By Ghassan Khatib
Violence has always been a prominent characteristic of how Israel handles its relationships in the neighborhood. The state was created through violence wielded against the indigenous Palestinian population, resulting in the exile of 800,000 Palestinian refugees to surrounding countries. Afterwards, the use of force became a doctrine in Israel, used to intimidate its neighbors and impress its friends.
From the start of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1967, Israel has used force as a tool in “handling” the Palestinians living there. Palestinian land was taken by force. Palestinian water was taken by force. The Palestinian public was prevented from expressing its rejection of the occupation — mainly by force. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian young people were put in Israeli prisons, including thousands of individuals held without charge.
Nor has this behavior been limited to officials of the Israeli government or army. Israeli settlers — armed, protected civilians — have also used violence to frighten or intimidate Palestinians, especially in recent years. Lately, the phenomenon has become so prevalent that more than one Israeli military leader has described it as “terrorism”.
The objectives of Israel’s use of force have never been secret. Israel’s goal has been to frighten Palestinians in order to subjugate them and prevent resistance of any form. Israel’s ultimate objective has been to maintain and consolidate its occupation, responding with violence to non-violent Palestinian activities of resistance that threaten its hegemony.
Israel treats peaceful Palestinian demonstrators in East Jerusalem or the rest of the West Bank very differently than it treats Israeli non-violent demonstrations in Tel Aviv or other parts of Israel. Recent examples of this are the 25-year-old Palestinian demonstrator who was shot and killed with live ammunition two weeks ago between the town of al-Ram and Jerusalem. A few weeks before that a Palestinian was killed when a tear gas canister was fired directly at his face during a non-violent demonstration against Israeli settlement activities. One can count hundreds of similar cases that illustrate this point and show that Israeli violence is not necessarily a response to Palestinian violence, but rather an attempt to quash any rejection of the occupation.
What Israel seems unable to understand is that this approach, which permeates all aspects of Palestinian life — through incursions in the night-time hours, to injured or imprisoned relatives, to the fear we see in our children — is backfiring. It is only increasing Palestinian determination to continue rejecting the occupation. Recent history has shown that the more violence Israel generates, the more determination Palestinians express.
Palestinians, on the other hand, seem to have learned some lessons from their use of violence. Recent years have witnessed a dramatic and positive change towards abandoning violence as a means of achieving legitimate objectives. The last four or five years have witnessed successful Palestinian policies of legal, diplomatic and popular attempts to end the Israeli occupation. Not only has this strategy been propagated through security means, but by educating the Palestinian people of the importance of avoiding violence because it gives a comparative advantage to the other side. In this field, Israel is far superior. More importantly, Palestinians have learned how important it is that they gain the sympathy and support of the outside world by employing legitimate means to reach their legitimate objectives.
The question is whether this approach is going to pay off. Will Palestinians conclude that focusing on legitimate means to achieve legitimate objectives and avoiding violence will bring them nearer to their objective of ending the occupation and achieving freedom, self-determination and statehood within the 1967 borders? I think that if this approach succeeds, it will be consolidated and become transformative. However, if it does not succeed in bringing Palestinians to their objectives, the only winners will be the minority of extremists who believe that Israel simply does not understand the language of peace, but only the language of force.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.