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The Israeli Peace Movement, Palestinian Nonviolent Activism, and What They Are Up Against

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

News coverage of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank tends to focus on Hamas raining rockets down on Israel and Israel in turn bombing the heck out of Gaza. Not much space is devoted to the Israeli peace movement and still less to Palestinian nonviolent resistance to policies of occupation that dates back to the Ottoman Empire (1600s–1917) and British Mandate (1917–1948). There is a widespread perception that Palestine resistance is mainly, even exclusively violent and in fact is not resistance at all but aggression against Israel, which is simply exercising its right to self-defense.

Accounts of Palestinian suicide bombings, other terrorist attacks that target civilians, and Hamas rockets fired from Gaza are familiar. The rockets are primitive, lacking guidance systems, and basically just pointed in the direction of Israel. Many fall short and land in the desert before reaching Israeli towns and cities. Most of the rest are taken out by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. Some get through and succeed in inflicting civilian casualties and terrorizing the population as intended. Israel uses this as a rationale to respond with disproportionate force. Palestinian casualties are invariably many times higher than those on the Israeli side. Israel claims that it tries to avoid civilian casualties by issuing evacuation warnings an hour before a target such as an apartment building is to be bombed. My opinion, and I stress it is opinion, is that this is more about public relations than any authentic concern for Palestinians who are left homeless when they do survive.

Why does Hamas continue to attack Israel when the terrible consequences for the Palestinian people have been demonstrated time and again? "The group’s behavior is not particularly mysterious," writes Shadi Hamid in The Atlantic (Don't Take the Narrow View):

Hamas leaders see anger against Israel building among ordinary Palestinians, and they see an opportunity to weaponize it. They send rockets across the border and invite destruction because they wish to project relevance and rally domestic support after years of diminished popularity. Hamas is not a bunch of crazed lunatics. Selfish, self-serving, and cavalier toward Palestinian life, its leaders are acting according to a traditional rational-actor model. Whether or not we like it, they believe they will benefit from the crisis—and they may, in reality, find themselves in a stronger position when this is over.

The AP reported in March that neither Hamas nor its rival Fatah, which is widely viewed by Palestinians as corrupt and incompetent, had sufficient support to win a parliamentary majority in elections which were scheduled to be held in May (Kraus, Poll) but have since been postponed. A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicated that if the election had been held then Fatah would have won 43 percent of the vote, Hamas, 30 percent, with 18 percent undecided. It remains to be seen what effect the latest round of fighting will have on Palestinian opinion. In the past Hamas has gained support when it is seen as having stood up to Israel and survived despite the suffering that comes with it.

From its side Israel continues to "mow the grass" periodically with attacks that purportedly target Hamas leadership and infrastructure and always manage to inflict massive collateral damage. The cycle has become routine despite accomplishing nothing to advance the Palestinian cause or the safety of Israel. Although Hamas's military capabilities may be temporarily degraded by Israeli strikes, the underlying and maddeningly complex dynamics are unchanged.

Historical note. Hamas originated in 1987 at the beginning of the first Palestinian intifada. Its name is an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement. The group's 1988 charter designates historic Palestine as Islamic land and rules out any peace with the Jewish state. A new policy document in 2017 adopted more moderate language that accepts the creation of an interim Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. "The document also stresses that Hamas's struggle is not with Jews but with 'occupying Zionist aggressors.' Israel said the group was 'attempting to fool the world'" (BBC, Hamas). Hamas still does not recognize the state of Israel.

Less common in the American news cycle are reports on Israel's denial of Palestinian legitimacy, expansion of illegal settlements, clearing out Palestinians from neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and settler violence.

Souad R. Dajani, a Palestinian theorist of nonviolent resistance, has pointed out that throughout the period of Jewish settlement in Palestine, "Zionist legitimacy has necessarily precluded a Palestinian legitimacy." At different times, this has involved the myth of the founding of Israel on "a land without a people for a people without a land"; Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s statement that “There are no Palestinians”; and the attempts to solve the “demographic threat” posed by Palestinians through illegal population transfers and settlements carried out by the Israeli government since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. (AFSC, Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance)

Israel accuses Palestinian authorities of encouraging antisemitism and refusing to recognize Israel in public school curriculum. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a professor of language and education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, conducted a study of more than twenty Israeli geography and history textbooks published between 1994 and 2010 for use in both government-run and independent ultra-Orthodox schools and concluded in her book Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education that

the negative representation of Palestinians in these curricula "is quite contradictory to the persistent Israeli claim that 'Palestinians teach their children to hate us and we teach Love thy neighbor.'" Peled-Elhanan also points out that none of the geography books she examined is called The Geography of the State of Israel. "The titles are usually Israel or The Land of Israel, which entails the inclusion, in all maps, of territories beyond the state's official borders, including the occupied areas"—not, of course, so identified. (Shehadeh, Bearing Witness)

In Bearing Witness in the West Bank, his review of David Shulman's book Freedom and Despair: Notes from the South Hebron Hills, Raja Shedadeh writes that Israeli settlers told Shulman, "'If you believe the word of the Bible, you know that God gave this land to the Jews—only to us. All we do follows inevitably from that.' Against such convictions there is little room for rational arguments." Surprisingly, some of the Palestinian farmers in South Hebron Shulman spoke with told him that "as far as they're concerned, the settlers can stay; there is plenty of room—but only on the condition that they act like human beings."

