Many of us with sympathies—and therefore blinders—on the side of the Free Gaza Movement’s work have been reluctant to accept the possibility that, indeed, people aboard the Mavi Marmara and other vessels attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip earlier this week were anything but nonviolent as Israeli soldiers descended from helicopters above. The facts of the incident remain very much in question, to be sure, and they will continue to be until a truly international, plausibly objective investigation takes place. While it cannot be taken yet as conclusive, there is some evidence provided by the Israelis that their soldiers met violent resistance before, during, or after their shooting spree that finally killed at least nine activists. This video of the events aboard the Mavi Marmara has been widely circulated:
Meanwhile, reports have begun to emerge from among the blockade-runners, including an Arab-Israeli Knesset member, a German activist, and a Turkish mother who brought her 1-year-old baby aboard. They insist that the Israelis fired on the Mavi Marmara before boarding, that those on board had no weapons short of wooden batons, and that the Israelis seemed intent on sending a bloody message.
But supposing the activists did try to defend themselves violently—how does that affect the ways we think about this incident in terms of nonviolence? As in any situation so tragic, and amidst a wider conflict so volatile, we’re faced with an array of perplexing questions. Encountering such questions is natural and, as much as one can muster, to be welcomed. For it is through them that we begin to grope after a way forward, a better way, one that has learned from the past and hopes for the future.
It is disappointing to think that a brutal assault on the Gaza blockade-breakers was necessary to gain the world’s attention when they have been risking their lives, peacefully, to bring aid to Gazans since August of 2008. Worse, what if the thing that finally put Free Gaza on the front pages was some activists’ attempt to meet the Israeli soldiers’ violence with violence of their own? Before, the Free Gaza Movement’s resolutely nonviolent approach earned them mainly obscurity, but an act of self-defense—resulting in much more violence in reply—may have changed the equation. Suddenly, world leaders are paying notice, and institutions from the United Nations Security Council to The New York Times are issuing statements of support. Egypt is even lifting its side of the Gaza blockade. Has violence, in this case, worked?
In its way, yes, violence works; it destroys people and things, and it certainly draws attention. The crucial challenge of nonviolent resistance, however, is to develop creative tactics that will point eyes and minds not to the bloodshed but to the conditions of injustice. (That’s what Waging Nonviolence is for: to highlight struggles for justice against a mainstream media that would prefer to present a version of the news in which little happens or matters except when violence is involved.)
In the days to come, though, the judgment of the world will depend very much upon the extent to which the activists really did fight back and, in doing, partly justified the soldiers’ onslaught. (Nothing, however, can truly justify the use of such disproportionate force.) To the extent that the activists and their mission were nonviolent, they will earn the moral high ground. Their nonviolence thereby invites Israel to respond not with the violence it is so effective in dispensing, but to join in a common cause of bringing about justice. The fundamentally nonviolent purpose of the Freedom Flotilla—to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza and to break what much of the international community considers an illegal blockade—is already what has aroused the world’s sympathy and put Israel in a very uncomfortable situation, perhaps even more so than during the full-scale invasions of Lebanon and Gaza in the recent years. The fact that many aboard the flotilla were noted peacemakers and people committed to and trained in nonviolence makes their statement all the more powerful. The more insistent the activists are on eschewing violence and putting themselves in harm’s way to do right, the more any injustice at play in the situation will come to light for all to see—and the less any military power can justify aggressive action. Such power becomes undermined without a shot fired.
What is probably most at stake in the questions of violence and nonviolence surrounding this incident is the future character of the pro-Palestinian movement—among the international community of course, but foremost in the Palestinian territories themselves. A BBC report last month suggests that, despite growing interest in nonviolent methods among Palestinians, there is still a lack of willingness to make a comprehensive commitment. (In the days following the attack on the flotilla, there have already been skirmishes with Israeli troops resulting in Palestinian deaths.) Many leaders remain hopeful that acts of violence will help them make progress in securing independence and the kind of society they long for. These voices appear rather representative, speaking after attending a talk in Ramallah by Rajmohan Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson:
“I came to promote non-violent resistance,” said Mahmoud Ramahi, secretary general of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and a member of the Islamist movement Hamas.
“We support all types of resistance—non-violent, economic, political and armed resistance,” he said—apparently missing the point of strictly peaceful campaigns.
Hind Awad, 22, a campaigner for an international boycott of Israel, said non-violent methods had historically been a “major tool” of the Palestinians.
“I also think that under international law, armed struggle is just, for people that are living under occupation,” she added.
Yet the Palestine-Israel situation is a case in point of the endlessly cyclical and self-perpetuating nature of violence. From the 1940s onward, the more Palestinians and their Arab neighbors have tried to fight, the more Western-backed Israeli forces have been able to justify sweeping and decisive retaliation, as well as outright preemption. The international community can help break the cycle by exemplifying a kind of resistance that is at once effective and nonviolent. The BBC report tells of Najmadeen al-Husseini, a 62 year-old man who lives under occupation in the West Bank:
In his view, two decades of negotiations have yielded little, yet “military resistance will get us nowhere… what are Kalashnikovs against tanks?”
“If the world supports us, peaceful resistance will get us something back,” he says.
Providing that support will require nonviolent discipline and self-sacrifice, of a kind that demolishes any moral standing held by those who would support injustice with force. If that discipline broke on Monday, all the more reason to restore it for the future. Also needed, meanwhile, are the kinds of creative, courageous, and nonviolent tactics such as the Free Gaza Movement has been using since 2008, as well as ones that can make even more undeniable and unignorable the fact that more fighting is not the answer, justice is.
