Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Turning Palestinians into perfect victims

Israel’s removal of its latest security measures around Al-Aqsa is being hailed as a victory for non-violent resistance. But is this really the case? Amira Howeidy seeks answers

Palestinian worshippers seen praying inside the Holy Sanctuary near the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque after Israel removed metal detectors and cameras ending two weeks of protests
Palestinian worshippers seen praying inside the Holy Sanctuary near the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque after Israel removed metal detectors and cameras ending two weeks of protests

On 14 July three Palestinians gunned down two Israeli soldiers near Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem before they were shot dead.  In response Israel decided to impose a series of security measures on the massive Al-Haram Al-Sharif (Holy Sanctuary) complex, the third holiest site in Islam. The measures, including installing metal detectors and cameras to restrict entrance and monitor Palestinian worshipers, were viewed as an imposition of Israeli sovereignty over the Muslim administered sanctuary and met with protests.

Palestinian civil society, religious, community and political leaders, Muslims and Christians joined -the largely leaderless- tens of thousands who gathered around Al-Aqsa for marches, mass prayers outside the mosque and demonstrations which lasted for more than two weeks.

After Israeli police killed three Palestinian protestors in Jerusalem, three Israeli settlers were stabbed to death in the West Bank by a Palestinian.

On 25 July Israel gave in. The barricades and cameras were removed, ending the tension as Palestinians returned to pray inside the sanctuary’s mosque on Friday.

The euphoria that followed gave impetus to an old, largely Western debate on the effectiveness of non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation. A plethora of articles appeared arguing the nonviolent nature of the resistance had forced Israel to back down, and won the respect and sympathy of the international community.

In the US-based Jewish magazine The Forward Hebron-based Palestinian rights defender Issa Amro proclaimed: “My dream has always been to see my people in a mass movement of nonviolent resistance… the fastest and the only way to end the occupation.”

“We must encourage nonviolent resistance at all costs, and discourage any act of violence.”

In the pan-Arab, London-based The New Arab, Palestinian-American columnist Rami Khouri, a professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, argued that with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Israel (BDS) movement and the Al-Aqsa resistance “Palestinian society now has at least two models of nonviolent resistance that have proved more effective than traditional political leadership”.

Even before Israel reversed its security measures the debate was resonating within Egyptian revolutionary circles, stoking schisms among activists about the role of armed resistance, from suicide bombers blowing themselves up among civilians to considering Israeli settlers as legitimate targets, and just how Israeli civilians can be defined when men and women are all required to serve in the army.

In a public post on her Facebook page Sanaa Seif, the well-known 23 year old political activist, wrote that views about resistance and the Palestinian question changed after the 2011 Arab Spring protests.  While the argument that Palestine was employed as a distraction by governments before 2011 was true, she wrote, it is no longer the case. The Palestinian question is currently being demonised, all armed resistance included.

The prevailing view, she continued, that Palestinians should be “cute” and commit to exclusively peaceful tactics, is preposterous.

“The BDS movement has been at its best recently but this has meant nothing to Israel or the US,” she wrote.

Israel imposed a travel ban on BDS activists in March.

“Children, and those exempted from the army aside, there is no such thing as an innocent Israeli citizen… Every single citizen who lives there is party to the occupation.”

In response Wael Abbas, an internationally renowned Egyptian blogger, published a scathing attack on Seif, calling the targeting of septuagenarian Israeli settlers “inhumane”. In a later post he shared Amro’s The Forward piece as evidence of the international recognition peaceful resistance commands, and its efficacy over violence.

In Jerusalem, where it all started, reactions are more nuanced.

“Palestinian history has been one of non-violence but the world is not clued into what it is like for someone to seek your destruction. The world focusses solely on violence,” Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and former advisor to the Palestinian Authority, said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

Palestinians exercise peaceful resistance every day and in every aspect of their lives, she said, “going to Israeli checkpoints and speaking Arabic when Israel is doing everything possible to erase their identity and remain on their land”.

There is, she added, the idea that tactically “violence doesn’t make sense” because Palestinians are outnumbered by one of the largest armies in the world.

There is an “obsession among Western supporters of Palestinians, they expect us to be perfect victims,” said Buttu.

“But we have agency, we are people with hopes and dreams. Solidarity with Palestinians shouldn't depend on how we choose to resist.”

The trend is alarming, she argued, because it suggests Palestinians are only worthy of support if they conform to a certain type of victim.  

Non-violent Palestinian resistance can be traced back to the 1936 Arab Revolt against the British mandate, and its demands for independence and an end to the alarming increase in Jewish immigration. A general strike was observed from April to October in 1936.

The first Intifada, which began in 1987 and lasted more than four years, was a largely peaceful popular uprising involving general strikes, a boycott of Israel and civil disobedience. Over 1,300 Palestinians were killed by Israel, and 160 Israelis by Palestinians. It came to an end when the 1993 Oslo Accords initiated the peace process.

In the two decades that followed, Israel rapidly increased its hold over Palestinian land and lives, doubling the number of settlements –illegal under international law- on occupied Palestinian territories. It imposed a strict air, land and sea siege on Gaza since 2007 and East Jerusalem –home to 55,000 Palestinian residents- has been cut off from the city centre.

Israel controls over 80 per cent of Palestinian water resources and installed 550 checkpoints severely curtailing the movement of Palestinians, erected a wall on occupied Palestinian land separating families, towns, agricultural land and affecting the lives of 50 per cent of the West Bank population.

Since its creation in 1948, Israel has incarcerated one million Palestinians according to activists. Administrative detention is so common that Palestinian prisoners went on 23 hunger strikes since 1969, demanding an end to the measure and to improve basic prison conditions.

Proponents of armed struggle say no amount of peaceful resistance was successful in ending the occupation which continues to control every aspect of Palestinian life.

Armed struggle is enshrined in, and protected by, international law.

United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3324 of 29 November 1978 stipulates “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, particularly armed struggle”.

“All freedom movements resorted to armed resistance,” said Lamis Andoni, a Jordanian commentator with Palestinian roots who specialises in Palestinian affairs, in a telephone interview from Amman.

In the aftermath of the Palestinian dispossession that followed the creation of Israel in 1948 the most forceful form of non-violent resistance was oral history, people telling their stories and preserving Palestinian memory.

During the 1950s and1960s, years characterised by national liberation movements across the region, most notably in Algeria, armed struggle was a popular notion. It was during this time that many left leaning, nationalist Palestinian armed struggle groups emerged and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was born.

In his final years PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who had accepted the terms of a peaceful settlement with Israel - relinquishing land and officially halting the armed struggle - was still funding armed resistance during the second Intifada which erupted in 2000. Arafat, who was placed under Israeli siege, was eventually poisoned and died in 2004.

“The world has changed since the era of liberation movements but resistance cannot be restricted to a romantic notion of peacefulness that pleases the West whilst all other forms are criminalised,” said Andoni.

“It is self-defeating.”

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