Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Israeli Activist Shot & Reflections on Nonviolence

I returned to Munira’s house in Mas’ha the day after Christmas for a large demonstration against the Wall. After a large meeting at the Mas’ha library to plan the action, we arrived at the Wall to find soldiers waiting on the other side of the wired fence that makes up part of the cage around Munira’s house. A group of Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals—all wearing signs in Hebrew so the soldiers couldn’t pick out the Palestinians—approached the fence and shook it with all their strength. A few began to cut the fence with wire-cutters. I remember the tremendous rattling and shaking, the looks on the faces of Munira’s children who came outside their house to watch, and the adrenalin rush among the demonstrators, fueled by the noise. For a few moments, the people had taken back control.

The soldiers were scared. Their fear did not surprise me—they are used to being in control. One soldier fired his gun at a dark-skinned young man, hitting him twice, in the knee and in the opposite thigh. The victim was Gil Na’amati, an Israeli recently released from the army. He is one of a number of ex-soldiers who find themselves on “the other side” of the Wall, having experienced the injustice and violence of the Occupation from the inside.

Gil was shot with live ammunition from a short distance while shaking the fence, and could easily have bled to death. At first, the doctors weren’t certain they could save his leg, but in the end they didn’t amputate it. He will be able to walk again, but not as he did before. I remember the way two Palestinians swept him swiftly off the ground and into their arms to rush him to the nearest ambulance after he was shot. I remember the long faces of the villagers after the incident; it was as if one of their own had been hurt.

Gil’s shooting also reminded me how much more attention Israeli victims receive than Palestinian victims do. The story is all over the news, all over the world. This is not the first time a demonstrator has been shot since I arrived in November, but it’s the first time friends and family in the United States and Europe are hearing about something I was involved in and writing with requests for more details. The event in Mas’ha lasted 10 minutes. What about the months of peaceful marches and olive harvesting that Palestinians have organized since I arrived? And what about the 75 Palestinians who have been killed by the army since I arrived in Palestine, many of them civilians killed with American-made weapons? Why haven’t my friends and family who paid for those weapons with their tax-dollars heard about those deaths? Most have heard about the nine Israelis killed by Palestinians during the same interval.[1]

The shooting has provoked other questions for me as well. The demonstrators’ actions in Mas’ha were direct and confrontational. But were they violent? The concept of “nonviolent action” turns out to be rather controversial. People around here define violence in many different ways, and I don’t know exactly where I stand. This work evokes many questions for me, each with more than one possible answer:

1. What is violence? Is it measured by the amount of force exerted by the agent (the person acting)? In that case, shaking the Wall is violent but putting up the Wall itself is not.
2. Is violence measured by the damage produced upon the object? In that case, shaking the Wall is nonviolent but the existence of the Wall is violent, because it produces so much suffering and hardship in the lives of those it encloses.
3. Does it matter if the object is alive or not? Can we simultaneously call ourselves nonviolent and condone the destruction of property?
4. Can violence be verbal or emotional? Is it violent when a soldier swears at a mother who won’t cooperate? Is illegitimate imprisonment violent? Is a young boy exercising violence when he yells angrily at a soldier to leave his land?
5. What about forceful self-defense—is that violent? And what qualifies as self-defense? Did the soldiers shoot Gil in self-defense? Were the protesters shaking the Wall in self-defense?

During my nonviolent direct action training with ISM, the most memorable activity was when we were asked to mentally divide the room into four quarters with the north-south axis representing violent-nonviolent respectively, and the east-west axis representing effective-ineffective. The trainers then called out scenarios and we were to respond by placing ourselves in the section of the room that we felt best corresponded to the extent to which the scenarios were or weren’t violent and effective. We were then asked to justify our placement and reflect upon differences in the room, of which there were many.

The diversity of the answers was incredible. One scenario was: “A peace activist pulls a violent settler off the Palestinian whom the settler is beating up.” I immediately went to nonviolent and effective, but a friend of mine went to violent-effective. His reasoning: “Physically forcing anyone to do or not do something against their will is violent.”

When suicide bombs came up, everyone agreed that they were violent but disagreed about whether or not they were effective at ending the Occupation. That surprised me, as did the response to the next scenario: “A young boy throws a rock at a tank.”

I thought it was a no-brainer: violent-ineffective. I saw a few friends at the opposite corner and assumed they were confused about the question, but they weren’t. One woman spoke for the group: “A child throwing a stone a tank is nonviolent because it cannot harm the tank or anyone in it. It is effective because it allows that child to express his anger at and opposition towards his oppressor in a clear, nonviolent way.”

