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A Question of Definition
Last uploaded : Friday 18th Oct 2002 at 00:26
Contributed by : Yossi Alpher



Any discussion of violence and non-violence in the Israeli-Palestinian context encounters a serious problem of definition of terms.

First, each side apparently understands its use of violence as a reaction to the violence of the other. In this regard, while Israelis and Palestinians generally agree on a definition of Palestinian violence--from low level stone throwing to suicide bombings--Palestinians define Israeli "violence" in a unique way: occupation, settlement construction, closures, and curfews are "violence", regardless of how and why they came about or whether bullets are fired or people injured.

This brings us to the issue of moral equivalency. In Palestinian eyes, the inadvertent killing by Israeli forces of Palestinian civilians--usually in the course of shooting at Palestinian terrorists--is considered no different at the moral and ethical level than the deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians by Palestinian suicide bombers. While the shockingly high numbers of Palestinian civilians killed during the past two years undoubtedly, in some cases, reflect poor judgment or lax discipline on the part of some Israeli troops, in Palestinian eyes there is no grey area here: all violence is equivalent, whatever the motive and backdrop.

This is one reason why recent Palestinian attempts to project a campaign of selective non-violence are so intriguing. If all violence is equivalent--if a Palestinian civilian killed accidentally because terrorists were using his home as their base is in the same category as an Israeli civilian deliberately targeted in a caf? by a suicide bomber--then why do Palestinians propose only ceasing Palestinian attacks inside pre-1967 Israel, or stopping only suicide bombings but continuing drive-by shootings? Moreover, when Palestinians advocate stopping suicide bombings because they "do not help our cause" (indeed, they do not) rather than because they are morally repugnant or, say, violate religious precepts concerning the sanctity of life--then we are dealing with "non-violence" at a philosophical level quite different from the precepts of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, who believed (correctly) that by placing themselves as non-violent actors on a higher moral plane than a "civ ilized" enemy, they could oblige it to acknowledge their basic human and national rights.

Were the Palestinian people to adopt the Gandhian approach, Israelis would, in the long run, show greater respect for those rights. True, Palestinians would have to absorb some initial losses, just as the Indians opposing the British and the blacks in the American south continued to bear the brunt of violent police responses during an interim period. But Israelis and their supporters abroad would get the message rather quickly. Recent instances of mass defiance of curfews in West Bank cities, in which Israeli soldiers "backed off", are a step in this direction.

Yet overall, a total Palestinian switch to non-violence is a doubtful prospect. At the societal level it is unlikely that the Palestinian mothers who celebrate the martyrdom of their children in suicide attacks against Israelis, are candidates for genuine non-violent resistance. At the political level we must ask what has to happen for a society that has achieved virtually nothing through violence for over 70 years, in the course of which it squandered endless opportunities for compromise and coexistence, from British partition plans in the 1930s through the 1947 UN partition plan and two "Camp Davids"--to change its mind.

Perhaps the most depressing indicator of the Palestinian approach to violence and non-violence is provided by the arguments of the Palestinian "reform" movement regarding the abject failure of the Palestinian armed forces. According to the reformers these forces, which were originally armed and sanctioned by Israel, disappointed Palestinian society not because they failed to apprehend Palestinian terrorists who were attacking Israelis, but because they failed to defend Palestinians against Israelis. Reforms, such as consolidating 12 disparate security organizations into three or four, are intended by nearly all Palestinians to enhance their self defense capacity against the Israel Defense Forces, rather than their capacity to prevent Palestinian violence.

This is not to argue that Palestinians don't have the right to personal and societal security, but rather that experience should have taught them long ago that they have no hope whatsoever of achieving that security by challenging Israel through violence, i.e., by endangering Israeli security, and that reliance on a small force designed somehow to deter or delay a military response to terrorism by a military power like Israel is the worst of all possible solutions. On the contrary, Palestinians' best hope lies in a negotiated peace agreement that offers them strong international security guarantees for a genuinely demilitarized Palestine (only law enforcement units) to balance its inevitable geostrategic dependency on Israel, Jordan and Egypt with their far greater military capacities.

# # #

Yossi Alpher is an Israeli strategic analyst. He is former Director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University.

JewishComment is grateful to Common Ground News Service for securing Copyright permission for publication.

e-mail: cgnews@sfcg.org


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