Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A worthwhile idea

Global march on Gaza – satyagrahis wanted:
...the question of whether any of Gandhi’s teachings can be usefully applied in Palestine is a serious one that merits careful consideration. In a fascinating essay (and talk) based on an extensive reading of Gandhi’s writings, Norman Finkelstein concludes that the application of satyagraha – that is, a mass campaign of non-violent civil resistance – could yield tangible results in the occupied territories.

His argument is detailed and nuanced, and I won’t attempt to summarise it all here. Its central claim is that the Palestinian struggle against the occupation fulfills the conditions Gandhi suggests are required for non-violent resistance to succeed. Non-violence relies on the accumulation of ‘moral force’ to “quicken the conscience” of the wider population and even of the oppressor him/herself by confronting violence unarmed, often enduring terrible suffering as a result. However, for non-violence to work this “innocence of means” is not enough – there must be “innocence of ends” as well. That is, a movement’s objective, and not just its methods, must be perceived as legitimate for non-violence to work:

“Were the ‘pro-life’ half of the American population to engage in civil disobedience or even a fast unto the death, the ‘pro-choice’ half would hardly be converted by such a spectacle. For, it is not suffering alone that touches but suffering in the pursuit of a legitimate goal. The recognition of the legitimacy of such a goal presumes however a preexisting consensus according to which what the victim seeks he justly deserves. Gandhi accordingly referred to the victim’s ‘innocence.’ It is innocence in a double sense: of means—the victim’s suffering results from unilateral violence inflicted by others—and of ends—the victim seeks a right that cannot in good conscience be denied because it jibes with the ‘normal moral sense of the world’; the more incontrovertible the ends, the more self-suffering as a means will resonate with ‘enlightened public opinion.’”

In the case of Palestine, this ‘legitimacy of ends’ exists, indeed to a remarkable degree. For over 30 years there has been a virtually unanimous international consensus on how to resolve the conflict, as Finkelstein and others have extensively documented. The Palestinians’ central demands command the overwhelming support of the most representative political body in the world, the highest judicial body in the world and the international human rights community (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and so forth), and enjoy extensive popular support throughout the world. Given this broad legitimacy and given the failure of violent resistance to secure any of the Palestinians’ political goals it would be wise, Finkelstein argues, to pursue a strategy of non-violent resistance instead.

In discussing a planned global march on Gaza next January 1, Heathlander goes on to say:

In my view this tactic stands a good chance of success, if enough people get involved. The reasons are twofold.

Firstly, the suffering being inflicted upon the civilian population of Gaza is so immense, so palpably unnecessary and cruel, that when presented with the facts reasonable people will find it impossible to support.

In Gaza we have seen 1.5 million people “intentionally reduced to abject destitution”. We have participated in the calculated manufacture of an “unprecedented … humanitarian implosion” [.pdf] that has pushed an entire society to the brink of survival. Today over 70% of Gazans live in poverty, 40% in deep poverty. 96% of the population now depends on international food aid for mere survival. Almost all the factories have shut down, with many key industries totally decimated. The official unemployment rate is approaching 50% (some have put the figure at 70%) and 90% of economic activity is devoted to smuggling. Chronic malnutrition is soaring, with malnutrition-induced stunted growth affecting 10% of all children in Gaza, rising to 30% in some areas. Some 46% of Gazan children suffer from acute anaemia. There is a constant “shortage of basic medicines”, while millions of litres of raw sewage are pumped daily into the Mediterranean, where children swim and play, because Israeli border restrictions mean Gaza’s authorities are unable to treat it. Around 10% of the population was still, as of April, without tap water. In the course of its invasion earlier this year Israel destroyed thousands of houses, hundreds of businesses and the bulk of Gaza’s agricultural industry (as well as 80% of its crops). Thousands of families are still living in tents because Israel has refused to allow any reconstruction to take place. Some people have resorted to building houses from mud, or living in cemetaries.

The Red Cross reports that “[t]hose worst affected” by the siege “are likely to be children, who make up more than half of Gaza’s population”.

As a result of all this – and this is the second point – the ‘legitimacy of ends’ required by Gandhi is there. The Gaza closure [.pdf] has been almost unanimously condemned as a violation of international law. The UN special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied territories has called it a “crime against humanity”; his predecessor likewise concluded [.doc] that it “violates a whole range of obligations under both human rights law and humanitarian law” and constitutes “a gross form of collective punishment”. UN agencies and human rights organisations have unanimously condemned [.pdf] the siege as “collective punishment”, “illegal under international humanitarian law”, “an unmitigated violation of international humanitarian law” [.doc], “illegal, improper, and immoral”. Various senior officials and respected public figures have decried Israel’s “assault on human dignity” – the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for example, has branded it an “abomination”, while former President Jimmy Carter has criticised the international community for its complicity in this “terrible human rights crime”, doing nothing or worse while “the citizens of Gaza are being treated more like animals than human beings”. Even the Quartet, G8 and the EU (which has described Israel’s policies as “collective punishment”) have called for the blockade to be lifted.

In short, Israel’s siege has almost no defenders. The goal of the march – to end the siege – is almost universally viewed as a legitimate one. As Finkelstein observes, the marchers will not be breaking the law, they will be enforcing it.

