When an August 2002 opinion poll released by the US-based NGO Search for Common Ground showed that majorities of Palestinians would support a non-violent intifada, many residents of the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem greeted the results with suspicion. “They’re trying to make us be ‘polite,'” one leader of the Fatah youth movement laughed bitterly. The poll itself was dangerous, he suggested, possibly part of an insidious effort to convince Palestinians to give up resistance to the Israeli occupation.

Another young man in Aida stated that the poll should never have been allowed to be published. This was not a blanket rejection of free speech. Rather, he objected to the Search for Common Ground publication’s subtle displacement of the core issue obstructing peace between Palestinians and Israel — the occupation — onto Palestinian resistance strategies. Palestinians’ goal, he said, should not be to find a gentle form of resistance that Israel and the world can tolerate. The goal is to end the occupation.

The widely distrusted poll appeared toward the end of a summer that witnessed a resurgence of public debate among Palestinians over how the intifada should proceed, and the possibility of incorporating non-violence into its methods. Suicide bombings, or, as they are more often called in local parlance, martyrdom operations, have been a central issue — but not the only one. Throughout the past two years of the uprising, intellectuals, academics and aspiring leaders have stated repeatedly that what the intifada needs most is a clear, unified strategy. None of those public discussions has seemed to yield one. Privately, people have also been wondering who is leading the intifada, if anybody, and where it is taking them. But neither has the grumbling and collective confusion produced a tangible plan that might direct the mélange of protest activities in more effective ways. The fact that some political leaders reject even the need for a strategy may be part of the problem.

Debates over suicide bombers, or the future of the intifada itself, are influenced by internal power struggles, conflicting political goals and tensions within Palestinian society. Ultimately, calls to reconsider the use of violence in the intifada run up against severely eroded popular faith in the efficacy of non-violent strategies.

Petition of the 55

An early intervention in the public discussion of armed attacks on Israeli civilians was published by professors Rema Hammami and Musa Budeiri on December 14, 2001 in the Arabic daily al-Quds. There they argued that suicide operations, as a form of “resistance communication,” are not effective in delivering the intended message because they are “isolated from a strategic reading of Israeli society’s reaction to and understanding of the uprising and of Palestinian resistance in general.”

But what has stirred up public debate most vigorously was a petition printed in al-Quds on June 19, 2002, originally signed by 55 academics and other public figures. It began: “We the undersigned feel that it is our national responsibility to issue this appeal in light of the dangerous situation engulfing the Palestinian people. We call upon the parties behind military operations targeting civilians in Israel to reconsider their policies and stop driving our young men to carry out these operations. Suicide bombings deepen the hatred and widen the gap between the Palestinian and Israeli people… We see that these bombings do not contribute towards achieving our national project which calls for freedom and independence. On the contrary, they strengthen the enemies of peace on the Israeli side and give Israel’s aggressive government under Sharon the excuse to continue its harsh war against our people.”

The appeal reappeared two more times on consecutive days, carrying new signatories. Prominent names such as Hanan Ashrawi and Khader Shkirat, former director of LAW, a major human rights organization, headed the list of what grew to be several hundred signatures. Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, initiated the petition. Already regarded by many as a turncoat, in part because of his compromising position on Palestinian refugees’ right of return, Nusseibeh was condemned as a traitor in a Fatah Youth communique after the petition appeared. Unaffiliated individuals also added their names. Some did so for more prosaic reasons, including one man who signed it hoping the suicide attacks would stop because he wanted his son to finish his high school exams unhindered by Israeli reprisals.

First Causes

Several articles criticizing the petition appeared in al-Ayyam, another popular daily. Most of the editorials condemned it for not placing ultimate blame on the Israeli occupation. Isa Abd al-Hafiz asked, “[a]n innocent question: ‘What is the difference between a pregnant woman delivering at a checkpoint and the infant who dies from lack of oxygen, and a martyrdom operation?’�[T]he Palestinian political leadership does not order the martyrdom operation. Rather, it is a reaction to the human crime of the death of a newborn child, which is caused by the decision of the Israeli central government. Can’t those who signed the petition mention in their call the Israeli practices against the Palestinian people and land?” (1) Salim Tamari, a sociologist who signed the petition, agreed with this point, and regretted that the appeal was not well-worded.