It took me a long time to understand my friend’s answer. I had always seen stone-throwing as counterproductive because it’s futile in the face of a military armed with tanks and machine guns, and simply produces retaliatory violence from soldiers. Indeed, sometimes it seems like the soldiers are waiting for kids to throw stones so they can retaliate. There have been many cases of soldiers encouraging stone-throwing in order to have an excuse to single out and take action against the village “troublemakers.”

The words of my friend Luna helped me see stone-throwing from another perspective:

These kids are subjected to a level of suffering and humiliation that we can’t even begin to comprehend—every day, they wait in a line until the 19-year-old with the gun decides whether or not they can go to school, or get back home. Meanwhile, settler children of the same age are free to kick, punch, and sic dogs on the kids and their families. The psychological effects of such trauma are enormous. Some children are afraid to go to school. Many are chronic bedwetters.[3]

People always focus on ‘violence’—and violence is important—but from my experience living in Hebron, violence is not the worst thing. Think of a child, a very young child, who knows that his parents and siblings are never safe, and that none of them can keep him safe. Think of a two-year-old who shuffles his feet faster and lowers his head with fear at the sight of any settler. Think of a kid who watches his mother and father humiliated on a daily basis and can do nothing to protect them. Think about the shame, the feeling of powerlessness, the suppression of the normal, healthy instinct to fight back. These are the greatest crimes. Any day a Palestinian child dares to stand up to his oppressors is a small victory.

We cannot expect young and traumatized children to respond to violence with nonviolence. If throwing a stone symbolizes that kid taking back a morsal of control over his life, who are we to judge? They never throw stones up-close—that would be a death-wish. They throw them from afar. And they throw them because they’re tired of cowering or running away. Palestinians have every right to assert their anger and rejection of being treated as subhuman every day of their lives.

I’m not quite ready to embrace stone-throwing as productive, but I think Luna’s points are good ones. They force me to answer important questions. Many of us know what we don’t want Palestinians to do, but we are not nearly as clear about what we expect them to do.

So I ask you the questions I ask myself daily: What would you do if the walls were closing in on you? What would you do if your brother was dead, your father was in prison, and you couldn’t get a job or go to school? What would you do if your food sources were uprooted and people in neighboring settlements urinated and defecated in your water source? What would you do if working for change within the system failed you again and again? Would you bow down? Would you fight back? Would you kill yourself? Would you kill them? What would you do if you had nothing left? Remember, the walls are getting closer... What would you expect from yourself in that situation, and how does it compare with what you expect of the Palestinians today?

[1] Middle East Policy Council (December 31, 2004).

“Numbers do not include Palestinian suicide bombers (or other attackers) nor do they include Palestinians targeted for assassination, though bystanders killed during these assassinations are counted. However, [Israeli] soldiers killed during incursions into Palestinian lands are counted. Data collected from B’tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

[2] Dozens of Israeli veterans have come forward with stories of soldiers and entire units intentionally provoking Palestinian children to throw stones. One example of many can be found at

[3]Majority of Palestinian Children Suffer Chronic Psychiatric Disorders”, WAFA Palestine News Agency (June 5, 2007).


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to pick up on the dehumanization of the Palestinian Arabs in Western eyes.
This is a very real issue, cultural misunderstandings and a very bad media strategy lie at the heart of this matter.
What the PA and the Palestinian people need more then anything is to be viewed as fellow humans by Western peoples and nations, and it requires them to learn certain ways they should act and present themselves in front of camera's.
No person who has grown up with a Western culture understands the mass gatherings of Palestinian burials and the shouts of revenge often accompanying them.
Nobody understands a mother who is screaming in front of camera's after her son has been killed.They understand quiet , composed, but deep grieving..and the news media always picks up some poor Arab woman screaming bloody murder instead of waiting perhaps an hour for her to calm down.So people get this idea of Palestinian Arabs as some kind of..non-humans.Because they don't seem to have the same emotional response and way of expressing themselves.
Some Arab woman screaming is never going to come across right in front of a Western audience.
It makes them seem irrational,hateful a person who is more interested in getting revenge then that she feels the loss of her loved one.
It creates the "other" the "savage" the lesser human.
And no matter how many camera's you have in the occupied territories as long as this is what they register and it manages to get through the news media's filters it still has the cultural filter to content with.
Even something simple as the way Hamas or PLO officials present themselves gets in the way.
Because the Israeli's will show their leaders , sitting in a chair, with a flag behind them.While the PA officials will be interviewed in a chaotic fashion often with loads of rag tag body guards around them.
It makes them seem like thugs or criminals not legitimate politicians.
Someone over their needs to wake the Palestinians up and get them to enact a real and proper media strategy.

Anonymous said...

Great article! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for interesting article.

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