The Real Road Map: Violent Reactions to the Struggle for Equal Rights

Photo by Eric Gaillard/Reuters

by Yaniv Reich

You possess the world’s fourth most powerful military according to your own estimates, yet find yourself delegitimized in the international arena, unable to impose control over either your perceived enemies, or your internal settler-anarchist “brothers”.  You are desperately arresting nonviolent leaders that resist your military occupation while also fearing for the travel plans of your leaders implicated in war crimes.  It would seem current events are spiraling out of your grasp.  How do you reverse this worrying order of events? 

A hint was provided Saturday morning when a joint Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Shin Bet raid killed three alleged members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, one of two groups that claimed responsibility for the recent murder of a settler near Nablus in the occupied West Bank.  According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem,  two of the three shooting deaths by the IDF were carried out like executions, and eyewitness testimony alleges the two victims were executed from close range once identified, despite putting up no resistance.  A senior IDF official lent support to these testimonies when he told Israel Radio that the militants had not fired on the IDF troops and that two of the dead were known to have been unarmed at the time.  However, he explained that they were assassinated because they were believed to be responsible for the settler’s death.  In response B’Tselem called for an army investigation into the allegations of extrajudicial execution.

This act was widely regarded as a “grave escalation”, even by the standards of the typically acquiescent Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, whose security organizations had recently done so much of the IDF’s bidding, having arrested over 120 Palestinians in the wake of the attack on the settler.  Indeed, the day before Israel’s raid, the IDF had called the Palestinian Authority’s security establishment “determined and impressive.” 

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades were less diplomatic in their response: “We won’t stand around doing nothing and the blood of holy warriors will not have been spilled in vain. The enemy won’t see anything from us besides the language of blood and fire.”  This reaction is, of course, entirely predictable for both casual observers and for Israel’s political and security establishment. 

Fanning the flames

Why would Israel act to escalate the violence in the West Bank after enjoying two of the quietest years since 2000? 

The answer is written in the events of the first weeks of the second intifada.  At that time, a massive Palestinian uprising had exploded in the wake of Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa compound, growing disenchantment with the illusionary peace process, and the murders of at least 47 Palestinians in the first five days of the ensuing, mostly nonviolent demonstrations.  Top Israeli security officials including Major General Amos Malka, the then military intelligence chief, argued that Israel deliberately fanned the flames of Palestinian discontent and violence.  To support this claim, he cited the following figure: in the first three weeks of the uprising, before any suicide attacks had begun, the Israeli army had reacted with violent, repressive force:

My figure was 1.3 million bullets in the West Bank and Gaza. This is a strategic figure that says that our soldiers are shooting and shooting and shooting. I asked: “Is this what you [Major Kupperwasser] intended in your preparations?” and he replied in the negative. I said: “Then the significance is that we are determining the height of the flames.”

This shared understanding was emphasized further by Moshe Ya’alon, commanding officer of Israel’s Central Command, who has written in his memoirs:

I saw the [second intifada] that broke out in 2000 in a broad context now … I understood that we had come to a moment of truth … we had to make this war into a turning point. We needed to move—during the war itself—from retreat and delay to attack … It enables us to create a strategic reversal, to demonstrate our might and our stamina, and to renew our powers of deterrence.

Today Israel faces a similar ‘broad context’characterized by forces it does not know how to control.  As has happened in the past, Israel will similarly seek a new demonstration of its might and stamina in order to restore its confidence, its perceived deterrence, and a semblance of control over its domestic situation. 

Many factors contribute to the current situation that so unsettles Israel’s leaders.  The list of offenses and case studies in chutzpah are extensive, damning, and increasingly well-known: war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Gaza one year ago; the ongoing, illegal siege of Gaza’s imprisoned population despite the almost complete absence of rocket fire; the ongoing colonization and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, including East Jerusalem, in front of the world’s cameras; the rabid response to universal jurisdiction for war crimes and arrest warrants against its increasingly fearful leaders; and the waking giant that is the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (including Israel’s hysterical call to boycott UK products in response to the UK’s efforts to simply label West Bank produce as being produced by Jews or Palestinians). 

More important than all of these factors is perhaps the manner in which Palestinian nonviolence is crystallizing and growing in exposure by tapping into the international credibility provided by these events, merging with them, expanding, and thereby revolutionizing the nature of the conflict.

Fighting against the enemy you want and not the one you have

Israel knows how to wage war against enemies, but it does not know what to do with the power of nonviolence to silence its weapons, to open new spaces of debate about apartheid, continuous ethnic cleansing and 42 years of occupation with no end in sight.  It is one thing for Israel’s F-16s to take out a suspected rocket launching pad in a Gazan agricultural field.  It is an entirely different thing to confront Bil’in’s Santa Claus-clad demonstrators, who turn out weekly to brave IDF bullets and tear gas, while simply calling for Israel to comply with the International Court of Justice’s decision to not steal Palestinian land for the segregation wall. 

Israel’s fear is palpable, proved by its recent assault on a nonviolent protest by Palestinians, Jews, and internationals.  For two consecutive weeks Israeli forces have beaten and arrested dozens of Jewish and international activists who were non-violently demonstrating against the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem. 

