The Palestinians' Most Potent Weapon

The Palestinians' Most Potent Weapon

How Palestinians are eschewing the example of Osama bin Laden and embracing that of Nelson Mandela.

Nine years ago an article by Gal Luft titled “The Palestinian H-Bomb: Terrorism's Winning Strategy” addressed suicide bombing against Israeli citizens as a fearsome and inexorable force. The tactic instead proved to be a self-destructive fizzle. It earned enemies rather than friends, drove Israelis deeper into their defensive crouch, was ultimately controlled by Israel through measures such as a meandering defensive barrier, and did absolutely nothing to bring Palestinians closer to self-determination and their own state.

Mainstream Palestinian thinking, feeling the need to do something in the face of continued occupation, subjugation and statelessness, has moved in recent years toward the belief that the polar opposite from terrorism as far as tactics for subjugated peoples are concerned—viz., peaceful protest—must be pursued as the center of any strategy for trying to gain relief from the Palestinians' plight. The belief is based on recognition that the Palestinians have legality and morality on their side in objecting to the continued occupation and colonization of land seized through military conquest. The more peaceful parts of the Arab Spring elsewhere in the Middle East have served as inspiration for what can be accomplished through nonviolent means, and they have placed in sharper relief the fact that the Palestinians conspicuously lack the popular sovereignty that many of their Arab brethren are striving to obtain.

This week a group of Palestinian activists employed one form of peaceful protest—civil disobedience—by boarding a Jerusalem-bound bus on the West Bank reserved for Israeli settlers. They called themselves “Freedom Riders,” after the self-designation of those who used similar methods to protest segregation in the southern United States of the 1960s. The objectives and circumstances of the Freedom Riders back then and their newest namesakes are indeed very similar. The chief difference is that the protesting riders in Dixie were told to go to the back of the bus, whereas the Palestinians were told that they cannot use the bus at all.

This tactic is the latest step in a decades-long evolution, not just among Palestinians but among Arabs generally, toward methods that are more reasonable, more defensible, and have greater hope of being effective, as they confront Israeli-imposed injustice in the occupied territories. There was, to begin with, the blunder of not accepting the United Nations plan for the partition of Palestine in 1947. The head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, said in an interview last month, “It was our mistake. It was an Arab mistake as a whole.” Rejection of the plan meant forgoing a Palestinian state that would have been larger than anything any Israeli leader has offered since. And it meant handing Israel a repeatedly invoked blame-shifting excuse for its own obduracy, no matter how drastically Arab postures toward Israel have changed in the interim. (The Arab League's peace plan, which would involve full recognition and acceptance by the entire League of the State of Israel—with territory substantially greater than the U.N. partition plan had allotted to the Jewish state—has already been on the table for nine years.)

Then there was the violence, including the supposed H-bombs and the milder stone throwing of two phases of intifada. The violence had a lot to do with the disposition of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was inherently a resistance chief who probably did not have it in him to bring his people to any promised land of peace. The stone throwing was an understandable reaction to the frustrations of subjugation and occupation, but stones are projectiles and throwing them is still violence. Any form of violence led to a framing of the conflict in the Israeli-preferred terms of defense and security—not just as a gambit of Israeli governments but as a reflection of genuine concerns among ordinary Israelis about their security. And ultimately the intifada violence, like the suicide bombing, was brought under control.

Peaceful protest, including civil disobedience, has a better chance than violence of getting results for the same reasons that such nonviolent tactics eventually undid segregation in the United States. Eschewing violence gets away from the narrow defense-and-security framework and lets light shine on issues of justice. Tactics such as civil disobedience publicize to the wider world the realities of oppression and subjugation. And they confront members of the oppressing population themselves with those same realities.

That last point is one of the respects in which similarities with the American civil rights movement go well beyond buses as vehicles of both segregation and protest. Segregation in the United States was broken down not just because a segment of the white population was forced to submit to new rules but also because a segment of that population that was sustaining segregation was shamed and enlightened into changing its ways. That eventually extended even to the Strom Thurmonds and George Wallaces.

The other prominent apartheid system, the one in South Africa, also showed similarities. Opposition to apartheid there involved violence, including terrorism by the African National Congress. But ultimately the bomb throwers made less difference in ending the system than did the example set by that embodiment of peace and dignity, Nelson Mandela.

Despite the advantages that civil disobedience and other nonviolent means have over the alternatives, any effort to dismantle the apartheid system that Israel maintains in the occupied territories still faces several huge obstacles. One is that however peaceful mainstream Palestinian thinking may have become, it takes only one act of violence committed by some uncontrolled element on the fringe to undo all the good done by the nonviolent methods.

Another great obstacle is the determination on the Israeli Right, reflected in the policies of the current government, to cling to the conquered territories and to continue colonizing them, no matter how shameful those actions are. A further unfortunate dynamic is that the Israeli occupation fosters—as Ronald Krebs argues in the current Foreign Affairs—illiberalism in Israel itself. That illiberalism in turn inhibits full discussion of the issues of justice and fairness that are at stake. A recent indication of that illiberalism, and of how much the current Israeli government views vigorous discussion of these issues as a threat to its policies and is determined to squelch such discussion, is approval by a cabinet committee of legislation aimed at curtailing foreign financial support to leftist human-rights groups.

Then there is the problem of how deeply embedded, largely because of the years of violence, the defense-and-security framework is in the thinking of many Israelis outside the government. The immediate reaction of the Israeli settlers who were also riding on that West Bank bus that the protesters boarded was not encouraging. “Terrorists!” said one of them, notwithstanding the nonviolent nature of the act he had just witnessed.

The principal hope rests with the sense of decency and fairness that surely resides within most ordinary Israelis. That sense would have a better chance of coming out and having an effect if it were not for another huge obstacle: politics within the United States leading to policies that have had the effect of condoning and supporting not what is fair and decent in Israeli behavior but instead what is destructive and obstructionist.