By Ibrahim Sharqieh, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ibrahim Sharqieh is deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Qatar. The views expressed are his own.
Almost twenty years of negotiations “brought us nothing but more Israeli settlement. Palestinians have had enough of negotiations,” one senior Palestinian official said at a conference I attended recently. And yet, ahead of his first visit to the Middle East as secretary of state this month, John Kerry appeared to be suggesting more of the same.
“My prayer is that perhaps this can be a moment where we can renew some kind of effort to get the parties into a discussion,” he reportedly said. Such platitudes bode poorly for President Obama’s planned visit to the region this week. Indeed, it seems as if it will be business as usual on Palestinian-Israeli policy during the president’s second term, with yet more fruitless talks and an ever-increasing disconnect between U.S. diplomacy and developments on the ground.
Yet unmentioned by U.S. officials and diplomats is the fact that a credible alternative to the 20-year-old, U.S.-sponsored negotiation process has emerged on the ground. Nonviolent popular resistance could create a real breakthrough – and even an opportunity for a constructive American role.
First, though, Kerry and Obama must accept that the current negotiations framework is history. After all, the model Kerry is hoping to revive has merely produced a Palestinian Authority (PA) that Israel keeps on life support.
“First and foremost for the Israelis, the PA was a way of outsourcing the security functions of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” notes Council on Foreign Relations scholar Steven Cook. He is not alone in eyeing an end to the PA – Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo peace process, is said to have called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last year to “end this farce.” Indeed, Beilin argues that Abbas should dismantle the Palestinian Authority and, in recognition of the reality on the ground, return daily control of the Palestinian territories to Israel.
The current arrangement has persisted because of a power imbalance between Israel the Palestinian demi-state, with the existing negotiations framework giving Israel no incentive to compromise and the Palestinians no power to demand their rights. As long as this asymmetry exists, Kerry’s hoped-for negotiations will fare no better than previous efforts.
Palestinians see two ways to offset the power imbalance in the negotiation process: armed resistance and nonviolent popular resistance. Whether militancy serves as an effective balancer vis-à-vis Israel is a contentious point among Palestinians. But nonviolent popular resistance has galvanized support across the political spectrum among Palestinians, becoming a rallying cry. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, for one, has endorsed ongoing civil resistance as the way to achieve statehood, and when Palestinian detainee Arafat Jaradat died in Israeli custody last month, Fatah responded with a call not for violence, but for the escalation of popular resistance against the Israeli occupation. Even Hamas has embraced popular resistance (alongside militancy) as one of the forms of legitimate resistance against the Israeli occupation.
Obama will therefore arrive in the Middle East amid a blossoming in the popularity of nonviolent resistance, focused on figures such as Samer Issawi, who has been detained by the Israeli military without charge since July 2012 and who has, according to Al Jazeera, “been on a hunger strike for more than 200 days.” At the same time, activists are working to rebuild the tent cities – including Bab al-Shams and Bab al-Karama – erected to protest Israeli settlement expansion. Israel may have demolished these tents, but activists are determined to carry on.
It was against this backdrop that Mustafa Barghouti, a politician and leader of Palestinian nonviolent activism, wrote last month that he remembers when “the largest Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas, laughed at our nonviolent struggle, which they saw as soft and ineffective.”
There is certainly more than enough popular resentment to motivate further civil resistance. Israel’s withholding of Palestinian tax revenues has left thousands of Palestinian public sector employees with no idea how much of their salaries they will receive from one month to the next, while the demolition of Palestinian homes specially in Jerusalem continues apace. And in another slap in the face to Palestinians, Israel has introduced segregation on buses in the occupied West Bank, meaning Palestinians will be forced to ride on dedicated buses.
But Palestinians pursuing nonviolent protests can’t realize change alone – they will need international solidarity to reinforce their nonviolent approach, as was seen in South Africa.
In his June 2009 speech at Cairo University, Obama said that “Palestinians must abandon violence… For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding.”
The negotiations track that the U.S. has advocated will only lead to the perpetuation of the exact same “humiliation of segregation” that Obama himself decried. But if the president could somehow signal his support for nonviolent resistance to any wrongs in Israeli policy, he could finally tip the balance toward a just solution to the conflict.
When a Palestinian Rosa Parks chooses to sit on a segregated West Bank bus, Obama should listen to his conscience and speak out.
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