Sunday, November 18, 2007

Palestine's Gandhi: Naim Ateek

Naim Ateek had just turned 11 when forces of the Haganah, the pre-Israel Zionist paramilitary organization, occupied his village of Beisan in Palestine. Days later, the villagers were informed that they were to be "evacuated," forcibly moved off land that Palestine's Jewish minority now claimed for its own state. Ordered to gather in the village center, the Ateeks took what they could carry, and joined the other frightened families, all clutching heirlooms, photographs, jewelry, and awaiting an uncertain future, away from the homes in and lands on which their families had lived for generations.

It is perhaps surprising then, that even after this experience of forcible dispossession, and even after the shock of the 1967 war, in which thousands more Palestinians were displaced and the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem came under military occupation, even after years of witnessing and enduring brutality at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers, Ateek has been a constant advocate of nonviolence as the only course for Palestinian independence. A parish minister to Palestine's small Christian community since 1966, Ateek founded the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in 1989 for the purpose of developing a theology to help Palestinians cope with and overcome the daily oppression and injustice they continue to endure as a subject population under military occupation.

Though he advocates nonviolence as "the only option, and the only strategy," Ateek does not shrink from making extremely trenchant criticisms of Israel's policies. Which is why a late October conference at Boston's Old South Church, featuring Ateek, was provocatively titled, "The Apartheid Paradigm in Palestine-Israel." Underscoring the apartheid parallel, the keynote speaker for the conference was Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town and one of the guiding spirits of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

While Tutu was lauded universally for his moral and prophetic voice against the South African government's policies, he has been denigrated for suggesting a similarity between South African apartheid and the Israeli occupation and colonization of the West Bank. Similarly, despite Ateek's commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation, he has been denounced as an anti-Semite and a terrorist-sympathizer for insisting that Palestinians have a right to reject and resist a system that severely proscribes all aspects of Palestinian life, while at the same time privileging the rights of Israeli settlers and facilitating their takeover of Palestinian lands, a system which Ateek and the organizers of the North American Friends of Sabeel conference hold is very much like apartheid.

Many scholars, including many Israeli scholars, have for years been using the apartheid framework to understand Israel's policies toward Palestinians in the occupied territories. As UCLA professor Saree Makdisi points out, there are, in fact, "two separate legal and administrative systems, maintained by the regular use of military force, for two populations -- settlers and natives -- unequally inhabiting the same piece of land." Furthermore, when people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu insist that the apartheid comparison is appropriate, one listens.

But from the moment the event was announced, Old South Church was attacked by pro-Israel voices for promoting anti-Israel views. In various op-eds, Web sites, and letters to editors, Sabeel was characterized as a hate group, and Ateek as a terrorist sympathizer. Upon closer inspection, however, none of these accusations squares with this organization or this man, who has for decades advocated for a two-state solution with exclusively nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation.

The conference itself, as with Ateek's extensive writings, had a very simple message: The occupation must end.


Ateek is precisely the kind of leader who should be supported by those seeking an end to the violence between the Israelis and Palestinians. He is one of a number of Palestinian leaders, along with Sari Nusseibeh and Mubarak Awad, who continue to advocate non-violence. Unfortunately, years of occupation, the constantly expanding settlements, and collective punishment by Israeli authorities in response to terrorist attacks have greatly expanded the appeal of extremist violence and their promises of redemptive vengeance.

Ateek understands this, and asserts that an organized nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation is the last thing Israelis want. "They know we are working for peace," he says, "and that we are a greater threat to them than Hamas. Hamas allows them a pretext to continue the occupation. We do not."

Several years ago, Israeli Defense Force's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, declared his intent to "sear deep into the consciousness of Palestinians that they are a defeated people." Ateek refuses to accept this. Despite the unending violence of the occupation, and despite the attempts of Israel's partisans to obscure the reality of the occupation and demonize anyone who undertakes to expose its brutality, Ateek continues to exhort his fellow Palestinians to nonviolence, and stands both as a definitive retort to Ya'alon's demand that Palestinians submit, and a refutation of the myth of "no partner for peace" among the Palestinian people.
Nerdified link

It's been a while, but in the past I've made note of the use of nonviolent resistance against the Apartheid-like regime currently governing Israel and occupying land belonging to Palestinians. Likening the Israeli system to South Africa's former regime is hardly controversial outside of the US and Israel. Otherwise, I gather, such comparisons hit too close to home. To confront the current human rights situation in Palestine/Israel would require the US intelligentsia to face their own nation's past (including of course the American Holocaust and the on-going treatment of Black and Hispanic Americans). That won't do, hence the necessity of taking pot-shots at those who do note the similarities between the Israeli government's practices and Apartheid. Think back to Jimmy Carter's experience a while back (and during his days as President he was no friend to Palestinians).

But I digress.

What makes someone like Ateek so threatening to the status quo is his steadfast refusal to play the role assigned to him, and in fact vocally exhorts his peers to do likewise. He neither meekly accepts his status as a "defeated" and "inferior" person, nor does he fight the organizational and structural violence perpetrated on him and his peers with violence - although doing so would be understandable given the circumstances. The potential for an organized nonviolent resistance would present the Israeli government and its apologists with a conundrum: violently crack down and risk whatever good will might still be extended to it by the US, or stand down and lose authority. It's damn difficult to frame a resistance movement as "savage" and "terroristic" if its members are refusing to fire a shot. I'm not exactly a pacifist (I do see nonviolence as the preferred route and violent resistance as strictly a last-resort), but see plenty of potential for what Ateek advocates to work. Nonviolent resistance gives its practitioners a moral high ground, in the process placing the practices and policies of their oppressors in sharp relief. One could argue that moral high ground doesn't buy much if you end up six feet under. Indeed, the main reason for shying away from such resistance would be fear of death. However, one could readily counter that oppression kills and that merely accepting oppression will not prevent death, but actually accelerate individual and social death. There is precious little to lose, and so much to be gained.

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