The case for armed resistance
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has consistently rejected the use of violence as part of the struggle against Israel’s occupation, firmly believing it was harming the Palestinian national goals.
A senior PLO member in 1977, Abbas declared he was not opposed to contacts with Israel to achieve a peaceful solution, later emerging as one of the core architects of the Oslo agreement.
As the head of the Palestinian Authority, he had little reservation to condemn armed struggle in favour of an amorphous version of popular resistance. In 2014, he placed the ‘denouncement of violence’ as a precondition for a unity government with Hamas.
But in an interview last month, he hinted that armed resistance may still be an option, albeit as a last resort.
"Palestinian non-violent resistance has always been part of the struggle, going as far back as the early 20th century against Zionism and the British mandate"
“I do not support armed resistance, but that could change at any given moment, of course,” said Abbas, warning that “Palestinians are losing their patience.”
Palestinian non-violent resistance has always been part of the struggle, going as far back as the early 20th century against Zionism and the British mandate. It lost momentum soon after the 1948 Nakba with the collapse of Palestinian society. It reemerged as grassroots organisations and scholarship in the 1960s with the launch of the Palestinian revolution.
The 1987 First Intifada was a fateful moment for the movement. Boycotts, civil disobedience, and mass protests - soon evolving into grassroots activism and advocacy - dominated the scene and helped Palestinians achieve notable international support.
The Second Intifada (2000-2005) began as a popular uprising, soon developing into armed resistance in response to Israel’s employment of war-like military force. The Intifada, nonetheless, saw the emergence of online activism, which helped grow the Palestine solidarity movement globally.
2022 is set to be the 'deadliest year' for Palestinians in the West Bank.— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) November 26, 2022
So don't expect Palestinians to justify their right to resist Israeli occupation - *especially* to those who sanction the violence enacted on them
✍ @m7mdkurd https://t.co/JSNNOLa8OZ
The tactics developed during that period continue to vitalise Palestine advocacy today, and have scored multiple successes for the cause globally.
Viewed from this angle, there is evidence to support Abbas’ worldview, especially when supplemented by the Palestinian Authority’s (limited) diplomatic successes to hold Israel accountable in the international bodies.
But is this ‘evidence’ sufficient to draw final conclusions?
Abbas’ rejection of armed resistance is a matter of principle, and, to him, the use of violence against the occupier must be discarded if conditions conducive to rational dialogue are within reach. This is based on the unpopular assumption that he can still negotiate his way to liberation.
From a pacifist position, the moral judgement underlying this rationale may be valid. In this logic, violence is seen as a divider between good and bad, and counterproductive to national aspirations.
Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, spoke of this ‘philosophy’ during a visit to Palestine in 2004. He said Palestinians had no alternative but to pursue peaceful methods of resistance to Israel in the long term, as his grandfather had against British colonialism in India.
But after the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, which arguably rendered illusory Gandhi's belief that true coexistence could be reached between the Zionist settlers and Palestinians, the non-violence philosophy that is often projected upon Palestine may not all be contextually sound, if not altogether morally flawed.
There are two reasons for that:
First, Palestinian non-violent resistance has been routinely met with disproportionate Israeli violence. The resistance has contributed significantly to the global recognition of Palestinian human rights, and that very outcome has proven difficult for the Israeli state to accept.
Incitement, anti-Semitism, terrorism, and disruptive behaviours are some of the many labels the Israeli occupation authorities have assigned to popular dissidence, on the ground or online.
"Colonialism is inherently a violent process, created and sustained by violence. It can only survive by maintaining a repressive, hierarchical social order, primarily reliant on brute force and subjugation"
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, particularly in Israel-controlled area C, are banned from protests and vigils. They are prohibited from raising the Palestinian flag and distributing political material.
Peaceful protests are faced with rubber and live bullets, tear gas, and concussion grenades, killing thousands. Many of those who escape injury face night raids, intimidation, and detention.
In Gaza, during the Great March of Return between 2018 and 2020, the Israeli army killed over 200 protestors.
Meanwhile, peaceful methods of political pressure like BDS have been demonised as anti-Semitic. Several Palestinian and foreign rights activists and journalists have been jailed, deported, or denied entry into Palestine. Those exposing the truth and brutality of the Israeli regime are killed.
Second, colonialism is inherently a violent process, created and sustained by violence. It can only survive by maintaining a repressive, hierarchical social order, primarily reliant on brute force and subjugation.
This limits the capacity of non-violence to act as an equaliser to deter the coloniser’s use of violence.
An elemental way to break free from that order is to make maintaining it costly, painful, and unsustainable. Armed resistance, therefore, can be deployed on behalf of freedom and for national survival, certainly when society can no longer sustain itself under the weight of the repressive order.
Granted, armed resistance often exacts a heavy price for the colonised, as it did for Algerians, Vietnamese, Iraqis, and now Ukrainians, among many others in the history of anti-colonial struggle. But if this history proves anything, it is that the continuation of the repressive order exacts a far greater price.
After all, resorting to violence in the colonial context is a response to an already existing violence by the coloniser. And because of that, the colonised are morally - and naturally - justified in using violence to bring about their liberation.
Legally, international law grants people the right to fight for “liberation from colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle.”
The process derives much of its moral force from the right to self-defence - humanity’s most ancient natural law. Denying that right, labelling it as terrorism, or granting it selectively erases core issues in the struggle for freedom and poses serious moral dilemmas.
The calculus for most Palestinians, therefore, is straightforward. It is a choice between the heavy-priced armed resistance and the greater evil of national oblivion.
Any option in-between - say by replacing self-determination and sovereignty with minimalist economic incentives, without ending the occupation - is unsustainable. It will always be a state of purgatory, neither here nor there, but nonetheless dehumanising and continually on the verge of implosion.
"After all, resorting to violence in the colonial context is a response to an already existing violence by the coloniser. And because of that, the colonised are morally - and naturally - justified in using violence to bring about their liberation"
So, against Abbas’ better judgement, when non-violence alone had been deployed against Israeli militarism and political intransigence, it proved limited. It may have scored multiple wins gathering recognition of Palestinian justice internationally.
But internally in occupied Palestine, moral and legal support remains insufficient to force Israel’s hand and actualise a path toward liberation.
This is precisely why the majority of Palestinians think armed resistance should never be an either-or question but a core national choice against Israel, filling the gap where popular resistance has been ineffective.
From a strategic perspective, certain tactics have proven more effective than others, and the armed resistance movement has evolved in deployment and methods of delivery, as well as in the nature of targets, mostly focusing on the Israeli military and illegal settlers.
The emergence of Nablus’ Lions’ Den and Gaza’s Joint Room suggest that Palestinians may have also been attempting to de-factionalise armed resistance and create a coordinated and unified tactical front against Israel.
Whether the unified effort will mature into a comprehensive, well-defined national strategy is yet to be seen. The fact that many PA senior officials remain adamantly against armed struggle, fearful of Israel’s retaliation, shows how out of touch they are with the popular resistance movements.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
Have questions or comments? Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.