Non-violence In The Palestinian Arsenal

The well-worn maxim that “What is old is new again” has finally moved beyond the realm of vintage t-shirts, vinyl fetishists and Athenian Olympiads and into the heady stuff of North-South geopolitics. For years, discussions of “imperialism” and “colonialism” have been prefixed by the three-letter disclaimer “neo”; no more is that the case. An increasingly brazen tendency towards open empire without the pomp and circumstance of false consultations with the natives is asserting itself throughout the Western world: France and North America once again occupy the streets of Haiti; Britain (and its American sponsor) has returned to its interwar habit of granting wholly false “sovereignty” to Iraq; Washington has accomplished what was impossible for the 19th century Victorians and Tsarists by installing a pliant puppet in Afghanistan. In the face of this metropolitan audacity, the tendency among Third World leaders to substitute statesmanship and diplomacy for mass-based anti-imperialism is losing currency.

Probably the grossest example of this latter tendency has been the Palestinian Authority (PA), a despicable entity that has been, more than anything, an agency of Israeli enforcement. As outlined by Glenn E. Robinson in his study of post-Oslo Palestine, the PA has posited itself in place of the indigenous leadership of the first Palestinian intifada. With pathetic pretensions of grandeur that would be laughable were they not so tragic in their implications, Yasir Arafat and his flunkies have sought to remove the Palestinian struggle from the international anti-imperialist context (in which it held a very special, vaunted place alongside the struggle of South African blacks) and to place it into the realm of negotiations between two symmetrical, equal parties, brokered by a neutral, mutual friend in Washington.

In this political context, Israel has also moved to effectively erode the social bases of the first intifada. The labour, student and women’s movements that thrived in the early 1980s and set the context for the emergence of a potent, revolutionary social force have been truncated by economic closures, mass curfews and the attendant ascendance of religious obscurantism and panicked millennialism. An enormous number of migrant East Asian workers have been imported into Israel’s pre-1967 borders, leaving Palestinian society accordingly de-industrialized. Like African-Americans on this continent, the Palestinians have been removed from the confidence-building crucible of the industrial workforce and placed into a demoralizing, violent context of chronic incarceration, mass unemployment and political alienation.

In these twin political and social contexts, it has been difficult for the second intifada to function on the late anti-imperialist models we know from the first intifada, Central America and South Africa: concentrated and constructive armed struggle and political violence sustained ultimately by a broad collection of civil, non-violent campaigns aimed at galvanizing colonized society as a whole. Instead, the desperate and quixotic violence of the politicized armed factions and their recruited suicide bombers have been presented as substitutes for large-scale political action engaging women, students, workers and the aged. In their arbitrariness and emphasised mortality, the suicide bombings in particular have underscored desperation rather than hope, offering no constructive lessons for either Palestinian or Israeli civilians.

This week, news out of Palestine offers reason for optimism and hope, as an increasingly visible strand of the Palestinian revolution is stepping forward and reclaiming the familiar tools and symbols of anti-colonialism. On August 15, over four thousand political prisoners held in Israeli military prisons began a hunger strike demanding an end to Israel’s well-documented abuse of prisoners and flagrant disregard for international conventions. Non-imprisoned Palestinians are being asked to engage in wide-ranging activities in solidarity with the strikers. Meanwhile, Amira Hass of Ha’aretz reports that activists in Ramallah are planning mass rallies in the Occupied Territories featuring Arun Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma. They are, according to Hass, attempting to “kick off a Palestinian campaign for an unarmed, popular struggle against the Israeli occupation.” Many of the Ramallah group’s members are anti-Apartheid Wall activists emboldened – as we all should be – by the International Court of Justice ruling against Israel’s deplorable and inhuman land-grab.

The re-emergence of non-violent tendencies within the Palestinian national movement is cause for celebration, but not moralizing nor condescension. There is still a place for the armed struggle to which Palestinians, as an occupied people, have an absolute right. Morality plays and fairy tales widely entertained in the West about the non-violence of Gandhi’s struggle to free India are often marked by enormous and important omissions – namely the role played by Punjabi Sikhs like Shaheed Bhagat Singh and others who never adhered to the dominant pacifist line and who subsequently bore the burden of martyrdom in numbers wholly disproportionate to the demographics of South Asia.

But there is no question that, by nature, non-violent tactics such as civil disobedience, general strikes, and hunger strikes are more accessible devices open to participation by broader layers of society. What’s more, Palestinians have a history of remarkable creativity in terms of developing new and innovative ways of resisting Zionism, such as the movement towards growing vegetable gardens to facilitate boycotts of Israeli goods. In the face of a renewed social movement, Palestinian political violence will hopefully move away from acts of individual desperation (which ultimately serve to underscore the Israeli attempt to devalue Palestinian life) and towards a more concentrated and constructive tendency.

Perhaps most satisfying about this week’s news is the reclamation of the language of anti-imperialism. No longer are we pretending that this is the struggle between Israel and Palestine, two states engaged in perpetual war with each other. This is the struggle of an oppressed, colonized people against their well-armed colonial-settler oppressors. The hunger strike and civil disobedience recall the Irish H-Block prisoners and the inspiring masses that toppled the British Raj. Those of us who’ve been faced with the challenge of doing solidarity work without any leadership from the PA can now look once again to the Palestinian street for our cues. We had better be paying attention.

Charles Demers is a founding member of Vancouver’s Palestine Solidarity Group and a founding editor of

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