Taking a page from the history of Indian independence, a group of Palestinian nationalists has begun to apply Mohandas K. Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent, passive resistance to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Concluding that the armed struggle of the Palestine Liberation Organization has failed much in the same way as the Indian mutinies failed in the 19th century British Raj, the Palestinian activists are trying to marshal a campaign of civil disobedience based on Gandhi's teachings. They hope one day to fill Israeli jails with their followers and congeal world public opinion against the occupation, much as Gandhi did in the 1940s.
The differences between British colonialism in India and Israeli occupation of the West Bank are great, the Arab movement's leaders concede. But they believe that the Gandhian concept is so powerful that it will at least prick the collective conscience of Israeli society more than any other protest in the past 18 years.
"The Israelis don't know how to handle people who are nonviolent. I think we can convince them by saying, 'Look,we are not going to hurt you, but these are our rights,' " said Mubarak Awad, director of the newly formed Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence.
Awad, a 42-year-old psychological counselor who studied at a Mennonite college in the United States, traveled through India for six weeks last April, meeting with leading Gandhians and seeking advice on how the Mahatma's teachings could be applied to Palestinian nationalism.
Since then, the center has been translating scholarly books on Gandhi's concept of Satyagraha, or nonviolent passive resistance, into Arabic and Hebrew and distributing paperback copies in the West Bank and Israel.
"There are almost no books about nonviolence available here, and the Middle East is the most violent place on earth," said Awad, a Jerusalem-born Christian who studied at Bluffton College, in Bluffton, Ohio, and who has U.S. citizenship. Among the works the center has translated are Gene Sharp's "The Politics of Nonviolence" and a biography of Badshah Khan, the Indian Subcontinent's "nonviolent soldier of Islam."
So far, without gaining any significant public notice, the center has demonstrated peacefully against the Israeli expropriation of Arab land near Bethlehem, has organized an Arab boycott of Israeli-made goods, and has recruited Palestinians to visit houses they vacated in what is now Israel at the outset of the 1948 war of independence.
A group of the Gandhian center's supporters recently visited the Arab village of Qattana, where they peacefully protested the uprooting of 2,000 olive trees along the "no man's land" on the 1948 demarcation line northwest of Jerusalem.The day before, the group had replanted 400 trees at the site, but they, too, were removed by Israeli security authorities.
Of the demonstrations the center has sponsored, Awad said, "I tell the people, 'No throwing stones. No violent behavior of any kind. Even if the tanks come, don't run away, because you have truth on your side.' "
Awad said the group is planning other campaigns of passive resistance, including the refusal by Arab laborers to work in Jewish settlements or on Israeli construction projects, refusal to fill out government forms in Hebrew, refusal to pay Israeli taxes, and harassment activities such as physically blocking roads or laying prostrate before bulldozers at Israeli public works projects.
"We don't have a lot of people yet who are that much convinced, but slowly, slowly they will come to understand what we are trying to do. I really believe that Gandhiism can work. Not all of it, but I think it has a better chance than the military option," said Awad, who once was detained in an Israeli prison under suspicion of organizing a protest strike.
The nonviolence center, he said, is supported by U.S. Palestinians, including one Palestinian Quaker who is the principal sponsor. He did not name the donor.
"Palestinians here are so tired of having nothing to do for achieving their freedom. They don't want to throw bombs, but they want to do something. I am trying to offer them a revolution by nonviolence," said Awad.
He acknowledged, however, that Gandhi's revolutionary concept was applied against a colonial regime already tiring of its stewardship of the vast Indian Subcontinent, while many Israeli policy-makers are messianic in their biblical attachment to the West Bank and show no signs of tiring of the occupation.
Also, Awad conceded, the Arab and Indian cultures are vastly different.
For example, he said, when he tried to apply a Gandhian tactic by calling for wealthy Palestinian landowners to donate land to poor Arab farmers, there was no response. He said an Indian follower of Gandhi told him during a visit to Ahmedabad, where Gandhi taught at his ashram, that Arabs would not be able to make the necessary material sacrifices, adding, "You have everything but freedom, while we have freedom but nothing else."
Similarly, he noted, West Bank and East Jerusalem Arabs traditionally have failed to support calls for general strikes unless they have been issued by the Islamic mufti.
But, Awad said, there is precedent for nonviolent passive resistance by Arabs, such as the six-month strike by Palestinians in 1936 to protest British policies and the ongoing Arab economic boycott of Israel.