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Look again, Gandhi


"I am coming to speak about peace and non- violence," Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, told the Jerusalem Post newspaper shortly before he arrived in the Middle East to preach a message of mutual respect, love and understanding to two conflict-weary publics, Israeli and Palestinian.

At his first rally in East Jerusalem last week, Gandhi led thousands of Palestinians, including Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, and a handful of Israeli peace campaigners on a march against the wall being built across the West Bank. Under the banner "No to violence, yes to peace", the protest was designed to promote the path of Palestinian peaceful resistance to Israel’s military occupation.

After four years of armed Intifada, the US- based group that organised his visit — Palestinians for Peace and Democracy — believes that the philosophy of non-violent struggle can be exported to the West Bank and Gaza where it will mobilise the Palestinian masses to find new ways to oppose the occupation.

But what Gandhi and his supporters fail to understand is that a non-violent struggle requires specific conditions that are not present in this conflict.

The first and most obvious condition is that non-violence should carry with it the moral weight that makes violent retaliation unconscionable. But if there is one lesson from the first and second Intifadas, a lesson learned at a high price, it is that non-violence by Palestinians both in the occupied territories and inside Israel is rarely reciprocated by the Israeli security forces.

During this Intifada, for example, 13 unarmed Palestinian citizens were shot dead inside Israel, in the Galilee, for organising largely peaceful demonstrations. And the first victims across the Green Line in the West Bank and Gaza were scores of children hit in the head by sniper bullets. Most were throwing stones ineffectually at tanks and military installations, or just watching — maybe not quite Gandhi’s vision of non-violence, but hardly armed insurrection either.

Today most Palestinian men, women and children have slunk back to their homes, to lives under curfew or military siege, leaving the resistance to the young men of the Palestinian militias (their seniors more than often dead or in jail).

The lesson dealt by Israel’s military chiefs has been absorbed in different ways on both sides of the Green Line. In Israel, where resistance is far less critical to daily survival, Palestinian citizens say if non-violent protest gets you killed, better not protest. In the occupied territories, Palestinians say if non-violent protest gets you killed, either better not protest or better go down all guns blazing.

The second, and most important, condition for non-violent resistance in pursuit of national objectives is that actions must be collective and popular. Realistically, an unarmed population only has the courage to face down soldiers and tanks when it has the numbers on its side. But, with the brief interlude of the first Intifada, Palestinians, whether in Nazareth or Nablus, have rarely been able to organise effective mass demonstrations.

Increasingly, factions have been pursuing their own limited or competing agendas, often relying on the heroics of small groups of militants or lone suicide bombers.

The reason is not, as some Western writers, academics and politicians like to imply, related to a rogue Arab gene, a failure of the "Arab mind" or an excess — or lack — of guns, but to the specific circumstances that have followed the Palestinians’ dispossession and dispersion. Theirs is a unique legacy of colonial misrule, and the lessons of India or any other colonised state cannot easily be translated to their case.

Israel, after all, was not created in a vacuum. The Jewish national project emerged and grew strong just as other colonial movements were dying, and it learned from their mistakes. Most relevantly it allied itself with, but (until now) avoided replicating the worst excesses of, South African apartheid.

In both South Africa and Israel, the goal was the theft of land and underground resources from the native population — in Africa’s case the mineral wealth, especially diamonds, and in Israel’s case, the aquifers and precious water supplies.

Some common approaches adopted by the two countries are discernible. Both South Africa and Israel absorbed the core strategy of colonial Britain: that the necessary condition for ruling another people, dispossessing them and exploiting their resources, is a policy of divide and rule, of fragmenting the native population so that all forms of resistance can be suppressed more effectively.

But South Africa and Israel also learned from the colonising nations’ failures. The main lesson was that to reinforce the colonisation project it was better to install a settler population in the place of the dispossessed natives. These settlers should be committed to the national project and to the occupied territory in a way that, for example, British army officers on a tour of duty could never be.

So why, taking up Gandhi’s implied criticism, did the black South African population eventually find a successful way to resist and end their occupation while the Palestinians seem no nearer liberation?

