By Bradley Burston
The Palestinians have kept their ultimate doomsday weapon under tight wraps for 40 years. Israel knew about it. Israelis senior commanders could only pray that the Palestinians would never take it out and put it to actual use. Every Israeli soldier who served in Gaza knew about it, and also knew the hollowness in the declarations of IDF brass that “The army will now how to deal with it, should it happen.”
In all of Israel’s vast arsenal of defense hardware and technology, there is nothing that can effectively counter it. That is what makes it a weapon so powerful we dare not speak its name: non-violence.
This is one reason why, for decades, Israel did its best to head off, harass, and crack down on expressions of Palestinian non-violence.
At the back of the minds of Israeli statesmen, diplomats, police officials, and defense planners, was an awareness that the true power of the Palestinians had nothing to do with stone-throwing, Molotov cocktails, grenade attacks, knifings, suicide bombings, assault rifle drive-by’s, or Qassam rocket barrages. They knew that the true power of the Palestinians to damage Israel also had nothing to do with incitement, institutional anti-Semitism in schools, or declarations of revolution until victory and the ultimate replacement of the Jewish state by an independent Palestine.
The true power of the Palestinians, the bottom-line dread of the Israelis, was embodied in only four words: Get up and walk.
The theory – expounded by Palestinian moderates for year after year, supported by Israeli leftists – was that a determinedly peaceful demonstration in which thousands and thousands and still more thousands of Gazans headed for the Israeli border, would do more for the cause of Palestinian independence and freedom that all the gratuitous violence of the last 40 years of armed struggle combined.
On Monday, the theory faces a crucial test.
Can Palestinians stage a truly non-violent demonstration without teen macho hotheads – themselves Palestinian – foiling the effort by throwing rocks, angle iron, and cinder blocks at the Israeli police ad soldiers confronting them?
The example of Bili’in – where foreign leftists and Palestinian activists gather each Friday to demonstrate against the West Bank barrier, and, in the process, undermine their own cause by throwing stones at Israeli troops – bodes poorly.
At this point, neither Hamas nor the Israel Defense Forces knows how to deal with such an event. The proof of that is evident enough in the mirror-image protestations of both sides. Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said that although the Islamist organization said “Our people will not allow the continuation of this situation regardless of the results, and we will work to break the siege by all possible means.
“We hold them [Israeli leaders] responsible for any harm to the participants in these peaceful demonstrations,” Abu Zuhri said.
Israel’s Foreign and Defense Ministries, meanwhile, issued a statement warning that if Palestinians put innocent civilians in the vanguard of a mass movement toward the border, “the sole responsibility lies directly on Hamas’ shoulders” for whatever might ensue.
After all these years, has Israel learned anything from the threat of an eruption of non-violence? Anyone who served during the years of the occupation knows the answer well enough. The macho compulsions of the army brass and their civilian commanders were such that they made every effort to avoid crowd control and truly non-lethal riot control, dismissing it as police work and beneath them.
During the first intifada, Israel had nearly seven years to develop riot control methods in the territories. Instead, it put its own soldiers at risk, offering them nothing more than the possibility of opening fire on stone-throwers, which in turn invited escalation and further bloodshed. During the second intifada, Israeli military commanders seemed almost relieved that Palestinians resorted to firearms from the start. The generals had promised that “If they ever open fire, we’ll know how to respond.” Thousands of Palestinian deaths later, the response is clear.
If any more evidence were needed, in a first response to the threat of a mass march this week, the IDF ordered a heavy artillery battery to the border with the Strip.
What can Israel do if, for some reason, Palestinians neither open fire nor throw rocks? The question was raised most recently in January, after tens of thousands of Gazans, beleaguered by the tightening Israeli blockade over the Strip, broke through the border fence to Egyptian territory
“The next time there is a crisis in the Gaza Strip, Israel will have to face half a million Palestinians who will march toward Erez,” senior Hamas official Ahmed Youssef said at the time. “This is not an imaginary scenario, and many Palestinians would be prepared to sacrifice their lives.”
The IDF does possess various non-lethal means, but their use could still have serious human rights implications. There is, for example, a system which emits bursts of sound (dubbed “The Scream”), which are meant to cause nausea, dizziness and disorientation and dizziness.
Then there is the U.SD.-developed weapon which is called, in a stroke of inadvertent brilliance and aptness, the Active Denial System.
Also known as the “pain ray,” the ADS issues radiation which causes its human targets to feel as though their skin is on fire, even though its develops insist that it causes no actial burns.
The best bet, though, is that Israel will rely on the vastly more tested Active Denial System of its own – the believe that Palestinians can be coungted on to counter non-violence on their own, insisting instead on the more ostensibly manly approach of winning (more often losing) through force of arms.
Israel’s ADS was much in evidence Monday morning, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert blandly told reporters that he was unaware of any “warnings” of a mass march. It was up to former army chief and present cabionet minister Shaul Mofaz to utter the mantra of Israeli ADS:
“Hamas today rules Gaza. If Hamas doesn’t want them to cross the border fence in the direction of Israel, they will succeed in halting an incident of this kind.”
And if Hamas allows them to continue? “If this does, in fact, happen, I trust that the defense establishment will know how to respond.”
Note the tense. He’s not lying, exactly. Will know. Someday.