Peaceful activists caught in fight

Protesters recently killed or injured in the Palestinian territories highlight the perils of peaceful protest

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"[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.

Palestinian peaceful resistance began on a large scale in 1967 with strikes and boycotts against Israel, which had just seized the territories. It may have culminated in the first months of the Palestinian uprising of 1978 to 1993, with widespread nonviolent resistance to Israel's occupation.

Since the Sept. 2000 resurgence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nonviolent protest has largely been the province of women and children demanding access to schools, food and milk during military restrictions that confine people to their homes.

"We have found that if women and children act, it decreases the violent response of the soldiers," says Annan Qadri, who works with neighborhood committees in Nablus.

Even so, Snow says in conflict situations, nonviolent protesters must remember that they will be seen as resisters and perhaps collaborators with the enemy. "I'm sure that fear spills over to the Israeli military," she adds, referring to the army's attitude toward the ISM.

Hostility between activists and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is clear in their differing accounts of the activists' death and injuries.

Mr. Avery, an American, was shot in the face in Jenin this month. It is unclear whether he will be able to speak or eat properly again. An ISM activist with him at the time says they were alone with their hands raised in the air, about 50 meters from an Israeli armored personnel carrier when it opened fire.

The IDF says that it fired four warning shots at a blank wall in response to the appearance of "four figures ... near the forces holding what appeared to be Molotov cocktails."

Tom Hurndall, a Briton, was shot in the back of the head in Gaza in April and remains in a deep coma. Activists and an Associated Press photographer with him say that, like Mr. Avery and Corrie, he was wearing a fluorescent orange vest. They say soldiers in a sniper tower were shooting at them and hit Mr. Hurndall as he herded two children to safety. IDF spokeswoman Maj. Sharon Feingold says the soldiers spotted an armed Palestinian shooting at their post and returned fire. The incident is still under investigation, she says.

As for Corrie, the IDF says she was not run over by their bulldozer last month, contrary to eyewitness accounts, but crushed by blocks of concrete in a sand pile that the bulldozer was moving. Corrie's is the most inflammatory case, in part because there are harrowing photos of the event. The ISM has received a torrent of hate mail in the wake of her death, but it has also seen interest in their work soar. Where they once received three inquiries a day, now the group gets seven to 10.

The ISM's spokesman says that applicants have no illusions about safety. That's a good thing, says Snow. "Nonviolence doesn't mean you'll be protected," she says, citing Mr. Gandhi's call for "soldiers" who had the courage to fight without a knife or gun.

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