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Nonviolence: A Powerful Alternative


The events of September 11 have created a new reality requiring the Palestinian Authority to abandon, and even to combat, manifestations of armed resistance to the Israeli occupation. In fact, the PNA has already announced its acceptance of a unilateral ceasefire, and President Arafat has declared that Palestinians will not shoot even if fired upon. Furthermore, he has declared the military wings of all factions to be illegal and is trying to enforce that policy in the face of blatant provocations by Israel including assassinations and incursions into Palestinian areas. If the “ceasefire” is not holding, it is not for lack of effort by the PNA.
Does this mean the end of resistance to the occupation and acquiescence in continued subjugation of the Palestinians, or is there another method for an oppressed people to continue their struggle? For those who think only in terms of armed struggle, it must be a frustrating dilemma: Either bow to the pressure and accept the occupation or continue armed resistance, which may be counterproductive and injurious to the cause.
Yet this should not be the dilemma facing Palestinians. In my opinion, the road is now wide open to engage in a massive campaign of nonviolent resistance to the occupation. The lessons of the past, as well as of the second Intifada, clearly point in that direction.
To begin with, Palestinians never were, and are unlikely to be, a match for the Israelis in terms of brute violence and firepower. While this Intifada has shown them capable of inflicting losses on the other side and rendering many outlying settlements insecure, they cannot (alone or even with the support of the Arab armies) hope to defeat Israel in an open military confrontation. To the contrary, open warfare provides the justification for Israel to use the full array of its military might and unites the Israeli public behind the settlers and the right wing. It also places the Palestinians in an impossible dilemma, since the more casualties they inflict on Israelis, the less likely their cause is to prosper internationally and, hence, the less pressure there is on Israel to accede to their just demands.
By contrast, during the first Intifada, Palestinian unarmed tactics effectively neutralized the superiority of the Israeli military and split the Israeli public down the middle. Those tactics also generated effective international pressure on behalf of the Palestinian cause, and helped reverse hateful stereotypes and images of the Palestinians.
More importantly, the use of nonviolent tactics allowed all sectors of Palestinian society to participate in the resistance rather than just the armed few, which released the creative energies of the people in a beautiful, unifying, and uplifting struggle full of hope and promise. To be sure, there were many casualties and much suffering, and the occupation did not end; yet neither did the present Intifada, which also created many martyrs and much suffering. The difference was that the nonviolent struggle highlighted the justice of our cause, which rests on morality, international solidarity, and international law rather than on brute force and overwhelming military superiority. To insist on waging the struggle only in the military sphere is, therefore, doubly foolish because it deprives us of our natural advantages and allows the conflict to play out in an arena of military violence where our enemies are vastly superior.
Why, then, does the Palestinian leadership not move into a nonviolent struggle? I believe there are several reasons for this.
First, while we as a people have often used nonviolent resistance and tactics, the language and philosophy of nonviolence have remained largely unknown in our communities and political discourse. Although most of our struggle against the occupation has been political, such tactics as strikes, demonstrations, human rights advocacy, non-cooperation, boycotts, insistence on national symbols, and unarmed resistance to land confiscations have also been used. Even stone throwing, which while potentially harmful and therefore violent, was mostly utilized as a form of defiance and rejection of the occupation rather than as a serious weapon. Note, for example, how Edward Said used it in South Lebanon. Yet we have never defined these tactics accurately as methods of nonviolent resistance.
By contrast, we idolized and enshrined the language of “the gun” and made it central to our political culture despite the fact that the vast majority of the Palestinian population has never touched a weapon. The presence of the PNA, with its experience in Lebanon and structure of a traditional Arab regime, only exaggerated this trend and foolishly suggested that we now actually have a military force and a military option.
Additionally, there is a misunderstanding of how nonviolence works. Nonviolent resistance does not guarantee that the other side will refrain from violence or that there will be no casualties. It simply creates a new paradigm, and uses “moral jujitsu” to handicap the enemy and turn his superior military force against himself as he brutalizes a nonviolent opponent.
In my opinion, the main obstacle preventing the widespread adoption of a nonviolent strategy by Palestinians is the popular confusion of nonviolence with passivity, timidity, and acquiescence to injustice. In reality, nonviolence requires greater courage, more discipline, training, and sacrifice, and can be very militant and proactive. Therefore, as the Palestinian Authority responds to the new reality by suspending or combating manifestations of legitimate armed resistance, it would do well to consider the option of nonviolent resistance. If it does not, then ordinary Palestinians may well consider this as the only viable alternative, since acceptance of continued occupation is not an option.

*** *** ***

This article first appeared in Common Ground News on December 11, 2001 and is in the public domain. No republication restrictions.

* Jonathan Kuttab is a Palestinian lawyer based in Jerusalem.


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