Opinion |

Why Flotillas and Protests Threaten Israel More Than Rockets From Gaza

Non-violent resistance to the occupation was showcased this week by the women's flotilla to Gaza. But can it ever advance from the margins of Israeli and Palestinian society?

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea
Khaled Diab
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Palestinians show solidarity with a Gaza-bound flotilla attempting to break Israel's blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, Gaza City, October 5, 2016.
Palestinians show solidarity with a Gaza-bound flotilla attempting to break Israel's blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, Gaza City, October 5, 2016.Credit: Mohammed Abed, AFP
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea
Khaled Diab

Two major incidents in Gaza this week demonstrated the stark choices being made by those opposed to the Israeli blockade of the territory: the non-violent way of the olive branch, or of the bomb. During this break from successive Israel-Gaza wars, the efforts of non-violent alternatives are quashed or are seen as marginal phenomena. Can this ever change?

Rockets vs. flotillas vs. bombing raids

The first involved a group of 13 courageous international peace activists, including an Irish Nobel peace laureate, a former South African Olympic athlete and a retired American colonel. They were on board a small yacht with the grand name of the Zaytouna-Olivia flotilla, which sought “to break the blockade and celebrate on the shores of Gaza,” according to Wendy Goldsmith, a Canadian on board. Instead, and as was expected, the Israeli navy intercepted the flotilla while it was still in international waters and forced it to dock in Ashdod.

Meanwhile, a previously unknown Salafist group fired a rocket into Israel, which landed claiming no casualties, in the name of "oppressed brothers and sisters" living under Israeli occupation. As has become routine in such incidents Israel struck back hard, bombing numerous targets in Gaza, also with no casualties.

But neither of these incidents would have occurred had Israel and Hamas reached a fair deal to lift the blockade on Gaza.

Israeli and Palestinian hawks see opportunity in war

For all the efforts of mediators and go-betweens and all the reports of planned or indirect negotiations, there has been little or no perceptible change to the status quo since the cease-fire of 26 August 2014, except for the continually deteriorating humanitarian and economic situation in besieged Gaza. War has cost the Strip at least three times its annual GDP and the Israeli blockade has shrunk the economy to a quarter of the size it would have been.

Even these pitiful efforts to carry out a dialogue have been condemned by the hawks, such as far-right Israeli politicians, including current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and fringe militant groups in Gaza, who prefer war-war to jaw-jaw. Sadly, the ingredients for an explosive new war are packed into a rapidly decaying toxic status quo; all that is missing is the spark.

At the core of the Gaza quagmire is a fundamental misunderstanding of what war and political violence can achieve in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Whenever violence flares up or war unleashes its ugly devastation, Israeli and Palestinian hawks take wing to persuade large portions of their populations that there is no choice but to take up arms and that, this time, a decisive blow, which never actually materializes, will be dealt to the enemy and victory assured.

This attitude is particularly prevalent when it comes to Gaza. For instance, the 2014 war enjoyed almost universal support in Israel, as did the earlier 2012 conflict.

On the other side of the divide, not only did a majority of Palestinians believe, shortly after the end of the 2014 war, the Hamas rhetoric that it had defeated Israel, 86% supported the resumption of rocket attacks if Israel did not lift its blockade of Gaza.

This jingoistic attitude was not just the statistical quirk of overzealous pollsters but reflected a palpable reality. I was taken aback by the antagonism and hostility expressed by normally sensible and moderate Israeli and Palestinian voices I knew, or the wave of attacks my criticism of the war and my advocacy of non-violence provoked at the time.

And these polls hint at one war aim that is never publicly articulated. Both Hamas and the Israeli government may shoot at each other, but these are only proxy targets for the enemy they seem to hate even more than the other side: the Israeli left and center, on the one hand, and Fatah and the non-Islamist parties, on the other. There's nothing like a war to silence Netanyahu’s and Hamas’s critics and boost their popularity – at least for as long as the war lasts.

Beyond the cynical manipulation of fear and hatred for short-term gain, there also exists a fundamental misunderstanding of the other side’s mentality – and of human nature itself.

'They only understand force'

There is a widespread conviction among Israelis and Palestinians that the other side only understands the language of violence and, hence, the only way to get them to prick up their ears is to give them a bloody nose, or worse.

But all this achieves is that it breeds a surfeit of bitterness, hatred and outrage on the other side – and the greater the devastation, the greater the resulting determination to seek vengeance. Peaceful resistance and activism, on the other hand, are far more powerful weapons, as was demonstrated on Wednesday.

While the Salafist rocket unlawfully targeting civilians provoked destructive airstrikes and gave Israel a fig leaf for its militarism and unjust blockade, the flotilla caught the entire world’s eye and made Israel look like a bully. This may help explain why some on the Israeli right seem to fear peaceful activism more than violent extremism.

Paradoxically, although this cyclical violence almost invariably fails, its credibility remains undiminished. This is because every shot fired at the enemy eliminates the doves at home who are either shot down in the crossfire or morph into hawks. Bloodshed also strengthens the hands of extremists and fragments the political landscape, until violence becomes the path of least resistance, rather than last resort.

Resisting the occupation without violence

However, if Israelis and Palestinians are to consider abandoning the way of the sword and pursue the way of the word, this moral murkiness and relativism needs to be abandoned by the people who should constitute society’s living conscience.

Just as the ingredients for devastating, outright war are there awaiting yet another spark, the components for navigating a relatively non-violent path out of the impasse are also in place.

Despite the impulse of closing ranks during times of war, a minority of Israeli and Palestinian activists and individual citizens opposed both Israel and Hamas during the Gaza war. Enduring allegations of being sellouts and traitors, not to mention threats to their person, some went as far as to make their criticism public in a number of small anti-war protests.

In addition, movements like Combatants for Peace (which was the subject of a moving documentary), which brings together Israeli and Palestinian refuseniks, reject violence perpetuated by both sides and believe not only that the occupation must be resisted peacefully but that it must be actively opposed by Israelis of conscience as much as it is by Palestinians.

And despite the risks involved and the increasingly shrill opposition to co-operation and co-resistance, Palestinians and Israelis of conscience continue to stand shoulder to shoulder against the occupation in myriad ways, from collaborations to improve daily life to the weekly joint protests in villages like Bil’in.

I regularly pass and, on occasion have joined, the small group of joint protesters in Sheikh Jarrah who come together every Friday, come rain or heatwave, violence or quiet, to oppose in silence the settlement enterprise in East Jerusalem.

The alternative? To become another Syria

So long as these courageous, determined voices remain, no matter how relatively few, hope will continue to flicker. However, I, like so many disillusioned observers, fear that its weak heat may be extinguished, with the worst-case scenario being a multi-fronted Syria-like conflict, involving not just war between Israelis and Palestinians, but also violent civil conflict within each society, as growing polarization and animosity tears them apart.

Nevertheless, I still hold out hope. As war and violence continue to prove their ineffectiveness, the ranks of those seeking a peaceful alternative path to peace will likely swell over the coming years. Their power will be unwittingly amplified by the crumbling of the ossified occupation. Although it may appear solid and durable today, the reality of the occupation is more that of a wall of cards than an impenetrable fortress.

As has occurred so many times in the past, once enough people decide, together, to act as a popular opposition, it’s enough to bring the edifice crashing down. This will clear the way for a future founded on, rather than undermining, the potential of two gifted and diverse peoples.

Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer living in Jerusalem. He is the author of "Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land." Follow him on Twitter: @DiabolicalIdea

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