Many factors must be taken into account. The excesses of South African apartheid were more visceral; the black populations in Europe and the US grew more influential from the 1970s and racism increasingly became synonymous with discrimination against black people; white rule in South Africa and the boycotts it provoked marginalised the country’s significance in the global economy; and the white Boer population demonstrated an impressive lack of political sophistication.

In contrast, Israel has many advantages. It has endlessly exploited Western guilt over the Holocaust; it has successfully used the fear of anti-Semitism to silence most high-level criticisms of its policies; its strategic Middle Eastern alliance with the US remains strong; it is still seen in Washington as an effective bulwark against Arab nationalism and the threat that poses to the oil supply; and it has a vigourous lobby working for its interests in the corridors of Congress.

But perhaps most importantly, Israel’s leaders, unlike South Africa’s, have never lost sight of the necessary condition of occupation: the fragmentation of the enemy, the indigenous population.

Even the apartheid wall — which will eventually make life so unbearably difficult for almost all Palestinians that it may breed some sort of collective consciousness — should be able to contain the threat it conjures up. For the wall, combined with Israel’s military system of curfews and checkpoints, is physically entrenching the cantonisation of the West Bank.

Mass action will become impossible when neighbours are cut off from each other.

The wall is the summit of Israel’s ever- evolving policy of divide and rule.

At each stage of the occupation — whether the original 1948 form or the later 1967 incarnation — Israeli strategists have devised new and more effective ways to prevent the Palestinians from challenging their power. It is worth briefly surveying how this has been achieved.

First, the native Palestinian population was largely fragmented by the time the institutions of the newly created Israeli state conquered much of the territory that had been Palestine. Even before the Jewish state was declared in May 1948, Palestinian elites had largely abandoned the cities of Jaffa, Jerusalem, Acre, Nazareth and Haifa for the safety of neighbouring Arab states. Under the weight of growing Jewish terror and the British mandatory authorities’ clandestine support for the Zionist enterprise, the middle classes had decided to cut their losses and sit out the impending war.

With them went the Palestinian entrepreneurs, intellectuals and politicians.

After 1948, the new Jewish state was confronted with a leaderless, largely dispersed Palestinian society, which lacked the tools needed to organise resistance to Israel’s project of consolidating Palestinian dispossession by transferring land and property to Jewish immigrants.

After their victory, Israel’s military and political planners were far from complacent, however. Their main fear was that given the chance the Palestinians under their rule would sooner or later pick up the pieces and reassert themselves. Israeli officials therefore worked tirelessly to subdue and terrorise the rump of the Palestinian population who were now citizens.

The instrument they used was the military government imposed on the Palestinian minority in Israel’s first two decades. It rigidly controlled their lives with a system of permits, it developed an extensive network of informers and it crushed all political and social dissent. Since 1967 that system has been replicated in the occupied territories.

The consequences for ordinary Palestinians are equally evident on either side of the Green Line. Collective action has been made all but impossible.

The wider the circle extends, and the more Palestinians are included in any direct action — whether violent or non-violent — the more likely an informer will be included in the circle and the enterprise will be destined to fail through Israeli subversion.

Out of necessity, unelected, unaccountable cliques rule in Palestinian society. Powerful, independent and populist leaders have not been able to emerge. When they have looked close to doing so, as the Islamic Movement leader Sheikh Raed Salah did inside Israel and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin did in Gaza, they have been either jailed or assassinated. Marwan Barghouti might have achieved much the same in the West Bank had he too not been imprisoned.

The conditions allowing these unaccountable cliques to prosper — including the biggest of them all, the Palestinian Authority — have been encouraged by the social, economic, political and ideological divisions Israel has created, sustained and exacerbated in Palestinian society. They are almost too numerous to classify.

