Sunday, May 08, 2005

Critique of HaCohen's "The Palestinian Gandhi"

Dear Friends,

The article by the Israeli, Ran HaCohen, at the above url is very interesting. It describes how residents of the West Bank Palestinian village of Bil'in, which is being destroyed by the abominable apartheid "Wall," staged a Martin Luther King, Jr. - style non-violent demonstration against the Wall. The Israeli Defense Force (ie military) violently attacked the demonstrators, in response to the "provocation" of rocks thrown by "Palestinians" at the soldiers. The only rock-throwers, however, were Israeli undercover cops.

What is the significance of this? Ran HaCohen suggests that the significance relates to the question of whether Palestinians should use violence or not. He writes near the beginning of his article:

"And though international law and conventions unambiguously acknowledge the right of occupied peoples to use violence against their oppressors – just like guerrilla fighters did under Nazi occupation – the question whether violence or nonviolence serves their cause better is for the Palestinians to decide. There are, of course, several convincing arguments in favor of abandoning the violent resistance, most notably the huge benefits that Israel draws from portraying the Palestinians as 'terrorists' to legitimate the use of its overwhelming military superiority against them."

And he concludes:

"So the problem is the perpetrators, not the victims: it's Israel, not the Palestinians. The Palestinians don't have to watch the Gandhi film. They fought the First Intifada with stones (1987-1993) and were answered with Israeli bullets. They fought the Second Intifada (2000-2004) with weapons and were answered with Israeli tanks, Caterpillar bulldozers, and airplanes. And they now start a Third Intifada, a popular, unarmed, nonviolent struggle against the strangulating fence, which is answered with Israeli undercover soldiers who throw stones and want us to believe the Palestinians have done it."

Ran HaCohen's point (I think) is that the Palestinians are damned if they do (use violence) and damned if they don't (use violence.)

I think HaCohen's framework (violence versus non-violence) is flawed. When HaCohen remarks upon "the huge benefits that Israel draws from portraying the Palestinians as 'terrorists' to legitimate the use of its overwhelming military superiority against them" he is referring to the suicide bombings that kill random Israelis at bus stops and so forth, in other words violence directed at people widely perceived to be innocent non-combatants.

But Palestinian violence directed at the IDF or at armed Israeli civilians who violently attack Palestinians is, in contrast, widely perceived to be violence directed against people who are guilty of committing violence against Palestinians. Even ordinary Israelis (be they pro-Zionist or not) can tell the difference here. The former kind of violence makes them personally frightened of Palestinians and easily controlled by their Zionist leaders who claim to be their protectors. The latter kind of violence makes them wonder, "Why do the Palestinians fight the Israeli government so hard?" (just as American GI's in Vietnam and the American public started wondering the same question when they saw that the peasants there were willing to die fighting the American military invasion), and eventually figure out that it is because Palestinians are fighting against oppression, justifiably.

The political consequences of the former type of Palestinian violence and of the latter type of Palestinian violence are diametrically opposite each other. The former strengthens the Zionist rulers; the latter weakens them.

So the pertinent question isn't "violence versus non-violence." The real question is very different; it is "Who, exactly, do Palestinians consider to be their enemy -- all Jews who live in Israel? Or the Israeli ruling class and those who commit violence against Palestinians in its behalf?" How Palestinians answer this question will determine whether they are viewed positively like the French Resistance in WWII, or negatively as "terrorists." Violence in the abstract has nothing to do with it one way or the other.

Just as in the past when elites strengthened their power over ordinary people by fomenting racial or ethnic or national war (for example, the British in Ireland using Protestants in Ulster, the former Communist rulers in Yugoslavia sending para-military squads to attack Croats in the name of Serbs and vice versa, and even WWII as I wrote about in my book) elites are trying to control the people of the Middle East by fomenting ethnic war between Arabs and Jews.

Instead of para-military squads attacking civilians in the name of the other ethnic group as happened in Yugoslavia, we have the Zionists viciously attacking Palestinians in the name of the Jews, not just for a few years but for decades and decades. The Zionist leaders obviously hope that (and scheme to ensure that) Palestinians will target the entire Jewish population of Israel and be seen as "terrorists" by not only Israelis but the whole world. By the same token, the Zionist leaders obviously hope that Palestinians will not make it clear to the world and to Jews in Israel that their enemy is not ordinary Israelis but rather the apartheid racist Zionist project and those who enforce it violently.

I am not naive about the extent to which Jews in Israel (and elsewhere) have adopted the anti-Arab racist views that their rulers have tried so hard and for so long to instill. But those views are not carved in stone, and the combination of a crystal clear differentiation between ordinary Jews versus those who violently enforce the racist character of apartheid Israel when it comes to Palestinian violence, combined with world-wide condemnation of apartheid Israel manifested by, among other things, the refusal to purchase or even handle Israeli products like workers refuse to handle other scab products, can maximize opposition inside Israel to the Zionist regime, maximize world wide support for Palestinians, and win. Failure to do these things is a recipe for losing. Palestinians are not "damned if they do and damned if they don't." There is a way to win when the enemy is using the strategy of fomenting an ethnic war -- publicly identify the strategy and counter it directly.

Once the crucial political strategic question (who are our friends or potential friends and who are our enemies) is settled, the tactical question of when and how to use violence becomes a secondary one to be determined by the people directly involved. What confuses this otherwise simple issue, however, is the existence in public discourse of something called the "philosophy of non-violence."

The problem with the philosophy of non-violence -- a huge and fatal problem! -- is that the philosophy is based on the notion that one succeeds not by overcoming one's opponent by force, but by persuasion -- by appealing to the positive moral values of one's opponent, using non-violent tactics (like allowing oneself to be dragged away to jail) that demonstrate the strength of one's convictions and thereby cause one's opponent to doubt the rightness of his attacks.

The problem is that our opponent -- be it the Zionist ruling class of Israel or the U.S. ruling class or any other -- has a morality it believes in very deeply, a morality that says they must rule or else the world will go to hell in a handbasket. These oppressors don't lose any sleep at night committing terrible atrocities to stay in power. (Those who point to Gandhi's so-called victory in India are mistaken; it was not really a victory, since it didn't remove the oppressive elites from power at all: witness what's going on in India today.)

The philosophy of non-violence only helps oppressors because it suggests that when people fight oppression with violence they are somehow morally wrong or impure, or that they'll become "just another power hungry gang." This is what our rulers tell us over and over again in lots of different ways: don't fight back, it can only make things worse. We need to keep in mind that ordinary people want a world shaped by the values of equality and solidarity and democracy, and they want this whether they have a gun in their hand or not. Elites want us to aim our guns at each other and not at them; as long as we're clear who we're really fighting, guns in the hands of ordinary people is a good thing, not a dangerous thing. Let's try to promote this clarity so we can win.

As always, I would like to hear readers' thoughts on this and will share them with you.

--John

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