By Tariq Shadid
The past years have seen a rise in non-violent activism against the Israeli occupation and against the blockade of Gaza. It is quite important to realize that the success or failure of these actions usually does not depend on the achievement of the direct physical aim of the protest, but much more on the indirect symbolical effects of it. Seen from this point of view, we can safely say that most of the protest activities of non-violent activism undertaken for the Palestinian cause in recent times have been quite successful – including the recent Freedom Waves Flotilla.
It is very important to realize this, since the feedback of success can be instrumental in keeping a good thing going. It is also important because it seems as if some of those who either engage in these kinds of activities or support them, sometimes focus too much on the direct aim of the protest, and therefore consider a mission failed when it gets sabotaged by an Israeli response. Let’s have a look at why this is not necessarily the case, and why, in fact, the response of the Israeli military can sometimes be the essential instrument of success when waging a non-violent struggle for Palestine.
Non-violent resistance depends to a large extent on symbolism, in any case much more than it depends on pragmatism. There are many ways in which this can be illustrated, and having a look at some vivid examples will undoubtedly shed more light on these principles.
The Intifada Principle
The Palestinian Intifada of 1987, often called the ‘First Intifada’, was a huge success of non-violent struggle. The world sat in shock as they witnessed the unimaginable lethal cruelty with which the Israeli army responded to stone-throwing youths, using tanks, machine guns, and the most sophisticated weaponry available to mankind in those days. Without the First Intifada, there would today be no worldwide recognition for Palestinian self-determination and independence in the Occupied Territories.
If we had looked at this activity with a pragmatic eye, we would have said: a stone against a machine gun, or even a tank? What fool thinks he can win this way? But the truth is that overall, the First Intifada was a historical feat of mass popular resistance which today still inspires many peoples in the world in shaping their struggles for justice and human rights. One of the main things that made it successful was the lack of Israeli understanding in how to deal with this challenge. They chose the simplistic response of meeting unarmed protests with massive military violence, resulting in thousands of dead and wounded, and thus paving the way for a symbolic victory of Palestinian people power over Israeli military might.
When a person without weapons stands up before a machine gun, his defiance of the deterrent power of the weapon breaks the bonds of that deterrence. If the armed person resorts to using the weapon and shooting the unarmed person, he merely provides further proof that this deterrence is broken. If the use of that violence does not result in reinstating the deterrent strength of this weapon, but brings more unarmed people in who defy it, the basis for non-violent success has been created.
Symbolism versus Pragmatism
Whoever is involved in organizing non-violent activities, should always keep in mind that in a battle against an economically and/or militarily superior force, symbolism counts stronger than pragmatism. The 2010 Freedom Flotilla could be viewed as a failed mission: after all, the goods that were meant for humanitarian support never reached the Gazan shores. Nevertheless, the truth is completely different. Freedom Flotilla 2010 was actually the most successful non-violent endeavor ever undertaken by the outside world for the Palestinian cause, and all of this because of the idiotic Israeli decision of sniping 9 Turkish activists to death.
If the Israelis had murdered no one, and had just allowed the Flotilla to deliver the goods, barely anyone today – except those directly involved – would even remember the activity. The humanitarian goods that would have been delivered, would have been used up by now. But because the Freedom Flotilla functioned the way non-violent struggle does, its impact on the scene of international world politics can still be felt today, and is likely to reverberate for many years to come.
The gist of this is not that people necessarily have to die, in order for non-violent activism to be successful. What is important however, is to understand that it is not the stone itself that has a liberating effect, but the fact that the thrower defies the dangers involved in throwing it. This, in itself, is already a symbolic victory which can have a large impact. In analogy with the example given earlier of how the deterrent effect of a gun can be broken, the mere fact that the 2010 Flotilla Massacre generated only more Flotillas, is a powerful proof of the potential strength of non-violent activism.
Sail on, Freedom Waves
At the time of writing this, 14 Irish activists, 1 Australian, 2 Canadian, and 1 British – 18 in total – remain incarcerated in an Israeli prison for having embarked on the Freedom Waves Flotilla. The ship was seized in international waters by the Israeli Navy and taken to Ashdod. The activists were arrested, in some cases with the use of violence like beating and tasering, and locked up without any due process.
Although the outrage at these Israeli human rights violations and transgressions of international law is hardly at the level where it should be, those who do feel concerned are in some cases voicing their despair at the continued Israeli sabotage of non-violent activist endeavors. In the light of what was said above, they should not feel discouraged, nor should the sailors of the Freedom Waves Flotilla feel as if their brave mission has failed. On the contrary; as long as they are still in Israeli captivity, their mission is still ongoing.
They have already booked the success of launching a Flotilla when no one expected it, What they need now in order for this endeavor to become an increasing success, is a lot of noise from the international community, and growing sounds of appeal to the governments of these nationals to demand their release.
It is of the greatest importance that a comprehensive list of names and photos of the imprisoned activists is compiled, and widely shared through social media. The sailors may be in jail, and the ship may be in the docks, but as far as symbolism is concerned, Freedom Waves is still sailing, and stands a very good chance of reaching its destination.
– Tariq Shadid is a Palestinian surgeon living in the Middle East, and has written numerous essays about the Palestinian issue over the years. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.