Ahmad Muhaisen, a respected thinker from Dheisheh refugee camp, echoed these sentiments in somewhat different terms, placing the petition in a broader context of what he sees to be an effort to end the struggle against occupation altogether. He said that these Western-influenced intellectuals support a position that was made possible by the 1993 Oslo accord. “When Oslo was signed and the historical reconciliation was achieved, they declared that the war ended and the negotiations started. At that moment, we stopped being a nation resisting the occupation and fighting for freedom.”

Expressing a commonly held opinion, Muhaisen described the Oslo agreement, and the intellectuals, as having reframed the conflict around negotiations, thereby robbing resistance to the occupation of its legitimacy. “If we return to the origins and show the world that there is occupation, and we are resisting occupation, then no one would say to us that we aren’t allowed to do attacks. The first thing that needs to be said is that there is an occupation to be gotten rid of. It means that when you portray the issue correctly, no one can reject you. Even America itself can’t say that it is with the occupation.”

“Sitting at Their Desks”

Another major criticism of the petition stemmed from the fact that the European Union sponsored the ad. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), long a proponent of armed resistance to occupation and responsible for a number of guerilla operations during the current intifada, issued a stinging condemnation in a press release a few days after the petition appeared. “For a number of months, Palestinian resistance activity has been subjected to a fierce attack in the press and in the field aimed at stopping Palestinian resistance action in general, and martyrdom operations in particular. New elements have joined this campaign, the most recent of whom are a cocktail of ‘civilized intellectuals’ who have nothing in common except opening the flow of funds from donor countries to their increasingly cramped pockets…[The forms of resistance and the timing of attacks] is not the prerogative of a group of intellectuals, known to our people as mouthpieces of the propaganda of the Western democracies that regard the struggle of our people and their resistance to the occupation as terrorism.”

Individuals from a range of political camps also voiced suspicion that the signatories were motivated by something other than purely nationalist conviction. One historian who had signed the petition dismissed this criticism, claiming it stemmed from popular misunderstanding of the meaning of sponsorship. “They probably thought we each got $3,000 for signing.”

There is, however, more than a lack of worldliness inspiring the disapproval. Some Palestinians believe that what motivates many of the prominent proponents of non-violence is their financial ties to Israel, their personal interests or their academic careers. One student leader of the PFLP in Bethlehem hinted at a class analysis: “Those are people whose interests are connected with the existence of the occupation. During peacetime, they are living a good life and working well, but when there is resistance, it works against their interests, they gain nothing.”

The fact that local theories emphasize the class factor points to, first, a lack of trust between “the street” and some section of “the intellectuals.” Aside from Sari Nusseibeh, negative reactions to the petition rarely singled out individual signers for scorn. Instead, they were general commentaries on particular social divisions. Those who are sacrificing themselves for “the struggle,” often those who describe themselves as having little to lose, feel unsupported or even disrespected by the intellectuals and the well-heeled. The petition was read as a slap in the face of those Palestinians who have died for the national project and their families.

Sheikh Abd al-Majid, a member of Hamas now wanted by the Israelis, concurred: “The intellectuals who signed the statement are those who want to have Palestinian institutions supported by the West and Israel itself. There are more intellectuals like them who are sitting at their desks. They have no sons who have been martyred, no demolished houses, and they can move freely. Most of them want to have a struggle without losses, carried out through peaceful marches and speeches.” Abd al-Majid explained that Palestinians have tried these methods, and they did not work. “Nothing can be achieved through resisting the occupation in a polite way.”

While a narrow definition of what counts as resistance, struggle and sacrifice may have something to do with popular denunciation of the petition, it also indicates a disconnect between the population and institutions of civil society, including the universities and NGOs led by many of the petition’s endorsers. Expectations that these organizations would provide substantial services, as well as social and political leadership, have been disappointed. Many NGOs are popularly regarded as self-serving, self-promoting, corrupt and corrupting “dakakin” (stores), serving mainly to line their directors’ pockets, to offer opportunities for travel and to promote Western, defeatist attitudes harmful to the Palestinian cause.

Memories of 1987-1993

Despite occasional acrimony, these debates over strategy continue. They have now transcended the originally central issue of suicide bombings to ask deeper questions about the armed nature of the uprising as the intifada enters its third year. Could Palestinians achieve an end to Israeli occupation through non-violent resistance? Memories of the 1987-1993 uprising — when non-violent activism was more widespread and more successful — inform the present wave of public discussion.

