Dropping "muqawama"

Maria Stephan
27 September 2007

With another international conference focused on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just around the corner - likely to take place in Washington in November - hopes rise for a negotiated breakthrough in this decades-long conflict. However, without a Palestinian strategy to apply steady pressure on Israel, the November talks are likely to produce a new "road map" to nowhere. The Palestinian Authority may be aware of this, as its recent call for a new form of struggle against the Israeli occupation suggests.

Although it has received little media coverage, in late July the Palestinian cabinet released a new policy platform that, for the first time in the Palestinian Authority's history, omitted any reference to "armed resistance" to Israel as a core principle. Dropped was the word muqawama, which means "resistance" in Arabic but has been used by militant groups to rationalise everything from rocket attacks to suicide bombings. The new PA platform, which has been endorsed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, instead calls on Palestinians to fight for statehood with a different form of resistance - "popular struggle".

Does this document have the potential to dramatically transform a conflict whose just resolution has continually eluded diplomats and militants alike? Does "popular struggle" provide an option between talking and killing that could lead eventually to independent Palestinian statehood? Quite possibly, yes.

Popular struggleDr. Maria J. Stephan is Director of Educational Initiatives at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, DC, an independent non-profit foundation that studies and promotes the use of civilian-based, non-military strategies for advancing rights and freedoms around the world.

Hamas officials immediately denounced the plan and accused the Abbas-Fayyad government of betraying Palestinian aspirations. Death threats have been issued against Fayyad, whose office produced the document. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, insisted "If Fayyad thinks that he can erase the word muqawama with ink he's mistaken. This word was written with the blood of martyrs."

Too much blood for too little gained, responded supporters of the new PA plan. However, in the absence of a competing liberation model, militant groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades have been able to monopolise the language of resistance, insisting that they are the only ones fighting for a free and independent Palestine.

The grip of violent insurgent groups could finally be weakening. Politically, the goals outlined in the cabinet platform are supported by the vast majority of Palestinians: creation of a state within the pre-'67 boundaries with Jerusalem as its capital, and a just resolution of the Palestinian refugee crisis within the framework of UN resolutions. Strategically, the plan calls for negotiations with Israel along with "popular struggle against the Israeli occupation". What does the Abbas government mean by "popular struggle" and how could this approach, coupled with skilful negotiations, set Palestinians on a path to meaningful self-determination?

Popular struggle is a method of prosecuting conflict by mobilising civic pressure where the "foot soldiers" are ordinary civilians and the "weapons systems" include boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of non-cooperation and organised defiance. Though such methods eschew violence, they do not compromise a meek submission to oppression, a turning of the other cheek, or waiting for negotiations to shift the balance of power. Simply renouncing violence is not the equivalent of waging nonviolent struggle, which actively challenges oppressive practices using widespread civic disruption. From the toppling of Augusto Pinochet in Chile to the liberation of East Timor from Indonesian occupation, nonviolent popular campaigns have successfully brought down dictatorships and won independence in recent times.

Powerful precedentsAlso by Maria Stephan on toD:

"Does terrorism work?"
(11 April, 2007)

Popular struggle is not new to Arab world. From the Egyptian rebellion against the British (1919-1921), to the Golani Druze resistance to forced assimilation into Israel (1980-82), to the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-90) to the most recent anti-occupation uprising in Lebanon (2005), nonviolent resistance has been used by groups throughout the Middle East to challenge repression and to achieve meaningful self-rule. Palestinians themselves have used it.

Almost two decades ago, in December 1987, Palestinians living inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip decided that they could no longer wait for Arab armies or PLO terrorism to liberate them. So they launched a popular uprising whose scope, intensity, and mostly nonviolent character were unprecedented in Palestinian history. At the beginning, nationalist and Islamist leaders agreed to forbid the use of firearms or other deadly weapons. They understood that these weapons would put them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their militarily superior opponent. Instead they boycotted Israeli products and replaced them with Palestinian substitutes, refused to pay taxes to Israeli authorities, and created their own medical clinics, schools, and social welfare services. "Self-organisation" and resistance went hand-in-hand.

