It is impossible to know what will happen along the border with Gaza in the coming weeks. But one thing is certain: Israel will continue to respond with brutality and arrogance in the face of Palestinian nonviolent civil disobedience.
By Aviv Tatarsky
Anyone who wants to understand where Israel is heading in Gaza ought to think about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent behavior regarding African asylum seekers. Even better: let’s go back to when the Israeli government decided to place metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif last summer.
Despite the differences, these three struggles have a single common denominator: the state is trying to force its will, only to encounter civil disobedience and resistance.
The first assumption we must make is that, in this dynamic, the state is the one with the power. A single person, a group, or organizations will not be able to prevent the state from carrying out its plan. The enormous gap in power, combined with a cynical leadership that cares little for the fate of human beings — whether or not they are citizens — is what drives the Israeli government, time and time again, to make mistakes that stem from a misreading of reality. It starts with belligerence, continues with arrogance, and ends with buckling to pressure. In the meantime, Israeli leaders incite and poison public opinion. And of course, people die.
Between protest and resistance
The metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif led to an impressive wave of civil disobedience. The power of the regime rests on the obedience of the people under its control. But when East Jerusalem’s Palestinians refused to obey, they completely changed the power relations between the regime and the population. Because Palestinians for the most part stuck to civil disobedience, it was only a matter of time before the government gave in to the pressure and removed the metal detectors. The Netanyahu government so badly misread the situation that they kept repeating the same mantra: “East Jerusalemites won’t have a choice but to get used to the metal detectors.” It turns out that, in fact, they did have a choice, and they were willing to sacrifice quite a bit.
The case of the asylum seekers is vastly different, due mainly to the involvement of Israeli citizens. Citizens have far more power than non-citizens, and thus do not have to resort to the drastic steps that East Jerusalem’s residents were resigned to take.
And yet the dynamic between the state and the citizens remained the same: belligerence and lies that seemed — for a brief moment — to come to a grinding halt in the face of widespread public protest. Here we must examine the limits of public protest. Gene Sharp, a theoretician who wrote extensively on nonviolent struggle and who passed away last January, explained the difference between protest and resistance. The power of protest is to enlist supporters and offer its backing those who invest their time and energy in the struggle.
And while mass demonstrations are of great significance in generating public attention, encouraging refugee aid organizations, and bringing members of Knesset and other public figures into the fold, it is a mistake to think that they alone influenced Netanyahu in his decision making. As long as protest does translate into acts of resistance — that is, exacting a price from the government — the government has no reason to worry. On the contrary.
Netanyahu momentarily dropped the idea of deporting asylum seekers — instead adopting the UN refugee agency’s plan — due to real obstacles: Rwanda backing out of the deal, along with serious legal challenges. Let’s not forget that is also a significant protest movement against absorbing asylum seekers in Israel. Just a week ago, those who oppose the asylum seekers were Netanyahu’s biggest allies. All of a sudden, he took the UN deal and leaves his supporters with no choice but to accept their fate.
But the deportation supporters knew that their struggle — as opposed to those who support asylum seekers — could carry a significant price for Netanyahu and his Likud party on election day. Even Education Minister Naftali Bennett seized the opportunity and presented himself as caretaker of all those who were disappointed in Netanyahu. Thus, within a matter of hours, Netanyahu was forced to buckle under pressure.
In Gaza, Israel’s belligerence is at its most brutal: shooting unarmed civilians in order to kill. In order to justify these actions, the government talks of nightmare scenarios should the demonstrators cross the fence. Putting morality aside, the brutality vis-a-vis Gaza is justified through the same rationale as in the aforementioned cases. Except that when it comes to Gaza, the cruelty is far greater: “They won’t have a choice” becomes “they are afraid to die, so after killing a few will deter the rest.”
And what if this too is a misreading of the reality on the ground? In one day, 16 people were killed (14 of them unarmed) and 750 others were wounded. The Palestinian protest on the Gaza border is expected to continue for at least another six weeks. What will happen if the residents of Gaza act in the same manner as the residents of East Jerusalem and refuse to obey Israel’s brutal dictates? How many will we kill if we discover that Palestinian demonstrators continue to get close to the fence? How many killed is too much, even for us? How many will we kill until Gaza’s popular, nonviolent struggle pushes Palestinians in the West Bank into the streets?
It is impossible to tell where the next few weeks will lead. The problem in Gaza is far more complex than metal detectors or deportation of asylum seekers, and it is hard to imagine a realistic scenario in which Palestinian protesters “win.” But all the ingredients are here: determination, brutality, and arrogance on the Israeli side; determination, rage, and excitement on the Palestinian one.
It’s very likely that, once again, the Israeli government is misreading the situation in such a way that will bring about horrendous bloodshed. It is our duty to forget the scaremongering and state clearly that our government is functioning according to a logic that has been proven, time and time again, to be wrong. The gamble it is taking could bring about another catastrophe in Gaza. We who want to prevent that catastrophe must find effective — and quick — ways to resist.
Aviv Tatarsky is a researcher for Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO that works for an equitable Jerusalem. This post was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call.