Monday, August 29, 2005

Non-Violent Resistance - in Theory

The day before the recent demonstration in Bil'in, which I described in my last post, I participated in a somewhat smaller demonstration in Immatin, a Palestinian village facing similar destruction as a result of construction on the annexation barrier. In this case, however, the Israeli soldiers present restrained themselves, so there was no rock throwing by local kids, no arrests, no bruised Aaron, etc. The event's very tranquility, however, both resulted from and contributed to its ineffectiveness, and led me to reflect on the meaning and nature of non-violent resistance. I thought I would post my thoughts on the subject, particularly as they relate to the Palestinian - Israeli conflict.

It seems to me that non-violent resistance movements draw on three basic methods of creating change without resorting to the use of force. First, non-violent action attempts to put the opponent in a position in which the things they must do to achieve their own ends are so repugnant that they refuse to continue. Second, and particularly when the first method fails, it attempts to put the opponent in a position in which their actions are so repugnant to people outside of the conflict, that those people will overcome their natural apathy and intervene. Third, these actions may attempt to directly prevent the opponent from achieving their ends.

It is important to recognize the difference between non-violent resistance and non-violent demonstrations as typically practiced in the United States (and, I believe, other democratic states). In these contexts, people who (generally) have access to the political process use demonstrations as representations of political preference, or as a means of publicizing their positions. Politicians see some number of voters, or potential voters, participating in a demonstration, and attempt to extrapolate from that level of participation to their larger constituencies. At the same time, the demonstration, which is usually colorful and dramatic, attracts attention from the mass media that the underlying position would not, and (hopefully, from the perspective of the demonstrators) increases the level of support for the position. While this kind of demonstration may work well in functioning democracies, it is almost completely ineffective in a situation like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in which the victimized party is completely excluded from the political process of the victimizer.

Now, let's take a look at the Immatin demonstration with these considerations in mind. At Immatin, a number of Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists (decreasing in number from first to last) staged a demonstration at a site that has been prepared for construction of the annexation barrier. There was, so far as I know, no work actually scheduled for the time of the demonstration, so the action could not directly prevent the barrier's construction. Presumably because of this, the soldiers were essentially able to not respond to the action at all. International and Israeli press were present, but they were left with relatively little to report. It's extremely unlikely that this inactivity will so offend any of the soldiers that he/she will refuse to serve, or that it will goad the international community into bothersome corrective action. There are, of course, secondary benefits: the Palestinians are somewhat empowered in their dealings with the army, stories on the event help to correct media stereotypes of violent Palestinians, etc. Still, the result is not a viable alternative to violent resistance, nor does it hold out much hope of preventing construction of the barrier, or producing significant changes in final status negotiations.

In Bil'in, the situation is similar, although less obvious. In this case, again, there was no possible direct effect on construction, and the soldiers could have largely defeated the demonstration by simply restraining themselves. Fortunately, however, they were ineptly led, and turned the demonstration into a dramatic confrontation, in which non-violent demonstrators were manhandled, detained, targeted by sound bombs and tear gas, etc. This led to some limited stone-throwing, and again the soldiers conveniently over-reacted, shooting rubber bullets (although there may have been a few live rounds) and tear gas at youths who were clearly no real threat. The international and Israeli press got some moderately interesting footage, and the Palestinian cause benefited accordingly. In the end, however, the result is much the same. Very few soldiers will risk jail and ostracism to avoid using tear gas, sound bombs, and non-lethal rubber bullets. Foreign populations are unlikely to be moved to outrage by this level of violence, and foreign governments will face little pressure to respond with any real seriousness.

In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, time clearly favors the Israelis. Every day that passes means more meters of barrier constructed, more land annexed, more water seized, more settlements expanded, more "facts on the ground" in general. In order for the Palestinians to realize even some of their fundamental rights, and a fraction of their just demands, the non-violent resistance will need to challenge the Israeli subjugation of their people boldly and directly. Both the Israelis, and the world, must be confronted with the brutal reality of the occupation if the Palestinian people is to survive.