Refusing to Be Enemies: Palestinian and Israeli Nonviolent Resistance to the Israeli Occupation (Book Review Essay)

In this compilation of essays and interviews with activists who share a commitment to nonviolence, Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta makes no pretense of presenting a full spectrum of views about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Rather, this Quaker/ Jewish activist lifts up views worthy of attention that are underrepresented in the public discourse. In the process, she finds a vision of the future that she calls “a refreshing and hope-inspiring antidote to the despair that threatens to descend when one is confronted with the day-to-day reality of the region.”

Early on in her information gathering, Kaufman-Lacusta noticed that two interview questions—Why did you get involved in anti-occupation activities? Specifically, what brought you to nonviolence?—had varying subtexts. For Israeli activists, the questions referred to their support of the Palestinian nonviolent struggle. For Palestinian activists, the questions focused on their choice of nonviolence rather than other methods of resistance.

Kaufman-Lacusta also realized that the Palestinian nonviolent movement was “virtually unknown,” and so she decided to give special attention to it. Therefore, a major portion of Refusing to Be Enemies focuses on Palestinian activists and their understanding of, and commitment to, nonviolence.

The book does not dwell upon the deprivations and injustices of those living under Israeli occupation, but the many hardships that Palestinians endure do surface. The policies of Israel, Kaufman-Lacusta notes, also disadvantage those Palestinians who are Israeli citizens—who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population but “by law and planning and zoning restrictions are confined to just 3.5 percent of the land.”

Jeff Halper, director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, sums up the situation sharply by calling Israel an ethnocracy: “a country that belongs to one particular people that is privileged over everyone else.” Halper, who was interviewed at length for the book and contributed an essay, has some Quaker-related experience in his past. A Jewish anthropologist who lives in Israel, he led the Middle East Center of Friends World College for several years. In his recent book An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel (2008), Halper describes how a co-faculty member, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, spoke to students during a field trip about her distress over the destruction of a Palestinian village in 1948. When Halper objected to what he labeled her anti-Israeli “tone,” Friends World College students called him to task for not adhering evenhandedly to rigorous intellectual standards. This experience, he says, was a turning point in his life. He began to notice “the hidden reality of the ‘other side’ of the Israeli-Palestinian membrane, that porous, transparent filter that defines and envelopes Jewish space and turns everything ‘Arab’ into mere background, which separates ‘us’ from ‘them.’”

Nonviolence in Palestine

Much of the nonviolent resistance practiced in Palestine has ancient roots. However, an exclusive commitment to nonviolence (as opposed to pragmatic use of nonviolent techniques) has been slow in coming in the resistance to the Israeli occupation. This was partly rooted in a misperception. In the words of one activist, “A lot of Palestinians think nonviolence is some kind of collaboration with Israel.”

Non-acceptance of nonviolence was also the consequence of a low appreciation of its potential. As Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian- American citizen of Israel associated with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), said: “All the statistics that . . . say that 70 to 80 percent of the Palestinian people support the suicide bombings lead you to believe that the Palestinian community is a very violent community, that they love killing and they teach kids this and glorify it. And it’s so opposite the truth, but what [Palestinians] have been led to accept is that we have no other way of fighting.”

An early prophet of nonviolence among Palestinians was Mubarak Awad, who also had Quaker connections (he is married to Nancy Nye, former principal of the Friends Girl’s School in Ramallah). In 1985, he founded the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence and pioneered such techniques as planting olive trees, urging people not to pay taxes, and encouraging them to consume Palestinian products. He had only a tiny following then, though respect for him among Palestinians has grown with the passage of time. Deported by Israel in 1988, he lives in the United States.

Focus on a West Bank Village

Kaufman-Lacusta looks in depth at a tax strike in the West Bank village of Beit Sahour during the First Intifada (1987–1993), a time of popular activism. This strike was based on the fact that taxes collected by Israelis were not being used to serve the needs of the Palestinian population, but to finance the occupation itself. Elias Rishmawi, a major player in Beit Sahour, said that the villagers “found out that Israel was profiting dramatically from occupying the Palestinian land—from direct taxes, indirect taxes, taxes on the workers inside Israel, taxes on imports, taxes on people leaving the country, using Palestinian land, using Palestinian resources.” Palestinians viewed the strike, which they ended in 1994, as a success because a strong and violent reaction from the Israeli government failed to suppress it.

