Pacifism or passivity?

This morning, in Tel Aviv’s Beilinson Hospital, twenty-eight-year-old Mustafa al-Tamimi died from the injuries he sustained at yesterday’s protest in the village of Nabi Saleh. A soldier opened the door of the military jeep as it was driving off and fired a tear gas canister at Mustafa at point-blank range. It struck him full in the face. When I saw the photograph, I was reminded of a red pomegranate split open on rock. His features were barely discernible.

This evening, IDF spokesperson Avital Leibovitch issued photographic justification of Mustafa’s killing, captioning it, “This is what he was doing.” The photo shows a cosy-looking bed. Looking at this piece of incontrovertible evidence, I could only conclude that Mustafa had been threatening soldiers’ lives with a 10.5 tog fibre quilt in a floral-patterned pastel cover. Then I registered the slingshot lying on top of the quilt. Avital Leibovitch’s insinuation is that Mustafa had been throwing stones.

Several people who were present at the demonstration have responded to her claim by pointing to the photo that was captured moments before the canister was fired. Mustafa has no slingshot, and he is carrying no rocks. In one sense, it was right to point this out – but in another it is wrong. It misses the point.

This is not about stone-throwing. It never has been about stone-throwing. It’s about an illegal military occupation that is inherently violent and repressive, having a devastating effect on Palestinian daily life. Yet in any discussion of Palestinian popular resistance to the occupation, the issue of rock-throwing invariably surfaces, and often it comes to dominate the conversion. When +972 magazine reported on Tamimi’s injury, stones appeared in the very first comment:

So, the military told them to disperse, spends an hour firing tear gas canisters at you and you continue to throw rocks at them at close range… shouldn’t you expect and be prepared for getting hurt. Why complain about it afterwards?

Reading that, dozens of similar statements flock back into my mind. I am talking to a border policeman in Hebron about a Palestinian man who was shot twice in the head by an IDF sniper. The policeman interrupts defensively: “It’s not just us who get it wrong sometimes, they do it too, they throw stones!”

I am sitting in a pavement cafe in Tel Aviv, describing the difficulties faced by the family I live with in Bethlehem to a man who voted for Avigdor Lieberman. I relate an incident that happened just before Christmas last year, when my landlady’s twelve-year-old son and his young friends were snatched by soldiers and bundled into a jeep as they played in front of the house. Fortunately my landlady heard them screaming and tore outside, blocking the path of the jeep. In the end, after a tense argument, the soldiers released the boys. One child was shaking so much that he had to be helped back into the house. They had taken the children, a soldier informed my landlady, because the children had been throwing stones over the separation wall into the military ba -

“And were they throwing stones at the base?” my listener interrupts. I tell him no, that it is physically impossible – to get a stone over the wall from our narrow little street the children would have needed the muscles of Olympic shot-putters, plus the ability to temporarily suspend gravity. As soon as I say it, I wish I could take back the words. Even if Daniel and his friends had been hurling stones over the wall, that wouldn’t have justified the IDF’s behaviour that day. Arresting twelve-year-olds under martial law is never OK.  Neither is violently stuffing said twelve-year-olds into a jeep and trying to drive off with them without even informing their parents where you’re going. In allowing my listener to focus on the stones, I allowed him to walk away with the impression that the army’s behaviour would have been acceptable if only stones had been involved. That wasn’t true in Bethlehem in December 2010 and it wasn’t true in Nabi Saleh yesterday.

Stones are often thrown at Nabi Saleh. Protestors pelt them at the military, who come to the village armed with riot shields, tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets, assault rifles, armoured cars, skunkwater, and power of immediate arrest and indefinite detention without trial. When news of the protests emerge, readers point at the stones as they bounce off the jeeps that carry those heavily armed soldiers through a village that is occupied by military force. They ask how Palestinians can expect to have peace when they persist in being so violent.

It is not surprising that some Palestinians are deeply sceptical of pacifism as a philosophy. They equate it with passivity – and this is how it’s sold to them by various politicians from Israel and abroad, who tell them earnestly that if they are good and trade in the stones for olive branches (presumably cut from the orchards that the IDF has just uprooted), they will deserve peace. But not before.

Pacifism - being a doormat?

They are sceptical because this isn’t true. It’s not just stone-throwing protestors who are at risk of being hurt. Back in July, my friend Rousol took part in a non-violent demonstration at Bethlehem’s notorious Checkpoint 300. The demonstrators walked slowly down the road that leads to the metal sliding gate, clutching Palestinian flags and a banner reading ‘Pray for the Peace of Palestine’. Seeing them coming, the soldiers hastily shut the gate. Rousol walked up to it and knocked on the panels. “Why have you closed this gate? Why don’t you open it and let us talk to you?”

“It isn’t a gate.”

Rousol’s gaze travelled upwards, taking in the ten solid feet of metal. “What is it, then?”

“It’s to protect us from these people,” a soldier replied. Then he opened the little door in the gate and popped out just long enough to arrest her.

Supporters of Israeli policy might point out that this is proof of the IDF’s reasonable behaviour: providing you don’t throw stones, your demonstration will end with your arrest instead of your death. But even this isn’t true. Organisers of pacifist resistance (which typically takes the form of cultural events) have also been physically assaulted and even killed. Dedication to non-violence will not protect you, not in the face of a military machine that feeds on violence. I realised this when I read the story of Mohammed Manasrah, a trade union activist from Dheisheh refugee camp who was arrested and severely tortured multiple times, always on some nonsensical charge. The torture left him with permanent hearing loss and injured genitals. His final arrest took place after he organised a cultural exhibit at Bethlehem University in his capacity as president of the student senate. Student organisations are technically banned in the West Bank under military law, and the army chose to enact the ban in Manasrah’s case.

