The Road to Palestinian Statehood via Thoreau

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Abdul Hussain Abdul writes:

    Palestinians, hard-headed realists that they are, have never much bought the idea of non-violence. The state of Israel was partly born out of violence and has been sustained mainly through violence. Turning the other cheek to people whose anatomical focus was your knees – and keeping you on them – never seemed especially wise, let alone effective.

This might now be changing. The “growing non-violent movement among Palestinians is simultaneously emerging spontaneously from the grassroots and being encouraged by the leadership,” Ziad Asali, the president of the American Task Force for Palestine (ATFP), wrote recently in theGuardian newspaper in the UK.

I have long thought that a massive sustained campaign of non-violent civil disobedience would hold the key to a future Palestinian state.

There are traditionally three great campaigns in the history of civil disobedience through non-violent means:  Gandhi’s campaign to free India from British colonialism; The Civil Rights movement in the United States; and the Mandela and Bishop Tutu-led campaign to end apartheid in South Africa.*

I stress, like Gandhi, the civil disobedience portion.  In Gandhi’s terms, satyagraha is not simply being against violence in the abstract but refusing to violently respond while simultaneously opposing the unjust rule of the day.  “Truth-force” in opposition to injustice as opposed to “violence-force” against injustice.  But still force.

What those three historical analogies have in common is that all of them took place against the backdrop of a modern constitutional order that had found itself (by various means) engaged in illiberal forms of government.

Because of the liberal (“rule of law”) constitutional legitimacy held in each of those states, there was the possibility for a non-violent civil disobedience campaign to expose the various hypocrisies of the states in question.

Non-violent civil disobedience would not have worked in say Stalinist Soviet Union or Nazi-ruled Germany.  There was in those states not no constitutional order to which the state was held responsible.

Israel, however imperfectly, is a Western liberal constitutional state.  It has also (since its victory in the 1967 Six Days War) been ruling over an illiberal quasi-parasitic “state-let” via illegal occupation.  What the brilliant Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg calls “The Accidental Empire.”

In integral terms, these various countries (US, Great Britain, Afrikaaner ruled South Africa) were on the one hand modern governance structures with corresponding cultures and legal systems embedding modernity.  While on the other hand, this regime did not apply evenly across the population because of various racial, ethnic, and imperial prejudices.  The transformation to political and social modernity that those countries began was imperfect and incomplete (and in Israel still is).

A non-violent civil disobedience campaign is perfectly suited to expose this unsustainable flaw and self-contradiction at the heart of such liberal countries ruling over illiberal/imperial parts.

To wit, Hussain again:

    By endorsing non-violence, the Palestinians would undermine Israeli claims that Palestinians are inherently violent. It would also put to rest accusations that their leadership cannot deliver on its promises of security and therefore Palestinians are not ready for independent government.

The affirmation of non-violence is potentially its own form of disarmament. While Israel can send its forces after armed Palestinian militants and justify its occupation of the West Bank, its pretext weakens when confronted by peaceful Palestinian civilians demanding that they be granted rights of self-governance and independence and making themselves heard worldwide.

As a strategic matter, civil disobedience through non-violent means puts a liberal democratic country (acting illiberally, unjustly in this regard) in a lose-lose situation.  Either the country in question does not respond to flagrant civil disobedience and the de-legitimization of its state (thereby eroding its power like the proverbial snowball rolling down the hill) OR its responds with violence and exposes itself as precisely what its opponents claim it is:  unjust, violent, tyrannical, etc.

In integral terms, a properly done non-violent civil disobedience campaign forces the country in question to either:  A)transform fully to modernity and incorporate the previously oppressed minority into their own legal and political autonomy and subjectivity  B) regress politically and rescind its own constitutional order returning to an autocratic state.

The hope of a non-violent civil disobedience campaign rests on the assumption that there is a (currently) passive political middle in the majority culture (e.g. liberal/centrist whites in the US during segregation) who will enter the fray to oppose the loss of their own civil and political rights, if the government responds to the non-violent civil disobedience campaign through the imposition of tyrannical rule.

The South Africa example is particularly compelling in this regard, given that Israel continued its supported for the apartheid regime long past other Western liberal democracies.  Israel has been threatened with various de-investment campaigns as were deployed in the anti-apartheid struggle.  The status of American Jews and their relationship to the current politics of Israel are of crucial importance in this regard.

What the Palestinians need is a charismatic leader (a la King, Mandela, Gandi) who can appropriate the religion of the masses (in this case Islam with a minor element of Christianity) and direct its core claims to the practice of non-violent civil disobedience.

In the Islamic tradition, a, if not the, central concept is justice.  Jihad—from the root for struggle—has largely been appropriated by political actors in the Arab and larger Muslim world dis-connected from its source in justice (“struggle for justice, right community/human living), leading to a rhetoric and praxis of struggle for struggle’s sake and the accompanying stance of victimhood and vengeful retaliation.

