It is the sum of all fears of Israel's ruling right. It is a weapon against which one of the world's most powerful, advanced militaries is at a loss.
It could succeed where suicide bombings, ballistic missile barrages, and sophisticated attack tunnels have failed. And it's coming on Passover, just over a week away.
Beginning on the day of the Passover seder, just a week from this Friday, Palestinians plan mass marches toward Israeli and Israeli-held territory, as well as sit-ins and vigils. They will press for Israeli and world attention to UN Resolution 194, the legal basis for what is known as the Palestinian Right of Return.
The plan is this: They will be unarmed. They will not throw stones. They will be organized by family clans rather than militant groups. They will avoid clashes with Israeli troops.
And Israel, with its layers of defenses against attacks from space, cyberspace, nuclear submarines, and every manner of killing machine devised by man, is unprepared.
"All the announcements we've been hearing about mass marches - these are very, very problematic developments," former Shin Bet chief and ex-minister of Home Front Defense Avi Dichter said Monday. "This is not a military war, rather it is a war of the masses, different in its essentials."
"If on Friday afternoon, at the end of Friday prayers, if thousands or tens of thousands [take part], or if it turns into a number even larger than that, this is an issue which the IDF will need to prepare itself for in a different manner [than it is used to], significantly so, more so," Dichter, a senior Likud figure and chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Army Radio.
"This is not rockets or explosive charges. This requires different operations."
For decades, Israeli soldiers have been trained for any manner of roles in all sorts of combat situations. Then, because of the voracious and ever-growing demands of securing an increasingly more permanent occupation, these same soldiers were routinely ordered – with only the merest of training – into colonial police work, dealing with a disenfranchised, disadvantaged population whose deprivation of human rights it was the troops' duty to enforce.
I was one of them.
For generations, most any IDF soldier on occupation duty, along with their families worrying at home, considered the prospect of a truly non-violent Palestinian rebellion, the specter of masses of men, women and children getting up and walking toward borders Israel and settlers set up, legal or otherwise, fenced or walled off or defensible or otherwise.
On a personal level, the soldiers, untrained for this, unequipped for non-lethal mass crowd control, silently prayed that this would not happen – not on their watch, at least.
And yet. Many of those soldiers, in between prayers and calls of duty, silently hoped against hope that someday it would happen. That one day, truly non-violent protest would take the place of interminable, immutable conflict, and drive a wedge into the mechanics of occupation.
I was one of them. And, now that it seems to be happening, this is my confession: I want this to succeed.
These soldiers knew that violent Palestinian attacks were – and remain - the ultimate weapon of Israel's hard right. Terror cannot end occupation because the Israeli hard right exploits it to enshrine occupation, and through legislation and public opinion, progressively infect and colonize Israeli society and governance with the apartheid regime which settlers have established in the West Bank.
Terrorism justifies new illegal outposts, it justifies "legalizing" existing illegal settlements, it legitimizes government incitement against all Palestinians, among them citizens of Israel. It justifies new laws aimed at curbing equality for minorities in Israel.
Most of all, though, terrorism is the Netanyahu government's sure-fire excuse for evading any initiative that would enable Palestinian independence alongside Israel, any gesture toward addressing the deep wounds of the refugee issue, or any effort to bring the occupation to an end.
You're going to hear plenty about the Marches for the Palestinian Right of Return. They are expected to continue from Passover at least until the United States moves its embassy to Jerusalem – a step planned for May 14, which is at once the anniversary of Israel's declaration of independence and the eve of Nakba Day, when Palestinians commemorate the expulsion or flight of 700,000 Arabs surrounding the 1948 war.
I want the marches to succeed, and as planned.
When I was a soldier, I was hoping against hope that one day, massive, truly non-violent protest marches would challenge Israel on a number of fronts, drawing world support for Palestinian self-determination and independence, drawing Israelis to join the ranks of the marchers and make a violent response more difficult to order, carry out and justify, and, in the end, severing the spine of Israeli denial, intransigence, and refusal to relate to the reasons Israel, for its own sake, needs to actively pursue an end to occupation.
But I knew that it was something terrible to even think about. Because, with Israeli forces uncertain of how to respond to overwhelming protests of this sort, they could overreact, and the outcome could be bloodbath.
I knew that Israel's government – certainly the current government - might well deal with it as terrorism by other means, and meet non-violence with further tragedy.
I also knew, though, that Palestinians pride themselves, above all, on being steadfast. And this is the quality they will need most if non-violence is to continue long enough to work.
Mass protest works. It jolts and frightens oppressors like nothing else. The world will be watching. Beginning on Passover.
The problem is not that Israel lacks a defense against non-violence. The problem is that Israel thinks it needs one.
In the end, if there is ever to be a true peace here, if the Israelis and the Palestinians are ever to be able to share this land with mutual respect and rights for both peoples, it will be because something happened that no one could have expected.
Something like non-violence.
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