The Palestinian struggle is beginning to discover the value of non-violent resistance.
Gaza is ablaze. Fatah and Hamas are shooting at each other; Hamas is firing Qassam rockets at Israel and the Israelis are launching air strikes against the Strip. Meanwhile, in the media, another pitched battle is in progress over whether Gaza jumped or was pushed towards imminent civil war. I will dodge the bullets on this particular political battle to look at the lessons ordinary Palestinians can give their dysfunctional leadership in how to manage their struggle.
In particular, I would like to explore potentially the most powerful weapon in the Palestinian arsenal and what can be done to better deploy it. This weapon has proven efficacy, some would say, in bringing superpowers to their knees and in helping the underdog to triumph: non-violent resistance.
Some will scoff. The harshest critics of the Palestinians claim that Palestinians can only conduct a violent struggle because they, like other Arabs, “only understand the language of violence”.
But there is nothing inherently anti-pacifistic about the Palestinians or the Arabs. There is just a mutual level of paranoia that feeds an ongoing cycle of violence, and the prevalent idea in this conflict is that the only answer to violence is more violence. This dynamic has something of the Biblical about it, with each side believing it is retaliating for past injuries. However, given the disparity in power, the Israelis usually rearrange the Palestinians' face for a tooth, while the Palestinians only manage to chip an Israeli nail.
Despite this futile dynamic, while in the West Bank, I witnessed plenty of examples of “passive resistance” – or what Gandhi called Satyagraha. However, as these don't involve enough fireworks, even organised peace marathons, marches to the wall, etc., are usually overlooked by the international media.
In Hebron (el-Khalil), locals in the Old Town are resisting, through entirely pacifistic means, the few hundred extremist settlers in their midst – who live under the guard of 3,000 Israeli soldiers and have caused large sections of the historic centre to be shut down.
On a tour organised by Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, we ventured down the segments of the kasbah, the city's main market thoroughfare, which had been transformed from a teeming Arab souq into a virtual ghost town.
However, a handful of shops have remained defiantly open, catering to the odd customer that might brave the strong Israeli presence and come all the way here to buy something, but mostly making themselves visible under the windows of the settlers, playing dominoes and making merry.
This is a demonstration of what the Palestinians refer to proudly as their most prominent virtue, sumoud (“steadfastness”) – a characteristic they've needed in large measure over the decades as they've seen themselves abandoned, betrayed or let down by the entire world.
“No one cares about us here. The Israelis don't care; the Arabs don't care; the world doesn't care,” one shopkeeper complained to me. “You're the first Egyptian journalist that has come down this way – and I'm here every day. Where's the Arab media; where are the journalists documenting our oppression?”
Right next to the main gate of the Bet Romano settlement, one Palestinian determined to be a thorn in the side of the armed and militant settlers recently opened up what he calls The Resistance Café.
The proprietor, Hisham, who was a TV cameraman until he was shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier, told me: “We decided to reopen this family café seven months ago as a form of peaceful resistance against the settlers … Others thought we were crazy, but if all the shops reopen, we will defy the occupation. I don't sell much, but that doesn't matter.”
And the man's optimism and good humour were infectious, chatting and joking away in Arabic with me and the locals; in Hebrew with the soldiers; and in English with some foreign NGO workers and the international observers. In fact, the general friendliness and light-heartedness of the Palestinians, who treated me like a minor celebrity just because of the tell-tale signs of my ‘glamorous' Egyptian accent, came as a bit of a surprise, given the harshness and difficulty of their circumstances.
Palestinian architect and author Suad Amiry, in her acclaimed memoirs of life under occupation in Ramallah, entitled Sharon and My Mother-in-Law reveals numerous – and humorous – examples of non-violent resistance.
One memorable incident, in September 2002, was when Amiry's entire neighbourhood got up in the dead of night to bang on pots, pans, lampposts, pylons, bins and even water tanks on rooftops to protest their house arrest and annoy the Israeli soldiers who had reoccupied Ramallah. Looking around to observe the madhouse, Amiry noted: “Even if Sharon and his occupation forces never got this message, it was good group therapy.”
Amiry also recounts a story of how jealous she was of her pet dog who got a Jerusalem “passport” while her mistress could only dream of the human version. “You know what, Nura,” she told her dog. “With this document, you can go to Jerusalem, while I and my car need two different permits.”
But, with some lateral thinking, Amiry put it to good use when she pretended to be the dog's chauffer to get through a checkpoint to Jerusalem without a permit. “As you can see, she is from Jerusalem and it is impossible for her to drive herself,” she told the bemused Israeli soldier, who patted the dog on the head and waved the car through.
“All you sometimes need is a sense of humour,” Amiry reflected.
Indeed, the strongest weapons Palestinians can and should deploy are their steadfastness, humour and guile. That way, their just struggle will be reinvested with morality, and they are likely to win hearts and minds, as well as allies, in Israel and the world.
But who will do this?
The Palestinians have no charismatic figure to unify them behind a non-violent struggle. Ultimately, what they need is someone with the charisma of Arafat and the creed of Gandhi. But failing that ordinary Palestinians must force the discourse of non-violence upon the different factions, because therein the future sustainability of their struggle lies.
“The only losers in violent resistance are the Palestinians themselves,” argued Rita Bolos of Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom (Peace Oasis), a joint Israeli-Palestinian community just outside Jerusalem. “If I were a Palestinian leader, I would collect all the weapons and melt them into a massive statue dedicated to peace.”
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 17 May 2007.