For my entire adult life I’ve heard this same question time and time again: “Why isn’t there a Palestinian Martin Luther King?” Or in the alternative: “Why isn’t there a Palestinian Gandhi?”
Some have posed this with the sincere intention of being helpful. Others have raised it more as a way to further their own narrative that all Palestinians are violent. Regardless of the questioner’s motivation, it’s worth asking: Could a Palestinian Dr. King actually lead Palestinians to the “promised land”? Or is it simply a fairy tale? After all, we are talking the Middle East, where violence is seemingly part of the daily discourse.
Even some of the notable founders of Israel engaged in violent acts in support of their political goals. In fact, two men who went on to be Israeli prime minsters, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, were considered terrorists by the international community in the 1940s for their actions, including the 1937 bombing of an Arab market in Haifa that killed 55 men, women and children and the bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in in 1946, to name just two.
I discussed this very issue Thursday by phone with Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a well-known Palestinian activist and PLO Executive Committee member. Dr. Ashrawi has long advocated peaceful, nonviolent means as way to bring about a two-state solution to this conflict.
“Civil disobedience sends a clear message that we are in charge of our destiny and fate as opposed to succumbing to the oppressors,” Ashrawi explained from her offices in Ramallah. She noted that the first examples of Palestinians using nonviolent methods date back to general strikes in 1929 and 1936 in support of Palestinian nationalism (although there was also violence committed by some Palestinians at that time).
Ashrawi added that while some in the Palestinian community still wrongly see armed struggle as the answer, increasingly Palestinians are employing nonviolent strategies with success. The casual observer of the conflict wouldn’t know it, since Hamas gets the headlines, but nonviolent Palestinians do exist. As examples, she mentioned the peaceful protests that resulted in the Israeli security wall being re-routed in places like the village of Budrus that lessened but did not eliminate the burden it placed on Palestinians. She also touted the success of the movement to boycott Israeli products made in the West Bank and to dissuade organizations and financial institutions from investing in such companies.
This philosophy echoes the sentiments of King and the civil rights movement, where an oppressed people employed the limited tools they had available—marches, boycotts, rallies, etc.—to bring attention to a morally unjust system in the hopes of ending it. And, as happened to some who peacefully protested against segregation in our nation, many Palestinians engaged in nonviolent movements have been arrested, beaten, and even killed.
We saw an example just a few weeks ago, when approximately 25,000 Palestinians took part in a peaceful protest in the West Bank in opposition to the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. As Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, another Palestinian leader who has long advocated nonviolence, told CNN, the protesters were engaged in a nonviolent action in the “best traditions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King” but were met with force by Israel security forces, resulting in 250 Palestinians being injured, “six of them lost their eyes, six critically injured and one was killed.”
Barghouti added: “Nonviolence is my way, and I think it’s more effective, but to succeed we need pressure on Israel to stop using terrible violence and indiscriminate shooting against peaceful demonstrators.”
What makes nonviolence as a strategy even more challenging for Palestinians is that, as Ashrawi noted, the Israeli administrations over the years seemingly reward violence over peaceful methods. “They won’t cooperate with ‘Mr. Nice Guy,’” she told me, “but will sit up and listen when there is a threat of violence.” She added that it almost seems Israeli administrations prefer Palestinians to be violent because it allows them to define us all as terrorists.
By way of example, Ashrawi noted that the current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has been exceedingly flexible and accommodating toward the Israeli government, and his Fatah movement has renounced violence. However, the Israeli government has not only continued to publicly malign him, it has done little to embolden him by improving the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank. Indeed, the only significant development has been an increase in the number of Israeli government-funded settlements in the West Bank in recent years. In fact, since Benjamin Netanyahu took office as Israeli prime minister in 2009, the Israeli government has increased settlement funding by 38 percent.
I make no excuse for Palestinian violence, which I’ve criticized many times. But I think it’s important to remember something else, too. The West Bank and Gaza are not America. There are no First Amendment rights. Nonviolent protest is met with force, as it was here during segregation. A Martin Luther King of Palestine would meet with same results as the real one did here—being arrested, having his house bombed, and being killed. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have nothing to protect them. The Israeli government puts Palestinians in jail for little or no reason under the policy of “administrative detention” and simply leaves them there for extended of periods of time with no indictment or trials. In all likelihood, that’s where a Palestinian King would end up before he could even get the attention he needs to build worldwide support.
I asked Dr. Ashrawi what could be done to foster a lasting peace. She responded that we couldn’t simply continue “business as usual” and hope for a different result. It’s not working for either people. She suggested that one approach that could yield a peace dividend is engaging the international community to focus on the conflict. She cited as ideas increasing the economic strategies such as boycott and divestment, appealing to the International Criminal Court to hold the Netanyahu government accountable for its actions, and asking the world to pressure the Israeli government to stop settlement construction. Agree or disagree with these approaches, they are all 100 percent nonviolent methods.
There are Palestinian Martin Luther Kings, and many of them. And as these approaches succeed, common sense tells us that even more will be drawn to this nonviolent movement. The question now comes: Will an Israeli Martin Luther King—not a writer like Amos Oz or Gideon Levy, but a real political figure—emerge who would support a Palestinian counterpart?