The 1993 Oslo Accords brought a flowering of contact between Palestinian and Israeli activists. But when Palestinians discovered that—if anything—their conditions worsened after Oslo, many doubted the wisdom of these contacts, now seen as “Israeli feel-good programs.” A new expression entered the parlance: normalization. Kaufman-Lacusta offers this definition: “Normalization is a derogatory term denoting a relationship between Israelis and Palestinians (usually organizations) carried on as if all were normal between Israel and Palestine, even as the conflict continues.” After the breakdown of Camp David talks in 2000 the General Assembly of the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations went so far as to call on all Palestinian NGOs to stop all joint programs and activities with Israeli organizations—with the exception of those organizations that explicitly opposed and worked against the occupation.

Limits of Violent Resistance

Beginning in 2000, the Second Intifada was much more chaotic and violent than the first. Kaufman-Lacusta highlights an exception: the experience of the village of Bil’in, which lost a large portion of its land to Israeli settlements and to the separation wall constructed by Israel on the Palestinian side of the 1967 border. Protests in Bil’in, beginning in March 2005, temporarily blocked construction of the wall, and in a few instances actually changed its path. Israeli and international activists came to lend support to the protesters, and Bil’in became “a place for learning firsthand about the issues confronting the villages impacted by the wall and for personally experiencing the roadblocks, teargas, and rubber bullets that are but the tip of the iceberg of the oppression suffered by the villagers.”

In the years that followed, the futility of a violent response by Palestinians became increasingly clear. Kaufman-Lacusta reports that the number of Palestinians who support and engage in nonviolent resistance has increased slowly but steadily. She adds that a broader cross-section of people “are now actually calling what they do ‘nonviolence’ (la’unf, in Arabic).”

Kaufman-Lacusta probes carefully the different interests of Palestinian and Israeli activists and how their activities should not always be conducted jointly. At the same time, she urges Israeli activists to do their part by steering nonviolent activities into Israel proper, in the form of noncooperation with the occupation, both to have a greater effect on the Israeli government and to heighten the awareness of other Israelis of the conditions in the occupied territories. An intriguing suggestion for reaching Israelis was to institute a Hebrew-language Palestinian TV channel; Ibrahim Issa, principal of Hope Flowers School, said that if implemented, it “would answer a real need.”

I have barely scratched the surface of what this book offers—a variety of essays, comments from members of a surprisingly large number of organizations involved in nonviolent resistance, very careful documentation, and an excellent index.

Visions of the Future

A crowning achievement of this book is the spectrum it offers of the nonviolent visions of the future. They range from the call by Ali Jedda of the Alternative Information Center for a secular democratic state to Peace Now’s call for “two states for two peoples.” Kaufman-Lacusta was surprised that a substantial number of Palestinian activists favored some variation of a bi-national federation, with the creation of two states mainly as a “station” on the way to this larger grouping. Palestinian stateswoman Hanan Ashrawi, a graduate of Ramallah Friends School, is among those who foresees two states as a step toward an eventual regional solution with porous borders.

Kaufman-Lacusta’s careful and richly documented study also sheds light on what many Palestinians will require in order to commit themselves to a true peace. The goal, says Holy Land Trust’s Sami Awad, is for Palestinians “to have the same rights [Israelis] have—exactly—not any more and not any less.” Activist Omar Burghouti calls for the embodiment of “our three fundamental rights: the right of return for Palestinian refugees; full equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel; and ending the occupation and colonial rule.” And refugee rights activist Muhammed Jaradat insists that Palestinians need the rights of “return, restitution, and compensation.”

Jeff Halper sums up the situation crisply: “You can’t have an ethnically pure state in the 21st century.” He calls for restructuring of land ownership, reconstruction of Zionism, and “reconstruction of the entire meaning of Israel.” Those who place hope in this direction of rethinking will find succor in the words of ISM coordinator Saif Abu Keshek: “I think we do have two very similar cultures”; and of Veronica Cohen, a member of the original Jerusalem/Beit Sahour dialogue group, who puts it this way: “We are linked, our fates are linked, and what’s bad for [Palestinians] is bad for us, too.”

When readiness arises—if the political winds shift—a peaceful solution could come abruptly, even startlingly soon. And if it does, it could in turn affect other active conflicts around the world that involve multiple nationalities within single states or territories. Suheil Salman of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee is one observer who voiced this hope for global as well as local peace; that “occupation will be ended in all the world, not only here.”

Nonviolent activism, of course, cannot by itself bring about a resolution of this conflict, but Kaufman-Lacusta’s study strengthens my expectation that nonviolence can point the way and promote the will to reach it.
Robert Dockhorn, a member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., is senior editor of Friends Journal.


Robert Dockhorn, a member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., is senior editor of Friends Journal.