Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

On Violent and Nonviolent Struggle

What about our personal responsibility?

by Mazin Qumsiyeh, Qumsiyeh.org, March 19, 2008

 In fact, I cannot think of a single historical precedent where the struggle for rights was waged solely by violent means (or solely by nonviolent means).  It seems the history of human struggles is a history of admixture of both to varying degrees.  In retrospect, societies that change will naturally chose to emphasize the positive elements. Thus in the US, Martin Luther King Jr and others who struggled with nonviolence are far more emphasized than black panthers, inner city riots, and so on...

Of course, doing nonviolent resistance is just as risky (and sometimes more risky) than doing violent resistance...But in a colonial occupation, people get killed, injured and jailed who are not resisting (other than by being on the coveted land, which can be considered a form of nonviolent resistance). Thousands of Palestinian civilians were killed and tens of thousands injured over the past few decades for simply being Palestinian in Palestine...

If we believe that we must wait for others to do something for us, we are doomed to fail as humans (not as "Palestinians", as "Israeli", or as "Americans"). In our respective traditions, we can find some useful guidance.  In the Arab-Islamic traditions we find the statement that "Wala Yughayiur Allah Ma Biqaumen 3atta Yughaiyuru ma biAnfusihim" "Verily, God does not change (condition of) a people until they change what is within themselves." Similar commandments of self-reliance and choice exist in every culture and tradition.  Thus and as the old canard goes: do not ask for whom the bells ring, they ring for thee.   

What is your position on Israeli violence? Palestinian violence?  What do you think Israeli and Palestinians should or should not do? What do you think of Barak Obama?  What makes Christian Zionists support Israel?  These and many other questions came during over 30 talks given over the past three weeks.  In a few minutes available in a Q&A segment, addressing these questions is by nature limited to making a few comments and summarizes a lot of available material from my and other books and data available. But these questions also always give us the opportunity to ask about personal responsibility.  After all, the only people you and I can change are ourselves.  Sometimes this leads to follow up conversations over dinners and via emails and phones about where we go from here.  Since those who read these emails also occasionally ponder similar questions, it may be worthwhile for us all to expand the conversation.  I hope here to provide food for thought on issues of tactics and strategy for the collective struggles for justice, a prerequisite for peace, in Western Asia and in Europe and North America.

First, I think it important to realize as Howard Zinn stated that "you can't be neutral on a moving train".  IMHO, we all have choices regardless of what we think of the trains speed and direction (if it is heading to a cliff?): sitting back and enjoying the fast ride for a while, buy products on the train, talking to the train conductor, mounting a rebellion, jumping off, getting off at the next station and taking another train. And these are metaphors for what obviously are more complicated choices in our lives.  One could even argue that with Global warming, globalization, the internet etc, we are all in this boat together.

Being a scientist and a medical professional, I always believe that we must first objectively characterize the symptoms and from those infer the etiology of the disease (the underlying cause) then design rational treatments.  In all of this we are always guided by the study of history.  Knowledge accumulates whether some individuals chose to ignore it or to learn from it.  This is true in medicine as it is in politics.  Of course, different issues and struggles have unique features but also many common ones with previous struggles. But lessons from successes and failures can be instructive.  How can we judge conduct and plans of US occupation of Iraq if we do not study what happened in Vietnam? How can we understand Israeli Hafrada (Segregation) if we do not know about Afrikaaner Apartheid (Segregation)? What was the role of violent and nonviolent resistance in achieving civil rights or an end to slavery in America? How can we understand why French colonial settlers were evicted from Algeria while Spanish colonial settlers succeeded in South America? Each of these struggles is worth studying carefully and applying relevant lessons learned to today’s struggles.

Lest I make this assay too long, I will try to focus on the issues of violent and nonviolent resistance in Palestine and the personal responsibility each of us have (especially those of us who live in states that financially and diplomatically support occupation and oppression and endless wars)...

Some would argue the 2002 Bush "Road Map to Peace" to arrive at two states needs to be simply implemented and force Palestinians and Israelis to comply. That road map has some good elements (e.g. requiring Israel to freeze all settlement activities including natural growth in all the occupied territories). But it is remarkable that in 2218 words it fails to mention or address International Law and Human Rights. Further Israel has the fourth or fifth strongest army in the World with hundreds of nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons etc while Palestinians are occupied, colonized people with few resources at their disposal.  "Negotiations" in such a situation are predicted to yield no fair resolution.

