Is nonviolence relevant for the Palestinian struggle ?

Nizar Milbes

Mondoweiss  /  February 28, 2023

Calling for nonviolence does not mean abandoning the right to armed self-defense. It means the tactical use of these methods in the same way that the civil rights movement did.

Armed struggle has recently made a comeback in Palestine. Ever since the beginning of 2022, Palestinians in the West Bank have increasingly organized themselves into armed groups, mainly concentrated in Nablus and Jenin, that have launched attacks against Israeli (mostly military) targets. While armed struggle against an unjust occupation is certainly a legitimate right, even under International Law, there are other forms of nonviolent resistance that Palestinians have not consistently and systematically adopted. Palestinians should give these forms of resistance a chance in their struggle for liberation.

Of course, it may appear anathema to be lecturing Palestinians on how they should adopt nonviolence and abandon their legitimate right to armed struggle. This is not what this article seeks to do. Nonviolent resistance does not mean abandoning your right to armed self-defense. It means making choices based on the circumstances in which you find yourself, and according to the possible options available to you.

As Black History Month has drawn to a close, it offers us the opportunity to reflect on the contributions of the American civil rights movement in the struggle of black people in America for justice. Not all black people chose the path of nonviolence, and armed self-defense remained an important component of the civil rights movement, always in the background. At the same time, nonviolent actions like the Montgomery Bus boycott and the 1963 March on Washington delivered landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act, which has endured as a victory for justice to this day.

On the importance of global visibility

The civil rights movement’s most notable leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had a profoundly influential global reach — and he knew how images of atrocities against black Americans, if seen all over the world, would expose how America lost its constitutional values and principles. This is the key reason his nonviolent tactics actually worked — global visibility was used to the advantage of the movement.

After decades of Israel’s refusal to adhere to its stipulated commitment under the Oslo Accords, it is abundantly clear that Israel has little interest in resolving the Palestinian question. New normalization agreements with the Arab world have only reinforced Israeli intransigence. The Palestinian Authority’s tactics of trying the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, as the ill-fated “peace negotiations” have progressively shrunk the parts of historic Palestine proposed for Palestinian statehood. 

The Israeli tactics, similar to those of the segregationists, divert attention by disseminating false propaganda, ignoring conflict resolutions, and attacking journalists covering the Occupied Territories. In the US, a white mob destroyed the newspaper office of investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, when her  reporting of the rising violence in the South against African Americans was carried nationally. At the time, the mainstream press continued to paint the African Americans involved as villains and whites as innocent victims. 

The world media reported while watching the struggles and marches throughout the Deep South. Images of black school children being hosed down by water cannons simply because they wanted to attend adequate desegregated schools told a compelling story. The imagery of oppression seen by the world through innovations of telecommunications, photography, and film countered America’s founding principles. America was no longer the Land of the Free.

Equally, the state of Israel purports to be the “only democracy in the Middle East” when it clearly only promises equality for some. Some of the current methods of armed struggle by Palestinians allow Israel to perpetuate the lie that the Israeli crackdown on Palestinian communities is proportionate to the level of violence shown by Palestinians, when the reality is a system of Zionist colonial domination over an indigenous people. Palestinians should not give Israel the ammunition it needs to justify its crimes.

The tactics employed by King’s movement for civil rights were successful in the long term because they advanced an alternative to the status quo that was more acceptable than the path of revolutionary violence advocated by black nationalists — however justified that path may have been.

This leads us to an important point: even when you have the right to use armed struggle, that doesn’t mean that you should. A variety of tactical considerations have to be factored into this decision — one of which is: will your tactics push, or indeed force, the centers of power to act in your favor? Or will it further delegitimize your legitimate struggle? This is the question Palestinians must ask of themselves.

When it comes to the Palestinian struggle, international public opinion and the “international community,” such as it is, has always been an important factor in enabling Israel’s colonial regime to carry out its oppression and apartheid regime with impunity. What armed struggle does in this context is give the illusion of parity and equivalency, allowing Israel to continue its colonial rampage throughout Palestine.

