Israel’s Dilemma

Israel is stuck. For decades, it has used the same strategy to achieve its objectives and to rout all challengers: overwhelming force. When it meets violence with violence — even when it uses disproportionate force as in Beirut in 1982 and 2006 and Gaza in 2008 — Israel claims self-defense and usually manages to spin the facts its way. And, as it has not yet been held to account in any meaningful way, it has seen no reason to change its strategy.

But when it meets non-violence with violence, the strategy backfires. Israel is pitching the self-defense line to try to shield itself from criticism of its attack on the Freedom Flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza convoy — but it’s not working.

You cannot claim self-defense when you have decided to send a thousand or so well-armed forces to board boats in international waters — vessels that were carefully searched before the voyage to make sure there were no arms. Or when you have killed up to 20 civilians and injured 54 others, while suffering no deaths yourself. If the situation were not so tragic, Israel’s spinning would be the stuff of comedy.

The visible crushing of peaceful activists usually has a powerful effect on world public opinion and this time it has pushed governments to take action to hold Israel accountable in a way that armed force has not. This is perhaps the most important contribution that those brave humanitarians have made to the Palestinian quest for justice.

And things will continue to unravel for Israel because it only knows how to use force to try to get its way. Ironically, Israel’s overkill has made the use of force so costly for those who favor armed resistance that the stage has been left clear for those who believe it is more effective to use civil resistance against a vastly superior armed force. It should be noted that Palestinian civil resistance is not new although it has recently been “discovered” by the mainstream media.

The first Palestinian uprising (Intifada) of 1987-1991 was almost completely non-violent and imposed itself on the world consciousness, making a powerful case for Palestinian rights. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership did not know how to translate the power it generated into diplomatic gains. And that uprising was just one of a series of major acts of civil resistance stretching back a century.

Today, acts of peaceful resistance are underway throughout Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, and the rest of the world. And another outcome of Israel’s massacre on the Freedom Flotilla is that it will inexorably draw attention to the violent tactics Israel use to counter these non-violent acts.

For example, many Palestinians and their international supporters have lost their lives and been injured in protests against the illegal Wall Israel has been building in the occupied territory since 2002. The most recent victim was May 31: 21-year-old Emily Henochowicz, a student at New York’s Cooper Union, had her eye knocked out by one of the tear gas canisters Israel’s armed force routinely fire at unarmed demonstrators. She and a group of Palestinians and internationals were demonstrating in the occupied West Bank against Israel’s assault on the Flotilla. An Israeli tear gas canister killed the peaceful anti-Wall activist Bassem Abu Rahme in April 2009 as he demonstrated against his village Bil’in’s loss of 60% of its land to Israel’s Wall and settlements — and critically injured American citizen Tristan Anderson just a few weeks previously.

Israel’s international standing is also further eroded by the violence it is using against its own Palestinian citizens as they pursue their non-violent quest for equality, most recently in its draconian arrest of community leaders Ameer Makhoul and Omar Saeed. Having incarcerated both for weeks without access to legal counsel and subject to such torture as stress positions and sleep deprivation, Israel now claims to have evidence through both men’s “confessions” of collaboration with Israel’s enemies — confessions they have since retracted as obtained under duress.

Israel’s word against Ameer Makhoul’s? When it weighs the word of a known user of indiscriminate force and terror against that of a prominent civil society leader, the world will know whom to believe.

The real dilemma for Israel is that all of the force it brings to bear is aimed at achieving the unachievable: Keeping the territories it occupied in 1967, illegal under international law; privileging Jews over non-Jews within Israel, in violation of the United Nations Charter and international conventions; and denying Palestinian refugees their right of return. There are only two alternatives for Israel: to make its peace with justice and equality, or to experience growing and costly isolation.

NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.