Inside Israel, for example, the main rival sub- groups within Palestinian society are: the Druze and Circassian communities, which uniquely are obligated to serve in the army; the Bedouin in the Negev, who to this day live under an unofficial but enduring military government, regulated by special institutions like the paramilitary police force the Green Patrol and the Bedouin Education Authority; the Christians, who have been offered limited financial and economic protection by virtue of their association with the international churches; the 250,000 internally displaced citizens, also known as "present absentees", who along with other refugees lost rights to their homes and property in 1948; the Palestinian citizens living in the so-called mixed cities, which in fact are marginalised and depressed urban ghettoes; Palestinian citizens living in "unrecognised villages", communities deprived of all public services such as water, electricity, schools and medical clinics.

Many Palestinian citizens belong to multiple groups, shaping their identities and loyalties in complicated ways.

All these Palestinians share a common Israeli citizenship but their experience of what it means to be a citizen is entirely different, making it impossible to organise collectively. Factional manoeuvring for more of the limited resources available to each group within the minority is a far more common strategy.

Exactly the same pattern is discernible in the occupied territories. The West Bank, Gaza and annexed Jerusalem are precisely more of those markers of difference Israel encourages. Even during Oslo, this process exacerbated with the creation of Areas A, B and C, occupied zones that fell under different forms of control. Today, the cantonisation of Palestinian towns and villages into an even larger number of separate units, through the erection of the wall and numberless checkpoints, isolates and factionalises the community still further.

As well as these territorial divisions, ideological splits (particularly between the secular and religious) and the marginalisation of women from the struggle have served to weaken possible resistance to the occupation.

Instead, the Palestinians have resorted to factionalism. The instances of coordination between the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are easily outnumbered by examples of rivalry and competition.

It is worth remembering that in the late 1970s Israel helped to create the Islamic Movement, from which Hamas was born, as a counterweight to the increasing popularity of Fatah. A strong Islamic faction in the occupied territories, it was rightly assumed, would dissipate the energy being harnessed by Fatah and accentuate differences within Palestinian society.

Instructively, as Israel stands on the brink of approving a unilateral disengagement from Gaza, the question being discussed by Gazans is not how the Palestinians will pick up the pieces after the settlers are gone but who will pick up the reins of power.

The third and final condition for successful non-violent resistance to occupation is the support and solidarity of left-wing groups within the oppressor nation. But in Israel’s case, the politician-generals have just as effectively neutered the Jewish left-wing as they have the Palestinian resistance.

The Israeli left has been factionalised and left impotent by a similar policy of divide and rule. How is the left to appeal to a "consensus" about the country’s future when Israeli leaders have encouraged deep fault lines in the Jewish population, between different visions of Zionism, between the European Ashkenazi elite and the Mizrahi proletariat, between the Zionist mainstream and the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox, between the secular revellers of Tel Aviv and the fanatical settlers of Itimar, between the development towns and the kibbutzim?

The left has instead tried to pander to as many of these mainstream groups as it can without entirely abandoning its left-wing credentials. Even so, in the case of the most visible groups like Meretz and Peace Now it is often hard to identify what is still left-wing about their agendas — beyond a message that discrimination and oppression must be lessened, if only as a strategy to maintain the legitimacy of the Zionist mission.

Maybe this is the ultimate success of the colonial project planned, organised and executed by Israel’s politician-generals. Colonised peoples always rely for their liberation, at least in part, on dissident groups within the colonising nation, on factions within the colonisers who work slowly to change the environment in which the colonial project is judged, both within their own societies and in the international arena. They hold up the mirror to their society, eventually giving legitimacy to indigenous resistance movements and their struggle for liberation.

In this respect, Israel’s left must be judged an absolute failure. It still speaks in tongues to its chosen disciples, other Jews, too often preferring the language of Hebrew for criticism so that outsiders will not learn about what is really taking place. Its debates are only meant for internal consumption.

This was not the way South Africa was liberated from apartheid. There, in the end, a rainbow coalition of blacks, coloureds and whites stood firm against the apartheid regime. Different black tribes largely put aside their differences and worked for a common agenda against a common enemy. They were assisted by South Africa’s whites, who both inside the country and in the Diaspora were not afraid to speak out loudly and to the rest of the world about the injustice of apartheid.

If Gandhi has any message for the peoples of Israel and Palestine, let it be this.

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