Whose Goals does Violence Serve?

Just today, I received the following message from Gila Svirsky, the long-time peace activist of the Coalition of Women for Peace and Women in Black in Israel: “Dafna Sphruch z”l died today of her injuries from the pigua [terrorist attack – ed.] at Hebrew University. Dafna was a veteran peace activist and a Woman in Black in Jerusalem.”

In the last newsletter from A Jewish Voice for Peace, I discussed the bombing of Gaza City, which killed not only its intended target but 13 others, including nine children. I made the case that the claim that this attack and its resulting destruction of life and property was a mistake was implausible and that the timing of the attack, just as several Palestinian armed groups were ready to declare a cease-fire, was no coincidence.

The Gaza City bombing was intended to provoke a response, and, as seems always to be the case, some Palestinian armed group was at the ready to dutifully provide Ariel Sharon with just what he wants. On July 31, a member of Hamas left a bomb inside a café on the Hebrew University campus. It killed seven people and injured over 80 immediately, and the death toll, as we heard from Gila Svirsky, has risen since. Many of those killed and injured were not Israeli citizens. But in all these attacks, by both sides, it cannot even be known who the victims are, and whether they are really the “enemy”. Many times we have heard of peace activists being killed in such attacks. As if we need another lesson, this demonstrates the futility of trying to beat the other side into submission. The only victor through such tactics is the conflict itself.

As was the case in Gaza City, the result of the Hebrew U. attack was not a mistake or coincidence. It cannot have been unknown that the Hebrew University attack was not only going to be aimed at civilians but, being the summer, that many of those civilians would be foreigners, studying at Hebrew U. for the summer. This can be said to make the attack even more dastardly, but it also makes it even more foolish. It is, in and of itself, an expression of the belief that violence can prevail in this conflict. Further, it is hard to escape the conclusion that targeting an area that was bound to have many foreigners was designed to “send a message” to other countries, particularly the United States, that their citizens would also be at risk in Israel. Such a “message” only hardens the hearts of those outsiders and makes it more difficult to change policies that deny Palestinian rights. In short, these actions are the height of self-defeatism.

For many years now, there has been a sort of catch-phrase that has been popular, particularly among the Israeli Labor Party, but also frequently used by Palestinian leaders, which states that “there is no military solution” to this conflict. Yet, as often as the phrase is repeated, it does not seem that the concept has taken hold. These two attacks, in Gaza and at Hebrew University, stand out as prime examples. In Gaza, Ariel Sharon bought the acceptance of much of the Israeli populace for this attack by targeting Salah Shehada, arguably the foremost leader of Hamas’ armed wing. Yet the real target in the assault was the cease-fire announcement that had been brokered by European diplomats, and the results have proven clearly that the act cost many Israeli lives and did more harm to Israeli security. At Hebrew U., a bomb was willfully planted in an area where it would kill civilians who were not Israeli along with those that were. Ali Abunimah, the noted Palestinian-American activist, had this to say about the bombing: “But we must … say that the opportunity was missed by the Palestinian militant groups. If a halt to an attack on Israeli civilians was in the interests of the Palestinian people before the Gaza bombing, it was even more in their interests afterwards. Leaving aside the immorality of blowing up children and non-combatants … the whole world had recoiled in horror at the Israeli government’s tactics which are in method and in effect almost indistinguishable from the ‘terrorists’ they claim to be fighting. The leaders of the Palestinian groups that have in the past claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on Israeli civilians could and should have declared that the horror in Gaza would be the last atrocity, that they would no longer play Sharon’s game. Instead they charged headlong into Sharon’s trap, once again.”

