Media Mention of Ziad Asali in The National - May 19, 2010 - 12:00am

Palestinians, hard-headed realists that they are, have never much bought the idea of non-violence. The state of Israel was partly born out of violence and has been sustained mainly through violence. Turning the other cheek to people whose anatomical focus was your knees – and keeping you on them – never seemed especially wise, let alone effective.

This might now be changing. The “growing non-violent movement among Palestinians is simultaneously emerging spontaneously from the grassroots and being encouraged by the leadership,” Ziad Asali, the president of the American Task Force for Palestine (ATFP), wrote recently in the Guardian newspaper in the UK.

The question is why after so much suffering and the spilling of so much blood, non-violence seems to be catching on. One answer is simply that it has taken Palestinians this long to recognise the futility of using violence against a population determined after the Holocaust to never be so victimised by violence again.

“Armed struggle was the worst tactic that Palestinians could have used against a whole society marked by trauma and paranoia,” the Pulitzer Prize winner Kai Bird writes in his newly published autobiography, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate.

From the crucible of post-1948 Palestine, there also never arose a high-profile, politically viable counterpart to Mahatma Gandhi in India or Martin Luther King Jr in America, Mr Bird wites. The result is that “over the decades, it is the Palestinians who have become drenched in victimhood,” he says.

Despite the recent increase in non-violent protest and civil disobedience in the Palestinian Territories, there are still large numbers of Arab and Palestinians who are sceptical about the Gandhian approach. Mustering populist rhetoric and citing ideals that ceased being fresh a half-century ago, these proponents of an endless armed struggle against Israel often quote the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser: “What was taken by force, can be only restored by force.”

The problem is that Arab demagogues rarely offer viable options for relief within a measurable time-frame for Palestinians living in dire conditions in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Instead, their rhetoric is based on the “three nays” – no peace, no negotiation, no recognition of Israel – that emerged from the Arab summit held in Khartoum after Israel’s emotionally devastating defeat of Arab armies in the June 1967 war.

People like Mr Asali and the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, are not unfamiliar with Nasser’s populism or the “three nays.” At one time, they probably cheered for Nasser and the destruction of Israel, too. But people learn from experience.

“In the past, Palestinians relied first exclusively on armed struggle, then on armed struggle mixed with diplomacy, and then strictly on diplomacy disrupted by two uprisings in the occupied territories,” Mr Asali recounts.

Since most other tactics aimed at creating a Palestinian state have failed, Mr Asali and the Palestinian prime minister seem determined to give non-violence a try. Any chance of success depends upon consistency.

Throughout its history, the Palestinian national liberation movement has been stained by its inability – and perhaps unwillingness – to deliver on its promises. Israel has exploited this failure to advance its own interests, which Palestinians in turn brand as deal-breakers. The cycle serves to sabotage the peace process, much to the delight of the supporters of “endless armed struggle” on both sides.

By endorsing non-violence, the Palestinians would undermine Israeli claims that Palestinians are inherently violent. It would also put to rest accusations that their leadership cannot deliver on its promises of security and therefore Palestinians are not ready for independent government.

The affirmation of non-violence is potentially its own form of disarmament. While Israel can send its forces after armed Palestinian militants and justify its occupation of the West Bank, its pretext weakens when confronted by peaceful Palestinian civilians demanding that they be granted rights of self-governance and independence and making themselves heard worldwide.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force for Palestine, believes peaceful tactics and the peaceful solutions that are their offspring may not be fair to some Palestinians. For instance, some Palestinian refugees will have to abandon the right to return to their Pre-1948 homes and have to settle instead for living in a Palestinian state comprising the West Bank and Gaza Strip, says Mr Ibish, the author of What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda? After all, a compromise is about compromising, he says.

The Palestinian non-violence experiment is hardly perfect. But if recent improvement in governance in the West Bank is any indication, it is one of the best things to have happened to Palestinians in a long time. With it, everything becomes possible – even an independent state of Palestine.


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