiritual convictions are the driving forces behind their involvement in the nonviolence campaign that is reportedly raging in the West Bank. These realizations seem to be largely led by Western advocates.
On the Palestinian side, the nonviolent “brand” is also useful. It has provided an outlet for many who were engaged in armed resistance, especially during the Second Palestinian Intifada. Some fighters, such as those affiliated with the Fatah movement, have become involved in art and theater after hauling automatic rifles and topping Israel’s most-wanted list for years.
Politically, the term is used by the West Bank government as a platform that would allow for the continued use of the word moqawama – Arabic for “resistance” – but without committing to a costly armed struggle, which would certainly not go down well if adopted by the non-elected government deemed “moderate” by both Israel and the United States.
Whether in subtle or overt ways, armed resistance in Palestine is always condemned. Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah government repeatedly referred to it as “futile.” Some insist it is a counterproductive strategy. Others find it morally indefensible.
The problem with the nonviolence bandwagon is that it is grossly misrepresentative of the reality on the ground. It also takes the focus away from the violence imparted by the Israeli occupation – in its routine and lethal use in the West Bank, and the untold savagery in Gaza – and places it solely on the shoulders of the Palestinians.
As for the gross misrepresentation of reality, Palestinians have used mass nonviolent resistance for generations – as early as the long strike of 1936. Nonviolent resistance has been and continues to be the bread and butter of Palestinian moqawama, from the time of British colonialism to the Israeli occupation. At the same time, some Palestinians fought violently as well, compelled by a great sense of urgency and the extreme violence applied against them by their oppressors. It is similar to the way many Indians fought violently, even during the time that Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas were in full bloom.
Those who reduce and simplify India’s history of anti-colonial struggle are doing the same to Palestinians.
Misreading history often leads to an erroneous assessment of the present, and, thus, a flawed prescription for the future. For some, Palestinians cannot possibly get it right, whether they respond to oppression nonviolently, violently, with political defiance or with utter submissiveness. The onus will always be on them to come up with solution, and to do so creatively and in ways that suit our Western sensibilities and our often selective interpretations of Gandhi’s teachings.
Violence and nonviolence are mostly collective decisions that are shaped and driven by specific political and socioeconomic conditions and contexts. Unfortunately, the violence of the occupier has a tremendous role in creating and manipulating these conditions. It is unsurprising that the Second Palestinian Uprising was much more violent than the first, and that violent resistance in Palestine gained a huge boost after the victory scored by the Lebanese resistance in 2000, and again in 2006.
These factors must be contemplated seriously and with humility, and their complexity should be taken into account before any judgments are made. No oppressed nation should be faced with the demands that Palestinians constantly face. There may well be a thousand Palestinian Gandhis. There may be none. Frankly, it shouldn’t matter. Only the unique experience of the Palestinian people and their genuine struggle for freedom could yield what Palestinians as a collective deem appropriate for their own. This is what happened with the people of India, France, Algeria, South Africa, and many other nations that sought and eventually attained their freedom.