The Rise Of Palestinian Non-Violent Resistance: A Conversation With Mustafa Barghouti
Last Friday, I spoke to Dr. Mustafa Barghouti after he returned from commemorating the eighth anniversary of the weekly protests in the Palestinian village of Bil’in against the Separation Wall, which has denied the village large tracts of its agricultural land. Dr. Barghouti is the General Secretary of the Palestine National Initiative, the Mubadara, which he, along with others, was instrumental in establishing in 2002 to introduce new political thinking. This movement, which advocates non-violent resistance to the occupation, is gaining popularity and developing into an alternative third voice to Fatah and Hamas, the two major political factions in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
I began by asking him whether he believed that the protests now taking place in various parts of the West Bank would develop into a popular mass resistance against the Israeli occupation.
“Those who are unaware of the situation here and look at it from a distance think in terms of the old models,” he answered. “They cannot read what is taking place on the ground now. In the past, there were two Intifadas. The assumption is that there would be a third one that is militarized, which Israel will use its superior weapon fire to suppress. These commentators also tend to believe that the third Intifada would be brought about by orders from above because it is politically expedient to those who hold the reins of power.”
Mustafa then proceeded to enumerate five factors that he believed are contributing to the prevailing despair. “The peace process is frozen with no prospects of peace on the horizon. Then there is an unprecedented increase in Israeli settlements and land takeover throttling the idea of a Palestinian state. Third is the intolerable economic situation, with an unemployment rate, in the 18-26 age group, of around 70 percent. This has made clear the failure of the policy of building institutions. It has also proven that proceeding with the “economic solution,” Tony Blair-style, is a non-starter. Fourth, there is the internal division between Fatah and Hamas and the lack of a viable political horizon. And finally, the humiliation that Palestinians are experiencing at the hands of settlers and also in encounters with Israelis inside Israel, as we saw when Haneh Emtir was beaten up in West Jerusalem as she was waiting for the light rail train.” To Mustafa, such incidents only confirm that we live under a system of apartheid.
“But let me emphasize that what analysts are predicting will be starting has already started,” he continued. “But it is not following old models. What gives me great hope is the growing movement amongst people for non-violent resistance, which began ten years ago with the resistance to the building of the wall and has been slowly but consistently developing and growing. It started in remote villages whose lands were being taken by Israel in the course of building the wall. Then it spread from one village to another. It has now matured into a regional movement, one where people come together from different parts of the West Bank to join in a common action of resistance. The establishment of the Palestinian village of Bab Es Shams, on Palestinian land in what the Israeli government calls the E1 area, demonstrated an even larger collaboration in an organized, effective, national action. Now the unifying cause is that of the prisoners in Israeli prisons.”
I wondered whether the dismantling by the Israeli army of Bab Es Shams was discouraging to those who organized and took part in that protest.
“Not at all,” Mustafa answered. “As you know, no sooner had the army dismantled that village than others were established in other parts of the West Bank. I have been closely involved in these activities and can tell you there is a qualitative change in the way protests are taking place. I was the only one of the older leaders who spent the night in the cold tents at Bab Es Shams and this gave me the opportunity to have long conversations late into the night with the young people who were willing to risk a lot to make this new movement effective. I learned that they are carrying out their activities with awareness. They are proactive rather than reactive. They plan and think of how to put their opponent in a dilemma. They are also trying to think of ways of how not to be destructive to the interests of their own people, to rally as much popular support as possible. But the big challenge is how to remain organized so that the movement remains non-violent. This will require unified leadership and hard work of organization and training.”
And who, I asked, would do this? “We at the Mubadara are doing what we can to instill in the minds of our members the necessity to be vigilant and watch out for those elements who try to lead the movement astray by advocating resort to violence,” Mustafa answered.
When I wondered aloud what role the Palestinian security forces would play, he explained, “Security forces stress that there should be no military action used against Israel. But they are in a dilemma. On the one hand they have coordination with Israel, on the other, the more natural thing is for them to be with their own people. The two positions are contradictory, especially because those with whom they coordinate want to destroy their people and replace them with another. The immediate contradictions arise every time they realize they cannot protect their people against violence by the Jewish settlers or the Israeli army. With time, these contradictions are bound to increase.”