Waging Nonviolence is hiring a writer to interview leading movement figures and analysts and produce one Q&A-style article per week. The writer will work with our small editorial team to identify the interview subject each week. For the most part, we’ll be looking to hear from activists, organizers and scholars who can shed light on… More
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Well said. Malcolm Gladwell who wrote the books, “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers” (which I highly recommend) recently wrote a great article in the New Yorker about the uniqueness of successful underdogs. Highlighting David and Goliath, Lawrence of Arabia and a basketball team of “short, white girls,” Gladwell’s point was that underdogs rarely win, but when they do it is because they changed the game.
As quoted in your post, Najmadeen al-Husseini said it best, “what are Kalashnikovs against tanks?” There is no way the Palestinians will EVER be successful if they play the game of war. They failed before with the backing of neighboring Muslim states. The fact is, Israel wields the might of the US military – an unstoppable behemoth.
It’s time Palestinians refuse to play by those rules. Non-violence of the King or Gandhian sort will go a lot further. It’s the kind of game that doesn’t require extensive physical capital like tanks and bullets. It can be done effectively regardless of how few people you have. The winner of the game is he/she who is the most just.
My question is: How do those of us who stand outside of the issue go about helping Palestinians in committing to a non-violent movement?
I still don’t understand how Israel sent unarmed soldiers on the Marmara ship. Are they stupid? The people on this ship took advantage of it immediately.
The Palestinians will never get their state unless Hamas, Fatah, and Israel’s Arab neighbors recognize Israel and renounce their intent/desire to destroy it. If all of these entities/states were really concerned about the Palestinians, they would’ve normalized relations with Israel and the Palestinians would have had their own state years ago.
Israel will continue to defend itself and the US will continue to be the guaranteer Israel’s existence.
The focus of the non violent protests should be focused on Hamas, Fatah, Syria, Iran, Hezbollah. I’m quite certain Israelis do not want to be at a perpetual state of war. I will continue to support Israels right to defend themselves.
Thanks for your comments. Jeremy, I think the best way that those of us on the outside can urge nonviolence among Palestinians is to take part in and support nonviolent efforts by the international community, such as the Freedom Flotilla. If and when those succeed, one can only hope it will be heartening to Palestinians.
D. Killion, you raise an interesting point: since the Palestinian militia organizations and their supporters use violence, shouldn’t nonviolent resistance efforts be directed at them above all? (I will ignore the troubling implication in your comment that only the Muslim parties should be held responsible for curbing their violence.) I would say yes and no. On the one hand, yes, the Palestinian people should make clear to their leaders that unproductive provocation is not a tolerable way to solve problems, that they are not impressed by politicians who consolidate their power through maintaining a perpetual stance of guerrilla war. But, on the other hand, it is Israel that has the vastly more powerful military; it is Israel that controls the checkpoints and that erects the walls; it is Israel that prevents Palestinians from returning to the land on which their families once lived as anything but second-class citizens, if at all. There is blame to go around on both sides of the conflict, to be sure. At this point, the onus is on Israel to make itself worthy of recognition, just as the onus is on Palestinians (and their supporters around the world) to point out the structural injustice that they suffer in ways more productive than violence.
What is troubling? The fact that Muslim Extremism/Militant Islamic Fundamentalism/whatever you want to call it is at the root of the issues? That isn’t an implication that should be ignored. It has nothing to do with the average everyday Palestinian. If that were it, the sides would’ve come to peace years ago.
The strength of the IDF is immaterial to the debate. Being strong does not mean you have to tolerate terrorism against your citizens. Virtually ALL the homemade bombs, rocket and mortar attacks are against civilian targets in Israel. The terrorists blend in with the civilian population and mix their bases of operation in heavily populated civilian areas.
In case you did not know, Egypt controls it’s side of the Gaza border in the same way Israel does. In fact, the Egyptians are building a steel barrier 150 feet below the surface to try and curb the smuggling.
If Hamas and Hezbollah stopped chucking rockets at civilians and kidnapping soldiers and stepped up to the diplomatic table the violence would subside and peace achieved. Until then Israel will retaliate and innocents on both sides will be caught in the crossfire.
Now I see this other piece of garbage was no accident, so out you go.
D.—I certainly won’t defend the warmaking tactics of Hamas, nor would I of Israel. And the matter of Egypt is complicated for all sorts of reasons; if there’s one government that Islamists despise on anything anything like the level that they despise Israel’s, it’s Mubarak’s Egypt. It is very unpopular and is able to survive only because the United States provides enough aid money that it can operate a police state. Part of what makes Gaza so threatening to Egypt is that Hamas is a spin-off of the Muslim Brotherhood, the historical nemesis of the Egyptian regime. For that reason, it is likely that Egypt’s opening of the Gaza border is only temporary.
I agree that Palestinians have to find means other than flinging rockets. But I also think Israel has to find means other than massive retaliations that are, anyway, not terribly effective in the long term. There are root causes of this conflict, and the less Palestinians are empowered to build political, cultural, and economic lives for themselves, the more they’re going to see the only option as resistance. I believe such resistance should continue, but I only hope it can somehow happen by nonviolent means. Fortunately, this way of thinking seems to be gaining ground among Palestinian leaders and people alike. It saddens me, though, that there have been armed clashes already since the flotilla incident.