Tahrir Square in Palestine

You don't actually need Mahatma Gandhi's spiritual values, or even a Gandhi, to pull off a mostly nonviolent revolution. That's one lesson from the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for those Israelis and Westerners who have long asked, "Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?" Whether that implication will be applied in the West Bank -- and against whom -- remains an open question.

I examined the question of why the Palestinians had not produced a Gandhi in a long article published two years ago, originally written at the request of Atlantic Monthly editor James Bennett, whose curiosity grew out of his years as The New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem. The question was logical: The successes of Gandhi against the British in India and of Martin Luther King in the American civil-rights struggle suggest that nonviolence can be particularly effective against a regime that claims to be committed to liberal values but is actually behaving in a deeply oppressive way. Creative nonviolent tactics make the contradiction between declared values and actual oppression too glaring to ignore or sustain.

If that's true, Israel's continued rule over the West Bank and its blockade of the Gaza Strip should be a perfect target for nonviolence. On the other hand, the Palestinian use of so-called armed struggle -- often a euphemism for terror against civilians -- has provided legitimacy within Israel, and to a lesser extent abroad, for Israel's use of force to suppress opposition and for Israeli resistance to a two-state solution.

But history is a tricky teacher; it's possible to learn too much from it. Based on the examples of Gandhi and King, it appeared that a nonviolent strategy required a charismatic leader teaching spiritual dedication to nonviolence. In Egypt and Tunisia, that's not what happened. The revolutions were secular, and nonviolent protest was a means, not an essential belief. Towering leaders were absent. Yet regimes that hardly claimed to be liberal came undone. Can that lesson be applied in the West Bank?

Some pro-Palestinian writers have a reflexive answer whenever the question of nonviolence is raised: They say Palestinians have already tried that strategy or are using it now. This answer is a mix of fact and wishful thinking. In the 1980s, an American-educated Palestinian activist named Mubarak Awad promoted nonviolent protest in the West Bank. Awad had met with Gene Sharp, the American theorist whose ideas have reportedly played a major role in the recent Arab uprisings, and he distributed Sharp's catalog of tactics in Arabic. In 1988, Awad was deported to the United States after having aroused more anxiety among Israeli authorities than backing among Palestinians. As a variety of Palestinian activists and scholars told me, Awad hit a psychological barrier: Palestinians had adopted violent struggle as an element of their identity in order to overcome their sense of victimhood and political voicelessness.

Much more recently, small Palestinian villages such as Bilin and Budrus have tried to stop construction of the Israeli security fence through their fields by facing off, unarmed, with Israeli troops. But the ritualized Friday marches have become media background noise, and support hasn't spread from the small farming villages to major Palestinian towns.

Until a few weeks ago, it seems, nonviolent protest was still considered neither practical nor heroic. Cairo's Tahrir Square, however, gave birth to an entirely new kind of Arab hero, one who confronts the entrenched regime armed only with courage, and who organizes through Facebook rather than through the tired movements of the past. From Morocco to Bahrain, nothing is the same.

There have been attempts to adapt this model and organize protests in Gaza and Ramallah -- not villages, but the centers of Palestinian life -- through Facebook. Palestinian and foreign media reported on a group called Thawrat al-Karameh (Dignified Revolution) that called for demonstrations in Gaza after Friday prayers two weeks ago. Its demand was reconciliation between the Islamicist Hamas rulers in Gaza and the pro-Western Fatah government in the West Bank. The Friday passed with no crowds reported in Gaza's streets. Last week, a thousand demonstrators with the same demand gathered in Ramallah, but the important news from Gaza was silence.

That unimpressive start reveals a major problem for Palestinians trying to emulate Egyptians: Power has been sliced up. It's not clear whom to target. The Hamas regime took over Gaza in 2007 by force; it silences opposition and prevents a unified front in seeking independence. In the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad remain in power even though Abbas' term ran out either in 2009 or 2010, depending on which law you check. Abbas and Fayyad have gotten armed gangs off the streets and claim to be preparing to declare independence later this year -- but in the meantime are seen as lackeys of Israel, which still maintains overall control of the West Bank.

If a fresh movement does focus its attention on Israel, the difference between Cairo and Ramallah hints at a danger: In Egypt, the army was apparently unwilling to crush the revolt because the soldiers were drawn from the same population as the protesters.

Obviously, the Israeli military and Palestinian protesters have no shared identity. Besides that, a growing part of the officer corps comes from the religious right, replacing the more dovish secular elite that once dominated the army. Two decades ago, during the first Palestinian uprising, the Israeli army faced objections to using too much force within its ranks. Such qualms might be less likely today.

Yet a strategy of determinedly nonviolent mass protest might be the missing key to a two-state solution. Abbas himself rejected the armed uprising that began in 2000 as an abject disaster for the Palestinians. His platform was independence through diplomacy. But he counted on European -- and especially American -- backing to give the Palestinians muscle in negotiating with Israel. The American veto last week of a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements is just the latest sign that his strategy isn't working.

And Israel is still living a contradiction: a parliamentary democracy maintaining a thoroughly undemocratic occupation. If a new generation of Palestinian activists adopts a strategy of nonviolence, they stand a chance of convincing a majority of the Israeli public that the status quo can't continue. Forswearing arms and demanding a two-state solution would show the anxious Israeli center that Palestinian independence does not threaten Israel's existence. A new strategy could work. A Gandhi isn't needed.

You may also like