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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.

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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.

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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.“