on nonviolence or where is the palestinian gandhi?

khalil bendib
khalil bendib

a couple of days ago my friend huwaida arraf published an op ed in the seattle times that raised an important issue for americans: the age old question of wondering where palestinian “gandhis” are. it is a problematic question for many reasons not the least of which is that there are many as she explains:

We Palestinians are often asked where the Palestinian Gandhi is and urged to adopt nonviolent methods in our struggle for freedom from Israeli military rule. On April 17, an Israeli soldier killed my good friend Bassem Abu Rahme at a nonviolent demonstration against Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land. Bassem was one of many Palestinian Gandhis.

One month prior, at another demonstration against land confiscation, Israeli soldiers fired a tear-gas canister at the head of nonviolent American peace activist Tristan Anderson from California. Tristan underwent surgery to remove part of his frontal lobe and is still lying unconscious in an Israeli hospital. In 2003, the Israeli military plowed down American peace activist Rachel Corrie with a Caterpillar bulldozer as she tried to protect a civilian home from demolition in Gaza. Shortly thereafter, an Israeli sniper shot British peace activist Tom Hurndall as he rescued Palestinian children from Israeli gunfire. He lay in a coma for nine months before he died.

rory mccarthy wrote about the murder of bassem abu rahme yesterday in the guardian as well in the context of the weekly nonviolent protests in bil’in village, though mccarthy’s judgmental tone at palestinians who throw stones at israeli terrorists lobbing american-made tear gas canisters (produced at the new jersey based u.s. federal laboratories) and rubber-coated steel bullets at palestinians is problematic:

Friday’s demonstration lasted around three hours. The crowd repeatedly surged towards the fence, then retreated under clouds of teargas. The military sounded a constant, high-pitched siren, interspersed with warnings in Arabic and Hebrew: “Go back. You with the flag, go back” and, incongruously, in English: “You are entering a naval vessel exclusion zone. Reverse course immediately.”

The Bil’in demonstration was always intended to be non-violent, although on Friday, as is often the case, there were half a dozen younger, angrier men lobbing stones at the soldiers with slingshots. The Israeli military, for its part, fires teargas, stun grenades, rubber-coated bullets and sometimes live ammunition at the crowd.

There have long been Palestinian advocates of non-violence, but they were drowned out by the militancy of the second intifada, the uprising that began in late 2000 and erupted into waves of appalling suicide bombings.

Eyad Burnat, 36, has spent long hours in discussions with the young men of Bil’in, a small village of fewer than 2,000, convincing them of the merits of “civil grassroots resistance”.

there are so many problems with these various critiques of palestinians, usually made by foreigners, about palestinians’ right to armed resistance. for one thing the question that never goes away that huwaida asks–where is the palestinian gandhi–is completely ahistorical. indians did not win independence solely based on nonviolent resistance. there was a long history of armed resistance against the british before gandhi took center stage as radhika sainath explains in the electronic intifada:

In Gaza, Palestinians have once again been blamed for their own deaths. The British made a similar argument 151 years ago when they killed thousands of Indian civilians — 1,200 in a single village — in response to the largest anti-colonial uprising of the 19th century. If Israel truly desires peace with the Palestinians and safety for its citizens, it should look back to one of the greatest, and misunderstood, independence movements in history.

Most people believe India won its independence from the British exclusively through Gandhi’s famous strategy of nonviolence. They’re wrong; armed resistance has deep roots in India. During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, also known as the First War of Independence, Hindus and Muslims serving in the infantry for the British East Indian Company revolted against the British Empire, killing British officers and civilians alike. While the majority of these cavalrymen were Hindu, Muslims also partook in the rebellion. These Muslim fighters called themselves “jihadis” and even “suicide ghazis.”

