What if 25,000 Palestinians marched from Ramallah on the Qalandia checkpoint? What if the protest was coupled with others of similar size? Most importantly, what if thousands of Palestinians in East Jerusalem began marching on West Jerusalem?
Palestinian society seems to be a candidate for an Arab Spring-type protest. My point is not that it is about to happen; this post is more hypothetical (although, see this small example). Rather, the general conditions of a non-democratic regime, economic woes, and the lack of fulfillment of the central Palestinian political aim (statehood), seem as if they would be fertile ground for such a movement.
The initial Israeli reaction would likely be harsh, with tens if not hundreds of casualties. (The Israeli use of live fire in the May and June 2011 protests along its borders is instructive.) I don’t in any way to mean to minimize the death and injuries. But over time – and probably not that long a time – sustained protests could have two effects that would change the political dynamic.
First, they could increase external pressure on Israel to fundamentally address Palestinian self-determination. Democracies, including the United States, would support non-violent protest. It fits with their self-perception and free speech and assembly ethos.
Second, and more importantly, they could help Israelis realize that Palestinians want to find a workable resolution. In the same way that the second intifada and talk of the right of return convinced Israelis that Palestinians don’t accept Israel and want to destroy it, mass, peaceful protest also could teach a symbolic lesson, albeit a peaceful one.
The protests would have to be peaceful. No rock throwing despite its deep roots and symbolic power. Palestinians have used non-violence in the past (e.g. march, tax strike, BDS) but it has co-existed with things like throwing rocks and calling for the right of return. Because Israelis perceive that the exercise of the right of return would erase Israel’s Jewish identity, highlighting it induces fear in Israel, not conciliation. It is not violent as a tactic, but today in Israel it raises the same fears as older calls to militarily push the Jews into the sea.
Neither side believes the other is ready to negotiate a resolution. Such Palestinian protests could change the Israeli public’s mind, especially given the likely international reaction.
One could object to the post thus far in a few ways, but I am skeptical of all these objections:
1. Unlike the Arab countries like Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, the Palestinians face two entities, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, rather than a single governing regime. That is descriptively true but on the occupation, the Israelis hold the territorial cards and would be the primary focus of the protests.
2. The objective is different than other Arab protests. Palestinians need territorial change not regime change. That is an accurate description of the difference, but I do not see why it precludes an attempt. Is a decision about territorial change somehow immune to popular pressure?
3. Palestinians have already used peaceful protests. This is true to an extent and in a way that is often underappreciated. But they have also made headlines with jaw-dropping violence. More to the point, a rock is not non-violent. We have not seen a societal decision for mass, non-violent protest.
4. The outcome of the Arab Spring is not impressive. A few dictators have fallen but no society has yet emerged as a liberal democracy responsive to the will of the people. I agree this approach is not a magic solution. But given that the menu of options is limited and many other tactics have not helped achieve Palestinian statehood, why not try it now?