A Special Place in Hell Israelis Need a Gandhi of Their Own

There is nothing more threatening to the occupation than the specter of Palestinian non-violence.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

The more insoluble a conflict, it seems, the more durable the axioms that help keep a solution at bay.

Israeli protesters in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of SilwanCredit: Oliveier Fitoussi

All too often, the problem is not that the axiom is unhelpful or untrue, but that over time it has come, ploughshare into sword, to be adopted by one side or the other as a weapon.

So it is, that dyed-in-the-wool anti-Palestinians have long delighted in denouncing the Palestinian movement for having failed to produce a home-grown Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

Of course, the criticism is as disingenuous as it is self-serving, since over the years the pro-settlement right has been the primary, perhaps the sole, political beneficiary of Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

But the denunciation also tends to obscure a revolution gaining traction among Palestinians. The growing openness to the power of non-violence was the subject of Nicholas Kristof's thoughtful recent dispatch from the West Bank village of Bil'in, "Waiting for Gandhi."

The column follows an eyebrow-raiser from the Wall Street Journal. In pages largely unaccustomed to portraying Hamas and Hezbollah in terms other than that of armed groups locked in a to-the-death struggle with Israel, a recent report from Jerusalem opened by saying that the flotilla incident had moved the organizations to begin to "embrace civil disobedience, civil disobedience, protest marches, lawsuits and boycotts—tactics they once dismissed."

"When we use violence, we help Israel win international support," prominent Hamas West Bank lawmaker Aziz Dweik told the Journal.

"The Gaza flotilla has done more for Gaza than 10,000 rockets."

Through it all, the robust internal Palestinian debate over non-violence, underway abroad as well as within the territories, has gone largely unnoticed in Israel. Hereabouts, the problem goes beyond Seeing is Believing. All too often, the problem is the opposite: What you do not believe, you will refuse to see.

It may well be more difficult for Israelis to comprehend the idea of Palestinian non-violence than for Palestinians to do so. For many Israelis, the very thought of non-violent Palestinian protest goes so far against the grain as to be incomprehensible, lethally suspicious, a violation of a bedrock narrative.

In many cases, Israeli media have actively ignored or obscured non-violent Palestinian protest. Last month, hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians marched together through the streets of Silwan, East Jerusalem, protesting a plan by Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat to evict Arab residents and raze 22 houses for a settler-oriented tourism project.

Noting the demonstration in an evening newscast, Israel Channel 2 Television chose to show its viewers old footage of Muslims praying at the site, followed by youths throwing rocks at Israeli troops. The message was clear: Nothing new here. Nothing to see here, folks – move along now.

But there is very definitely something new here. The protest was not, as the brief news item hinted, one more example of radical Islamists inciting hotheads to violence against Israelis. Far from it. What actually happened was a march in which settlers stared in wonderment and a certain anxiety at a large and unified force of Jews and Arabs taking a powerful stand against occupation.

When one Palestinian youth picked up a rock to throw at the settlers, Arabs and Jews alike stopped him and distanced him from the march.

The fact is that Israel may need a Gandhi more than the Palestinians do. As the Jewish state begins to examine its own actions and decision-making in the flotilla disaster, it is becoming that much clearer that Israelis need, for their own sake, to begin to study non-violence.

Over the past decade, Israel has been moving farther and farther away from non-violent solutions to difficult problems. In wars in Lebanon and Gaza, the nation's leaders came down on the side of blunt military force over intensive, creative, confident diplomacy. In domestic politics, as well, the implied violence of racist discourse, the verbal Dahiya Doctrines of Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai, have paid off handsomely in the ballot box.

Israelis suffer at least as much as Palestinians from the machismo ethic that fuels the resort to violence. Twenty years ago, it was that macho ethos which made it so constitutionally painful for the IDF to develop, train for, and employ non-lethal methods in the face of civilian unrest. Twenty years later, it was that same macho ethos which turned tear gas into a lethal weapon in countering demonstrators in the West Bank.

Today it is that same macho ethos which drives Benjamin Netanyahu and, especially, Ehud Barak, which gave rise to the colossally tragic - and entirely unnecessary – consequences of the flotilla raid.

Some Palestinian activists have complained that resort to non-violence has traditionally been seen as unmanly. That what was taken by force not only can be but must be returned by force. Palestinians are beginning to rethink this view.

At a time when use of overwhelming force has cost Israel dearly in its world standing, what will it take for Israelis to rethink the idea that what they have can only be maintained by force? A new kind of leader. A Gandhi, a Dr. King.

Cynics will note that the Israeli whom Israelis called Gandhi, was a man of war, a general, and the Israeli politician most closely identified with advocating "transfer" of Palestinians to facilitate holding on to the territories forever.

Rehavam Ze'evi was also the man who said shortly after the 1967 Six Day War "I am afraid of peace. I think that from the standpoint of the Israeli people and the Jewish people, peace in the coming decade poses many dangers."

Can there any better proof that we need a different Gandhi? A real one this time.

While we wait, the macho in us keeps us crippled. The macho in us keeps us incapable of response to reason. The macho in us makes it necessary to see boycotts as terrorism, peaceful protest as terrorism,

Yes, there is something counter-intuitive in the idea of non-violence as a threat.

There is nothing more threatening to the occupation than the specter of Palestinian non-violence. And there is nothing more hopeful for Israel's future, than the prospect, distant as it still may be, that Israelis and Palestinians can work peaceably together to bring that occupation to an end.



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