I’ve been thinking lately about how we deal with violence and non-violence in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s primary concerns revolve around security and Palestinian use of violent tactics, whether they be payments to Palestinians that incentivize terrorism or rockets being launched from Gaza at Israeli cities and towns. Based on Israeli statements rightly condemning Palestinian violence and declaring that the only way forward is for Palestinians to cease their attacks on Israelis, Palestinian non-violent civil disobedience should be the key to gaining concessions from Israel and convincing Israelis that Palestinians are willing to live next to them peacefully. On the Palestinian side, President Abbas’s claim to fame is that he was one of the only leaders during the Second Intifada who consistently opposed terrorism and has always advocated for a non-violent approach to resisting Israel’s presence in the West Bank. The problem is that neither of these things is today entirely true; Abbas’s definition of peaceful resistance is not exclusively peaceful, and Israel has reacted to non-violence as if it is just as threatening to Israel’s existence as terrorism.
On Monday, Abbas met with the family of Ahed Tamimi, the 17 year old Palestinian girl arrested in December for slapping an Israeli soldier outside her home. Tamimi is currently in prison awaiting her trial later this month, and the video of her assaulting a soldier went viral and made her a worldwide celebrity. While Israelis celebrated the soldier’s restraint in trying his best to ignore Tamimi slapping and pushing him and not responding, Palestinians celebrated Tamimi as a hero courageous enough to stand up to an armed soldier with no hint of fear or concern about the consequences. There is a debate to be had about whether either of these perspectives is correct, but one thing that Tamimi’s actions are indisputably not is non-violent. Tamimi’s newfound fame is in fact a direct result of the fact that she did employ violence, and wasn’t scared off by a soldier much larger than her and carrying a rifle. One might want to call what she did brave or heroic, but nothing about it was peaceful.
Not everyone sees it that way, however, and a primary culprit in this regard is Abbas. After meeting with the Tamimis to show his respect and support for Ahed, Abbas issued a statement extolling “peaceful popular resistance against the occupation” and holding up Tamimi as a symbol of such resistance. This is obviously not in the same category as rhetorically supporting terrorism or directing armed attacks against Israelis, but it is also not adhering to a policy of non-violence. It is glorifying assaulting soldiers, and virtually guarantees that such tactics will become more popular and more widespread.
There can be a debate over whether what Tamimi did is an effective tool, whether she was justified in her response, and whether slapping or punching soldiers should be treated any differently than throwing rocks or actually taking up arms. But it is important to describe what happened in an accurate way before any such discussion about Tamimi’s justifications and the appropriate response takes place. Tamimi employed violence and not peaceful resistance, full stop. She is not Gandhi and she is not Martin Luther King. If what she did becomes accepted as non-violent and peaceful, then the idea will become devoid of any real meaning.
Israelis largely condemn Tamimi because they rightly recognize that her action was a violent one, and they understandably do not want to countenance any resistance to Israeli policy in the West Bank that employs violent tactics. But Israel has its own issues surrounding violent resistance versus non-violent resistance, treating the BDS movement as a threat on par with violent targeting of Israelis. And as with Tamimi, one can debate whether BDS is an appropriate tactic or not, but there is no debate over the fact that it is non-violent. I find the BDS movement itself to be ridden with anti-Semitic characters and rhetoric, and I do not support any type of boycott of Israel or Israelis, whether they are living in Neve Ilan or Neve Daniel. I also do not expect Israel to embrace a boycott of its people or goods, nor would I want it to. That doesn’t change the fact that the Israeli response to BDS has been to treat it no differently than actual terrorism in banning its adherents from entering Israel and allocating hundreds of millions of shekels to combat it across the globe. It raises a question about what type of non-violent response Palestinians and their supporters could adopt that would be effective in achieving their goals and seen as a legitimate response to Israel, irrespective of whether one disagrees with it. Unless the expectation is that Palestinians sit back and accept their fate with nary a peep – and in some quarters that may indeed be the expectation – then in the long term this will invariably lead Palestinians to conclude that violence, and only violence, is the way forward.
In speaking with ordinary Palestinians, they seem baffled about why BDS is considered to be so controversial and why American Jews will not support it. I recently heard a Palestinian NGO leader plead with a group of American Jews to support a limited form of boycott that would only target elements of companies that support the occupation itself, right after he had blasted the central BDS movement as being too willing to accept anti-Semites and people dedicated to Israel’s destruction into its ranks. I understand the confusion, even while I do not sympathize with the underlying request. It is difficult to convince Palestinians that forswearing violence is the only way forward while simultaneously treating the non-violent tactic upon which they have landed as the next great threat facing the country, particularly when BDS is laughably ineffective. A better response to incentivize greater adoption of Palestinian non-violent tactics would be to fight it from the demand side rather than the supply side, actively working to convince corporations and investment funds not to boycott or divest from Israel while keeping the response to those who push for BDS in proportion.
Each side uses non-violence to great effect. Israel points to its absence when it is not entirely absent, and Palestinians extol its virtues when describing something that doesn’t actually fit the bill. Both sides need to be a bit more honest in their characterizations if they ever want to do more than preach to the converted.