Waiting for the Palestinian Gandhi: Western media and the invisibility of non-violence in the Occupied territories
During a recent lecture at the University of Oregon, Yuval Rabin, son of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was asked if he believed that a Palestinian leader would emerge promoting peace with Israel. Rabin expressed skepticism: "We can’t wait 300 to 400 decades waiting for the Palestinian Gandhi to emerge”. By making this statement Yuval Rabin reiterates the often-repeated sentiments that “there is no Palestinian Gandhi” nor are Palestinians inclined to be peaceful and utilize nonviolence as a tactic for their grievances. Palestinians, it is believed, have instead chosen violence and terror to try to achieve their aims.
But have Palestinians really forsaken nonviolence? Have commentators around the world really forgotten the popular nonviolent uprising they celebrated during the first Intifada? And what of the Israeli occupation of Palestine? Why is occupation not seen as a form of violence?
Palestinians have utilized myriad techniques of nonviolent resistance including strikes, boycotts, tax revolts and peaceful demonstrations. While the second Intifada has been pocked with more incidences of violence, nonviolence is still utilized to a great degree. Indeed, not a week goes by where Palestinians have not organized major nonviolent demonstrations. Just this week, for instance, there have been nonviolent protests in Bal’ein, Beit Sira, and Aaboud villages west of Ramallah. All these villages, and dozens of others, have had peace protests regularly over the past year. But like past protests, the protests this week (against the seizure of Palestinian lands for the building of the “separation wall”) were met with violence by the Israeli military. The military fired rubber coated metal bullets (real bullets with a very thin rubber membrane) that injured a half a dozen people, fired tear gas and physically assaulted and detained 15 men. Of course, Americans never hear of peaceful demonstrations that are brutally repressed. Not only are protesters fired upon with rubber coated metal bullets and tear gas, they are beaten with clubs, dragged, chained to their vehicles, and arrested. The ignorance of the American public to both the nonviolent protests and the violet responses of the Israeli government must be largely blamed on the media.
How and why are such wide scale practices of nonviolence invisible? For one, few western journalists actually travel in the Palestinian Territories. During my last 6 week trip to the West Bank attending many nonviolent protests, I only once came upon journalists from the “west” (a Canadian broadcasting system doing a documentary on checkpoints). Thus the actions of the Israeli military during nonviolent protests are not reported outside Arabic language papers. Like the reporting in Iraq, most reporters stay in “safe” areas such as Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and do not witness events first hand. Thus they rely on statements made by the Israeli authorities and the responses by Palestinian representatives.
Another explanation for why such events remain invisible is that when journalists are present and do make reports, the media outlet will rarely carry the story. For example, I participated in a massive nonviolent action organized by the Palestinian village of Yasuf a few years ago where hundreds of people from the village organized an attempt to harvest fields in an area that was deemed a “closed military zone”. This “zone” was Palestinian land where Israeli settlers intimidated Palestinians from harvesting (as they sought to illegally annex the lands for their own benefit). Rather than disciplining the settlers from using violence against Palestinian farmers, the military simply refused Palestinians from going there and harvesting the trees. In response to the growing frustration of dealing with the Israeli civil authorities (which in contradiction to popular belief actually controls the vast majority of Palestinian communities) the villagers of Yasuf decided to organize a nonviolent demonstration and march to these said lands. More than 300 people came, including Israeli and international human rights activists. The media was invited and, to the surprise of the village, reporters from CBS news came. Within minutes of arriving at the fields, dozens of armed settlers attacked, firing guns, beating people, throwing stones, etc. The Israeli military present on the scene simply watched and did nothing. When the settlers noticed media filming the violence, they turned their attention to them. One of the CBS reporters had her video camera snatched from her hands and smashed on the ground by an Israeli settler who then proceeded to push her around. The Palestinians, committed to this nonviolent demonstration eventually succeeded by proceeding to sit down quietly and refusing to leave. The military eventually requested that the settlers leave.
Was this violence by the hands of armed Israeli settlers against unarmed peaceful Palestinians reported by CBS? Did they report the commitment of ordinary Palestinians to adhere to nonviolence even as settlers were physically beating them? There was absolutely no coverage or mention anywhere of this event in the U.S media. One would only be able to find information about this event in the Arabic and alternative news media.
Thus while nonviolence is commonly practiced, Rabin is however correct on one point: there is no single Palestinian Gandhi. Rather, there are hundreds of Palestinian Gandhis. As opposed to one single centrally known figure, there are many proponents of nonviolence. I offer two examples of these invisible Gandhis who I have personally met: Ghassan Andoni and Sherif Omar.
