Palestinian Pacifism

By John Bacher | 2002-10-01 12:00:00

There is a long tradition of Palestinians reacting with nonviolence against the injustices caused by the immigrant Zionist movement. It was the hard line founder of the Israeli state, David Ben Gurion, who began a pattern of manipulating Palestinian armed extremism to justify more land seizures. The left on both sides of the Jewish and Palestinian communities sought peace between the two communities

The Palestinian Community of Israeli Citizens

The peace-seeking of the Palestinian citizens of Israel is not widely understood. Strongly committed to nonviolent solutions, this Arabic-speaking community is a major force in Israeli politics. Terror and Islamic fundamentalism have few friends among them.

Despite their effective use of citizenship rights, many Palestinians endure repression. The respected US human rights group Freedom House, in its current annual report, downgraded Israel's democracy rating because the police killed Palestinians demonstrating nonviolently against Ariel Sharon's provocative march on the al-Aqsa mosque. Similar police severity was not exhibited against the violent Jewish anti-Palestinian mob protests at the same time.

The Israeli Palestinian community has many grievances. Many of its residents, although living within the country's borders, have been refused the right to return to their original homes, which they fled in the turmoil of the 1947 war. Palestinians have won court victories for their land in the Israeli Supreme Court, but successive Israeli governments evaded addressing the claims.

Blank Ballots

Arabic-speaking Israelis account for 18 percent of Israel's electorate. The arithmetic for peace could be strong in Israel if principled parties, committed to an authentic two-state solution, were to command even a third of the country's Jewish voters. Every time the hard-line Likud Party has won a clear election victory since the end of the Cold War, it is because a sizable minority of Palestinian voters abstained or cast blank protest ballots. Right-wing parties such as Likud, unable to win votes, use devious tactics to divide and weaken the political strength of this community, even to the extent of encouraging Islamic fundamentalism within it.

The Palestinian community was politically weak in the past because its strongest political voice, the Communist Party, was was hurt by being associated with the absurdities of similar parties around the world, such as support for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. One benefit of the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev was that the Israeli Communist Party was finally able to shed its Stalinist image, changing its name to the People's Party. It helped to pressure the Israeli government to enter into the Oslo process and to persuade the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to accept a two-state solution. The People's Party seeks reasonable social democratic solutions to achieve that solution. It allied with Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin after he signed the Oslo Accords. While having a Palestinian majority, its membership includes many left wing Jews.

After it came to power, the Likud Party sought to manipulate Islamic fundamentalism to undermine the People Party's political base in Nazareth. This was encouraged by the Likud Party's Danny Greenberg. In secret meetings with the Islamist movement in Israel, Greenberg encouraged them to protest against the People's Party over the issue of building a mosque next to the Christian Basilica of the Annunciation. Later he spoke on the Arabic service of Radio Israel in support of this very cause. These manipulations contributed to Islamic fundamentalist riots, on April 3, 1999, when extremists terrorized Christians and the moderate Muslims who resisted them. The Israeli police sat by passively, but protests from international Christian churches resulted in Greenberg's dismissal.

Using nonviolent political methods, Palestinian Israelis continue to make gains for their community. The Israeli Supreme Court has struck down a law prohibiting Palestinians from living on state-owned land. Efforts by Likud to legislatively overturn this decision have been defeated. Palestinian citizens use nonviolent methods to support similar moderate voices in the Palestinian diaspora and the occupied territories.

In the Diaspora and Occupied Territories

While Palestinian nonviolence is the norm within Israel, advocates of that approach suffer more difficulties elsewhere. For the small Palestinian communities in the repressive oil-rich dictatorships Libya, Syria and Iraq and in the Syrian-dominated parts of Lebanon, the only way to carry out such politics is to emigrate. In these repressive countries, security services have organized extreme Palestinian groups, who use terror against Israel and assassinate Palestinian peace advocates. Thus neighboring dictatorships manipulate Palestinian grievances to justify their authoritarian rule. This is shown by the millions of dollars such countries give to the terror of Hamas, which is opposed to both the two-state formula and any other reasonable accommodation between Jews and Palestinians in this region.

