Mideast Turning Point


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“The Mideast summit in Annapolis last November was promoted as an historic turning point, but the real watershed was twenty years ago, when the first intifada erupted in the Palestinian occupied territories.
News media gave major coverage, but missed the story of how almost the entire Palestinian society worked to lift the Israeli military occupation with the same nonviolent methods used by Gandhi in India, the U.S. civil rights movement, Serbian activists who brought down Slobodan MiloÅ¡ević in 2002, and, recently, Burmese monks and lawyers in Pakistan….”

Author: Mary King, professor at the UN-affiliated University for Peace
Published in: Oregon Herald in Portland, Oregon
Date: February 27, 2008

For the full article:
Mideast Turning Point
(964 words)
by Mary King
The Mideast summit in Annapolis last November was promoted as an historic turning point, but the real watershed was twenty years ago, when the first intifada erupted in the Palestinian occupied territories.
News media gave major coverage, but missed the story of how almost the entire Palestinian society worked to lift the Israeli military occupation with the same nonviolent methods used by Gandhi in India, the U.S. civil rights movement, Serbian activists who brought down Slobodan Milošević in 2002, and, recently, Burmese monks and lawyers in Pakistan.
Joint Israeli-Palestinian committees starting in 1980 were the earliest harbingers of a political evolution, and stood in sharp contrast to armed strikes from PLO military cadres. A decades-long spread of knowledge about nonviolent strategies throughout Palestinian towns, villages, and refugee camps shaped the uprising, which was years in the making. Once underway, its ability to continue relied on hundreds of “popular committees,” often started and run by women, that sustained communities under curfew or on strike. From the 1987 uprising would emerge the most cogent pressure to date to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel, with implied acceptance of the latter’s permanence.
Hard to remember amid a subsequent ascent of Hamas with its suicide bombs and militarism, and a U.S. administration that had for seven years shunned peace talks, is the fact that a new politics was developing at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It included the emergence of 400 Israeli peace organizations to support the intifada.
The Palestinians’ decision to take nonviolent action to lift the occupation was quietly revolutionary. After decades of armed struggle by guerrilla factions of the PLO, which refused to discriminate between civilian Israelis and the military in some of the most notorious terror attacks of the twentieth century, continuing the violence would be more of the same.
Palestinians shifted to fighting for their rights nonviolently because of three developments.
• 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 when the intifada started 45,000 such organizations enabled the popular committees to spring into being to cope with harsh reprisals and curfews. A new leadership emerged, often having scant connection if any to the PLO.
• By the early 1980s, two dozen activist intellectuals—academicians, journalists, and editors—were publishing in Arabic, English, and Hebrew. Concentrating on what the Palestinians might accomplish politically, they argued that nonviolent strategies were the best way to achieve statehood arising from a negotiated settlement. Israelis and Palestinians walked side by side in demonstrations against the occupation. Their picket signs in three languages called the occupation demeaning to both the occupier and occupied.
• In 1983, workshops started to teach nonviolent action. The writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Boston scholar Gene Sharp were translated into Arabic. Thousands of copies flowed from the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence in East Jerusalem. The materials sought to persuade their fellow Palestinians that the ideologies of armed struggle could not work and confronted Israel where the Palestinians were weakest. Pilot exercises of nonviolent action began in forty villages. The Palestinians were learning nonviolent methods much as did the Czechs and Slovaks prior to the “velvet revolution” of the same period, when fliers spread through kiosks overnight.
On December 9, 1987, in response to the deaths of four Palestinians waiting at an Israeli checkpoint, a tsunami of popular dissent broke. Nonviolent movements are defined by the behavior of their adherents, not personal creeds. Within a month, harmonized actions of marches, strikes, civil disobedience, and other methods from an international repertoire of nonviolent methods revealed a mass nonviolent mobilization. Hamas joined in.
Was the uprising truly nonviolent? Indeed, thrown stones aroused Israeli fears, instead of reassuring Israelis, and ultimately lessened the achievements of the uprising. Yet probing this question means examining deaths of Israeli soldiers. According to the Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson, Lt Col Yehuda Weinraub, only twelve Israeli soldiers were slain among the thousands deployed in the territories in a four-year period in the West Bank and Gaza. (In the same interval, he said, Israelis killed 706 Palestinian civilians.)
The opportunities presented by this pivotal moment in contemporary world history were squandered by Israel, the PLO, and the international community. It took years for the Israelis to recognize that the uprising had political rather than military goals. The PLO did not understand the uprising’s civil disobedience and was mainly concerned about preventing a new leadership from arising in the territories. The international community failed to grasp the portentous changes represented by the intifada. As the activist intellectuals were locked up or deported, the violence returned.
The accomplishments of the uprising coincided with its two and a half years of remarkably disciplined nonviolent action. These achievements include the psychological breakthrough of the Madrid 1991 international conference, and the opening of political space for the Oslo Accords, notwithstanding its subsequent invalidation by all parties to the conflict.
Those who organized the intifada, and their Israeli sympathizers, were catalytic in forging the concept of a two-state solution. They have proved their readiness for two states.
The aims of the first intifada reflected post-1967 realities: acceptance of Israel in its pre-1967 borders, removal of Israeli authority from the occupied territories, and establishment of a Palestinian state. Twenty years have not changed these goals, more of the international community agrees not less, and delay has only seen the situation worsen. The great powers are historically obliged to help the Israelis and Palestinians in their quest for a just settlement. A start is the residual knowledge of nonviolent strategies and the civil society that made the intifada possible.

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