Unarmed Protest: A New Palestinian Approach?

Ramallah protest.jpg

Nasser Ishtayeh/AP Images

Israeli soldiers trying to stop a model of the Mavi Marmara during a protest against Israel’s separation barrier, Bil’in, near Ramallah, June 4, 2010

Four days after Israeli commandos stormed a humanitarian aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip, killing nine passengers and igniting an international firestorm, several hundred Palestinian demonstrators guided a nine-meter wooden model of the raided boat, the Mavi Marmara, on a march through the West Bank village of Bil’in. Adorned on both sides with the star and crescent of the Turkish flag, the patchwork vessel had been mounted on a car and steered toward the Israeli-built security fence, which cuts through the village and has since 2005 inspired regular protests there. After the procession pulled to a stop, two marchers dressed as pirates and armed with fake swords leapt aboard the deck and began assaulting the Palestinians standing on it. The performance stopped when Israeli soldiers flooded the area with tear gas and chased the demonstrators away.

It was a symbolic reenactment of the bloody confrontation that took place at sea a few days earlier. It was also a sign that, even as the “proximity talks” promoted by the Obama administration founder, some quieter but arguably more noteworthy developments have been taking place in the West Bank. What has attracted the most attention are the efforts of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to build a network of institutions, such as a justice system and police force, that could provide the beginnings of a functioning Palestinian state. Less noticed is that Fayyad and other Palestinian leaders have also begun to lend their support to a campaign of unarmed protests, like last week’s demonstration in Bil’in.

In his speech in Cairo one year ago, President Obama called on Palestinians to “abandon violence,” citing the example of African-Americans who defeated segregation through “a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding.” The bloody tactics championed by Palestinian firebrands have often sent the world a different message. But this may be changing. The Israeli scholars Shaul Mishal and Doron Mazza recently warned in Haaretz that a nonviolent, “white intifada” marked by escalating protests against Israeli settlements in conjunction with boycotts and sanctions could isolate Israel diplomatically and bolster international support for a Palestinian state.

Unarmed protests have been particularly spirited in villages that are near the Israeli security fence. The village of Budrus is another case in point. Though not located on the Green Line, Budrus was directly in the path of the barrier: the planned route ran through the village’s cemetery, and would have divided the town in half while destroying 3,000 olive trees and a good deal of arable farmland. When word of this first spread in 2003, a trim, balding resident named Ayed Morrar organized a meeting and called on the men of the village to peacefully block the bulldozers’ advance. A veteran of the first Palestinian Intifada, Morrar was seeking to revive the spirit that had prevailed at its outset, when young Palestinians like him engaged in civil disobedience to challenge Israeli rule.

As chronicled in Budrus, an absorbing new documentary that will premiere in Washington, D.C. at the Silverdocs Film Festival on June 24, at first it didn’t seem that Ayed Morrar’s efforts could accomplish very much. But then some women in the village, including Morrar’s daughter Iltezam, got involved. Local Hamas and Fatah members put their differences aside to protest together. Activists from foreign countries began showing up. Some time later, to the shock of Budrus’ residents, even some Israelis came to take part. “That’s like a dream,” Morrar, who’d spent years in Israeli prison, remarks in the film when they first appear. The presence of Israeli protesters made the soldiers overseeing the wall’s construction noticeably more reluctant to suppress the demonstrations by force. Eventually, the protestors were able to claim an unlikely victory: the Israeli government decided to reroute the security wall, and 95 percent of the village’s trees and land have been be spared.

Palestinians tend to avoid the term “white intifada,” in part because these local efforts don’t amount to anything like a broad national uprising. Nor is it clear they’re succeeding in other places. In Bil’in, for example, residents thought they had reason to celebrate back in 2007 when Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled unanimously that the security fence’s obtrusive path was not necessary to protect Israeli citizens and should be rerouted. For more than two years, however, the ruling was ignored. Only recently has the army begun to alter the wall’s course. But it has also designated Bil’in and several other villages “closed military zones” in order to prevent Israelis from attending demonstrations.

As Israel learned from the recent flotilla raid, attempting to silence political activists by force can backfire. But this is true only if the use of force rouses popular indignation. In the case of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, the Israeli public has more typically responded with silence. Stun grenades, tear gas canisters, and rubber bullets are routinely fired at such protesters, sometimes causing serious injury and occasionally death, but rarely generating much of an outcry. Nor has much concern been voiced about the fact that activists spearheading unarmed demonstrations have been arrested on seemingly spurious charges and denied due process.


Israel insists such measures are necessary because the demonstrators, far from nonviolent, engage in incitement and belligerence, and, to judge by the evidence presented in Budrus, the claim has some basis. At one point in the film, Palestinian youths barrage the soldiers stationed nearby with stones. “No guys! Guys, do not throw stones!” Ayed Morrar yells, to no avail. The scene does not evoke Gandhi’s peaceful marches in India. Yet describing the stone throwing in this case as “incitement” seems a tad unfair. When the youths start throwing stones, Israeli troops have already encircled the village and imposed a curfew on it. As stun grenades explode and bullets fly through the air, terrified residents scurry for cover. Morrar, whose demeanor throughout the film is calm and unflappable, looks visibly shaken, clutching a cell-phone and telling a reporter, “It’s like Fallujah—shooting everywhere.”

Reached by phone a few days after Israel’s bungled raid on the Mavi Marmara, Morrar seemed in far better spirits, not least because, in his view, the botched flotilla operation showed how civil disobedience can triumph over violence. (The Netanyahu government, of course, rejects this notion, portraying the ship as a “hate boat” whose passengers were “violent supporters of terrorism.”) He described unarmed struggle as the best way for Palestinians to show that they are “not against Israelis” but simply “against the occupation.” But he did not downplay the obstacles to building a broader non-violent movement. “For both Hamas and Fatah it’s easy enough to find a few people to get involved in an act of armed resistance,” he said. “In a nonviolent struggle they must persuade all the people—the kids, the young, the women, the old people—to work together.”

Such unity has been sorely lacking among Palestinians. And in a region where the allure of armed struggle (to say nothing of the cult of martyrdom) has long had a powerful hold, peaceful resistance will never be an easy sell. At the moment, however, diplomacy doesn’t appear to be yielding much progress, and the thousands of rockets launched by Hamas at Israel have done little to improve the lot of Gazans. Perhaps this is why the protests have continued, and also why, as Morrar informed me, Palestinians officials who used to have nothing good to say about nonviolent demonstrations now go out of their way to be photographed at them. Of course, photo-ops are hardly a measure of genuine commitment, and it would be naïve to think a conflict that has produced such a wellspring of hatred will turn bloodless overnight. But the emergence of an alternative model makes it possible to imagine a different scenario in a part of the world where, as Israelis and Palestinians both know, resorting to force has often been self-defeating.

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