Larry Derfner wrote a suggestive column in the Jerusalem Post about what he hopes is the coming Palestinian democratic revolution. AP’s West Bank reporter also traces developments on the ground there.
All this got me to thinking about how such a thing might happen. Before I lay out my ideas I want everyone to understand that I do this not as a Palestinian, so I assume a certain humility in suggesting that others do things based on my own vision of how a Palestinian non-violent revolution could evolve. I’m also aware that what Larry and I suggest in both our pieces may end in the death or maiming of Palestinians. The only thing that heartens me about this is that such sacrifices will bring their people closer to realizing its national dreams and also ending an Occupation which is disastrous for the Israeli people as well. What I hope to do is start a dialogue with my Palestinian and Israeli brothers and sisters. It may be that what I suggest below is useful. It may not be. “You take what you need and leave the rest” as The Band used to sing.
While I admire Larry for his courage in being one of the lone lefty columnists at the Post and for the power of his voice, I think his column omits some critical differences between the Palestinian condition and those of other Arab nations where protests have toppled, or threaten to topple a powerful dictatorial elite. These differences render a potential Palestinian revolution much more complicated. First, you have two Palestinian populations, one in Israel which faces huge levels of disenfranchisement and discrimination; and another in Palestine which faces severe fragmentation given the alienation between Hamas and Fatah. While both populations would benefit tremendously from such a movement for true democracy, their conditions and needs are quite different. Israeli Palestinians need equality within Israel’s political and economic system. Palestinians of the Territories need to rid themselves of the Occupation regime and gain sovereignty over their own land in an independent state. While there are elements that tie these two conditions together, they are not the same and this complicates the situation for those seeking radical change.
Second, the Arab revolutions of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, etc. are indigenous revolutions within a discreet country in which the masses have arisen against their own leaders. Palestine, on the other hand is occupied by an outside nation, Israel. While the PA and Fatah are largely discredited politically, I don’t see any evidence that the masses of West Bankers are eager to chuck Fatah, nor do I see Gazans seeking to topple Hamas. The problem for Palestinians (at least as they see it) is not so much their own leaders as Israel itself. Yes, Palestinians need democracy and unity. They need new elections and to be ruled by a single, coherent government in the form of a PA that includes both Fatah and Hamas and other political groupings. But besides this indigenous political problem, there remains that 900 pound gorilla, Israel.
This makes the Palestinian revolution that much more difficult since they seek to topple not their own leaders, but an Occupation regime which Israel has installed and maintains. So to an extent Palestinians will need to enlist the support of Israelis themselves and to a greater or lesser extent the outside world to dismantle this system of oppression. This makes their task almost insurmountable in my opinion given that Israel shows absolutely no interest in doing so and world powers are equally disinclined to intervene forcefully.
Building on some of the elements of Larry’s column, here are some of my thoughts about how to create a Palestinian revolution:
Within Israel, Palestinians should attempt to build a mass movement that will formulate a few basic, easy to understand demands. Then, following the example of Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, hundreds of thousands should march from their villages to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa and occupy Rabin Square (Tel Aviv), Tzion Square (Jerusalem) and a similar central location in Haifa as Egyptians did Tahrir Square. Israeli Bedouin should prepare to march en masse on the Negev villages from which they’ve been displaced. Israeli Druze should mass in the Golan for reunification with their families on the Syrian side of the border. Gazans should mass at the Israeli border crossings and demand their opening and the end of the siege.
Israeli Jewish activists have a role to play here as well. Instead of demonstrating only on Fridays at Sheikh Jarrah, they must create massive encampments to blockade the settler enclaves there which have dispossessed Palestinians from homes they’ve occupied for generations. I would like to see Israeli Jews and Palestinians linking arms as Dr. Martin Luther King did in Selma with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Let’s see the forces for change led by Rabbis Menachem Froman and Arik Aschermann on the Israeli side and non-violent Palestinians like Mustafa Barghouti on the Palestinian. Let’s call it the March Toward Freedom or something of the sort. Let us dare the forces of repression to confront us and then allow the world to judge who is right and who is wrong.
