Palestinians have a long history of resistance to occupation, expulsion and ethnic cleansing. Much of it is inspiring. They have shown determination and steadfastness. They have shown a strong – some would say unbreakable – attachment to the land and to thousands of years of cultural and social heritage. They have shown ingenuity and an ability to survive under some of the most intolerable conditions that human beings can impose upon each other.
There are, however, other trends in Palestinian resistance that are not as encouraging. One is a tendency to be corrupted or diverted away from the aims of resistance by the pursuit of limited and immediate objectives as well as personal or selfish interests. Another is a lack of unity due to subordination of common national interests in favor of short-term local, tribal and other priorities; political fragmentation is also endemic. Perhaps the most consistent historical pattern in Palestinian resistance, however, is its utter failure – regardless of armed or nonviolent resistance, international legal action or attempts to negotiate agreements – to prevent or reverse the demise of Palestine and of the Palestinian people.
The demonstrations in Bil’in and other villages, the Naqab (Negev) and Jerusalem are courageous and inventive, but their success is measured in minor variations in the amount of confiscated land and the ability to attract attention from a growing but limited number of international human rights groups that are supportive but largely impotent. The success of hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners is measured by improved conditions of incarceration, occasional modification of charges or an early release date, and international attention, also mainly from already supportive solidarity groups. The success of BDS (the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign) is measured primarily by decisions of entertainers, unions, institutions and agencies to reduce or eliminate their interaction with Israeli suppliers, customers or counterparts, with little or no harm to Israeli society and its economy.
The resistance may have achieved some success in what Israel calls “delegitimization” – i.e. the isolation of Israel as an international pariah – but none of this has translated into a reversal of the Zionist theft of Palestine. Regardless of how despised Israel becomes, few of the world’s nations – and certainly not their leaders – are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of Palestinians.
We therefore need to look with a dispassionate eye at what is actually possible. While past and present measures of resistance may have been worth trying, an honest reading of their effectiveness must take into account that they have at best slowed the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and possibly hardly at all. If Palestinians are serious about the liberation of Palestine, therefore, it is incumbent upon them to seek more effective means.
Do such means exist? Are Palestinians capable of liberating themselves? This is a serious question, because if an honest assessment, devoid of illusion, informs us that liberation is essentially impossible, it would be better to face reality than to struggle in futility. If, on the other hand, the means exist, the question becomes one of cost, and whether Palestinians are willing to pay the price, which is likely to be much greater than any sacrifice made until now.
Is the price beyond what Palestinians are willing or able to pay? Only Palestinians can answer this question. No one can demand of Palestinians to pay the price and no one can blame them if they decide not to do so. However, it will clearly be helpful to try to determine what that price might be.
Here are some considerations:
1. Armed or nonviolent resistance? Every struggle in the world – whether successful or unsuccessful – has included a combination of armed and nonviolent resistance in varying proportions. If it can be argued that armed resistance has failed in Palestine, so has nonviolent resistance. Nevertheless, it is exceedingly important in all struggles for such efforts not to undermine each other. Mixing the use of violence in a nonviolent action is a sure way of rendering that action ineffective, which is precisely why the enemy uses infiltrators in such a manner. Similarly, armed struggle must not be discouraged, but rather made as effective as possible. The two are more effective when coordinated, insofar as possible, so as to complement each other and so that the struggle may be unified.
It is nonetheless true that armed and nonviolent resistance may be more appropriate in some situations than in others. Given the strength of the Israeli military and its control over Palestinian life, for example, it is difficult to imagine that armed resistance within Palestine can ever become as effective as it was in Algeria, Afghanistan or even Iraq. On the other hand, Israel is relatively vulnerable to nonviolent resistance, as contrasted with Rwanda in 1994 and Congo today, if applied on a massive scale. Nevertheless, all forms of resistance will continue to play a role.
2. What do Palestinians seek to liberate? Obviously, all Palestinians seek to liberate all of Palestine. However, opinion polls among Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Palestinian citizens of Israel show consistent support for a two-state solution, while polls of Gaza and the refugee camps outside Palestine show the opposite. The explanation is straightforward: Palestinians that are still living in their homes want to preserve what they have, while those who have already lost everything have no such motivation. (Gaza is the only part of Palestine where the vast majority are refugees.) Of course, part of the explanation is also that many Palestinians despair of ever recovering the lands that have already been lost, and are therefore willing to accept what they think they might have a better chance of keeping.
