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Israel & Palestine: Breaking the Silence

What does the future hold? Sari Nusseibeh repeatedly expresses his belief that change is possible if people have the self-confidence and faith in themselves to act. He sees his task as an educator to be one of inculcating such faith. And he also describes, in several chapters of his often moving book, a moral basis for political action that can speak to all of us. Like Gandhi, and like Abdallah Abu Rahmah and Ali Abu Awwad, with whom I began, Nusseibeh seeks not to coerce his opponents—in this case the Israeli people along with their political and military institutions—into changing their self-destructive course but to change their will, or their feelings. He wants them to step back from prejudice and an obsession with brute force and to open their eyes. He wants them to find in themselves the generosity of spirit needed in order to take a chance on peace, whether in the form of two states or a single binational entity or, perhaps, some kind of confederation.

Can nonviolent political action have an effect on Israelis? I don’t know. I think a generosity of spirit does exist, somewhere, in the collective, fearful, angry Israeli soul. It might even be hiding under the superficial veil of apathy. Nusseibeh closes his book with a paradoxical observation that he himself characterizes as “astounding.” In a situation like that in Palestine, where there is a vast asymmetry in power, the moral leverage to “draw out the desired attitudinal change in the other party” by the nonviolent exercise of one’s innate freedom, and by holding fast to universal values, belongs to the weaker, not to the stronger, party. Thus

if one defines power as the ability to cause political change to one’s own advantage, it is the Palestinians who hold this power even though (or precisely because) they are being held down by a mighty military force.

Some Palestinians, at least, including the current Palestinian government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have clearly internalized this truth and are putting it to use in practical ways. These days, Fayyad uses every public opportunity to announce unequivocally that violence is not an option, no longer a part of the Palestinian repertory. He is, of course, not the only player in the field.

So here is one answer to Sari Nusseibeh’s question. A Palestinian state that emerges from mass nonviolent struggle, clearly occupying the moral high ground, would undoubtedly have intrinsic worth, quite apart from its practical value in solving the tragic anomaly of Palestinian statelessness. But I don’t expect the Palestinian state to emerge like that. Only immense international pressure, on many levels, can bring the Israeli occupation to an end. Still, at this particular moment the Palestinians have a major asset in Israel’s recalcitrance, its steadfast refusal to make peace. Under current international conditions, and despite the continuing suffering on the ground inside the occupied territories, the more foolish, cussed, and destructive Israel becomes, the better for the Palestinian cause. Maybe someday even the US will no longer be able to swallow further humiliation at Israel’s hands and will choose not to exercise its veto in the UN and other international forums on Israel’s behalf.

A Palestinian state, recognized by all the world except for Israel, would, no doubt, be only a step toward an indeterminate future, replete with old and new dangers. Judging by recent statements by right-wing Israeli politicians such as Michael Eitan,10 one such danger is that Israel may (following the Gaza model) eventually retreat from much of the occupied territories without making peace with the new state—probably the worst of all possible outcomes, but one entirely consonant with the collective blindness I have described. I’d like to think the tortured peoples of Israel and Palestine could do better.

—January 27, 2011

For an expanded series of testimonies from Occupation of the Territories, see the author’s blog post, “‘And No One Wants to Know’: Israeli Soldiers on the Occupation,” NYRblog, January 9, 2011 (www.nybooks.com/nyrblog).

—The Editors

  1. 10

    See “Pro-settlement Likud Members Begin Floating Idea of West Bank Pullout,” Haaretz, December 21, 2010. 

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