Will Nonviolent Palestinian protests make a difference?
News that the villages of Bil’in and Nil’in are to become closed military zones every Friday until August has been greeted with dismay by locals and activists alike. The decision is an alarming upping of the ante in the battle between the Israeli authorities and opponents of the expropriation of Palestinian land, but the cessation of weekly hostilities could turn out to be a silver lining in the cloud.
For all that the villagers’ cause is just, the means employed in demonstrating their discontent regularly prove counterproductive. Antagonising soldiers by throwing rocks and other projectiles has proved costly both in terms of winning support on the Israeli street and in lives lost during clashes with troops. For all that, the IDF‘s response to the marchers is often wildly excessive, the local popular committees’ apathy towards preventing violence emanating from their own side plays no small part in the ratcheting up of tensions each week that the rallies are held.
Supporters of the residents’ struggle often contend that the Palestinians have every right to use violence to defend themselves and their land. Such theorising is all well and good, but since they are no match for the might of the IDF, employing such tactics is doomed to fail – and to bring even more pressure to bear on the villagers, as witnessed by the decision to turn the areas into closed military zones. For the army’s part, the IDF spokesman asserts that the order only applies to “outside agitators”, and that locals will be allowed to go about their daily routines unimpeded.
“Outside agitators” is a tag applied as much to Israeli attendees as it is to foreign activists operating in the region. Preventing allies arriving from within Israeli society is a massive blow to the Palestinian cause, since ultimately it is the Israeli electorate who need to be won over in order for the country’s leaders to soften their stance towards the Palestinians. The decision to close the villages comes at a time when the Israeli left is undergoing something of a mini-revival, and demonstrates a growing fear in military and political circles that support for direct action against the occupation is swelling on both sides of the Green Line.
However, I know plenty of Israelis who shy away from attending the demonstrations at Bil’in and Nil’in precisely because of the anticipated violence of both the army and the protesters. In Sheikh Jarrah, on the other hand, hundreds of Israelis attend solidarity rallies every week thanks to the reputation for peaceful protest attached to the locals’ fight for equality. Despite sporadic outbursts of hostilities between police and demonstrators in Sheikh Jarrah, the overall tone of the marches is far less aggressive than those occurring simultaneously a few miles away in Bil’in and Nil’in.
Last week, I attended the mass rally in Sheikh Jarrah, which attracted close to 5,000 supporters. Held on a Saturday night instead of the regular Friday afternoon slot, the event was a massive success, both numerically and politically, with a huge Israeli presence standing shoulder to shoulder with local Arab residents in opposition to the settlement activity in the area. Musicians played, politicians delivered rousing speeches, and not a single stone was thrown nor a single rubber bullet fired by the troops looking on. Despite a bitter slanging match between settler counter-protesters and the Sheikh Jarrah faithful, words were not matched by actions, and the event passed off entirely peacefully.
The discrimination and injustice is no less severe in Sheikh Jarrah and East Jerusalem than it is in Bil’in and Nil’in, yet there is a world of difference between the responses of the respective locals to their plight. In both cases, organisers of the protests recognise the power and necessity of garnering media coverage of their demonstrations, but in the case of Bil’in and Nil’in the leaders of the resistance refuse to recognise the damage done to their cause every time a stone is thrown or a soldier attacked.
The Israeli media are quick to seize on any such incident as proof that Palestinian society encourages violence, and handing them such an opportunity on a plate is guaranteed to result in further alienation of the Israeli middle ground.
Even though many commentators decry elements of the Sheikh Jarrah protests for supporting a one-state solution and other such “crimes”, they are denied the chance to tag the protesters as violent – precisely because they aren’t aggressive when holding their weekly demonstrations. As such, the solidarity events at Sheikh Jarrah have proved a far stronger magnet than Bil’in and Nil’in to ordinary Israelis, both individuals and groups alike.
Organisations such as Peace Now bussed supporters to Sheikh Jarrah from across the country last week, entirely comfortable with sending reinforcements to a protest they knew wouldn’t end in teargas and tears. By contrast, only the most extreme Israeli activists are a regular presence in Bil’in and Nil’in: groups such as Anarchists Against The Wallwho have no fundamental opposition to the concept of violent resistance.
Of course, it is entirely right to demand that the Israeli government cease their subjugation of the Palestinians, but that does not mean that there should be an abandonment of sophistication over the methods employed in the quest for justice.
The path of violent protest in Bil’in and Nil’in has proved to be a cul-de-sac, with ever-harsher measures taken by the army response and ever-increasing scepticism from those on the Israeli street. In the hiatus resulting from the army’s announced closures in the villages, protest organisers would do well to consider how they proceed when the restrictions are lifted – and taking a leaf out of the Sheikh Jarrah protesters’ book is no bad place to start.