Fortunately, most Palestinian exiles live in countries that at least nominally support the notion of two states living together in peace. Some of them assist nonviolent struggles against Israel and for human rights in the Palestinian Authority (PA) institutions created by the Oslo Accords. However, there is no political party in the occupied territories or in the diaspora with a clear commitment to nonviolence and co-existence. This point was made recently by Mubarak Awad, who urged the creation of a Palestinian Social Democratic Party, which could put forward such a platform in elections for the PA.

Much of the impetus for nonviolence in the occupied territories comes from the Palestinian Christian community -- which is only three per cent of those living under occupation. Still, this small community, concentrated in the three contiguous towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, has carried out remarkable nonviolence.

A major milestone in learning nonviolent methods was the Communists' 1974 Nazareth election victory. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have increasingly become talented in nonviolent politics and protest. Shortly after Israeli occupation in 1968, this advocacy began with Feisal Husseini, who lived in the recently annexed city of East Jerusalem. A moderate Muslim who learned Hebrew in Israeli jails where he endured long prison terms for his involvement in Yasser Arafat's al-Fatah movement, Husseini began lecturing on nonviolent methods to create a durable Middle Eastern peace. He formed the Committee Confronting the Iron Fist, which co-operated with the Israeli peace movement to help imprisoned Palestinians.

In 1983, another voice for nonviolence emerged when an American-educated Palestinian, Mubarak Awad, established the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence in East Jerusalem. A Christian with links to the pacifist Mennonite traditions, Awad spent three years giving talks on nonviolent resistance in the West Bank. He translated Islamic writings on nonviolence into Arabic, notably those of the Muslim Pathan colleague of Gandhi's, Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

The initial 1987 incident that triggered the Palestinian intifada in a Gaza strip refugee camp involved some limited violence. However, Awad, Husseini and other peace visionaries began to impose nonviolent discipline on the struggle. They became involved in the United National Command of the PLO, which managed to operate in the occupied territories through clandestine means. Its leaflets advocating nonviolence had the support of a number of political groups, including both the moderate Muslim Brothers and al-Fatah. The only significant group to remain aloof was Hamas, whose support for limited violence was combined with appeals for holy war.

Palestinians developed a plan to use nonviolence to challenge Israel. This was announced in January 1988, by an Anglican Palestinian spokesperson, Hanna Siniora, a newspaper editor. She called for the Palestinian communities to become self-sufficient in the basic necessities of life, so they would not have to buy Israeli products, pay taxes, or work for Israeli employers. Siniora expressed the hope that such methods would do "what the Gandhi movement did in India and the black and civil rights movement did in the United States."

The Nonviolent Revoltof Beit Sahour

The most rigorous application of the Siniora plan took place in the predominately Christian community of Beit Sahour, known as the place where shepherds grazed their flocks before the birth of Christ.

Beit Sahour promoted backyard gardening, which expanded into the development of a dairy farm. It was pronounced a security threat by the Israeli intelligence agency. Israeli government efforts to seize the cows failed because they were moved to a secret location, foiling helicopters and hundreds of police.

In July 1988, Beit Sahour residents joined a tax revolt against Israeli occupation and won the support of many Israeli Jews. Part of their strategy was to have 70 Israeli peace activists pray with them in their homes on the Jewish Sabbath. This was followed in November 1988 by a service for peace in Beit Sahour's Orthodox Church, which became a center of nonviolent resistance. This was the first time that many Israeli peace activists (some of them survivors of the Nazi Holocaust) had been in a church. The Israeli response to the outrage of ecumenical prayer was severe. The community was placed under siege. Phone lines were cut. Soldiers confiscated $2 million in goods from businesses that refused to pay taxes. A furniture factory had all its machinery and tools stripped. Medical supplies were destroyed. International protest, aided by such celebrities as Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, caused the siege to be lifted after 44 days.

