Who Decides How the Oppressed Should Fight Oppression?

“The problem with the non-violence bandwagon is that it is grossly misrepresentative of the reality on the ground. It also takes the focus away from the violence imparted by the Israeli occupation – in its routine and lethal use in the West Bank, and the untold savagery in Gaza – and places it solely on the shoulders of the Palestinians…”


Every so often, an article, video or book surfaces with the message: Palestinians are being taught non-violence; Palestinians are responding positively to the teachings of non-violence.

As for progressive and Leftist media and audiences, stories praising non-violence are electrifying, for they ignite a sense of hope that a less violent way is possible, that the teachings of Gandhi are not only relevant to India, in a specific time and space, but throughout the world, anytime.

These depictions repeatedly invite the question: where is the Palestinian Gandhi? Next they invite the answer: a Palestinian Gandhi already exists, in numerous West Bank villages bordering the Israeli Apartheid Wall, where they peacefully confront the carnivorous Israeli bulldozers eating up Palestinian land.

In a statement marking a recent visit by the group Elders to the Middle East, India’s Ela Bhatt, a “Gandhian advocate of non-violence,” explained her role in The Elders’ latest mission: “I will be pleased to return to the Middle East to show the Elders’ support for all those engaged in creative, nonviolent resistance to the occupation – both Israelis and Palestinians.”

For some, the emphasis on non-violent resistance is a successful media strategy. For others, ideological and spiritual convictions are the driving forces behind their involvement in the non-violence campaign that is reportedly raging in the West Bank. These realizations seem to be largely led by Western advocates.

On the Palestinian side, the non-violent “brand” is also useful. It has provided an outlet for many who were engaged in armed resistance, especially during the Second Palestinian Intifada. Some fighters, such as those affiliated with the Fatah movement, have become involved in art and theatre after hauling automatic rifles and topping Israel’s most-wanted list for years.

Politically, the term is used by the West Bank government as a platform that would allow for the continued use of the word moqawama – Arabic for “resistance” – but without committing to a costly armed struggle, which would certainly not go down well if adopted by the non-elected government deemed “moderate” by both Israel and the United States.

Whether in subtle or overt ways, armed resistance in Palestine is always condemned. Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah government repeatedly referred to it as “futile.” Some insist it is a counterproductive strategy. Others find it morally indefensible.

The problem with the non-violence bandwagon is that it is grossly misrepresentative of the reality on the ground. It also takes the focus away from the violence imparted by the Israeli occupation – in its routine and lethal use in the West Bank, and the untold savagery in Gaza – and places it solely on the shoulders of the Palestinians.

As for the gross misrepresentation of reality, Palestinians have used mass non-violent resistance for generations – as early as the long strike of 1936. Non-violent resistance has been and continues to be the bread and butter of Palestinian ‘moqawama’, from the time of British colonialism to the Israeli occupation. At the same time, some Palestinians fought violently as well, compelled by a great sense of urgency and the extreme violence applied against them by their oppressors. It is similar to the way many Indians fought violently, even during the time that Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas were in full bloom.

Those who reduce and simplify India’s history of anti-colonial struggle are doing the same to Palestinians.

Misreading history often leads to an erroneous assessment of the present, and, thus, a flawed prescription for the future. For some, Palestinians cannot possibly get it right, whether they respond to oppression non-violently, violently, with political defiance or with utter submissiveness. The onus will always be on them to come up with solution, and to do so creatively and in ways that suit our Western sensibilities and our often selective interpretations of Gandhi’s teachings.

Violence and non-violence are mostly collective decisions that are shaped and driven by specific political and socio-economic conditions and contexts. Unfortunately, the violence of the occupier has a tremendous role in creating and manipulating these conditions. It is unsurprising that the Second Palestinian Uprising was much more violent than the first, and that violent resistance in Palestine gained a huge boost after the victory scored by the Lebanese resistance in 2000, and again in 2006.

These factors must be contemplated seriously and with humility, and their complexity should be taken into account before any judgments are made. No oppressed nation should be faced with the demands that Palestinians constantly face. There may well be a thousand Palestinian Gandhis. There may be none. Frankly, it shouldn’t matter. Only the unique experience of the Palestinian people and their genuine struggle for freedom could yield what Palestinians as a collective deem appropriate for their own. This is what happened with the people of India, France, Algeria, South Africa, and many other nations that sought and eventually attained their freedom.

Ramzy Baroud

Truth Out

14 November 2010

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