Gandhi and the Palestinians

On February 25, 2008, about 5000 Gaza citizens formed a human chain along the Israeli border in protest at Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Many of the protesters were women, children, and university students. As Jamal al-Khoudary, an independent MP and leader of the Popular Committee Against the Siege, said, “This is a peaceful event aimed to send a message to the world that the people of Gaza want to live in freedom.” Some 40,000 Palestinians were expected, but heavy rains in parts of the Gaza Strip foiled plans to place a person every meter along Gaza’s main north-south road, a 40km-long road that stretches from the Rafah crossing on the southern border with Egypt to the Erez crossing on the northern border with Israel. Despite al-Khoudary saying that “This is a peaceful and civilized act to let the people express their rejection of the siege and of collective punishment” and that “We are raising a cry to the world for it to act”, Israel mobilized thousands of troops for it feared that the protest would eventuate in similar fashion to the previous month’s breeching of parts of the fence separating Gaza and Egypt, which allowed thousands of Gazans to enter Egypt to collect much-needed supplies that had hitherto been scarce due to the Israeli blockade.

This peaceful protest (there were a handful of incidents that could have made it otherwise but for various reasons did not) got me thinking. The Palestinians have managed to stage a peaceful protest (this is a somewhat rare but certainly not a unique phenomenon, see for example the protest near the West Bank town of Bethlehem that took place less than a month following the Gaza human chain). Can the Palestinians continue on such a path and cease all military confrontation with Israel and limit their struggle against the Israeli occupation to non-violent means? What pretext could Israel then use to justify its attacks, most of which it claims are defensive or retaliatory? If there is nothing to defend against or as a result of which to retaliate, Israel, if it chooses to continue its current policies in the occupied territories, will quickly become a pariah in the eyes of the world’s media, for it will have no justification for house demolitions, targeted assassinations, economic blockades, excessive road closures and check-points, and many other actions that Israel currently, whether rightly or wrongly, claims are necessary for its protection and lasting security. If the Palestinians choose this path of non-violent resistance and seek purely political solutions to the conflict, which is of course much easier said than done and so perhaps one should say a mostly non-violent resistance (that is, excluding extremists who would rather die than give up their weapons, and clear acts of self-defence), the United States, the European Union, the West in general, and all other bodies who label the Palestinians and many of their organizations as terrorists will be forced to give up that label: the Palestinians will cease to be terrorists by definition. (As a side note, Palestinian terrorism is not the only cause of this perpetuating conflict, there is of course a complex web of actors that consciously or unconsciously keep the end of the conflict at arm’s length, Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States are the main actors but by no means the only ones.)

Non-violent resistance by the Palestinians is not such a utopian extravagance as it may seem, Amira Hass has recently suggested a number of concrete steps that could be taken towards non-violent resistance. For example, she suggests: “There are roads that are forbidden to Palestinian cars. PA officials and West Bank residents could form a long convoy of cars and drive on these roads. Many Israelis would be happy to join them. ” Or perhaps the Palestinian planning office could “could order the appropriate Palestinian ministries to put up electricity lines, to prepare the infrastructure to connect villages to the water carrier, to dig cisterns to collect rainwater, to build schools, clinics and houses. Maybe even dig wells. All of the things that the Israeli occupation authorities forbid to do on 60 percent of the West Bank. Here, too, there will be no small number of Israelis opposed to the occupation who will join up. ” Hass, however, is skeptical that such a vision could be implemented, mainly because she believes that the PA and PLO leadership has grown accustomed “to living as nomenclature” and are thus content with their “relatively comfortable ceremonial status”, but I believe that it has a chance. The Palestinians have tried everything else to put an end to the conflict, why not non-violent resistance?

Non-violent resistance on the side of Palestinians will of course not end the conflict on its own (and it would be presumptuous to expect only one side of the conflict to make such sacrifices), there are many other pieces that have to fall into place in order for such a strategy to work (for example, it may take a long time for Israel to accept that the Palestinians have indeed chosen non-violence, thus some cynics/right-wing politicians would argue that these non-violent protests and attempted political solutions are nothing more than a smokescreen to allow rearmament for future attacks to be unleashed on Israeli civilians). It should also be noted that non-violent resistance is not a universal anodyne for all conflicts. Mahatma Gandhi, who was the pioneer of non-violent resistance and, incidentally, was opposed to Zionism in the late 1930’s, was heavily criticized for suggesting during the second World War that the Jews “should refuse to be expelled or submit to discriminating treatment but should, if necessary, accept death voluntarily.” Martin Buber, the famous Jewish pacifist who was otherwise an admirer of Gandhi, said that Gandhi misunderstood the nature of the Nazi regime and that ” No Jew in Germany could have spoken as did Gandhi in South Africa without being killed immediately…” I only mention these remarks of Gandhi’s as historical background, and not to suggest that Palestinian non-violent resistance is impossible for similar reasons. Quite the contrary, I believe that, in conjunction with outside help (both from Israelis and from the wider world, especially the United States and the European Union), if the Palestinians choose non-violent resistance and purely political solutions to the conflict, that in time a just and lasting solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict will arise.

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