Especially now, as the forces of war grip both Israel and the United States more tightly than they have in many years, Abunimah’s words resonate strongly. It is a truism that violence is not going to solve this conflict. It has been tried for a century now, and all that has resulted is more death and destruction. Violence is Sharon’s game. It is his chosen strategy, but more important, it is the arena wherein he holds all the aces. The point that needs to be understood is that violence by Israel against Palestinian civilians and violence by Palestinians against Israeli civilians both serve Ariel Sharon’s purposes. It is obvious that the former serves Sharon’s goals, as Israeli violence can be directed against a great portion of the Palestinian populace and its infrastructure simultaneously and consistently. The latter, which cannot actually threaten the Israeli infrastructure, but allows Sharon to continue his actions with impunity, both domestically and internationally, is less obvious, but no less true. Equally important is that the continuation of this horrifying and destructive violence is also embraced with the same zeal by some of the Palestinian armed groups.

We do not know how the aborted cease-fire declaration came about, but whatever logic was used to arrive at it should still be in force. Nothing about attacks on Israeli and foreign civilians advances the Palestinian cause. On the contrary, it makes it much more difficult for advocates for Palestinian rights all over the world to change the minds of their neighbors and, more to the point, of their leaders as to how to deal with the problem. In the United States, such acts continue to make it nearly impossible to crack through the media wall and mindset that considers Palestinian lives less valuable than Israeli lives. When George Bush says that the Gaza City attack is merely “heavy-handed”, we have an opportunity to demonstrate to Americans the callousness with which Palestinian tragedy and Israeli crimes are viewed. But when Hamas eagerly jumps at the opportunity for revenge, and commits their own crime, this opportunity is lost.

Legitimate resistance is the right of an occupied people. But that is not a license for any and all measures. This represents a difficult quandary in this instance. Israel remains completely unfettered by international law, shielded as it is from any legal measures by the United States. Is it fair, then, to ask that the Palestinians obey such measures while Israel continues to act with such impunity? Of course, it is not. But the situation is what it is. One cannot help but understand the frustration of the Palestinian people. A UN report on Jenin is issued, and, while it takes pains to point out that “only” 52 Palestinians were confirmed killed in the invasion, it never once calls the numerous violations chronicled by Human Rights Watch, and often confirmed in the UN report itself by the name they deserve—war crimes. The Palestinians see their leader discussing how he will do Israel’s work for it if Israel withdraws from Gaza. They watch as Israel builds walls, intensifies occupation and erects new checkpoints. They watch as soldiers protect rampaging settlers, in what even an Israeli member of the Knesset referred to as a pogrom, and as bulldozers continue to ravage their towns and demolish their homes. And these, among many other acts go by with hardly a notice and not a peep of protest from the United States and the international community it largely controls. Through all of that is it fair to ask the Palestinians to adhere to the rules that Israel defies?

It may not be fair. Nonetheless, there can be no sanction for the murder of civilians, no matter the political context. The murder of civilians is abominable under any circumstances, and it must be duly opposed, denounced and, if at all possible, prevented. Yet we still need to be mindful of that political context and those circumstances. Whatever one group or another of Palestinians do does not justify the imprisonment, occupation and terrorizing of the Palestinian masses. All the violence may be equally wrong, but it is imperative that we continue to understand that there can be no symmetry between occupier and occupied, between possessor and the dispossessed. The ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza may not be the entirety of the problem, but it is the main factor which aggravates this conflict into the horrifying violence we have seen over the years and which has reached its zenith in this intifada.

Ariel Sharon is well aware that it is not violence that threatens the Israeli occupation. He demonstrated this in the attack on Gaza City. He does not fear continuing bombings and shootings, but he does fear a Palestinian cease-fire. He is well aware that the successes of the first intifada were achieved through public, non-violent coordinated action, combined with the heroic actions of Palestinians using rocks against tanks. Escalating violence plays right into the hands of the worst sectors of Israeli leadership, who find their partners among the most reactionary elements of Palestinian society. Israel has long been aware of this, and has routinely moved to deport or imprison non-violent activists. One can only hope that this awareness can gain more ground among the Palestinian people. This is difficult, to be sure, while homes are demolished and innocents continue to be killed, but it is the only hope for the future. It surely does not lie in continuing violence that claims the lives of peace activists.

Leave a comment