Book Review

Popular Resistance in Palestine / Refusing to be Enemies

Mazin B. Qumsiyeh / Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta

Winter 2011, Volume XVIII, Number 4

The civil insurrections that overthrew long-entrenched dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt — and have threatened the survival of autocratic regimes in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria — have brought increased attention to the power of strategic nonviolent action. This has led to increasing calls in liberal circles in the West for Palestinians to try similar nonviolent means to liberate themselves from Israeli occupation. Others, either out of skepticism over the efficacy of nonviolent strategies or a lingering romanticized attachment to armed struggle, dismiss such a path. Both of these perspectives, however, ignore the fact that unarmed civil resistance already has had a long — and too often ignored — history in Palestine.

Fortunately, two recently published books offer important additions to the literature on both the historic and ongoing role of strategic nonviolent action in the Palestinian struggle and serve as an important reminder that an expanded and strategically sophisticated nonviolent movement presents the best hope for ending the Israeli occupation. As Palestinian human-rights attorney Jonathan Kuttab notes in the Kaufman-Lacusta book, "Palestinians have perfected the language of the armed struggle, but not the actual practice of armed struggle, while all the time practicing nonviolence without calling it by that name, without following the proper path of nonviolence, and without claiming that what they are doing is nonviolent resistance." As a result, even though "the vast majority of the Palestinian people have never participated in armed struggle except through songs, slogans and rhetoric," the image in the West continues to be that of "the Palestinian as a terrorist or, at best, as a 'liberation fighter' with a gun in his hand, fighting for freedom to liberate his land" (p. 415).

Similarly, Mazim Qumsiyeh observes in his introduction how, calls from the West in support of nonviolent resistance not only fail to "understand the true nature of the struggle by reducing the message to a statement about the undesirability of violence on the part of an oppressed people," but ignore "the rich history of precisely such nonviolent struggle" (p.1).

Given that "nonviolence" often connotes passivity in Arabic, Qumsiyeh primarily uses the term "popular resistance," in recognition that — unlike an elite vanguard organized in underground cells, typical of armed resistance against foreign military occupation — unarmed resistance can utilize virtually the entire population. By contrast, though Kaufman-Lacusta makes the important and necessary distinction between nonviolence as a personal ethic and nonviolent action as a means of conflict, she unfortunately uses the term "nonviolence" for both throughout her book.

Whatever the terminology, both authors recognize the strategic advantages of nonviolent methods of resistance. Even more than in most cases of colonialism and conquest, large numbers of Israelis believe their own propaganda: that it is they who are victims of aggression and that their violence is always defensive, whereas violent resistance by the people they are subjugating is "terrorism." Threats by neighboring Arab states in the early years of the conflict to destroy the new state of Israel and the centuries of genocide and persecution against the Jews in Europe have made it easy for the Israeli government to convince its people that the conflict is a zero-sum game, a matter of "us versus them." Despite the far greater violence inflicted by Israel against Arab civilians, the use of violent means of resistance by the Palestinians — particularly if targeted at civilians — has only made the Israelis more intransigent and has increased support both at home and abroad for further violence and repression.

As witnessed over the past year, the willingness and ability of millions of people throughout the Arab world to face down tanks and other instruments of repression with their bare hands have challenged the twin stereotypes of Arabs as passive victims or violent terrorists. As a result, serious studies of historical and contemporary Palestinian struggles that do not rely on violence could not be timelier.

In Popular Resistance in Palestine, Mazin Qumsiyeh explores the rich history of the overwhelmingly nonviolent popular-resistance struggles in Palestine over the decades. Rather than being a Western import, it "developed indigenously, organically, naturally and beautifully" (p. 1). This noted Palestinian scholar documents how, in nearly 130 years since the onset of political Zionism, "The Palestinian people rose from the ashes of each onslaught to engage in novel forms of civil resistance" (p. 2). Fortunately, while he pulls no punches in his assessment of Zionist oppression, he is also frank in the way Palestinians themselves have helped undermine the effectiveness of their resistance, thereby avoiding the tendency by some Western supporters to romanticize and oversimplify the Palestinians' history of struggle.

