Nonviolence: Direct Action for
Sporadic initiatives of nonviolent direct action** have marked the efforts by the Israeli peace movement to end the occupation for many years. In addition to the usual demonstrations—some more dramatically executed than others—nonviolent direct actions in the early years included hunger strikes, the planting of olive trees where forbidden, painting anti-occupation graffiti on tanks, blocking bulldozers that came to demolish homes, meeting illegally and publicly with members of the PLO, and conscientious objection to compulsory army service. However, with the exception of Yesh Gvul (Hebrew for “There is a limit!”) and its ongoing campaign to encourage soldiers to refuse to serve in the territories, nonviolent direct action was not a significant or regular element in the activity of the Israeli peace movement until this recent intifada.
Just prior to the “new” intifada, the first popular use of nonviolent direct action as an organizational strategy was adopted by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) as it mobilized activists to rebuild Palestinian homes that had been demolished, beginning with the Shawamre home in Anata in the summer of 1998. This project became the centerpiece of an international media campaign, as the Israeli army destroyed the house again and again after ICAHD activists rebuilt it. This ongoing struggle over the Shawamre home by Israelis in cooperation with Palestinian and international activists successfully drew international attention to the inhumanity of the Israeli government policy of razing Palestinian homes.
Nonviolent direct action became a central strategy of the Israeli peace movement during the recent intifada, and was initially launched by the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. This umbrella organization held its first direct action on 4 February 2001 opposite the Ministry of Defense in Tel-Aviv, with 300 women sitting or lying on the road to block entry to the ministry, in an attempt to “illustrate” to Israeli policymakers how it feels to be under closure—Israeli army tactics that prevent Palestinians from moving freely in the territories. The police forcibly dragged the women out of the street, arrested 17 of them, and held them overnight.
event three weeks later sponsored by the Coalition of Women and Gush Shalom
(Hebrew for “Peace Bloc”), in conjunction with the Palestinian Center for
Rapprochement, saw Israelis and Palestinians jointly break through the Bethlehem
checkpoint. This was a dramatic gesture of unity against occupation and won
considerable media attention. The weeks and months that followed were marked by
intensive acts of nonviolent resistance. These were often the joint efforts of
five Israeli peace organizations—the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace,
Rabbis for Human Rights, Gush Shalom, ICAHD, the Alternative Information Center,
and Ta‘ayush. These actions included dismantling roadblocks and filling in
trenches—both devices used by the army to enforce the closure of Palestinian
villages—and marching upon newly established settlement outposts.
May 2001, the International Solidarity Movement—composed of a handful of
activists, sometimes buttressed by visiting “solidarity missions” from
Europe and the United States—engaged in various acts of nonviolent resistance.
In one particularly dramatic action, two women activists (an Israeli and a
Palestinian) chained themselves to olive trees to prevent them from being razed
by army bulldozers. While these actions often did not draw media attention, they
were important for increasing the level of boldness and demonstrating to the
Israeli government the depth of commitment within the peace movement.
significant rise in nonviolent direct action among Israeli peace groups may be
related to two matters: the dramatic increase in violence in the territories,
heightening the desire of activists to respond dramatically, and also the lack
of public response by Peace Now, the large, mainstream peace organization. Peace
Now has also been unwilling to participate in actions that included civil
disobedience, thereby eliminating their participation in any of the nonviolent
actions described above, although their young activists have upon occasion
broken ranks with this ruling.
many efforts of nonviolent direct action, taken individually and collectively,
have infused a new dynamic into Israeli peace activism. The concept of
resistance has been added to the concept of protest, and the ante has been
upped. Meanwhile, activists continue to participate in traditional methods,
including rallies, petitions, newspaper ads, and fax campaigns.
and international media attention to these actions has been limited. The Israeli
authorities, however, have taken great interest in this work and closely monitor
these activities. The army frequently closes off areas in an attempt to prevent
nonviolent actions from being carried out. This often leads to last-minute
changes and more spontaneous actions.
in the absence of mass demonstrations of protest, the smaller peace
organizations have taken to more dramatic forms of protest, enduring personal
risk as a way to draw attention to the brutality of the oppression under
occupation. No one knows how long activists will be able to maintain the level
of intensity and exposure required by this work; there is already some
indication that the frequency has lessened. Nevertheless, these actions have set
a level of commitment and daring that raised the entire standard of peace
activism among Israelis. Activists have demonstrated the strength of their
convictions to the Israeli government and, perhaps most importantly, have made
the international community aware that there are Israeli citizens who utterly
reject the occupation.
published in CGNews, January 3, 2002.
Gila Svirsky is
a peace and human rights activist in Israel, and co-founder of the Coalition
of Women for a Just Peace. She has also been executive director of Bat
Shalom (the Israeli partner in Jerusalem Link) and chair of B’Tselem, two
leading Israeli human rights organizations.
** ‘Direct Action’ is a term which is often
misunderstood. It has the cachet of dramatic zealotry; yet, in essence, it
is often quieter and more powerful than this stereotype. To act directly is
to address the actual issue of your concern. If you’re working against
hunger, it’s might be simply giving someone a meal. If you’re working
against homelessness, it might be taking over an abandoned house and making
it livable. If you want to stop military spending, it might be refusing to
pay your income taxes. Direct action differs from symbolic protest action,
which is lobbying someone in authority to change their policies. An
advantage to direct action is that it doesn’t require the cooperation of
the authority to be effective. If they intervene to stop your action, you
have a dramatic story; if they ignore you, you’ve followed your conscience
and can continue following it further. Since the action in itself has a
direct effect, it has a power and strength. In practice, the most effective
actions are both direct and symbolic, providing a clear witness to your
beliefs. Direct action is only one form of engaging in social change.