Will Non Violent Resistance Work in Palestine?

By Vijaya Rajiva

Palestine, the last of the Liberation movements has a special place in the hearts and minds of the countries that were liberated in the 20th century. The newly liberated countries, India being one of them, voted against the partition of historic Palestine and in 1967, Arthur Lall the Indian representative at the UN called for Israel’s withdrawal from ALL occupied territory. Although India has normalized its relations with Israel since then, the sentiment of wanting to see Palestine liberated from the Occupation is still there.

A comparison with the Indian freedom struggle is inevitable, although each struggle has its own unique characteristics. One of the themes in the Palestinian struggle which has been  explored is the prospect of a non violent struggle against the Occupation (See Mustafa Barghouti’s ‘Strategies for  Non Violence’ in Palestine Chronicle). It must be pointed out that the African National Congress’s armed struggle in South Africa made it possible for the international community’s Boycott and Divestment Movement to succeed, but only in conjunction with the armed struggle. The rotten structure of the Afrikaner government collapsed quickly. Likewise the prospect of an armed struggle of sorts exists in Palestine with the rise of Hamas, even though they came to power in a fair and free election in 2006.

Armed struggle for Liberation from the Occupier is considered legitimate in International Law. However, an additional feature of the Palestinian struggle is not only the negotiating peace process (however fraudulent) between Fatah and Israel, but as well the presence of such non violent peace groups such as Gush Shalom, whose main spokesman is Uri Avenery, member of the Israeli Knesset and strong advocate for Israeli-Palestinian détente and  the Palestinian National Initiative headed by Mustafa Barghouti. There are also many smaller peace groups and well known human rights organizations such as B’Tselem.

Given this network of peace activists and organizations, what are the chances of a non violent struggle attaining the goal of ending the Occupation without a concommittant armed struggle (however limited) in Palestine? The answer it would seem is very little, as the record to date has demonstrated. What are the likely reasons?

Although the non violent message of Jesus of Nazareth is pervasive, at least in certain sections of Palestinian society, the Israeli ethos is not in tune with non violence.  The 19th century Zionist goal of establishing a Greater Israel in the region, was an agenda which in addition to other methods was accompanied by war and violence, an agenda followed by the state of Israel to this day. Hence, the Palestinian people have known only war and violence and since 1948 the specific violence of the Israeli Occupation. The fact that they have survived is a tribute to their courage, fortitude and endurance. The question any reasonable person must ask is: how much longer can this go on? Is it fair, is it just to expect Palestinians to continue to bear the blows of the Occupation? How much longer can the people continue to offer the other cheek, while they are being massacred, their homes and farms destroyed and their lands taken over by a continuous process of Israeli expansion?

Recently, while in Tehran,  political leader of Hamas, Khalid Mishal hinted that Palestinians may have to have recourse to certain methods, if the siege of Gaza does not end. The success of the peace groups, though real and admirable in its own right, has been limited. At best they have mitigated marginally some of the Occupier’s violence, which continues unabated both in the West Bank and Gaza. One can argue that they provide a minimal (if even that!) space, a buffer against a complete genocide.

The question here is: beyond that will they provide a structure for the growth of a wide and deep and ongoing non violent resistance to the Occupation?  In the opinion of this writer the answer is no. What are some of the reasons?  First and foremost, the absence of a non violent ethos in the Israeli  mindset. Secondly,  the absence of the evolution by early twentieth century of a genuine liberal democratic tradition as in Britain, which the Indian freedom fighters could hold them to. Thirdly, the absence of a strong middle class  which was never allowed to develop in Palestine. Israel’s long term goal was to make the Palestinians disappear and the Israeli economy was propped up by immense quantities of financial support coming from the United States and international Jewish donors. Fourthly, the conditions of World War II which made it impossible for Britain to hold on to its Indian empire. Israel, on the other hand, is militarily strong and supported by the world’s super power, which has no intention of declining, even though its power has been diminished. Fifthly, the indigenous tradition in India of non violence.

A flourishing Indian economy  was central to the British colonial enterprise of profiteering. Consequently, it was mainly from the co opted emerging middle class that a majority of the leaders of the Indian National Congress arose. They were British educated either in Britain or in the British educational system in India. Their national cohesion and unity were only buttressed by their education. This is not to say that there was no national unity prior to this process. The First Indian War of Independence was in 1857, described by the British colonials as a Mutiny. And earlier still, prior to Britain and even the Muslim rulers of India there was a pervasive unifying sentiment provided by the indigenous religions, chiefly Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Islam plays a similar role in Palestine.

Since the rise of the middle class in Palestine was relatively weak the economy became subject to foreign donors and the political leadership, even from the time of Yasser Arafat’s PLO, was ripe for corruption. This would eventually lead to the split in the National Movement between the largely corrupt secular Fatah and the incorrupt Hamas, which became the symbol of Resistance. Presently, thanks to Western opposition they are isolated and the blockade and subsequent siege of Gaza represent the West’s determination to keep Palestine subjugated.

Lastly, the non violent struggle in India was directly owing to the presence of a charismatic leader who would, by example, set a high standard of dedication and selflessness and lead mass civil disobedience movements. The theory and practice of non violent struggle were crystallised in Gandhi’s life and work. Should such a leader(s) exist in Palestine they have not yet made their presence felt. The absence of such leaders is intimately related to the nature of the adversary. In correspondence with Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian, Gandhi asked him why the Jews did not use non violence against Hitler. Buber answered that it would not have worked with Hitler. The nature of the adversary in this case the Israeli Occupation determines to a great extent the strategies that are available to the National struggle. Israel’s leadership is by and large militaristic and oriented to the violent resolution of problems. The civilian structure is an ethnocracy not a liberal democratic one. Israel does not have a Constitution that guarantees equal rights to all citizens regardless of race, religion, gender or ethnicity. Hence, its legal system is a hodge podge of basic laws that have no constitutional backing. The non Jewish population is discriminated against by Law.

The partnership of Israel since its inception in 1948 with the world’s superpower, the United States is still ongoing. A change of Presidency, may open up small windows of opportunity for peaceful negotiations other than the fraudulent Oslo style talks. That is yet to be seen.

Does this mean that Non Violent strategies are forever impossible or that they are to be eschewed permanently?  Not at all. They can work in various ways when combined with low intensity armed struggle and in  tandem with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. They strengthen and firm up the body politic. Above all,  they provide the sustenance for the proper functioning of state and civil society when the Liberation struggle has reached a successful end.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue their struggle in a variety of ways. In Sanskrit there is a word to describe the Palestinians: Ajay, meaning the Undefeated.

– Dr. Vijaya Rajiva taught Political Philosophy at University. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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