What nonviolence can do

By historical contrast, Palestinians have largely gained international solidarity through non-violent resistance. 

On September 4, 2007, the town of Bil’in won a major victory when the High Court of Justice in Israel ordered the government to change the route of the wall near the town. However, it was not until 2011 after four years of continued nonviolent action and pressure to enforce the order that they began dismantling a section of the barrier to relocate it along an alternative route.  

The court ruling forced Israel to return 500 dunams to farmers in Bil’in. This is no small feat.

This is also true for the many hunger strike victories of Palestinian prisoners, often waged to protest illegal and oppressive practices by the Israeli prison system, including administrative detention, a common Israeli practice of imprisoning Palestinians without charge or trial. 

Similarly, following the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1956 that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.  

In 2017, Israel removed metal detectors and security cameras installed at Al-Aqsa Mosque, meant to control Palestinian movement in Jerusalem and impose Israeli sovereignty over the holy site. The cameras and metal detectors were removed after Palestinian worshippers staged mass protests, especially through the use of mass prayer as a form of protest, to force the removal of these invasive devices. And it worked.

The decision to use such nonviolent protest methods was made when Palestinian factions called for a “day of rage” during what became known as the Lions’ Gate Uprising (Habbat Bab al-Asbat in Arabic).   

Similar to the civil rights movement, when journalists were denied access from covering the nonviolent protests, Israel’s police force acknowledged it was preventing journalists from entering most parts of the Old City of Jerusalem. 

Nonviolence doesn’t mean abandoning armed resistance

Many have argued that the liberal fixation on nonviolence ignores history, setting an “impossible standard” that expects a ruling elite to cede control over to the oppressed peacefully. Some have pointed out the history of oppressors only giving up their privileges after being forced to by the oppressed, from as far back as the Visigoths against Rome in 476 AD, to the French after 1789, to the Communist revolution, and even to the civil rights movement itself. 

The Lion’s Gate uprising, which consisted of nonviolent protests consisting of prayer, would perhaps not have been successful without the threat, and reality, of violent self-defense.

As Yves Smith has pointed out by referencing the works of scholars such as EJ Cobb, “even the historic victories of nonviolent struggles had a behind-the-scenes armed element.” Moreover, the legislative victories made by the nonviolent civil rights movement often included the threat or reality of violent riots. For example, Smith writes that “in May 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama…after a nonviolent march was crushed, a riot of 3,000 people followed. Eventually a desegregation pact was won on May 10, 1963. One observer argued that ‘every day of the riots was worth a year of civil rights demonstrations’.”

Similarly, the Lion’s Gate uprising, encompassing nonviolent protests that consisted of praying in areas outlawed by Israeli authorities, perhaps would not have been successful without the threat, and reality, of violent self-defense.

Some have termed this phenomenon “collective bargaining by riot,” extending from Palestine to the civil rights movement to the Chinese workers’ movement in 2010.

MLK and the civil rights movement offered a simple choice: witness your country ripped to pieces and descend into chaos, or follow a middle path of reform and civil rights. 

Calling for nonviolence does not mean abandoning the right to armed self-defense. It means the tactical use of these methods in the same way that the civil rights movement did.

Although there have been a number of nonviolent resistance actions from Palestinians over decades of occupation, there has been a lack of consistency in employing these methods. It is this consistency that is required to effect lasting change.

The contexts and predicaments are not exactly the same between the civil rights aspirations of black Americans and those of the Palestinian people, but they are instructive. Moreover, there are important differences between past historical examples and the Palestinian struggle that constitute an argument for nonviolent tactics: the fact that we live in a vastly more interconnected world than before, to a degree that is historically unprecedented. Certainly more than during the civil rights era.

A sustainable and consistent nonviolent popular resistance strategy has never been tried. It would be a mistake to write it off as ineffectual, especially when there are examples of when it has worked on a small scale in Palestine.

Nizar Milbes is a Palestinian-American journalist and current law student