How Obsession with “Nonviolence” Harms the Palestinian Cause

“Oppressed people do not and should not have to explain their oppression to their oppressor, nor tailor their resistance to the comfort of the oppressors and their supporters.”


Linah Alsaafin
The Electronic Intifada
10 July 2012

Palestinians do not have to tailor their resistance to the liking of the oppressor class and their supporters.

(Mahfouz Abu Turk / APA images)

In recent years, western discourse surrounding the Palestinian cause has employed a few new — and superficial — adjectives to describe Palestinian resistance: Palestinian “nonviolent” resistance, Palestinian “peaceful” resistance, Palestinian “popular” resistance, Palestinian “unarmed” resistance. And the ever so popular Palestinian “Gandhi-style” resistance.

This discourse has been adopted by the Palestinian popular struggle committees, born after the success story of the occupied West Bank village of Budrus that embarked on popular protests and managed to regain 95 percent of its lands that were expropriated by Israel’s apartheid wall in 2003. However, the obsessive, fetish-like concentration on a specific type of resistance has in one way or another contributed to the delegitimization of other forms of resistance, while simultaneously closing off open discussion on what popular resistance actually is.

An historical overview of Palestinian resistance would testify to its use of different forms, although they were not viewed separately by Palestinians themselves. Palestinians were aware of their rights being stripped from them and confronted their occupiers.

There were the 1929 Wailing Wall/Buraq Wall demonstrations against the domination of the site by Jews who were backed by the British Mandate that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians and Jews; the 1935 armed uprising spearheaded by Izz al-Din Qassam against British soldiers; the six-month trade strike against the British Mandate and Jewish colonialists the following year; and the subsequent three-year uprising brutally crushed by the British.

During the outbreak of what became known as the first intifada, in 1987, the iconic image of a Palestinian rock thrower facing a fully-armed, sophisticated army “redeemed” the Palestinian resistance of hijacking planes in the 1970s.

No need to explain

Nowadays, Israelis and internationals and unfortunately even some “enlightened” Palestinians champion “nonviolent resistance” and consider throwing a rock to be a violent act. The argument goes that throwing rocks tarnishes the reputation of Palestinians in the western world and immediately negates the “nonviolent/peaceful” resistance movement. This argument falls into the trap of western- (read, colonizer) dictated methods of acceptable means to resist.

Oppressed people do not and should not have to explain their oppression to their oppressor, nor tailor their resistance to the comfort of the oppressors and their supporters.

The last time we truly had a genuine, grassroots popular resistance movement in Palestine (before the protests against Israel’s apartheid wall in the West Bank village of Budrus in the early 2000s) was during first three years of the first intifada.

In 2005, people in the village of Bilin began their weekly protests against the wall Israel built on their land. The Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (PSCC) was formed in 2008, touted as the rebirth of popular resistance as more and more West Bank villages started their own weekly protests and were effectively swept under the wings of the PSCC.

Mohammed Khatib, one of the founders of the PSCC, told me in an interview that the committee “sought to undertake creative direct action as a result of the low numbers in the protests.”

Bailed out by PA

The model of the PSCC is built around generating international support and media awareness, and on this front it has proven to be highly successful. Yet the use of the term of “popular resistance” is unfair and quite simply an inaccuracy as these demonstrations are built around no mobilizing strategy or goal, do not include the majority or even half of the villagers, and some of those who do take part prevent their wives and daughters from joining in.

The structure of the committee is built on an undemocratic basis, with self-appointed figures from the various villages fulfilling the leadership roles. The unelected Palestinian Authority prime minister, the darling of Europe and the US, Salam Fayyad funds the committee with more than half a million shekels ($125,000) each year.

“Since October 2009, we have been getting 50,000 shekels per month from Fayyad,” Khatib said. The money ostensibly goes to paying the bails of Palestinians arrested during the protests, logistical needs and administrative purposes.

“The financial costs could not be covered except from the support and donations of official bodies,” Khatib explained. “During one month in 2008, fifty Palestinians were arrested from Bilin. Fifty people needed to be represented by a lawyer and have their bail paid. Donations from supporters were just not enough.”

Fayyad carries an agenda with him, which he has no qualms in making public. During the seventh annual Bilin conference in April this year, he spoke about how these “popular protests are the steps toward an economically independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.” This is in stark contrast to the popular chants at these same demonstrations of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

More concretely, of course, Fayyad nominally commands the security forces that work with the very same Israeli occupation army that is carrying out the theft of land from the villages.

