Toward moral resistance in the Middle East: Might non-violent resistance have a chance?


Despite decades of brutal occupation, thousands of Palestinian casualties and countless U.N. resolutions, the world remains content with Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian land. Since the demise of white colonial rule in South Africa and the end of genocide in the Balkans, almost no other population faces such dehumanizing apartheid and systematic attempts at ethnic cleansing as the Palestinian population. Still, Palestinian cries fall on deaf ears.

How can such a classic case of national liberation struggle fail to garner any significant international support? I see three main reasons: a lopsided definition of the discourse, uncritical American support for Israel and continued use of terror in the name of resistance by some Palestinian groups.

The answer to world apathy to Palestinian suffering lies in a contrived definition of the discourse imposed by Israel and its pundits. Instead of a struggle by an occupied people to end colonial rule, the discourse is defined in terms of an elusive “cycle of violence” that threatens the security of what is termed the “only democracy in the Middle East.” According to this logic, the occupier must then be protected from the results of its arrogance and brutality.

This nonsense must end. The unambiguous culprit is Israeli occupation. As the ongoing invasion by Israeli “Defense” Forces demonstrates, not only does occupation inspire terror, but it kills, destroys and terrorizes. As stories of Israeli massacres, mass graves, rape and destruction reach world attention, it will become painfully apparent that occupation is the ultimate form of terrorism.

Second, we as Arabs are quick to blame the United States, and rightly so, for its support of Israeli occupation. Israel would not have been able to maintain apartheid against the Palestinians without billions of dollars in American economic and military aid as well as diplomatic backing. America’s belated engagement in the conflict, through Powell’s mission, once again tragically adopts the Israeli narrative and ignores the cries of the besieged Palestinian population.

America wonders how it can win the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims. Instead of creating military propaganda machines, or trying to silence Arab satellite channels, the sure way is to end the suffering of the Palestinian people.

Some Palestinians have compromised much of the moral supremacy of their cause by responding in kind to Israeli terror and targeting civilians inside Israel’s borders. Such attacks must be condemned on political, moral, religious and even utilitarian grounds.

Clearly, the Palestinian right to resist Israeli occupation is unequivocal. However, such a right stops at the 1967 border, which is recognized today by the Palestinian leadership and by almost all Arab leaders, who unanimously supported the recent Saudi initiative. Even Palestinians who do not accept a two-state solution and aspire to a democratic multi-ethnic state should be bound by the commitments and concessions of their elected leadership no matter how painful — the 1967 border cedes 78 percent of historical Palestine to Israel.

More importantly, these Palestinians should be bound by the moral superiority of their cause and should insist that two wrongs do not make a right. As civilian victims of Israel’s indiscriminate subjugation and collective punishment, Palestinians should not target Israeli civilians. While Israel might view hundreds of Palestinian deaths as “collateral damage,” Palestinians cannot afford to have the same view of Israeli civilians. Not because Palestinian life is cheap, but because they risk descending to an intolerable moral equivalency with the occupier.

In particular, Palestinian groups that claim to be Islamic must confront the question of why are they not applying the well-documented Islamic “ethics of war” — adab al-harb — which strictly prohibit targeting civilians. They must also confront Islamic notions of moral perseverance at times of hardship and suffering.

The relevance of the moral argument is further advanced by the lacking utilitarian justification for attacks on civilians. Ever since the 1970s, targeting civilians has only profited the Israeli narrative of victimization, and has distracted the discourse from the main focus on occupation. In the current conflict, attacks by a few have once again imposed an absurd moral equivalency between the entire Palestinian population and the likes of Sharon, an accused war criminal.

It is a great fallacy that, given the military imbalance with Israel, Palestinians have no other choice in resistance. It is true that legitimate armed resistance in the occupied territories will not likely defeat a nuclear power like Israel. Nonetheless, national liberation movements around the world have successfully employed numerous non-violent resistance tactics, including civil disobedience, demonstrations, checkpoint sit-ins and human shields around threatened lands or national leaders. The procession of international volunteers into Arafat’s office is but one example of effective peaceful resistance that captured world attention. But numerous examples of pacifist resistance lead by Palestinian activists go unnoticed every time a suicide attack takes place.

This is not a time for surrender or capitulation, but for moral resistance. The unmatched brutality of the occupation and the disproportionate number of Palestinian casualties are not in question. Yet it is the very urgency of the Palestinians’ plight that mandates moral forms of resistance.

As Nehru once said, “moral values must prevail, the ends can never justify unworthy means, or else the individual and the race perish.”

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