Heading in the right direction

IssueMarch - May 2004
Feature by Veronique Dudouet

The principal focus of non-violent campaigns in Israel-Palestine is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip. However, given the lack of symmetry between the situation of the Israelis (the occupiers), Palestinians (the occupied), and outsiders, actors from these different parties cannot apply similar roles and methods of intervention.

In this article, I will follow the categorisation offered by Amos Gvirtz, founder of Israelis and Palestinians for Nonviolence (see here), by reviewing successively the three categories of non-violence that he identifies: active non-violence by Palestinians, preventive non-violence by the Israeli anti-occupation camp, and third-party intervention in the spirit of non-violence by international activists.

Women in Black at their weekly vigil on Ben Gurion Avenue, Haifa.


Palestinian non-violent resistance

A recurrent theme in my research interviews in the West Bank was the idea that Palestinians have been using non-violent means of resistance since the early 20th century, long before people in the West starting being aware of it. In particular, memories of the 1987-1993 uprising, when non-violent activism was more widespread and more successful, inform the present wave of public discussion.

Indeed, the first Palestinian intifada is often cited as a classical case of unarmed (or non-lethal) uprising, informed by a strategy of civilian resistance. A survey conducted by the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence (through an analysis of all the communiqués published by the Central Command of the Intifada in the 1986-1989 period) indicated that 90% of the methods employed by the Palestinian resistance were non-violent. They comprised a very wide range of activities falling into all the main categories of non-violent action defined by Gene Sharp, from symbolic protest to non-cooperation and more disruptive forms of intervention, as well as efforts to establish alternative institutions.

All the respondents from my interviews described the first intifada as extremely successful. The two demands that were put forward by the activists were first for Israel and the rest of the world to recognise the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian Nation, and second, to recognise that military occupation is not sustainable. The PLO became the official negotiating body in all the peace talks that led to the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993, and as a result of the intifada, everyone including Israelis looked for something to replace the occupation.

The second intifada

Against this background, the second intifada, which started in Autumn 2001, went in an opposite direction from the first. Far from involving all segments of Palestinian society in a massive civil resistance movement, the current struggle involves just a few thousand Palestinian fighters, while the rest of the population steadfastly endures Israeli retaliation. The current uprising was deliberately launched by top-level decisions, while the first intifada started as a spontaneous popular uprising, and the PLO joined it and started taking control of local committees only after a few years of grass-roots struggle.

In 1987, the logic was to arrive at a compromise and to start moving from it, while the current intifada does not invite any sort of compromise, and involves a new Palestinian generation, which does not believe in non-violence. The logic is to show Israelis that “as much as we can be destroyed, we can destroy you as well”, and therefore to inflict as much suffering as possible.

In this context, and in the absence of any leadership-level decision to adopt a non-violent strategy of resistance, we have to turn our attention to the opposition movements and the academic/intellectual circles to find some sort of debate among Palestinians over how the current intifada should proceed and the possibility of incorporating non-violent techniques into it. A turning point has been the publication of a survey in the summer of 2002 on the potential for a non-violent intifada, which has been given a wide media coverage and has initiated a wave of intellectual debate 1.

Mapping of the non-violent activities

Among Palestinian proponents of non-violent resistance, one can observe a duality of discourse between those who advocate non-violence for its strategic effectiveness, and those who adopt a moral discourse (“principled non-violence”). The latter can be found by exploring religious arguments for non-violent interpretations of Islamic traditions. Lucy Nusseibeh, director of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy, also adopts a moral-based definition of non-violent resistance, which she describes as “transforming the conscience of one's opponent through one's own moral agency so that the opponent perceives that his actions are immoral and will therefore stop them”.

But the discourse most often heard by Palestinians is “We all believe in the tactics of non-violence - if they work”. And those who choose non-violence do so, not because of its legitimacy over other forms of resistance, or in order to “appease Israeli liberals or the United States”, but only because they are convinced that it can be a more effective tool of resistance than armed struggle.

The non-violent activities that are currently being practised in the West Bank and Gaza strip are divided between direct action and educational initiatives.

The Rapprochement Centre, based in Beit Sahour (near Bethlehem), has remained active in the civil disobedience movement through the 1990s and is involved in initiating and supporting non-violent action in the West Bank. The Centre's main assets are its wide network, its ability to mobilise the international and Israeli peace camps, and its credibility within the Palestinian community. Its main purpose, as described by its founder Ghassan Andoni (see here), is to provide an example of constructive and empowering resistance to occupation and break the stereotype that “non-violence is nice but it is not for me”.