Qumsiyeh reminds us that conquest, colonization and expansion is by its nature violent and requires violence to maintain it. By contrast, he argues that those resisting such aggression have more options at their disposal. A pragmatist rather than a pacifist, Qumsiyeh rejects the false dichotomy of moral but ineffective nonviolence versus amoral but effective violence, and instead recognizes that violent resistance by Palestinians has long been used as "justification to brutalize the population, further uproot us and destroy our homes and lands" (p. 8). Today, by monopolizing state power and the instruments of repression, Israel leaves the Palestinians with "little hope of containing the cancerous growth of colonial settlements on their own land by violent methods" (p. 8). In particular, "Resistance by violent means has far more constraints and is more likely to fail than popular resistance because it requires much for logistical support (arms, etc.), secrecy, killing of armed combatants, difficulty in establishing geographic areas for armed control and much more" (p. 9). While recognizing that even nonviolent resistance can be subjected to brutal repression, Qumsiyeh also observes that it is far less devastating in terms of both people killed and social and economic disruption.

Such arguments have been made before. What makes Popular Resistance in Palestine such an important work is that it bases its arguments on a detailed study of the past 130 years of Palestinian history, in which the author documents inspiring and innovative acts of popular resistance during Ottoman rule, under the British mandate, in the aftermath of the naqba in 1948, and during the first and second Intifadas; and subsequently he includes hundreds of examples from popular Palestinian struggles, including petitions, strikes, demonstrations, noncooperation, boycotts, tax refusal, civil disobedience and more.

Qumsiyeh documents the largely forgotten nonviolent resistance during the waning days of the Ottoman period that successfully limited land acquisitions by early Zionists, despite being hampered by Turkish-Arab rivalries and the feudal structures within Palestine. Under the British Mandate, though faced with divide-and-rule policies from Mandatory authorities and factionalism within the Arab-nationalist movement, large-scale armed and nonviolent resistance came to the fore during revolts in 1920-21, 1929 and 1936-39 before fading in the face of collective punishment and preferential treatment to armed Jewish settlers by the British, and the machinations of local reactionaries and Arab regimes.

Following the Israeli conquest of the remaining parts of Palestine in June 1967, Qumsiyeh documents a dynamic movement in the West Bank centered around creating alternative institutions that challenged not only Israeli control but the lingering conservative influence of Jordan's King Hussein and his royalist supporters. Within Israel, the first Land Day demonstrations in Galilee in 1976 marked renewed activism among Palestinian citizens of Israel faced with confiscation of their property and ongoing discrimination.

And, of course, there is the first Intifada, in 1987-91, which raised international awareness of the popular struggle within the Occupied Territories to new heights. As with South Africa during the previous decade, a younger generation relocated the resistance, away from an exiled liberation movement and its futile armed struggle back into the country itself. The uprising initially took even the PLO's leadership by surprise, forcing them to work with — and, as Qumsiyeh observes, in some cases co-opt — the new generation of activists within the Occupied Territories. The impact of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestine Authority, Qumsiyeh argues, was to suppress the dynamic grassroots democratic and collective activism with cronyism, corruption and the fragmentation of the Palestinian people. The result was a weak Palestine Authority governing tiny cantons containing the majority of the population, while most of the land around them remained under Israeli occupation, limiting the available methods of nonviolent resistance and the effectiveness of popular struggle.

The second Intifada began nonviolently in 2000 but became increasingly violent, and therefore ineffective, in response to growing Israeli repression. Subsequent years, however, have brought an unprecedented degree of international solidarity, a growing array of nonviolent tactics, the widespread use of the Internet to mobilize and educate Palestinians and others about the resistance, and other innovations.

