Reviving Palestinian non-violent resistance

Reviving Palestinian non-violent resistance

Two Palestinian women walk alongside Israeli women during a rally held by the Women Wage Peace movement, near the Dead Sea in the West Bank, on 8 October 2017.

(Chloé Demoulin)

When the United States recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the world’s political leaders and media asked themselves the same question: will Palestinians respond with violence?

In the days that followed, many of the Palestinians at the “Days of Rage” held in Jerusalem expressed support for a new Intifada.

But “those who talk of an Intifada are not necessarily talking about an armed or violent uprising,” Dr Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician and a leading proponent of non-violent resistance, told Equal Times.“The first Intifada was a totally grassroots uprising and was largely non-violent,” he explains.

The first Intifada erupted in December 1987 as a spontaneous protest against the Israeli occupation. It was the death of four Palestinian workers, whose car was hit by an Israeli truck, in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, that unleashed the collective rage. The Palestinians accused the driver of acting intentionally.

A campaign of civil disobedience then spread throughout Palestinian society. Strikes and mass demonstrations were held and although some, often very young, Palestinians threw Molotov cocktails at the Israeli army, they were a minority.

“In 1987, the movement was very strong, everyone, from all across the country, took part in it. This time, although it is only just beginning, I’m convinced that it’s going to continue and to spread,” says Barghouti, full of hope.

“The protests held in July against the metal detectors installed by Israel at the al-Aqsa mosque compound had a real impact. It proved how effective non-violent resistance can be,” he added.

“The secret weapon of the Palestinians is non-violence,” insists Palestinian activist Ali Abu Awad. “Because as long as there is violence on the Palestinian side, the Israelis will use it to justify the ongoing colonisation and occupation.”

Born in a refugee camp, this 45-year-old Palestinian, who was imprisoned during the first Intifada for throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, explains how he evolved: “It took me years to realise it, but non-violence has to come from us.”

The power of non-violence

It was during his time in prison that Ali Abu Awad came to realise the power of non-violence: firstly, when, after staging a 17-day hunger strike, he finally secured the right to see his mother, who had also been jailed by the Israeli authorities, and then thanks to his keen study of great resistance leaders such as Gandhi, Mandela and Malcolm X.

Ali Abu Awad went on to found the Taghyeer or ‘Change’ movement. Amongst its core activities are the workshops held to teach Palestinians about the value of non-violent action and how they can use it to improve their everyday lives.

The scope for action is limitless: rehabilitating a neighbourhood or a school, planting trees, holding meetings with local leaders, screening documentaries, etc. Palestinians also learn how to defend themselves, peacefully, against Israeli soldiers. New technologies play a crucial role in this respect.

A few years ago, non-violent activist Issa Amro, from Hebron, in the southern West Bank, came up with the idea of providing Palestinians with cameras so that they could document any human rights violations they may suffer or witness.

Their videos, posted on social media, have become a bugbear for the Israeli authorities. One of them led to the condemnation of the French-Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who, in March 2016, killed a Palestinian who was lying injured on the ground with a shot to the head.

Mass protests are also a key way of creating a dynamic and capturing the attention of the local and international media.

One of the most impressive examples of such initiatives is the Women Wage Peace movement, which has brought together several thousand Israeli and Palestinian women during mass marches or demonstrations in Israel and the West Bank.

Lama Abu Aqroub, a teacher and mother-of-five, is part of this movement. She is convinced that the role played by women is particularly crucial.

“If anyone can put an end to this conflict it is the women. They put feelings and humanity before anything else. They can combat violence by educating their children,” she ensures.

Women Wage Peace has allowed her to meet Israeli women, some of whom have become “very good friends”, and to show the sceptics that peaceful coexistence is possible.

According to Andrew Rigby and Marwan Darweish, co-authors of Popular Protest in Palestine: The Uncertain Future of Unarmed Resistance, “Palestinian activists dream of going back to the roots of the first Intifada, but the socio-economic context has changed considerably.”

The two academics point to the current lack of political unity and the Palestinians’ lack of trust in their leaders and the elite.

Ali Abu Awad, although conscious of these weaknesses, has not given up hope. “Non-violence is, precisely, a way for us to show our leaders that we are not sat there waiting for them, that we are ready to take our future into our own hands.”

The supporters of non-violent resistance are nonetheless a minority. According to a survey recently published by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, only 23 per cent of Palestinians believe that non-violence is the best way of achieving an independent and sovereign state next to the state of Israel.

They are often accused within Palestinian society of being naive.

Lama Abu Aqroub does not hide her exasperation at this criticism: “How many Palestinians were killed during the second Intifada or the last Gaza war? Did this bloodbath draw attention to the fairness of our cause? No! On the contrary. The international community listens to us when we use diplomatic channels.”

“It takes time. It requires stepping up our efforts,” she admits.

Mustafa Barghouti quotes the success of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement as an example. “BDS is the most effective form of non-violent resistance,” he enthuses, pointing out that the organisation is also supported by members of the Jewish community.

“They realise that the occupation is a cancer that is destroying the future of our two peoples and that pressure needs to be exerted and the occupation has to be made costly in order to change the attitude of the Israeli government.”

This story has been translated from French.