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Nonviolence: Direct Action for Peace

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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 demonstrationssome more dramatically executed than othersnonviolent 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 closureIsraeli 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.

An 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 organizationsthe Coalition of Women for a Just Peace, Rabbis for Human Rights, Gush Shalom, ICAHD, the Alternative Information Center, and Taayush. These actions included dismantling roadblocks and filling in trenchesboth devices used by the army to enforce the closure of Palestinian villagesand marching upon newly established settlement outposts.

Since May 2001, the International Solidarity Movementcomposed of a handful of activists, sometimes buttressed by visiting solidarity missions from Europe and the United Statesengaged 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Israeli 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.

Thus, 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.

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Originally 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 BTselem, 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 youre working against hunger, its might be simply giving someone a meal. If youre 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 doesnt 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, youve 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. (Martin Kelley)

 

 

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