Meetings with Palestinian Advocates of Nonviolent Resistance — February 23-24, 2010
On Tuesday, the second day of my visit, we traveled to the offices of the Palestinian Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development (PANORAMA) in Ramallah, the city where the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters. Established in 1991, PANORAMA has a wide range of programs, and my visit to its office enabled me to meet with staff members as well as other prominent figures in the Palestinian nonviolent movement. The roundtable discussion gave me a chance to share ideas with a variety of activists seeking, through different means, to bringing about a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I talked briefly with a man who had spent ten years in Israeli jails yet remained committed to nonviolent resistance. But I also noted the expressions of frustration among the Palestinians with the lack of progress and with the failure of the United States to act in an even-handed manner in the Middle East or act effectively to prevent Israeli violations of international law. I had a brief chat with Claire Dibsy-Ayad of Seeds of Peace, which has a camp in Maine to bring together children from areas of conflict, including the Middle East; Claire later joined the Gandhi-King Community. I also had a chance to talk to Cairo Arafat, the mother of a Stanford student who participated in my 2008 Gandhi seminar in India. She works as a CRC researcher for Save The Children and with the Palestinian Authority in the Prime Minister’s Office for Media Affairs. Although Cairo made plans to meet with me again in Jerusalem, she was unable to come, sending the following message: “It was a good seminar. Everyone commented that it gave them support at a time where we feel events are moving too slowly or regressing. I tried to make it to Jerusalem, but got turned back at two checkpoints. . . . There is an article in today’s newspaper on your trip and insight. They note that there is a general change in USA understanding of the Palestinian issue.”
Following lunch at PANORAMA, I talked with professors and academics in a crowded classroom at Birzeit University, located on a recently-build campus near Ramallah. This academic audience seemed to be quite interested the history of the African-American freedom struggle and in exploring the lessons that Palestinians might learn from that struggle. But I surmised that few members of the audience were currently engaged in nonviolent activism against the occupation, and thus the questions were less probing than at my other meetings.
We left the Ramallah area for the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem to attend a session of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO forum. The meeting was intended to bring together Palestinians with representatives of Israeli Peace NGO’s, but nearly all of the attendees were Palestinian. The tone was more contentious than at my previous meetings involving only Palestinians. When one of the Palestinians expressed his grievances, a self-described ultra-orthodox rabbi, who had been invited by one of the regular Israeli participants, responded by saying that eighty percent of Israelis were willing to give up land for peace but that eighty percent also did not believe that peace would result from giving up land. Therefore, he suggested, it was up to the Palestinians to demonstrate that peace would be the result of the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Palestinian, who mentioned he had spent time in Israeli jails, was far from satisfied with this response, insisting that it was not the task of Palestinians to provide sufficient assurance to satisfy Israelis. After the meeting broke up, the two talked briefly with me and one another, but there was no indication they found common ground. After the meeting, I was interviewed for the Palestinian journal that Cairo mentioned above.
Wednesday, the third and final day of my visit, began with a drive to Hebron where an extended meeting with nonviolent activists had been organized by Library on Wheels for Nonviolence and Peace (lownp), another off-shoot of the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence. The Library’s founder is sociologist Nafez Assaily, who had worked with Mubarak Awad before the latter’s expulsion by Israel. I talked with Nafez, his Italian volunteer Paula, and others associated with the Library on Wheels, including academics from Hebron University, government officials, and a number of American representatives of the Jerusalem consulate. The discussions followed the general pattern of those elsewhere, although some participants expressed particularly intense resentment against vicious Israeli settlement activities in the Hebron area. I was encouraged to observe these activities for myself, although the restrictions of my visit prevented me from doing so. I saw some possibilities for future collaboration with the Library regarding the dissemination of educational materials and left behind several books (unfortunately nothing in Arabic).
After completing my scheduled events, I returned to the American Colony Hotel, where I had planned to meet Lucy Nusseibeh, founder and director of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND) and another veteran of Mubarak Awad’s Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence. Because she was delayed, I met first with her associate Adel Ruished, who talked with me as we walked through the Old City (my only chance to be a tourist on this visit). After Adel and I concluded our walking conversation, he returned with me to the hotel where I met with Lucy. My talk in the hotel bar with Lucy lasted more than an hour until Cynthia and the expeditor arrived to make certain I got to the airport. Because MEND has conducted nonviolence workshops in West Bank communities, Mary King had recommended Lucy as a knowledgeable expert, and both Adel and Lucy provided me with very useful historical background information. Their insights, in addition to Mary King’s A Quiet Revolution, helped me to make sense of my experiences on this visit.
