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Resolving the Israel-Palestine Conflict: What we can learn from Gandhi


The aim of this posting is to introduce readers to Norman Finkelstein’s elaboration of Gandhi’s ideas and their relevance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He presented them in his Tans lecture delivered by at Maastricht University  on 13 November 2008. The full text is on Finkelstein’s website. It is offered here as a contribution to the ongoing, but often neglected, exploration of non-violent resistance strategies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The media, as ever, focuses on war and violence – though state violence against non-violent resistance, as at Bil’in for example, is seldom deemed to be newsworthy either. It is especially interesting to read the lecture now, as one of the major obstacles in the way of such a strategy at the time Finkelstein developed his ideas was the US’s uncritical support for Israel…

Finkelstein comments on the lecture: ” I originally wrote this article having in mind a Gandhian strategy for dismantling the illegal wall Israel has been constructing in the West Bank. The same Gandhian principles however apply to breaking the illegal Gaza blockade.”

Here are a few extracts from the lecture (and here Brian Robinson has kindly provided a link to a listing of those of Finkelstein’s voluminous footnotes which contain substantive material, not simply references. It makes for easier reading!) :

This lecture will divide into three parts. First, I will lay out the terms of the international consensus for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Second, I will sketch Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolent civil resistance. Third, I will assess the relevance of Gandhi’s doctrine for the Israel-Palestine conflict. I will argue that a moral legal consensus is a prerequisite for Gandhi’s doctrine to succeed. In the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict such a consensus does exist, and consequently those seeking a just and lasting peace might benefit from giving Gandhi’s doctrine a serious hearing.

The documentary record clearly demonstrates that whereas the global community has consistently registered its support in numerous forums for a two-state settlement based on a full Israeli withdrawal to the June 1967 border, and a resolution of the refugee question based on the right of return and compensation, Israel and the United States have consistently rejected such a settlement. The Arab League has unanimously supported a two-state settlement on the June 1967 border and a “just” resolution of the refugee question based on 194, and Hamas has endorsed a settlement on these terms,[5] while the Palestinian Authority has not only accepted the terms of the global consensus but expressed willingness to make major concessions.[6] The challenge for those seeking a just and lasting peace is to get Israel and the United States to respect international law and public opinion. A possible strategy is the one pioneered by Gandhi, to which I now turn.

III. What can supporters of a just peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict learn from Gandhi?

Before answering this question, a few preliminary remarks are in order. Neither I nor anyone else has the right to tell Palestinians that they must renounce violent means to end the occupation. As already noted, during the Arab Revolt in the 1930s Gandhi asserted that “according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.” I cannot see grounds for revising this judgment, except to note that the “accepted canons” today would mean the current laws of war (e.g., the inadmissibility of targeting civilians). In fact, if they cannot find the moral reserves to practice nonviolence, according to Gandhi, then it is not only the right but the duty of Palestinians to hit back, and hit back hard, those who have wrecked their lives and violated their persons. Palestinians are not obliged to acquiesce in assaults on their human dignity; quite the contrary, they have a responsibility to defend their dignity against such assaults, nonviolently if they can, violently if they must. It might also be recalled that for Gandhi “no greater evil can befall a country than that it should lose its independence.”[181] If I propose that Palestinians adopt Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolent civil resistance, it is not because they should be held—or hold themselves—accountable to a higher ethical standard, but rather because of a compelling pragmatic insight of his. There is nothing violence can accomplish, Gandhi maintained, that nonviolence cannot accomplish—and with lesser loss of life.

We have already seen that a crucial prerequisite for the successful prosecution of nonviolent resistance is a preexisting public consensus on the legitimacy of its goals. We have also seen that such a consensus has crystallized in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The international community has enjoined Israel’s full withdrawal from the territories it occupied in June 1967 and a resolution of the refugee question based on the right of return and compensation. The challenge now—in Gandhi’s words—is to “cultivate” and “quicken” the conscience of this public. In practical terms, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories would have to rivet international public opinion on the brutality of the occupation by resorting to nonviolent civil resistance; in the meantime their supporters abroad must publicize the factual record showing that international opinion—whether registered in its most representative bodies such as the United Nations General Assembly, or its most enlightened bodies such as the International Court of Justice and respected human rights organizations—agrees on how to resolve the conflict, and that the only obstacles to its settlement are Israel and the United States.

A massive mobilization of Palestinians building on the non-cooperation tactics of the first intifada (commercial and tax strikes, popular committees) could again make the Israeli occupation ungovernable. Is it so far-fetched to imagine an “army” of Palestinian satyagrahis converging on the Wall, their sole “weapons” a pick in one hand and a copy of the ICJ opinion in the other? The ICJ stated that the Wall was illegal and must be dismantled. The Palestinians would only be doing what the world should already have done a long time ago. Who could fault them for enforcing the law? No doubt Israel would fire on Palestinians and many would be killed. But if their supporters in North America and Europe publicized the ICJ opinion, and if Palestinians found the inner wherewithal to persevere nonviolently, it seems probable that far, far fewer than 5,000 Palestinians would be killed before Israel were forced to desist. No one writing abroad from the comfort and safety of his study can in good conscience urge such a strategy that entails so much death. But Gandhi’s point nonetheless stands: if Palestinians have repeatedly shown a willingness to pay the ultimate price, doesn’t it make sense for them to pursue a strategy that has a better likelihood of success at a smaller human price?

Full lecture and Brian Robinson has kindly provided a link to a listing of those of Finkelstein’s voluminous footnotes which contain substantive material, not simply references. It makes for easier reading!

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