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Palestinian hunger strikes: the power of peaceful protest

Hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention ended with a deal this week for better treatment. That showed the power of peaceful protest. If Palestinians adopt nonviolence as a strategic tool, that could bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

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The future impact of this campaign is far from clear, but it could certainly serve as a model for using strategic nonviolence. The public protests managed to create a united front within the divided Palestinian society, while shifting power away from a largely dysfunctional and factionalized political system and back to the people. However, the protests did fail to generate strong international attention, let alone support – certainly a discouraging sign.

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For Israel, the rise of Palestinian strategic nonviolence could be a game changer. If Israel responds to nonviolence with violence this can truly
 backfire, domestically, internationally, and among Palestinians. Similarly, the campaign over the end of “administrative detention” for prisoners exposes the problematic aspects of Israel’s military presence in the West Bank.

The Palestinian prisoner campaign brings to mind the 1980-81 hunger strikes of prisoners affiliated with the Irish Republican Army. Britain refused to respond to the prisoners’ demands. The subsequent death of IRA volunteer Bobby Sands mobilized public opinion on behalf of the prisoners and the IRA. In this case, Israel wisely responded.

Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist working group, and coauthor of the book, “Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.


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