Where are the Palestinian Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings?


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“Why has there never been a Palestinian Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.? The question is often posed, but starts with a false premise. In fact, there have been many Palestinian Gandhis and Kings. They laid the groundwork for the first intifada—a mass, nonviolent social mobilization—and guided it, from late 1987 until at least March 1990, rejecting the policy of armed struggle adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1960s. Few know these leaders, because operating under Israeli military occupation required that they remain anonymous to be effective. The intifada’s clandestine leadership was headless, in order to evade arrest by Israeli authorities….”

Author: Mary Elizabeth King, professor at the UN-affiliated University for Peace
Published in: Oregon Herald in Portland, Oregon
Date: February 26, 2008

For the full article:
Where are the Palestinian Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings?
(887 words)
by Mary Elizabeth King

Why has there never been a Palestinian Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.? The question is often posed, but starts with a false premise. In fact, there have been many Palestinian Gandhis and Kings. They laid the groundwork for the first intifada—a mass, nonviolent social mobilization—and guided it, from late 1987 until at least March 1990, rejecting the policy of armed struggle adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1960s. Few know these leaders, because operating under Israeli military occupation required that they remain anonymous to be effective. The intifada’s clandestine leadership was headless, in order to evade arrest by Israeli authorities.
Nonviolent movements are defined by the behavior of their adherents, not practitioners’ creeds. Within a month of the intifada’s launch in December 1987, it was possible to discern harmonized action. Leaflets appeared calling for marches, general strikes, and local strikes, civil disobedience, renaming of streets and schools, unfurling of Palestinian flags, fasting, public prayers, and other methods. Such sanctions indicated a mass nonviolent mobilization underway. Tax resistance and resignation from jobs followed. More than 100 classic methods from an international repertoire of nonviolent sanctions would be employed during the next two years.
The relationship between the leaders inside the occupied territories, and the PLO, exiled in Tunis, was fraught with disagreement. The PLO did not understand the nonviolent strategies and civil disobedience of this homegrown movement.
News media gave major coverage to the uprising, but missed the story of how virtually the entire Palestinian society worked to lift Israeli occupation with the same nonviolent methods used by Gandhi in India, the American civil rights movement, Serbians who dislodged Slobodan Milošević, Buddhist monks challenging the Burmese junta, and the lawyers’ movement in Pakistan against the Musharraf government. From the intifada emerged the most cogent pressure to date to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel, with implied acceptance of the latter’s permanence.
The accomplishments of the intifada were produced by shifts generated in the period of more than two years during which Palestinians maintained remarkable, disciplined resolve in using collective nonviolent action. The first intifada accomplished what some of the twentieth century’s most notorious attacks on civilian and military targets had not: an Arab-Israeli international conference, in Madrid in 1991, and a wedge for opening direct Palestinian-Israeli relations a few years later, notwithstanding the subsequent invalidation of the Oslo Accords by all parties to the conflict.
Palestinians inside the territories decided to fight for civil and political rights with nonviolent sanctions as a result of three developments. First, during the 1970s, a handful of movements—youth clubs, students, faculty unions, and women’s groups—began organizing small nonmilitary institutions based on the idea that local governance would help them toward independence. The germination of this evolving Palestinian civil society meant that in the intifada 45,000 such organizations enabled the popular committees to spring into being to cope with reprisals and curfews. A new leadership emerged, often having scant connection if any to the PLO.
Second, in the early 1980s two dozen activist intellectuals—academicians, journalists, and editors—began the insuperable work of challenging the empty logic of armed struggle that had originated outside in the 1960s. Their writings advocated nonviolent strategies as improving the chance of Palestinian statehood arising from a negotiated settlement. The first harbinger of the political evolution under way was the sight of joint demonstrations, starting in 1980, with Israelis and Palestinians walking side by side and espousing that the occupation demeaned the occupier as well as the occupied.
Third, in 1983 Palestinians began holding workshops to explain nonviolent action. Anyone could attend. Pilot exercises of nonviolent struggle in forty villages showed rural people how to preserve their way of life without violence. The writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Boston scholar Gene Sharp were translated into Arabic and circulated in the thousands. Advocates of nonviolent action argued that the ideologies of armed struggle could not work and confronted Israel where it was strongest and the Palestinians weakest.
The intifada had been two decades in the making—not spontaneous rebellion when, on December 9, 1987, four Palestinians died while waiting at an Israeli checkpoint.
Was the intifada truly nonviolent? Thrown stones aroused fear among Israelis, rather than reassuring them by representing a disavowal of arms by Palestinians. To adequately address this question, one must consider that according to Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Yehuda Weinraub, only twelve Israeli soldiers were killed among the thousands deployed in the territories in a four-year period. (In the same interval, he said, Israelis killed 706 Palestinian civilians.) The low number of Israeli fatalities resulted from the Palestinians’ deliberate decision to adhere to nonviolent resistance: foregoing the use of arms, as advanced by Gandhi, King, and others. The uprising targeted the occupation, not Israel or the Israelis. “Intifada” means to “shake off.”
Residual knowledge of nonviolent struggle endures, along with an embryonic civil society that made the intifada possible. The space opened by the first intifada includes a number of ongoing nonviolent movements, now as then supported by Israeli sympathizers, against the separation barrier. On September 4, Israel’s supreme court ordered the re-routing of the barrier away from Bil’in, a village that has for two and a half years maintained a nonviolent mobilization against the wall. The Palestinian Gandhis and Kings are still at work.

Mary Elizabeth King is professor of peace and conflict studies at the UN-affiliated University for Peace, and distinguished scholar with the American University’s Center for Global Peace, in Washington, DC. She is senior associate fellow at Oxford University’s Rothermere American Institute, in Britain