Unfortunately, this is also part of a Palestinian tendency to be more concerned with liberating a particular location in Palestine than with the entire country. When the villages of Jayyous or Nabi Saleh or Bil’in or in the hills south of al-Khalil (Hebron) or the Jahalin Bedouin or the residents of the Silwan section of Jerusalem or the Bedouin communities of the Naqab (Negev) are expelled and their lands confiscated and their villages destroyed, who participates in the resistance? The answer is that it is mainly the residents of those communities, along with some international and Israeli supporters and relatively small numbers of Palestinians from neighboring communities. This indicates that either other Palestinians do not consider it their struggle or they are not willing to pay the price of participation (or both). The history of Palestine is one of subordinating defense or liberation of the whole to liberation of its parts, thus resulting in the loss of the whole.
3. Does the struggle need support from non-Palestinians? There is no doubt that support from anywhere and everywhere is helpful and desirable. However, we must distinguish real support from efforts to define, co-opt and usurp Palestinian resistance. Those whose aims are different from, but partly congruent with, the liberation movement, such as liberal Zionists that want to stop and reverse settlement activity in the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, can be encouraged, but it should be made clear that they are not part of the same movement.
The fact is, however, that much of the world is already with Palestine, at least nominally. The Islamic world is nearly entirely supportive of Palestinian resistance, and much of the non-Islamic Third World, as well. Exceptions fall mainly into Islamophobic groups such as Burmese Buddhist and Indian Hindu extremist communities as well as co-opted puppets and allies like Turkey, Jordan and other Arab monarchies, which nevertheless pay lip service in support of resistance while sending only humanitarian aid.
Remarkably, the only significant support for Israel comes from nations that are Western European in origin. One might even argue that Israel’s only real support is from the U.S., without which other support would quickly wither and vanish. A strong argument can therefore be made in favor of a concerted effort to change U.S. policy as a means of achieving Palestinian liberation. This strategy has clearly failed until now, but new initiatives may be worth consideration if they demonstrate a feasible path to success that is different from previous efforts (probably a huge increase in financial resources).
4. Should Palestinians wait for Saladin (Salaheddine al-Ayyoubi)? Suppose that, regardless of everything, the entire world fails the Palestinians, which is pretty much what has happened until now. Should Palestinians wait for a champion to recover Palestine from the Zionist invaders much as Salaheddine al-Ayyoubi (known in the West as Saladin) liberated Jerusalem and other parts of Palestine after 88 years of Crusader rule?
Unfortunately, this strategy also has a very poor record of success, from Jamal Abdel Nasser to Yasser Arafat, regardless of the merits and faults of these individuals that many consider heroic. Salaheddine was not faced with a superpower that might kill, co-opt or remove him if he failed to conform to its requirements. The fact is that if anyone like Salaheddine presents himself, he is a candidate for polonium injection or humanitarian no-fly zones.
5. What if Palestinians are alone? In fact, Salaheddine was not Arab and did not rely on the example of anyone else and did not consider anything to be impossible. If we are to take anything from his example, it is that one should not wait for anyone or anything, and instead all become Salaheddine. Perhaps the only ones upon whom Palestinians can depend are other Palestinians, and perhaps not even all of them.
Stripped to the core and bereft of any outside help, and without access to significant amounts of arms, and with infiltration of their ranks and absence of leadership, do Palestinians have the ability to liberate themselves? Not every possibility has been exhausted, so we cannot answer this question. However, certain events in Palestinian history indicate that such possibilities exist, if Palestinians are willing to pay the price.
These events are the first and second intifadas as well as the 1936 general strike, the breeching of the border at Majdal Shams in 2010 and similar events where spontaneous group leadership plays a central role. When people act spontaneously and assume leadership roles as needed and with simple ad hoc structure, even the most powerful military on earth is relatively impotent, as long as people are sufficiently determined to pay the price, which only they can decide.
Why, then, did previous efforts not succeed, and why are present efforts not succeeding?
The key element of every successful resistance effort is the ability to make a territory or a population so ungovernable that the only logical option for the oppressor is to accept the demands of the oppressed. This fundamental truth has worked in nonviolent resistance like the American civil rights movement as well as the expulsion of the French from Algeria and the Russians (and probably the Americans as well) from Afghanistan through force of arms.
Can Palestinians achieve the same? In order to do so, noncooperation, disobedience and sabotage are essential. Although forbearance has been, and can be, considered a form of resistance, it is also a form of cooperation. Life must be made unbearable for the oppressor, not bearable for the oppressed. Here are some hypothetical considerations:
1. Suppose 30,000 Palestinians ignore the checkpoints and barriers throughout the West Bank and decide to go to prayers at al-Aqsa every Friday, along with their brothers and sisters who hold Israeli citizenship or Jerusalem residency. This was actually achieved in 2001 when a comparable or larger number of Palestinians attended the funeral of Faisal al-Husseini without ever seeking Israeli permission. Faced with such numbers, Israeli forces simply let them in, although one can argue that we face different circumstances today.