The government of Israel, at that time a hawkish coalition of Labor and Likud, sought to prevent any nonviolent "contagion" from Beit Sahour. American consultants warned the government that a wider nonviolent revolt would be unstoppable. Israel would fall on the defensive from international protest, especially if Jews joined with Palestinians in vigils on sacred Christian lands.

Heeding these public relations consultants, Israel swiftly deported Mubarak Awad. Membership on committees organizing nonviolent protests became punishable by ten years in prison. Nonviolent organizers were arrested. The Israeli defence forces switched from rubber to plastic bullets. The right to judicial review of jail sentences was rescinded.

The PLO leadership and Israel colluded to stop nonviolence, since the Tunis group in exile saw the movement as a threat to its power. Awad's offices in Jerusalem were broken into and his supporters personally threatened. The PLO denied financial support and logistical help to Beit Sahour and discouraged other communities from joining its tax revolt. Although families of those killed or wounded in violent clashes received financial aid from the PLO (which was funded by rich Gulf State dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia) no assistance was given to those persecuted for tax resistance.

Rejecting nonviolence, PLO Chairman Arafat increasingly embraced Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. This short-lived alliance proved disastrous for the PLO, eventually bankrupting the organization after Gulf state Arab governments pulled funding in protest against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Keen to keep the PLO afloat, Arafat made a far worse agreement at Oslo than the nonviolent strategists had been calling for. Rather than achieving an immediate two-state solution, financial pressures promoted Arafat's acceptance of only an immediate 60 percent control of Gaza and an undefined area (subject to further negotiations to determine its extent) around Jericho.

Palestinian Nonviolent Advocates During the Oslo Period.

Although the Olso terms were disagreeable, Palestinians committed to nonviolence sought to make them work. They stayed within the legal mechanisms that created the Palestinian Authority and sought to democratize it as a functioning state. Hanna Siniora, elected to the new Palestinian Parliament, resigned her position as a cabinet minister to sit on the back benches in protest against the PA's corruption and Islamic fundamentalist tendencies. She formed an independent Palestinian Human Rights group.

Some nonviolent Palestinians activists served the PA, fostering peace and human rights. Most notable was Feisal Husseini, who served until his recent death as a Minister for East Jerusalem. Husseini was replaced by another Muslim champion of nonviolence, Sari Nusseibeh, an Oxford University-educated former professor of sociology. He holds the keys of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, given centuries ago by quarreling Christian sects to his respected Muslim family because none could agree who should have them.

Renewing Nonviolence after the Second Intifada

Hundreds of deaths resulted from violent riots in the wake of Ariel Sharon's provocative September 27, 2000 walk on the Temple Mount. But a few months later nonviolent Palestinians again developed methods of civil disobedience. The first nonviolent protest in the Occupied Territories took place on December 28, 2000 in Beit Sahour, three months after Sharon's stunt. It was organized by the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between People, founded by Ghassan Andoni.

A leader in developing the nonviolent strategies during the first intifada, Andoni has emerged as a Gandhi of the Occupied Territories. His centre shows Jews and Palestinians how to work together to organize nonviolent actions involving Jews, Palestinians, and international observers.

Andoni organized a demonstration of about 100 protesters demanding the dismantling of an army post near Beit Sahour, above an ancient Christian burial ground. Half of the participants were from international peace organizations, and the rest were Palestinian Christians and Jews. Andoni was able to enter the military post with the crowd, to ask the occupation forces to leave. Unfortunately, this brave invasion of a military zone received no international press coverage.

The small Beit Sahour march was a confidence-building measure for Palestinian pacifists shaken by the violence of the second intifada. They encouraged a bigger demonstration after Sharon's election in March 2001. The impetus for the protests was the Israeli army's digging of two trenches, each six feet wide, along the main road linking the Palestinian capital of Ramallah and Birzeit University (an institution founded by pacifist Christians). Its president, Hanna Nasser, led a march by 2,000 demonstrators from the campus, clearing away stones the Israeli army placed on the road. The nonviolent march was disrupted by the sudden appearance of stone-throwing youths -- a tactic commonly used by Islamic fundamentalists to disrupt nonviolent protests. Despite this provocation, the nonviolent activists were able to open the road, since they were numerous enough to attract television coverage.

