Other people's struggle; being of use or abusing Palestinians' right to act

July 12, 2012
Sarah Benton

Pros and Cons of Solidarity with the Palestinian Struggle

Richard Falk, blog
July 11, 2012

The posture of solidarity with the struggle of ‘the other’ is more complex than it might appear at first glance. It seems a simple act to join with others in opposing severe injustice and cruelty, especially when its reality is experienced and witnessed first-hand as I have for several decades in relation to the Palestinian struggle. I was initially led to understand the Palestinian (counter-) narrative by friends while still a law student in the late 1950s. But my engagement was more in the spirit of resisting what Noam Chomsky would later teach us to call ‘indoctrination in a liberal society,’ a matter of understanding how the supposedly objective media messes with our mind in key areas of policy sensitivity, and none has turned out in the West, especially in North America, to be more menacingly stage managed than the presentation of Palestinians and their struggle, which merge with sinister forms of racial and religious profiling under the labels of ‘the Arab mind’ and ‘Muslim extremism.’ The intended contrast to be embedded in Western political consciousness is between the bloodthirsty Arab/Palestinian/Muslim and the Western custodian of morality and human rights.

Perhaps, for very personal reasons I had since childhood taken the side of the less privileged in whatever domain the issue presented itself, whether in sports or family life or in relation to race and sexual identity, and professionally, in foreign policy. Despite being white and attracted sexually only to women, I found myself deeply moved by the ordeal in democratic America of African Americans, gays, and later, members of indigenous communities. I have sustained these affinities despite a long career that involved swimming upstream in the enclaves of the privileged as a longtime member of the Princeton University faculty.

In recent years, partly by chance, most of these energies of solidarity have been associated with the Palestinian struggle, which has involved mainly in my case the bearing of witness to abuses endured by the Palestinian people living under occupation or in varying forms of exile, especially in my role as UN Special Rapporteur. This is an unpaid position, and affords me a much higher degree of independence than is enjoyed by normal UN career civil servants or diplomats serving a particular government. Many of these individuals work with great dedication and taken on dangerous assignments, but are expected to conform to institutional discipline that is exercised in a deadly hierarchical manner that often links the UN to the grand strategy and geopolitical priorities of a West-centric world order. This structure itself seems more and more out of step with the rise of the non-West in the last several decades. Just days ago the Indian representative at the UN called for a restructuring of the Security Council to get rid of its anachronistic cast of characteristics that overvalues the West and undervalues the rest.

Bearing witness involves being truthful and as factually accurate as possible, regardless of what sort of consensus is operative in the corridors of power. In a biased media and a political climate that is orchestrated from above, the objectivity of bearing witness will itself be challenged as ‘biased’ or ‘one-sided’ whenever it ventures onto prohibited terrain. In actuality, the purpose of bearing witness is to challenge bias, not to perpetuate it, but in our Orwellian media world, it is bias that is too often presented as balanced, and truth witnessing that is either ignored or derided.

The witness of unwelcome truths should always exhibit a posture of humility, not making judgments about the tactics of struggle employed by those fighting against oppression, and not supplying the solutions for those whose destinies are directly and daily affected by a deep political struggle. To do otherwise is to pretend to be thea purveyor of greater wisdom and morality than those enduring victimization. In the Palestine/Israel conflict it is up to the parties, the peoples themselves and their authentic representatives, to find the path to a sustainable and just peace, although it seems permissible for outsiders to delineate the distribution of rights that follow from an application of international law and to question whether the respective peoples are being legitimately represented.

These comments reflect my reading of a passionate and provocative essay by Linah Alsaafin entitled “How obsession with ‘non-violence’ harms the Palestinian cause,” which was published online in the Electronic Intifada on July 11, 2012.  [see below] The burden of her excellent article is the insistence that it is for the Palestinians, and only the Palestinians, to decide on the forms and nature of their resistance. She writes with high credibility as a recent graduate of Birzeit University who was born in Cardiff, Wales and lived in England and the United States, as well as Palestine. She persuasively insists that for sympathetic observers and allies to worship at the altar of Palestinian non-violence is to cede to the West the authority to determine what are acceptable and unacceptable forms of Palestinian struggle. This is grotesquely hypocritical considering the degree to which Western militarism is violently unleashed around the planet so as to maintain structures of oppression and exploitation, more benignly described as ‘national interests.’ In effect, the culturally sanctioned political morality of the West is indicative of an opportunistically split personality: nonviolence for your struggle, violence for ours. Well-meaning liberals, by broadcasting such an insidious message, are not to be welcomed as true allies.