The British quashed the revolt, but for the next 90 years Indian violence, even terrorism, in response continued. In the early 20th century, Indian militants, frustrated with the Congress party — the party of Gandhi and Nehru — regularly resorted to acts of violence to overthrow the British. Official government reports note 210 “revolutionary outrages” and at least 1,000 “terrorists” involved in more than 101 attempted attacks between 1906 and 1917 in the state of Bengal alone (see Peter Heehs, “Terrorism in India During the Freedom Struggle,” The Historian, 22 March 1993). One young revolutionary, Bhagat Singh, later referred to as “Shaheed” Bhagat Singh, bombed the Legislative Assembly in 1929.

On the other hand, Palestinians are usually portrayed in Israel and the West as exclusively militants or terrorists. Yet Palestinians have a vibrant, albeit unsuccessful, history of nonviolent resistance. In 1936, the Palestinians maintained a six-month general strike, the beginning of what became known as the Great Arab Revolt. The British retaliated by declaring martial law, jailing and killing large numbers of Palestinians, and destroying numerous Palestinian homes. The revolt lasted for three years and was the largest and longest anti-colonial uprising in the British Empire.

all of this is making me think of rachel corrie, perhaps because i am teaching her play, my name is rachel corrie, in my drama class. to be sure, i taught fateh azzam’s ansar: the true story of an israeli military detention center and el funoun’s from haifa to beirut and beyond first so that my students had an opportunity to read and consider palestinian theatre first. i do not approve of people just privileging the white man’s perspective, as it were, over palestinians’ perspectives. and my students, until this semester, have never encountered drama written and produced by palestinians so this was important for me to do. but i also think reading corrie’s play is useful for a number of reasons not the least of which is its context as a play that was censored in the united states and the context of the international action revolving around boycotting caterpillar in relation to corrie’s death as well as so many palestinians who have died at the hands of american-made caterpillar d-9 bulldozers and whose homes have been destroyed as well. more on that shortly. but i want to first share a part of a monologue from the play that is supposed to be an email that corrie sends home to her mother who, at the time, had asked her about palestinian violence and whose email seemed to be alluding to that age-old question about the palestinian gandhi:

So when someone says that any act of Palestinian violence justifies Israel’s actions not only do I question that logic in light of international law and the right of people to legitimate armed struggle in defence of their land and their families; not only do I question that logic in light of the fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits collective punishment, prohibits the transfer of an occupying country’s population into an occupied area, prohibits the expropriation of water resources and the destruction of civilian infrastructure such as farms; not only do I question that logic in light of the notion that fifty-year-old Russian guns and homemade explosives can have any impact on the activities of one of the world’s largest militaries, backed by the world’s only superpower, I also question that logic on the basis of common sense.

If any of us had our lives and our welfare completely strangled and lived with children in a shrinking place where we knew that soldiers and tanks and bulldozers could come for us at any moment with no means of economic survival and our houses demolished; if they came and destroyed all the greenhouses that we’d been cultivating for the last however long do you not think, in a similar situation, most people would defend themselves the best they could?

You asked me about non-violent resistance, and I mentioned the first intifada. The vast majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance. (48)

unfortunately, organizations like human rights watch feed into this point of view by alternately perpetuating the idea that palestinians do not have a right to armed resistance or by suggesting that there is somehow an equal playing field for palestinians resisting israeli colonialism.

in an article in electronic intifada from a few years ago, jonathan cook offers an important critique of human rights watch, one that he repeats in his amazing book disappearing palestine. the article is a critique of a report by human rights watch denying palestinians the right to non-violent resistance by women and children congregating in large numbers around buildings suspected of being targets of israeli terrorism in order to prevent the bombardment. here is cook’s critique of human rights watch’s denial of palestinian resistance–whether armed or nonviolent:

In language that would have made George Orwell shudder, one of the world’s leading organisations for the protection of human rights ignored the continuing violation of the Palestinians’ right to security and a roof over their heads and argued instead: “There is no excuse for calling [Palestinian] civilians to the scene of a planned [Israeli] attack. Whether or not the home is a legitimate military target, knowingly asking civilians to stand in harm’s way is unlawful.”

