Damned if they do and damned if they don’t. On Palestinian nonviolent resistance.

 

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Palestinians in a prayer demonstration at Checkpoint 300. Bethlehem, March 2014. M.Whitton

 

Palestine (TFC) – The last few days have seen the press littered with news of more violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as two young Palestinian men were shot dead by the Israeli military, both allegedly carrying knives. On Saturday evening, a number of Israeli police officers were injured after a Palestinian man was said to have driven his car into them in East Jerusalem. All these events made the British press, the mainstream media going out of its way, as usual, to saturate us with violent imagery in the case of Israel and Palestine.

The fact that thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis have been employing nonviolent tactics similar to those of the U.S. civil rights movement and the South African anti-Apartheid movement for decades barely gets a mention. The continued call by Palestinian and international civil society for nonviolent resistance has led to a rich Palestinian history of it, in spite of the Israeli military’s brutal repression. All this pales into insignificance against the backdrop of the media obsession with cruelty, violence and war which contributes to outdated stereotyping and comments like one seen yesterday on a social media site which mentioned ‘the Palestinian’s addiction to violence.’

The First Intifada in 1987 began as a non-violent popular movement and unified the Palestinians in collective civil disobedience. The platform launched decades of creative and non-violent campaigning against the brutal Israeli occupation using the arts, the use of cameras in documenting abuses, hunger strikes, general strikes, home rebuilds, tree planting and the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

When returning from a trip, it is normal to be asked if you had a good time. On arriving home from a conflict zone, conversations are a little more awkward and people don’t know what to say. Most people who haven’t visited Palestine generally ask questions such as ‘didn’t you feel scared?’ or ‘wasn’t it dangerous?’  The answer to that question from people who have spent time in the West Bank is that the only time they felt in danger or under threat was when attending peaceful, nonviolent demonstrations organised by the Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement. The threat is generated by the Israeli army’s disproportionate responses to peaceful protesters who are usually in relatively small numbers and holding flags and banners, planting olive trees or conducting prayers in active expression against the ongoing colonisation of the land.

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The Israeli Army use tear gas to disperse a demonstration in the village of Wadi Foukin, Palestine. March 2015. M.Whitton

Dispersed

It is not unusual to witness Palestinians gathered in a peaceful prayer protest being fired upon with tear gas and stun grenades. Also known as flash grenades or sound bombs, these explosive devices are fired into crowds to break up protests. Designed to temporarily disorientate the senses of ‘the enemy’, the tactic works and people scatter with momentary trauma to their central nervous system and ears ringing from an insanely loud “bang” of over 170 decibels and the blinding flash of light.

The crowd control methods do not discriminate and elderly people as well as women and children can often be seen stumbling down treacherous mountain tops choking with the effects of the Israeli army’s tear gas. Children and young people are seen being whisked off in ambulances after being hit with bullets, canisters or suffering the effects of tear gas inhalation. In Bil’in village in 2009, Palestinian Bassem Abu Rahmah was killed after being struck in the chest by a tear gas canister fired by the Israeli Army. Video footage showed Abu Rahmah was not behaving violently and posed no threat to the Israeli soldiers at the time. In fact, hundreds of Palestinians have been killed and injured at nonviolent demonstrations over the years by Israeli army dispersal techniques. The exact numbers of these deaths and injuries tend to be hard to pin down, lost behind the media focus on terror attacks.

Live fire, tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets are also used to quell demonstrations.  ‘Rubber’ bullets (in fact a misleading name for large, rubber coated heavy steel projectiles) were invented by the British Ministry of Defense for use against rioters during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Intended to be non-lethal crowd control and fired at the ground, in the West Bank they are generally fired from high velocity M-16 rifles, often at close range and toward the body causing broken bones, head injuries, the rupturing of internal organs and sometimes death.

Bullied

It’s common for Palestinian children to see their fathers, brothers or uncles hauled off with hands in cable ties, arrested by the military for the organising of demonstrations. Is it any wonder that building and sustaining a cohesive, disciplined and nonviolent movement of civil disobedience in Palestine is a major task? Is it a surprise that disenfranchised youth struggle to grasp the fact that nonviolence works as they grow up seeing violence squashing the nonviolent methods their parents are teaching them?

One village leader involved in an eight year struggle against Israeli settlements and the Wall organises weekly, peaceful and creative demonstrations. The village uses theatre, workshops and speeches as forms of protest and is often attended by Israeli and international peace activists. Arrested by Israeli soldiers during a night raid on his home he was told; ‘’You play with us in the day, we play with you at night.’’

Youth Against Settlements in Hebron is a nonviolent resistance group which documents human rights violations and supports Palestinians to stay in their homes and avoid displacement and land theft. The group organises peaceful protests, actions, sit-ins as well as helping locals with legal support. Leader and one of the founders Issa Amro is bullied and harassed regularly by the Israeli army.

“From the beginning of my activism, I have been arrested and detained hundreds of times. I have been beaten up and tortured by Israeli Forces and have had threats to my life. My movements were restricted many times and I have been attacked by Israeli settlers physically and verbally. We are a 100% non violent group, we don’t give them any excuse.’’

 

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Palestinians and the Israel Army at the weekly Al Masara peaceful demonstration. March 2014. M.Whitton

 

Under International Law Palestinians have the right to peacefully protest and despite being given the title by the EU as recognised Human Rights Defenders to protect them as activists, Issa and hundreds of others suffer constant targeting by Israeli forces for incitement.

Evident by the extreme responses to demonstrations, the relentless targeting of activists and the silencing of those critical of Israel, it’s clear the Israeli government doesn’t know how to handle the nonviolent movement. To be blunt, it’s impossible to use a legal method to stop those expressing their opinions in nonviolent ways, so they shoot or imprison them.

When we personally witness or have friends unjustly arrested, imprisoned for their beliefs or for demanding justice and freedom for their people, feelings of indignation, disillusionment and powerlessness can prevail. However, the more we hear and see these stories, we must not be disheartened. The more of us that hear about these situations, the more of us who are outraged, the more of us who are outraged, then the more of us who are willing to act. This demonstrates not only the remarkable power of nonviolence but adds to the number of advocates for truth and justice. Consequently, international pressure can result in investigations for truth such as the UN inquiries into the devastating assault on Gaza last year and Palestine’s recent membership of the International Criminal Court, hopefully leading to prosecution of guilty parties.

The more the Israeli government uses disproportionate means like the ones described above, their struggle in knowing how to handle and control nonviolent resistance is clear. While they resort to what they know which is violence, the goals of the nonviolent activists are met as the message of gross injustice and human rights violations is carried to the world.