"On June 2, 1980, three members of an offshoot of the right-wing Israeli settler group that became known as the Jewish Underground…placed bombs under the the cars of the Palestinian mayors of Ramallah, Bireh, and Nablus." One mayor lost a leg, another a foot.

The three were apprehended in 1984 and convicted in 1985 after another attack, which killed three Palestinian students. They received life sentences but these were commuted by Israeli president Chaim Herzog. In 1990 they were released from prison to the cheers of Israeli settlers and no real show of public protest. (Shehadeh, Bearing Witness)

After the bombings the efforts of Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights NGO, helped lead to the formation of a committee to investigate settler violence in the West Bank by the Israeli attorney general, under the direction of his deputy, Judith Karp. The Karp Report: On the Investigations of Suspicions Against Israelis in Judea and Samaria, published in 1984,

described numerous acts of violence carried out by Jewish settlers against Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank, including assaults, destruction of property, armed threats, shootings, obstructed access to places of employment, and attacks on schoolchildren. It was not followed by any significant change in the ways settler violence was addressed by Israeli police and security services.

Such criminal behavior is more widespread now that it was in the 1980s. (Shehadeh, Bearing Witness)

Assaf Sharon recounts another atrocity in his review of two books about the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli nationalist in 1995 and its consequences (The Long Paralysis of the Israeli Left)

On February 25, 1994, a settler in an IDF uniform walked into Hebron's Cave of Patriarchs, loaded his military-issued automatic rifle, and opened fire on hundreds of Muslims kneeling in prayer. Twenty-nine were killed and more than a hundred were injured. The gunman, Baruch Goldstein, an American-born physician, had been initiated into extremism in New York's Jewish Defense League and immigrated to Israel in 1983.… Goldstein, who was beaten to death during the shooting, was given a hero's funeral in the settlement [where he lived] and was declared "holy" and "pure of heart" by its rabbis.

The Israeli left has not recovered from the assassination of Rabin, who was shot at a rally in Tel Aviv not long after he signed the second Oslo Agreement with Yasser Arafat. Israel was "seething with opposition" to the Oslo process, which would give a measure of self-government to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. "For months, the spokespeople for the settlers in the occupied territories who sought to expand control over them had been ruthlessly attacking Rabin's government and flooding the streets with protesters…" The Israeli right compared Rabin to Nazi collaborators and his government to the Jewish councils that became a symbol of collaboration with the Nazis. Benjamin Netanyahu "aligned himself with the hardliners, the settlers and the rabble-rousers, speaking at rallies across the country where crowds branded Rabin a traitor and a murderer, and consorting with rabbis who urged soldiers to disobey evacuation orders" from territory ceded under the agreement.

"The announcement [of Rabin's death] plunged Israel into a haze, a gloomy twilight zone where everything seemed surreal," the journalist Dan Ephron recounts in Killing a King. There were tears and calls for dialogue, healing, and, above all, unity. Israelis who supported the Oslo Accords did not realize these would become the sentimental instruments of their political defeat. In the following years the religious right, which had opposed peace with the Palestinians, came to dominate Israel's politics, while advocates of reconciliation—once the country's leading political force—were marginalized. (Assaf Sharon, The Long Paralysis).

Sharon reports that Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin, explained later, "It was not a matter of revenge, or punishment or, god forbid, rage, but a matter of what stops [the peace process]. I thought a lot about it and realized that if I take out Rabin, this will stop it." Amir told the commission that investigated the assassination, "If I did not get backing and I had not been representing many more people, I would not have acted."

By backing he referred to rulings by extremist rabbis that giving land to Arabs violates religious law, for which the perpetrator should be executed.

After Rabin's death, the opponents of the peace accord quickly distanced themselves from the assassin and pleaded for national unity. Many on the left wanted to believe that trauma had induced contrition. But the imperative of unity was invoked mainly to stifle reaction and criticism: this meant that the right could not be held accountable for inciting violence against the government, that its leaders were not answerable for their tactics, and that the religious authorities who sanctioned the assassination would not be prosecuted.

