CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — Nothing seems to be working to end the conflict in the Middle East. With the continuing violence in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, Palestinians appear to have few options other than sullen capitulation or the continuation of fruitless conflict and their present unhappy, oppressed state. Few Arab or Muslim countries, despite their rhetoric, are prepared to go to war with Israel. And the Palestinians are at a hopeless disadvantage in the face of overwhelming Israeli power.
But what would happen if they turned to nonviolence?
Imagine, if you can, that, as Mahatma Gandhi did in his famous salt march of 1930 or as Martin Luther King Jr. did at Selma, Ala. in 1965, the Palestinians laid down their stones and rifles, and, possibly joined by other Muslims, marched peacefully and silently in a human wave toward Jerusalem - or sought, in similar fashion, to form human cordons around the Jewish settlements. What would the Israelis do?
The Israelis, who would see such a tactic as a threat to their very existence, may be less reluctant than the British or Americans to use force against an unarmed population.
They begin with their history as victims and their strong belief that the Arabs only understand force. In isolated instances in the past when Palestinians have tried passive resistance, such as the antitax revolt in a Christian suburb of Beit Sahour in 1989, Israeli action has been swift and punitive.
Almost certainly if a peaceful march were to occur, the Israelis would seek to stem such a river of peoples, initially by barricades and tear gas. If the marchers sat down and refused to move, the Israelis would undoubtedly seek to force them back and would certainly be tempted to use fire power to do so.
In today's world, both Israeli and Palestinian actions would be played out before instant television coverage. In terms of world sympathy, it is one thing to be firing at those who are throwing stones or shooting guns. It is another to be firing at and possibly wounding or killing unarmed men, women, and children engaged in a peaceful march.
If a determined and peaceful wave of humanity were accompanied by goals that seemed reasonable to outsiders, such as the elimination of West Bank settlements and the control of East Jerusalem, could Israel withstand the pressures for compromise and restraint from the world community, including the United States?
Gandhi and his independence followers were hopelessly disadvantaged in the face of the power of the world's greatest empire. The Palestinians are in an equally weak position in the face of Israeli power.
Their young men and women are dying in the highly unrealistic hope that their sacrifices will lead to Israeli withdrawal and "the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital." Their violent actions give pretexts for Israel's violent response.
The concept of a Palestinian "salt march" is probably not realistic. Such a maneuver would require advance planning that would almost certainly be instantly detected by Israeli informants.
Palestinians' bravery and readiness to die for their cause have been amply demonstrated in the past and present uprisings.
But nonviolence would require unifying factions and channeling Palestinian ire and pressures for action into patience and the courage of passivity.
It would require charismatic leadership and discipline not easily established under present circumstances. And it would require restraint that would generate world sympathy while not threatening the integrity of the Jewish state. Would refugees who left homes in Israel stop at Jerusalem? The strategy would not be easy.
Yet, do the Palestinians today have other options? For whatever reasons, Yasser Arafat does not feel he can make compromises on Jerusalem and survive. If the peace process breaks down, Israel is likely to cut ties and "separate" the Palestinians into a form of segmented Middle East Bantustan - if they do not seek to reoccupy the territories.
Passive nonviolence may not be an easy option in the Middle East. But as long as escalating retaliation blocks negotiation, it is difficult today to see any other path that might shift the power balance in this tragic conflict.
David D. Newsom is a former US ambassador and undersecretary of State for political affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society