Peaceful activists caught in fight
Protesters recently killed or injured in the Palestinian territories highlight the perils of peaceful protest
The death of one foreign activist and serious injury of two others has underscored the growing presence and potential of nonviolent protest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as it shows the limits of such movements in a war zone.Skip to next paragraph
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Within the past six weeks, Tom Hurndall and Brian Avery were grievously wounded by Israeli army gunfire; Rachel Corrie died confronting an army bulldozer.
While the Israeli army and eyewitnesses give starkly divergent accounts of those events, experts who study protest movements all say that these events will give nonviolent activism here new momentum.
"[Corrie's] death will galvanize others," says Dr. Nancy Snow, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton, who studies social movements. "They will not want her to die in vain. But you have to understand that [in nonviolence protest movements] there will be people who die. Outsiders can help, but they have to pass the baton to those living there day in, day out, because you have to rebuild not only homes but trust and respect."
The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) says its mission is to support Palestinian nonviolent resistance by working with Palestinians who the group says would otherwise face "harsh punishment from Israeli forces."
But in doing so, says Dr. Snow, they face dangerous challenges from both Israelis and Palestinians. "You have competing narratives of violent and nonviolent resistance against Israel, that's a problem," says Snow. "There is always this question of whether [activists] can be used as a ruse by those who are really committed to violent resistance."
Snow says that a core strength of Mohandas Gandhi's movement was that Indians were so united behind him. The picture here is far less clear. Just over 64 percent of Palestinians support the continued use of violence against Israel, according to a poll taken this month.
In another poll, the US-based Search for Common Ground found that 80 percent also support nonviolent resistance and 56 percent would participate.
"Once you introduce violence, it is much harder to get away from it," says Lucy Nusseibeh, director of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND), which runs workshops for Palestinians on nonviolent activism. "But there's an enormous interest in alternative resistance," she says.
Indeed, demand for their workshops now outstrips MEND's ability to provide them. It is compensating by creating a radio soap opera featuring a Palestinian who favors violence and one who favors nonviolence.
"Nonviolence creates the space for Palestinians to reach Israelis and ... communicate," says Ms. Nusseibeh. "Fear blocks things enormously and justifies an enormous amount of wrong. You have to address that fear first, so that people can hear a little bit."
In the fog of the current conflict, it is easy to overlook the fact that both sides have long used nonviolent measures. The collapse of the peace process demoralized the Israeli left, but its members still organize actions. Israeli and foreign activists often accompany Palestinians during olive harvests to protect them from attacks by Israeli settlers.