On HRW’s interpretation, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela would be war criminals. There is good reason to believe that this reading of international law is wrong, if not Kafkaesque. Popular and peaceful resistance to the oppressive policies of occupying powers and autocratic rulers, in India and South Africa for example, has always been, by its very nature, a risky venture in which civilians are liable to be killed or injured. Responsibility for those deaths must fall on those doing the oppressing, not those resisting, particularly when they are employing nonviolent means. On HRW’s interpretation, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela would be war criminals.

cook goes on to provide some advice to human rights watch and some context for why their reports are so often biased in favor of the colonizing apartheid zionist entity. he thinks about this in terms of priorities, context, and like corrie, common sense:

Priorities: Every day HRW has to choose which of the many abuses of international law taking place around the world it highlights. It manages to record only a tiny fraction of them. The assumption of many outsiders may be that it focuses on only the most egregious examples. That would be wrong.

The simple truth is that the worse a state’s track record on human rights, the easier ride it gets, relatively speaking, from human rights organisations. That is both because, if abuses are repeated often enough, they become so commonplace as to go unremarked, and because, if the abuses are wide-ranging and systematic, only a small number of the offences will be noted.

Israel, unlike the Palestinians, benefits in both these respects.

Context: The actions of Palestinians occur in a context in which all of their rights are already under the control of their occupier, Israel, and can be violated at its whim. This means that it is problematic, from a human rights perspective, to place the weight of culpability on the Palestinians without laying far greater weight at the same time on the situation to which the Palestinians are reacting.

Here is an example. HRW and other human rights organisations have taken the Palestinians to task for the extrajudicial killings of those suspected of collaborating with the Israeli security forces.

Although it is blindingly obvious that the lynching of an alleged collaborator is a violation of that person’s fundamental right to life, HRW’s position of simply blaming the Palestinians for this practice raises two critical problems.

First, it fudges the issue of accountability.

In the case of a “targeted assassination”, Israel’s version of extrajudicial killing, we have an address to hold accountable: the apparatus of a state in the forms of the Israeli army which carried out the murder and the Israeli politicians who approved it. (These officials are also responsible for the bystanders who are invariably killed along with the target.)

Palestinians carrying out a lynching are committing a crime punishable under ordinary domestic law; while the Israeli army carrying out a “targeted assassination” is committing state terrorism, which must be tried in the court of world opinion. But unless it can be shown that the lynchings are planned and coordinated at a high level, a human rights organisation cannot apply the same standards by which it judges a state to a crowd of Palestinians, people gripped by anger and the thirst for revenge. The two are not equivalent and cannot be held to account in the same way.

Second, HRW’s position ignores the context in which the lynching takes place.

The Palestinian resistance to occupation has failed to realise its goals mainly because of Israel’s extensive network of collaborators, individuals who have usually been terrorised by threats to themselves or their family and/or by torture into “co-operating” with Israel’s occupation forces.

The great majority of planned attacks are foiled because one member of the team is collaborating with Israel. He or she not only sabotages the attack but often also gives Israel the information it needs to kill the leaders of the resistance (as well as bystanders). Collaborators, though common in the West Bank and Gaza, are much despised — and for good reason. They make the goal of national liberation impossible.

Palestinians have been struggling to find ways to make collaboration less appealing. When the Israeli army is threatening to jail your son, or refusing a permit for your wife to receive the hospital treatment she needs, you may agree to do terrible things. Armed groups and many ordinary Palestinians countenance the lynchings because they are seen as a counterweight to Israel’s own powerful techniques of intimidation — a deterrence, even if a largely unsuccessful one.

In issuing a report on the extra-judicial killing of Palestinian collaborators, therefore, groups like HRW have a duty to highlight first and with much greater emphasis the responsibility of Israel and its decades-long occupation for the lynchings, as the context in which Palestinians are forced to mimic the barbarity of those oppressing them to stand any chance of defeating them.