Nonviolent activism and resistance. Peace Now, founded in March 1978, "is the largest and longest-standing Israeli movement advocating for peace through public pressure." The group believes that the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is the only viable solution to conflict. In the early 1990s they identified settlements as one of the largest obstacles to a two-state solution and now work to prevent settlement expansion and stop illegal settlement activity.

Over the many years of its existence, Peace Now has consistently supported any and all steps promising to promote a resolution to the conflict, in addition to pressing all Israeli parties in power to initiate steps to bring about an end to the occupation, return to the 1967 borders and negotiations for peace.

Breaking the Silence is "an organization of veteran soldiers who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories":

Soldiers who serve in the territories witness and participate in military actions that change them immensely. Cases of abuse toward Palestinians, looting and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but these incidents are still described officially as "extreme" and "unique" cases. Our testimonies portray a different—and much grimmer—picture, in which the deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of the military orders and rules of engagement that the state considers justified in the name of Israel’s security.

In 1983 Mubarak Awad, Ph.D., (b. 1943) founded the Palestinian Centrer for the Study of Nonviolence in Jerusalem

with the goal of fomenting mass resistance to the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Do not pay taxes, he lectured. Consume only local goods, like the Indians who followed Gandhi's movement against British colonial rule. Engage in peaceful protest. Plant olive trees on land coveted by Jewish settlers. Above all, do not pick up the gun. March, and sit down, like civil rights protesters in the American South in the 1960s. Take the beatings, clog up Israeli jails. (Stein, Palestinian Gandhi)

In 1988 Awad was arrested on orders of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and deported. After deportation he formed Nonviolence International, which "advocates for active nonviolence and supports creative constructive nonviolent campaigns worldwide." He is Adjunct Professorial Lecturer at the American University School of International Service in Washington DC.

Holy Land Trust was founded in 1998 by Sami Awad, nephew of Mubarak Awad. It is "a non-profit Palestinian organization committed to fostering peace, justice and understanding in the Holy Land…committed to exploring the root causes of violence and…to develop solutions to address them…through nonviolent activism, personal and spiritual transformation."

Al-Haq "is an independent Palestinian non-governmental human rights organization based in Ramallah, West Bank" established in 1979.

Al-Haq documents violations of the individual and collective rights of Palestinians in the OPT, irrespective of the identity of the perpetrator, and seeks to end such breaches by way of advocacy before national and international mechanisms and by holding the violators accountable.

I am far from expert on Israeli-Palestinian affairs. My acquaintance with the subject comes by way of general reading, e.g., the articles from The New York Review of Books and The Atlantic included in the list of references below, and research conducted for this essay, such as reports by Amnesty International, the American Friends Service Committee, and BBC. Information conveyed here comes from a variety of sources I take to be reliable. The picture these sources paint is consistent. More space has been devoted to settler violence and other Israeli contributions to the miserable state of affairs only because these are less familiar to those of us in this country than the actions of Hamas and other Palestinian extremist groups, which I in no way wish to minimize.

The American perspective on the conflict has long been one-sided. Until recently it was a story about valiant Israelis defending themselves and their country against Palestinian terrorists. Of late that narrative is turned on its head to tell a story of valiant Palestinians rising up against the Israeli oppressor. Both narratives leave out much. Neither offers a path to resolution of the conflict.

Israeli politics are dominated by ultranationalists and religious zealots. Hamas is militant, corrupt, and incompetent, "selfish, self-serving, and cavalier toward Palestinian life," while Fatah is corrupt, incompetent, and unwilling to denounce violence out of fear that this would be taken as a sign of weakness. The Israeli peace movement and Palestinian nonviolent resistance have almost as much impact on Israeli politics and on Hamas as my blog has on US policy. It is reasonable to ask what might be accomplished by shedding light on these movements, as I have tried to do in some small way here, when their efforts seem so ineffectual, however noble their aims and however heroic those efforts are. If there is to be a way forward toward a better tomorrow, and there may not be in any foreseeable future, the all too human habit of justifying behavior of one party while vilifying comparable conduct by the other must be resisted, replaced by the effort to recognize our own inescapable biases and see things as clearly as we are able.

As I write there are reports of an attempt to form a unity government in Israel that would include hardline right-wing, centrist, and leftist parties from the anti-Netanyahu bloc, possibly with support from an Islamist party. It is difficult to imagine a viable government from a coalition of groups with so little in common beyond replacement of Netanyahu as prime minister. The ouster of Netanyahu is a welcome prospect in any case. Progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues would seem to be as far away as ever.

Memo from the editorial desk: Minor, nonsubstantive edits for clarity were made in the last sentence of the concluding paragraph after this piece was published.


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