Not long after I read this story (along with a host of others) my boss’s father was arrested as he tried to return to the West Bank after receiving eye surgery in a Jordanian hospital. He is a pacifist and a very prominent figure in our local community. His name was on a list in the border police computer, and they arrested him on the spot. He has never raised a hand to hurt anybody in his life, and he and his daughter have done more to promote non-violent living through their educational work with Bethlehem’s youth than any other people I know.  When I told my neighbour about Abu Reem’s arrest, she was horrified, but not surprised. She burst out, “It’s because of this institute! They don’t want him to have it!” I nodded. By then I understood the way things worked pretty well. Abu Reem hadn’t beem arrested in spite of his peace work. He was arrested because of it. Sometimes there is no reason visible at all; being Palestinian is enough. As Linah al-Saafin wrote in her poignant angry eulogy to Mustafa, whose death she witnessed:

They killed you, Mustafa. My insides crumple. You, in front of me…You were wanted by the army because of who you are: a Palestinian who resists the occupation he directly suffers from. I think of your father being denied a permit to be with you, of your mother who had to be granted permission by them to see you in the hospital.

There is another reason why pompous exhortations to keep calm and put down the rocks can sound grating to Palestinian ears. The people who are urging them to embrace non-violence and dramatically enquiring as to the whereabouts of the Palestinian Gandhi are rarely committed to non-violence themselves. Last year Foreign Secretary William Hague visited the stricken village of Bi’lin, and he praised non-violent protest as the best solution to the occupation. Yet he himself had just voted for the replacement of Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapons system. Such a person has no business to be telling the Bi’lin shabaab not to chuck stones at the IDF. If you believe that armed resistance and warfare can ever be legitimate – and Hague’s voting record tells us that he certainly does – then the people of occupied Palestine have a right to use it.  When I look at what the occupation does to Palestinians, and hear people expressing disapproval over the stone-throwing, a line from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion flashes to mind: “And then you were surprised because she threw your slippers at you! I should have thrown the fire-irons at you.”

It is no wonder that some Palestinians interpret this hypocritically fulsome support for non-violent resistance as an attempt to neuter them and render them passive. Yet there is no room for passivity in genuine pacifism. As Reem and her father show, Palestinian pacifists have to face the reality that their work may bring them into harm’s way. There is no hiding place for people involved in non-violent resistance. A candid remark from IDF Major-General Amos Gilad – “We don’t do Gandhi very well” – suggests that pacifists may be at even greater risk from army retaliation, because the army doesn’t know any other way to deal with their approach and outlook. Unlike the onlookers who beseech Palestinians to renounce violence and thereby secure their safety, Palestine’s pacifists understand very well that they are not safe, and that so long as there is occupation, they never will be.

They are pacifist not because they expect the Israeli army to start handing out lollipops as a special reward for their good behaviour. They are pacifist because of a deeply held belief in what it means to be free. The army might confiscate land, demolish homes, expel the residents, but there is one thing that they will never be able to touch, and that is the integrity of the people they are oppressing. Palestine is occupied, but in each person who refuses to succumb to violence there is a place that is unconquerable, and there is a formidable strength in that place. This is what Amos Gilad was referring to with his rueful remark. Intimidation and theft are part of the IDF’s everyday routine. What do they do when they come across something they can’t take? This is one aspect of what Palestinians call sumud – steadfastness.

I’m going to write a series of posts on pacifism in Palestine, because there is a lot more to say about what it is and what it means for the people who embrace it. But first it was important to make it clear what I don’t mean when I say ‘pacifism’. I don’t mean passivity, and I don’t mean giving up. The moment I realised that the just war caterpillar had tumbled out of its chrysalis as a clumsy new pacifist (something for which I will be forever grateful to my colleagues) was the moment when I realised that my own participation in this fight had only just begun. But I could never condemn a Palestinian who tugs rocks loose from the earth and hurls them at the occupying army, because that is her earth, and her choice. Pacifism can’t be enforced on anybody; in a land where there is very limited freedom, everybody has the right to choose how to resist.

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10 thoughts on “Pacifism or passivity?

  1. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to argue this one and your article does a much better job than I can, thanks; will highlight to people as required!

  2. Pingback: A Tragic Death in Nabi Saleh | Shalom Rav

  3. Well done. Fine article. Reminds me of the debates we had here in Ireland over the years of the Troubles when ‘resistance’ was frowned upon, and many were urged to do nothing other than be peaceful. It’s not a realistic choice often.

  4. Profound article, eloquently written. You raise some very important points and there are certainly a few people I can think of that should read this as I think it would open their eyes a little.

  5. Thank you challenging the idea that pacifism is passivity and reminding us of the incredible moral and spiritual courage it takes to resist occupation. If only the Jewish community would embrace nonviolence, we would not have to mourn another victim of Israeli violence.

  6. Strong testimony and strong reasoning. Non-violent civil disobedience is always a difficult and incredibly brave choice, – also one that the oppressor ultimately cannot suppress. But not a choice that anyone can require of another, even less of another people.

  7. Pingback: greymullet » Not Just War, Some Other Things Too

  8. Pingback: Non-violence in a nutshell | Bethlehem Blogger

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