Nonviolence and the Palestinian Arab Spring: The Movement Israel Must Empower

When the history of the Arab Spring in Palestine is recorded, the recent Hamas-Fatah unity agreement will be seen as merely a prologue to the true story to be written in the coming weeks and months, as the Palestinian people test whether they are ready to choose nonviolent means to achieve their self-determination, as many of their Arab brethren already have. With a bit of vision, Israel may help to write that story in a way that opens the door for peace once more.

With the historic achievements of nonviolent protest in Egypt and Tunisia and ongoing attempts at peaceful protest in Syria and elsewhere, a Palestinian mass nonviolent movement — unthinkable a few short months ago — is suddenly on the precipice of becoming a reality. In commemoration of Nakba day, Palestinian organizers sent out tens of thousands of messages, set up Facebook groups, and used other forms of social media to bring out the largest series of mass demonstrations in recent memory against Israeli occupation and in favor of Palestinian statehood.  Recent news suggests that another mass peaceful demonstration is to take place on June 5, in commemoration of the 1967 war. This “third intifada,” should it be successful in its ends, will not terrorize the Israeli population; rather, it will effectively parade Israel before the international community as the shameful occupier, and present the Palestinian people as moral resisters.

In Israel, military generals, Knesset members, and ordinary citizens all seem to be frantically scratching their heads, without any idea how to respond or prevent nonviolent protest in the West Bank. The one thing that many experts in Israel seem to agree on is that the idea of CNN or Al Jazeera beaming images of Palestinians marching en masse around Israeli settlements, peacefully demanding an end to occupation and discrimination, would present a PR nightmare.

As one who is unabashedly pro-Israel, I’m astonished by this analysis. Nightmare? Palestinians who refuse violence, renounce terrorism, and protest without weapons have become Israel’s nightmare? If only Israel’s leadership could think outside the box just a little bit they would realize that this new Palestinian movement actually presents Israel with one of the finest opportunities it has had in years to empower Palestinian moderates and re-open negotiations – thereby halting the diplomatic tsunami against Israel that has until now seemed to be inevitable.  

How can Israel do this? By viewing nonviolence as a de facto concession and a repudiation of terror, rather than a challenge. In so doing, Israel will clearly see that it must actually embrace Palestinian nonviolence. It is incumbent upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to send a message that Israel appreciates that Palestinians finally believe they can achieve their goals through nonviolence, rather than by terror. In the coming weeks, Netanyahu should prove he is more serious than ever before about concluding a final status deal with the Palestinians — not because of Palestinian unity, but because of their rejection of violent means. He must portray terrorism as the primary historical factor that stood between Israel, Palestine, and peace. 

Israel has the opportunity to give Palestinian a real choice: If Palestinians maintain nonviolence, Israel will go farther than ever before in settlement halts, land swaps, and concessions on Jerusalem to conclude a peace deal; however, as soon as the first mortar, rocket, or suicide bomb hits, Israel will be forced to step back. By encouraging nonviolence and empowering peaceful Palestinian activists with immediate Israeli concessions, Israel will give Palestinians themselves reason to reject terrorism — not only morally, but strategically. In so doing, Israel will show itself to the world as seekers of a real peace, despite the perils it may face.

I fear that Israel will not choose this path, however, for more than its right-of-center coalition government. Firstly, Israel fears making any concessions to a government that could be led in any part by Hamas, and they have legitimate reason to hold this fear. Hamas’ stated aim in its charter is not negotiation with Israel, but destruction of it through armed resistance. This is why Israel ought to engage directly with the nonviolent protesters before official Palestinian elections are to take place. If Israel can find a way to speak to, negotiate directly with, and empower the leaders of the nonviolent movement and those who support it, it will not only empower peaceful actors, it will encourage those actors to ostracize Hamas and other militant factions themselves.  It will leave Hamas with a very difficult decision: to change their methods, or to face exclusion from within.

Israel’s second fear is that the country will lose the battle for the narrative, bringing about a so-called “diplomatic tsunami of international isolation."

If Israel chooses this moment to finally become proactive rather than reactive, the world will see a much different story unfold.  It will see a country that embraces peace as a means and an end, and has always sought to do so; that fears for its security, but only in the face of those who seek its annihilation; and that is willing to seek out a real partner to end one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

Israel will have to set ground rules, of course; but it must be proactive in doing so. Israel will have to say that protests are different than outright violations of its sovereign territory, as took place during the Nakba demonstrations. It will have to pronounce that throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers is not a nonviolent act. Each time a nonviolent movement devolves into a violent confrontation aimed at Israeli soldiers or civilians, Israel will be justified, morally and strategically, in methodically reconsidering or backtracking on concessions. But make no mistake: concessions are exactly how Israel must respond to Palestinian nonviolence, both to empower peaceful activists, and to ostracize extremists; to fend off the diplomatic tsunami, and to open the window once more for peace, Israel has but one choice.

This is Netanyahu’s moment to seize, and visionaries and statesmen within Israel, not outside of it, must help the politician in him see what he himself seems unable to. Israelis have often claimed in the past that former Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Today, the ball is in Israel’s court; it can either see Palestinian nonviolence, should it succeed, as a nightmare, or as daybreak.  If the former, Israel will remain paralyzed as the Palestinians march unobstructed toward a UN vote that will undoubtedly leave Israel (and the United States, who will assuredly vote against Palestinian declaration of statehood) more isolated than ever before; if the latter, Israel will be able to see Palestinian actions for what they could be — an opportunity for Palestinians to repudiate terrorism for themselves.  As Israelis begin to see Palestinian nonviolent protests en masse beginning, Israel cannot permit its finest opportunity to pass it by. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Mark Donig

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mark earned a B.A. in Public Policy with a Concentration in Ethics and Public Policy from Stanford University, Class of 2009. In 2010 he completed a Masters Degree in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel, where he served as Masters Student representative with IDC's Program for the Diplomatic Corps, a course taught for foreign diplomats serving in Israel. Before returning to the United States Mark was Founding Director of the Student Internship Program for the Diplomatic Association of Tel Aviv (DATA), the umbrella organization for foreign diplomats in Israel, working under DATA Chairman Diaa Hammad, 1st Secretary of the Egyptian Embassy to Israel. Mark currently works in Washington D.C., but his loyalty remains with the Buster Posey-less San Francisco Giants, who will nonetheless repeat in 2011. He claims that in the 15 months he spent in Israel, there were only 2 days he wishes he could have been back in SF: the day the Giants won the Series for the first time in San Francisco, and the million-man victory parade down Market St. two days later.

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