After Egypt uprising, Israel can't afford to ignore nonviolent Palestinian protesters

As protests shake much of the Middle East, Israel should be less concerned with nonviolent Palestinian resistance movements than with what it would mean for them to fail. Israel should engage, not sideline, these groups. The alternatives for such a frustrated people aren't peaceful.

For the past month here in the Middle East, I’ve been immersed in studying the world of the Palestinian nonviolence and popular resistance movements, whose pulses were racing watching the mass demonstrations that toppled the governments in Egypt and Tunisia.

“We are seeing a democratic revolution in the Middle East. This is only the beginning, not an end, to the uprisings,” I was told last Saturday by Mustafa Barghouti, a former Palestinian presidential candidate and head of the Palestinian Initiative, whose popular resistance coalition garnered 20 percent of the votes in the last elections.

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Even the Palestinian government itself has felt pressure for political reform in the wake of Egypt’s uprising. On Saturday, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would call for elections in September. And President Mahmoud Abbas’s Cabinet resigned Monday under pressure from Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Last week, the deputy governor of Hebron, Samir Ahmad Abuznaid, connected regional and local events, as he told me that “what is happening in the region has to do with the Palestinian cause. Israel will need to reconsider its policies, because its [Arab] allies are stepping down.”

As Egyptian protesters overwhelmed the streets with celebration at their ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Israel can no longer afford to ignore or stifle the nonviolent, popular resistance movements of the Palestinian people. These groups carry a remarkable message of healing for a region wracked with instability and division – but their ranks are losing hope. And the alternatives for such a deeply frustrated people are not peaceful protests.

Israel should be less concerned with the presence of Palestinian nonviolent demonstration movements than with what it would mean for them to fail.

Peaceful protesters losing hope

Palestinians in restaurants and coffee shops all over the West Bank are glued to their TV sets, which are broadcasting non-stop coverage of the protests from Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen. Locals are thrilled to see Egyptians bring an end to a 30-year despotic rule with minimum casualties, in contrast to the meager results they accrued from their own failed intifadas, with thousands killed. Some have also expressed satisfaction that Israel must be feeling the heat as its traditional allies face deep internal unrest and major shifts. But none has yet offered that a third intifada is on its way in the Palestinian territories.

Certainly, though, the conditions would be ripe. Peace negotiations are in shambles; a quarter of the population is unemployed, and Palestinians are incensed by the continuing settler violence, with two Palestinian villagers killed just in the past two weeks. Mr. Barghouti said that if the people do not see results from nonviolence soon, they would resort again to the use of force. Even so, two-thirds of Palestinians in the West Bank support a nonviolent approach, says Sami Awad, the head of Holy Land Trust, a Bethlehem-based organization focused on nonviolence.

Low-level demonstrations against the Israeli occupation are ongoing – about five or six each Friday in different parts of the West Bank. These often get dispersed quickly by Israeli troops, who set off sound bombs, and threaten protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, as I observed first-hand last Friday. This particular demonstration was in al-Mumasarah village, comprising roughly 30 individuals, almost entirely internationals and Israeli citizens, with only a few Palestinians. I asked one of the Palestinian organizers about the small turnout, and he lamented, “The people are losing hope. The demonstrations used to be much bigger, but have yielded no results. We were not able to get back our land.”

This lost hope should concern Israel more than any peaceful protest. When the frustrations of Palestinians can no longer be channeled through peaceful demonstrations, but through massive uprisings, such movements may be led by much more sinister characters than those who quote Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The healing message of nonviolence

Consider the message carried by local nonviolence heroes such as Sami Awad, Ali Abu Awwad, and Ayed Morrar – Palestinian Christians and Muslims who talked to me more about the need to assuage Israeli fear, trauma, and suffering than about Israeli occupation and brutality. Astonishingly, Mr. Awad, a Palestinian son of a refugee, told me, “We, the Palestinians, must do for the Jews what the international community failed to do – heal the trauma they have experienced. This would free both them and us.”

It simply does not get more compassionate and powerful than that, with leaders who are able to prioritize healing the trauma of the Jewish people in the face of so much immediate suffering in the Palestinian community. It’s amazing to see that these same movements are being sidelined – their leaders imprisoned, demonstrations shut down, and many protesters injured or killed. Since 2004, 21 have died in peaceful demonstrations against Israel’s separation barrier.

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The winds of change are indeed in the air, and the whole region is being swayed by them. With American encouragement, Israel should boldly engage these groups and reward their consecrated dedication to nonviolence, instead of sidelining them. Peace requires it.

Janessa Gans Wilder, a former CIA analyst, is founder and president of Euphrates Institute. She is currently leading and teaching a semester study abroad to the Middle East, focused on peace and sustainability.

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