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University of Victoria scholar Michael Carpenter:
Palestinian popular struggle has its own logic and distinct impact
I’m personally interested to know, if you don’t mind, what motivated you to focus your academic efforts on the pains and struggles of the Palestinians.
Thank you for the question and for the opportunity to have this discussion.
Palestinian struggle motivates me. The resilience of the people, their remarkable kindness and celebration of life in the face of tremendous adversity and injustice, is inspiring. However, long before I experienced this firsthand, I was already intellectually attracted to the issue, going back to the 1990s, in my late teens and early 20s, when I became an avid (perhaps obsessive) consumer of political news.
I recognized then, thanks initially to public figures like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, that Israel/Palestine is the most important foreign affairs issue of our time. This is because the conflict is at the root of most of the political problems in the Middle East since 1948, from Iran to North Africa. The unresolved crisis for the Palestinian people, especially the refugees – or more accurately, the brutal and destructive Western-backed measures required to maintain Israel’s dominance in the face of that crisis – is at the root of most Middle Eastern oppression, extremism, and war (and even 9/11, at least indirectly).
While this claim seems overstated or even outlandish to many Westerners, it is factual and easily discovered and easily demonstrable. On the one hand, Middle Eastern governments that accepted Israel had to be propped up by Western arms and secret services, because the policy was deeply unpopular, including in Egypt, Jordan, Iran (before 1979), and the Gulf monarchies. This radicalized a lot of extremists. On the other hand, governments that did not make peace with Israel were targeted by the West with economic sanctions, bombing campaigns, covert operations, and regime-change wars, devastating societies and infrastructures across the region, including Lebanon, Iran (since 1979), Iraq, and Syria. This also radicalized a lot of extremists.
From my perspective, the Middle East crisis is one-sidedly unjust, and it has not been covered properly or honestly in the mainstream media or political discourse. Most Westerners are ignorant, and most of those who aren’t are marginal. As a knowing beneficiary of a society complicit in the suffering of the Palestinian people, I feel a responsibility to speak out.
However, my interest in this issue remained separate from my academic work until my PhD studies. After completing my MA in 2009, I had the privilege of living in the West Bank for a few months where I met some of the grassroots popular committees leading the rural struggle against Israel’s construction of a separation barrier on Palestinian land. I had also begun studying the history and theory of civil resistance, also known pragmatic or strategic nonviolent action, from Gandhi to the colour revolutions. I quickly realized that a Palestinian case study would make an instructive and valuable contribution to the research literature.
It was evident to me that Palestinian popular struggle defied standard categories of violent and nonviolent resistance. There is clearly a gray middle area, or rather a third way, that is neither pacifist nor militarized, with its own logic and distinct impact on political goals. Technically, youth throwing stones at military forces is not “nonviolent” (at least to most people’s common sense). Yet to label it “violent” is fundamentally misleading. So what is it? It defies characterization in standard terms. With the exception of stone throwing, which is rather pervasive and celebrated, Palestinian resistance has been overwhelmingly nonviolent, especially for almost 20 years and especially in the West Bank. The important point is that throwing stones does not function like militarized struggle. It is unarmed, non-lethal, and perhaps most importantly, relatively miniscule compared to the violence of the occupation. It is also primarily symbolic, meant to send a message and garner local and global attention rather than actually threaten the state or the occupation directly.
This observation opened the door to my doctoral work. I returned to the West Bank for three months in 2013-2014 to carry out the research, including participant observation, interviews, and surveys, and this became the basis of my dissertation and book.
In the introduction to your book, you said that “too often [Palestinians’] perspectives are neglected in Western media” or otherwise balanced with already established Israeli counter narratives. That seems to be a consistent issue, if not a calculated effort, in the media side of the conflict. I wonder if you have any insights into the reason of the issue: Why is it so?
Western media and political discourse do not cover Israel/Palestine properly for several reasons. First and foremost is many years of propaganda. The entire system elevates voices that do not ask questions about Western imperialism, especially its participation in injustice, and especially its unconditional support of Israel. Voice and figures that do raise such questions are generally discouraged and filtered out (though not always). Instead, voices that brook Western imperialism, or worse, advocate for it, tend to be elevated. Of course this can be overstated, but it happens enough to significantly shape the discourse. Another reason for Western neglect of Palestinian struggle is the painful fact that their oppressor is the one nation-state of the Jewish people. This is rightfully a sensitive issue in the West. Antisemitism persists and the shadow of the holocaust is long.
Western guilt can make it more complicated and morally challenging to engage publicly, or even privately with family and friends. A third reason is cultural distance. Muslims, and certainly Palestinians, have never had much representation in Western life, while the Jewish tradition is present, integrated, and for the most part, widely loved, and many in this community are Zionist (though many are not; many pro-justice activists in the West are Jews). Finally, and increasingly so, the West is in utter disarray. Who has time to cut through the noise?
You’ve observed that the Palestinian popular struggle is “non-militarized but not quite nonviolent,” as it includes “damaging oppressive structure” and, more particularly, “the relatively minor violence of youth throwing stones at occupation forces.” Is it correct to assume, then, that absolute pacifism is not a solution in their view? And if yes, why?
