Wendy Pearlman, Crown Junior Chair in Middle East Studies and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, spoke at KEVO this past week on her new book: Violence, Nonviolence and the Palestinian National Movement.
Previously the author of Occupated Voices, it was during that book tour that she often heard the common refrain, "yes, the Palestinians are suffering, but why do they resort to suicide bombings and the like?" Why is the Palestinian national struggle allegedly violent? She decided to make that her dissertation and the result is the aforementioned text.
The Palestinian cause has never been exclusively violent, of course. Palestinians took up violence long after Zionist militias, many headed by future premiers of Israel, pioneered their own violence and terrorism in the name of "Israeli independence"against the British and the native Palestinians. Palestinians resisted Zionism in mostly non-violent manners until the late 1960s when some factions adopted political violence.
But this was not universal. As Pearlman notes, the First Intifada was mostly nonviolent. It consisted of boycott action, marches, local committees and maintained a nonviolent cohesive postur even in the face of a brutal Israeli violence aiming to further subordinate the Palestinians. While over 1,000 Palestinians civilians were killed by Israel during the Intifada roughly a dozen Israelis were killed by Palestinians - demonstrating the asymmetry of the conflict but also Palestinian nonviolence.
A little more than a decade later the Second Intifada erupted and this time violence was clearly embraced by various Palestinian factions in response to continued Israeli military occupation - most infamously in the use of suicide bombings. Over 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israeli civilians were killed. Why the divergence of tactics?
Why do some movements use nonviolent protest, others violent, and what is the source of this variation over time?
A common assumption is strategic purpose (what they think will work), or culture or religion. In seeking to explain her theory, Pearlman adopts what she calls the Organizational Mediation Theory of Protest based on two principles:
1) cohesion increases possibility for nonviolence
2) fragmentation increases possibility for violence
So the First Intifada 1987-1993 was defined by linkage, network, activist ethic, unity, and national consensus in Palestinian civil society that established the boundaries of political conduct, nonviolent boundaries.
But the Oslo period serves as a period of fragmentation between factions - divisions arise - and the system is based on a vulnerable hold by 'Arafat. Public opinion is directionless and there is a lack of unity. Thus when negotiations fail it no longer is clear what to fight for. So that the Second Intifada does not look like the First.
Many of the mechanisms that were maintained during the First Intifada were undermined through intra and inter factional division - class, generational and tactical. This veering away from cohesion was a result of conflict among Palestinians, but at heart due mostly to the continued occupation (more on that below).
Thus the organization of nonviolence is no longer there - although many villages organize nonviolent cohesive protest - but at national level organizational cohesion, a source of leverage on political factions, has become diffuse.
Thus (to be brief) Pearlman's answer to the Where's the Palestinian Gandhi? question is quite simple:
Anyone who supports nonviolent protest should also support a depending variable, a strong and united Palestinian movement. Don't protest about the lack of a Palestinian Gandhi when Israeli occupation policies create the very atmosphere for fragmentation, violence, internal and external factional fighting that create the context where violence is then used. Protest the latter first.
And Pearlman documents that a long history exists, beginning with the British, where Palestinian nonviolent leaders - who can exercise restrain and nonviolent direction - are arrested if not executed. It is not that the Palestinians protest violently or nonviolently in the eyes of their occupies, British and Zionist, but that they protest at all. And what is left except a disorganized population with no effective channel but the now directionless (but, in their eyes, purposive) violence? Is it any wonder that peripheral violence (most Palestinians are victims of violence and not perpetrators) takes place in this context?
The very occupation power Israel paradoxically claims there is "no partner for peace" while cementing her very policies that undermine the prospect for a strong nonviolent partner committed to concession.
A cynic (and this is not necessarily Pearlman's interpretation) would say that "peace" isn't really the goal for Israel since genuine peace would necessitate a strong Palestinian national movement, which is perceived as a threat to Zionism. Better to keep the Palestinians divided and weak, frustrated and angered, and occasionally strike at them (as in Gaza 2008-2009) in an interminable effort to sabotage Palestinian aspirations. And, where possible, outsource the occupation to willing Palestinians (the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank) while Israel maintains a matrix of control that seeks to deny to Palestinians any hope in political action. Violence, as long as it can be managed by Israel and isn't existential, may be useful: allowing the state to portray Palestinians as a pack of terrorists lacking any peaceful intentions and thus unworthy of statehood and consequently allowing Israel to maintain its grip on the West Bank and continue unabated the colonization scheme via illegal settlements under the pretext that there is no negotiating partner. "No partner for peace" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the very occupation creates that condition.
But is the cause hopeless for Palestinian? Pearlman argues not. She does not see redemption in the recent Hamas-Fatah unity deal which may just allow for continued factional rivalry under new cover, but takes hope from the growing grass-roots village movements - organic, locally-coordinated and peaceful - that may be the future basis for a strong Palestinian national movement. This will require perseverance and patience.