Nearly one dozen Palestinian protesters were shot down in several dozen protests along the Israeli border yesterday. The Israeli government is complaining to the Security Council that the so-called Nakba Day protests violated international law.
But this was not any ordinary border raid. These were activists, not militants. The vast majority of the protesters were practicing a sophisticated form of direct-action non-violent resistance — the kind that has informed liberation movements from Ghandi to MLK to more recently Tahrir square and Tunisia.
The Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian enclaves of Gaza and the West Bank approached Israeli gun positions on Sunday without arms of their own. If some teenagers threw rocks, a protest leader said they had apparently failed to attend the workshops on nonviolence the organizers arranged in what they call a new paradigm for the conflict. The aim, which appears to be building support, aims to re-cast the Palestinian-Israel conflict on the same terms that brought down dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia.
Massive non-violent protests are aimed at winning international sympathy for the Palestinian perspective, and as a result, forcing Israel to pull out of territories its army has occupied since 1967. As the dust settled Sunday, senior Israeli officers acknowledged their vulnerability to the approach, which dovetails with the strategy of Palestinian leaders to ask the UN General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state in September.
The initial tactic of this kind of movement is to provoke an over-reaction that shocks the conscience of the group whose interests the “oppressor” is supposed to represent. Little girls being hit by water cannons in Alabama and the Armistre massacre were images and events that forced Americans and British citizens into realizing that actions ostensibly taken on their behalf were immoral and evil.
The Palestinians were trying to provoke the Israeli’s into shooting unarmed people–and they apparently succeeded. If the script is followed, there will be other acts of non-violence that will be met with a violent reaction.
The great challenge for non-violent protest movements is to always recognize the humanity in the adversary, even as the adversary denies that humanity to others. Considering the role that suicide bombing has historically played in the Palestinian resistance, it is fair to say that the de-humanization of Israelis has been deeply ingrained among a cadre of Palestinian activists. But if this nascent non-violent movement can maintain its focus — Keep its Eyes on the Prize, as the Civil Rights era saying goes — it is probably the best vehicle to realize the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. And if the Israelis were smart, they would re-double their efforts at achieving a lasting and durable peace sooner, rather than later.