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.

By , Correspondent

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.

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."

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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.''

Symbolic boycotts

In addition to the weekly anti-fence demonstrations, the Palestinian passive resistance movement includes a nascent boycott effort to persuade Palestinians stop buying an estimated $500 million annually in goods manufactured in the Israeli settlements. There's also a peace movement that's planting trees in the West Bank.

Concepts like “masira slmiya'' and “intifada el sha'ab'' – Arabic for “peaceful protest'' and the “people's uprising,'' respectively – are at the core of a relatively new debate that's taking place among politicians here and in Palestinian high schools. And voices pro - and con - are heard.

“Why shouldn't we fight the people who are killing our people everyday?'' says Abdel Khader Azzeh, a 17-year old Palestinian student at a private high school in Ramallah. ”I'm not sorry about the killing of soldiers at the checkpoints.''

Support for armed resistance has deep roots on both sides of the Palestinian Fatah-Hamas political divide. Hamas's 1987 Charter states: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors."

According to the 1968 charter of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization, “armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine.'' “Guerilla action'' is envisioned as the core of the Palestinian population war.'' The Fatah flag shows two crossed hands holding rifles with a grenade in the middle.

President Mahmoud Abbas' decision to negotiate with Israel and dismantle Fatah's militias was criticized by some in his party.

A court victory brings credibility

Abandoning violence for the most part, Bilin residents along with international and Israeli sympathizers have staged marches to the Israel's security fence for the last five years. Like many villages in the vicinity of the barrier, the fence has cut residents off from their agricultural lands. In 2007, the residents won a landmark Israeli court case instructing the army to reroute the fence. That victory helped bolster the credibility of Bilin's approach as an effective model for fighting Israel.

“This is something that is getting bigger every day,'' says Avi Isacharoff, the Palestinian affairs beat reporter for Haaretz, an Israeli daily newspaper. “This is very close to what the first intifada was about. Still if you ask Palestinians to choose between different paths to reaching to a Palestinian state – violent struggle, negotiations and non violence – non-violence comes in third.''

Last Friday, Ramallah religious court lawyer Khidar Allah, attended Bilin demonstration for the first time, he says, because of the “success'' of the Bilin protests to stir sympathy.

But after the protest broke up, Bilin grocery store owners Rafat and Mahal Khatib offered a different perspective. “We’re fed up. We had been going out to demonstrations every week. It's no use carrying out popular resistance. People want to work.“

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