In this connection, I acknowledge my own carelessness in taking positive note of this shift in Palestinian tactics in the direction of nonviolent forms of resistance, being unwittingly paternalistic, if not complicit with an unhealthy ‘tyranny of the stranger.’ It is certainly not the case that Alsaafin is necessarily advocating Palestinian violence, but rather she is contending that unless the Palestinians realize that they must mobilize their own masses to shape their own destiny, which leads her to lament because it is not yet happening, nothing will change, and the occupiers and oppressors will continue to dominate the Palestinian scene. In effect, Alsaafin is telling us that deferring to Western canons of struggle is currently dooming Palestinians to apathy and despair.

I find most of what Alsaafin has to say to be persuasive, illuminating, and instructive, although I feel she neglects to take note of the courage and mobilizing impact of the prison hunger strikes that have ignited the imagination of many Palestinians in recent months. Also, to some extent, my highlighting of nonviolence was never intended as an input into the Palestinian discourse or as favorable commentary, but seeks to challenge and expose the untrustworthiness of Western liberals who have for years been lecturing the Palestinians to abandon violence for the sake of effectiveness, arguing that a supposedly democratic and morally sensitive society such as they allege exists in Israel would be responsive to a nonviolent challenge by the Palestinians, and this would in turn lead to a more reasonable and fair negotiating approach by the Israelis out of which a just peace could emerge. As should have been understood by the harsh Israeli responses to both intifadas, Israel turns a blind eye to Palestinian nonviolence, or even does its best to provoke Palestinian violence so as to have some justification for its own. And the usually noisy liberal pontificators such as Tom Friedman and Nicholas Kristof go into hiding whenever Palestinian creativity in resistance does have recourse to nonviolent tactics. These crown princes of liberal internationalism were both silent throughout the unfolding and dramatic stories of the various long hunger strikes. These were remarkable examples of nonviolent dedication that bear comparison with Gandhi’s challenges hurled at the British Empire or the later efforts of the IRA to awaken London to the horrors of prison conditions in Northern Ireland, and certainly were newsworthy.

At the same time, there are some universal values at stake that Alsaafin does not pause to acknowledge. There are two of these truths intertwined in bewildering complexity: no outsider has the moral authority or political legitimacy to tell those enduring severe oppression how to behave; no act of violence whatever the motivation that is directed against an innocent child or civilian bystander is morally acceptable or legally permissible even if it seems politically useful. Terrorism is terrorism whether the acts are performed by the oppressor or the oppressed, and for humanity to move toward any kind of collective emancipation, such universal principles must be affirmed as valid, and respected by militants.

Also absent from the article is any effort to situate the Palestinian struggle in an historical and geographic context. There are tactical realities in some situations of conflict that may make those who act in solidarity a vital part of the struggle that participate on the basis of their own political calculus. The Vietnamese recognized the importance of an autonomous Western peace movement in weakening the will of the American political establishment to continue with the Vietnam War. The global anti-apartheid campaign turned the tide in South Africa, and allowed the internal forces led by the African National Congress to prevail in their long struggle against settler colonial rule and racism. We all need to remember that each struggle has its own originality that is historically, politically, and culturally conditioned, and the Palestinian struggle is no exception.

As Alsaafin powerfully reminds us who attempt to act in solidarity, while she is addressing a related message to the Palestinians, it is for the Palestinians to exert leadership and find inspiration, and for the rest of us to step to one side. We must be humble for our sake as well as theirs, they must be assertive, and then our solidarity might make a welcome contribution a rather than unintentionally administering a mild depressant.

How obsession with “nonviolence” harms the Palestinian cause
Linah Alsaafin, The Electronic Intifada
July 10, 2012

Ramallah–In recent years, western discourse surrounding the Palestinian cause has employed a few new — and superficial — adjectives to describe Palestinian resistance: Palestinian “nonviolent” resistance, Palestinian “peaceful” resistance, Palestinian “popular” resistance, Palestinian “unarmed” resistance. And the ever so popular Palestinian “Gandhi-style” resistance.

