In the weeks leading up to Palestinian President Yassir Arafat’s death American politicians and pundits have repeatedly called on the Palestinian people to use the opportunity of his passing to transform the intifada from a violent uprising into a non-violent, democratic and pragmatic program for achieving independence. This is very good advice, needless to say, except for one small problem: Palestinians have been trying to build such a movement for the last two decades, and the Israeli Government, IDF and American policy-makers have done everything possible to make sure they did not succeed.
One of the first exponents of Palestinian non-violence, the Palestinian-American doctor Mubarak Awad, founded the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence in 1985. His innovative ideas and training of Palestinians in the tactics of non-violent resistance to the occupation was considered dangerous enough by Israel that it expelled him from the land of his birth in 1988. During the same period, the government supported the rise to power of militant religious groups such as Hamas as a counterweight to the PLO (which that year recognized Israel’s right to exist).
By the time the first intifada wound down in the early 1990s Jewish/Israeli-Palestinian “dialog” or “people-to-people” groups had become all the rage, most of whom had as an important goal building relationships of trust and solidarity that could help Palestinians build a viable political future. Unfortunately, while liberal Israelis were busy sharing hummus with their new Palestinian friends successive Likud and Labor governments accelerated the pace of land confiscation, settlement construction and economic closure of the Territories. This ultimately left many Palestinians to wonder if all the conversation wasn’t a ruse to keep them occupied while Israel permanently secured its hold on their lands.
But mid-way through the Oslo era hope was still in the air. In January 1996 I sat on the terrace of a friend’s house in Abu Dis as about 100 meters away Yassir Arafat cast his vote in perhaps the greatest day in the history of Palestinian nationalism: the elections for the presidency and Legislative Assembly. Unfortunately, soon after the elections the CIA and Shin Bet began what seemed like weekly meetings with the “security” officials of the Palestinian Authority. The stated reasons were always to “coordinate security;” the real reason was to make sure the new Assembly was still born because newly elected legislators promised to investigate PA corruption and push for a final settlement more in line with the desire of Palestinian society.
Needless to say, the Assembly didn’t make it. In its place, however, Hamas did quite well, precisely because it constituted perhaps the only powerful voice of dissent against the emerging status quo of corruption and continued occupation.
Since the outbreak of the “al-Aksa intifada” in September 2000 most Palestinians I know--and increasingly, their comrades in the Israeli peace movement--have exerted incredible energy trying to build grass roots non violent movements that could somehow check the inexorable advance of the occupation and the slow death of the national dream of an independent state. The response by the Israeli military has often been brutal. Not just Palestinian activists, but foreign peace activists and even Israelis are routinely beaten, arrested, deported, or even killed by the IDF, with little fear that the Government of Israel would pay a political price for crushing non-violent resistance with violent means.
In this environment the very act of going about one’s daily life without losing all hope and “joining Hamas” (something former Prime Minister Barak admitted he would have done if he were Palestinian) has become perhaps the supreme, if unheralded, act of non-violence against the occupation. The Israeli Government is quite aware of this, which is why it does its best to make daily life as difficult as possible for Palestinians.
Not surprisingly considering this dynamic, a poll I helped direct earlier this year revealed that Hamas has now surpassed the PLO as the most popular Palestinian political movement. But what of the courageous Palestinians who still believe in non-violence, who are risking their lives working with Israeli peace activists to fulfill the fading Oslo dream of two states living side by side in peace? We could ask this question to Ahmed Awad, one of the leaders of the non-violent Committee for the Popular Struggle against the Separation Fence, which has brought Palestinian and Israeli activists together in a relatively successful campaign to redirect the separation wall away from local olive groves. In the process his group has become a model for grassroots, non-violent struggle.
Unfortunately, we’d have to wait at least three months for an answer, as Awad has just been jailed without charge by a military court on the accusation he constituted a “threat to security.” The judge who handed down the order hoped that his detention would lead him to “turn away from th[is] bad road with its unhappy ending.” Yet its hard to see who his stated goal of “letting the world understand that there can be coexistence between us and the Jews” threatened. In the meantime, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that the army has stepped up violence and aggression against protesters in order to enable the fence to proceed along its original route.
And so it goes. As the Bush Administration and America’s pundocracy search for a new generation of pragmatic and non-violent Palestinian leaders, they should be heartened to know that they won’t have to look very hard to find them. But that’s because so many are either in the hospital, jail or exile. And like Arafat shriveling away in his besieged Muqata’a (which will now be his tomb), the Palestinian peace movement will continue to wither as long as Israel is more comfortable confronting Hamas than negotiating with Ahmed Awad.
Mark LeVine, Professor of modern Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, author of Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine (Berkeley: University of California Press) and Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (forthcoming, Oneworld Publications, http://www.oneworld-publications.com/books/why-they-dont-hate-us.htm)