Meron Benvenisti
February 29, 2008 - 6:08pm

It is hard to say who was responsible for fueling the recent uproar over warnings that Palestinian protesters would try to break through the borders and checkpoints of the Gaza Strip. Was it the defense establishment, or perhaps the media? In any case, the hysteria-mongers succeeded all too well, for the mountain became a molehill. The artillery batteries and thousands of Israeli soldiers who stood before a few thousand Palestinian children turned the Israeli response into a fiasco.

Of course, it was impossible to admit afterward that the defense minister and military chiefs had panicked. They spent hours debating how to thwart the danger of a Palestinian march and what would be the appropriate response if the marchers broke through the fence, which apparently they never planned to do. Predictably, army officials claimed later that the massive military preparations prevented the Palestinians from attempting such a clash. The Palestinians, meanwhile, boasted that a mere false warning was enough to exhaust the Israeli army.

The tempest that never was disappeared quickly, but those involved are
convinced that it was merely a practice run for an event that will occur in the near future  because a clash between the Israel Defense Forces and an unarmed Palestinian crowd is inevitable.

This feeling has haunted Israelis since the mid-1950s. The nightmare in which "refugees march in droves to their abandoned homes" has been expressed in quite a few literary works, and it came up as a realistic prediction in the scenarios for which the IDF has prepared several times since 1967. This scenario frightens the army more than a violent conflict with armed Palestinians.

Israelis are used to the Palestinians being either violent or docile;
nonviolent resistance creates a serious dilemma. A forceful response leading to unarmed casualties, among them women and children, will play into the enemy's hands. More than the army fears bad press and international criticism, it is concerned that the solidarity of the Israeli public and its support for the security forces might splinter if parts of the public protest against the excessive use of force and come to doubt the IDF's commitment to its own ethical code, its famous "purity of arms."

The fear that nonviolent protest will take root among the Palestinians has accompanied the conflict for many years, and the response of the Israeli authorities to nonviolent protest has been no less severe than their reaction to violent acts. We can recall the fury with which [Palestinian activist] Mubarak Awad was treated during the 1980s, when he tried to organize a group of Gandhi-style passive protesters.

The way to prevent the spread of nonviolent resistance is to threaten that it will be met with a violent response, including the use of firearms, in the hope that the threat will be taken seriously, serve as a deterrent and preclude the need to follow through and actually use such means. And indeed, until now the deterrence has worked: the Palestinian population is showing little willingness to adopt a strategy of nonviolent resistance.

This may be because such a path is incompatible with its nature, or because the Israelis have managed to persuade the Palestinians that they have no inhibitions when it comes to using force, even gunfire, against unarmed protesters, and that they make no distinction between violent and nonviolent demonstrations. Therefore, the nuances of the Satyagraha philosophy preached by Mahatma Gandhi make no impression on Israelis. On the contrary, nonviolent resistance might give them an excuse to tighten the siege and closure.

The Israeli checkpoints throughout the West Bank might attest to the success of the deterrence policy and the failure of the nonviolent resistance strategy. The dozens of checkpoints, manned by small groups of young, inexperienced and frightened soldiers, are meant to announce symbolically who has the power to control the lives of the ruled. The soldiers usually act without using force, taking advantage of the Palestinians' fear and arrogantly relying on a mentality of submission.

It never occurs to the occupiers that the occupied might dare to defy the code of conduct imposed on them, and that the checkpoints of oppression might become the barricades of an uprising. And so the balance between deterrence on the one hand, and rage and vengeance on the other, continues - an explosive, dangerous balance.

On April 13, 1919, tens of thousands of Indians gathered outside the great temple at Amritsar in Punjab and demanded an end to British rule. A British officer, who believed that reliable deterrence hinged on an "appropriate response," gave his (local) soldiers the order to open fire. In the course of 10 minutes, 1,650 bullets were fired, killing 379 Indians and injuring 1,500. The Amritsar massacre united the Indians behind Gandhi and ended what remained of the British pretense to enlightened rule.

Every foreign occupation has its Amritsar. In Gaza, a catastrophe has been prevented, but the balance remains explosive, and dangerous.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017