Palestinian Tactics Set to Change

Palestinian Tactics Set to Change

Tuesday, 21 June, 2011

As voices supporting a popular, non-violent Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation grow, IWPR editor Daniella Peled looks at the likelihood of such a movement developing.

Are mass peaceful protests, such as seen throughout the Arab Spring, likely - and how would Israel react? 

What examples have there been of successful non-violent Palestinian protest in the past, and what is the significance of the new calls for such a movement?

There is a general recognition within Palestinian society that the violence of the second intifada failed to achieve any progress towards Palestinian independence. The Israeli reaction to the suicide bombings and other attacks emanating from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip included multiple assassinations of key figures amongst the Palestinian armed groups, harsh closures and curfews and the building of the security barrier, which takes in large portions of the West Bank.

However, there is also the perception that conventional political negotiations have also failed to achieve any progress, with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip still cut off from the West Bank, settlement building continuing to grow and no prospect of an agreed bilateral peace deal on the horizon.

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to find different forms of resistance against the occupation and the route of the security barrier. Most notable have been the protests at villages in the West Bank like Bi’ilin and Ni’iln, where locals together with Israeli and international activists have held weekly rallies for the last six years. Although Israel views these as violent (stones are regularly thrown at soldiers and attempts made to damage the security barrier), from the Palestinian perspective this type of protest marks a change of strategy.

Now, Palestinians hope that the Arab Spring will translate into tangible gains for them at home too, although matters are more complicated as they would have to rise against two governments – Israel’s and that of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas.

Does the non-violent movement have backing from the established Palestinian groups?

Non-violence is still not endorsed nationally by any Palestinian party, and remains very much on a local and grassroots level. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is committed to the destruction of Israel and refuses to renounce the armed struggle.

However, the Palestinian government in the West Bank is increasingly turning to diplomatic pressure as a way of gaining ground against Israel. The plan for a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations this September, for instance, is intended to have a serious political impact.

One area where the grassroots movements and establishment policy coincide, however, is in the arena of boycott, divestment and sanctions, BDS. Calls for such actions to be taken against Israel on an international level have been increasing both amongst Palestinian activists and politicians.

The Palestinian authorities in Gaza and the West Bank are nervous about mass protests directed at their own failings; so far the main direct effect of the Arab Spring has been to push Hamas and Fatah to sign a unity government agreement in response to popular Palestinian demands.

Palestinian activists agree that, currently, such protests are very much on a small and localised scale and a far higher degree of organisation would be needed for mass demonstrations.

Is non-violent action likely to win public sympathy in Israel?

The Israeli presence at protests in the West Bank remains tiny, and although the majority of Israelis favour a two-state solution – with many even supporting direct negotiations with Hamas - there is widespread disillusionment with the possibility of finding a Palestinian partner for peace. The violence at some protests has alienated the Israeli mainstream; and there is minimal sympathy for the BDS movement, which is seen as unjust and even anti-Semitic.

Other developments – such as the attempts by flotillas to breach the Gaza blockade, and two recent mass attempts at infiltrations from Syria into the occupied Golan Heights - have done little to build Israeli confidence that a genuinely non-violent Palestinian movement is possible.

While some Palestinians have described the Golan Heights incursion as a form of non-violent protest, these actions have been seen by Israel and others as orchestrated by Damascus to try and distract attention from the disturbances within Syria.

How is Israel likely to react to a mass non-violent movement?

The Israeli Defence Force, IDF, is taking this seriously enough to be currently preparing a new manual on how to deal with such demonstrations. They expect an upsurge in protests around the time of the September unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood.

For now, the IDF strategy is focusing on containment and trying to avoid the escalation of protests Operationally, this means ensuring they have enough forces on standby and a large amount of real-time information, so if a protest threatens to swell massively, they will be able to block it.

The IDF defines violent demonstrations as presenting a risk to Israeli soldiers' lives or damaging security installations. In reality, this extends to stone-throwing, for instance, or attacks on structures like the security barrier.

How to prevent stone-throwing is a serious challenge by organisers of non-violent protests. It is very much seen as a symbolic part of traditional Palestinian resistance.

“I grew up throwing them and most Palestinians don't see them as an act of violence, which complicates things,” said Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian journalist and blogger

But the IDF faces two nightmare scenarios. The first is that a small group of soldiers led by a junior or inexperienced officer find themselves facing a demonstration that gets out of hand and then begin firing on the protesters, causing a large number of casualties.

The second is that however well prepared the IDF is in terms of manpower, training and riot dispersal equipment, some 10,000 Palestinians march on a settlement or the separation fence and refuses to turn back, despite the IDF use of tear gas and rubber bullets. In that case, the IDF are aware that the only options they have are letting them do whatever they want or a huge loss of life.

Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor.

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