Contrary to the claim that “the concept of ‘non-violence’ was totally foreign to the Palestinians,” (2) civil disobedience and other non-violent methods of protest have been cornerstones of the resistance to occupation. Mubarak Awad, a leading proponent of non-violent protest during the first intifada, encouraged Palestinians to refuse work on Israeli settlements, boycott Israeli goods and meetings, withhold tax payments, violate curfews and establish alternative institutions to supplant the Israeli administration. In response to his efforts, which helped popularize that intifada, Israel deported him. A more recent Israeli response to Palestinian advocates of non-violence was the killing of 50-year old Shaden Abu Hajla in Nablus. Shot by an Israeli soldier while sitting in a park with her family, she had been involved with a Nablus women’s organization that promoted non-violent civil disobedience as a form of resistance to the occupation. (3)

There have been other efforts to encourage non-violent protests against the occupation during the current uprising as well. Indeed, the majority of intifada activities have consisted of marches, rock-throwing demonstrations, sit-ins and the like, said C., a human rights activist from Ramallah. She pointed out that the armed actions carried out by Palestinians over the past two years have been minor compared to the many other mundane acts of resistance. “Marching to the checkpoint every Friday is not armed resistance; going to school under curfew is an act of peaceful resistance,” she said. “It’s the media, both local and international, which has focused on the armed actions. But this is a misrepresentation of the situation.”

The PFLP student leader who decried the “Petition of the 55” said he had tried to organize non-violent demonstrations, but they were not sustainable. “We marched peacefully and sat near Rachel’s Tomb [where an Israeli checkpoint is located in Bethlehem and which was recently annexed] to protest against the occupation. One person picked up a stone and threw it towards the soldiers. They responded with tear gas. Suddenly, there were a thousand people throwing stones. At that point, the idea of a peaceful demonstration was over.” The experience did not encourage his fellow activists to try again, he lamented. “What we lack most is organization. When we reach the stage at which we can manage to wait in line in the bus station, I am sure that the Israelis will start being afraid of us.”

Elias Rishmawi, a leader of the tax resistance movement during the first intifada, explained how non-violence worked then, and why it probably could not now. “Palestinians were able to present the Palestinian nation to the world as being a civilized nation applying the human values determined by the international community, including the American community. As a result, there was clear international sympathy with the Palestinians on both the official and popular levels.” Whereas now, “the circumstances are driving every Palestinian into a corner. To be realistic, how can you think rationally in an irrational situation? How do you expect someone being treated worse than a dog to behave? Is he expected to send you a kiss?”

According to Rishmawi, Palestinians were able to accept the existence of Israel and use nonviolent resistance to occupation in 1988, because, “we started feeling that we had dignity and pride. We felt that we were at the same level with the Israelis, not beneath them. We accepted their existence when we started feeling that the relationship was no longer one of slave to master.” But the situation has changed. He continued, “I think that many Palestinians believe now that if you do anything with the Israelis, then it indicates giving up, but not peace. This is because there is no balance between the two sides. In 1988, through nonviolence, we felt that we were equal, that we had will. But there were neither F-16s nor Merkava tanks then — weapons were not being used as they are now. Today, I think that Palestinians feel insulted. It isn’t possible to make peace with people who feel insulted.”

What is more, the nature of the Palestinian and Israeli economies has changed such that tax resistance and boycotts of Israeli goods are not as feasible as they once were. Palestinians no longer pay taxes directly to the occupation authorities, and, as a result of years of de-development and agreements such as the 1995 Paris Protocol, there are virtually no alternative sources to Israel of imports for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition, the Israeli economy is less reliant upon Palestinian workers, who have been largely replaced by foreigners. During the seven years of the Oslo “peace process,” Israel became much less economically dependent upon the Palestinians, but the reverse is not true. Palestinians have little leverage.

Eroded Faith in Conscience

Despite these obstacles, a few Palestinian groups have advocated non-violent resistance throughout the second intifada. But it has been a strategy mostly promoted by intellectuals, expatriates and internationals working in solidarity with the Palestinians. This may in part be a result of these groups’ wider awareness of, and heightened concern with, international public opinion. Attitudes towards non-violence are largely related to how important one considers international pressure to be. While most people recognize that global solidarity is a good thing, and recall its importance during the first intifada, not everyone believes it is still so relevant.

