Sunday, August 5, 2012

Nonviolence and Palestine

In 2008, I worked as a journalist and interim editor in Ramallah for the Palestine Monitor, a web-based news source committed to “exposing life under occupation.” I traveled throughout the West Bank, writing several articles about the village of Ni’lin, whose olive groves and roads are fractured due to the construction of the separation wall. I witnessed and engaged with villagers, as well as Israeli and international activists, nonviolently protesting the confiscation and devastation of their land. I attended the first demonstration at Ni’lin on the inaugural day of construction. Villages like Ni’lin have lost and are losing increasing amounts of land, including ancient and viable farmland, to the wall, mostly built deep into Palestinian territory.

We marched from the town center to the outskirts, where we could see three Israeli settlements reaching like white hands over the ashen hilltops. The military and police, accompanied by Caterpillar bulldozers, watched with finger-laden triggers as youth crawled in front of machinery and we gathered around as popular committee leaders spoke with soldiers.

The villagers assured the military that we were there nonviolently. But the squad commander barked an order and sound grenades began exploding at our feet and rubber-coated bullets spiraled through teargas clouds. Stone-throwing never seemed effective to me, but I struggled labeling it violence, especially as they bounced off tanks and kevlar. Either way, stones and M-16s are not easily comparable. Every protest I attended followed a similar chronology: the Israeli military always fired first, the crowd dispersed, and stones fell wildly.
Police and military repeatedly responded with teargas (including an apparatus that shot 16 at once), rubber-coated bullets, and live fire, most of which are supplied by the United States. At other demonstrations, the atmosphere was festive (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 36) with beating drums and cookware, whistles and chants. And yet each time we were disrupted by charging soldiers and sparks from sound grenades lighting ancient olive trees aflame.

I have heard some commentators praising Palestinians’ newfound application of nonviolence, almost surprised to see such a thing in the Middle East. This Orientalist view, often espoused by American political leaders, is not only hypocritical (because Israel and the U.S. are never encouraged to employ nonviolence) but is extremely ignorant of Palestinian history. Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived in the so-called Holy Land as neighbors for centuries. But European partitioning of the Middle East ruptured the land like tectonic plates and a massive influx of Jewish immigrants arrived on Mediterranean waves, many propelled by Zionism. This ideology espoused labor and land acquisition by replacing Arab workers with Jewish workers and by purchasing Arab land which could then no longer be sold to Arabs (King, 2009, p. 151) [Footnote]. However, Palestinians strove to protect their life and land, from both exclusive Zionist policies and British control, through nonviolent tactics such as organizing delegations, boycotts, resignations, and strikes (ibid, pp. 131-132). Around 97% of the First intifada’s tactics were nonviolent (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 119). And over 70% of Palestinian youth oppose violence in the conflict against Israel.

I’ve also heard criticisms that Palestinian nonviolence lacks a central leader like Gandhi or King who can rally the troops. But this obscures the fact that prominent leaders have existed (King, 2009, pp. 135-140), many of whom have been imprisoned or deported. During the First intifada, high-ranking Palestinian leaders lived in exile from the daily toil of occupation. Instead, popular committees cultivated a movement of leaders, some more visible than others. Interestingly, the Communist Party, often associated with a revolutionary vanguard capturing the state, publically advocated for nonviolent tactics and “popular organizing of small, locally-governed institutions,” believing that these could transform social structures as a prerequisite for national independence (ibid, p. 134). Decentralized power guaranteed the movement’s survival: as members were jailed new ones stepped in their shoes (ibid, p. 134). At one point, popular committees, often initiated and run by women (ibid, p. 140), numbered around 45,000, a groundswell that emerged into a concerted civil society from which the intifada forcefully streamed (ibid, pp. 133-134). Parallel institutions, a classic nonviolent tactic of intervention (Sharp, 2005, pp. 19, 460), made the occupied territories ungovernable as Palestinians governed themselves (ibid, p. 142). For instance, the small village of Beit Sahour, where I’ve spent most of my time in Palestine, organized some 12,000 people into 36 committees, diversified along class and gender lines (ibid, p. 140). Direct democracy and nonviolence are not an import to the Middle East.

I know someone who has hoped to make a career out of working in Palestine. During a conversation about the then-imminent Palestinian bid for statehood, he quipped that, if the request succeeded, he might be out of a job before he even gets started. He probably meant it sardonically, but the implication was that a Palestinian state is the answer, as if abject poverty, political infighting, Muslim-Christian hostility, ecological devastation, and IDF-mimicking police forces would suddenly vanish in the wake of a salvific state. So far, nation-state frameworks have resulted in the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. After the PA’s institution, women were mostly excluded from decision-making even though they had been leaders of popular committees (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 137). Perhaps state-focused organizing is the best tactical option considering that all four nonviolent secessionist campaigns since 1900 have failed (ibid, p. 73). While Palestinian self-determination isn’t strictly secession, the West Bank is certainly contiguous with Israel through economic dependency, security collaboration, and Israel’s resource control. Land is continually pulled from beneath Palestinians’ feet like a carpet, and Israel’s monopolization of water sources may decide the conflict for everyone.

However, nonviolent resistance has an advantage in territorial campaigns like self-determination and anti-occupation (ibid, p. 7). The consensus on nonviolence during the First intifada fell apart in the third year after enough leaders were deported or imprisoned (ibid, p. 145), making a decentralized movement of leaders extremely urgent. Perhaps the greatest possibility lies in the resurrection and sustainability of popular committees. They already play an important role in the intifada against the wall (King, 2009, p. 149), and have been effective in Budrus, Bil’in, and initially in Ni’lin. Popular committees could connect with grassroots Israeli movements, like Israeli-Bedouin agricultural partnerships in the Negev, or movements like Arba Imahot (Hermann, 2009, p. 262). Maybe people would hear voices like Martin Buber who, instead of initially fighting for a Jewish state, called for an Arab-Jewish confederation in the land.

The section of the wall through Ni’lin is now complete, but the protests continue.

Footnote: In my mind, this makes Chenoweth and Stephan’s claim that Israel is a rare example of a democracy following a violent insurgency (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 219) highly problematic, especially because 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes during this period. These land acquisitions are still occurring.


Chenoweth, E. & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hermann, T. (2009). Winning the mainstream: Arba imahot, the four mothers movement in
Israel. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 253-264). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

King, M. E. (2009). Palestinian civil resistance against the Israeli military occupation. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 131-155). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sharp, G. (2005). Waging nonviolent struggle: 20th century practice and 21st century potential. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers.


  1. Hi. Thanks for writing this. It's strait forward and informative. I hope you can pick this blog up again. If you haven't already read it, let me recommend Wendy Pearlman's Violence, Nonviolence and the Palestinian National Movement. She argues for the importance of cohesion in a nonviolent movement.

    1. Hi Molly, thanks for leaving a comment! Glad you found this helpful. I have ideas for other posts, but I write too much for blog posts and too infrequently. Thanks for the book recommendation!