Overall, my visit was as productive as possible, given its brevity. This was due to the careful preparations of Cynthia, Suzan, and their Palestinian organizational contacts who invited a wide range of representative activists to my sessions. This produced a crowded three-day schedule that never gave me the sense that I was wasting any time. With few exceptions, I was able to meet all of the Palestinian nonviolence proponents that I had heard about or read about. The audiences were attentive and cordial, welcoming my insights derived from experience and research, while also occasionally advising me that their struggle was different from the African-American struggle or the South African struggle. While accepting that all struggles are unique, I think I was able to present a persuasive argument, using the example of Gandhi’s impact on King and the African-American struggle, that each sustained freedom struggle has learned valuable lessons from proceeding ones.
Since leaving late Wednesday evening, I have maintained contact with a number of the people I met during the visit. As of March 4, there were six Palestinians (and two Israelis) among the 1008 members of the online Gandhi-King Community that I established several years ago (two of the Palestinians are college students living outside the Middle East, one in the United States and one in the Netherlands). In addition, I have received e-mails from several other attendees at the meetings on my schedule.
In conclusion, I admire the steadfast commitment to nonviolence displayed by my hosts and the other nonviolent groups with which I had contact, but I wondered how widely that commitment is shared by other Palestinians, especially Muslims, who were under-represented in groups with whom I met (Mubarak Awad is a Christian, as are many of his closest associates). Nonetheless, I left with some hopeful impressions of the Palestinian nonviolent movement. First, it is a broad-based movement rather than simply a collection of individual advocates of nonviolence. I was encouraged that Palestinians have formed a variety of organizations that are exploring different paths to nonviolent solutions to the conflict with Israel. Second, many of the activists I met stressed that progress will require changes within Palestinian communities as well as changes in relations with Israel, and they have focused much of their attention on reducing the level of internal violence within Palestinian communities. Third,although many activists mentioned the need for a Gandhi-like figure to serve as the international symbol of their movement, most shared my belief that an effective movement needs to be built from the grassroots rather than through reliance on a single charismatic leader comparable to King, Gandhi, or Mandela. Indeed, the likelihood that emergent leaders would face expulsion or imprisonment by Israel may provide another reason for Palestinians to avoid reliance on top-down models of struggle. The diversity of grassroots leadership is a strong point of the Palestinian resistance movement; yet I believe that at least one spokesperson with international visibility and local credibility will emerge from grassroots activism that he or she did not create.
Despite these reasons for optimism, I recognize that the Palestinian movement faces many challenges. A military occupation is difficult to overcome through nonviolent means, since military forces can severely restrict the press coverage on which nonviolent resistance relies and can equate nonviolent resistance with violence, thereby justifying a violent response. Moreover, many of the Palestinian activists are convinced that their appeals to global public opinion are frustrated by a double standard that ignores or downplays Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. Whether this is due to Western guilt about the holocaust or Western fear of Islamic terrorism, the result has been that Israel’s invasion of Gaza prompted no protests in Western nations comparable to the outrage that resulted from the South African apartheid regime’s suppression of black South African protesters.
Palestinians will probably develop their own King-like figure only after the appearance of a figure comparable to Rosa Parks, who in 1955 initiated a sustained boycott movement by acting on her own. Given the recent upsurge of Palestinian protest activity, it seems likely that Palestinian activists are in the process of adapting traditional nonviolent strategies to develop innovative tactics that are appropriate to their circumstances, capable of attracting international attention, and able to provide a powerful expression of the Palestinian aspiration for enduring peace and reconciliation with Israel.
Because the Palestinian struggle has global significance as a test for strategies of nonviolent resistance, I hope and expect return to the Occupied Territories for additional discussions with Palestinian activists. Among the possibilities I discussed with Consulate officials was to return in March 2011 for a Palestinian production of my play, “Passages of Martin Luther King,” which was performed in Beijing by the National Theatre of China in 2007.