Report from a Palestine Center briefing by Ghassan Andoni
This information first appeared in “For the Record” No. 103 published by the Palestine Center and the Jerusalem Fund
While policymakers have denounced Israeli “rudeness,” and intellects convene to ponder the horrors of occupation, Palestinian citizens are searching for ways to secure their rights. Under international law, Palestinians have the right to resist occupation. But what strategy can a nation lacking both economic and military resources use to defend itself? Can non-violent resistance yield results, and will the international community come to the Palestinians’ assistance?
Ghassan Andoni, executive director of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between People (PCR), discussed these issues at a Palestine Center (Palestine Center) luncheon briefing on 27 February 2002. Established in December 2000, the PCR organizes and leads demonstrations of passive resistance against the Occupied Territories.
There is a great, although often not public, debate in Palestine about the methods used in resisting occupation. Andoni believes that the current climate in Palestine is “too militant for engagement.” It is too dangerous for the average person to get constructively involved. He feels that “you can’t build a mass movement with the current level of violence.” As Andoni sees it, prime ministers, foreign ministers, and American mediators can come to Israel and Palestine to outline the terms of a cease-fire or call for lowering the level of violence, but ultimately it will do no good. “Who’s active on the ground decides the terms.” And too often it is only the radicals who are active. “The average Palestinian doesn’t have a say,” according to Andoni.
Palestine needs a larger and more organized non-violent resistance movement, but Andoni confessed that “we more or less lack the education for that.” He argued that 100 years of conflict does little to prepare people for pacifism. “We have proven to everybody that we as Palestinians can hurt. And we have proven to everybody that we as Palestinians cannot be defeated. Those two things we managed to do.” What is needed now is to begin to “accumulate achievements.” Palestinians can do that with the help of international sympathizers by targeting the manifestations of Israel’s occupation and attempting to systematically dismantle them.
“If we have a right, we are going to practice it,” said Andoni. To affirm the right of Palestinians to enter Jerusalem he organized a march on the closed city. The first time only 80 people showed up. The next time there were 1,000. The time after that 3,000 marched, including leading members of the clergy. “It is a defiance process,” he explained, which “needs a lot of courage,” but grows with each success. It is not sufficient, for instance, to dismantle a checkpoint once. The Israelis will just rebuild it. It is necessary to go back and take it apart again and again, until it becomes too costly for Israel to maintain.
The instruments of Israel’s closure policy have been prime targets for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). With foreign nationals lying in front of tanks or providing a human shield, Palestinian activists are able to accomplish much that they could not do alone. The checkpoint at Sourda was dismantled completely with the help of the internationals. Local Palestinians even took apart and carried off the guard towers. Andoni passes through this checkpoint regularly, as well as seven others, on his 20-mile and approximately three-hour commute to work. Like many such obstacles to freedom of movement for Palestinians, it serves no security function for Israel. Though 50,000 Palestinians face daily delays at Sourda on their way to work, the checkpoint only divides one Palestinian-controlled area from another. There are no Israeli towns or settlements on either side.
Settlements will be the next focus for protest activities by the ISM. In the beginning of April a group of Palestinian activists and foreign nationals will attempt to peacefully occupy an area of expropriated land near Bethlehem. They plan to bring caravans and establish a presence on the site. To Andoni, any actions involving settlements are actually more dangerous than those directed against Israeli military targets. The soldiers are disciplined and experienced at dealing with crowds. The settlers are armed and unpredictable. Following one protest, a Palestinian activist was shot in the back and paralyzed by a settler. International activists have frequently been jailed during protests, but the Israeli government is usually eager to be rid of them.
The ISM is growing. Hundreds of citizens and community or political leaders regularly come from Europe to participate in non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation. Members of the Italian Parliament were among the most recent delegations. They bring with them media attention from their home countries and take back with them new insights into the situation on the ground in Palestine. “When people come from England, immediately the BBC is following us,” Andoni said. Usually only the most violent episodes attract the attention of the international media, but the ISM hopes to change that.
The religious establishment is beginning to play a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well. Andoni noticed this increased activism at the meeting of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva. Many church groups, as well as secular organizations, are planning to keep a permanent presence in the Occupied Territories in order to facilitate more sustained and effective action. Rather than mounting a campaign only every couple of months, it will be possible to sustain weekly resistance activities. Civil society organizations in Palestine are also joining the struggle. The ISM is able to operate anywhere in the West Bank, but the Gaza Strip remains closed.
Andoni feels that it is thanks in part to the non-violent resistance activity that “we are seeing signs of a crack” in Israel’s formerly united polity. More and more reserve officers are refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. Israeli generals are advocating unilateral pull-out from the West Bank and Gaza. At this point, Andoni believes it is time for Palestinians to unite and continue with resistance activities that will build sympathy and understanding for their cause. “If we have [a] chance, the only chance is to be together.”