A Non Violent Approach to the Israel Palestine Conflict

(A Case Study Analysis in Non-violence and Social Change)

A-M Johannessen, 28 February, 2008

“The choice is no longer between violence and non-violence. It is either non-violence or non-existence.”

~Martin Luther King~

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been going on for more than 80 years and is a protracted social conflict as well as an ethnic, religious and cultural conflict. It is dominated by hostile interactions and outbreaks of violence and warfare. Today, Palestinians living in the territories occupied by the Israeli army are fighting for their right to self- determination, statehood and territory. The conflict is also about national, religious and cultural identity.
The use of violence between Israelis and Palestinians has escalated the conflict and increased hostility and fear among the populations. It has had devastating consequences especially for the Palestinian society in the occupied territories.
This essay will argue that a strategy based upon the philosophy and practice of non-violence is strongly needed as an alternative way to lead the people of Israel and Palestine towards conflict resolution and peace with justice. Non-violence has been defined as “a technique by which people who reject passivity and submission, and who see struggle as essential, can wage their conflict without violence.” (Sharp, 1973, p. 64) It is also defined as “a set of attitudes, actions or behaviours intended to persuade the other side to change their opinions, perceptions and actions.” (Abi-Nimer, 2006, p.135) Mahatma Gandhi often referred to non-violence as “war without violence” and Gene Sharp (1979) claimed that an active non-violent strategy can transform societal attitudes and institutions.
This essay will look at how the philosophy, strategy and language of non-violence might be used in the struggle to achieve social change and justice for the Palestinians. It will claim the need for peaceful, non-violent ‘people power’ activities which might be effective in addressing structural and direct violence which Palestinians suffer in the occupied territories today. It will focus on strategies of non-violence, including protests and non-cooperation as well as dialogue and to look at ways to prevent the creation of ‘enemy images’ and dehumanisation of ‘the other’. The aim is to address and to end oppression of the Palestinian people, as well as bringing them closer to achieving self-determination. Lederach’s theory of power-gaps as well as Sharp’s theory of non-violence will be used to analyse how non-violent actions might be effective in influencing all levels of society in the direction of peace with justice.

Throughout the past century non-violent methods have been used successfully against dictatorships, totalitarian regimes, foreign occupiers, empires, to overthrow oppressive regimes, create social change and to defend human rights. (Stephan, 2003, Sharp, 2005)
The need for a shift from violence to non-violent action in order to transform the conflict in Israel- Palestine is evident, for, as Martin Luther King said:
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. Returning violence for violence, multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” (1967, p.62)

The six-day war in 1967 resulted in the Israeli army occupying territories in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights and separating Palestinian communities living there. (Bishara, 2001) Israeli settlements were built and the Palestinians endured direct violence as well as structural violence such as discrimination, poverty, unemployment, oppression and lack of opportunities. (Bishara, 2001, Reihart, 2006) Years of abuse, oppression, powerlessness and despair have caused some Palestinians to participate in direct violence, as they see this as the only effective method of resistance. (Kaufman, Salem and Verhoeven, 2006, Stephan, 2003) However, the use of direct violence against the militarily and economically superior Israeli opponent, has been counterproductive. (Abu-Nimer, 2006, Reinhart, 2006) Direct violence leads to a circle of hatred, revenge and more violence, with little hope for lasting peace. Stephan (2003) claims that “in multidimensional, protracted social conflicts like this one, where traditional approaches have consistently failed to bring peace, an alternative to deadlock led by citizen- based initiatives is imperative.” Furthermore, Stephan (2003, p.3) argues that “in a conflict marked by considerable power asymmetries, where the roots of the conflict are structural and based in the institutions of occupation, negotiations and problem-solving techniques alone are insufficient.”
Both Israelis and Palestinians have been involved in direct violence caused by intractable conflicts through generations and thus developed a high degree of ‘fear orientation’. It is therefore a big challenge to reverse the fear and to create a hope orientation instead. In order to build hope, there needs to be expectations of concrete positive goals that can be achieved. The building of hope needs to come from within a society, but support from neighbouring countries and the international community is strongly needed. (Bar-Tal, 2001) In order to create hope, it is crucial to put the past behind and to set positive goals and make plans for a future using imagination, creativity and problem- solving as well as engaging in positive events. (Bar-Tal, 2001, Stehpan, 2003) The way this can happen is by ending the cycle of violence, and to focus on non-violent strategies to achieve social change. Non-violence has been strongly promoted by Gandhi who referred to it as a ‘people power’ movement. (Stephan, 2003, Cortright, 2006) Nagler, Palter-Palman and Taylor claim the need for activists to adopt “a disciplined, organised non-violent process on a national scale in the occupied territories.” (p.15, 2006) Stephan (2003, p.1) claims that “a strategy of sustained, nonviolent direct action involving all parties, with adequate moral and material support from the international community, can help break the cycle of violence and pave the way to a just peace.” An important part of non-violent action is to create confidence in the people that they have the power through non-violent means. (Aung San Suu Kyi, 1997) Vaclav Havel calls this the “power of the powerless”. (Aung San Suu Kyi, 1997) All Palestinians can participate in a non-violent powerful mass movement.