This discourse has been adopted by the Palestinian popular struggle committees, born after the success story of the occupied West Bank village of Budrus that embarked on popular protests and managed to regain 95 percent of its lands that were expropriated by Israel’s apartheid wall in 2003. However, the obsessive, fetish-like concentration on a specific type of resistance has in one way or another contributed to the delegitimization of other forms of resistance, while simultaneously closing off open discussion on what popular resistance actually is.

An historical overview of Palestinian resistance would testify to its use of different forms, although they were not viewed separately by Palestinians themselves. Palestinians were aware of their rights being stripped from them and confronted their occupiers.

There were the 1929 Wailing Wall/Buraq Wall demonstrations against the domination of the site by Jews who were backed by the British Mandate that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians and Jews; the 1935 armed uprising spearheaded by Izz al-Din Qassam against British soldiers; the six-month trade strike against the British Mandate and Jewish colonialists the following year; and the subsequent three-year uprising brutally crushed by the British.

During the outbreak of what became known as the first intifada, in 1987, the iconic image of a Palestinian rock thrower facing a fully-armed, sophisticated army “redeemed” the Palestinian resistance of hijacking planes in the 1970s.

No need to explain

Nowadays, Israelis and internationals and unfortunately even some “enlightened” Palestinians champion “nonviolent resistance” and consider throwing a rock to be a violent act. The argument goes that throwing rocks tarnishes the reputation of Palestinians in the western world and immediately negates the “nonviolent/peaceful” resistance movement. This argument falls into the trap of western- (read, colonizer) dictated methods of acceptable means to resist.

Oppressed people do not and should not have to explain their oppression to their oppressor, nor tailor their resistance to the comfort of the oppressors and their supporters.

The last time we truly had a genuine, grassroots popular resistance movement in Palestine (before the protests against Israel’s apartheid wall in the West Bank village of Budrus in the early 2000s) was during first three years of the first intifada.

In 2005, people in the village of Bilin began their weekly protests against the wall Israel built on their land. The Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (PSCC) was formed in 2008, touted as the rebirth of popular resistance as more and more West Bank villages started their own weekly protests and were effectively swept under the wings of the PSCC.

Mohammed Khatib, one of the founders of the PSCC, told me in an interview that the committee “sought to undertake creative direct action as a result of the low numbers in the protests.”

Bailed out by PA
The model of the PSCC is built around generating international support and media awareness, and on this front it has proven to be highly successful. Yet the use of the term of “popular resistance” is unfair and quite simply an inaccuracy as these demonstrations are built around no mobilizing strategy or goal, do not include the majority or even half of the villagers, and some of those who do take part prevent their wives and daughters from joining in.

The structure of the committee is built on an undemocratic basis, with self-appointed figures from the various villages fulfilling the leadership roles. The unelected Palestinian Authority prime minister, the darling of Europe and the US, Salam Fayyad funds the committee with more than half a million shekels ($125,000) each year.

“Since October 2009, we have been getting 50,000 shekels per month from Fayyad,” Khatib said. The money ostensibly goes to paying the bails of Palestinians arrested during the protests, logistical needs and administrative purposes.

“The financial costs could not be covered except from the support and donations of official bodies,” Khatib explained. “During one month in 2008, fifty Palestinians were arrested from Bilin. Fifty people needed to be represented by a lawyer and have their bail paid. Donations from supporters were just not enough.”

Fayyad carries an agenda with him, which he has no qualms in making public. During the seventh annual Bilin conference in April this year, he spoke about how these “popular protests are the steps toward an economically independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.” This is in stark contrast to the popular chants at these same demonstrations of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

More concretely, of course, Fayyad nominally commands the security forces that work with the very same Israeli occupation army that is carrying out the theft of land from the villages.

Khatib is aware of the criticisms relating to an alleged popular committee accepting funds from politicians. “I’ve personally met with Salam Fayyad several times since April 2011 and told him that the popular committees do not want his money, but he didn’t listen,” Khatib added.

The PSCC is also funded by nongovernmental organizations who come in with their own schemes and plans. For example, the Spanish group NoVA seeks, according to its website, to “offer support for civil society in conflict areas in the field of violence prevention, peace building, mediation and nonviolent conflict transformation” (noviolencia.nova.cat).

