A friend invited me to see the film “Hebron”, about an Israeli settlement of 500 people surrounded by 150,000 Palestinians, at an event sponsored by Human Rights Watch last night. An English HRW official from D.C., with a long journalistic career in the Middle East, spoke beforehand. After giving an overview of the Arab Spring in various countries, he concluded by describing the recent Palestinian demonstrations at Israel’s border sites (with West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan) as the same in nature as the Arab Spring democracy movements.
Yes and no. The Arab Spring uprisings are by citizens of one country against that country’s ossified autocratic or royal leadership. The border demonstrations by Palestinians are legitimate actions against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and also their lack of democratic rights. But the Palestinian-Israeli clashes on the Day of Catastrophe (when Israel declared itself a state in 1948) were also border clashes where, in some cases, the Palestinians surged and began to over-run border fences. For better or worse, this is a mitigating element. A country shooting to defend its borders is not the same as one gunning down its citizens who threaten the established order of their shared state. This is political reality, nothing else.
This doesn’t mean that the Israeli military was justified in firing into an unarmed demonstration. With tear gas at its disposal, it’s hard to justify the IDF using live bullets. But facts shouldn’t be muddied for partisan purposes or organizational agendas. They must be clear and reported accurately. The impasse in peace negotiations has heightened tensions throughout the Middle East. Organized political forces, either governmental or independent, will try to provoke clashes and steer the narrative of events to their own advantage.
The PLA has officially endorsed non-violent peaceful resistance to the Israeli occupation. They are taking cues the Tunisian and Egyptian democratic movements and are endorsing a non-violent strategy in opposition to past strategies that included armed struggle and terrorism.
Unfortunately, Palestinians face severe problems in carrying out non-violent resistance. First, there is no tradition of Ghandi/MLK-type resistance in this struggle. Second, the governments of the area, as well as organized armed resistance groups, will try to co-opt and direct any significant Palestinian resistance to their own Syrian, Lebonese, Hezbella or Hamas agendas. Third, if Palestinians youth throw stones or surge against border fences, expect the Israeli military to over-react with live ammunition.
Both sides are playing with fire. That’s why it’s dangerous for human rights activists to equate internal political struggle for reform in one country (Egypt) with border clashes in a region where borders are the do-or-die issue. This goes beyond who has this most legitimate grievance or who is morally justified. Effective non-violent resistance as a serious political strategy takes constraint – from both sides.
If Palestinians allow themselves to be provoked in border demonstrations by Israeli soldiers, militants in Hamas, agents of nearby countries or anyone else, including human rights activists who pretend borders mean nothing against moral certitude, their strategy fails. Civil disobedience and resistance against occupation can work. But a few rocks thrown, live bullets in response and we’re on the way to a third infatada. As Obama said, the world is tired of this never-ending conflict and wants it to end. In the meantime, it searches for whom to blame.