Current State of Palestinian Nonviolent Protest

Although Palestinian nonviolent protests have not reached the disciplined, massive mobilizations of millions dreamt of by Mubarak Awad, they have become a major force in curbing the destructiveness of the Sharon government. They help people survive on their ancestral lands, despite provocations such as curfews, cutting urban sewage pipes, putting bullet holes in water tanks, and the crimes of armed extremist settlers.

Palestinian nonviolent protest has been assisted by international observers. Andoni's centre works with other organizations committed to nonviolence, notably the Christian Peace Teams and the International Solidarity Movement.

It is possible for pacifists to journey to the Occupied Territories for two weeks and have their flights from North America paid. While none of these nonviolent observers have been killed or even seriously injured, they have received beatings, arrests, verbal abuse, and grotesque character assassination.

In July, an activist at Andoni's centre described their successful nonviolent protests in Nablus against curfews, which have made shopping a terrible risk. Jordan Green noted, "We continue to hear about suicide bombing operations, but we don't hear about the weekly nonviolent marches against the occupation in Nablus and Ramallah, and we aren't told that 95 percent of the Palestinian population is unarmed and engaged in nonviolent resistance to the occupation."

Green notes a growing spread of nonviolence throughout the Occupied Territories. For instance, "The Beit Omar farmers don't have the option of armed defence of their land. Instead, they are discussing how to use civil disobedience, international presence, and media coverage to challenge the confiscation.ÉIn Gaza, internationals are accompanying Palestinians in trying to repair a well that is constantly destroyed by the Israeli occupying army. They need consistent efforts and presence to maintain access to their water, and ultimately they need to change the balance of power that allows the Israeli military to destroy community infrastructure."

Andoni estimates that at least 1,000 people -- many carrying medical supplies -- have been prevented from entering Israel to help his work. Over 50 people who entered Israel and Palestine to work with humanitarian organizations have also been deported. Such deportations, however, have slowed down since the activists are appealing them to the respected Supreme Court of Israel.

This summer another prominent champion of nonviolence within the PA, cabinet minister Sari Nusseibeh, was persecuted. He had urged the acceptance of the two-state formula before the PLO agreed to it in the Oslo talks. In July, Nusseibeh's files were seized and his office padlocked by Israeli police, on order from a Likud leader who opposed the Oslo process, especially its provisions for an eventual return of part of East Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty. Nusseibeh is the most likely person, if he were to try, to defeat Yasser Arafat in a free election on a platform of opposing terrorism. His harassment is typical of the cynical fashion in which the Israeli right continues its old tactics -- undermining Palestinian leaders committed to co-existence -- in order to justify seizing land and denying Palestinian civil rights.

Still, a remarkable success in Palestinian nonviolent resistance was shown this summer in a successful campaign that resulted in the withdrawal of Israeli Defence Forces from Bethlehem. This involved cooperation between Jewish and Palestinian peace activists. A joint demonstration was planned, with placards waving support for Israel's security. The protest was held but without Jewish participants because a bus bringing these activists to the Bethlehem rally was blocked by police. Jewish activists who attempted to walk to the march were prevented from doing so by being hosed with water cannon. The demonstrators, however, made their point and the troop withdrawal took place a week after the dousing of the Jewish activists with water.

Building the Basis for Peace

Apart from actually traveling to Israel-Palestine, it is possible to help these activists build peace by asking the Canadian government to support their efforts. In Canada there is a Palestinian community committed to nonviolence. Their organization supports Sabeel, a Christian Palestinian Ecumenical Organization. Its Canadian Chair is Fr. Robert Assaly, an Anglican priest. Contact: Canadian Friends of Sabeel, St. Thomas Anglican Church, 2262 Braeside, Ottawa, Ontario, KIH-7J7. (613) 733-0336.

John Bacher is a writer in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2002

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2002, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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