The press release denouncing the Palestinians for choosing collectively and peacefully to resist house demolitions, while not concentrating on the violations committed by Israel in destroying the houses and using military forms of intimidation and punishment against civilians, is a travesty for this very same reason.

Common sense: And finally human rights organisations must never abandon common sense, the connecting thread of our humanity, when making judgments about where their priorities lie.

In the past few months Gaza has sunk into a humanitarian disaster engineered by Israel and the international community. What has been HRW’s response? It is worth examining its most recent reports, those on the front page of the Mideast section of its website last week, when the latest press release was issued. Four stories relate to Israel and Palestine.

Three criticise Palestinian militants and the wider society in various ways: for encouraging the use of “human shields”, for firing home-made rockets into Israel, and for failing to protect women from domestic violence. One report mildly rebukes Israel, urging the government to ensure that the army properly investigates the reasons for the shelling that killed 19 Palestinian inhabitants of Beit Hanoun.

This shameful imbalance, both in the number of reports being issued against each party and in terms of the failure to hold accountable the side committing the far greater abuses of human rights, has become the HRW’s standard procedure in Israel-Palestine.

But in its latest release, on human shields, HRW plumbs new depths, stripping Palestinians of the right to organise nonviolent forms of resistance and seek new ways of showing solidarity in the face of illegal occupation. In short, HRW treats the people of Gaza as mere rats in a laboratory — the Israeli army’s view of them — to be experimented on at will.

HRW’s priorities in Israel-Palestine prove it has lost its moral bearings.

i think that cook’s analysis is important as human rights watch has done little to change its ways in the past few years. for one thing human rights watch is repeating this phenomenon with its latest report on hamas warning them to stop killings and torture. but if you read the report, which i refuse to quote here, you see none of the above critiques taken into consideration (and for the record i know that people at human rights watch do read cook’s writing). there is no context, no common sense, and no sense of priorities. in the midst of massive, daily human rights violations against palestinians by israeli terrorists, human rights watch chooses to write about this. moreover, if they used their reports in a way that would push for palestinians to liberate their land and achieve a just freedom this issue could hopefully solve itself.

for instance, what makes one become a collaborator in the first place–the origin of the issue in the human rights watch report on hamas. israeli terrorists force palestinians into positions of collaboration for many reasons: to get out of prison, to see a loved one in prison, to go to al quds to pray, to go to an israeli terrorist hospital, to travel to jordan, to access your land, to keep your house from being demolished. many of these things can be arranged–albeit temporarily–by agreeing to become a collaborator. on al jazeera ayman mohyeldin reported on one of these recent phenomenons of fishermen in gaza being recruited and pressured by israeli terrorists to become collaborators:

still the question for me that persists is why human rights watch chooses to focus on a palestinian so-called violation without contextualizing it and at the expense of the daily violations against palestinians by the zionist entity. one of those violations is collective punishment–oftentimes in the form of punitive house demolitions as marian houk explains in electronic intifada:

According to ICAHD, “house demolitions are clearly a case of collective punishment, which is illegal under international law, in particular Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949).”

In the year 2000, Ir Amim reported, there were only nine house demolitions in East Jerusalem — after “then-Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek announced that he would refrain from most demolitions in East Jerusalem, saying in effect that it was not right to punish people for building illegally when they were not permitted to build legally.” However, Ir Amim says, “there are in excess of 1,500 outstanding judicial demolition orders that have been issued but not yet executed … these orders never expire, and tens of thousands of residents in East Jerusalem live in perpetual fear that they may awake to the sound of bulldozers on any given morning. Consequently … every demolition understandably evokes widespread fear throughout East Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem’s new mayor, Nir Barakat, has vowed to carry out home demolition orders vigorously, under the guise of implementing the “rule of law.”

According to B’Tselem, some 688 Palestinian houses were demolished in East Jerusalem alone between 1999 and 2008, the majority by the Jerusalem municipality, the rest by the Israeli Ministry of Interior. At least another 207 Palestinian homes were destroyed in East Jerusalem between 1988 and 1998 — and three years of data are missing for that decade.