Israeli General and Army Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan once stated: "When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle." http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4034765.stm

But of course, the "cockroaches" may have proven themselves amazingly resilient.  Here we are 120+ years later and 50% of Palestinians still live between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean (i.e. in their historic homeland).  Here we are 120+ years later with a solid majority of people in what was designated as Eretz Yisrael (the same geographic area) rejecting Zionism.  Anti-Zionism and Post-Zionism are now common not only among the 1.5 million Palestinian who are Israeli citizens and the 3.5 million under the brutal Israeli occupation but is widespread in segments of the Israeli Jewish society (the 4.5 million who are identified by the state as privileged Israeli Jews).  Further, nearly half a million Israelis have voted with their feet by choosing to live in Western countries (Europe and North America).

The problem thus remains: Zionism requires maximum geography (for a Jewish state) with minimum demography (of Palestinian Christians and Muslims living in the coveted land).  The offered solutions of a Palestinian statelet in the West Bank and Gaza is increasingly recognized as an illusion/mirage promoted to delay the inevitable day of reckoning with the what it means to the nature of the Jewish nation state (some in Israel are engaging in this discussion by for example questioning the national anthem which is about Jewish yearning or the national symbols/all Jewish).   But this and the need to maintain both a Hebrew Jewish as well as the endogenous Arabic and Islamic culture and religion (and native Christians) are subjects for another conversation.  Here we want to deal with the issue of resistance to a colonial program and our role in it.

The Zionist program did not start in 1967 or even in 1948; it started in 1882 with the establishment of the first European Ashkenazi colony in Palestine.  Right from the beginning and as expected (even by Zionist leaders), Palestinians engaged in resistance.  In the first 100 years of the struggle, the evolution of the methods and strategies of resistance was similar to other struggles by native people facing a colonial settler population. There are many published comparative studies of struggles of people in Palestine, Native Americans, South Africans under apartheid, Algeria under French rule, Vietnam, and others. While each of these situations is unique, what is common in all of them is significant.  First and foremost, when history is written objectively in all these struggles, there is never any question as to the natural right of the people being occupied/colonized to defend themselves and mount a vigorous resistance to those who oppress them.

Israeli author Hans Lebrecht wrote in his book in Hebrew:

"According to international law, the people of a country, occupied by a foreign power, has the full right to fight for their liberation....This right is based, among other reasons, also upon the guiding lines set for the International Tribunal in Nuremberg, which, after World War II, had been established to judge the main Nazi criminals...The statutory argument in article 2 of the indictments (concerning transgressions against the laws on conducts of war) at the Nuremberg Tribunal was based upon the Den-Hague International Convention of 1907. Article 6 (b) of the Tribunal's rules relies upon articles 1 and 2 of the accompanying letters of the said Den-Hague Convention, which particularly lie down the right to popular resistance against military occupation, within the occupied territories themselves, as well as outside them. Further on is said there, that all the means of this resistance, political as well as military ones, are valid (as far as they do not hurt civilians who have no part whatsoever in the occupation regime and its forces). This determination was, at the time, important to forestall any claim by the Nazis that the partisans, Ghetto fighters, and other underground resistance forces in the territories occupied by them had allegedly been bandits and terrorists. In the Nuremberg Tribunal it was unequivocally set down, that resistance fighters, such as the partisans and underground activists (also such who struggled within Germany itself), Ghetto fighters etc., acted in accordance with the regulations of international law." ("HaPalestinaim - Avar veHoveh" The Palestinians- Past and Present, Tel-Aviv University Publishers, 1987, in Hebrew, page 219, translated by Lebrecht himself and shared over the internet on a listserve of Israelis 3 April 2002 http://peacepalestine.blogspot.com/2006/06/hans-lebrecht-right-to-resistance.html)

Resistance (violent and nonviolent) is also obviously predictable from a Psychological standpoint even when land was not yet being taken (but the writings was on the wall that the intention is to create a Jewish state - run by Jews in Palestine). Here is an excerpt from a letter by the father of psychotherapy and a great anti-Zionist Jew, Sigmund Freud in 1930:

"...I do not think that Palestine could ever become a Jewish state, nor that the Christian and Islamic worlds would ever be prepared to have their holy places under Jewish care. It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically-burdened land. But I know that such a rational viewpoint would never have gained the enthusiasm of the masses and the financial support of the wealthy. I concede with sorrow that the baseless fanaticism of our people is in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust. I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives..."
Dr. Sigmund Freud on the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Vienna: 26 February 1930: Letter to the Keren Hajessod (Dr. Chaim Koffler)
http://www.freud.org.uk/arab-israeli.html

Of course one must realize that while International law does sanction violent resistance, nonviolent resistance can be and is practiced in all struggles.  In fact, I cannot think of a single historical precedent where the struggle for rights was waged solely by violent means (or solely by nonviolent means).  It seems the history of human struggles is a history of admixture of both to varying degrees.  In retrospect, societies that change will naturally chose to emphasize the positive elements. Thus in the US, Martin Luther King Jr and others who struggled with nonviolence are far more emphasized than black panthers, inner city riots, and so on.

In reflecting on Apartheid South Africa people in the West tend to forget that the African National Congress under the leadership of the jailed Nelson Mandela was a guerrilla movement fighting violently for liberation (and has never renounced violence).  But on the other hand some individuals who believe very strongly in violent means also tend to minimize the roles of people like Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Ghandi or MLK Jr.   Ironically in both situations, a similar argument is made.  On the one hand some argue that liberation could not succeed without violent resistance and others would argue that it would not have succeeded without nonviolent resistance.  I think this is a moot question because it remains a hypothetical situation that never existed: i.e. all struggles to date contained various mixtures if violent and nonviolent struggles.  Can we really know exactly what the tipping points were in each situation?  Can we truly say that we know what would have happened to the civil rights movement without the "good cop" of the MLK Jrs of the world or the "bad cop" of Malcolm X?  What would have happened in South Africa without the Desmund Tutu's or the []

For that matter, can we even imagine what would have happened without the diversity within the oppressor population?  In white ruled America was President Johnson relevant to acquiring civil rights?  Do Israeli groups like the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions and B'Tselem make a difference?  I think the answers are obvious.

Most Palestinian resistance has been nonviolent.  I am now finishing a book on the history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance going back 120 years.  It is a very rich history that testifies to the resilience and resourcefulness of that society (a glimpse is at http://qumsiyeh.org/palestiniannonviolentresistance/ ).  These struggles would not be covered in US mainstream media that are self-censoring to serve their Israel-first agenda. Further,

"One of the reasons these nonviolent struggles are missing from the history books or misrepresented is that it was never in the interests of the oppressors to record or teach us that history.  It is in the interest of oppressors to teach that only violence is successful because the oppressors usually have the superior capacity for violence.  They will therefore have a greater chance to maintain their oppression if the oppressed also believe in violence. The oppressed need to learn that they do not need to fight with the oppressor’s best weapons. Instead of using violence, they have a greater chance of mobilizing their power capacity by working and acting together using psychological, social, political, and economic weapons-weapons that enable them to become stronger."(p. 40, Afif Safieh: "Gene Sharp: Non Violent Struggle", interview. Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn, 1987 pp. 37-55).

Of course, doing nonviolent resistance is just as risky (and sometimes more risky) than doing violent resistance.  Countless Palestinians were killed doing nonviolent resistance.  Even an American student, Rachel Corrie was killed standing in front of a bulldozer (that is an unusual event for internationals, Palestinians are killed regularly).  But in a colonial occupation, people get killed, injured and jailed who are not resisting (other than by being on the coveted land, which can be considered a form of nonviolent resistance). Thousands of Palestinian civilians were killed and tens of thousands injured over the past few decades for simply being Palestinian in Palestine.  Over 650,000 Palestinian males have gone through Israeli detention at some point in their lives (Gideon Levy in Haaretz). That is over 40% of the male population in the occupied/colonized territories. And every Palestinian has stories of oppression to tell beyond the issues of killing, injuring, and unjust imprisonment.  For example, over 5000 homes were demolished in the past 7 years alone and hundreds of Palestinians died while being denied medical services.  