Examples of activities initiated by the Rapprochement Centre include the establishment of underground schools, neighbourhood committees, the organisation of physical peaceful resistance and a peace camp against the establishment of Har Homa colony (1993-97), an annual Christmas candle procession and, more recently, demonstrations at the military base near Bethlehem and olive picking campaigns in areas declared as closed military zones by the Israeli army.

Although other cities in the West Bank may not have such organised leadership for non-violence, the last two years have been marked by a lot of daily acts of spontaneous and organised defiance and non-violent direct action. People have been persistently defying curfews in Nablus, Ramallah or Hebron, and there are various general daily actions - from demonstrating to simply going to school. In the context of occupation, these constitute real acts of resistance. The demonstrations that took place during the siege of Arafat's compound provide powerful examples of mass protests, when for example at midnight on 25 September, 2002 thousands of Ramallah residents beat drums, honked horns and made a general ruckus protesting the week-long Israeli-imposed curfew on the town.

Indirect forms of nonviolence

Less direct forms of non-violent action also take place and are crucial to develop support for civil resistance in all segments of the population. The Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence, in the 1990s, and more recently groups such as Middle-East Nonviolence and Democracy are involved in media work and outreach advocacy in order to challenge the image of Palestinians as violent, and spread the vision that most Palestinians are condemning suicide bombing. Internal outreach towards the Palestinian public and leadership is carried out by individuals such as Nafez Asaily2 , or Mubarak Awad and Jonathan Kuttab3 , who publish numerous articles in the local press on the need for broad public discussion on the strategy of the Palestinian struggle. They advocate the need for a conscious, long-term, organised strategy of non-violent resistance.

Finally, a number of organisations specifically design training programmes that promote non-violent education through empowerment and capacity-building, and prepare the Palestinian people to accept non-violent methods of struggle. Such groups include the Holy Land Trust and the Centre for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation in Bethlehem, Middle-East Nonviolent and Democracy in East Jerusalem, or the Library on Wheels for Nonviolence and Democracy in Hebron.

So far, various initiatives in favour of a non-violent solution to the conflict seem to be acting in parallel rather than collaborating efficiently. It is nearly impossible to create communication networks between individuals and groups, because of closures, check-points and roadblocks. In the total absence of a structured movement, networking problems give an impression of sporadic non-violent initiatives.

Limits in use of nonviolent action

There are other reasons that seem to prevent non-violent action from taking wider root in Palestinian society. I want to concentrate on why the success of the first intifada has not helped to advance the cause of non-violent resistance. Indeed, if the first intifada was as successful as its participants seem to claim, and if it did prove that Palestinians can run an effective civil-based resistance, why is it that the same strategy has not be adopted by the leadership of the current uprising?

One hypothesis, which has been proposed by Ghassan Andoni (of the Palestinian Centre for Rapproachment, see here), has to do with a generation phenomenon. The leaders of the core groups of the current intifada are all in their early twenties, and too young to have experienced the first intifada. What has been lost in this leadership change is the passing of experience: all the leaders of the 1980s stepped back and a new generation arrived with a new strategy, and new concepts.

Moreover, because the gains of the first intifada have been subsequently lost by the inability of the Palestinian leadership to transfer them to the negotiation table (this is the general feeling among my interviewees), non-violent resistance is now confused with a return to negotiation, or an “insidious effort to convince Palestinians to give up resistance to the Israeli occupation”. Some also associate the promotion of non-violence with self-serving expatriate intellectuals with a Christian and Western background, and in general, people whose interests are connected to the existence of the occupation 4.

For many Palestinians, they would only support a non-violent campaign alongside armed struggle. However, this inability to adopt an exclusive non-violent strategy of resistance during the first intifada was very harmful for the Palestinian cause because it was the very few violent acts (from stone-throwing to the use of petrol bombs) that appeared in most of the Israeli and international media.

Even if the majority of Palestinians were ready for a non-violent campaign, the transformation of the socio-economic conditions through the 1990s, and especially the move from direct to indirect occupation have made irrelevant some factors that worked in favour of a non-violent strategy during the first intifada. One of the leaders of the Beit Sahour 1988 tax resistance, Elias Rishmawi, explained to me that the logic of civil disobedience cannot work in a context where Palestinians no longer pay taxes directly to the occupation authorities, and the Israeli economy is less reliant upon Palestinian workers, who have been largely replaced by foreigners. Therefore, the theory of consent, which lies at the heart of non-violent action becomes irrelevant when the Israeli authorities do not depend on the cooperation of the oppressed Palestinians to assert their power.