This history of the Palestinian struggle reminds readers that, despite stereotypes to the contrary, armed struggle has not been the major form of resistance. There were virtually no armed attacks during the early decades, between the 1880s and the 1920s. Similarly, in subsequent efforts over the next two decades against British colonialism and Zionist colonization, the use of armed resistance was minor compared with Algeria, Vietnam and other anti-colonial campaigns during that period. Since the establishment of Israel, while cross-border commando raids, terrorist bombings and rocket attacks may have made the headlines, the vast majority of organized acts of resistance have been nonviolent. Furthermore, as Qumsiyeh observes, despite many setbacks, "Israeli rule over the past 13 decades would have proceeded much faster and certainly would have resulted in a far more homogeneous Jewish state had it not been for Palestinian resistance" (p. 228).

In Refusing to Be Enemies, Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta, a Canadian Jew who has lived in Israel periodically, shares the words of more than 100 nonviolent activists and scholars, virtually all Palestinian or Israeli, on their own involvement in nonviolent resistance against the occupation. The book is particularly significant in that it gives these activists a forum to speak directly on the strategies and tactics employed by Palestinian and Israeli organizations, both separately and in joint initiatives. The stories highlight case studies of effective nonviolent campaigns as well as the many obstacles encountered. Perhaps more important, the book examines ways in which a movement could grow, as activists share their visions for the future and ways by which their efforts could be more effective.

Rather than just a collection of stories and observations, the author presents the material thematically, divided into four parts. Part I begins with personal responses by the interviewees to questions about what brought them to nonviolence and what led them to become anti-occupation activists, followed by an overview of the precursors and current manifestations of the nonviolent resistance. Part II addresses strategies and applications of nonviolent action among both Palestinian and Israeli organizations, joint Israeli-Palestinian struggles against the occupation, efforts against the "normalization" of Israeli rule in the Occupied Territories, and case studies of three nonviolent campaigns: the Beit Sahour tax strike, resistance against the Separation Wall, and a joint campaign against land confiscation in the West Bank village of Bilin. Part III looks ahead, examining both promises and obstacles to a more effective nonviolent movement and assessing what can be learned from previous successful nonviolent campaigns, and overall prospects for the future.

Part IV consists of four analytical essays by other contributors. Longtime activist Ghassan Andoni gives a historical perspective of Palestinian nonviolent resistance. Israeli scholar and activist Jeff Halper puts forward "six elements of effective organizing and struggle." Palestinian attorney Jonathan Kuttab — while, like Qumsiyeh, he notes the Palestinians' legal right to armed struggle against foreign occupation forces — makes a strong case for the greater efficacy of nonviolent resistance. The noted author Starhawk, an American Jewish activist who has taken part in a number of international solidarity efforts in the occupied West Bank, addresses the unique challenges facing Palestinian nonviolent resistance.

Kaufman-Lacusta, acknowledging the asymmetry in power between the occupier and those under occupation, reminds Israeli activists of the importance of being sensitive to the "inherent imbalance of power in their relationship with the Palestinians" and the need to recognize the priority of the Palestinians in their own struggle. Nevertheless, noting the victories in the joint campaigns by Palestinians, Israelis and internationals against Israeli encroachment in Bilin and Budrus, Kaufman-Lacusta offers hope for a larger and more effective movement, particularly given that "a broader cross-section of Palestinians is participating in nonviolent actions and, in contrast with the past, they are now actually calling what they do 'nonviolence' (la'unf, in Arabic)."

Both of these outstanding studies add to the growing literature on the power of strategic nonviolent action by oppressed peoples. However, the costs of maintaining an occupation against even the best-organized popular nonviolent resistance struggle can be minimized if the occupier continues to receive unconditional military, financial and diplomatic support from the world's one remaining superpower. As a result, while the development of a sustainable Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement may indeed be of critical importance, in ending the occupation, the country where sustained nonviolent direct action may be needed the most is right here in the United States.