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The Palestinians' Secret Weapon

As Israel votes to ease the Gaza blockade, why has it taken the Palestinians so long to realize their best weapon was nonviolence?

06.17.10 11:05 PM ET

Rarely has the Palestinian cause received such world-wide sympathy as when Israeli commandos boarded the Gaza-bound flotilla on May 31, killing nine activists on board one of the ships.

Amid the outcry, Israel announced on Thursday that it would allow foods and some constructions material to enter Gaza by land, after pressure from the White House. Last week, in a meeting with Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, President Obama promised a $400 million aid package for the West Bank and Gaza.

Perhaps the Hamas leaders in Gaza will look out to sea and see the specter of the MV Mavi Marmara and realize they have a weapon far more powerful than any rocket in their arsenal.

After decades of trying—and failing—to gain their own state by throwing stones, firing rockets, taking hostages, hijacking planes and blowing themselves up, it looked like the Palestinians, or their allies by proxy, had eyed one of the most powerful resistance tactics: nonviolent protest.

Why has it taken the Palestinians, and their allies, such a long time to think of this?

In 2001, I worked as the Middle East correspondent for Newsday. After months of reporting on the pointless daily carnage of the Second Intifada, I asked Palestinian leaders why they didn’t try the Gandhi approach.

Although they were living under occupation in much of the West Bank and some of Gaza —and had been so for decades—the Palestinians had done a particularly poor job of gaining public sympathy around the world, and the many suicide bombings that year weren’t helping their case very much. I couldn’t help but wonder why they hadn’t tried more peaceful means of resistance.

I drove from Jerusalem to the Jericho office of Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, to seek an answer. Erekat sat behind his desk and I asked him whether he, or any of the Palestinian cabinet members, had ever suggested to then-President Yasser Arafat that Palestinian leaders all walk, unarmed—but with CNN and BBC cameras rolling—to a particularly dangerous Israeli checkpoint to see what would happen. It could be effective although it might mean getting shot, I pointed out. Erekat agreed that such a peaceful march on the checkpoint might have more political impact than another day of barely reported killings. But he didn’t seem very keen on risking martyrdom. “I don’t have an answer for you on the non-violence,” Erekat said. “I think it’s a question that’s worth being discussed by the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people.” But instead the bombs kept exploding.

I went to see Marwan Barghouti, the most storied leader of the Intifada, and by then a wanted man by the Israelis. Barghouti listened to my questions about non-violence but insisted that “armed struggle” was the only way to resist the Israeli military. “The best way for Israel to receive the message is to pay the price. If they hit us and kill us, what do you expect [us to] do?”

But “armed struggle” didn’t really work out for Barghouti, who is currently serving five life sentences for murder in an Israeli prison.

And of course the Palestinians lost the Intifada.

Non-violence is no guarantee of political success. Recent failures in Iran and Burma are painful reminders of that tactic’s limits in the face of governments that don’t care much what the world thinks. But Israel does care. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not have announced that he was preparing to ease the Gaza blockade, as he did last week, if he—and Israel—hadn’t just suffered the worst public relations catastrophe in years.

Even during last year’s unpopular war in Gaza, Israel could make the argument that they were responding to violence as Hamas continued to fire rockets into Israel, killing civilians. But the night-time raid on the flotilla was a harder PR battle. Even though it is still an open question how much involvement the Palestinians themselves had, rarely have they and their allies been so successfully cast as the victims. And as both sides know, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, winning the battle for victimhood is crucial for political success.

So why have the Palestinians been so uninterested in trying out non-violence?

Part of the problem is the neighborhood. When Palestinians look to Arab states in the region, they don’t see a lot of shining examples of democracy. Most Arab leaders are in power because they control their police force and military. Political success is predicated on physical power—not on turning the other cheek.

Furthermore, most senior Palestinian leaders grew up schooled in armed struggle as part of the secular Fatah movement. Even if they weren’t combatants themselves—like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas—their political philosophy was based on fighting. These days the most powerful Palestinian leaders in Gaza have grown up as part of Hamas, an organization that hasn’t yet shown much interest in non-violent protest.

Some Palestinians have reached a grim conclusion: that violence actually works. They cite three main events to back up their case: Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000; its withdrawal from Gaza in 2005; and its failure to beat Hezbollah in the war in Lebanon in 2006. Give the struggle time, and keep fighting, these Palestinians argue.

All this adds up to less than ideal conditions in which to nurture a Palestinian Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, although there are a few non-violence activists in the West Bank. That same year, 2001, I drove to Hebron to see a man named Nafez Assaily whose office walls were decorated with pictures of King and Gandhi. Assaily told me of his peaceful plans which included persuading Palestinian women to ululate at night to keep Hebron’s settlers awake; bombarding Israeli officials with phone calls just to tie up their lines; filling in the ditches that the Israelis bulldozers had dug to block roads to the Palestinian towns. Even in Hebron, Assaily remains a marginalized figure, although he continues his lectures and campaigns.

Still, it would be a mistake to conclude that the emergence of a non-violent leader or movement among the Palestinian people is impossible. There is a powerful example from another war-torn corner of the Islamic world, albeit in a faraway and non-Arab country. In the late 1920s a remarkable man emerged from the Pashtun population in northwestern Pakistan—the same part of the world now home to the Taliban, and much of the Al Qaeda leadership. Ghaffar Khan, who came to be known as the Frontier Gandhi, founded an organization named the Red Shirts whose goal was to resist British rule with non-violent protest. He had tens of thousands of devoted, Muslim followers—all committed to non-violence. And on April 23, 1930, Khan’s unarmed Red Shirt volunteers stood steady in a market square in Peshawar while British troops mowed them down with machine guns. During the struggle to resist their occupiers, the men and women among Khan’s Red Shirts withstood torture, imprisonment, genital mutilation, sexual assault and murder. They did not fight back. And eventually, the British gave up.

Among the volunteers onboard the boats of the Gaza-bound flotilla were probably some Turkish Islamists with sympathy for Hamas, some of whom clearly fought back against the Israeli commandos—not the actions of purely non-violent protestors. But the forceful and unprecedented near-universal condemnation of the Israeli raid has transformed this campaign into something very unusual indeed. Nine activists were killed on the MV Mavi Marmara—and their deaths created sympathy where countless suicide bombers created only condemnation.

Perhaps the Hamas leaders in Gaza will look out to sea and see the specter of the MV Mavi Marmara and realize they have a weapon far more powerful than any rocket in their arsenal.

Matt McAllester is the author three books and a contributing editor at Details magazine. For 13 years, he reported for Newsday, spending much of that time as a foreign correspondent in places such as Kosovo, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Nigeria and Lebanon. He is currently editing an anthology of food writing by war correspondents for the University of California Press.