The history of the early Muslim community in this regard is potentially ambiguous.  When the Prophet Muhammad began his preaching in Mecca he was initially persecuted and told by God to not retaliate.  Later (after the flight to Medina), the call came to take up arms and fight back against the infidels (the Meccan Quarayshi tribes) who did in fact seek to totally annihilate the new community---a reality common in the warfare of the day.

The later verses concerning the legitimization of violence have been undoubtedly cited in the Palestinian struggle to support violent response to (perceived and/or real) Israeli aggression.

The earlier verses could be revived though the history of Muslim exegesis is largely built around the idea of abrogation (whereby the later verses abrogate the earlier ones).  So this avenue might be closed off to real success.

An argument could perhaps be made that what the Quranic revelation grants to the Muslim community is a promise that God will help them overcome the injustice of the oppressors but that in the case of Muhammad and the early ummah that situation called for self-defense via violence not that God sanctions violence per se as the only hope for the people (that later view by the way is the understanding of Osama bin Laden).

The preaching needs to specify the ways in which God is on the side of the people who stand for justice (the way of God) against injustice.  This formulation would also unite both Christian and Muslim Palestinians in a way that the current emphasis among some (e.g. Hamas, Islamic Jihad) on violence does not, dividing the Palestinian populace.

A non-violent civil disobedience campaign in the West Bank and Gaza is not without serious cost.  Particularly in the West Bank, some protesting Palestinians could likely be brutalized and killed, probably from the hands of extremist Zionist “settlers” in the West Bank.  The desire for revenge and violence in such a situation would be profound, particularly given the heavily tribal nature of Palestinian society and the strong value laid on tribal honor and blood-feuds/revenge killings in tribal (particularly Arab) societies throughout the world and throughout history.

An energy of transformation however may begin to emerge.  As beings feel themselves in concert with brothers and sisters standing in their humanity as agents of God, they begin to experience the feeling famously expressed by MLK, “free at last, free at least, God Almighty we’re free at last.”

Such a non-violent jihad (struggle) would force Israel into the existential crisis of facing the question of what to do about the settler movement?  What must Israel and Israelis do about the fundamentalist, apocalyptic, and premodern cancer in its political body (the settler ideology) and the imperialist illiberal rump state it controls in the West Bank?   Will it desire to remain a constitutional democratic state or will it become an apartheid state?

If Israel heads the way of an apartheid state (as it I’m afraid increasingly is), then history teaches us apartheid states (with constitutional orders) are best overcome through non-violent civil disobedience.


*One could perhaps also point to the Solidarity movement in Poland

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  • Comment Link Carmen Lansdowne Tuesday, 25 May 2010 22:49 posted by Carmen Lansdowne

    Well written, Chris. I think it's important to clarify the difference between Israel as a 'modern Western constitutional state' (as in a state which subscribes to the premises of a constitution and the securities it has to offer) - which it is - and a 'modern Western state with a constitution' - which it is NOT. Israel, in my opinion, tends to want to have their cake and eat it too, on this issue. From the solidarity work the WCC does with Palestinian Christians in the West Bank - what I hear as one of the largest dangers for all Palestinians living under occupation is precisely the lack of constitution.

    I found this website helpful... It explains what 'constitutionalism' looks like in Israel despite the fact they do not, in fact, have a constitution.

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this issue!

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 31 May 2010 17:24 posted by Chris Dierkes


    sorry it's taken me awhile to respond. thanks for the link, it was very helpful.

    Basically you're right. I was using terms more loosely and you're nuance is the right one. I think my main point still holds (however the exact parsing of the state functionality). In the eyes of the world (and its own eyes), Israel is a modern liberal state and therefore is (and should be) held to different standards than say Zimbabwe.

    But Israel is facing the question of whether there is a basic incongruity at the heart of the enterprise....that is whether you can have a Jewish democratic state. I still think two states is a better idea than a binational one. But I have to say I think the chances of the 2 State scenario occurring are getting smaller and smaller by the day.

    That leaves a rather ominous present (and worse future), if that's the case. The danger if the 2 state solution fails is that Israel becomes, as Olmert said, an apartheid state. Or that there is real all out war. Or in the binational case, the state becomes an illiberal democratic (majoritarian) state.

  • Comment Link Carmen Monday, 31 May 2010 19:21 posted by Carmen

    Hi Chris - thanks for your response. I don't disagree with your overall points - it's just a sore spot for me that people assume that Israel has a constitution when, in fact, they don't. Speaking of which - if you (or anyone reading this) is interested in an interesting movie that touches on some of these issues, I can highly recommend "The Lemon Tree" which I just found by accident on TV last week.

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