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Nonviolence in Palestine


Ben Rempell*


On a hot Tuesday afternoon in March, I marched with a group of Palestinians, international supporters, and journalists to a trench separating the Palestinian city of Ramallah and Bir Zeit University. As Israeli troops watched from an overlooking hilltop, we got on our hands and knees and began filling in the gaping hole in the road created by Israeli bulldozers. It appeared to be nonviolent resistance in its most pure and beautiful form. Respected Palestinian leadership organized the demonstration, its goals were clear, and the participants were committed. However, with a hail of tear gas from above, I found myself watching a half hour later as Israeli soldiers emptied their supplies of tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition on a handful of shabab (youth) throwing stones.

The scene was transformed into the typical game of stones against guns that is so often viewed on the news. As the game wore on, with dozens of Palestinians getting rushed to the local hospital, a group of internationals began organizing a sit-down protest on the road. It was an attempt to prevent the oncoming Israeli bulldozer from re-digging the trench that everyone had worked so hard to fill in. When I approached a young Palestinian woman and asked her if any of her friends would be interested in joining the group in order for the demonstration to end nonviolently, she replied: “I don’t think anybody wants it to end nonviolently.”

This scene and concluding statement rings powerfully when the issue of nonviolence education in Palestine is raised.

What did she mean by that? Certainly, she could not have been envisioning a scene of turning away the bulldozer and watching as the troops, with confused and frightened looks, step into their jeeps and drive away. She must have visualized a different image: an image of her people passively walking away, accepting the inability to go to school and acquiescing to the injustices of occupation.

The constant demand of the US and Israeli governments for the Palestinians to “stop the violence” and instead enter into negotiations with no leverage or “influence” has shaped the attitude toward nonviolence in much of Palestinian society into one of disgust and frustration. As we enter our third year in the UN-declared Decade of Peace and Nonviolence, how can we demand a society to embrace the teachings of peace and nonviolence when everything around it screams of war, oppression, and violence? However, when we look closely at Palestinian actions in the face of Israeli occupation, we see that Palestinian history is full of nonviolent resistance, especially the actions of children.

Passing through closed checkpoints to go to school, boycotts, non-cooperation, human rights advocacy, and breaking illegal curfews are ubiquitous in the daily life of the average Palestinian child. Unfortunately, these events have gone unrecognized as acts of nonviolent resistance: they are viewed as obvious strategies of survival. Similarly, when a trench is dug in the road that leads to the university, to go and fill it in is not viewed as a committed act of nonviolence, but instead as simple common sense.

It is important to look at why nonviolence education has not taken root more strongly in occupied war zones. Palestine is a case study.

First, the history of nonviolent resistance movements is largely absent from Palestinian education. People engaged in a freedom struggle need to be educated in depth on all forms of resistance, be they violent or nonviolent, and their eventual results. The strategies of nonviolent resistance that Palestinians and others have already used on both an individual and a collective level have contributed greatly to the success of freedom movements throughout the world. To learn this could be empowering enough to motivate a more organized movement.

Second, we must recognize that it is not in the self-interest of either the Israeli or the Palestinian leadership to allow such a movement to develop. The Israeli military is well trained at using violence against violence. It is often unprepared to confront nonviolence. (The response is usually confusion followed by violence.) Additionally, such a movement could result in winning over the Israeli public, along with the international public, in such a way that the Israeli government would find itself pressured on issues that it has previously been successful at avoiding. A unified nonviolent resistance movement would also place pressures on the Palestinian Authority that it is unprepared to manage. Nonviolence as a lifestyle and movement requires a level of creativity that the Palestinian Authority has been incapable of exhibiting since it came into existence. Such a development would pose an immediate threat to its control over the Palestinian people, and might force it to take democratic steps it has been hoping to avoid.

These obstacles are powerful, and they will not disappear any time soon. However, the last decade has laid some groundwork for nonviolent education and action among Palestinians. Additionally, with the global mood shifting as it has after September 11 and the tolerance of terrorism as a form of resistance shrinking by the day, the atmosphere for change appears to be as ripe as it never has.

Since a culture of nonviolence is unlikely to develop from the current Palestinian leadership, it must come from education and nongovernmental organizing. The writings of Gandhi, King, Gene Sharp, and Paulo Freire have been translated and made available in Palestine for over a decade. Palestinians tried to develop educational systems focusing on Freire’s pedagogy of empowerment and acts of nonviolence during the first Intifada, and these efforts can be revived. There are now also a number of Palestinian nongovernmental organizations that contribute to building civil society and an empowered culture of nonviolence. It is vital that these organizations continue to grow regardless of the amount of violence that is inflicted on the Palestinian people.

The Palestinians have little hope of ending Israel’s occupation through violence. Similarly, acceptance of the occupation is not an option. Given these two facts, there seem to be few other choices but to turn to nonviolence as an organized strategy of resistance. This choice could be the one that results in freedom.

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©2001 Fellowship of Reconciliation

* Ben Rempell is the 2001-2 Freeman Intern handling Interfaith PeaceBuilders (Israel/Palestine). Email: middleeast@forusa.org.


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