The Effectiveness of Non-violence: Civilian Observers Report on Current Efforts
Wednesday, February 6, 2002
Report from a Palestine Center briefing by Charles Lenchner and Josh Ruebner
Shortly after the start of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, there were many calls directed at the UN, Western Europe, and the United States for international protection for the Palestinian people. Despite attempts by the Non-aligned Movement, Western European countries, and Palestinians, the United States has resisted the creation of an international presence in the Occupied Territories. A group of Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) responded by bringing citizens from around the world to act as an observer protection force.
Over the past few years, organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights, Bat Shalom, and the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions have pioneered the use of non-violent direct action in the Occupied Territories. These actions are not only inspiring, but they have also proven extremely effective. As part of an international response to the ongoing violence, repression, and terror in the Occupied Territories, organizations from the Americas, Europe, and Asia have begun to send delegations to support the work for non-violent change, promote a just peace, and observe the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians.
Two of these civilian observers, organizers of two recent delegations, discussed their experiences at a Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine (Palestine Center) briefing on 5 February. Long-time peace activist, and co-founder of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel (JPPI), Charles Lenchner recently returned from the region where he led an American Jewish delegation. Joshua Ruebner, JPPI co-founder and executive director, also took part in the non-violent campaigns in Israel and the Occupied Territories in December.
JPPI has sent two delegations to join these non-violent protests and to meet with Israeli civil society organizations. By taking part in activities like planting olive trees, standing alongside Palestinian protesters facing the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), and observing the daily lives of Palestinians living under the occupation, delegations are working to increase the participation of Jews from around the world in opposing the occupation, and in protesting the ongoing human rights violations and violence. Committed to non-violence, the groups always work in conjunction with both Israeli and Palestinian organizations, combining peace work with analysis recognizing the need to change Jewish attitudes towards the Israeli occupation.
‘The relationship between Israeli and Palestinian organizations working on these issues isn’t always close,’ Lenchner observed, ‘particularly now, when so many dialogue efforts have stopped. When internationals come and say, ‘we want to work with both sides and this is an important priority for us,’ it creates another channel for communication and cooperation for people to work together.’
The group’s actions attracted international media attention when Orient House was closed. ‘It was significant that at a time when Palestinian figures and forces were not really sure what to do about the closure of the Orient House, and having day-long meetings to decide what to do, the young foreigners were already there in the streets holding demonstrations. This attracted residents of East Jerusalem and leading figures to come and join them.’ According to Lenchner, they proved that even if you ‘are not Palestinian or Israeli, you can have a big effect in helping to create a culture of non-violent protest aimed at media and decision-makers.’
Having gained more experience with non-violent protest through these programs, local civil society organizers have begun to discuss the viability of non-violent resistance. Two views of non-violent resistance have emerged from these discussions. According to Lenchner, ‘one says, ‘why are you talking about non-violent resistance? Most of the things that people do as part of the intifada are non-violent. Merely surviving is an act of non-violent resistance.’ The other camp ‘ are saying, ‘well, that may be true, but let’s stick to the script.’ That means large numbers of people who are not doing anything violent with their words or their actions, physically confronting the occupation in a way that makes it clear which side is the victim and which side is the oppressor, and which includes as one of its goals actually changing the hearts and minds of the occupying society.’ While the latter has not yet been tried on a large scale in Palestine, Lenchner believes that ‘delegations from abroad have a huge role to play ‘ showing how to do non-violent resistance and providing a measure of safety.’
A recent public opinion survey of the American Jewish community by the Israel Policy Forum found that ’58 percent of American Jews support the establishment of a viable Palestinian state,’ reported Ruebner, ‘over two-thirds support the sending of an international peace-keeping force to Palestine with U.S. participation, and 85 percent support direct U.S. involvement in the conflict, even if it means pressuring Israel. That says to me that we’re not fringe, we’re mainstream.’
Ruebner described the JPPI’s motivation in organizing the delegations. ‘There are three things that we wanted to accomplish by going to Israel and Palestine. First, we wanted to educate and empower American Jews who understand intellectually and intuitively that the occupation is wrong, and that Israel is doing an injustice to the Palestinian people. We wanted to take those people who knew it and really get them on the ground [to] experience a little bit of what it’s like so that when they come back into their home communities they can be more effective spokespeople for the cause of a just peace in Palestine. Second, we wanted to work with both Palestinian and Israeli partners who are engaging in non-violent work to try to end the occupation and achieve a just peace. ‘ And third, we also wanted to show both the Israeli public and the Palestinian public that there are American Jews who are ready and willing to speak out against the occupation and who believe in and want to work for a just peace.’
On his return, Ruebner has found that he is both pessimistic and optimistic about what is happening. ‘Nobody who we spoke with ‘ has any glimmer of hope that under the current Israeli government there will be forward movement on the political level ‘ but there is a lot of optimism about the growing cooperation between the two civil societies.’
The JPPI is planning to send another delegation in March, and is also working to bring high-profile individuals to the Occupied Territories. By putting people on the ground to experience some of the effects of the occupation themselves, these non-violent protest activities may prove to be the most powerful force for change in the region.
The above text is based on remarks delivered on 5 February 2002 by Charles Lenchner and Joshua Ruebner. The speakers’ views do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine or The Jerusalem Fund. This ‘For the Record’ may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine.
This information first appeared in ‘For the Record’ No. 99, 6 February 2002.