The issue of Palestinian resistance, in terms of its permissibility and types, is a highly inflammatory question for most Western observers. Mainstream media discourse frequently boils down to criticisms and condemnations of its “violence” or alternatively, asserts its impotence in the face of Israeli military might and Western opposition. It might therefore be helpful to place it in historical and current context and to comparatively evaluate it against that other famous struggle for independence, Indian national liberation. India’s struggle, given the prominent role of Gandhi’s satyagraha’s role, is usually synonymous in Western discourse with non-violent resistance.
This first part in the essay deals with legal and historical issues that define Palestinians’ struggle for independence, then describes their repercussions on the current status of the occupation. In the second and final part, I will present examples from the history of Palestinian unarmed struggle and then compare it with the Indian one. I will argue that the agreeable and reasonable sounding frame of the superiority of peaceful resistance sets up a false dichotomy. Presenting satyagraha as the exemplary approach to liberation is deceptive on two levels. First, India’s independence was not achieved through non-violence alone. And second, while inspirational and useful on many levels, it is not sufficient as sole guide or solution to achieving Palestinian liberation.
The Prevailing Western Mainstream Media Perspective on Palestinian Resistance Today
Language and the framing of issues is always the privilege of the strong. This applies to international and legal attitudes concerning national liberation movements. At the height of their occurrence in the 1960s and 1970s, there was an international consensus on the necessity and legal right of oppressed people living under colonial and/or racist states to resist their status by any means available to them, including armed conflict. However, since the 1980s, there has been a shift away from focusing on ultimate legitimate goals of national liberation to a discussion of methods. Concomitantly, there was an interjection of a growing set of rules of military engagement that the international community wanted to apply to even non-state actors who were fighting for their independence. Israel, being a colonial and ethnically-based state and seeking to curb the use of armed struggle against itself, is in the camp that marks as “aggression” and “terroristic” any and all active resistance to its occupation of Palestinian land. Thus in terms of language and its function in rationalizing or justifying events, there is a sharp contrast between descriptions of “armed conflict” depending on which side of the aisle one is on: on the one hand, “national liberation movements” and “freedom fighters” and on the other, “terrorists” and “pre-emptive strikes.”
The justice of the initial demands for independence is frequently obscured by the legalistic focus on the means of inducing change. Moreover, international institutions, like the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations or the International Court of Justice did not develop the means (or the will — in the case of the Palestinians) to enforce the legitimate claims of colonized peoples, or to punish states, like Israel, that place themselves above the application of basic legal and ethical principles. In a sense, this shift in focus is a regression to more imperial / colonial attitudes of the past.
It is a frustrating endeavor to peel away obscurantist assumptions and pervasive and intentional misdirection to arrive at the truth. Keeping in mind that Gandhi defined satyagraha as to hold on to the truth, the most basic reality for the Palestinians is that they are dispossessed, displaced, occupied, oppressed and most recently, massacred in Gaza. But most Western media coverage ignores some basic background facts that constitute the basis of the problem and which I will review briefly below. Ignoring the root causes renders incomprehensible to the casual observer Palestinians’ resistance, thereby facilitating their designation as stereotypical “terrorists.”
Historical Background of Palestinian Plight
Palestinian dispossession started under the British Mandate, which “got” Palestine from the dismantled Ottoman Empire after World War I. The Balfour Declaration (1917) established a national “home” for the Jews in Palestine and disregarded the wishes of the “non-Jewish communities.” While the latter was the overwhelming majority, and despite promises of “non-prejudice” to their “rights,” they were considered not significant enough to warrant that the colonizer ask their opinion about the “giving” of their homeland to an imported ethnic and religious group. In addition, British troops had not even set foot in Palestine yet. Thus Britain contradicted the legal maxim nemo dat quod non habet, meaning no one can give that which he has not. But being a superpower at the time, ordinary laws did not apply to itself. And the “promise” in the Balfour Declaration was incorporated into the Mandate by the League of Nations, which promptly validated this gift, even though the League did not possess Palestine either. The League also overlooked its inconvenient commitment to the right of self- determination for peoples originally inhabiting a land.1
Zionist actions to actively dispossess and remove Palestinians from their lands, exemplified in Plan Dalet, led to the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 people and created a majority Jewish area just in time for the declaration of the Israeli state in 1948. The dispossession both preceded and was concurrent with the war. The Palestinians’ legal right of return was reaffirmed more than one hundred times by the United Nations. But Israel placed itself above international law and passed The Prevention of Infiltration/Offenses and Jurisdiction Law in the Knesset in 1954. The defining of who is an “infiltrator” is instructive in explaining the violence and injustice done to the Palestinians, who were denied their legal right to return: the third definition for “infiltrator” in the law is a “Palestinian citizen or a Palestinian resident without nationality or citizenship or whose nationality or citizenship was doubtful and who, during the said period left his ordinary place of residence in an area which became a part of Israel for a place outside Israel.”2 Later in 1967, the Israeli state expanded again and encompassed the rest of natural Palestine. The reason that there is an occupation in the new territory is simple. The Zionist enterprise, all proclamations to democracy not-withstanding, could not incorporate/digest the newly acquired territories without reducing the majority Jewish composition, thereby exposing the non-democratic, ethnocentric and racist premise of the state.
Evaluation of Losses and Achievements
The facts are simple enough. And yet that is not at all how current media narratives present the struggle. It is never referred to as one for liberation and freedom. Resistance to the oppressive occupation and to the expansionist and dispossessing Israeli state is never presented as a right, despite the self-evident moral and legal principle, that as the (occupying) aggressor, Israel cannot justify violence against resistance to its own initial aggression.3 And yet, in this last massacre, Gazans who are starving, imprisoned, mostly refugees from the original displacement that happened with Israel’s creation, and who have qualitatively modest (but technologically improving — distance/reach) weapons, are the ones being blamed for “starting” or inviting the attack on themselves. This is objectionable on several levels. Fundamentally, the framing of the story that equates Palestinian resistance with the fourth strongest army in the world is inherently deceptive. Additionally, it blames the victim for resisting annihilation.