The only way for Palestinians to gain leverage on the Israeli government is through the “great chain of non-violence” (to use Galtung's concept5 ), by using the relay of allies with more leverage, both in Israeli civil society and the international community.

Preventive non-violence

In a Palestinian non-violent struggle against the Israeli occupation forces (government, settlers, army), Israeli citizens have a crucial role to play, by performing acts of “preventive non-violence” (to use once again Amos Gvirtz's terminology, see here). Indeed, Israeli anti-occupation groups have been simultaneously acting on two fronts. Internally, they have been applying non-violent action such as acts of protest, non-cooperation, army refusal, and boycotting products from the settlements in order to pressure their own government. Increasingly, Israelis have realised that they can assist their Palestinian fellow activists by playing the role of third parties between them and the army or settlers, acting as shields to prevent violence during demonstrations and joint activities.

Transformation of the activist scene

From my conversations with Israeli peace activists, I felt a sentiment of disappointment towards what used to be the Israeli peace movement (a term which is now barely used), but also a very encouraging renewal of a more cooperative form of action by joint Israeli-Palestinian initiatives.

In the post-Oslo agreement phase, the attention of the Israeli peace movement has largely shifted from anti-occupation to peace building reconciliation types of activities (dialogue groups, cultural exchange ...). Only the “radical fringe” has been insisting on a continued need for protest and mobilisation against the continued expansion of colonisation under the cover of an official peace process. In particular, the failed Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000 and the launch of the second intifada the following autumn have accentuated divisions within the Israeli peace camp. The majority of the “Left” was unable to understand the need for a Palestinian uprising, and came back to the Israeli mainstream disbelief in the Palestinian leadership's real desire for peace.

The paralysis of the Israeli peace camp has been accentuated by a sentiment of powerlessness in relation to the political class currently in control. Michael Warshawski, Director of the Alternative Information Centre, draws a comparison between activism during the Lebanon War and in the current phase. Whereas peace activists of the early 1980s had a real impact on the decision-making process, whether through mass demos (400,000 took the street to protest the Sabra and Shatila massacre in September 1982) or army refusal (the leading refusenik support group, Yesh Gvul was born during the Lebanon war), it is not the case any more. Despite the growing number of refuseniks (even surpassing the numbers reached during the Lebanon war and the first intifada) and mass demonstrations (hundreds of thousands of Israelis gathered on Rabin square last Autumn for the commemoration of his assassination), there is no response by the leadership, and hardly any debate in the general public.

Towards collaborative action

I would like to counterbalance this dark picture of the current peace activism scene in Israel with some positive developments. Although the number of activists is just a fraction of what it used to be in the “golden age” of the Israeli peace movement, they have become much more aware of the reality of the continued expansion of the Jewish state into Palestinian land, coming back to a discourse of occupation that had been lost in the false symmetry created by the Oslo framework.

Among the numerous groups, movements and organisations that are still active, I will mention those which focus on non-violent direct action against the occupation, although only a few of such groups explicitly use the non-violence terminology. At the forefront of preventive non-violent action, are the refuseniks movements. Yesh Gvul has been supplemented by a number of other organisations supporting army refusal by young conscripts, reservists, officers, pilots, etc. Then we have mass movements which aim to mobilise the public as well as participate in concrete actions of solidarity with Palestinians, such as Gush Shalom, the women's groups (Women in Black, Bat Shalom, ...), or the bi-national Arab-Jewish group Ta'ayush. These are complemented by a number of smaller initiatives focusing on direct action, such as the Israeli Committee Against Homes Demolitions or Rabbis for Human Rights in the Jerusalem area, and the newly prominent young anarchist groups from Tel Aviv which can be found at every demonstration and defiant act in the occupied Territories. Finally, all these initiatives are supported by the offices who provide logistics and media support, such as the Alternative Information Center.

When I first interviewed members of the Israeli Peace Movement back in 1998, I was told that it had become difficult to organise joint Israeli-Palestinian activities, as formerly Palestinian non-violent activists were then busy building democracy and internal peace in their own community. But with the failure of the peace process and the return to a life of occupation, incursions and closures, Israelis and Palestinians have come closer together, creating collaborative forms of action. All the demonstrations and initiatives that I have witnessed this summer (such as the Mas'ha Peace Camp or the Anata work camp) were conjointly organised by groups from both sides of the Green Line. Therefore, whereas in the 1980s and 1990s Israeli and Palestinian anti-occupation organisations were working in the same direction but side by side, and met only for dialogue encounters or endless discussions on solutions to the political conflict, there is now much more coordination, facilitating the development of synergies and common strategies.

