At the end of last week in the West Bank village of Bilin, an important principle was decisively demonstrated: Palestinian nonviolence can achieve real results in resisting the Israeli occupation.
After almost a decade, Bilin protests against Israel’s gruesome West Bank separation barrier has finally produced a substantial rerouting of the wall, giving villagers access to a significant portion of their confiscated land. The greater part remains seized or inaccessible, and protesters vow that their struggle is far from over.
There are several important lessons to be learned from this significant achievement.
First, the protests have been successful precisely because they are, and only to the extent that they have been, nonviolent. Israel and its supporters have no answer to Palestinian nonviolent resistance to an abusive occupation, except the accusation that it is, in fact, violent. While sometimes the protests have degenerated into stone-throwing by youths, and have often been met by force by the Israeli occupation forces, in fact the demonstrations have been overwhelmingly nonviolent. This is what has given them their power.
To extend and replicate this effective nonviolent approach, serious discipline will have to be developed and maintained to ensure it continues even in the face of military repression. Nonviolence is one of the most powerful weapons of resistance against occupation.
Second, the protests are all the more powerful when their objections are firmly rooted in international, and even where possible Israeli, law. In 2004 the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion that the route of Israel’s separation barrier, which is not along its own border but cuts deeply into occupied territory, was unlawful and a human rights violation. In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the portion of the barrier in Bilin had to be rerouted.
Both of these important legal findings were consequences of the nonviolent confrontation with what is plainly unlawful human rights abuse against ordinary Palestinian villagers under occupation. Nonviolent protests prick the conscience of the world, and of Israelis. They also disarm the logic of the occupation and the settlements as forward defenses in an existential struggle by Israel, revealing them to be in their essence, instead, a system of discipline and control by a foreign army over millions of subjugated people.
Third, nonviolent protests are not an end in themselves, but have to be part of a broader Palestinian national strategy. The fact that some significant Palestinian national leaders, especially Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have supported and participated in the protests demonstrates a convergence between grassroots, bottom-up organization addressing local issues and top-down leadership that deals with national ones.
Fayyad’s rousing speech at last Friday’s protest—in which he spoke of the slow but inevitable victory of nonviolence, how it is a crucial tool in ending the occupation, and that when Palestinians confront occupation with nonviolence “the whole world is with us”—demonstrates the potential for such a convergence. Combined with state-building, boycotts carefully targeted against the occupation but not Israel per se, and well-calculated diplomacy, Palestinian nonviolence should be an essential part of a successful national liberation strategy.
Contrast this powerful and genuine grassroots approach with the transparent and cynical effort by the Syrian government to encourage protests on June 5 at the armistice lines between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. This area is one of the most tightly controlled border regions in the world, and has been under virtual lockdown by the Syrian military for decades. With the Assad regime in deep trouble at home, suddenly protesters were welcome to come and go freely, and apparently encouraged to confront Israeli troops.
At least 20 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, an overreaction and excessive use of force that typifies Israel’s approach to what it regards as its frontiers, whether those approaching it are armed or not. The death toll was predictable, predicted and entirely avoidable. Indeed, all Lebanese factions agreed a repetition of the violence along the Lebanon-Israel border on May 15 was unacceptable, and that area, by contrast, remained entirely calm on June 5.
If the goal of the June 5 Golan Heights protests was to embarrass Israel or touch the conscience of Israelis and the whole world, it did not succeed for many reasons: above all the unavoidable perception that the Syrian government was hoping to distract attention from its own killing of nonviolent protesters in cities throughout Syria. In fact, unlike the West Bank protests, the Golan protests achieved nothing.
This was only underscored in the following days by the killing of 20 Palestinians at the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus by a radical Palestinian faction aligned with the Syrian regime.
When the dust settled in early June, dozens of Palestinians lay dead while Israel and Syria were stripped of the ability to point fingers at each other for shooting unarmed people. And between these two events, the Syrian regime lost the ability to play the “Palestinian card” in its struggle to hold onto power.
While cynical exploitation by desperate Arab dictatorships is the last thing the Palestinian cause needs, nonviolent protests such as those at Bilin have proven their efficacy. They offer not only the best way of resisting the occupation but also, as the part of a broader strategy, a real path to national liberation.