Khatib is aware of the criticisms relating to an alleged popular committee accepting funds from politicians. “I’ve personally met with Salam Fayyad several times since April 2011 and told him that the popular committees do not want his money, but he didn’t listen,” Khatib added.

The PSCC is also funded by nongovernmental organizations who come in with their own schemes and plans. For example, the Spanish group NoVA seeks, according to its website, to “offer support for civil society in conflict areas in the field of violence prevention, peace building, mediation and nonviolent conflict transformation” (

NoVA supports a study program called the Executive Diploma for Leading Change. According to participant Beesan Ramadan, the Spanish deputy consul Pablo Sanz was brought into one of the classes to lecture about the “proper way to resist” and then proceeded to say that Palestinians should be “pragmatic” and to consider not throwing rocks in protests. Sanz argued that it makes the consuls’ jobs harder if they encounter rock throwing when they attended protests with European officials.

Mired in apathy

This is the root problem for the protests that internationals and Israelis so love to participate in. The PSCC is not reflective of Palestinian society, one that is mired in deep apathy due to a number of factors: the dependency of large numbers of people on loans from banks, the illusion of a “state” as introduced by Fayyad’s neoliberal agenda of “state-building,” the high cost of sacrifices already made and the exhaustion of 64 years of increasing and incessant occupation and colonization.

Overshadowing all of it are the Oslo accords of the 1990s, which only legitimized and entrenched the Israeli occupation instead of getting rid of it.

A need for mobilization

Meanwhile, efforts are made to bring in European and international delegations and show them around the villages engaging in the weekly protests, and in establishing solidarity links that lead to speaking tours during which leaders of the popular committees talk about “nonviolent resistance.”

However, equal effort is not made toward mobilizing Palestinians. The failure to do so is indicative of the prevalent attitude in Palestinian society, one that hasn’t changed since Bilin’s first protest in 2005. Seven years of weekly protests and the general attitude is again one of apathy, contempt for “Fayyad’s resistance” and despair regarding the uselessness of it all, of how the youth are bravely risking their lives week in, week out and how that won’t change the status quo.

By criticizing this model of protests, I am in no way seeking to belittle or cast doubt on the courage of men and women who protest against the occupier, or the sacrifices made by numerous villages, particularly by those whose sons and daughters have been martyred or injured by the Israeli forces.

The psychological and physical stresses that villagers suffer from frequent night raids on their homes, multiple arrests of their family members, and the helplessness of not being able to give their children a better future are all to be taken into consideration, as well as their admirable steadfastness and conviction that these protests are an effective means to challenge the occupation.

No such thing as “joint struggle” with Israelis

In addition to questions about the strategy behind and efficacy of these forms of protests, the participation of Israeli activists is certainly a topic of great debate. Today’s dynamics of “Palestinian resistance” have drawn more and more Israelis to the protests and made it an attractive prospect, almost like a tourist destination.

Unless explicitly stated by villagers or the Palestinian community involved in demonstrations, no one is refusing to allow Israelis come to the protests. With that in mind, it is also helpful to acknowledge that the majority of Palestinian society does not trust Israelis from the outset. So what exactly should the role of Israeli activists be?

It goes without saying that Israeli activists must never take a decision-making or leadership role in the Palestinian struggle, but instead must remain on the periphery. In my experience, most of the Israeli activists already know and understand that. Once establishing their presence in Palestinian protests, their primary responsibilities are documenting the Israeli occupying army’s crimes, facilitating legal proceedings in the case of Palestinians getting arrested by the Israeli army and diverting arrest, which means placing themselves in front of Palestinians who are about to get arrested to allow the Palestinians more time to escape arrest.

Eltezam Morrar from Budrus, who led the women in her village to protest against the occupation army, shared her fear that the present-day reality is not totally led by Palestinian voices.

“Any international or Israeli who wants to join us in our demos is welcomed,” she told me. “But as my father once said, we are the ones who put the agendas for the resistance and the Israeli or international supporters follow it. Nowadays I am not really sure if the agendas are 100 percent Palestinian.”

This issue is exacerbated by the absence of a truly representative Palestinian leadership able to lay out a strategy for resistance and mass mobilization, instead of busying itself with creating a police (non)state in the West Bank bantustans, or autocratic rule under Hamas in Gaza.

Some Israeli activists speak explicitly of a “joint struggle” between Israelis and Palestinians (see, for example, Noa Shaindlinger’s 24 June article “Thoughts on a joint, but unequal struggle” on the website +972).

But to put it bluntly, there is no such thing as a “joint struggle.”