Ghassan Andoni is a physicist in Beit Sahour and co-founder of the Palestinian Center for Rapproachment. He not only has written and lectured widely on the subject, he has organized movements and actions. He was also instrumental in helping bring international human rights activists to the Occupied territories to witness and report on atrocities and to participate in nonviolent actions initiated by Palestinian communities. His work promoting nonviolence in the Palestinian territories has led to his being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
Sherif Omar, like dozens of other nonviolent activists, is a farmer living in a small West Bank village. He has worked tirelessly in trying to publicize the negative effects of the “wall” on Palestinian villages as well as organizing nonviolent resistance to it. His writings, organizing, and commitment to nonviolence have led to dignitaries and statesmen from out the world seeking him out to learn more about the conflict. Like many other activists, he personally will lose thousands of dollars worth of land (over 50 acres of prime agricultural land) to the barrier. Rather than resorting to violence, he insists that resistance to such unjust policies must be nonviolent. He has said, “we used to be at peace with Israelis and one day we will be so again; violence will not help us to reach that point”.
Though nonviolence is widely practiced in the Palestinian territories and while numerous conferences have been organized about such, a large-scale organized nonviolent movement has not emerged in the same way that one had in India. There are numerous reasons that can help account for this. First of all, as previously stated, the Israeli response to nonviolent actions involves a great degree of violent repression. Nonviolent organizers are arrested and put in jail for years. Nonviolent protests are met with tear gas, arrests, and rubber coated metal bullets causing intense injuries and deaths. A village that attempts a nonviolent action is then collectively punished by the Israeli authorities by shooting out water tanks (as I had witnessed in Jayyus), preventing people from those villages from traveling outside of them, by preventing people from harvesting their fields, and by daily invasions by the Israeli military into their villages. The fact is that Israel is much more heavy handed that Britain was with India in squashing nonviolence. Second, there is the demographic fact that India had many more citizens compared to a small British occupying force compared to an Israeli population larger than the Palestinians. Also, when some individuals do gain notoriety advocating and practicing nonviolent resistance, they are arrested, exiled, or killed. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many Israelis view the West Bank as part of the “land of Israel”. In fact, they have long ago renamed the West Bank (a term that doesn’t exist in Israeli maps or in textbooks) Judea and Samaria – areas that had existed over 2000 years ago in ancient Israel. India was never seen as part of Britain’s historical heritage as Israel considers the Palestinian territories.
What never ceases to amaze me in discussions of violence and nonviolence with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the presumption that Israel is only a victim of violence and that they only use force when they have to. Regularly left out from most commentaries is the very basic fact that the Occupation is itself a powerful form of violence. The occupation seeks to control Palestinians by restricting their movement, by controlling their economy, by seizing land for the development of Jewish-only settlements, and by imposing laws over them. This is carried out using a massive military that has been found consistently guilty of human rights violations by international agencies and by seizing and settling the Palestinian territory with Israel’s own population (over 400,000 settlers have moved to occupied territory in contradiction to international law). One must ask why there is silence to the fact that Israel has violated international resolutions and is illegally occupying and settling foreign soil. Hundreds of reports from human rights organizations have documented the abuse. For instance, in an Amnesty International report, entitled “Israel and the Occupied Territories: Shielded from Scrutiny”, the organization documented the “sustained and systematic nature of human right abuses by the Israeli military”. The abuses catalogued in the report include, but are not limited to: unlawful killings, torture of prisoners/detainees, intentional destruction of houses (sometimes with the residents still inside), making medicine inaccessible by the use of checkpoints, the denial of humanitarian assistance, using Palestinian civilians as “human shields” during military operations, preventing children from their right to education, and more. Without knowledge of the scale of unreported and underreported violence that is inflicted daily upon the Palestinian people, it is impossible to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, and resistance to such policies in particular.
Rather than reporting the violence against Palestinians living under harsh conditions of occupation and the myriad non-violent responses Palestinians have attempted, “western” media focuses on violent responses by a handful of people. With the focus on violence from Palestinians and the “response” by Israel, most media sources represent the conflict in ways that elide the basic nature of the conflict. It is represented as a conflict that is about either religion, as some kind of “primordial ethnic strife” which afflicts the Middle East, or, worst of all, as a “clash of civilizations”. This seemingly consensual and unanimous misrepresentation contributes indirectly to the continuation of the conflict by deflecting attention away from the root causes that is the occupation and settling of the Palestinian territories. Invisibility of non-violent actions and movements proves useful for Israel and those in the West who promote the idea of a “clash of civilizations”. If the non-violence were made visible, it would humanize Palestinians to the western audience.
Unfortunately, many Palestinians have told me that their commitment to non-violence is proving to be a failure. They cannot understand why with so much non-violent organizing, that the Western media outlets still represent them merely as terrorists. Even leaders such as Abbas, who did seek a just and peaceful solution, get nowhere. It is out of this despair, and the frustration that the situation has gotten worse for ordinary people during the “peace process”, that many people voted for Hamas during the recent elections. Having criminalized and severely punished non-violence as well as not working with Palestinian leaders who worked for peace, the Israeli authorities have assisted Hamas in getting elected.
In response to the question: “why is there not a Palestinian Gandhi?” we must ultimately blame the Western media for distorting real events on the ground, for not providing context for reports that are made, and for irresponsibly misleading the pubic. These are serious issues of life and death and the media’s failure to adequately represent the situation must be seen as criminal. Rather than ask, “why is there not a Palestinian Gandhi?”, we should consider the question posed by the Palestinian human rights activist, Arjan El Fassed: “why is there not an Israeli De Klerk?”