Responding to the rising tide across the Arab world in his speech last Thursday, President Obama aptly directed his focus away from politicians and toward the people, from the "raw power of the dictator" to the "dignity of the street vendor." It was a convincing argument, driving home the President's message that the United States has "a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals."
Yet when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Obama curiously fell back on language about governments and treaties rather than individual freedom and human dignity. While he acknowledged that in an increasingly democratic Middle East peace cannot be made by leaders alone, Obama failed to grant the same recognition that he gave to demonstrators standing up for freedom across the Arab world to the thousands of Palestinians and scores of Israelis who are doing the same on a daily basis in places like Nabi Saleh, Al-Walajeh, Bil'in, Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan.
It was a striking omission in light of Obama's call in his Cairo Speech in 2009 for Palestinians to adopt nonviolence, and was particularly disheartening given the urgency of the moment.
Only a few weeks ago, Bassem and Naji Tamimi, two leaders of the nonviolent movement in the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, were arrested on dubious charges aimed at crushing the resolve of a village that has been struggling without arms to prevent the encroachment of nearby Israeli settlements upon its land and water supply. These arrests come as part of a broader crackdown that the Israeli army has been implementing against nonviolent Palestinian, Israeli and international protesters. Faced with the prospect of a broadening unarmed movement against occupation, the Israeli military has apparently decided to hunker down and deter protestors through a process of intimidation, repression and attrition.
This is bad news for any of us who value the universal rights Obama laid out in his speech, and it is especially alarming given the highly charged atmosphere on the ground. As we've seen across the region, where nonviolence fails, bloodshed follows. Those of us who wish for a peaceful end to the conflict and to the occupation, and who oppose a return to the violence of recent years, cannot afford to ignore the voices of those in places like Budrus and Bil'in who assert that the most effective and courageous response to oppression is not suicide attacks or rockets, but rather unarmed protest and collective organizing.
In recognizing the bravery and resolve of these Palestinians and Israelis, President Obama would have sent an important message of support to those who believe that a nonviolent path is the most constructive way forward -- even in the absence of real negotiations. Instead, a fragile and increasingly threatened movement is met with silence from an American President who is willing to press Arab allies into uncomfortable corners. The same Obama who tells the leadership of Bahrain that "you can't have real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail" is seemingly looking the other way when unarmed Palestinian and Israeli protestors are routinely met with violence and face arrest, often without credible charges.
What's more, those protests taking place in the West Bank and East Jerusalem often bring Israelis and Palestinians together, creating powerful bonds around a common cause of justice, peace and dignity. The President was right to reference Israelis like Yitzhak Frankenthal of the Parents Circle-Bereaved Families Forum, profiled in our first film Encounter Point, and Palestinians like Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who despite unimaginably painful losses actively pursue reconciliation rather than revenge. Yet equally important, and especially crucial at this volatile time are the Israelis and Palestinians who join forces and take direct nonviolent action against injustices on the ground. Whether they succeed, as they did in the village of Budrus, or fail, the common struggle has an unmistakably humanizing impact. In places like the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, which we focus on in our upcoming documentary film, Israelis from increasingly diverse political, social and religious backgrounds are joining Palestinian residents in a common struggle for justice.
These are the kind of grassroots partnerships that will give real meaning to agreements signed on paper, and that will develop the trust necessary for any peace accord to endure. Rather than ignoring them, the President should be placing them front and center in his vision for the region. As he so eloquently stated, "we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just." This is true for all those across the region who employ nonviolence to bring about a better future, and Palestinians and Israelis certainly deserve no less.
Ronit Avni is the Founder & Executive Director of Just Vision, which researches and documents Palestinian and Israeli nonviolence and peacebuilding efforts. She recently produced the award-winning film, Budrus.
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