March 18th, 2013
12:43 PM ET

Nonviolent resistance key to Middle East breakthrough

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.

More from CNN: Why Obama is visiting Israel

“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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soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Ned

    Farid: It is such a disappointment to note that you have dispalyed HATE messages to the American people against the palestinian people on your March 17 Sunday show under the disguise of a "SURVEY"!! Shame on you. I, for a long time, thought highly of you as a smart thinker and a good reporter. ... but now, you are a pawn being played by CNN at their discretion.

    Wake up! And, please stop misleading the American people.

    March 18, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  2. Spring

    Very well written article, Thank You! The Palestinians have showed commitment to non-violent popular resistance. Obama and the world must support them to dismantle the Israeli apartheid system.

    March 18, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      "The Palestinians have showed commitment to non-violent popular resistance."

      But of course! Thousands of rockets flying from Gaza into Israel are perfect examples of this "non-violent popular resistance" as well as the Palestinian committment to it.

      March 18, 2013 at 7:32 pm | Reply
      • Jeff

        As someone who follows this stuff pretty closely as a pro-Israel Jew who also happens to be pretty uncomfortable with what's going on the West Bank, what you're talking about is essentially the case in point to the saying that "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." The Hamas lunatics play right into the Israeli right wing's hands. If I were a right-wing Israeli that wanted to hold onto the West Bank, the Palestinian that I'd be the most afraid of would be Mustafa Barghouti. Whether the Palestinians realize this as opposed to just sticking to the Hamas method of rocketing civilians and getting themselves bombed to the ground while simultaneously losing the sympathy of the rest of the world is for them to decide.

        March 19, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
  3. vonrock

    No more carrots

    March 18, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  4. Thinker23

    The fact is that the Palestinians have only two choices, to NEGOTIATE a peace agreement or NOT to negotiate a peace agreement. As long as they are either unable or unwilling to negotiate there will be no negotiations, no peace and the Palestinians will continue to enjoy the fruits of their own choices including settlements, walls, fences, closures and everything else they love to complain about.

    Of course, they can try NONVIOLENT "resistance" but no one will give a damn about it for as long as it will remain NONVIOLENT (frankly, I doubt that Palestinian resistance can be NONVIOLENT longer than several minutes). The moment Palestinians will become VIOLENT Israel will have to respond by force and the Palestinians will again have "more of the same"...

    March 18, 2013 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  5. Paul II

    The author blames Israel as being "unwilling" to negotiate. How do you negotiate with the likes of Hamas that has vowed not to just destroy Israel but kill every Jew in the world?

    March 18, 2013 at 9:11 pm | Reply
  6. hifly3r

    Israel could not withstand 2 weeks of a disciplined non-violent resistance campaign. Peaceful marches, former suicide bombers, now unarmed, stripped down and holding just flags walking into Israeli checkpoints and setlements to face night-sticks and water cannons or bullets .. all caught on video. Imagine the media and world opinion pressure that Israel would face, Seem obvious does'nt it?

    So why does it not happen? Given thier lousy track record at wars and fighting, you woul dthink they would try something else. Where in the Palestinian MLK?

    The fact is they cannot bring themselves to do it. They see it as humiliation. Fundamentally, this is how the Muslim world and the Western world do not understand each other at all. If the Palestinians could pull such a campaign off, then Israel would really have nothing to fear. Both sides win. Just think of Israeli know-how and Technology coupled to the energy of the young Palestinian population. It could be very succesfull. Too bad it will never happen because of the Palestinian people's antiquated mind-set.

    March 19, 2013 at 9:44 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    There had been two violent uprisings – intifadas" against Israel over the past three decades. Instead of a third violent uprising, it is a non-violent one, urged by Mustafa or Marwan Barghouti – a militant leader serving multiple life sentences for attacks on Israelis. He wasn't among one of the released in the Gilad Shalit swoop in 2011.
    A UN expert said he was appalled by the "continuing human rights violations in Israeli prisons", as Palestinian inmates staged a mass hunger strike.

    March 19, 2013 at 11:47 am | Reply
  8. Eddie Fonseca

    There has always been a history of violence between Israel and the Middle East dating back to the war with Lebanon and Israel, the only reason we are hearing about this violent surge in recent times because some brave Israeli teenagers were killed by Hamas. Also on the flip side some innocent Palestine men and women where killed by Israeli army who took action to bring the those who killed the three Israeli teenagers killers to justice, but what is justice by spilling innocent men and women's blood on both sides is not the answer to this problem in the Middle East. The solution to the problem between Israel and the Middle East, is to the find the common ground in terms of finding non violent way's such as a festivals such as a Israeli Palestine Salsa festival which unites both sides and reduces hate and racial tension in those regions. As an American who has traveled to the Middle East and has been to Israel and some parts of Gaza, I have spoken with many young Jewish and Arab men and women who are college and university educated and hold degrees in medicine and are lawyers as well. The all agree the best way to reduce the violence in the Middle East, is to have culture programs such as a salsa festival and other programs, to reduce hate and racial tensions between Israel and the Middle East so war does not break out and destroy what's left of the Israel positive image to the rest of the Middle East and the world to observe on television news broadcasts. Freedom and liberty is what most Americans and myself take for granted everyday when we order a Starbucks coffee at the local Starbucks, or take our Jewish and Arab friends out for meal in one of the best five star restaurants in New York City. For many men and women who live in Gaza and Israel freedom and liberty is last on their lists, the only freedom they hear that another rocket has not killed one their family members in this tragic war. As American's we should support the non violent programs in Israel and Middle East, because freedom and survival is not just an American tradition but a global tradition that should shared by all for years to come.

    August 4, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Reply

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