Borrowing from Gandhi? Palestinian passive resistance gains followers
Palestinian passive resistance protests are gaining favor with some West Bank politicians and the public. But unlike Gandhi's followers, militancy and stone throwing remain deeply ingrained.
Bilin, West Bank
As has become ritual in this Palestinian village for the last five years, every Friday several hundred demonstrators march toward Israel's security fence - and toward a confrontation with soldiers stationed on the other side.Skip to next paragraph
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Wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., this past Friday Ashraf Abu Rahmeh joined demonstrators chanting against the security barrier – declared illegal by the International Court of Justice. Despite the fact that his brother, Bassem, was killed by the Israeli army in a similar demonstration last year, Mr. Rahmeh says he's not seeking revenge.
"God will take revenge,'' Rahmeh says. "I support non-violence because the image of Palestinians is that we are peace loving."
But seconds later, several youths begin to hurl rocks at the fence. Soon, hissing canisters of tear gas rain down around the demonstrators, enveloping them in smoke. One injured demonstrator, face bloodied, is ushered away from scene after a tear gas canister strikes him in the forehead.
Within a few minutes, the "non-violent" protest is broken up.
It's taken years, but the predominantly passive Palestinian protest movement started in Bilin seems to be making inroads among a broader swath of Palestinians, winning public support from the likes of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But as last Friday's demonstration highlights, transitioning to non-violence is an uphill climb.
Frustrated with unending peace talks and disillusioned with the recent military Intifada, many Palestinians are looking for a new path to statehood. But those advocating passive resistance are asking Palestinians to swallow a bitter pill: accepting the inefficacy of Arab militants against Israel's military superiority.
"It's not a war between two armies. By using non-violence, we take away the security excuse from the Israelis,'' says Mohammed Khatib, a Bilin businessman active in the local popular committee organizing the weekly non-violent protest. "It shows the power of the Palestinian people, which is the right to live in this land.''
Stones remain weapons of resistance
For successive generations of Palestinians reared in conflict with Israel, most assume that statehood will only result from some form of confrontational struggle with the Jewish state. Even those disillusioned with the militarized Palestinian uprising of the last decade, the "Intifada of the Stones'' of the late 1980s (when Palestinians used rocks and Molotov cocktails against Israeli soldiers), still retains a nostalgic appeal among Palestinians as a more organic grassroots uprising untainted by Palestinian political rivalry.
Organizers in Bilin admit that moving Palestinians away from stone-throwing to the fully non-violent doctrine of passive resistance promoted by Mohandes Ghandi in India and Rev. King in the segregated south of the 1950s is not easy.
Khatib says that many Palestinians who see the protests on television are skeptical about the effectiveness of non-violent confrontation. Rather than risk alienating followers by denouncing armed resistance, or stone throwing explicitly, Khatib says he prefers persuasion.
"We must understand that rock throwing has been part of Palestinian resistance culture since the first Intifada. Palestinians believe they have the right to armed resistance under international law,'' he says. But he adds, that "I think the Palestinian people are clever enough to know which way is the better way without knocking on a sensitive issue. It takes more courage to lie in front of a bulldozer.''