Though there is some degree of non-violent activities in Palestine today, the focus in the media is very often on violence. Palestinian suicide bombing has proven counter-productive in achieving human rights and justice for Palestinians, as it has created increased fear and hostility among Israelis as well as sympathy for the Israelis in the International community. Thus it has justified the Israeli occupation’s use of brutal military force as well as structural oppression against Palestinians in the name of security for the Israelis. (Abu-Nimer, 2006, Stephan, 2003, Reinhart, 2003) Israeli military operations are seen as legitimised as a result of Palestinian suicide bombings, of which images of dead civilians are reported and broadcasted worldwide, providing the Israelis with sympathy from the International community. (Abu-Nimer, 2006, Bishara, 2001)
While direct violence is destroying relationships, non-violent strategies aim to build relationships and solidarity among Palestinian and Israeli people. Relationship building and solidarity are central to the philosophy of non-violence. The philosophy of non-violence is often linked to religion and is emphasising empathy, compassion and belief in humanity. (Abu-Nimer, 2006, King, 1967) It also demands a high degree of courage, selflessness, discipline and patience. (Reinhardt, 2006) Principled non-violence focuses on resisting the act of oppression or injustice and violence instead of the person in opposition. (Nagler, Palter-Palman and Taylor, 2006) Many Palestinians express an non-violent attitude, for example when claiming, “we refuse to hate them; it robs us of our humanity; we will not become like them.” (Nagler, Palter-Palman and Taylor, 2006, p.18)
An important part of the philosophy of non-violence, which needs to be increasingly emphasised among Palestinians in their struggle, is the respect for all human beings, including the ‘enemy’ and the oppressor and not to demonize them. (Abu-Nimer, 2006) These attitudes are essential in order to transform feelings of anger, revenge and bitterness into positive desire for peaceful conflict resolution and reconciliation. (Nagler, Palter-Palman and Taylor, 2006) Also, as Abu-Nimer (2003, p.162) claims; “when the oppressor recognizes these attitudes in the oppressed, the sense of threat is reduced and the willingness to resolve the conflict is increased.” Through organising big protests and other non-violent campaigns among Palestinians, there is an opportunity to focus on hope and positive feelings of optimism and solidarity.

As well as the overall philosophy of non-violence, having a clear strategy is crucial for successful non-violent action in the occupied territories. Non-violence is not an easy option, but requires long term planning and determination. (Sharp, 2005, Stephan, 2003) According to Sharp (2005), the oppressor gains his power because of the consent, obedience and cooperation of the oppressed. Thus Palestinian withdrawal of consent and their refusal to cooperate with the rule of the Israeli power, is the first step in the strategy of non-violence. Non-cooperation aims to make the occupation too costly in terms of political, economic and social consequences, so that the occupation is forced to end. (Sharp, 2005, Zeerak, 2004)
Such action is most effective when it involves large parts of the population. (Abu-Nimer, Stephan, 2003) Thus, mass mobilization of non-violent action on a large scale including the whole Palestinian population, as well as some Israelis, will be most effective in the struggle against the occupation. Such non-violent action should include boycotts of Israeli products and businesses, joint marches and protests with Israeli peace forces at check points, protests on settler roads and near international borders. (Bishara, 2001, Zeerak, 2004) It should also include demonstrations, sit-ins in the streets, strikes, withdrawing deposits from Israeli banks, withholding taxes, continuing to harvest olives, educating about the impact and nature of the occupation and publishing leaflets. (Abu-Nimer, 2006, Stephan, 2003, Kuttab and Awad, 2002) There should also be an increased emphasis on maintaining and strengthening existing Palestinian independent institutions and creating new ones. (Sharp, 2005)
There needs to be an increased focus on mass protest of the ‘separation wall’ which has been built by the occupation force in an attempt to secure parts of the west bank and has been labelled the ‘apartheid wall’ by the Palestinians. The wall is preventing cooperation and the development of relationships necessary to build peace. It is contributing to the creation of enemy images of ‘the other’ by both physically and symbolically dividing the Israeli and Palestinian people. (Abu-Nimer, 2006, Reinhardt, 2006) Thus the wall is hindering peace building instigated by non-violent action.

