Palestinian satyagraha would dampen extremism

As the history of the conflict shows, one of the main problems for the Israeli authorities in these kinds of political confrontations, is the risk involved in allowing the Palestinians a taste of unarmed resistance that works.

Daniel Jakopovich
27 May 2012

On the Israeli-Palestinian carrousel, each movement seems to revert to a previous default position, so the Palestinian strategic orientation towards world opinion (exemplified by the current hunger strike drama), though sound in view of the recent discomposure of the Palestinian leadership, might represent just a temporary aberration, considering the degree to which Israel and its allies appear determined to demoralise and squash it again.

In the latest instance, the Israeli government has firmly opposed the demands of Palestinian political detainees - some 2,500 of whom were until May 15 on hunger strike, many of them for about a month, protesting against detention without trial, against solitary confinement, over family visitation rights and lack of education opportunities - on the official grounds that such a move would have led to a collapse of the Israeli criminal justice system.

This was asserted even though hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including 24 Palestinian parliamentarians, are incarcerated in Israeli prisons without due process of law. In the end, the Israeli government made some concessions on family visits and prison conditions, and declared it won't extend its 6-month detentions without trial unless additional intelligence is submitted. However, all supposed evidence will remain secret, so the potential for abuse is overwhelming. All of these modifications to the prison regime were only introduced once several of the hunger strikers came close to dying and the risk of political backlash became too great.

As the history of the conflict shows, one of the main problems for the Israeli authorities in these kinds of political confrontations, apart from the need to appease its most hard-line political allies and factions, was the risk involved in allowing the Palestinians a taste of unarmed resistance that works.

The growth of Palestinian extremism embodied by Hamas was directly associated with the Israeli strategy of ‘divide and rule’, and the suppression of secular, more rational alternatives. Since the 1960s, Israel has given preferential treatment to the radical Hamas and its predecessors while pursuing the then dominant secular PLO. This fitted in with the broader strategy of the US which, mostly through Saudi Arabia, financed and in other ways supported Islamists in their struggle against secular nationalist and socialist parties. Particularly when the far Right Likud party came to power, the state of Israel even financed the Islamists itself. Understanding the importance of ideological struggle in preserving its hegemony, Israel expelled the Palestinian activist Mubarak Awad, a Christian pacifist advocating nonviolent resistance (satyagraha) against Israeli occupation, while at the same time allowing the founder of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, to distribute anti-Semitic literature and call for armed annihilation of the state of Israel.

Similarly, until the end of 1993, US officials were meeting Hamas leaders and declined any communication whatsoever with the secular PLO, although the PLO, in contrast to Hamas, renounced terrorism, and generally wasn't participating in coercive islamisation efforts. While supporters of the PLO were denied their own media, or the right to conduct political gatherings, the Israeli occupation authorities permitted radical Islamic groups to hold rallies, put out uncensored newspapers and even run their own radio station (as well as to build their own mosques, schools, clubs, and a library in Gaza).

After decades of setbacks, the PLO was drained and disoriented. Its growing moderation did not result in any significant progress in the negotiations with the intransigent Israeli government. Arafat died a defeated man, isolated and under house arrest. As the PLO declined through impotence and corruption, Hamas filled the void with its pugnacious and self-righteous stance.

Moving into reverse

Faced with the change in Palestinian leadership in 2006, Israel and the US only had to reverse their proven strategy of tension and division of Palestinian forces, and begin to support PLO's Fatah with money and arms, thus undermining the little popular legitimacy that the PLO had left. In his leaked secret report, the former UN coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Alvaro de Soto, noted that, “the Americans clearly encouraged a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas” and “worked to isolate and damage Hamas and build up Fatah with recognition and weaponry”. Meanwhile, the ongoing blockade and the economic breakdown also helped Hamas to recruit unemployed and frustrated young men. Violence and poverty make fertile ground for extremism.

One of the tragic aspects of the conflict has been the “permanent siege mentality“ of the Israeli masses, a culture of fear and control fomented by Israeli political elites as well as Palestinian extremists, and serving as a perpetual justification for decades of hostilities, mutual intolerance, occupation and segregation.

A détente on the issue of Palestinian prisoner rights might hearten a broader nonviolent Palestinian campaign for justice. This could, in turn, enhance the potential for a united Israeli-Palestinian peace movement, strengthening healthier political tendencies in Palestinian and Israeli societies alike, boosting the prospect for positive and proactive international involvement.

This is why the Israeli elites have been so determined to suppress nonviolent Palestinian political tactics and strategies, and why, despite the partial tactical retreat over the hunger strike, they might decide to escalate tensions instead. By discouraging and stifling peaceful campaigns and humane voices in Palestinian (as well as Israeli) ranks, the Israeli political apparatus is trying to ensure the continued domination of militarist voices, which is preferable to having to end the impasse and negotiate with moderates.

Political intransigence on both sides conceals the simple truth that hate cannot drive out hate. Still, there is some hope that a different interpretation of Palestinian and Israeli self-interest might avert a new domestic war, and a bloody conflagration with Iran. The relative stability created by Netanyahu's recent electoral victory and his less right-wing coalition (as well as, perhaps, the arrival of French Socialists at a permanent seat of the Security Council, following Hollande's election as President) might slightly increase the scope for a measure of compromise in the ongoing ‘peace process’. Even if most Palestinian prisoners in Israel are unlikely to bask in its sunlight.

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