More severely, Israel has now arrested 31 members of Bil’in’s Popular Struggle Coordination Committee.  Each of these illegal arrests is an important case which should be studied and disseminated, but one in particular provides all the evidence required for the case of Israel’s desperation. 

Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a high school teacher and coordinator of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, was arrested on December 10th, 2009.  After two weeks of administrative detention, he was finally charged with arms possession for collecting the spent tear gas canisters that were used to stifle his — and Bil’in’s — increasingly successful demonstrations.  What better symbol of Israel’s impotence in the face of nonviolence than trying to use the harmless remnants of its exhausted military machine against those who challenge its legitimacy. 

Ten days ago, the imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti wrote the following in an op-ed in The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune:

Through decades of occupation and dispossession, 90 percent of the Palestinian struggle has been nonviolent, with the vast majority of Palestinians supporting this method of struggle. Today, growing numbers of Palestinians are participating in organized nonviolent resistance.

In the face of European and American inaction, it is crucial that we continue to revive our culture of collective activism by vigorously and nonviolently resisting Israel’s domination over us.


A new generation of Palestinian leaders is attempting to speak to the world in the language of a nonviolent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions, precisely as Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of African-Americans did with the Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-1950s.

We are equally right to use the tactic to advance our rights. The same world that rejects all use of Palestinian violence, even clear self-defense, surely ought not begrudge us the nonviolence employed by men such as King and Gandhi.

Barghouti’s statement is a watershed, surely heard by Israel’s leadership and still reverberating through the Knesset and Defense Ministry halls.  Even if Barghouti is not freed in the ever-present, ever-distant prisoner swap with Hamas, this op-ed is characteristic of a shifting discourse on the conflict.  Israel can only attack militants, not rights, even if it can and does attempt to undermine them.  Israel can no more contain this rights-based discourse than it can the irrepressible desire of Palestinians to find freedom. 

The real road map

We are now on a one-way street to justice to Israel/Palestine, a street filled with obstacles sure to cause more suffering and violent deaths.  But there is only one direction of travel, which, I argue, cannot be reversed entirely.  There are too many television cameras, too much awareness of the settlers’ colonization project, too much disapproval of the segregation wall, too much disgust at recent Israeli massacres of Gazan and Lebanese civilians.  These features of the real road map (as distinct from the Quartet’s shambolic peace effort) make the current moment all the more dangerous because defenders of the status quo of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and religious fundamentalism will struggle vehemently against all progressive movement.   

In particular, Israel will use every means at its disposal to prevent the language of equal rights from reframing the debate.  This effort will include continued and likely expanded violence against nonviolent resistance.  It will include an effort to recast the discussion into the frame that has served Israel so well for so long — military action against military resistance.  For this it needs to spark a new round of violence which will be instigated along the model provided by the recent attacks on the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, from the pattern of escalation in the first and second intifadas, and from the military raids into Gaza on November 4, 2008 which killed six Hamas people and effectively ended the successful ceasefire that Hamas had been enforcing in the strip.   

Nothing would suit Israel’s interests better than the resumption of widespread terrorist activity, against which Israel could respond with its typical, mighty force of warplanes, tanks, and fluent English-speakers from the Foreign Ministry on the airwaves of every mainstream media outlet. 

We should therefore expect a new attempt by Israel to fan the flames of violence.  To remain steadfast and nonviolent in the face of unspeakable violence will not be easy.  But Palestinians, progressive Israelis and justice lovers everywhere can gain succour from the morality of nonviolent struggle and the sustained delegitimization of the very violence used against us. 

Unfortunately, then, the real road map suggests new violence in the imminent future.  But the current path, like Martin Luther King’s “arc of the moral universe”, leads inexorably toward justice.  The most potent action available to shorten the length of that arc is to expand the exemplary efforts of the Bil’in and Ni’lin villagers to regain access to the land that was stolen from them, coupled with the most effective tool available to the nonviolent strategist: a comprehensive boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign until Palestinians know — and live with — the same rights as the Jews in Israel/Palestine. 

This painful but inspiring journey is the real road map to peace.

Yaniv Reich is an Israeli-American writer and international development specialist who has lived and worked in both the United States and Israel.  He maintains a regular blog at Hybrid States which provides critical commentary on Israel/Palestine. 

10 thoughts on “The Real Road Map: Violent Reactions to the Struggle for Equal Rights”

  1. Excellent analysis. As an activist, who’s been to Bil’in, Ma’asara, Sheik Jarrah and other choice destinations of non-violent activities, it’s become very clear that soldiers and police forces are not wired up to deal with non-violence. Even in cases in which we make their options clear (“let us through or arrest us- we’re not resisting”), they can’t seem to avoid the unnecessary violence.

    I’d like to note one thing that irked me: The use of the word Anarchist in regards to settlers is wrong. Settlers are the exact opposite of anarchists, as they are nationalists. Misusing the word, as if “anarchist” was the equivalent of “criminal” is slanderous.

    1. I agree with Tali completely. No one anarchist could ever be a settler. Nationalism and anrchism are two contradictory things.