Indeed, there is much evidence to buttress the argument that international opinion cannot be swayed, and that the conscience of foreign governments and peoples would not be moved by Palestinian non-violent demonstrations and the probably deadly Israeli response. Many point to the fact that at the beginning of the intifada, tens of children and other unarmed civilians were shot dead by the Israeli army. Palestinian forces did not use weapons during the first month of the intifada. At the end of the first month, 107 Palestinians had been killed, approximately one third of them children. During the first few days of the intifada, the IDF fired some 700,000 rounds in the West Bank, and another 300,000 in the Gaza Strip. An IDF officer later dubbed the project “a bullet for every child.” (4) While, according to the head of international relations for the Palestinian General Intelligence Service, there was never an order issued for Palestinians to use weapons, the fact that Israeli forces were killing so many people did not encourage the PA to try to stop Palestinians from defending themselves with arms.

Sheikh Abd al-Majid said the killing of more than 20 Palestinians praying at the al-Aqsa mosque in 1990 was typical of Israel’s response to nonviolent resistance. “Muslims went, without weapons, to pray in the mosque, in order to prove that this is an Islamic mosque. The Israeli military leader responded to the mosque director’s efforts to calm the situation by saying he would speak to him with the gun only. Within minutes, a horrible massacre took place. Such massacres lead Palestinians to think about other resistance methods, not just stones and peaceful marches.”

Fatah, the mainstream party affiliated with Yasser Arafat, has tried all kinds of methods, from marches and stones to guns and bombs. Its military wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, has claimed responsibility for approximately one third of the suicide bomb attacks, as well as many attacks against settlers and soldiers. Some in the party objected to the armed nature of the intifada, believing that random shooting at settlements from Palestinian residential neighborhoods caused more harm than good. There is currently an effort to limit the use of weapons to the targeting of Israeli soldiers and settlers. Calls for reinvigorating the popular nature of the intifada are also growing. Mass demonstrations held during the most recent siege of Arafat’s compound suggested this idea might be taking hold. Around midnight on September 25, 2002, thousands of Ramallah residents beat drums, honked horns and made a general ruckus protesting the week-long Israeli-imposed curfew on the town. Not to be outdone, Fatah and other parties quickly gathered together a similar demonstration in Bethlehem, and a procession of honking cars also drew wide participation there a few days later.

But media coverage of these nonviolent efforts was sparse. The siege of Arafat ended as a result of US pressure, not nonviolent protest. The curfew on Ramallah returned to its normal schedule: from 6 p.m. until dawn every day, all day Fridays and all day on other random days decided by the Israeli army. Strikes, sit-ins and marches are organized regularly throughout the Palestinian territories. But the world still does nothing to stop Israelis from killing Palestinian civilians.

The events in Jenin refugee camp in April 2002 are another striking example of the international community’s readiness to turn a blind eye to Israel’s brutal excesses. How could non-violent protest awaken the world’s conscience if what happened in Jenin could not? In addition to the complete or partial destruction of hundreds of buildings, tens of Palestinian civilians, including children, elderly and the disabled, were killed during the Israeli incursion. Israel and the US blocked a United Nations fact-finding committee from visiting the camp, leaving Secretary General Kofi Annan’s office to issue merely a tepid report on July 30. While residents of the camp bitterly resented this turn of events, few were surprised by the outcome. No one has faith in the UN any longer, nor in the international community’s willingness to acknowledge, let alone put a stop to, their sufferings under occupation. Even if the UN committee had come, “it would have done nothing,” said the sister of a 52-year old woman who was killed by an explosive that IDF soldiers had placed at her front door as she went to open it for them. “The world knows what’s going on even without the committee, and everyone knows that Palestinians are oppressed but they do nothing to save us. Power rules, not justice.”



 [1]  al-Ayyam, June 22, 2002.

 [2]  Ha’aretz, October 8, 2002.

 [3]  Ha’aretz, October 14, 2002.

 [4]  Ma’ariv, September 6, 2002.

How to cite this article:

Lori Allen "Palestinians Debate “Polite” Resistance to Occupation," Middle East Report 225 (Winter 2002).

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