Occupying Political Space for Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance

Anyone who has ever spent quality time on promoting political support for the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people knows that there is a longstanding, contentious and tangled political debate concerning the Palestinian struggle for freedom and the question of nonviolent resistance. This issue has been broached by a piece in the Christian Science Monitor that quotes me on this topic as a passenger in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

This is a tangled issue, but it is also a very important one, deserving of careful rather than glib consideration. So I would like to take some space to clarify the issues raised by the Christian Science Monitor article. I think this is an important endeavor because the underlying issues are extremely important, particularly in this political moment in which the Palestinian people are poised to take a big leap forward in their quest for freedom, and maybe -- I hope -- the attempted clarification could help move the discussion away from the pre-existing polarizations, which I think are counter-productive to the cause of human freedom.

Here is the passage from the Monitor article that caused a few messages of vigorous complaint to come into my inbox:

This flotilla is attempting to reach Gaza in a dramatically changed regional context from May 2010, before the uprisings collectively known as the Arab Spring. With the chance for real democratic change in Israeli neighbors like Egypt, organizers are hoping to press home their argument that the Palestinian residents of Gaza are as deserving of basic freedoms as any of their neighbors.

"It's even more relevant this year," says Robert Naiman, a US activist waiting to board in Athens. "There's a revolution of popular expectations and we're playing out on a stage in which governments in the region feel more pressure to respond to public opinion."

"After the last flotilla, a Hamas legislator said it 'did more than 10,000 rockets to change things.' That shows we're reaching people," continues Mr. Naiman, who is bringing Arabic translations of "The Montgomery Story," a 1958 comic book about Martin Luther King Jr., nonviolent resistance, and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.

The US organizers say a key goal is to show Palestinians that nonviolent struggle can work, to bolster nascent grass-roots Palestinian movements that have sought, with some success, to use nonviolent protests and passive resistance to press their demands.

"Never in the past 25 years has there been anything like this political moment, where half of Palestinian society is poised to go [toward nonviolence], and that's exciting to me," says Naiman, giving a rough estimate of the Palestinian mood. "The more nonviolence works, the more they will adopt it. That's why there's so much excitement about the flotilla."

The Monitor article gave a misleading impression in attributing my personal views to "the US organizers," a big group of people with no doubt diverse views on these questions, some of whom I do not know personally. [Update: the Monitor changed the text so as not to give this impression.] I do personally think that a positive impact of the flotilla is the prospect of increasing the political space occupied in Palestine by nonviolent resistance to the occupation, and the fact that the flotilla last year had this impact is a matter of public record (I give the direct quote from the Hamas parliamentarian below.) The prospect of having this impact is an important part of my personal motivation in participating in this voyage at risk to my life.

To understand why this passage would set some people off, three key pieces of context are helpful:

  1. There is a long history of Palestinian non-violent resistance, which has been largely ignored in the West.
  2. There is a tradition of Westerners ignorant of or indifferent to the history of Palestinian non-violent resistance hectoring Palestinians about nonviolent resistance.
  3. A key obstacle to the spread of nonviolent resistance in Palestine has been the severity of Israeli repression in response to nonviolent Palestinian resistance coupled with the weak Western response to that repression -- in particular, the weak response in the United States.

So, let me be clear: I am totally aware of these points; indeed, I have written about them in the past.

But we should also be clear about the fact that there is a new political moment in Palestine and the Arab world, which allows a different discussion than in the past, and rehashing old shibboleths isn't likely to help the Palestinian people win their freedom.

  1. There is a new political movement in Palestine that is using nonviolent resistance to fight the occupation. In the West Bank village of Budrus, this movement defeated the attempted confiscation of village lands by the Israeli "separation barrier."
  2. This movement has spread to other parts of Palestine, like the village of Nabi Saleh.
  3. The Israeli occupation authorities are trying to crush this movement with extreme repression -- as similar movements have been crushed in the past.
  4. Whether this movement attracts new political support in the West and Israel that stops or mitigates the repression is likely to be decisive in whether the nonviolent resistance movement grows or is crushed.
  5. The Arab Spring, the collapse of the US-sponsored so-called "peace process," and the Palestinian push for recognition of statehood at the United Nations could create a new international context in which the new Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement could attract significantly greater international political support than similar Palestinian movements have received in the past.
  6. Anyone closely following this issue in the media knows that there is already significant discussion among Palestinians about the possibility of a nonviolent uprising against the Israeli occupation -- a "white intifada" -- in the context of the push for recognition at the UN in September; and that recent Palestinian nonviolent protests have been building towards such a development.
  7. The use of violence and the use of non-violence necessarily compete for attention. When people use violence, that occupies political space. The propensity of Western media to focus on violence and ignore non-violent resistance means that a small amount of violence can easily be used to starve attention from a tremendous amount of nonviolent resistance.
  8. Here is the direct quote from Hamas parliamentarian Aziz Dweik referred to in the Christian Science Monitor article, speaking about the Gaza flotilla last year:

    "When we use violence, we help Israel win international support," said Aziz Dweik, a leading Hamas lawmaker in the West Bank. "The Gaza flotilla has done more for Gaza than 10,000 rockets."

  9. The participants in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla are privileged relative to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in two key ways: the political cost of hurting us is much higher, and we have much greater access to Western media. We are trying to "leverage our privilege" on the Palestinians' behalf. Alice Walker, a passenger on the U.S. boat, spoke to this during the press conference of the international freedom flotilla yesterday in Athens: Blacks in the US needed the help of others to win our freedom, and that's what we're trying to do here - help others win their freedom.
  10. Part of "leveraging our privilege" is the ability to help Palestinians occupy political space for nonviolent resistance, and that's what I was trying to communicate to the Christian Science Monitor. It isn't so much a question of "showing" in the sense of teaching; it's more a question of "showing" in the sense of demonstrating a successful example. The key thing that will tip the balance isn't giving someone a presentation; it's evidence that a new path is likely to work.

In 1996, I was a volunteer for five months with the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank. During the time I was there, the Israeli occupation authorities closed Hebron University as a form of collective punishment. Students at the university wanted to do something to protest the closure of their university, and there was a discussion between students and the CPT about holding a "teach-in" in front of the locked gates of the university.

During the discussion, one of the Palestinian students said to me, "We want to do this. But we are afraid that the Israeli soldiers will shoot us. Maybe if you come with us, the Israeli soldiers won't shoot us." We did come with, and the Israeli soldiers didn't shoot.

In a nutshell, that's the basic idea. Come with, in the hopes that the Israeli soldiers won't shoot. If successful, others will repeat, the political space occupied by nonviolent resistance will increase, and the political space occupied by violence will decrease.