On Friday, 8 July 2011, in the heavily air-conditioned international arrivals terminal of Ben Gurion Airport outside of Tel Aviv, dozens of press photographers clamored to get the best shot of an Israeli activist from Tel Aviv holding a small sign which said, “Welcome to Palestine.” Inside the terminal, Israeli police and immigration authorities were busy processing hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists who had arrived from various European cities with the intention of traveling to the occupied West Bank, a trip that normally requires the permission of the Israeli military.
In the days leading up to the event, the Israeli press ran stories about the European activists who were challenging Israel’s control over the West Bank by demonstrating their inability to openly travel there. Panic characterized the headlines of virtually all the country’s newspapers as the latest in a series of nonviolent efforts by Palestinians and their supporters approached. Despite the hysteria kicked up by the press, none of the activists presented a real challenge to Israeli security. In fact, many were jailed for days in cockroach-infested and sweltering cells before being deported to their home country. Given the media gravity of the event, it is difficult to understand why Israel would treat the passengers, including journalists, so badly except as part of the overreaction to the event as a challenge to Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.
Since the fall of Mubarak’s Egypt, reformulations of Palestinian nonviolent resistance to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have increased. On the May 15 anniversary of the Nakba—the Palestinian displacement in 1948 during the creation of the state of Israel—Palestinian refugees walked into Israeli-controlled territory on the Golan Heights, the Lebanese border, and inside the West Bank. Israel reacted violently to these actions. The Army killed 23 unarmed demonstrators and wounded hundreds with live bullets, tear gas canisters, and sound grenades.
Since the Nakba Day demonstration, other demonstrations have swelled in the West Bank, and international supporters have joined nonviolent Palestinian efforts to highlight Israel’s occupation.
“Stay away from the word ‘leader’; we do not have leaders,” Diana Alzeer, a 23-year-old Ramallah-based activist said, as we started our conversation. “We are using new means of nonviolence that Palestinians have not used in decades and Israel feels cornered by it all.” Alzeer is a part of the March 15 movement, a Palestinian youth movement that emerged after this spring’s tumultuous events in the Middle East and represents the new face of Palestinian nonviolence in the West Bank.
The recently stifled flotilla of ships sailing from Greece to Gaza in an effort to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza’s waters is the latest attempt at this form of international nonviolence. Through-out June, in the run-up to the flotilla, the Israeli government released a variety of statements. From threatening journalists covering the event with a ten-year travel ban, to claiming that flotilla activists would use chemical weapons on Israeli Navy Seals, Israel’s hysteria and panic was palpable to even the casual observer. In the end, only one boat—a private French-flagged vessel called the Dignité, carrying 16 passengers—managed to sail near Gaza. Israel sent ten warships and over 150 soldiers to intercept it. The passengers were arrested, charged with “illegal entry to Israel,” and deported within 48 hours. Triumph filled the air in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over Israel’s avoidance of the violence such as last year’s flotilla met.
Israeli reactions to Palestinian nonviolent resistance have been swift and explicit. Underlying the Israeli response is the desire to maintain control of the carefully crafted narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The story of a human rights struggle overshadowing the current peace process is one that Israel has long feared. In fact, the mainstream understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been that both sides strive for peace, sometimes in good faith and sometimes not.
However, Israel’s recent reactions to Palestinian nonviolence, both locally and internationally, reflect its problem: maintaining an ethnic democratic state battling nonviolent resistance to its colonial management of the territories.
This tension is apparent in Israel’s reaction to Palestinian-led boycotts of Israel. Starting in 2005 with the support of over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has grown to hamper Israel’s ability to maintain itself as a normal state, much as the South African boycott worked against the Apartheid regime. Dozens of musical and cultural performers have canceled appearances; major European companies such as the French transportation company Veolia have lost billions of dollars in contracts due to pro-BDS pressure, and Israeli produce exports to the West have declined.
