I write this from the Indian capital New Delhi, where a massive 11-figure statue is probably the clearest sign that the Palestinians can fight a mighty system and hope to win.
The statue commemorates the start of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent struggle against the all-powerful British Empire. It depicts the Salt March, begun by Gandhi to defy a deeply unjust British law that forced Indians to buy salt at exorbitant prices from the colonial government and prohibited them from collecting their own.
That single act of disobedience set off a massive campaign of non-compliance across India and that campaign of unceasing peaceful resistance to occupation forced the world’s dominant power to accede to the protesters’ demands and set India free.
There can be no more powerful template for the Palestinian cause now that US President Donald Trump has abandoned even the pretence of even-handedness in the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Trump ignored international law and recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
With that, the United States, the world’s richest, most militarily powerful nation, threw its weight behind the Palestinians’ Israeli oppressors. It had the effect of a non-military offensive that wins a war, leaving the Palestinians’ long fight for justice uncertain, for how do you battle for something that has been given away?
The blow to Palestinians can hardly be understated. This is not because they cherished hopes that a Trump-led America would broker a just and viable peace but because it legitimises every indignity suffered by the Palestinians and makes it acceptable for Israel to further colonise land for Jewish settlements.
At this, perhaps the very darkest moment for the Palestinian cause, light and hope can only come from a new peaceful strategic mobilisation not unlike Gandhi’s Salt March. Thousands of Gandhis must emerge. Thousands of Rosa Parks must take a stand.
Parks, a black seamstress and rights activist, triggered the US civil rights movement against racial segregation by refusing one December day in 1955 to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. “I was not tired physically,” she later wrote in her autobiography. “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Gandhis and Parks must now stand and sit — and march — on principle, casting their struggle as a binary battle between right and wrong. If the Palestinians adopted non-violent resistance and held to it, the struggle would pit physically asymmetric but psychologically powerful forces against each other. Israel, a cruel oppressor supported by the United States, would be fighting the Palestinians even as they make a moral and peaceful argument against injustice.
Additionally, as Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan point out in their book “Why Civil Resistance Works,” there is a strategic logic in peaceful protest. They analysed 323 major insurrections since 1900 in support of self-determination and democratic rule and found that violent resistance was successful 26% of the time but non-violent campaigns were nearly twice as successful.
So, can the Palestinians do it? More to the point, will they?
Naysayers point out that the non-violent method of struggle has little appeal and even less of a track record in the Arab world but it was unarmed civil insurrections that ousted two autocrats — Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — in 2011.
Chibli Mallat, the Lebanese lawyer, US professor and author of “Philosophy of Non-violence: Revolution, Constitutionalism and Justice beyond the Middle East,” said it was remarkable “that probably the most violent region of the world, the Middle East, was capable of rallying around a non-violent philosophy of historical change in 2011.”
Stephen Zunes, a University of San Francisco professor specialising in the Middle East, insists: “There is a long history of non-violent resistance in the Middle East.” He offers a rundown of generally successful non-violent protests in the region, including Egypt’s 1919 independence struggle against the British, Lebanon’s 2006 Cedar Revolution ending Syrian domination, Sudan’s insurrections against military dictatorships in 1964 and 1985 and Iran’s 1890s’ Tobacco Strike, 1906 Constitutional Revolution and 1979 overthrow of the shah.
The Palestinians themselves, Zunes reminds us, have used non-violent mobilisation as a strategy, launching a general strike in the 1930s, the first intifada in the late 1980s “and more recent campaigns against Israel’s separation wall and settlement expansion in the West Bank.”
They must do so again, this time until they have justice and peace. They must surge forward holding aloft the weapon of truth.