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Opinion

Peaceful Palestinian resistance is paying off

Forget rock-throwing teens. Growing peaceful Palestinian resistance could tip the conflict.

By Ben White / February 11, 2010



Bethlehem, West Bank

For many, the idea of Palestinian resistance is synonymous with terrorism, conjuring up images of suicide bombings and rockets. This is a distortion shaped by the media and our politicians.

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Beyond the headlines, Palestinian resistance has always included nonviolent tactics.

Today, in rural villages from Bilin and Jayyous to Nilin and Beit Ommar, this kind of Palestinian persistence against Israel’s separation barrier and illegal settlements is paying off – and attracting the participation of international supporters and Jewish Israelis.

Palestinians have been using classic nonviolent strategies such as strikes, demonstrations, and civil disobedience since before the modern state of Israel came into being in 1948. But recently, new momentum, fresh media attention, and an increasingly harsh crackdown by Israeli occupation forces have thrust these strategies into the spotlight.

This newfound attention, however, comes with a danger of double standards, and a distortion of the root causes of the conflict.

For example, Western media and politicians cheer the rise of nonviolent Palestinian resistance, but why do they not urge Israel to adopt the same nonviolent standards? Why is it only Israel that is repeatedly granted the “right of self-defense”? The hypocrisy is heightened because it is the Palestinians who are fighting to secure basic rights such as self-determination.

The core of the conflict is not Israel’s “security” but rather decades-old Israeli policies designed to ensure the domination of one group at the expense of another. So it is a critical error to think that by renouncing armed struggle, the Palestinians could change Israel’s fundamental goals.

But that’s not stopping the protesters from challenging the occupation. Israel’s escalating crackdown suggests that the movement is not only already considered a threat to Israel’s apartheid-style rule, but also has the potential to develop into something more important. In recent months, Israel has targeted leaders such as Jamal Juma, Mohammed Khatib, Mohammad Othman, and Abdullah Abu Rahme with detention without trial and trumped-up charges.

Mr. Othman, who was snatched by Israeli troops and kept in prison for 106 days without charges, says that the strength of the popular resistance – “an initiative from every farmer, every Palestinian who can’t access their land, and not belonging to any political party” – has shaken the Israeli military into launching this wave of raids and abductions.

Israel, which markets itself as the region’s only democracy, has also snatched dozens of villagers in night raids over the past 18 months. Since 2005, 18 Palestinians have been killed and more than 1,500 have been injured in antiwall protests.

These popular protests have also begun to draw attention from senior Fatah and Palestinian Authority (PA) figures. Some of these leaders speak highly of peaceful resistance but have directed only limited funds to support it. Indeed, during Israel’s criminal attack on Gaza last year, PA forces suppressed demonstrations.

It is important that this resistance avoid being co-opted for political purposes, especially since it’s the antithesis of the PA: non-elitist, democratically accountable, and challenging the occupation’s control – as opposed to be being part of it.

Perhaps the main challenge of this movement, however, is in becoming genuinely popular. Weekly demonstrations by committed activists are one thing; the need is for organized, mass actions involving Palestinians from diverse backgrounds.

The need for “collective political action on a sustained level” was highlighted recently by Palestine Solidarity Project co-founders Mousa Abu Maria and Bekah Wolf on the popular Mondoweiss website. They pointed out the lack of “spadework” in getting “people from all social classes and walks of Palestinian life” involved.

Sami Awad, head of the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust, says that nonviolent resistance needs to be understood as being more than just marches. “It’s about practical noncompliance with the occupation,” he says.

While Israel does its best to quash the struggle against its antidemocratic regime, the movement’s potential hinges on key choices and strategies from Palestinians themselves – as well as the international response to a 21st-century anti-colonial fight for equality and basic rights against a thus-far unaccountable international law-breaker.

Ben White, a freelance journalist, is the author of "Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide."

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