The purpose of these non-violent activities is to force the Israeli occupation to withdraw and to prevent further oppression. Although these methods can be challenging, costly and difficult, they might bring the Palestinians closer to achieving their goal over time. (Cortright, 2006, Reinhart, 2006) When engaging in non-violent activity, Palestinians protest against the injustice that they suffer and aim to make this injustice obvious to all parties to the conflict as well as the international community. (Stephan, 2003) They communicate the message that they are not willing to obey the oppressive military power and call for equality and a reverse in power asymmetries. (Stephan, 2003, Reinhart, 2006) Due to gradual loss of resources and sympathy, non-violent action will challenge the sustainability of the Israeli occupation and pressure the Israeli Government to take necessary steps towards peace and reconciliation.

Palestinians have had a long history of non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation. (Abu-Nimer, 2006, Stephan, 2003) They participated in non-violent activities from the first Intifada in 1987. They engaged in civil disobedience and non-cooperation such as mass demonstrations, refusal to pay tax, strikes and boycotting of Israeli products. (Nagler, Palter-Palman and Taylor, 2006) However, the non-violent activities have not been internally and externally acknowledged. Instead, there has been a focus on Palestinian violent resistance, both locally, among the leaders and in mainstream and international media. (Abu-Nimer, 2006, Bishara, 2001) Also, there has been a lot of emphasis on top- level negotiations among leaders. According to theories of non-violence, social change and the liberation of the oppressed is most effective when instigated from the oppressed people themselves. (Sharp, 2005, Freire, 1970) Mobilising people at the grassroots to become active in a non-violent movement is crucial.
Lederach (1997) divides the actors and approaches to peace building into a pyramid of tree levels; grassroots, middle range and top leadership. Non-violent action focuses mainly on mass action at the grassroots level, and aims to reach over the power gaps and to communicate directly to the middle range and top level leadership. (Lederach, 1997) Non-violent action aims to influence the leadership and make them realize the morally illegitimate and unjust nature of the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. It aims to create a human picture of the Palestinians, in order to reverse the dehumanizing enemy- image of Palestinians as terrorists. (Bishara, 2001) This is a crucial element in the struggle for social change.
As violent struggle only widens the power gaps and convinces the Israeli leadership to increase military means and oppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories, the purpose of non-violent struggle is to create relationships and promote positive communication on both horizontal and vertical levels of society.
Non-violent struggle from the grassroots also aims to close the power gaps within Palestinian society; it aims to get the support from the Palestinian leadership, establish trust between the leadership and the public and to promote commitment to principles of non-violence and community building. Non-violent action is most successful when supporters and participators include people from all levels of society, including grassroots, civil society and the Government/ leaders. Resistance activities at the grassroots are especially effective when supported, encouraged and cultivated by local political leaders. (Abu-Nimer, 2006, Bishara, 2001) A fragmented Palestinian leadership has been an obstacle to peace building in Israel and Palestine. (Reinhart, 2006) Non-violent action aims to create unity among the leaders on all levels of society.

Media coverage is an important part of non-violent action and is a crucial strategy for bridging the power gaps. Media coverage communicates the message from the grassroots to the middle and top level of society among both Israelis and Palestinians, emphasising non-violent peaceful action; the will to reach across to the ‘enemy’ in a respectful way, through a language of hope, optimism, justice and understanding. Palestinian non-violent action such as mass protests and civil disobedience should be communicated to the media with the message of urgent need for dialogue, peaceful negotiations on all levels of society as well as ending the illegal military occupation and instigating social and economic cooperation.
Media coverage of non-violent resistance is also important in order to get regional and international support and sympathy. Thus it is crucial that the Palestinians do not use violence so that they do not distort the picture of peaceful action against the occupying force. Zeerak (2004) claims that strict discipline, being ready to make sacrifices and not being provoked are essential elements for successful non-violent action. He also emphasises the need for everyone to refrain from using violence, since the use of violence always undermine a non-violent campaign. If the Palestinian freedom fighters stop using violence and suicide bombing, they are more likely to get sympathy and to make visible the injustice of the occupation among the Israelis and in the media. (Kaufman, Salem and Verhoeven, 2006) Non-violent action poses a greater threat to the Israeli occupation than stone throwing and suicide bombing does. (Zeerak, 2004, Bishara, 2001)
As opposed to direct violence, non-violence as a method of resistance doesn’t give the Israeli Government any justification to continue violence and oppression against the Palestinians. (Abu-Nimer, 2006, Stephan, 2003) Thus non-violent action is a way of breaking the cycle of direct violence. Also, non-violent action prevents dehumanization of ‘the other’ and the creation of enemy images of ‘the other’. (Abu-Nimer, 200, Alimi, 2007)
Strong non-violent action might also contribute to a ‘culture of hope’ and to transforming the ‘collective fear orientation’ into a more positive ‘hope orientation’. Related to this, is the role which language plays as part of a non-violent struggle. By moving away from a language that uses threats, provokes fear and encourages violent battle or terror, non-violent action aims to focus on trust, understanding and hope for a better future.

