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The Promise of
Palestinian Civil Disobedience

Dennis Fox

July 30, 2002

Defiance of Israel's curfew in Nablus must put Israeli authorities in a tizzy. Fed up by more than five weeks of enforced house arrest ostensibly designed to prevent would-be suicide bombers from leaving the West Bank city, thousands of Palestinian residents have left their homes en masse. They've effectively declared the curfew over.

Although the curfew in other West Bank cities has lightened over the past month, in Nablus the crackdown has remained absolute, save for half a dozen days when authorities let residents out for a few hours to buy food. Otherwise, families in the city of 200,000 have been trapped at home 24 hours every day, unable to shop, to work, to visit relatives or go to a movie or bring their children to day camp. Aid groups report increasing health problems, including malnutrition.

The dilemma for Israeli authorities is this:

If they crack down once again, forcing back into their houses nonviolent West Bankers who only want to do what the rest of us take for granted, they expose their actions as a repressive overreaction against ordinary people. But if they don't crack down, they risk something we should all hope comes about: Nablus will become a symbol of peaceful nonviolent civil disobedience, a model for the kind of activism that could finally end Israeli domination and create a just solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Though generally underreported in the mainstream press -- still committed to stereotypes of valiant Israelis and irrational violent Arabs -- Palestinian nonviolent resistance isn't entirely new. Neither is Israel's common repressive response. What is new, though, is that more Palestinians, conscious of both the importance of public image and the political situation's fluidity, are stepping forward to advocate making nonviolent struggle central.

Israeli authorities know that their supporters in the United States generally accept Israel's image as a besieged nation that resorts to violence only reluctantly, in self-defense, with no choice other than to expand West Bank settlements, dominate Palestinian life, and restrict individual liberties. Beating or shooting Palestinians guilty only of trying to buy their children bread and milk would dent sympathy in the generally liberal American Jewish community -- and even within Israel itself, where the public prefers heroics to slaughter and where polls show the majority would gladly abandon the settlements if Palestinians would accept a peaceful solution. The shootings a few weeks ago of Palestinians who mistakenly thought the curfew had been lifted got Israel more criticism than it liked.

On the other side, supporters of Palestine often reject calls to turn from suicide bombings and other forms of armed struggle. They claim, with justification, that past nonviolent actions have been met by Israeli repression and worldwide indifference. Given the desperation of the Palestinian people, many argue, armed struggle -- including terrorist attacks within Israel itself -- is both justified and necessary.

Yet in March, Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian human rights lawyer and peace activist, and Mubarak Awad, director of Nonviolence International, disseminated a call for alternative strategies, not because they consider violence unjustified -- they don't -- but because they think nonviolence will work better than violence. Apparently they're not the only ones: After Awad launched a similar effort almost two decades ago, Israeli authorities arrested and deported him.

In June, dozens of Palestinians publicly called for an end to suicide bombings. In a full-page ad in the newspaper al-Quds, Palestinian leaders familiar to many American activists called on local militias to "stop sending our young people to carry out such attacks." Joining the appeal were Hanan Ashrawi, often the Palestinian spokesperson; the senior Palestinian official in Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh (whose office Israel briefly closed two weeks ago); and Gaza human rights activist Eyad Serraj. The public call followed increasing Palestinian concern that younger and younger teens were being recruited for suicide bombings.

Despite pessimism and cynicism, the growing effort to rethink attacks is having some success. Just last week, elements of the Tanzim militia and even of Hamas were preparing to issue a cease-fire order -- until Sharon's forces dropped a one-ton bomb into a Gaza neighborhood, killing not just the Hamas militant they sought but more than a dozen innocent neighbors. They also killed the effort to determine if the cease-fire overtures were genuine.

Will Israel find a pretext to re-impose its Nablus curfew, using its might to bring home to ordinary Palestinians that even nonviolent resistance will get them nothing? Unfortunately, if history repeats itself, this is the most likely outcome.

But perhaps Israel, for the moment the object of unusual media attention, will be forced to alter its usual response, even though letting the curfew wither away would allow Nablus to serve as a dangerous example. Will former fighters and masses of ordinary residents turn to large-scale militant civil disobedience, determined to seek justice without imposing injustice and death on others? That's the outcome Israeli authorities fear most, even if many Israelis and many Palestinians alike might welcome it.

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