On Non-Violent Resistance
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict (for lack of a better term) did not start on 7 October 2023, and the willingness of Palestinian armed groups to use violence is not the only obstacle to peace. At the heart of this intractable tragedy is the inability of a colonial and occupying power (and its enablers) to accept a people’s rejection of their subjugation and their determination to fight against it. Whatever form this resistance has taken – and it includes a long history of non-violence and civil disobedience as well as armed struggle – Israel has responded with a disproportionate use of force and disregard for the human toll.
The Western media has all too often focused on the Palestinian armed struggle, from Black September to the PLO’s armed presence in Lebanon, the suicide of bombings of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Second Intifada and Hamas’s more recent missile attacks on Israel. Often completely ignored, however, is that from the beginning, non-violent resistance has been central to the Palestinians’ struggle for freedom.
In 1972, the Palestine National Council decided that the locus of the struggle for Palestinian self-determination should include the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By the following year, the Palestine National Front (PNF), an autonomous clandestine umbrella organisation, had emerged in the occupied territories. Its main tasks included co-ordinating non-violent strikes and demonstrations throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protest against Israeli rule and to reaffirm Palestinian demands for self-representation.
Israel responded with such measures as house demolitions, curfews, deportations and administrative detention (incarceration without trial or charge), forms of collective punishment which became everyday features of the military occupation. After occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel banned any overt symbol of Palestinian nationalism, including flags and maps.
In 1976, municipal elections in the West Bank were won by nationalist mayoral candidates, against opponents who had been selected by the Israeli military administration. Along with journalists, union organisers, and the leaders of students’ and women’s groups, the new mayors established the National Guidance Committee in 1978. The NGC’s main objectives were to protest against the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accords, as well as any Israeli-appointed bodies that sought to control Palestinians in the occupied territories, and to demand self-determination. Again, protest was expressed through co-ordinated non-violent strikes and demonstrations.
Within a few years, Israel outlawed the NGC and arrested or deported key organisers, and put most of the nationalist mayors they had not deported under town arrest. In 1980 Israeli extremists attacked the mayors of Ramallah and Nablus with car bombs, severely injuring both men. The perpetrators received light jail terms and some were eventually acquitted of all charges. In 1982 the Palestinian mayors were removed from office and replaced by appointees of the Israeli civil administration.
By the early 1980s, all factions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation had established grassroots structures throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The volunteer-based organisations included trade unions, student groups and women’s groups. Israel targeted the representatives of these institutions, placing many of them under ‘administrative detention,’ and the routine intimidation and humiliation extended to the participants in these mass-based organisations.
Israel also targeted Palestine’s advocates for non-violence resistance. In 1983, for example, Mubarak Awad, sometimes known as ‘the Palestinian Gandhi’, established the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Non-Violence. He wrote the twelve-page blueprint for passive resistance in the territories. In 1988, Israel deported Awad on charges of inciting a civil uprising.
When the First Intifada broke out in December 1987, the collective decision to refrain from the use of violence – stone-throwing aside – was strategic. In the first weeks of co-ordinated mass upheaval and civil disobedience, an array of local popular committees were organised throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip that would sustain and strengthen the Intifada. The committees were responsible for such tasks as preparing for emergencies, cultivating self-sufficiency (including home-schooling for children) and night-time security patrols, as well as organising the daily activities of the Intifada: strikes, demonstrations, boycotts of Israeli products and non-payment of taxes.
In response, the Israeli military confronted unarmed protesters with live ammunition, jailed or deported organisers, imposed curfews, cut off water, electricity and fuel supplies, demolished houses, closed schools for months on end and shut universities for three years. By the time Israel and the PLO signed the Declaration of Principles that began the Oslo Process in September 1993, Israel had killed more than 1070 Palestinians (almost all unarmed) and imprisoned over 120,000 (according to B’Tselem figures). No family was spared the collective punishment. Forty-seven Israeli civilians were killed during the Intifada.
In 2005, Palestinian civil society called for a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel until it complied with international law and universal principles of human rights. The non-violent movement has gained a sizeable international following. The Israeli parliament passed a draconian law in 2011 that would punish any Israeli who boycotted any of its institutions or economic enterprises. In the United States, 38 states have so far passed some kind of anti-BDS legislation.
In March 2018, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip began the Great March of Return to demand the end of the Israeli blockade and the right of return for refugees. The protests were largely non-violent, but the Israeli military ordered that anyone – including unarmed protesters, bystanders, journalists and medical staff – who came within a few hundred metres of the Israel-Gaza separation barrier be shot. According to UN figures, by 22 March 2019 Israel had killed 195 Palestinians (including 41 children) and injured approximately 29,000 people.
Although they seldom make international headlines, Palestinian history is full of episodes of non-violent resistance to Israel’s military occupation. Israel’s response has routinely been disproportionate, and the overwhelming majority of those injured or killed have been on one side – the side that does not matter to Western governments. Between 2009 and September 2023, Israel killed 6407 Palestinians and injured 152,560, compared to 308 Israelis killed and 6307 injured by Palestinians (according to UN figures). On 7 October, Hamas killed 1200 Israelis. Since then, Israel has killed over 11,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians and more than a third children, through indiscriminate bombing campaigns, in collective punishment for crimes they did not commit.