Why a 'Palestinian Gandhi' Has Never Emerged - and Probably Never Will

The fact that the Palestinians who opt for a non-violent struggle are detained, arrested and injured, that they choke on tear gas and regularly risk their lives, still does not give them the aura and fame accorded to those who had taken up weapons.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Several masked men marched through the center of Ramallah early last week and called for the launch of a third intifada. Hidden faces radiate tremendous power: whether they are those of soldiers wearing black ski masks when they burst into bedrooms in the middle of the night, guns drawn; whether they are those of young men with only their eyes visible through their keffiyehs, carrying slingshots; or whether they are the faces of young settlers who, in their snow-white Shabbat clothes, venture out especially on the holy day to conduct holy wars against the goyim – shepherds and farmers.

This is also a way to tell the history of this place: three conflicting and interwoven styles of face covering, concealment, separation, anonymity, intimidation and fear. The fearful one learns how to intimidate, and the intimidated one takes refuge in instilling fear. “Boo, I’m not afraid,” shouts the child who is afraid of the dark. (As an aside, we may add the black-robed women covered from head to toe, who see but remain unseen. The mystery they evoke with their concealment generates awe and even discomfort.)

According to the Ma’an News Agency, those masked men marching through downtown Ramallah were calling for an “armed struggle.” This phrase continues to evince sweet, romantic thoughts among young and not-so-young Palestinians and serves to ignite their imagination. The adage “What was taken by force can only be restored by force,” coined by Gamal Abdel Nasser, is still quoted affectionately, though some seek to clarify: We have the right to fight for our freedom in any way available to us, including the armed struggle. A young protester once explained it to me with indulgent patience: “Look, we were raised in the shadows of the weapons of Israeli occupation; that’s what we know. Naturally we want to retaliate with the occupation’s own tools.”

In a conversation with one of the many bright young people who can be found at the numerous political gatherings that have sprung up here like mushrooms since the 2011 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, an American visitor said, “What you need is a Palestinian [Mahatma] Gandhi.” And the young man answered: “We actually do not want a Palestinian Gandhi.” In other words, you aren’t going to dictate how we fight our battles.

The phrase “nonviolent struggle,” as the regular demonstrations taking place at several West Bank villages are defined, has generated pointed public criticism by articulate activists for many reasons: because the Palestinian Authority praises it and endorses it (as if it were an entity separate from the demonstrators); because the PA has sponsored several activities and its people sometimes attend demonstrations but disperse well in advance; because it is seen as a way to appease European diplomats and receive donations from them; because even under its other name, the “popular struggle,” it does not excite the masses and thus the phenomenon remains limited; and also because Israeli anti-occupation activists are involved. The fact that those involved in the “non-violent struggle” are detained, arrested and injured, that they choke on tear gas and regularly risk their lives, still does not give them the aura and fame accorded those who had taken up weapons.

The term "nonviolent struggle" is justly understood to contain implicit criticism of the so-called armed struggle (especially suicide attacks against Israeli civilians) during the second intifada. The claim that these attacks (along with Qassam rockets and missiles) only caused damage to the Palestinian cause and living conditions are automatically attributed to PA “losers” who, after having conducted failed negotiations for almost two decades, enriched themselves and became alienated from their people.

The implicit demand for morality in the struggle sounds like acceptance of the claim that the Israeli army is moral even when it kills civilians, and is seen as a concession to the world’s one-sided vision. Open criticism of the second intifada might also be interpreted as belittling the attackers and their personal sacrifice, as an insult to their families, and as the abandonment of those who planned suicide attacks and who are serving life sentences in Israel, a sentence which in the public perception renders them heroes and fighters. A screen of emotions still conceals this existing debate and suppresses possible questions about the logic, effectiveness and justness of the use of arms.

Two or three years ago I wrote that the term "nonviolent struggle" is misleading, as it helps in concealing the inherent violence of the occupation, violence that is self-evident for the Israelis, unquestionable, and therefore invisible. It’s a term that imposes the burden of proof of good behavior on those who are opposing oppression, and not on the oppressor.

I also wrote often about the virile “Whose is bigger” competition that characterized all the armed parties during the second intifada: The Israel Defense Forces, using live fire, was competing with Palestinian stone throwers (with both sides gradually escalating the type of their competitive tools); Hamas, Fatah and other organizations tried unsuccessfully to compete with the Israeli military over who could kill more people; and Hamas competed with Fatah over who could better take revenge on and bully/scare the enemy, and who thus would be more deserving of holding the reins of government.

Last week in Hebron, a ghost town almost emptied of its inhabitants, two cameras were competing with each other: that of the Givati soldier, which was aimed at the Palestinian B’Tselem volunteer, and the volunteer’s camera, which captured the arrest of a scared and crying 5-year-old by several armed soldiers. It was a powerful moment that exposed that self-understood, systematic violence which is concealed by the Israeli public’s lack of interest.

And the child screams in the dark and in the light, “I’m not afraid,” and is afraid.

Screenshot of the B'Tselem video.
Screenshot of the B'Tselem video.

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