NoVA supports a study program called the Executive Diploma for Leading Change. According to participant Beesan Ramadan, the Spanish deputy consul Pablo Sanz was brought into one of the classes to lecture about the “proper way to resist” and then proceeded to say that Palestinians should be “pragmatic” and to consider not throwing rocks in protests. Sanz argued that it makes the consuls’ jobs harder if they encounter rock throwing when they attended protests with European officials.

Mired in apathy
This is the root problem for the protests that internationals and Israelis so love to participate in. The PSCC is not reflective of Palestinian society, one that is mired in deep apathy due to a number of factors: the dependency of large numbers of people on loans from banks, the illusion of a “state” as introduced by Fayyad’s neoliberal agenda of “state-building,” the high cost of sacrifices already made and the exhaustion of 64 years of increasing and incessant occupation and colonization.

Overshadowing all of it are the Oslo accords of the 1990s, which only legitimized and entrenched the Israeli occupation instead of getting rid of it.

A need for mobilization
Meanwhile, efforts are made to bring in European and international delegations and show them around the villages engaging in the weekly protests, and in establishing solidarity links that lead to speaking tours during which leaders of the popular committees talk about “nonviolent resistance.”

However, equal effort is not made toward mobilizing Palestinians. The failure to do so is indicative of the prevalent attitude in Palestinian society, one that hasn’t changed since Bilin’s first protest in 2005. Seven years of weekly protests and the general attitude is again one of apathy, contempt for “Fayyad’s resistance” and despair regarding the uselessness of it all, of how the youth are bravely risking their lives week in, week out and how that won’t change the status quo.

By criticizing this model of protests, I am in no way seeking to belittle or cast doubt on the courage of men and women who protest against the occupier, or the sacrifices made by numerous villages, particularly by those whose sons and daughters have been martyred or injured by the Israeli forces.

The psychological and physical stresses that villagers suffer from frequent night raids on their homes, multiple arrests of their family members, and the helplessness of not being able to give their children a better future are all to be taken into consideration, as well as their admirable steadfastness and conviction that these protests are an effective means to challenge the occupation.

No such thing as “joint struggle” with Israelis
In addition to questions about the strategy behind and efficacy of these forms of protests, the participation of Israeli activists is certainly a topic of great debate. Today’s dynamics of “Palestinian resistance” have drawn more and more Israelis to the protests and made it an attractive prospect, almost like a tourist destination.

Unless explicitly stated by villagers or the Palestinian community involved in demonstrations, no one is refusing to allow Israelis come to the protests. With that in mind, it is also helpful to acknowledge that the majority of Palestinian society does not trust Israelis from the outset. So what exactly should the role of Israeli activists be?

It goes without saying that Israeli activists must never take a decision-making or leadership role in the Palestinian struggle, but instead must remain on the periphery. In my experience, most of the Israeli activists already know and understand that. Once establishing their presence in Palestinian protests, their primary responsibilities are documenting the Israeli occupying army’s crimes, facilitating legal proceedings in the case of Palestinians getting arrested by the Israeli army and diverting arrest, which means placing themselves in front of Palestinians who are about to get arrested to allow the Palestinians more time to escape arrest.

Eltezam Morrar from Budrus, who led the women in her village to protest against the occupation army, shared her fear that the present-day reality is not totally led by Palestinian voices.

“Any international or Israeli who wants to join us in our demos is welcomed,” she told me. “But as my father once said, we are the ones who put the agendas for the resistance and the Israeli or international supporters follow it. Nowadays I am not really sure if the agendas are 100 percent Palestinian.”

This issue is exacerbated by the absence of a truly representative Palestinian leadership able to lay out a strategy for resistance and mass mobilization, instead of busying itself with creating a police (non)state in the West Bank bantustans, or autocratic rule under Hamas in Gaza.

Some Israeli activists speak explicitly of a “joint struggle” between Israelis and Palestinians (see, for example, Noa Shaindlinger’s 24 June article “Thoughts on a joint, but unequal struggle” on the website +972).

But to put it bluntly, there is no such thing as a “joint struggle.”

Israeli anarchists, many of whom attend the Palestinian protests and who are perhaps the closest to understanding the Palestinian struggle, don’t even identify themselves as Israelis to begin with, so the term doesn’t make much sense anyway. There must be an understanding of what the Palestinian struggle is about, specifically so that liberal Zionists won’t waste their time coming to protests all in the name of “peace” and “the two-state solution.”

