The Emergence of a Palestinian Nonviolence Movement

By Mike Lebson
March 28, 2010

There is a new twist to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict - weekly clashes between the Israeli military and Palestinian protesters, primarily those in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, reflect the first serious adoption of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. So far, this seems to be the most effective technique the Palestinians have ever used in their conflict with Israel.

The Israeli government understands this, and is worried, because the framework through which they understand the conflict is security, not rights. Therefore, if the Palestinians, especially terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, transform the West Bank protests into armed violence and terrorist attacks, they will lose. On the other hand, if the Palestinians are able to suppress violent individuals and groups within their ranks and to continue nonviolent civil protest, they could make greater impact with voices and international public relations campaigns than they have for decades using terrorism and weapons.

Nonviolent mass protest has been effective in grassroots movements in non-democratic situations for the past century. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are the most famous examples of leaders in non-violent protest movements; but other movements have taken place from South America to Africa to Eastern Europe and the Philippines. There are also precedents for peaceful grassroots uprisings in the Middle East: the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon in 2005 and the ongoing “Green Revolution” in Iran since last year. However, Palestinians have never attempted non-violent protests on a significant scale.

Assuming the Palestinians are able to continue to restrain or exclude violent elements, Israel’s best hope for quelling the protests is to try to co-opt their leadership and meet some of their demands in hopes of diminishing their popular vigor, bases for grievance, and growing global perception of legitimacy. Israel should heed a lesson learned the hard way by governments facing nonviolent protests in the past, including those of Britain and the US: forceful repression boosts the legitimacy of the protesters and diminishes that of the government, while promoting wider public participation and global outrage, especially in today’s era of instant social media.

Unfortunately, Israel has recently begun to adopt exactly this tactic of forceful repression. Such adoption is strategically logical from the Israeli government’s perspective because, based on experience, chances are high that the Palestinians will resort to violence. Yet by engaging in forceful repression, Israel is also stepping into the role which the protesters have cast for them. This is precisely the dynamic the protesters seek to demonstrate to the world: that Israel is not a beleaguered David struggling for its existence in a sea of enemies, as it claims, nor a benign government willing to address the concerns of those under its rule, but a harsh Goliath who uses brute force against a suffering, unarmed population. On the other hand, if Palestinian militants take over the protests the way they commandeered the second Intifada in 2000, by responding to Israeli force with attacks against Israeli civilians, the Israeli government will be able to demonstrate that its actions are merely the latest round of legitimate defense against terrorism from a population committed to Israel’s utter destruction.

Israel has made a gamble: that their repression will undermine the most powerful technique the Palestinians have ever used – not directly, by intimidating and dispersing the protesters, but indirectly, by challenging them to turn to violence. The ball is in the Palestinians’ court. If they respond to Israel’s actions with armed violence and terrorism, especially against civilians, the world will shake its collective head and walk away. On the other hand, if the protesters are able to maintain nonviolence in the face of repression, they will give credence to the narrative that they are trying to portray, and build a cacophony of global condemnation.

Mike Lebson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Government and Politics program at the University of Maryland, College Park. He can be reached at

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