by Michael Omer-Man
With popular uprisings pushing for democracy and an end to oppression sweeping their way through the Middle East, many Israelis are pondering if the democratic fever will reach Palestine. The general fear is that – especially in the wake of the Palestine Papers, which destroyed whatever faith Palestinians ever had in Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority – the people of Ramallah will oust Abbas. This would create a power vacuum, in which Israel is left without a Palestinian tool for implementing its security demands, and someone with whom it can maintain the illusion of a peace process. By focusing on this scenario, however, Israelis are overlooking the greatest danger the regional trend poses to its far-too-comfortable status quo and to prospects for a negotiated two-state solution.
The popular uprisings and ensuing overthrow of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt were about self-determination (not nationalistic), ending violent oppression and demands for personal, political and economic freedoms. If the popular street-level movements sweeping the region do play out in Palestine, it’s not the PA that should be worried – it does not have the suppressive stranglehold on power that Tunisians, Egyptians, Algerians and Yemenites are fighting to fell.
The occupation is the primary source of oppression in Palestinian society and regardless of the number of grievances the Palestine Papers may have provided the Palestinian people against Abbas, no one is under the illusion that he is the source of their suppression. A popular uprising against authoritarian and suppressive rule in Palestine, even if it does begin as a movement against the PA, will quickly become solely about the 44-year occupation.
There is good news and bad news for Israel in this already-frightening scenario. The good news is that any renewed uprising is unlikely to be as violent as the Second Intifada that brought suicide bombings and years of terrorism to Tel Aviv buses, cafes and discos. In fact, it is more likely to be contained in Palestinian areas.
The bad news is that it will not likely resemble the Second Intifada that brought suicide bombings and years of terrorism to Tel Aviv buses, discos and cafes, which Israel used to justify military reactions and continued occupation. In recent years, resistance to the occupation in the West Bank (and even somewhat in Gaza) has effectively shifted towards largely non-violent tactics encompassing weekly demonstrations, boycotts, publicity campaigns and movements to garner support in the international community, which Israeli leaders fallaciously invented a new word to describe: delegitimization.
These largely non-violent tactics have shattered the framework the world once viewed Palestinians through – terrorism. Protests in Bil’in, Budrous, Ni’ilin and Nebi Saleh have in many ways won the world’s empathy. However imperfectly, to the outside world, these movements engender the non-violent, civil disobedience, “We will overcome” ideologies of Martin Luther Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and even Natan Sharansky that are idolized in the West. Protest leaders in the West Bank draw diplomatic and moral support from Israel’s strongest allies. Their participants and leaders’ arrests are condemned and the demonstrations themselves declared legitimate resistance by freedom-loving countries otherwise sympathetic to Israel’s positions.
Now imagine what would happen if overnight, as happened in Egypt, those movements grew from the hundreds that demonstrate every Friday into tens of thousands of Palestinians overwhelming every checkpoint in the West Bank, not to mention if East Jerusalem’s Palestinian population brought the same tactics into Israel’s capital.
The world has changed since the First Intifada. Yitzhak Rabin’s “break their bones” tactics would not work on a large scale in the 21st century. Last month, Haaretz Magazine ran a retrospect on the 1988 beating of two Palestinian teenagers at the hands of the IDF. Footage of the brutal beating, which by chance, was captured on film by a CBS cameraman, caused international outrage and led to some of the worst hostility Israel had ever faced at the time. Today, we live in an entirely different world where information is transmitted via cell phone video cameras and mass distribution platforms such as YouTube and Twitter. Not only are there dozens of cameras in any place and time, but the scenes they record are viewed around the world within minutes.
The IDF is neither equipped nor prepared to handle massive demonstrations in a way that doesn’t bring immediate condemnation and action against Israel from even its staunchest allies. The first (and inevitable) death that takes place would be captured simultaneously on three different cell phone cameras and uploaded to YouTube within an hour, at which point Al Jazeera, the BBC and (a few days later) CNN would rebroadcast the ugly face of an occupation fighting for its survival into living rooms worldwide. With the Western public confronted by images of suppressive state violence on the evening news, combined with Israel’s already weakened international stature vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the consequences of an IDF response to an Egypt-like uprising would be completely untenable for Israel and the occupation.
Already having embraced non-violent Arab uprisings against illegitimate and oppressive rule, the world would have no option but to support the Palestinian street’s immediate demands to end the occupation should such a scenario play out. Compounded by nearly-unanimous international support for the actualization of Palestinian statehood, a massive and overwhelming non-violent Palestinian uprising met by the inevitable reactionary violence of an army charged with do the impossible would prove to be a true game changer. Whether such a scenario is disastrous or eventually constructive for residents of Tel Aviv, Ramallah or the entire region, however, like those taking place in Egypt and Tunisia, is impossible to predict.
Michael Omer-Man is writer and conflict analyst based in Tel Aviv. With degrees in Conflict Resolution and Middle Eastern Studies, he focuses on Israeli and Middle Eastern societies and the conflicts that plague them. He blogs and writes at conflictedland.com and The Jerusalem Post.