Wednesday, February 20, 2008

For Palestinians, the power of mass non-violence would be undeniable

An unarmed resistance modelled on Martin Luther King's civil rights movement could be the way to wake the world

Jonathan Freedland - CiF

This article appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday February 20 2008 on p27 of the Comment & debate section. It was last updated at 00:05 on February 20 2008.

Now that Fidel Castro has taken the carriage clock, international affairs has all too few fixed points of continuity. Her Majesty the Queen is still in place. The King of Thailand has been on the throne since 1946. Otherwise one has to turn to the Middle East for reassurance that some things never change. Fly-by-nights like Castro may come and go, but the Israel-Palestine conflict will, it seems, always be with us.

After the one-day peace meeting in Annapolis last November, some believed that was about to change. Surely George Bush, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas wouldn't stand in front of a quarter of the world's foreign ministers and promise to reach a peace accord by the end of 2008 only for nothing to happen.

And yet here we are, nearly a hundred days later, and Israelis and Palestinians are still having talks about talks. Negotiators have not yet even broached the substance, but are instead stuck trying to agree guiding "principles". There's a big argument over whether they should be discussing Jerusalem now or later. The pessimists who thought the two sides would at least start negotiating - only for their talks to founder later - now realise they were too hopeful.

The victims of this stasis are of course the people themselves: the Israelis of Sderot cowering in shelters from the Qassam rockets launched from Gaza; and the Palestinians, whose suffering only seems to deepen.

Last week Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian parliamentarian, independent of both Hamas and Abbas's Fatah, was in London, a laptop in his bag bearing an impossibly bleak PowerPoint presentation. In slide after slide, he showed what his people are up against.

To explode the myth of Annapolis, he showed how Palestinian freedom of movement is more restricted now than it was on the day of all those fine speeches. Now there are 561 checkpoints on the West Bank; in November there were 520. His figures showed an increase in Israeli attacks of 220% (largely, no doubt, in retaliation for those incoming Qassams). He counted 177 Palestinian deaths since Annapolis, the vast bulk in Gaza.

Yes, it was true that the confidence-building measure of prisoner releases happened: 788 Palestinians have been set free. But how much confidence could that build when 1,152 have been newly arrested since Annapolis?

On Barghouti went, showing photographs of the separation barrier that, by his estimate, is three times longer than the Berlin wall and, in parts, twice as high: eight metres of concrete. He cited the notorious case of Qalqilya, thoroughly encircled by the wall, with only an Israeli-policed gate allowing access to the outside world. He illustrates his point with a photograph of Palestinian children going to school through that gate, supervised by an Israeli soldier.

I know there will be people ready to dispute every one of those figures, along with the statistics that show Palestinians living on an annual income of $800 while Israelis earn an average $24,500. There will be others who insist that the wall, however dismal, has done its job, in that the number of suicide bombings has fallen drastically since it went up. (Barghouti rejects that, noting that he and other Palestinians can still get around the wall and the checkpoints when they try.) But the reality he describes - of poverty, of restriction, of occupation - can hardly be denied.

The question is what to do about it. The diplomatic path currently looks futile. Veteran peace negotiator Hussein Agha sees no hope until Hamas and Fatah can somehow be bound together so that Abbas can negotiate on behalf of the entire Palestinian people. Otherwise, the Palestinians have to rely on that much more fickle commodity - world opinion - hoping it can keep up the pressure for their cause. In this context, no opinion matters more than America's: the one country that can lean on Israel and make a difference.

But how to craft a Palestinian narrative that will capture and keep that attention? Barghouti likes to compare the Palestinians' plight to that of the black victims of apartheid, hoping to arouse a similar global movement to the one that demanded change in South Africa. That's surely doomed. Witness the response in much of the US commentary to Jimmy Carter's recent book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. The argument soon shifted not to the occupation but to the treatment of Arab citizens inside Israel itself: these Palestinians have the vote, nearly a dozen members of parliament, a supreme court justice and so on - all without equivalent in apartheid South Africa. If campaigners want the focus to remain on the occupation, rather than to be thrown on to the defensive, they need to take a different tack.

In our conversation Barghouti was lukewarm on boycotts (apart from a boycott of Israel's arms industry). Perhaps he recognises that this too is a tactic which alienates potential allies - by proposing ostracism in place of engagement and stirring unhappy memories, at least among Jews, of boycotts past.

So what's left? Barghouti is a longtime advocate of non-violent resistance. He and others were struck by the worldwide impact Gazans made last month when they punched a hole through the border wall separating them from Egypt. Unarmed men and women ran through and started shopping - grabbing whatever supplies they could. That prompted a discussion that reached deep into Hamas itself: what if Palestinians made a similarly non-violent assault on the border separating Gaza from Israel?

So far the idea has come to nothing. Some fear that the risk would be too great, that there's no guarantee that even civilian protesters bursting through a military border would not end up facing gunfire. Others ask what would happen once they got across: where would they go, what would they do? To sustain such a demonstration would require a degree of organisation which no movement outside Hamas could muster - and Hamas, currently besieged, is under too much pressure to pull that off. Besides, Abbas would see any such move as a challenge to his own authority and would oppose it.

Nevertheless, non-violent encounters with Israeli authority - whether at checkpoints or even at the gates of Jewish settlements - might be the best hope Palestinians have of winning the sympathy of outsiders. Palestinians could compare their struggle to the Martin Luther King movement for civil rights, walking and marching for their freedom.

Of course there are problems with this approach, starting with the fact that Palestinians and Israelis live in separate places and lead separate lives - far more distant even than the black and white of 1960s segregated America. They cannot threaten to withdraw their labour because few Palestinians work in the Israeli economy. They have little leverage.

And yet, the power of mass non-violence would be undeniable. My own hunch is that even Israelis themselves, given enough of a respite from rocket assaults and suicide bombings, and forced to confront the realities of Palestinian life, would waver in the face of such a movement.

Perhaps there is another story Palestinians could tell, one that would win the attention of those parts of the world they need to persuade. But they need to find one soon - if their suffering is not to become one of the last, unchanging facts in a fast-changing world.


At 3:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, Gert, but nothing will get done until the Palestinians get their part of Oslo(remember that one!?) done. They've reniged on almost everything they promised to abide by in both Oslo and Wye. Why would you expect anything from us when you don't expect anything from them? That's what's called hypocricy.

At 1:58 PM, Blogger Gert said...

"Why would you expect anything from us when you don't expect anything from them?"

Wherever did I say that "don't expect anything from then"?

You've got the wrong guy, Sarge!

At 4:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gert: I guess I should be addressing the guy who wrote this piece instead of you but it seems that you post articles of this nature a lot more than anything acccusing Palestinian leadership of an array of crimes they've comitted over the years (whether against Israel or their own people).

At 6:09 PM, Blogger Gert said...


Considering that the Palestinian people are among the most aligned of all, I really don't feel a great need to add anything to the cacophony of criticism (and often vile hatred) that is directed at them. I leave that to those who specialise in it.

At 4:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gert: "I really don't feel a great need to add anything to the cacophony of criticism (and often vile hatred) that is directed at them. I leave that to those who specialise in it."

Yeah, ok...


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