Gandhi and Gaza: Israel's Raj Debacle

The organizers of the Palestinian aid flotilla have achieved a stunning victory over Israel in the international court of public opinion. It is a victory that Gandhi would well have understood. By pitting unarmed protestors (okay, so a few wielded kitchen knives when their ship was attacked) on a humanitarian mission against a government steeped in the logic that the best defense is a strong offense, the flotilla achieved the inevitable outcome: the martyrs won, Israel lost.

It is premature to conclude that Hamas and other partisans of attacking Israel by violent means are about to give up their missiles and suicide bombers and embrace Gandhian nonviolence as a general strategy. But if they do, Israel's current expansionist and bellicose government will face an existential threat against which military superiority and brute force will be powerless.

Gandhi understood that the ability to wage superior violence was the coin of oppression, and that to combat that violence with violence was a dead end. It could only provoke an endless tit-for-tat in which the advantage was on the side of the oppressor. As Gandhi knew, a terrorist or a guerilla fighter is a legitimate target of state violence. Masses of unarmed citizens are not. From this insight, Gandhi perfected his nonviolent revolutionary strategy of staging well publicized mis-en-scenes of civil disobedience as a means of exposing for all to see the violence that was latent in British domination.

Carefully selecting laws and taxes that were particularly unjust for their symbolic value, Gandhi organized mass protests by disciplined militants trained to take whatever violence was wielded against them without allowing themselves to be provoked into responding in kind. He also made sure these protests got a lot of publicity. Gandhi knew that no purpose is served if a protestor falls and no one notices. At the peak of his powers, the whole world was watching his every political move. He was thus able to rip the mask of justification for continued British imperial rule in India from the Raj before the audience that gave it legitimacy: public opinion at home and abroad.

The whole world is now watching Israel. The international composition of the protestors on the flotilla, which included pro-Palestinian activists, humanitarian do-gooders and news reporters, has insured outrage from citizens and governments around the world. Belatedly realizing it had a public relations' fiasco on its hands -- a humanitarian relief flotilla in international waters is not the same thing as impoverished Palestinians trapped in the Gaza enclave, Hamas or not -- Israel wisely decided to repatriate some 700 flotilla participants rather than continue a spectacle in which its image could only go from very bad to worse.

The flotilla attack has not only isolated Israel, it has also underlined the sole-supporter status of the United States, the only major nation that has not firmly condemned the Israeli action. It remains to be seen how long the "you 'n me against the world" partnership between the United States and Israel can hold out against the international spectacle of Israeli aggression waged in the name of defense when the victims are not Palestinians but their global sympathizers. More relief ships are on their way, including one named after Rachel Corrie, the young American mowed down by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003 where she stood as a human shield to prevent a house from being demolished. If Hamas keeps its hands off its missile launchers and Israel continues to make martyrs not only out of hundreds of thousands of malnourished Palestinians in Gaza but also handfuls of international activists armed with humanitarian assistance and media coverage, Israel will become more of a global pariah than it is now.

Gandhi's nonviolent revolutionary movement did not only discredit the British Raj, it provided an inspiring alternative to the terrorist tactics and armed insurgencies to which other Indian nationalists resorted. One hopes for the sake of Palestinians in Gaza that Hamas hard-liners are taking note.