Non-violent third-party intervention

The intervention of third-parties is a necessary component of non-violent transformation of asymmetric conflicts, because the oppressed side is rarely able to transform the will of its powerful opponent through its own action. However, in the theory of non-violent action, the role of outside parties is to work specifically on the side of the less-powerful group, to assist them towards empowerment and the reduction of imbalance in the conflict.

I will mention here the organisations and movements which place a particular emphasis on non-violent intervention, understood here as an attempt to assist Palestinian initiatives (as opposed to bringing in the outside interveners' own agenda), and also a commitment to non-violent action, in its negative and positive forms: exclusion of the use of verbal or physical abuse; support for civil resistance to the Israeli occupation, in its respect for all people.

Assessing solidarity campaigns

In terms of effectiveness, some volunteers cite the increasing campaign of repression by Israel against international groups (especially since the spring of 2003) as a testimony of the success of non-violent resistance. After spending two weeks volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), it is my opinion that their most important success is in terms of media coverage. Indeed, the media section of the movement is quite successful in bringing the world's attention to its activities by attracting journalists to its demonstrations or sending reports to a worldwide audience. Some of them claim as an achievement the fact that the issue of the “wall of apartheid” became more prominent in the Israeli and international public arena after this summer's intensive campaign by the ISM and other groups.

Media work and advocacy back home is also the focus of Grassroots International for the Protection of Palestinian People, a Palestinian NGO which specialises in bringing in foreign groups for a short period of time for fact-finding missions, for example through its French branch Campagne Civile Internationale pour la Protection du Peuple Palestinien (CCIPPP).

On a more pessimistic tone, my observation of the activities of the ISM this summer is that taken individually, they did not really manage to make a difference in trying to prevent Israelis from controlling the lives of Palestinians. Removing a roadblock or attacking a fence means that they would be rebuilt the day after, and no case has been recorded where international activists have successfully prevented a house from being destroyed. The demonstration that soldiers are no longer afraid of shooting at internationals, even at the expense of bad media publicity outside Israel, indicates that the idea of acting as human shields is becoming less and less relevant.

Perhaps the activities that are the most sustainable in the long-term, even if they do not bring as much media coverage, are those that are more proactive and constructive than confrontational and disruptive. But the format of intervention adopted by the ISM, which is to try to have as many volunteers as possible for a short to medium period of time (the average time of stay is three weeks) and focus on direct action, is not adapted to such projects.

The concept chosen by groups such as the International Women Peace Service (IWPS, see here) and the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT) provides an alternative way of supporting Palestinian non-violent resistance. Each with its own specificities (IWPS accepts only women, CPT is run by North American Peace Churches), both groups have chosen to have a permanent residence in a particular area where they have been called for (IWPS in Hares, CPT in Hebron), and to rely on a very small number of highly-trusted well-trained activists coming for long periods (several months every year). This enables them to develop long-term relations with the local population and to work on well-prepared projects that really fit local needs and customs.

Rather than weakening the movement, this sub-division of solidarity work between different groups and networks, each with its own style and local contacts, enables complementary actions, which can only benefit the development of non-violent action in Israel-Palestine. Far from competing with each other, these autonomous solidarity groups collaborate with efficiency, participate in each other's activities, and manage to avoid duplicate action through pertinent geographical divisions of work (for example, the ISM does not have any presence in Hebron because the CPT is already there).

Similarly, there is a harmonious relationship between international and Palestinian groups (for example, the ISM is very closely linked with the Rapprochement Centre), so that foreign presence does not compete with or replace local action. And finally, all the anti-occupation activities organised conjointly by Palestinian and international initiatives to which I took part this summer also involved some invited Israeli guests from the groups mentioned earlier.

In conclusion

All the respondents of my interviews were calling for a three-fold non-violent movement against occupation headed by Palestinian, Israeli and third-party activists. Indeed, without necessarily wishing for a unified campaign, only collaborative action by Palestinian civilian resistance, Israeli preventive non-violence, and international non-violent advocacy might have enough leverage on the main obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation: the Israeli government. From my observations, this collaboration seems realistic in the near future; let us hope that the different parties involved will continue moving forward into this direction.