... an escalation of nonviolence

IssueMarch - May 2004
Feature by Amos Gvirtz

The current bloody struggle between Israel and the Palestinians has continued for about two years. The many hundreds of victims on both sides, and the even greater number of injured, are merely the most conspicuous part of the terrible suffering that the war has brought.

No-one knows whether either side will eventually achieve its aims in the struggle. But we do know that the cost is terrible. Witnessing the appalling suffering and its appalling cost, we need to ask ourselves if it is possible to find another way. If the leaders are unable to arrive at a peace agreement, and a struggle is unavoidable, is it not at least possible to find a different way of conducting the struggle?

If we take a look at history, we will see that there are indeed other ways it is possible to conduct a struggle. Mahatma Gandhi led the movement to liberate India from the British using purely non-violent means. Martin Luther King also adhered to nonviolent methods when he led Black Americans in the struggle for civil rights. Further back, we can find the Quakers who, in settling the state of Pennsylvania, did so with the agreement of the Native Americans, and while maintaining peaceful relations with them. An influential experiment Nonviolence is not new to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In the Palestinian national movement ideas of non-violent action were raised at various times. The most interesting experiment for introducing nonviolence as a practical action in the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation was made by Dr.Mubarak Awad in the 1980s. This experiment had a lot of influence on the early stages of the first intifada.

Actions such as the display of the Palestinian flag, the declaring of independence in villages, the boycott of Israeli goods and growing of food to replace Israeli produce, self-determination of opening and closing times for shops, and the tax revolt in Beit Sahour, are just a few of the nonviolent actions conducted during the first intifada. Still, for Israelis--and apparently for the rest of the world--the throwing of stones came to be seen as the central action of the intifada. The stone photographed better than all the other actions and thus made these less visible. Reverse escalation On the Israeli side, the “Peace Alliance” worked during the early stages of the conflict. This organisation, which was later joined by various others, tried to prevent the conflict from developing into a war. They called for agreements based on compromise, which would enable the two peoples to live in peace with one-another.It goes without saying that the peace movement has remained active in recent years and has grown to include many groups. Throughout the entire duration of the conflict, and especially during the current intifada, we can observe a pattern of escalation of violence, which repeats itself again and again. One side harms the other, which then revenges the injury caused. The first side in turn revenges its own injury even more strongly. The question, therefore, is whether it might be possible to create a reverse escalation: instead of creating an escalation of violence, creating an escalation of nonviolence. Before making such a proposal let us look a little at the rationale for nonviolence.

Freedom from fear

In a nonviolent struggle, there is the attempt to change the deeds of the opponent without injuring their existence. It enables the opponent ample time to change their ways. While violence works on the principle of creating fear in one's opponent, nonviolence is based on freeing one's opponent from fear. In a conflict like ours there are various forms of nonviolence suitable to the situation of each side in the conflict. For Palestinians who are trying to rid themselves of the Israeli occupation, there is the option of active nonviolence. This was implemented in India's struggle of liberation from Britain, in the struggle of Blacks for civil rights in the USA, and in many other less well-known cases. Israelis too have a nonviolent option, which I term preventive non-violence--something which was employed by the Quakers when establish-ing Pennsylvania with the agreement of Native Americans. Alternatives to violence In a conflict like ours, besides the two sides who are struggling against each other, there is also a role for a third party who has no enemy in the conflict, and who can thus intervene in an attempt to make peace between them. The role of a third party with no enemy in the conflict is familiar to us from the use of UN forces in patrolling a ceasefire between warring factions. Similarly, when the USA brokered the peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt, it succeeded due to its position as a third party with no enemy in the conflict. In the absence of a state-level decision to adopt nonviolence, we may ask what opposition movements may do. Even in the midst of today's violent struggle between our peoples there are groups of Palestinians who are trying to maintain a nonviolent struggle. A prime example is the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement in Beit Sahour. It initiates nonviolent actions against the occupation and thus demonstrates that there is an alternative to a violent struggle. It is assisted by volunteers from abroad who serve as a third party with no enemy in the conflict. These volunteers can nonviolently protect Palestinian activists from Israeli soldiers. There are other Palestinian organisations who inculcate nonviolent education. Their aim is to prepare the Palestinian people to accept a nonviolent method of struggle. Preventive nonviolence On the Israeli side one can say that the principal demands of the Israeli peace movement on the government belong to the field of preventive nonviolence. When we call on the government to halt the expropriation of land, the destruction of houses, the building of settlements, and exhort it to end the occupation, etc, we are demanding that it will cease to conduct actions that both necessitate violence and awaken violence in the other side.

The question is what we can do in terms of preventive nonviolence when the government does not respond to our demands?War resisters who refuse to serve as a military tool in the hands of the state (or any other organisation--and incidentally not just in Israel but in any other place), are performing an act of preventive nonviolence. Those who refuse service in the occupied territories are similarly performing an action of preventive nonviolence. Israelis who boycott the produce of settlements in the Occupied Territories are per-forming an act of preventive nonviolence. Thus also Israelis who refuse to work in the Territories, to tour there, or refuse any cooperation with the occupation, perform acts of preventive nonviolence.

During the first intifada we saw how the presence of journalists and tourists would reduce violence by soldiers confronting Palestinian protesters. On the same principle, North American Christian peace activists moved to Hebron to observe and intervene in matters of human rights, acting as a third party with no enemy in the conflict. During all the years of the current intifada people from North America and Europe have acted as observers and intervened in matters of human rights, thus fulfilling the role of a third party with no enemy in the conflict.

Active nonviolence

Nonviolence enables Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. Whereas Israelis cannot sup-port the violent struggle against their country even if they see the legitimacy of Palestinian claims, they can take part in a nonviolent struggle against Israel's unjust actions in the Territories. One can cite as examples the work of the Israeli Committee against Housing Demolitions in helping to rebuild destroyed houses, and the work of the Ta'ayush organisation (seep24) in sending food convoys to villages and towns under closure. These activities,in which Israelis and Palestinians often take part together, are instances of active nonviolence. Since the presence of Israelis helps to shield Palestinians from violence by Israeli soldiers, they are also fulfilling the role of a third party with no enemy in the conflict.

The intention here is that each side will encourage the other to reduce its tendency to resort to violence, and to turn to nonviolence as a means of struggle. Instead of encouraging hatred and the lust for revenge, let us encourage goodwill and trust between the two sides, and move towards a just and long-lasting peace for the good of both our peoples and the entire region.