Last fall I spent six weeks in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Four days gave me a brief taste of life in Qalqiliya, the first West Bank city to be completely enclosed by the notorious "separation barrier" (aka apartheid wall). I was volunteering there with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an organization that offers people from outside Palestine an opportunity to participate in local activism, supporting the widespread Palestinian nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation. On two other occasions, I was able to join Israeli and international activists picking olives in Palestinian villages, where our presence impeded efforts by Israeli settlers to disrupt this important harvest.
The main purpose of my trip was to gather interviews for a book I'm working on with Ghassan Andoni and George N. Rishmawi of the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement (PCR), which works with people in the Bethlehem-area town of Beit Sahour. The theme of our book will be peace, justice, and human rights activism in Israel/ Palestine -- especially nonviolent direct action by Palestinians during the current Intifada. We will also focus on Israeli individuals and groups who support the Palestinian struggle through nonviolent action in the occupied territories or in other direct ways, such as refusal of military service.
While traveling around Israel/Palestine, I interviewed really inspiring people: over thirty Palestinians and a similar number of Israelis. I'd known some of them for years, but others I met for the first time when we sat down together. I pointed the microphone at them and asked, "What do you do, and why did you choose nonviolence?" Here are snippets from a few of the responses. I have chosen those of Palestinians, not because Israelis lacked worthwhile things to say on this subject, but because we hear so little about the overwhelmingly nonviolent side of the Palestinian struggle.
Ghassan Andoni, one of the authors with whom I am working, was one of several people who had become practitioners of nonviolence after starting out participating in armed struggle. He told me,
"I started my life as a committed nationalist who believed strongly in fighting to liberate Palestinians and return their rights to them. The first time I was jailed by the Israelis was in 1972 when I was a 16-year-old high school kid. Following that, I was active in the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation. In 1976 I spent three months in Lebanon and was shocked. It made me feel that nonviolent resistance or civil-based resistance was the way to fight against all kinds of violence. I realized that people were fighting because they get used to fighting and because there is an enemy and then, in order to survive, they need to fight. Even in Lebanon at that time I realized that the fighting was pointless, but nobody was questioning it. I realized that the gun was leading, not the people.
"[Early in the first Intifada] I founded the Rapprochement group, started working to prepare the society in my town for civil disobedience, and started opening channels of communication with Israelis and internationals. We managed to build up lots of good models: the tax resistance, throwing back identity cards, boycotting Israeli products, starting underground schools when schools were closed, victory gardens. We started community work that managed to replace [the institutions of the] occupation. And finally the occupation felt threatened by a resistance that did not harm or kill any of its soldiers, but rather forced them to lose control."
Ghassan is today one of the leading figures in the International Solidarity Movement.
Another "founding father" of ISM is Nawaf Souf from the West Bank village of Hares, Salfit district. Like Ghassan, Nawaf started out as a fighter. He said,
"I didn't choose this way out of the blue. Before that, I struggled using arms and live ammunition against the occupation. I was a member of a Fatah cell, and I did what I did against the occupation, against the occupation army. I was arrested in 1986 and was freed in 1999.The question is whether to be a human being or not. In every person there is [the potential to be] human. All these things brought me to believe that it is forbidden to be part of the violence that exists in this region. You must work against the occupation, against the violence of the occupation, against the suffering, against all these things. You must work for your rights, for human rights, for all the individuals and families who are suffering, suffering, suffering."
Manal el-Tamimi is a Palestinian psychologist who works with traumatized children in the northern West Bank city of Nablus. She is also a painter and an "independent activist," who coordinates a loose group of volunteers dubbed Human Supporters. Speaking of the traumatic period when the Israeli military re-occupied Nablus in April of 2002, Manal recalls finding that the army had destroyed a hundred of her pictures:
"There were one hundred people killed and one hundred drawings of mine were killed. I had never imagined that I could think, even for one moment, that I'm going to explode, but I did. I thought for one moment about that. And I'm someone who under normal circumstances cannot kill a mosquito. I've worked for peace and nonviolence a long time. When I had this strong reaction for a moment, it wasn't because I am someone violent; it was just a strong, uncontrollable feeling. But then I realized: Okay, it seems that a suicide bomber is also a victim -- besides the Israeli civilans. They are victims of this policy against the Palestinian people.
"So, why do I choose nonviolence? I think it's against everyone's humanity to choose the violent way. Violence cannot be a strategy for anything. Violence is just violence. People think that violence and nonviolence are strategies. But nonviolence is not a strategy either. Everything should be nonviolent and that's it. For me, it's not a choice. I'm a nonviolent resister."
PCR has been in the forefront of the Palestinian nonviolent movement for human, civil, and national rights since early in the first (1988-1993) Intifada, as well as providing nonviolence training for Palestinian activists. It is now the principal Palestinian partner organization in the ISM. In the late 1980s, Ghassan and fellow Beit Sahourians actively sought out Jewish-Israeli partners for dialogue and nonviolent action and also played a leading role in the amazing months-long Beit Sahour tax strike, probably the most sustained, powerful nonviolent action of the first Intifada.
This spring, in addition to its other activities, PCR launched a professional news service with the aim of providing more in-depth and reliable coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict to media globally. The International Middle East Media Center (IMEMC), as this service is call8ed, makes a point of reporting on the nonviolent actions that are so often neglected by mainstream wire services.
In August, the Canadian Friends Service Committee www.cfsc.quaker.ca/>) approved a project in support of IMEMC. A small grant is being sent to help equip IMEMC's new audio studio, which produces weekly radio clips entitled "Five Minutes from Palestine." The domestic component of this two-pronged (overseas and Canada-focused) project involves promoting the use of the IMEMC site (<www.imemc.org/) by Canadian media and disseminating its print and audio reports to the personal media contacts of those working on the project, emphasizing reports of Palestinian nonviolent resistance actions. Educational and fundraising components inside Canada will be developed over time.
For further information about the CFSC project in support of IMEMC or a compilation of narrative reports from the trip described above, contact MaxineKL@idmail.com.