Yes. I’ve encountered very few Palestinians who advocate for pacifism. Most I met advocate for resistance strategies based on presumed efficacy.
Those who advocate for armed struggle do so because they believe it to be more effective. Those who advocate for unarmed struggle do so because they believe it to be more effective. The interest is in what works. Very few cite moral or principled motivations over pragmatic and strategic (or tactical) motivations. Even most of those Palestinians who promote perfectly nonviolent resistance (opposing even stone throwing), do so primarily because they think it will have the greatest political impact, not because they are primarily interested moral superiority in the conflict (which they already assume). Indeed, many Palestinian activists, including strictly nonviolent activists, told me they were not pacifists, not opposed to violence or war in principle, but for their case, believed that violence, especially guns and bombs, were counterproductive. This is why such a large number of respondents indicated that they believed both armed and unarmed resistance together would be most effective, because their outlook was more about pragmatism than principle or purity.
Whether or not armed struggle can be so casually and constructively mixed with unarmed struggle is another question. According to my research and the whole field of civil resistance studies, unarmed struggle, while not always effective, is more effective than armed struggle, and armed struggle has the tendency to backfire and erode support.
For most people, however, including Palestinians, this finding is counterintuitive. We are all raised on the basic assumption that armed force is the strongest form of political power, the final arbiter of conflict and the ultimate guarantor of peace. This assumption is wrong, according to the burgeoning field of civil resistance studies and my own research.
One might argue that the only case of victorious resistance against Israeli occupation was mounted by an armed group in Lebanon, and it might be reasonably expected to have at least some reverberations among Palestinians. In your investigation, did you come across any such resonances?
Yes. I also heard a lot about Gaza’s armed struggle causing the 2005 redeployment. On the other hand, I also heard about the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen inspiring a lot of activism. I also heard about the example of the Syrian Druze nonviolent uprising in the occupied Golan Heights in the early 1980s inspiring similar resistance in Palestine that same decade.
In fact, the closest Palestinians ever came to actually ending the Israeli occupation was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the First Intifada, when the whole population rose up in non-militarized – but not entirely nonviolent – popular struggle. As I document in my book, leaders on the ground almost entirely suppressed the armed struggle and elevated the stone throwing, and the effect was to dramatically advance the cause and changed world opinion. Though “violent” the Palestinians had clearly become the new “David” confronting the “Goliath” of the Israeli occupation with nothing but the stones on the ground (and a lot of nonviolent civil disobedience as well, of course). At the time, there was a widespread sense among experts and the political class that the occupation’s days were numbered and an independent Palestinian state was likely inevitable. Unfortunately, for many reasons, the Intifada was ultimately defeated. But, most importantly, it remains the most powerful and momentous Palestinian movement to date. Compare that to the Second Intifada of 2000, which was highly militarized and is widely recognized as disastrous for the Palestinian situation.
And a final question on a separate note. I took a look at your master thesis as well. There, in the context of the US-led war on terror, you rather convincingly tried to find a third way beyond constructed dichotomies (security vs. liberty) by empirically refuting the utilitarian claims of “lesser-evil approach” in violating the rights otherwise considered absolute in order to achieve some security goals, or in other words, you argued that the means supposedly justified by the ends actually fail to achieve those very ends used to justify them. In the context of Mideast conflict, Israelis more than often employ that very “lesser evil” rhetorical device to justify achieving their security goals at the expense of universally recognized rights of Palestinians. Do you think that the same framework you developed in your master thesis might be applicable to the Mideast conflict from Israel’s point of view, convincing them that they have not actually achieved “security” in the bigger picture of things?
Yes, I think so. As Hannah Arendt has observed, war and modern technologies of violence can always destroy and deter but cannot create power. Violence can be used to defend power, but only at great cost. And as you suggest, the same argument is evident in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, which has always been premised on the logic of the lesser evil. The generals and the spymasters never celebrated their Machiavellian dark arts or the suppression of Palestinian rights but rather viewed them as necessary evils in the pursuit of Israeli security. At first glance, this doctrine appears to have been quite effective in the case of Israel. But a closer examination refutes this appearance. The amount of resources required to continually fuel Israel’s military dominance is unprecedented. No country in history has received as much foreign military aid as Israel from the United States. And Israel’s military capacity must constantly expand, becoming ever more destructive. Increasingly, Israeli peace and security rests on regional war and chaos. Internally, the country has slid further and further into far-right nationalism. This is not a formula for success. Nor is it sustainable.
There is an alternative, if there is political will. The alternative is to abandon evils altogether. The alternative is to commit to international law, reconciliation, reparations, and democratization – because this approach is both moral and practical, principled and effective.
Interestingly and ironically, I think this argument about the fallacy of lesser evils also applies to some extent to resistance movements. Activists don’t want to take up the gun. Freedom fighters don’t want kill. But the violence it is often assumed (wrongly, I argue) to be a necessary and lesser evil in liberation struggles.
We have all been raised to assume that violence is the most powerful form of struggle, and the more violence, the more power. To some extent, we have all been seduced and indoctrinated by the mythology of war.
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