“But don’t you think Israel has managed to successfully separate the Palestinians from the Israelis, to create around Palestinian areas what to them are borders with carefully guarded checkpoints?” I asked. “The reality is so different from how it used to be during the first Intifada, when the soldiers were right in our midst.”
“This is true,” Mustafa said, “but then this is why new forms of resistance had to be developed. Despite the conditions created by the Oslo Accords that relieved Israel of much of the burden of occupation, the country has remained vulnerable. I’ll tell you how: We in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are the second-largest market for Israeli products. In time, the boycott of Israeli products will begin to hurt. Then there is the moral aspect. The international isolation of Israel and its identification with the hated apartheid system would open doors for lots of pressure, including from the Jewish communities outside. In a way, they are more sensitive to the description of the country they identify with as an apartheid state than the Israelis themselves.
“What all this means is that we are moving towards an international uprising, which would involve activists from around the world, including many Jews who can no longer condone Israel’s behavior and who share with us, Palestinians, the objective of forcing Israel to change its ways.”
“From what you’re saying,” I interjected, “I gather you don’t put much weight in the possibility that moderate Israelis could be mobilized, as happened in the first Intifada.”
“You’re right, I don’t find much hope there. As long as Israeli society is benefiting from the occupation, there will be no incentive to end it. If, however, we succeed in making it a losing venture, then the balance of power would change.”
What Mustafa said made me think of the events of the last few days and how they are proving that the situation Israel has created has a momentum of its own. It’s beginning to seem inevitable that the system will soon reveal itself with the discrimination becoming more blatant. Not only is there discrimination in the road system, with some roads reserved for Palestinians and others for Israelis, now there are different buses for the different groups. This will create a larger gulf between the people of Israel and Jewish supporters outside. In the case of South Africa under the apartheid regime, the whites justified discrimination and argued that separate development is necessary. Those fighting against apartheid internationally did not accept this argument and refused to condone what the whites were doing and struggled until the system was brought down.
The question in the case of Israel and the Palestinians, which I put to Mustafa, is whether any of this local and international struggle will bring about change in Israeli policy. He answered, “The Israeli strategy of holding on to the Occupied Palestinian Territories has been established early on in the occupation. Successive Israeli leaders have employed different tactics to implement and ensure the success of this strategy. Netanyahu is doing well in this regard. He is openly supporting the expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Whether he will have the ability to move away from this doomed strategy and replace it by one that is more conducive to reaching peace remains to be seen.”
In a recent interview, Professor Yehuda Bauer, a distinguished Israeli historian of the Holocaust and genocide, described Netanyahu as a man who doesn’t know history “even though he is the son of a historian.” He described the Israeli leader as “an ideologue and a tactician, but not a gifted strategist.” He then went on to say that “as an ideologue, [Netanyahu] believes wholeheartedly that we should rule the whole of the Land of Israel.”
This absence of a strategy for peace does not bode well for the future of our region. The Palestinian non-violent struggle that has already begun might take many years to bring about results. Like Mustafa, Professor Bauer believes that Israel is susceptible to pressure. “It would be enough,” he said in the interview, “…for the Pentagon to announce that it will have a problem supplying spare parts to the Israel Air Force. If so, within eight months the Air Force’s planes and equipment turn into junk. It makes no difference whether there are 30 or 40 settler outposts at this moment. The instant it is decided to stop financing the settlements, that story will come to a swift end.”
In the interview, the professor also said that “the only way to remove the settlers…is by means of pressure that will be exerted on Israel by the major powers which have no interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An agreement between the United States and European Union and Russia, with China’s involvement, could create a situation in which pressure will be applied to both sides in the conflict to engage in serious negotiations until white smoke emerges.”
When I read this, I was reminded of Mustafa’s idea of an “international uprising.” On this point, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti and Professor Yehuda Bauer are in complete agreement.