Non-violence is the only path to peace

  • May 14, 2010
The news from the frontier between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is seldom good, and usually awful. Headline after headline in the mainstream media confirm the popular (and hardly inaccurate) view that the border is a place of violence and danger, where Israeli soldiers daily face death and injury from suicide bombers and armed militants, and Palestinian citizens are constantly liable to harassment and arrest.

Against this baleful backdrop of discord and suffering, however, a new and more hopeful story has begun to emerge.


It all began about six years ago, when residents of the Palestinian border village of Bil’in took to peacefully demonstrating at the separation fence every Friday after the Muslim prayers. In the years since they began, the continuing Friday protests against the wall — which have often been joined by Israeli and international peace advocates — have not been free of violence. Israeli forces have attacked demonstrators, while some Palestinians have thrown rocks at the soldiers and the fence.

But the leaders of the small but growing movement, including Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, insist that non-violent resistance is the only credible way forward in the struggle against Israel and for independence. Speaking at a conference on Palestinian popular resistance held last month in Bil’in, Fayyad said: “This is the way to end occupation. It is the source of our self-empowerment and it will lead to the political support we need and the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

If press reports are to be believed, there are numerous doom-sayers on both sides of the conflict. Many Palestinians, especially since the rise of Hamas, are convinced that more peace talks between their leaders and the Israelis will be as fruitless as they have always been, and that the only way to achieve freedom is to destroy the Jewish state. For their part, some Israelis believe that the adoption of a non-violent strategy by a few Palestinians is too little, too late — that the suicide bombers and rockets lobbed into Israeli territory have forced Israeli public opinion into a purely survivalist posture, devoid of the moral responsiveness and sensitivity that make non-violent resistance effective.

The first of these objections — that hatred of Israel is too firmly ingrained in the culture of Palestinian protest ever to allow non-violence to take root and grow — is, to my mind, fatalistic and rooted in prejudice. It underestimates the utter failure of the politics of armed confrontation to budge the peace process out of its present stagnation. The old ideas are clearly bankrupt. Violence, pushed ceaselessly by Hamas and its jihadist allies, has resolved nothing.

Among the forces driving the non-violent peace movement in Bil’in and other Palestinian settlements along the border is the sober recognition that the long-standing policy of anti-Israel violence has brought the Palestinian people no closer to freedom, prosperity and independence. If this recognition can take place in Bil’in, it can surely happen elsewhere.

The second objection holds that a move to non-violent resistance comes too late in the history of Israel — long after Israelis have given in to their fears and taken up a position of moral indifference or outright hostility to the human and civil rights of Palestinians. To agree with such a view would be to give up on the possibility of a just peace in the region and surrender the future of Palestine to the most reactionary, vengeful segment of Israeli society.

I believe Israelis are better than that — capable of persuasion by non-violence, as susceptible to its unique moral power as Americans proved to be during the U.S. civil rights movement.

Non-violence is indeed a powerful force, requiring great courage on the part of its advocates in struggle. We should pray for the success and flourishing of the non-violent movement in the West Bank, an end to Israeli occupation and the construction of a strong, independent Palestine committed to non-violence in its dealings with all nations.

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