American Jews have a role as well. Jewish Voice for Peace, American Friends of Peace Now and other anti-Occupation forces should prepare to lobby strenuously for U.S. intervention to maintain the peace and end expected Israeli violence. If prevailing assumptions are derailed by this massive resistance, then the consensus to maintain the status quo may be undermined. Openings for new ideas and bold action can be created by such an explosive crisis.
Again, there are severe obstacles facing Israeli Palestinians that did not face Egyptians. The latter regime was undemocratic, corrupt and sclerotic. Israel is a quasi-democracy and at least nominally responsive to its citizens. Its security apparatus is far more robust than Egypt’s. No Israeli police will refuse to fire on demonstrators if ordered to do so. No military personnel will mutiny and join the resistance. Israel’s security forces will be disciplined and implacable. There is no overtly corrupt elite on which the recruits will turn.
I have no doubt that Shabak will react harshly to any plans of the sort I’ve outlined. They’ll arrest leaders en masse before such a plan gets underway (which is why it would be important to follow the Egyptian model and not have a single leader or even group of leaders–this much be a mass, decentralized movement). The police-intelligence apparatus will mobilize huge levels of force to prevent such a march and they’ll do everything in their power to prevent Israeli Arabs from reaching their destinations. The resistance should designate secondary targets if they are prevented from accessing their primary ones. They should bring their tents and provisions and prepare to stay for the duration or until they are assaulted by the security apparatus.
Even if they fail, I think the level of brutality used against them will severely tarnish Israel’s reputation. With each new massacre, with each war, with each new challenge to the Israeli system, the contradictions and inequities become ever more apparent. Whatever the outcome of this effort, it will continue a progression toward an elemental, even existential crisis, an ongoing process of fragmentation of Israel’s dysfunctional political system.
As for Palestine, the strategy here must be different. Palestinians must target more directly the symbols and presence of Occupation. They should identify several key settlements (Ariel would be one) and mass hundreds of thousands to gather around them and lay non-violent siege to them. This would be a perfect mirror of what Israel is doing to Gaza and I imagine would cause an immediate end to the Gaza siege. Unlike in Gaza though, I don’t advocate starving settlers. Rather their daily lives should be severely disrupted. Their contact with the outside world (Israel) should be severed. They should not go to work. They should not leave their settlements. They should not have electricity or telephone or television. They should be made to feel how isolated they are.
If the IDF wants to break such sieges with violence then go right ahead. A non-violent siege broken up with massive levels of violence would further and perhaps fatally wound the Occupation as a viable concept in the eyes of the world and perhaps even the most die-hard Israelis.
The Bilin protests against the Apartheid Wall should be escalated. They should be brought to multiple villages which face losing access to their fields and land. Palestinians should rally at places where the Wall isn’t complete and non-violently demand its dismantling. If possible they should enter Israel, sit down just across the Green Line and symbolically occupy a few meters of Israeli territory. Again, given the levels of brutality the IDF and Border Police have used against Bilin demonstrators I have little doubt that they would continue with such a policy of suppression. However, if there were tens of thousands at these protests instead of hundreds as there are now, it would be much harder for Occupation forces to disrupt them.
Palestine is ripe for such a process of radical democratic change. The question is how Israel will react. Whether it will show the true ugly form of Occupation to the world, or whether it will succeed in finessing such a crisis and defusing it with little damage to its reputation. If, as I believe is possible, Israel reacts with enormous levels of violence, this could sow the seeds of intervention by the international community to end Israel’s domination of Palestine. It could set the state for a radical transformation both within Israel and Palestine.
What are the chances of this happening? What were the chances on January 24th that Egyptians would topple the Mubarak regime? You’ve got to start somewhere. And as the current Arab movements for change have shown, you’ve got to think big. And you’ve got to try. Just because you’ve failed 100 times before doesn’t mean the 101st time you’ll fail again.