2. Suppose West Bank Palestinians choose to boycott Israeli goods and to refuse aid supplies purchased in Israel. Suppose they rely only on locally produced Palestinian goods and gifts from outside Israel.
3. Suppose thousands or tens of thousands of Palestinians participate every day in resistance to the demolition orders of the villages in the hills south of al-Khalil (Hebron) or the Bedouin villages in the Naqab (Negev), or in the Sheikh Jarrah or Silwan neighborhoods of Jerusalem, or of the Jahalin community. This is an application of the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all, borrowed from the trade union movement, instead of different communities competing for limited support for their local struggles.
4. Suppose tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza form a human chain on the border as they did on February 25, 2008, in defiance of the Israeli practice of shooting unarmed civilians that enter the undefined “buffer zone” that Israel maintains in violation of its own agreements. Suppose they choose to join Friday prayers in Jerusalem without asking permission to cross the border.
5. Suppose shatat (diaspora) Palestinians in neighboring countries defy the authorities of those countries and Israel, and exercise their right to pray in Jerusalem and cross the border to their homes as they did in Majdal Shams on June 5, 2011. Suppose those who have foreign passports fly into the airport in massive numbers and refuse to leave.
6. Suppose Palestinians refuse to constitute their own governing authorities within the constraints permitted by Israeli authority. These authorities are a form of cooperation and assist Israel in the administration of the occupation. This means abolishing the Palestinian Authority and possibly other bodies, and refusing to cooperate with Israeli authorities that are established in their place.
These are some simple proposals based on the assumption of little or no outside support. The obvious objection is that such actions can lead to massive retaliation as well as drastic preventive actions and increased suffering for Palestinians living under occupation, as they already have in some cases, which can be a very high price. Can Palestinians be asked to pay that price after all that they have already sacrificed?
The answer is that no one can ask this of Palestinians; they can only ask it of themselves. Only they can decide what price they are willing to pay. It is conceivable that Palestinians might prevail and recover their rights without such sacrifices, but how realistic are the chances? In any case, the decision is theirs.
There is reason to think that Israel will not massacre thousands of Palestinians as a deterrent to such actions. Unlike Rwanda or Congo, and similar to Algeria and India, Israel depends upon support from western populations – and to some extent even their own – that will not tolerate the mass killing of tens of thousands of unarmed Palestinians. However, there are obviously no guarantees, and Palestinians cannot be blamed for being unwilling to test such assumptions or even to make any additional sacrifice at all.
What about arms?
Armed resistance is difficult but not impossible. Certainly, one must not expect to match Israel in arms or even to mount a very effective fighting force. There is also the danger that armed resistance can be used to apply greater repression on a nonviolent resistance movement. However, if armed struggle is to be effective, it is most likely to achieve its ends through assassinations of very senior figures, in much the way covert U.S. forces use drone assassinations and the way Israelis themselves have used the tactic on Palestinians. In the absence of Palestinian drone aircraft, however, one must assume that such acts would have to be accomplished the old fashion way, if at all, and with a degree of secrecy that is difficult to maintain.
What about the money?
Many proposals require little, if any, money, but money is obviously a potentially great resource, as the Zionist movement has shown. If we want to put money to similar use, a great deal is necessary, and similar methods may be needed to raise it; e.g., to set a goal such as $100 million or more and seek pledges without collecting the money until the pledges equal the goal, at which time the pledges can be redeemed, often with relative ease.
The key to all of these proposals is a willingness to subordinate personal, local and regional interests to those of a national struggle, and to make a decision about what constitutes an acceptable price to pay for liberation. It is certain that attempts to save bits and pieces of Palestine will only end in the loss of all of Palestine, as will an unwillingness to pay the price of liberation, whatever that may be. Nevertheless, it is important to undertake a serious discussion of these issues. The new Israeli government has established a goal of a million Israeli Jews in the West Bank. Such a move will further relegate Palestinian liberation to an unrealistic and unachievable dream.
Liberation does not have to be merely a dream. The blood of Salaheddine al-Ayoubi runs through the veins of many who live in Palestine as well as other parts of the Arab world. There is no need to wait for him. He is present and ready in every Palestinian if the people of Palestine are willing. No other champion is necessary.
Paul Larudee is one of the founders of the Free Gaza and Free Palestine Movements and an organizer in the International Solidarity Movement. Read other articles by Paul.