Last night I had a very interesting conversation with a friend about the use of non-violence in the Palestinian resistance. My friend, whose father was an active member of the non-violent movement in the US, believed that the Palestinians who used any form of violence against Israel – from throwing stones to launching missiles – were undermining the Palestinian cause. By his own admission, my friend is not an active follower of the conflict and was basing his opinions more on his father’s activities and his recollections of the resistance movement in South Africa, thus his opinions reveal a lot about popular American opinion.
Our conversation reminded me a post by our friends over at Blogging the Casbah where Abu G wrote about his experiences at Palestinian protests. Palestinian stones were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. There was a nice little debate about the symbolic nature of stone throwing – to summarize, throwing a stone does little damage but physically demonstrates a rejection of Israeli occupation. One commenter noted that Palestinians have branded themselves as “stone-throwers who occasionally explode themselves on checkpoints.” Similarly, my friend last night made the acute observation that, in the minds of Americans, one Palestinian throwing stones forces the entire population into that stereotype.
In other words, throwing stones that are heavily weighted in Palestinian symbolism, yet rather inefficient seems to justify the Israeli response in American minds. This perception is partly created by the fact that American media under-reports on the overwhelming Israeli response and partly due to the idea that the stones require an Israeli response. Thus Americans see Israeli soldiers reacting to threats from Palestinians rather than brutally suppressing generally peaceful activists.
This was again the situation yesterday in Hebron where marchers were protesting Israel’s decision to list the Tomb of the Patriarchs as an Israeli Heritage Site. Some stones were thrown and Israel launched tear gas and shot protesters with rubber bullets. The reaction in the US press was predictable. From the New York Times:
The Palestinian demonstrators consisted mostly of knots of boys who burned tires and hurled rocks at the Israel soldiers, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.
How would the Times have responded if the marchers had not thrown stones, but rather – as Abu G suggested – wore tee-shirts showing Gandhi and refused to participate in violence of any kind?
[tweetmeme] My thought is that as long as the US unequivocally supports Israel and refuses to put any pressure on the Jewish country to make concessions for peace, the Palestinians will continue to be oppressed. The idea in America that Palestinians are participating in a violent resistance gives the government more room to justify its unquestioned backing of illegal Israeli policies. Thus, the Palestinian message needs to reach the ears of the American public (who then need to bypass the Israeli lobby, but that is a different story) in a way that forces the US public to shed its current perception of the conflict and to see Palestinians for what they are: brutally oppressed people.
Perhaps the way to this end is by renouncing the symbolic stones, as difficult as it would be.
Non-violence is not a new topic for Palestinian resisters, but, as my friend says, in American eyes, one Palestinian throwing a stone makes all Palestinians throw stones. Over at the Casbah, the Rooster comments, “I would add that it is extremely unlikely that the entire population of Palestinians would rise up in non-violent protests, If they did, Israel would have a serious PR problem.”
The parallel of the civil rights movement in the US would perhaps make a non-violent movement in Palestine more meaningful to Americans and more damaging to Israel.
In the 1960’s the father of my friend would tour the south and give workshops in non-violence. He viewed the black activists who used violence as people who undermined the civil rights cause, just as my friend sees stones as undermining the Palestinian cause. With the symbolism of stones so enmeshed in Palestinian culture, it is unlikely that the entire Palestinian population would renounce the act; however, the symbolism of the act seems to be lost on Americans – indeed, it has the opposite effect.
So perhaps it is time for a popular movement that renounces stone throwing and organizes more widespread non-violent movements that are aimed at catching the eye of the media. Qunfuz notes that Palestinians have tried non-violent activism – more notably for the 20 years after the creation of Israel and the first few weeks of the second Intifada. But in the 1950’s, Americans were generally not paying attention to Israel or Palestine and effective non-violence requires more than two weeks (as in the beginning of the second Intifada). Today images and symbols of non-violence are much easier to transmit into the households of Americans. Palestine needs images of Gandhi, symbols of South African Apartheid and reminders of Jim Crow in place of stones.
As my friend reminded me last night: while struggle is never easy and non-violent struggle is even more difficult, non-violent struggle en masse is by far the most difficult – but the most effective.