Myth Of Gandhi And
By Ali Abunimah
09 September 2004
The Electronic Intifada
recent visit of Mohandas K. Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi, to Palestine
has sparked new discussion about the role of nonviolence in the Palestinian
struggle for freedom. In a speech before the Palestinian Legislative
Council, Gandhi called upon 50,000 Palestinian refugees to march back
home en masse from their exile in Jordan, forcing the Israelis to choose
between relenting to a wave of people power, or gunning the marchers
down in cold blood.
In an editorial,
the English-language Jordan Times gently endorsed the idea, arguing:
"Perhaps it's time for the world to accept that the refugees need
to have a say in their own fate. Perhaps it's time for them to make
their voices heard. Perhaps they should march." However, the newspaper
also warned that such tactics could lead to "losses to the Kingdom,"
and recalled Israel's harsh military retaliation against Jordan and
Lebanon when the Palestinian Liberation Organization used those countries
While one can admire
Mohandas Gandhi's nonviolent principles, one can hardly point to the
Indian experience as a demonstration of their usefulness in overthrowing
a colonial regime. Indeed, Gandhi's concepts of satyagraha, or soul
power, and ahimsa, or nonviolent struggle, played an important role
during the Indian independence struggle, however the anti-colonial period
in India was also marked by extreme violence, both between the British
and Indians and between different Indian communal groups. Anti-colonial
Indians committed a wide variety of terrorist acts; the British government
was responsible for numerous massacres and other atrocities; and communal
violence before, during and after independence claimed the lives of
millions of people. One simply cannot argue that Indian independence
was achieved in a nonviolent context.
fact that the Palestinian leadership has never seriously sought to use
mass, organized nonviolence is yet another example of its monumental
lack of creativity. Imagine, for example, if the Palestinian president,
Yasser Arafat, instead of abjectly and unsuccessfully begging his Israeli
captors to allow him to attend the Christmas services at Bethlehem's
Church of the Nativity last year, had simply announced he would walk
there without their permission, and invited all the people of Ramallah,
international figures, clergymen, and the world's press, to walk with
him? What if Palestinian ministers slept in and defended with their
bodies the houses and farms of their people, slated for demolition or
seizure by Israel?
We had a tantalizing
glimpse of the potential power of such action on the bittersweet day
the late minister Faisal Husseini was buried in June 2001, when hundreds
of thousands of Palestinians flooded into occupied Jerusalem, and Israel
was powerless to stop them. For those brief hours the people made Jerusalem
free and whole.
The call for nonviolent
resistance by Palestinians has also been taken up in Israel, although
more disingenuously. Yoel Esteron, a columnist and former managing editor
at Ha'aretz, lauded Arun Gandhi in a recent column, and wondered, "what
would have happened if four years ago the Palestinians had chosen passive
resistance?" Esteron lectured the Palestinians: "It is worth
it to them to choose Gandhi's way. And it is worth it to us. If the
Palestinians stop committing suicide on our buses, this will be a more
effective weapon than explosive belts ... Ostensibly, the key rests
in the hands of the stronger side. Wrong. If Israel were to lay down
its weapons, it would be forced to pick them up again after a few murderous
terror attacks ... The key is in the Palestinians' hands."
embracing Arun Gandhi's call for nonviolent actions, Esteron would not
actually want Palestinians to act on Gandhi's suggestion that refugees
return home in force. Esteron has argued forcefully that the refugees
must give up their right of return. Nor is it necessary to wonder, as
Esteron does, what would have happened had the Palestinians opted to
engage in nonviolent resistance. From 1987 to 1993, during the first
intifada, they did exactly that. And despite it all, their mass protests
and strikes were met with brutal repression. Israel did not have bus
bombings to use as an excuse for its retaliation, since the first bus
attack occurred in 1994.
While the first
uprising that began in 1987 shifted international public opinion toward
the Palestinians, it did not result in gains on the ground. According
to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, from the beginning of the
first intifada in 1987 until the signing of the Oslo Accords in September
1993, Palestinians killed a total of 100 Israeli civilians, half of
them inside the Occupied Territories. During the same period, Israeli
occupation forces and settlers killed more than 1,160 Palestinian civilians.
The Israeli answer to what was then a largely peaceful mass uprising
was what is commonly referred to in Israel as "the appropriate
and Zionist response" - the violent confiscation of more land and
the building of ever more settlements.
The present conflict
preserves this gross imbalance, where the victims of violence are overwhelmingly
Palestinian, but at far higher levels of violence all around. The conflict
is also increasingly characterized by nonviolence, even if this remains
invisible to most Israelis and to the world's media. For Palestinians,
circumventing barriers and checkpoints in order to get to school, to
work, or simply to visit family or worship, is a daily act of resistance.
The recent hunger strike by thousands of Palestinian prisoners and their
families was another example that was largely ignored internationally.
The wire services carried dozens of photographs of silent vigils and
protests by prisoners' families, but few of those made it into newspapers.
On 30 August, China's
Xinhua news agency reported the death of 55-year-old Aisha al-Zaban.
She had been on hunger strike for 12 days in solidarity with her imprisoned
son and his comrades. Doctors had advised her to end her fast, but she
refused and died of a heart attack. I was unable to find her name in
any of the dozens of American newspapers that routinely echo the calls
for Palestinians to follow the way of Gandhi.
It is important
to distinguish between those like Arun Gandhi and the Palestinians with
whom he is in dialogue, who are genuinely seeking new and creative ways
to energize the freedom struggle; and those like Esteron, whose calls
for nonviolence are simply another bankrupt exercise in shifting the
blame from the occupier to the occupied, while still posing as advocates
is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. This article first appeared
in The Daily Star