Brutal Israeli repression of unarmed Palestinian protestors led to worldwide condemnation of Israel's conduct. Even the US, Israel's staunchest ally, voted for a UN resolution in 1988 condemning Israel's policy of deporting Palestinian leaders, including Mubarak Awad, a leading advocate of non-violent resistance in the Occupied Territories. The popular uprising forced Israelis to rethink the wisdom of controlling an entire population by force, inspiring a "land for peace" movement led by Israeli military officials. "An army can beat an army, not a people," famously said one Israeli general. Direct talks between the PLO and Israel ensued.

But the first intifada was never completely nonviolent, and the popular nature of the resistance was overtaken by factionalism, sectarian rivalries, and internecine violence - all of which perpetuate foreign occupations. The PLO was unable to channel the pressure of the first intifada into concrete gains at the negotiating table. After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 creating the Palestinian Authority, popular resistance was ended. Tens of thousands of young Palestinians who could have been in the vanguard of a new phase of popular struggle against checkpoints, roadblocks, and illegal settlements were instead given guns and pitted against each other in rival security factions. The notoriously corrupt PA focused on self-preservation at the expense of mobilising people to challenge the economic, political, and military pillars underlying the occupation.

The second, violent intifada, launched in 2000, was as much a challenge to the PA as it was a new phase of resistance against Israel. In six years, more than 5,200 people have been killed, 4,200 of them Palestinians. Terrorist attacks gave the Israeli government a pretext to exercise its military superiority and start building a 700-km long barrier in the West Bank, which was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2003.

A new groundwork

Currently, Palestinians are engaged in exactly the type of "popular struggle" that the new PA platform is advocating, albeit not yet on a national scale. Ironically, the separation barrier, parts of which cut miles inside the West Bank, has spawned this new surge of nonviolent resistance.

Though their activities rarely receive significant media coverage, Palestinian "popular committees against the wall" have launched protests and demonstrations since 2002. In the villages of Budrus and Bil'in, sustained nonviolent actions involving Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists successfully challenged the route of the separation barrier. In Bil'in, sustained civic pressure (and the effective use of Israeli courts) led to a dismantling of part of the barrier, allowing farmers to access their fields.

The Bil'in actions have received the attention and praise of the Palestinian press. Muhammed Khatib, the popular committee leader from Bil'in, said "this is a new stage for us and another indication of how the demonstrations are becoming a broader-based popular movement."

Today, as Palestinian leaders acknowledge, what is missing is a national strategy enlisting the broad-based support of Palestinians from all parts of the occupied territories, as well as annexed East Jerusalem. But now, for the first time, those leading the call for popular struggle are from the Palestinian national leadership, and they are in a position to channel popular pressure into concrete gains at the negotiating table.

Abbas, Fayyad, and the Palestinian negotiating team could back up their political demands with the force of popular non-violent resistance - if they prepare the Palestinian population sufficiently in advance. Checkpoint removal, redirecting the barrier's route, and freer movement of goods and people are attainable intermediate goals.

The non-violent battlefield could be expanded further if Palestinian citizens of Israel (including Palestinians from East Jerusalem holding Israeli residency cards) were invited to participate in joint nonviolent campaigns with a dual focus: an end to occupation and equal rights for all citizens of Israel.

Palestinians may be surprised to find potential allies across the Green Line. Many Israeli citizens - Jewish and Arab - will not stand by and watch if unarmed civilians making reasonable, principled demands are met only by more repression. And as the case of Bil'in demonstrated, pressure can be effectively exerted by working inside and outside normal political and legal channels.

Only by leading by example will the Palestinian government be able to convince Palestinians that "popular struggle" is a superior strategy to muqawama, "armed resistance". Ultimately, however, a divided Palestinian leadership (with Hamas pitted against the secular PA) will be unable to gain from or galvanise a strategically-planned popular struggle involving all Palestinians - Muslims and Christians, rich and poor, young and old, from the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem - against the policies and practices that sustain the occupation.

In the same way that the US government's policy towards the Israeli occupation shifted (albeit not in a sustained way) during the first intifada, a similar shift could occur if Palestinians can show that being "pro-Israel" and "pro-Palestine" are mutually reinforcing goals. Friends don't let friends fire Qassam rockets; and friends don't let friends build illegal settlements.

It remains to be seen whether negotiations backed by the force of popular struggle will lead to the sovereign independence that has eluded Palestinians for almost forty years. But new groundwork can now be laid.

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