  2. thank you for this article.

    on the point of “Nothing would suit Israel’s interests better than the resumption of widespread terrorist activity..” why are militant actions taken by Palestinians considered “terrorist activity”? they are an oppressed people who are living and struggling under seemingly impossible circumstances. non-violent actions is necessary as much as militant actions in the face of an enemy that is more than eager to see their complete decimation.

  3. Very good article, but I must agree with Roksana’s comment. The word ‘terrorist’ is unhelpful and propagandistic. I should also point out that there was a year or two (2001/2002) in Israel when bomb attacks came almost every day. Sadly, this level of activity could not be sustained. In the time that it did continue, however, it destroyed the Israeli tourism industry, hit the economy very hard, and made many Israelis apply for another passport. Some reports said that up to a million Israelis had gone abroad. I don’t think Israel could have survived ten years of this war (the Palestinians of course have had over sixty). I think both violent and non-violent responses to the theft and ethnic cleansing of Palestine (all Palestine) are legitimate and necessary. My position on which is best comes down not to morality (I have no moral problem with the violence of the oppressed) but to efficacy. It may be the case that non-violence will be more efficacious at this stage, but to be honest I’m not yet convinced of this. The problem is that the Israeli and Western media doesn’t cover (much) the non-violent protests, that most of Israeli society is not ready to respond, that the Palestinians are cantonised and largley out of sight. American blacks were not out of siight. British India was controlled by an Indian conscript army. But certainly a non-violent campaign of BDS from abroad could be very helpful indeed. Thanks, Yaniv.

  4. Thanks to all for the comments. In the spirit of continuing the discussion, I wanted to add two points:

    (1) Settlers as anarchists vs. nationalists. This is a fascinating debate to hold. Among significant portions of the ideological settlement community, which were the ones I implicitly had in mind, the State of Israel is an illegitimate entity because the true Jewish kingdom can be restored only by God. Their allegiance, therefore, is not to a modern nation-state in any meaningful sense, but rather to an abstract theocracy they are working to establish. They use the current state apparatus solely for their own self-serving, extraordinarily violent colonization project. Does primary allegiance to such a theocratic vision, as opposed to the state of Israel, to which they have no real allegiance, yet in which they are citizens, reflect anarchist principles or not? I think its an open question, which I would enjoy discussing. Please note I was emphatically not using anarchist in a purely pejorative manner.

    (2) On “terrorism” vs. violent resistance. Point taken. I do want to make clear that I agree wholeheartedly with the right, as a human right, to resist violently your oppression. But in my view the extent of this right is ethically unclear and subject to debate. In particular, I have very serious qualms about extending this right into population centers “inside the Green Line”, as they say. I have this reservation for the precise reason I find it morally reprehensible that Israel attempts to stop rocket fire by destroying Gaza City. The scale is obviously very much more severe in the latter case, but I see the same ethical questions in play.

    By contrast, my own opinion is that the right to violent resistance would likely hold with respect not only to military actions against the IDF, but almost certainly against the settlers, who by stealing land and harassing/murdering Palestinians have forfeited their status as civilians. (In case its not clear, these are ethical arguments rather than legal interpretations per se).

    These are for me interesting, and important, ethical questions that can and should be debated. When I spoke of terrorist activity, and its benefits to the Israeli establishment, I had in mind not events like the attack on the settler last week, but attacks more like those against the cafes and discoteques of Tel Aviv. It is those types of military actions that would best serve the interests of Israel’s political and military elites at this uncertain time.

    1. Yaniv, though god is debatable in anarchist circles, the concept is anti-anarchist. In my experience of such debates (though I wouldn’t want to speak for anyone), many anarchists that believe in god are merely substituting the word “spirituality” with the word “god”. Furthermore, these settlers would align themselves with a state that did agree to their demands. Thus we return to criminality does not equal anarchy. Anarchy is first and foremost about equality, as a result of the basic anti-authoritarian stance. Authority is not just an official entity, it’s also the applying of force against another- assuming authority, in itself, is an act of violence.

  5. Yaniv – I would say that attacking population centres inside the green line and destroying Gaza are different because in the first case the ethnically cleansed are attacking those who have ethnically cleansed them on the land from which they have been cleansed, while in the second case the occupiers/ ethnic cleansers/ architects of apartheid are attacking the refugees in order to stamp out their resistance. In one case we see the violence of the oppressed against oppression; in the other we see the violence of the oppressor aganst the oppressed.

    What distinguishes the settlers on the West Bank from the settlers in pre-48 Palestine? Certainly there are differences, but I don’t think they are as clear cut as you suggest.

    But I agree that attacks on cafes in Tel Aviv are not useful, at least not in the present circumstances, because they make it easy for Israeli ruling classes to trigger tribal responses among Israeli people, and to justify their rampages to the West as part of the ‘war on terror’. Again, I think this is a question of pragmatic politics, not of ethics.

  6. Thank you for an insightful and thoughtful analysis. There may be points where there is disagreement (for example, terrorism vs. ‘violent’ resistance) but these only up the topic to further healthy debate. I hope people like you keep writing, and keep finding platforms to reach more people.

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