Thousands of Palestinian homes have also been demolished in Gaza, although Israel claims this in most cases this was done for reasons of “military necessity.” In addition, 4,000 buildings were destroyed (and tens of thousands damaged) in various operations before and after Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza, including during the recent invasion.

The Jerusalem Post recently reported that the Israeli army was very pleased with the performance of unmanned D-9 bulldozers that were used in the Gaza Strip during the closing days of the Gaza invasion. D-9s are huge machines built by the Caterpillar Corporation and then armored by Israeli Military Industries. It was reported in 2003 that work was beginning on the development of a version that can be operated unmanned by remote control — but their use has never previously been confirmed and an Israeli army spokesperson stated to this reporter that “its general policy is not to discuss the type of weapons we used.”

During her recent visit to the region, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was widely quoted as saying that demolition and eviction orders were “unhelpful.” But she was speaking about pending demolition and eviction orders issued against hundreds of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem — 88 in the Silwan neighborhood alone, just outside the walls of the Old City in East Jerusalem, to make way for what one Israeli lawyer who defends Palestinian rights called a “Jewish theme park.”

caterpillar bulldozer in the mikfiyya neighborhood of nablus
caterpillar bulldozer in the mikfiyya neighborhood of nablus

a related issue to all of this is the nonviolent boycott campaign targeting a number of companies, including caterpillar. the stop caterpillar campaign asks people to not buy caterpillar products, to divest from them among other activities because of the way this company profits as a result of destroying palestinian homes and murdering palestinian people. yet i always find it strange how prevalent caterpillar bulldozers are in palestine. the photograph above i took while i walked to school yesterday, but i could have taken it in any number of locations around the west bank of palestine. and it is not just the bulldozer itself. it is the clothes, too.

caterpillar shoes for sale in the old city of nablus
caterpillar shoes for sale in the old city of nablus

the photograph above, like the bulldozer itself, is ubiquitous here in palestine. i could have taken that same photo in any clothing shop anywhere around palestine. and this is frustrating. but it seems to me that the reason for this disconnection is part branding and part unconsciousness about connecting the dots. my students, for instance, yesterday know the clothes as “cat” but the bulldozers as “caterpillar” and thus don’t connect the two, even though the logo is the same. but also even though students see the caterpillar d9 bulldozers on television and know what they do to palestinian people and houses they don’t connect this with their own practices, with boycott. it is strange for me that they cannot see the irony in the fact that the same bulldozer company vehicles that destroy palestinian lives every day are also used to build palestinian homes, which will likely, one day be destroyed by yet another caterpillar bulldozer.

this is, of course, only one of many human rights violations that palestinians must live with on a daily basis. there are rarely any international reports on such violations, for many of the reasons cook makes clear. but there is a great desire to resist by any means necessary: both armed resistance and nonviolent resistance. the two exist together in any struggle for liberation whether india or south africa. but what i want to know is while westerners persist in asking ad nauseum “where is the palestinian gandhi?” why don’t they ask where is the zionist f.w. de klerk?

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One thought on “on nonviolence or where is the palestinian gandhi?

  1. I did not read it all but yeah, just the usual Zionist nonsense and pseudo-pacifist anti-Gandhian corrupt discourse.

    Gandhi said that the real difference was not between those who fight with weapons and those who do throuh nonviolence but between those who fight and those who cower.

    I was for a long time member of a nonviolent organization and in our ideological declaration it was written in clear words that the people has the right to self-defense. It did not matter that we chose a different, arguably better way of fight by nonviolent means, we did not dare to criticise people for fighting by other means if in self-defense.

    Nobody, much less those that justify Zionist many and most inhuman crimes, has the right to criticise the Palestinian people for defending themselves by any means necessary.
    Sorry, forgot to add great post! Can’t wait to see your next post!

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