Why isn’t there a Palestinian Gandhi? It’s a good question for Western liberals to ask. Just asking the question makes it seem like the oppression of the Palestinians is their own fault: they are too violent, too aggressive, too alienating to world opinion.
A few years ago, Noah Feldman, the Harvard law professor who drafted the new Iraqi constitution after the US invasion, invited readers of Bloomberg Opinion to “Imagine a Palestinian Movement Led by Gandhi”. Lamenting that Palestinians responded to decades of oppression with “rage”. Feldman—whose career peaked as a consultant to a Western military occupation of an Arab country—advised Palestinians to respond to Israeli apartheid with “sit-ins, silent marches and civil disobedience”.
“Pretty quickly,” Feldman asserted, “Americans would start seeing Palestinians as good guys...Palestinians who embraced King-style nonviolence would gradually cease to be seen as terrorists-in-waiting”.
There’s just one problem with this brilliant suggestion. Palestinians and their supporters constantly engage in nonviolent, creative and peaceful civil disobedience. And when they do, they face slander, persecution, imprisonment, torture, and murder. Almost every notable non-violent action taken by Palestinian and their supporters is met with grotesque Israeli violence.
Take for instance the Gaza “Freedom Flotilla” of 2010. The Palestinians of Gaza were subjected to a monstrous Israeli blockade that prevented food and medicine from getting into that tiny, overcrowded strip of land, which had been repeatedly subjected to devastating bombardments by the Israeli military. A small group of ships carrying humanitarian aid attempted to deliver relief to the Palestinians in Gaza. The cargo included medicine, construction materials and toys for children. It was a peaceful act of civil disobedience reminiscent of a lunch-counter sit-in, or a small-scale version of Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930.
What was Israel’s response? Murder. Israeli forces boarded the ships, massacring nine activists to stop the ships from landing. An investigation found that at least six of these murders were “summary executions”: Israeli soldiers faced no threat from the people they killed.
What about bigger actions drawing in more mass participation? On March 30, 2018—just a few months after Feldman called for Palestinians to embrace non-violence—Palestinians indeed began the campaign known as the Great March of Return. It is estimated that over 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from the region by Zionist militias in a campaign of ethnic cleansing to allow the establishment of Israel. In 2018, tens of thousands of Palestinians mobilised peacefully in a new grassroots movement, organising weekly marches to the militarised walls of Gaza. What was the response from their occupiers? The Israeli military fired into the crowds. The Palestinians, with characteristic bravery, continued their weekly marches: after a year of weekly protests, the Israeli military had killed 266 Palestinians, including 50 children, and wounded over 30,000.
Pro-Palestine activists who promote non-violence and civil disobedience are not difficult to find. Many of them are in Israeli prisons. Issa Amro, an advocate for Palestinian human rights and founder of the grassroots group Youth Against Settlements was arbitrarily arrested by Israel for documenting abuses committed by the Israeli military and settlers in Hebron. Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian advocate of Gandhian non-violent resistance to Israeli colonialism who has literally been dubbed “the Palestinian Gandhi” was arrested and deported in 1988. This came just five years after he founded the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence with the express goal of promoting peaceful civil disobedience among Palestinians. Disabled Palestinian activist Ibrahim Abu Thuraya was shot dead by Israeli troops for having the gall to protest Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Left without legs as the result of an Israeli air strike in 2008, Abu Thuraya was demonstrating peacefully, unarmed and in his wheelchair when he was killed.
You don’t even have to be Palestinian to meet an untimely death if you peacefully advocate for Palestinian rights. In 2003, 23 year old American citizen Rachel Corrie was killed by an IDF bulldozer while joining with Palestinians defending their homes from demolition. Eyewitnesses report that Corrie posed no threat at the time of her death, and allege she was deliberately crushed by the Israeli soldier operating the armoured bulldozer.
And what about the global movement for non-violent solidarity with the Palestinians? Consider Israel’s response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. BDS is a global, Palestinian-led non-violent movement explicitly modelled after the celebrated South African anti-apartheid movement. BDS promotes boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel as a peaceful method of pressuring the Israeli state into abandoning its oppression of the Palestinians.
In response, Israel and its Zionist defenders have become masters of smearing and persecuting BDS advocates. A movement that draws from one of history’s greatest racial and civil rights victories in the abolition of South African Apartheid has been labelled anti-Semitic. Israel and its advocates have waged a relentless counter-campaign of defamation, intimidation and lawfare to stifle its momentum. Academics face blacklisting. Legislatures around the world are considering and passing anti-BDS laws and resolutions. BDS activists face expulsion from Israel, and some have been threatened with assassination.
Palestinians and their advocates have the right to debate tactics and strategy, and the relative merits of military struggle, mass action, and civil disobedience. But the hypocritical calls from Western liberals for a “Palestinian Gandhi” are just a different version of the classic Zionist complaint about having “no partner for peace” while they wage a systematic campaign of occupation, expansion, and persecution. It’s a way to blame the victims for their own oppression. Palestinians have had plenty of Gandhis. It’s not their fault that the Israelis keep killing them.
The Palestinian movement has a long and inspiring history of creative, courageous resistance in the face of extraordinarily intense psychological pressure designed to encourage despair and passivity. The resistance has involved both armed struggle and mass action, self-defence and civil disobedience, awareness-raising and the use of force. The reason the Palestinians remain oppressed today isn’t that they are too violent: they have the right to resist by any means necessary. Palestinians remain oppressed today because their heroism and resistance have not yet been matched by a global mass movement capable of overthrowing the global network of imperialist powers of which Israel is a part.
What Palestinians need most of all is worldwide support. It will take a powerful international movement of revolutionary proportions to bring down both Israel and the system it helps to prop up. The courage and hopefulness of the Palestinians has to inspire solidarity and resistance elsewhere. Smearing Palestinians as unrestrained savages who need enlightenment is designed to undermine that solidarity. The duty of anti-imperialists is to deepen it.