Gandhi’s disciples in the Middle East

The winds of change sweeping over the Middle East are indicators of what the future might hold for Palestinians. What has been hopeful is that movements to demand justice in Egypt and Tunisia based on mass non-violent marches and protests have borne fruit. On the other hand, similar movements in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain are being violently suppressed. Libya is a special case in that the opposition took up arms early and have allied themselves with the US and NATO and is thus more like an armed insurrection against the government.

There are signs that non-violent mass mobilizations of the Egypt-Tunisia-Yemen-Bahrain model might develop in Palestine as well. That part of the world might not look like fertile soil for Gandhian principles to take root but in an article titled Salt march to the Dead Sea: Gandhi’s Palestinian reincarnation in the June 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine (subscription required), David Shulman describes the actions of Palestinians and Israelis who are looking to the Gandhi model of non-violent resistance to Israeli policies. He says that masses of unarmed people, inspired by the events of the current Arab Spring and the possible declaration of Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly in September, could lead to a major challenge the status quo.

No one can say what form the revolutionary fervor currently sweeping the Arab world will eventually take in Palestine. It may very well be directed, first, against the centers of power in Gaza and Ramallah (Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, respectively; up-to-date studies show a sharp decline in popular support for the former). Eventually, however, the tide will turn against the Israeli occupation; the Israeli government has no effective response to a situation where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians decide to assert their freedom, one can hope, in nonviolent ways. I hope that some of us, at least, will have the privilege of standing beside them, sharing the risks, when that day comes. Here is another irony to contemplate—that of Palestinians in 2011 successfully adopting the method Gandhi recommended to the Jews in the 1930s.

He describes three of the people who are taking the Gandhian approach.

Abdallah Abu Rahmah, from the village of Bil’in, who was released from the Israeli military prison at Ofer, after fifteen months’ detention, on March 14. He is a central figure in the ongoing campaign by the village against the Israeli government’s appropriation of a large portion of its lands in the course of building the huge concrete separation barrier or wall, situated in this case, as in many others, on Palestinian land far to the east of the Green Line, the old international border.

Bil’in has become the stuff of myth in Palestine. This small village forged a grassroots nonviolent protest that has been sustained for more than six years with remarkable tenacity, despite continuing casualties—two killed and hundreds wounded by the Israeli army. (The weekly demonstrations, which start off with a peaceful march to the wall, inevitably deteriorate into violent clashes between the soldiers, who fire tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes live ammunition at the protesters, and young village toughs throwing rocks.) Abdallah is thirty-nine years old, a teacher, and a father of three young children. He has read Gandhi and Mandela. He is soft-spoken, charismatic… You can see why the army is afraid of him; what Israel is doing in Bil’in, as in most places in the Palestinian territories, is indefensible, and Abdallah is perfectly capable of explaining why to the world at large.

Then there is Ali Abu Awwad, who runs the Palestinian Movement for Non-Violent Resistance from his offices in Bethlehem and Beit Jala, south of Jerusalem. He read Gandhi’s writings in what he calls “my Palestinian university”—an Israeli prison, where he spent four years in the early 1990s… Ali is tall, handsome, fluent in several languages, precise in formulating his thoughts, which seem to come from some irreducible core of experience; he is a Gandhian who has improvised a vision, and a method, suited to the particular circumstances of Palestine.

There are Gandhian figures within Israel, too—foremost among them, perhaps, Ezra Nawi, a tough-minded, soft-hearted plumber who, I think, has never read a line of Gandhi but who has reinvented Gandhian-style protest on his own, largely in the harsh region of the South Hebron Hills. Predictably, an Israeli court recently sent him to jail for a month, and the judge wrote a long decision concerning, what else, the virtues of law and order. (The circumstances in this case involved the gratuitous destruction by the army of Palestinian shacks and tents at a place called Umm al-Kheir; Ezra tried to stop it by throwing himself in front of the bulldozers and then running into one of the shacks.)

What is notable about the Gandhian model is that it can draw upon a potentially much larger base of volunteers than armed uprisings. Not only do the Gandhian ideals inspire more people (since most people have a distaste for perpetrating violence) almost anyone, of any gender, age, physical capability, can take part in sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations and feel they are contributing to the cause. I recall during the protests in England during the lead up to the Iraq war, an elderly lady phoned a protest organizer to say that while she could not take part in the marches because she needed a walker to get around, she was able and willing to lie down in the middle of the street if that would be helpful to stop the war from being started.

Martin Luther King showed that Gandhi’s way was not limited by the specifics of geography or culture. Let’s hope that it can spread to the Middle East too.

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