One threat that the BDS movement presents for the Israeli government is that it highlights the economic integration that the occupied Palestinian territories represent for Israel. Virtually every major business in Israel, from the popular Aroma Café chain to international building company Africa Israel to the national bus service, is doing business in the occupied territories. The BDS movement will boycott as long as Israel continues its noncompliance with international law. Doing so allows the Israeli economy to benefit from the occupation.
In July the Israeli government passed a controversial bill that criminalizes support of the BDS movement by Israeli citizens. The bill, which is being described as anti-free speech legislation by civil liberties groups, will hold Israeli citizens personally and financially responsible for successful boycotts. The bill, passed by 47-37 in a late night Knesset vote, lets companies that have suffered economically from political boycotts sue Israeli citizens who publicly support the boycott. The plaintiffs only have to prove intent to harm business through economic boycott and do not have to prove any actual damages. Naturally, criminalization of this nonviolent movement is sure to create enormous publicity for the BDS campaign, while raising questions about the quality of Israel’s democratic institutions.
Not only is Israel providing the greatest publicity push that the BDS movement has ever experienced, it is demonstrating the movement’s effectiveness.
Internal Israeli criticism of the BDS movement has long been founded on the idea that the movement is simply not effective at challenging Israel’s occupation through boycott.
The bill, which raises serious questions about Israel’s laws protecting free speech, is proof positive that not only is the movement effective, but it has Israeli lawmakers in such a panic that they would risk the bad publicity of an anti-boycott law.
Ofer Neiman, an Israeli citizen active with the pro-BDS group “Boycott From Within,” explained the anti-boycott bill in relation to Israeli reactions to Palestinian nonviolence. “It is increasingly difficult for Israel to get away with its punishment of Palestinian nonviolence,” Neiman argued in an email conversation. “The world is awaking to the fact that [the] Israeli government will sacrifice democratic standards for Jews in order to stop Palestinian nonviolent initiatives like the BDS movement.”
Indeed, the anti-boycott bill is just one in a slew of bills directed at the support structure of Palestinian nonviolent movements that exist in Israel. On 20 July 2011, the Knesset rejected a bill which would allow the government to investigate the funding sources of the biggest “leftist” NGOs in Israel working on issues relating to Israel’s occupation such as ACRI, B’tselem (the Israeli center for human rights), and Physicians for Human Rights, among others.
Although this particular bill was rejected, more legislation is waiting in the wings to give the Knesset power over the appointment of Supreme Court justices, based on their allegiance to “Zionism,” as well as make criticism of the Israeli armed forces a crime.
For decades, Western pundits have argued that the Palestinians need to adopt Gandhian nonviolent tactics in their struggle for national liberation. If this were to take place, the arguments went, then the world would side with the Palestinian people and understand their legitimate battle for freedom from occupation. Palestinians are now embracing these tactics of nonviolence. The overwhelming support for the BDS call, which, if fully realized, would create severe hardships for Palestinians, given their connection to the Israeli economy, is proof that they are willing to take risks to avoid violence and achieve freedom.
At the height of the second intifada, as caf s were being blown up, it was inconceivable that a Palestinian nonviolent initiative such as BDS could cause so much panic in Israel or that the flotilla and weekly nonviolent protests in the West Bank would evoke such hysteria.
Israel has successfully deflected criticism of its actions by stressing its exceptional position in the Middle East as the only democracy. In a region of authoritarian dictatorships, the logic goes, Israel’s maintenance of a liberal democracy gives it wiggle room in dealing with difficult security decisions, including its 44-year-old occupation of land secured in a pre-emptive war. Palestinian nonviolent resistance is cracking away at Israel’s exceptional position by demonstrating the power that nonviolence has in situations of oppression. In the buildup to the September vote on Palestinian statehood, most Palestinians will use nonviolence while the looming question hangs in the air: Will Palestinians be able to sustain their nonviolence in the face of violent Israeli provocations?
Joseph Dana is a writer and journalist based in Tel Aviv and Ramallah. (via Truthout/Creative Commons)