Popular Protest in Palestine: The Uncertain Future of Unarmed Resistance

popular-protest-in-palestine-the-uncertain-future-of-unarmed-resistance_7110153By Marwan Darweish and Andrew Rigby. Pluto Press, 2015. 211 pages. $28/paperback; $21.99/eBook.

Buy from QuakerBooks

As a Quaker who believes in both the morality and the effectiveness of well-planned and committed nonviolent action for peace and justice, I found Popular Protest in Palestine very informative and very challenging, but also more than a little discouraging. Implicitly, the book also raises the important question: What is nonviolent action in its fullest sense?

The authors are respected scholars in peace studies and related fields who are based at London’s Coventry University. They give a comprehensive description of both the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Palestinian resistance. To a lesser degree, they also describe the important supportive role of Israeli peace groups and the varied international efforts to end the conflict and/or to support the Palestinian resistance.

The book made me realize more acutely the superficiality of both my knowledge and my understanding of what has been happening in the Middle East since the founding of modern Israel in 1948. Ask yourself: When I think of the many-decades-long clash between Israel and Palestine, don’t I see in my mind’s eye Palestinian youths throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers and Israeli soldiers retaliating with tear gas and rubber bullets? Don’t I envision homemade bombs, set by Palestinian suicide bombers, killing and maiming Jewish civilians on Jerusalem buses? Don’t I picture Israeli police arresting Palestinians and dragging them off to prison?

Popular Protest in Palestine uses a much wider lens. It opened my eyes to a different dimension of what’s been going on, especially the amazing variety and creativity of the (mostly nonviolent) protest methods used by Palestinians as they have sought to end Israel’s occupation. Here’s a list of just a few such efforts from the 1980s until now:

  • predominantly peaceful mass demonstrations by Palestinians during the First Intifada in 1989
  • peaceful efforts by Palestinians to block construction of the Israeli-built Separation Wall
  • providing a nonviolent “protective presence” by accompanying children on their way to school to deter assaults from settlers and Israeli soldiers
  • rebuilding without permits homes that Israeli bulldozers have destroyed
  • cultivating farmland from which Israeli authorities had officially banned them
  • using songs and poetry to express resistance and to keep up morale
  • chaining themselves to olive trees on land from which they had been expelled
  • marching toward Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and offering them pieces from a large birthday cake, commemorating the sixth anniversary of the Palestinian struggle against the occupation

However, in spite of these varied, decades-long, and often-courageous efforts, the authors come to the disheartening conclusion that Palestinians, for all their initiative and struggle, have not been able to influence enough of the Israeli public or decision-makers to shake the Israeli determination to continue—and even to strengthen—their occupation.

Does this mean that nonviolence has come to nothing when put to the test in these most difficult circumstances? Or does it mean that nonviolence hasn’t so much failed as that its full potential hasn’t been drawn upon? What if that full potential was brought to the struggle? In particular, what about “love your enemies”? Neither that phrase nor the faith stance that would sustain it appear anywhere in the book. Why?

As I’ve read modern writings on nonviolence, it is clear that both practitioners and theorists have come to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of nonviolent strategies and tactics and of what makes them most effective, most powerful. Gene Sharp’s books, beginning with his three volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action, published over 40 years ago, has been especially influential. More recently, his widely acclaimed 598-page Waging Nonviolent Struggle is a major contribution to understanding the strategy of nonviolent action.

I know and respect Sharp and have often drawn on his ideas in my own speaking and writing on nonviolence. He is certainly one of the world’s most influential thinkers on nonviolence and nonviolent action.

But Sharp is not religious. He doesn’t believe that nonviolent actions need to be rooted in faith or spirituality. He even can be condescending toward religious belief. “People who believe in the ethical or religious approach to nonviolent means,” he has written, “could assist, if they’re not too arrogant.”

Historically, however, many of the greatest practitioners of nonviolent action have been deeply religious. Gandhi was a Hindu who once said to an interviewer, “God is more real to me than is the fact that you and I are sitting in this room.” Dorothy Day was a devout Catholic, as was Cesar Chavez. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote prophetically in his seminal book Strength to Love: humanity “is traveling along a road called hate, on a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. . . . [t]he command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world.”

It is important to point out that King made clear that, when he used the word “love,” he was not talking about affection, fondness, or warm feelings. He meant what the Greeks called agape: outgoing, creative, redemptive goodwill toward others, no matter how negatively they treat you.

For King, “love for enemies” wasn’t just nice but meaningless words. When I had the privilege of working on his field staff for two years, I had many opportunities to see sacrificial, courageous, faith-based love of enemies in practice. When King and those influenced by him refused to strike back at their opponents, even when shot at, bombed, beaten, jailed, and set upon by snarling dogs, they created one of the most powerful movements for social change that the world has ever seen.

Darweish and Rigby do a very sophisticated and in-depth analysis of why the Palestinian struggle—although varied and mostly unarmed—has not been strong enough to overcome Israeli resistance. They focus almost entirely on failures in Palestinian strategy and tactics, including a fascination with “armed struggle” found in some parts of the Palestinian resistance. But the authors say almost nothing about what I have called “the full potential” of nonviolence—that is, a strategy that includes a commitment to loving one’s enemies, not in a sentimental way, but with agape love.

The practicality of such an agape-love approach has been demonstrated hundreds of times throughout history. What would it be like in Israel–Palestine if, for example, the resistance acted like the 1980s freedom movement in the Philippines that brought down the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos? Facing assassinations, imprisonment, torture, and other ruthless repression, their movement responded with daily prayer and training in nonviolence, putting their bodies between thousands of peaceful demonstrators and troops ordered to attack them, standing in the path of oncoming tanks, kneeling in front of battle-hardened soldiers, praying for them and appealing to them not to attack but to join the freedom movement.

What was the result? Dictator Marcos was gone in less than a month. That, I think, is agape-love nonviolence in action.

Today, in ISIS, Boko Haram, and other violent militant groups, we see the astonishing birthing of hate incarnate. Two thousand years ago, in Palestine, humanity saw the birth of Love incarnate in a young Galilean Jew who taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 6:44).

Do we believe with King that “Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world”? Might it be at least part of the solution to the strife in the Middle East?

Previous Book Next Book

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on Friendsjournal.org may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.