But once again, because it is the strong who determine what is legal and what is not, the Palestinian struggle for national liberation and their resistance against their oppressors are illegal by definition and are presented as “terrorism.” The right of self-defense has been appropriated by the dominant, occupying, aggressing side and simultaneously denied to its victims. It is becoming increasingly apparent to the resisting Palestinians that this excessive use of legality is simply a means to preserve pre-existing power asymmetries that will perpetuate their oppression. It is ultimately aimed at their extinction as a people. It is the root cause of their resistance: for they refuse a peace built on injustice, no matter how much misinformation is produced disguise the facts.
The Oslo Peace Process must be evaluated from this perspective. It was started more than 15 years ago but has led to no tangible benefits for the Palestinians. On the contrary, it has led to their increasing dispossession and subjugation. It co-opted the PLO leadership and made the Palestinian Authority into a police arm of and chief appeaser/concessor to Israel, the occupier. The Process has served as legal cover for continued oppression. It is no different from the NATO announcement to “protect” Israel, or the Rice-Livni Accords, or the United Nations Resolutions that are never enforced.
All these entities and agreements give a cover of multilateralism and legality to what is essentially aggressive expansionism and intentional dispossession. Similarly, Israel’s “withdrawal” from Gaza in 2005, narratively presented in mainstream media with so much angst for the trauma of the occupier, does not remove the initial aggression of the original and consistently brutal occupation. Even when one allows for the prison that is Gaza to be considered “unoccupied,” the fact remains that Palestinians are one people and that the West Bank and East Jerusalem continue to be occupied. This is even acknowledged in the Oslo Accords, which defines them as “a single territorial unit.”
Moreover, Israeli expansionism continues, and even accelerates, in the shadow of the peace process and of the headline- grabbing events in Gaza. Just in the last week, Israel has announced the annexation of extensive areas of Palestinian-owned land, where the villagers have been non-violently protesting the apartheid wall. For three days the Israeli army invaded the village of Jayyous declaring it a “Closed Military Area” and arbitrarily arrested 65 Palestinians: “The Israeli wall confiscated about 600 dunums of lands and 8,600 dunums were isolated behind the wall, where the town’s area is 12,500 dunums,” leading to the loss of thousands of jobs lost as a result of the wall and the isolation of agricultural land.4 Similarly, on 1/26/2009, the Israeli High Court approved the complete destruction of the village of Tana, east of Nablus, in order to expand the settlement colony of Makhurah.5 In addition, an expansion to the Effrat settlement colony near Bethlehem was also announced, swallowing an additional 170 hectares of “state land.”6 All this is happening in the West Bank, ostensibly the co-operating segment under the dictatorial and oppressive control of the Palestinian Authority. And it is definitely not conducive to economic independence, let alone the mirage of prosperity that was promised to come with the pursuit of a negotiated and non-violent “settlement.”
The argument is frequently made that Hamas is a “terrorist organization” because it targets civilians. But that is a question that is both not for the militarily strong to ask and also ignores completely Israel’s far greater and more consistent targeting of civilians. In this last attack on Gaza, despite an earnest and far reaching hasbara/propaganda effort by Israel to change perceptions, the extent of the destruction was too blatant to repress. Any fair assessment of damage to civilians will plainly see the disproportionate suffering of the weaker party. It also must account for the slow strangulation and eradication of Palestinians even when there is no “war.” The means of destruction are so entrenched and persistent so as to become too banal for Western media to report on. The “targeted assassinations” that inevitably kill civilians, the ever-growing “settlements”/colonies, the land expropriations, the apartheid “separation” Wall, the roadblocks, the economic blockade and de-development, and so forth have effectively ended any hope of a two state solution. In fact, the Palestinians’ pursuit of the peaceful route of “settlement” through the peace process, recently “negotiated” at Annapolis, has resulted in a 20% increase in settlement expansion in the West Bank and a 36% settlement expansion in East Jerusalem, just in the last sixteen months.6
The Oslo Peace Process has essentially reached a dead end. Remember that it was launched after the First Intifada proved that a militarily powerful actor could not defeat Palestinian grassroots resistance. Hence, Israel’s resort to “settlement” and its reliance on the native enforcer, in the form of the Palestinian Authority. But that too failed. The endless peace process has been unable to accomplish the main (colonialist/racist) goal that gave it life: namely, to convince the Palestinians that they are defeated and are rightfully Untermenschen in the legally still border-less Zionist state.
Taken to its ultimate logical and counter-intuitive conclusion, this will eventually (and in fact has already started to) call into question the viability of a Zionist Israel in the long term. Increasingly, Israel’s own success in oppressing its Other has left it with two equally non-palatable options: either transition into an equal society or dismantle the colonialist enterprise. Its current choice of apartheid separation and oppression is demographically, morally, ethically, and in time, technologically unstable and unacceptable going forward.
- For an extensive discussion of this topic, see, Musa E. Mazzawi, Palestine and the Law: Guidelines for the Resolution of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Garnet & Ithaca Press, 1997: pp. 21-23. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 178. [↩]
- For a broader discussion of this issue, see Michael Mandel, “Israel’s Unjust War on Gaza: Self-Defense Against Peace,” Counterpunch, 2/5/2009 [↩]
- “Israeli forces seize 65 youths in Jayyus in third day of mass arrest,” Maan News Agency, February 18, 2009. Also, for a broader perspective (Arabic), visit here. [↩]
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