I think it's worth revisiting the existence of nonviolent action in Gaza - a phenomenon that rarely gets mentioned. I have occasionally made note of individuals and groups who have essentially followed Gandhi's, MLK's, and Cesar Chavez's path in their struggle against Israeli occupation. For example, about four and a half years ago, I found some interesting reporting on Gaza activists who were nonviolently resisting the Israeli equivalent of a Berlin Wall:

check out how Palestinian villagers have been resisting Israeli efforts to ghettoize Palestinians with a wall that's reminiscent of both the Berlin Wall of the Cold War era and South Africa's Apartheid - The Third Intifada: 'Yes to Peace, No to the Wall'.

To appreciate the breathtaking magnanimity expressed by this short slogan, one needs to remember its context. Imagine: a foreign army occupies your village for decades, reduces you to subjects without any rights, arrests you arbitrarily, savagely tortures the arrested, and, on top of it all, sends mighty bulldozers to erect a gigantic wall on your land, locking you up as in a cage. And your reaction? Peaceful demonstrations, shouting "No to the Wall" – but "Yes to Peace," to peace with your very oppressor and dispossessor.


It is in this period, in places like Budrus, that people like Mr. Murar – who had participated in the first Intifada and had been jailed and brutally tortured by Israel – reached the conclusions that resistance to the Wall should be led and organized first of all by Palestinians themselves; that waiting quietly for courts and verdicts was not enough; and, above all, that nonviolent demonstrations were the best weapon of the weaker side. He believes this for moral reasons, but also because nothing could harm the Palestinian interest more than violence, immediately exploited by Israel to distract public attention from the Palestinian plight and to accelerate the construction project behind the thick screen of "fighting off terrorism." A'ed Murar calls it the Third Intifada: the Intifada against the Wall.

Since the Palestinian Authority offered no real strategy or help in the villagers' struggle, they had only themselves to rely on – aided by Israeli and international supporters, like Ta'ayush, International Solidarity Movement, or Anarchists against the Wall. The Third Intifada is a popular uprising: in villages like Budrus, party affiliation and other differences are put aside, and the whole village marches together time after time to demonstrate against the Israeli bulldozers. Footage taken in several such demonstration shows the utter embarrassment of the Israeli soldiers, armed to the teeth against unarmed men, women, and children, who can stand for hours just a few meters away from them singing and shouting without any violence at all. If at last a single stone is thrown, the soldiers seem to be truly relieved: they immediately employ their heavy truncheons, shoot tear-gas and rubber-covered bullets at the crowd, and make violent arrests. But the resistance is not in vain: when a whole village stands together day after day, even the cruelest army must have second thoughts. So far, the demonstrations in Budrus managed to save the biggest plantation of the village from Israel's bulldozers.

Crucial Stage

The construction of the Wall, says Algazi, seems to have reached a crucial period. Following the verdicts from The Hague and Jerusalem, the Israeli establishment made a pause and took some time to reorganize and elaborate a new route and new strategies; these are now ready, and the construction of the Wall is about to resume in full speed. Signals and threats conveyed to inhabitants in Budrus make it clear that Israel is not going to give up easily on their land and water. The number of soldiers sent to demonstrations in villages like Budrus has been reduced, to increase the soldiers' insecurity and ease their finger on the trigger, and villagers are warned that if they do not capitulate this time, live ammunition may be used.

This nonviolent popular struggle is hardly reported in mainstream press. One needs to refer to alternative media to read about it. The idea of nonviolent Palestinian resistance sharply contradicts the stereotype of Palestinians as a "nation of suicide-bombers"; reporting peaceful Palestinian demonstrations is highly undesirable in official Israel's eyes. For all those reasons, this is a struggle very worthy of both public interest and support: The future of Israel/Palestine will be decided here, on the ground, rather than in press conferences in Washington or coalition intrigues in Jerusalem.
I also found the work of Naim Ateek of great interest:
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.
A few months later:
When dealing with a genocidal regime hellbent on destroying a people or peoples, one might ask if nonviolent resistance could work. I'll keep repeating that nonviolent resistance can and should be part of our arsenal, and that it is relevant wherever there is oppression. Check out the good folks at the Albert Einstein Institute. While you're at it, an acquaintance of mine completed a nice series of diaries back in 2006 that go into various facets of nonviolent resistance (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), including a rather thorough debunking of the misconceptions that many have with regard to nonviolence (based primarily on the work of Gene Sharp). Naturally, it is worthwhile to check into the work of one of Sharp's protégés, Robert Helvey, while you're at it. I'm fond of referring to the Zapatistas from time to time, largely because their insurgency - although initially fought with guns - has relied primarily on nonviolent action (Subcomandante Marcos has stated from time to time that "our words are our weapons"). The neoliberal mindset that produced such catastrophes as NAFTA have been no less genocidal (especially in terms of social death) than what is going on in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli government. That the Zapatistas have had some success in attaining a level of autonomy - albeit fragile - lends some weight to the notion that one can fight with palabras (i.e. words), fight without so much as firing a rifle or rocket launcher, and still have a positive impact. Hopefully our friends in Gaza have been following the Zapatista movement and gained some ideas that can be tweaked to fit their specific situation. One thing about nonviolent approaches is that its practitioners have to prepare themselves for the long haul - this isn't an immediate gratification approach to fighting for social change. Then again, if one really thinks about it, there really aren't any immediate gratification friendly options available even for those who prefer more violent means. Either way, the bad guys are going to do what they do best - intimidate, coerce, kill. After all, they have a lot to lose.
That is not to mention the work that Rachel Corrie was doing with the International Solidarity Movement (an example of humanitarian intervention that I find acceptable precisely because it is nonmilitaristic), or the work of the Free Gaza Movement (with whom Cynthia McKinney is arguably its best known activist). Stay tuned for more news on the upcoming march....

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