When Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violent resistance (satyagraha) is invoked in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is invariably as a propaganda weapon intended to undermine the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance and shift the blame for the continuing occupation on to its principal victims.
Leaving such dishonest rhetorical jabs aside, the question of whether any of Gandhi’s teachings can be usefully applied in Palestine is a serious one that merits careful consideration. In a fascinating essay (and talk) based on an extensive reading of Gandhi’s writings, Norman Finkelstein concludes that the application of satyagraha – that is, a mass campaign of non-violent civil resistance – could yield tangible results in the occupied territories.
His argument is detailed and nuanced, and I won’t attempt to summarise it all here. Its central claim is that the Palestinian struggle against the occupation fulfills the conditions Gandhi suggests are required for non-violent resistance to succeed. Non-violence relies on the accumulation of ‘moral force’ to "quicken the conscience" of the wider population and even of the oppressor him/herself by confronting violence unarmed, often enduring terrible suffering as a result. However, for non-violence to work this "innocence of means" is not enough – there must be "innocence of ends" as well. That is, a movement’s objective, and not just its methods, must be perceived as legitimate for non-violence to work:
"Were the ‘pro-life’ half of the American population to engage in civil disobedience or even a fast unto the death, the ‘pro-choice’ half would hardly be converted by such a spectacle. For, it is not suffering alone that touches but suffering in the pursuit of a legitimate goal. The recognition of the legitimacy of such a goal presumes however a preexisting consensus according to which what the victim seeks he justly deserves. Gandhi accordingly referred to the victim’s ‘innocence.’ It is innocence in a double sense: of means—the victim’s suffering results from unilateral violence inflicted by others—and of ends—the victim seeks a right that cannot in good conscience be denied because it jibes with the ‘normal moral sense of the world’; the more incontrovertible the ends, the more self-suffering as a means will resonate with ‘enlightened public opinion.’"
In the case of Palestine, this ‘legitimacy of ends’ exists, indeed to a remarkable degree. For over 30 years there has been a virtually unanimous international consensus on how to resolve the conflict, as Finkelstein and others have extensively documented. The Palestinians’ central demands command the overwhelming support of the most representative political body in the world, the highest judicial body in the world and the international human rights community (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and so forth), and enjoy extensive popular support throughout the world. Given this broad legitimacy and given the failure of violent resistance to secure any of the Palestinians’ political goals it would be wise, Finkelstein argues, to pursue a strategy of non-violent resistance instead.
Breaking the siege
I find the argument persuasive, but here I want to focus on a specific attempt to apply the doctrine of satyagrahi to Palestine.
A coalition of Palestinian solidarity activists are currently organising a global march on Gaza, scheduled for January 2010, in opposition to the Israeli siege:
"The event will aim to bring thousands of demonstrators from around the world to march alongside Gazans as they breach the blockade imposed upon the population since the election of Hamas in 2006. ‘This march draws inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi,’ said a draft statement of purposes and principles written by the ‘Coalition to End the Illegal Siege of Gaza,’ obtained by The Daily Star. ‘Those of us residing in the United States also draw inspiration from the civil rights movement,’ it added. The statement also outlines plans for the march, which will take place on January 1, 2010. ‘We will march the Long Mile across Erez checkpoint alongside the people of Gaza in a nonviolent demonstration that breaches the illegal blockade,’ it said, adding that ‘We conceive this march as the first step in a protracted nonviolent campaign … If we bring thousands to Gaza and millions more around the world watch the march on the internet, we can end the siege without a drop of blood being shed.’
Finkelstein, who is one of the organisers, talks about the project here:
In my view this tactic stands a good chance of success, if enough people get involved. The reasons are twofold. Firstly, the suffering being inflicted upon the civilian population of Gaza is so immense, so palpably unnecessary and cruel, that when presented with the facts reasonable people will find it impossible to support. In Gaza we have seen 1.5 million people "intentionally reduced to abject destitution". We have participated in the calculated manufacture of an "unprecedented … humanitarian implosion" [.pdf] that has pushed an entire society to the brink of survival. Today over 70% of Gazans live in poverty, 40% in deep poverty. 96% of the population now depends on international food aid for mere survival. Almost all the factories have shut down, with many key industries totally decimated. The official unemployment rate is approaching 50% (some have put the figure at 70%) and 90% of economic activity is devoted to smuggling. Chronic malnutrition is soaring, with malnutrition-induced stunted growth affecting 10% of all children in Gaza, rising to 30% in some areas. Some 46% of Gazan children suffer from acute anaemia. There is a constant "shortage of basic medicines", while millions of litres of raw sewage is pumped daily into the Mediterranean, where children swim and play, because Israeli border restrictions mean Gaza’s authorities are unable to treat it. Around 10% of the population was still, as of April, without tap water. In the course of its invasion earlier this year Israel destroyed thousands of houses, hundreds of businesses and the bulk of Gaza’s agricultural industry (as well as 80% of its crops). Thousands of families are still living in tents because Israel has refused to allow any reconstruction to take place. Some people have resorted to building houses from mud, or living in cemetaries.
The Red Cross reports that "[t]hose worst affected" by the siege "are likely to be children, who make up more than half of Gaza’s population".
As a result of all this – and this is the second point – the ‘legitimacy of ends’ required by Gandhi is there. The Gaza closure [.pdf] has been almost unanimously condemned as a violation of international law. The UN special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied territories has called it a "crime against humanity"; his predecessor likewise concluded [.doc] that it "violates a whole range of obligations under both human rights law and humanitarian law" and constitutes "a gross form of collective punishment". UN agencies and human rights organisations have unanimously condemned [.pdf] the siege as "collective punishment", "illegal under international humanitarian law", "an unmitigated violation of international humanitarian law" [.doc], "illegal, improper, and immoral". Various senior officials and respected public figures have decried Israel’s "assault on human dignity" – the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for example, has branded it an "abomination", while former President Jimmy Carter has criticised the international community for its complicity in this "terrible human rights crime", doing nothing or worse while "the citizens of Gaza are being treated more like animals than human beings". Even the Quartet, G8 and the EU (which has described Israel’s policies as "collective punishment") have called for the blockade to be lifted.
In short, Israel’s siege has almost no defenders. The goal of the march – to end the siege – is almost universally viewed as a legitimate one. As Finkelstein observes, the marchers will not be breaking the law, they will be enforcing it.
What we can do
The planning for the march is still in its early stages. For anyone who’s interested in playing a role and who lives in the New York area, the first organisational meeting is being held next Monday:
Everyone else can keep track of the project through Norman Finkelstein’s website. You can also urge your representatives to take action to end the siege, and educate yourself and others about Israel’s policies in Gaza, which continue to be decisively supported by the US and European governments.
Cross-posted at The Heathlander