Palestinians test out Gandhi-style protest

It is strangely quiet. About 40 mainly Palestinian protesters face off with a line of armed Israeli soldiers over coils of razor wire.

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Heather Sharp, BBC

They calmly explain they want access to land Israel has confiscated to build its West Bank barrier. Chanting begins, followed by impassioned speeches in Hebrew, English and Arabic.

"You soldiers standing here, blocking Palestinians from walking on their own land, you need to think about what you're doing," lectures one young woman. "What will you tell your children?" asks an older man.

The troops stare impassively ahead.


'Excuse to shoot'

Beit Jala is one of a growing number of Palestinian villages holding regular protests against Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

Many end with Palestinian youths throwing stones and Israeli troops firing tear gas and sometimes rubber-coated bullets.

But organisers in Beit Jala, such as Ahmad Lazza of the Holy Land Trust who trains protesters in non-violent tactics, are determined to keep things peaceful.

This is partly out of personal belief, and partly about avoiding escalation with Israeli soldiers.

"You don't want him to feel threatened, because it is a very good excuse for him to shoot you," he says.

Protesters in the area have recently chained themselves to olive trees to protect them from Israeli bulldozers and rebuilt a destroyed garden on land cleared for the barrier - which Israel says is for security, but Palestinians see as a land grab.

They have also forced their way into the main checkpoint keeping Bethlehem Palestinians from Jerusalem.

 

Big change

In the past, Mr Lazza says, Palestinians had a "bad impression" of non-violent resistance, which had become associated with pacifism and concessions to Israel. But recently, he has seen "a big change".

Palestinian Authority (PA) officials have started attending protests, holding up regular demonstrations in the villages of Bilin and Naalin as models of "popular resistance", and calling on Palestinians to boycott goods produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

This month PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad defied Israeli rules and ploughed a furrow on West Bank land controlled by the military, as well as citing the Indian independence and American black civil rights struggles.

Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the American civil rights activist, is visiting Ramallah on Wednesday, a week after one of the grandsons of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Rajmohan Gandhi spoke passionately about his grandfather's belief in non-violent struggle to a packed hall, urging Palestinians to appeal to the principles of justice in Judaism.

"Never, never, never, never lose your patience," he entreated. "Never lose your faith in ultimate victory."

But despite giving him a standing ovation, few in the audience would completely adopt Gandhi's purist approach.

"I came to promote non-violent resistance," said Mahmoud Ramahi, secretary general of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and a member of the Islamist movement Hamas.

"We support all types of resistance - non-violent, economic, political and armed resistance," he said - apparently missing the point of strictly peaceful campaigns.

 

Hind Awad, 22, a campaigner for an international boycott of Israel, said non-violent methods had historically been a "major tool" of the Palestinians.

"I also think that under international law, armed struggle is just, for people that are living under occupation," she added.

A recent poll suggested that nearly half of Palestinians support armed struggle.

Many of these, like Hossam Khader, a long-standing activist with the Fatah movement which dominates the PA, believe Israel would not have agreed even to negotiate without years of Palestinian militant activity.

He disagrees with suicide attacks against civilians inside Israel, and backs a two-state solution. But he says Palestinians "have the right to resist" soldiers and armed settlers by military means.

Popular protest "is good", he says, "but it will change nothing".

"I can go and I can shout… but the wall is still the wall, the settlements are still the settlements."

Even Rajmohan Gandhi says the Palestinians face a "much tougher battle" against US-backed Israel, than the Indians, with strong international support, did against British colonial rule.

But he is not convinced by suggestions that some cultures are more suited to non-violence than others - often made in connection with the culture of heroism around Palestinian armed struggle and those considered "martyred" during it.

"In India too, there were many occasions when non-violence was not strictly observed," he says. "Gandhi had to fight against it, it's not as if Indian culture was terribly favourably disposed to non-violence."


Staying put

But Gandhi's message has nevertheless penetrated far-flung corners of the West Bank.

Najmadeen al-Husseini, 62, lives squeezed between the West Bank barrier and an Israeli settlement near the Palestinian village of Qatana.

He can only access his land through a huge military gate.

Without Israeli permission to build, he lives with his children and grandchildren - 17 people in all - in a three-bedroom house.

He is an example of a concept in Palestinian culture, known as "sumud" in Arabic.

It translates as "steadfastness" - and is usually understood to mean staying put on your land, living with dignity despite adversity.

"I was born here. My parents are buried here. I will stay on my land even if they kill me," he says.

In his view, two decades of negotiations have yielded little, yet "military resistance will get us nowhere… what are Kalashnikovs against tanks?"

"If the world supports us, peaceful resistance will get us something back," he says.

"Whatshisname… Gandhi… the world supported him, and he kicked the British out of India," he says.


'A nuisance'

But if you ask Israelis about a possible wave of non-violent Palestinian protest, most say they will believe it when they see it.

Anshel Pfeffer, military correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, says the demonstrations so far have been little more than "a nuisance" for the Israeli military.

He says the Palestinian Authority is "walking a tightrope" between boosting its credibility among Palestinians and maintaining its security co-operation with Israel, and is therefore wary of supporting protests too strongly.

Moshe Maoz, a left-wing Middle East expert from Hebrew University, said genuinely peaceful Palestinian protests could improve international and Israeli perceptions of Palestinians.

But if stones - which the Israeli military frequently points out can be lethal weapons - are thrown, this provides a "pretext to say we shouldn't talk to them because they are violent", he adds.

The numbers attending protests remain relatively low, and advocates of total, Gandhi-style non-violence are even fewer.

But Ahmad Lazza still sees huge potential:

"We believe that non-violence is stronger than militant action, once we have a big mass of people. Once people want something, nothing can stop them."