There can be no peace without justice, and justice means decolonization, allowing the implementation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and obliterating all the racist laws and policies of Israeli apartheid and occupation. That means no Jewish state, no supremacist laws and no different systems for people of different ethnic backgrounds.

No symmetry under occupation
The term “joint struggle” implies a degree of equality or at least symmetry, and that is definitely not the case between Israelis and Palestinians, even if they are dodging the same rubber bullets and inhaling the same tear gas.

Israeli activists are solidarity activists, just like their international counterparts. There is no clear role for solidarity activists precisely because there is no clear Palestinian resistance strategy within Palestine.

If there was an aim to the protests, then solidarity activists would join the villagers from, for example, Nabi Saleh and trek down the hill to where the stolen village spring lies, instead of habitually hanging back and philosophizing on the inhuman nature of the occupation soldiers.

The fact that Israeli activists live on Palestinian colonized land spurs them to want to do more and be considered as more than solidarity activists, as they claim that they are connected to the Palestinian cause, which is true enough. The problem lies with what sort of actions are implemented, and what these Israeli activists can do to chip away at the occupying, colonizing system.

Israeli activists should focus on changing their own society
Israeli activists must work within their own societies and communities. Of course this will be a very difficult and even dangerous task, as one would expect in a society where racism and fascism are so institutionalized.

To Palestinians, that would make the difference, not swamping weekly protests that don’t hold much credibility with Palestinians in the first place, and sometimes even outnumbering the Palestinian participants.

Complaints from some Israeli activists of how horrible they are treated and of the persecution they receive at the hands the army can come off as self-indulgent, especially when arrests or injuries of Israelis and internationals are already far more likely to be widely reported anyway than the routine and horrifying abuses suffered by Palestinians on a far larger scale.

Israeli activists sometimes despair about how pointless and ineffective their efforts are in creating more awareness about the realities of the occupation within their own communities but that should only spur them to be more creative in coming up with strategies to confront and challenge their society.

For now, Palestinians must also work within their own societies in order to mobilize and inject the society with the spirit of volunteerism and social community that is now fragmenting due to neoliberal economic policies that widen inequality, aid dependency, debt and consumerism.

“Becoming an anti-Zionist in Israeli society is such a difficult process that demands lots of bravery and courage,” a friend of mine from Nazareth observed, “and when they resort to me, I have the privilege to rescue them as human beings and not reject them just because they were born to this dysfunctional society.”

No one is rejecting Israeli anti-Zionists, but simply calling yourself an anti-Zionist, and even coming to protests is not enough. Israeli activists who do so claim, for the most part, to understand the privileges they enjoy due to being white and Jewish in a colonial situation. But it is not always clear that they understand in practice how these privileges continue to manifest themselves in their interactions with Palestinians.

Toward a truly popular resistance
Despite the good intentions of the internationals and the Israelis who come to protests, their presence can also buttress the notion that Palestinians need someone to speak in their name. Not only is this model of resistance hugely ineffective in terms of outcome and mobilizing Palestinians, it also helps maintains the status quo that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority strive to protect.

Bassem Tamimi, one of the leaders of the popular struggle committee in Nabi Saleh, acknowledged that the reality on the ground is not a popular resistance.

“We are still in the preliminary stages. I would even say the stages behind the preliminaries behind the first step to be taken toward a popular resistance. There are a lot of faults with the current model. When we first started out on these weekly protests we used the term ‘popular resistance’ as a way to mobilize so that in the near future, it could be just that. Now we’re at a stagnation point.”

Building from the ground up
Revolutions and successful resistance do not take place overnight. It takes months, years for a movement to establish itself. The struggle must be brought back to the Palestinians themselves, and one sure way to mobilize is not through protests or speeches, but through social community work (which incidentally is what made Hamas so popular from its establishment, especially in the refugee camps).

Get to know the people on the street. Ask them what they need, what they are suffering from. It could be a broken roof or not having enough money to pay their daughter’s university tuition. Trust begins to be built up in different communities, and with that awareness and the spark to rekindle a true resistance movement on the ground.

As Paolo Freire rightly pointed out, “No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.”

Linah Alsaafin is a recent graduate of Birzeit University in the West Bank. She was born in Cardiff, Wales and was raised in England, the United States and Palestine. Her website is http://lifeonbirzeitcampus.blogspot.com.

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