So what was surprising is not the extent of the violent resistance but the extent of steadfastness and nonviolent resistance among Palestinians.  After all, the first suicide bombing was in April 1994 over 100 years after the start of the Zionist colonization program.  Further, that suicide bombing in 1994 occurred 2 months after an Israeli colonial settler (from the US) entered a mosque in Hebron and killed 29 Palestinians (including Children) and injuring many others.  The Israeli government (democratically elected) responded not by punishing the racist settler movement but by punishing the   Palestinians in Hebron with a process that resulted in further ethnic cleansing and economic devastation to make life more comfortable for the racist Jewish settlers. Yahya Ayyash, a leading Hamas bomb maker who was killed by Israel in 1996, was quoted as saying that "martyrdom bombings" were adopted to "make the Iraeli occupation that much more expensive in human lives, that much more unbearable." http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3256858.stm

(For a discussion of the issue of state and individual terrorism, please see my earlier article http://www.cactus48.com/struggle.html for now let us stay on the issue of violence generally in colonial systems.)

There are arguments to be made on all sides as to the value of different methods of resistance by a colonized occupied people.  Did scalping by native Americans of white settlers terrorize them to leave the land or inflamed passions and enforced stereotypes of savagery etc thus causing accelerated colonization?  Again I think that is a useless discussion; first you have to be in the mindset of a Native American response than a native Palestinian subjected to years of colonization (or decades as the case maybe) to begin to understand.  Psychological studies done on suicide bombings show that perpetrators are actually driven not by nationalistic ideologies but largely by personal revenge (home demolished, relative hurt, land or job taken away).  It may seem easier to understand and even sympathize with such motives at least as compared to someone like Goldstein who comes from a privileged life in the US to engage in violence against Palestinians thousands of miles away. But that also an illusion.  Ideologies like Imperialism, Zionism, or Nazism by those in positions of power obviously resulted in far more motivation to violence that those of us not caught in it cannot comprehend.  But we do see that it is possible and it does happen that people who engaged in violence may decide to abandon violence.  This is true both for the violence that is considered legitimate by international law (self defense/resistance to colonialism and occupations) as well as that considered illegitimate (occupying other people's lands, ethnic cleansing etc).  In Palestine/Israel, we see Israeli occupation soldiers and Palestinian resistance fighters who turned to nonviolence (e.g. the Israeli Refusenkick movement and the "Combatants for Peace").

It is clear from any historical, legal, and moral examination that:

a) Violence and nonviolence occur in all colonial situations.  How can one steal someone else's land or natural resources without violence!

b) That violence and that theft generate resistance.  Most of it nonviolent, some of it violent and some of it extremely violent.  That resistance is a Bell shaped curve.  As any statistician would tell you eliminating a portion of the curve would cause it to renormalize in short order (whether what you eliminate is those who engage in violence or nonviolence).

c) The violence of the occupiers/colonizers always kills many times more natives than colonial settler populations.  For example the ratio of civilians killed was 10:1 (Palestinain:Israeli) and over >100:1 (European settlers:Native Americans).

d) While resistance is sanctioned by International law, the native can and do chose other forms of resistance and do frequently switch modes of resistance.

e) It is rather useless for armchair theorists to lecture people thousands of miles away about tactics and strategies. What will we do: engage in personal struggle by violent or nonviolent resistance? Isn't it better for people in Europe and North America to work to effect change in their own governments and media (entities that are directly involved in perpetuating the injustices)?

If we believe that we must wait for others to do something for us, we are doomed to fail as humans (not as "Palestinians", as "Israeli", or as "Americans"). In our respective traditions, we can find some useful guidance.  In the Arab-Islamic traditions we find the statement that "Wala Yughayiur Allah Ma Biqaumen 3atta Yughaiyuru ma biAnfusihim" "Verily, God does not change (condition of) a people until they change what is within themselves." Similar commandments of self-reliance and choice exist in every culture and tradition.  Thus and as the old canard goes: do not ask for whom the bells ring, they ring for thee.

Other relevant material

Azmi Bishara, the Right of Resistance, and the Palestinian Ordeal
http://www.transnational.org/SAJT/forum/meet/2002/Falk_Bishara.html

"Defending Civil Resistance Under International Law," Francis A Boyle, Transnational Pub., 1987

Gilad Atzmon - The Right to Self-Determination - A Fake Exercise in Universalism
"given the reality on the ground, instead of demanding some rhetorical rights, we should fight for the Palestinian and Arab right to rebel against the Jewish State and against global Zionist imperialism. Instead of wasting our time on rhetorical fantasies and academic exchange, we better expose Jewish tribal politics and praxis. To support Palestine is to be courageous enough to say what we think and to admit what we see."
http://peacepalestine.blogspot.com/2008/03/gilad-atzmon-right-to-self.html