The protests in Gaza, which have left more than twenty Palestinians dead and scores more wounded, have reminded the world of several key facts. Eighty percent of Gazans are refugees expelled to make room for Israel’s creation in 1948. Gazans remain under Israeli military occupation and are still being killed by their occupiers. And lastly, Gazans continue to be besieged on all sides, mainly by Israel but also by Egypt. They are prevented from freely traveling in and out of the most densely populated place on earth, from leading normal lives, and from living in dignity and safety without Israeli state terror.
The sight of Israeli army snipers casually picking off peaceful protesters (sometimes in the back) has been hard for the Israeli propaganda machine to spin. It is clear for all to see that the protesters do not constitute any kind of military or security threat to Israel. It is also clear that these border demonstrations are popular and that, despite Israel’s loudly articulated and premeditated murder policy, they have mobilized many Gazans — not just supporters of Hamas.
Nonviolent struggle against violent occupiers is politically effective. That is why Israel fears it, represses it, and seeks to push it into violent confrontation (as they did in 2000, in the first weeks of the “second intifada,” in which a million bullets were fired against unarmed demonstrators). Nonviolent struggle changes the prevailing Israel-Palestine narrative from an occupiers’ fight against terrorism to an anticolonial struggle against occupation. It uses an instrument of resistance that cannot be easily demonized (unlike Hamas’s rockets, Palestinian suicide bombings, or operations against Israeli civilian targets, which are both futile and morally unacceptable ).
Palestinian nonviolent protests have an additional virtue. They internally divide Israeli society rather than unite it in hatred and violence, strategically undermining the efficacy of Israel’s favorite political glue: anti-Arab racism. As I write, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has launched an unprecedented campaign for Israeli soldiers to refuse illegal orders to shoot unarmed protestors.
So if popular mass protests can be extremely effective, why have they been under-used for so long? There are several reasons.
First: occupied Palestinians have tried unarmed resistance before. The first intifada, in 1987, was, in Edward Said’s words, “one of the most extraordinary anti-colonial and unarmed mass insurrections in the whole history of the modern period.” An entire society mobilized itself and self-organized not only to counter Israeli domination and occupation but to actively build alternative self-governing structures as well. Women, students, teachers, and workers formulated independent modes of resistance (strikes, demonstrations, tax boycotts, etc.) that allowed them to counter Israel’s stranglehold over their lives. Workers realized the Israeli economy was massively dependent on the cheap labor of Palestinian migrants, giving them leverage over Israel’s occupying society. Israeli peace activists, following the lead of Palestinian activists, actively organized against the country’s occupation regime.
But brutal Israeli repression, a policy of closure and curfew, and a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) desperate for any patch of land to govern all conspired against the uprising’s success. The PLO worked hard to gain control over this spontaneous revolt, defang its self-organization, and exchange it for the group’s own narrow, self-interested goal of diplomatic recognition. The capitulation at the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s — which traded Israeli recognition of the PLO for the PLO’s recognition of Israel and sidelined international resolutions protecting core Palestinian rights — inaugurated a new status quo characterized by repressive self-policing, de-mobilization, and security coordination with a territorially hungry occupier.
Under such conditions, the Israeli occupation expanded and deepened, leaving Palestinians with increasingly smaller pieces of disconnected and atomized land to eke out a living. With international solidarity weak already — and Israel’s newfound international standing as a peacemaker — it was hard for Palestinian self-determination to find the support it needed.
Second: the failure of the first intifada and the Oslo Accords generated a groundswell of political cynicism. While governing elites profiteered, the overwhelming majority of occupied Palestinians experienced deteriorating socioeconomic conditions. Settlements grew, closure intensified, freedom of movement was internally and externally restricted or blocked. In these desperate times, the only way many Palestinians felt they could directly get at their occupiers (which had left the big cities in the hands of the PA’s repressive security apparatuses) was violently — through suicide bombings. Palestinian factions began fetishizing such armed resistance. Organized individual martyrdom increased. Though this violent tactic blasted Israel’s security-with-occupation policy, it ended up harming Palestinian society itself and its international image. Israel’s state terror was unleashed even more harshly, in sync with the global fight against Islamic terrorism after 9/11.
Third: when Palestinians were allowed free elections in 2006, they voted against the status quo and for Hamas, the main opposition party. But while electoral democracy was the Palestinian answer to intensifying occupation and to Oslo repression and marginalization, Israel and its western allies rejected it, boycotted it, and imprisoned many of its representatives. Even when Palestinians tried to overcome their cynicism and participate in the political process, they were blocked and stifled, and thrown back to their corrupt Oslo handlers.
Lastly: if Oslo divided Palestinian society, Israel tried to stoke these divisions into violent eruptions through its security coordination with the PA (fighting Palestinian resistance factions) and through its policy of isolating Gaza and separating it off from the West Bank. Fueling Palestinian conflict ultimately led to Hamas’s violent takeover of Gaza in 2007 and its banishing of the PA’s security apparatus. The schism persists more than a decade later. Hamas is on one side, carrying the old mantle of armed struggle abandoned by Fatah (the PLO’s ruling group) in 1988; Fatah is on the other, carrying the mantle of endless bureaucratic diplomacy and concessions.
Reconciliation seems impossible: both Hamas and Fatah see it as a recipe for losing power and position. Both repress internal opposition and entrench authoritarian modes of governance. Both have failed to improve the lives of occupied Palestinians. Both have exhausted Palestinian goodwill with empty promises about independence and liberation. An impasse has been reached. It is, therefore, inevitable to conclude, as some Palestinian and Arab commentators have done recently, that both armed struggle and Oslo peacemaking have now failed.
A new strategy of struggle is necessary — a new democratic politics that builds on the vast resources of Palestinian popular will. Self-organized resistance is the best hope for justice. Its power was evident in the mass protests against Israel’s new repressive measures around Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque earlier in the year. And it is evident in Gaza today.
Will the seventieth anniversary of the nakba be commemorated by the return of mass political agency and potential? Will the world stand by? Will Palestinian struggle drop out of view of the western publics if there are no armed attacks by Palestinians? Will solidarity activists be able to reach their fellow citizens with the message that the horrors in Palestine must finally end?
Palestinian existence in Palestine turns on the answers to these questions.