As advocated for in this essay, there is a strong need for a civilian-led, non-violent struggle in order to transform the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Non-violence, both as a way of living and as an active strategy that everyone can participate in, is crucial in order to bring liberation, justice and social change to Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Palestinian non-violent action aims to create a situation where it is no longer profitable, desirable or possible for the Israeli military power to continue the occupation. In order to do this effectively there is a need for solidarity, courage and discipline.
Non-violent action in the occupied territories aims to build relationships, promote friendly dialogue and bridge the power gaps between grassroots, middle range and top-level leadership. It aims to end the cycle of fear, revenge and dehumanization of the enemy. It also aims for positive communication and to build a ‘hope orientation’. Ultimately the people- power of non-violence is the most promising means to achieve peace with justice in Israel and Palestine.


Abu-Nimer, Mohammed (2006) Non-violent Action in Israel and Palestine: A Growing Force In Bridging the Divide: Peace building in the Israeli- Palestinian Conflict, p. 135-169, Edited by Kaufman, Edy, Salem, Walid and Verhoeven, Juliette, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Colorado

Aung San Suu Kyi (1997) Freedom from Fear, ev.ed, Penguin, London

Aung San Suu Kyi (1997) The Voice of Hope, Conversations with Alan Clements, Seven Stories Press, New York

Bar-Tal, Daniel (2001) Why Does Fear Override Hope in Societies Engulfed by Intractable Conflict, as It Does in the Israeli Society?, Political Psychology, Vol 22, No.3, Blackwell Publishers
http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/0162-895X.00255?journalCode=pops (Accessed 18.02.08)

Bishara, Marwan (2001) Palestine/ Israel: Peace or Apartheid, Occupation , Terrorism and the Future, St.Martin’s Press, New York

Cortright, David (2006) Gandhi and Beyond, Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism, Paradigm Publishers, USA

Freire, P. (1970) The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, Pantheon

Hunt, Scott A. (2004) The Future of Peace HarperCollins, New York

Kaufman, Edy, Salem, Walid and Verhoeven, Juliette (2006) Looking Back, Looking Forward: Toward Transforming the Conflict In Bridging the Divide:Peacebuilding in the Israeli- Palestinian Conflict, p.191-219, Edited by Kaufman, Edy, Salem, Walid and Verhoeven, Juliette, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Colorado

King, Martin Luther (1967) Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community Beacon Press paperback edition, London

Kuttab, Jonathan and Awad, Mubarak (2002) Non-violent Resistance in Palestine: Alternative Strategies, Information Brief No.90
http://www.palestinecenter.org/cpap/pubs/20020329ib.html (Accessed 17.02.08)

Lederach, J.P. (1997) Structure: Lenses for the Big Picture in Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. United States Institute of Peace Press, p.37-61, Washington, DC

Nagler, Michael N., Palter-Palman, Tal and Taylor, Matthew (2006) No to Confiscation, Yes to Community, PeacePower; Vol. 2, Issue 1
http://www.calpeacepower.org/0201/PDF/No_to_Confiscation_in_Israel_Palestine.pdf (Accessed 17.02.08)

Reinhart, Tanya (2006) The Road Map to Nowhere; Israel/Palestine since 2003, Verso, London

Sharp, Gene (1979) Gandhi as a Political Strategist, Porter Sargent Publishers inc., Boston

Sharp, Gene (1973) Power and Struggle, Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part 1, Porter Sargent Publishers inc., Boston

Sharp, Gene (2005) Waging Non-violent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential, Porter Sargent Publishers inc., Boston

Stephan, Maria J. (2003) People Power in the Holy Land: How Popular Nonviolent Struggle can Transform the Israeli - Palestinian Conflict, Journal of Public and Inernational Affairs, Volume 14, Trustees of Princeton University
http://www.princeton.edu/~jpia/pdf2003/Ch%209%20People-Stephan-JPIA% 202003.pdf (Accessed 20.02.08)

Zeerak, Ahmed Javaid (2004) The Case for Nonviolent Struggle In the Occupied Territories, Theory and Practise of Non-violence, Juniata College, Pennsylvania
http://www.juniata.edu/clubs/msajc/all/other/The%20Case%20for%20Nonviolent%20Struggle%20in%20the%20Occupied%20Territories-1.doc (Accessed 19.02.08)

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License