Israeli anarchists, many of whom attend the Palestinian protests and who are perhaps the closest to understanding the Palestinian struggle, don’t even identify themselves as Israelis to begin with, so the term doesn’t make much sense anyway. There must be an understanding of what the Palestinian struggle is about, specifically so that liberal Zionists won’t waste their time coming to protests all in the name of “peace” and “the two-state solution.”

There can be no peace without justice, and justice means decolonization, allowing the implementation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and obliterating all the racist laws and policies of Israeli apartheid and occupation. That means no Jewish state, no supremacist laws and no different systems for people of different ethnic backgrounds.

No symmetry under occupation

The term “joint struggle” implies a degree of equality or at least symmetry, and that is definitely not the case between Israelis and Palestinians, even if they are dodging the same rubber bullets and inhaling the same tear gas.

Israeli activists are solidarity activists, just like their international counterparts. There is no clear role for solidarity activists precisely because there is no clear Palestinian resistance strategy within Palestine.

If there was an aim to the protests, then solidarity activists would join the villagers from, for example, Nabi Saleh and trek down the hill to where the stolen village spring lies, instead of habitually hanging back and philosophizing on the inhuman nature of the occupation soldiers.

The fact that Israeli activists live on Palestinian colonized land spurs them to want to do more and be considered as more than solidarity activists, as they claim that they are connected to the Palestinian cause, which is true enough. The problem lies with what sort of actions are implemented, and what these Israeli activists can do to chip away at the occupying, colonizing system.

Israeli activists should focus on changing their own society

Israeli activists must work within their own societies and communities. Of course this will be a very difficult and even dangerous task, as one would expect in a society where racism and fascism are so institutionalized.

To Palestinians, that would make the difference, not swamping weekly protests that don’t hold much credibility with Palestinians in the first place, and sometimes even outnumbering the Palestinian participants.

Complaints from some Israeli activists of how horrible they are treated and of the persecution they receive at the hands the army can come off as self-indulgent, especially when arrests or injuries of Israelis and internationals are already far more likely to be widely reported anyway than the routine and horrifying abuses suffered by Palestinians on a far larger scale.

Israeli activists sometimes despair about how pointless and ineffective their efforts are in creating more awareness about the realities of the occupation within their own communities but that should only spur them to be more creative in coming up with strategies to confront and challenge their society.

For now, Palestinians must also work within their own societies in order to mobilize and inject the society with the spirit of volunteerism and social community that is now fragmenting due to neoliberal economic policies that widen inequality, aid dependency, debt and consumerism.

No one is rejecting Israeli anti-Zionists, but simply calling yourself an anti-Zionist, and even coming to protests is not enough. Israeli activists who do so claim, for the most part, to understand the privileges they enjoy due to being white and Jewish in a colonial situation. But it is not always clear that they understand in practice how these privileges continue to manifest themselves in their interactions with Palestinians.

Toward a truly popular resistance

Despite the good intentions of the internationals and the Israelis who come to protests, their presence can also buttress the notion that Palestinians need someone to speak in their name. Not only is this model of resistance hugely ineffective in terms of outcome and mobilizing Palestinians, it also helps maintains the status quo that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority strive to protect.

Bassem Tamimi, one of the leaders of the popular struggle committee in Nabi Saleh, acknowledged that the reality on the ground is not a popular resistance.

“We are still in the preliminary stages. I would even say the stages behind the preliminaries behind the first step to be taken toward a popular resistance. There are a lot of faults with the current model. When we first started out on these weekly protests we used the term ‘popular resistance’ as a way to mobilize so that in the near future, it could be just that. Now we’re at a stagnation point.”

Building from the ground up

Revolutions and successful resistance do not take place overnight. It takes months, years for a movement to establish itself. The struggle must be brought back to the Palestinians themselves, and one sure way to mobilize is not through protests or speeches, but through social community work (which incidentally is what made Hamas so popular from its establishment, especially in the refugee camps).

Get to know the people on the street. Ask them what they need, what they are suffering from. It could be a broken roof or not having enough money to pay their daughter’s university tuition. Trust begins to be built up in different communities, and with that awareness and the spark to rekindle a true resistance movement on the ground.

As Paolo Freire rightly pointed out, “No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.”

Linah Alsaafin is a recent graduate of Birzeit University in the West Bank. She was born in Cardiff, Wales and was raised in England, the United States and Palestine. Her website is


Editor’s note: This article was amended on 12 July to remove a quote for which the writer had intended to seek permission to use but had not obtained by the original publication time.

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