Some ask why the Palestinians seem to have been left behind in the so-called Arab Spring. In fact, they have not.
Palestinians in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and throughout the Middle East region have been engaging in nonviolent resistance over the past year. But the Western media have been largely silent in their coverage of this remarkable movement, which is unifying groups as disparate as Fatah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Unless the West recognizes these peaceful initiatives, some Palestinians may question whether nonviolent civil resistance will be any better than its violent alternative.
The current nonviolent resistance movement in the region – known as the Arab Spring or Arab Awakening – can, in fact, be connected back to the struggle that started in the Palestinian territories in 1987.
As American University of Beirut Professor Rami Zurayk notes, “the Arab uprisings have of course taken their inspiration from the [first] Palestinian intifada.” However he clarifies that the reverse is also true: There is “a constant feeding in from the Arab uprisings to Palestine and from Palestine to the Arab uprisings.”
Here in Lebanon, the diplomatic Israeli-Palestinian peace process embraced by the West has never been very popular. According to the leaked “Palestine papers,” Palestinian negotiators were willing to concede the right of return, recognized by UN Security Council resolution 194, to all Palestinian refugees but a select 10,000. One should not be surprised that this concession was unpopular here; over 400,000 Palestinian refugees are registered in Lebanon alone.
But their reaction to this and other developments has shifted in recent months. While in the past many Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon have supported the path of armed resistance to fight for their rights, today they are peacefully taking to the streets.
The new wave of Palestinian non-violent civil resistance in Lebanon started last year on the anniversary of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” to commemorate the expulsion or fleeing of around 700,000 Palestinians from their land in 1948. On May 15, 2011 more than 50,000 Palestinian refugees gathered in a non-violent demonstration near Lebanon’s southern border with Israel. Since then, Lebanon’s Palestinians have been regularly organizing peaceful sit-ins and demonstrations, demanding civil rights in Lebanon (which they lack) and the right to return to their homeland.
But while the Palestinian Authority’s recent bid for statehood at the United Nations generated a lot of Western media interest, that same media are not reporting on the Palestinians’ peaceful protests in Lebanon, and were mostly silent when Hamas leaders in Gaza issued a declaration last December that “violence is no longer the primary option” for the party’s resistance against Israeli occupation.
At around the same time, the Western media also largely ignored Palestinian Khader Adnan’s hunger strike to protest against the Israeli policy of “administrative detention” – holding Palestinian prisoners indefinitely without trial or charge. Reports about the hunger strike only started to appear in February when Mr. Adnan was close to death. Subsequently, at least 1,600 more prisoners joined the hunger strike, with several approaching death.
Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, criticized the lack of response from Western governments, media, and even the UN itself. Since then, Egyptian mediation negotiated a deal where Israel agreed to meet some of the prisoners’ key demands, ending the hunger strike for most, although several prisoners have continued their protest.
Throughout the spring, there was a frenzy of non-violent events in the region showing solidarity with the Palestinian hunger strikers. On March 30 an unprecedented series of peaceful demonstrations were organized in the Palestinian territories and the neighboring countries of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, under the banner of the Global March to Jerusalem. And then on May 15, people came out into the streets once again to remember the Nakba.
All of the major Palestinian parties are coordinating these activities, including Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The US considers the latter three terrorist groups.
As with the hunger strikes, the Western media are largely ignoring the remarkable fact that these three parties are now actively embracing non-violent resistance to achieve their political goals. But even when Hamas recently leaked to the press that the party is conducting secret talks with several European governments, the Western media barely noticed.
The danger is that Western silence – in the media and in government – on this peaceful movement will undermine the effectiveness of the Palestinian protesters. What good is peaceful protest if it is not recognized or engaged?
In a recent op-ed, Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan argued that the international community must give Palestinian non-violent resistance a chance. They are right. The only problem is that we first need to know that it exists before we can encourage it.
Sarah Marusek is a member of the International Central Committee of the Global March to Jerusalem and is a social science doctoral candidate at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. She is in Lebanon on an International Education Graduate Fellowship for International Study to research Islamic charities.