Palestine peace activists speak

September 3, 2011
Palestinian kids protest in Ramallah, 2006.

Our Way to Fight
Michael Riordon
Pluto Press, 2011

“People safely outside the situation sometimes ask ‘Why don’t more Palestinians use non-violent protest?’ says Michael Riordon is his concluding chapter to Our Way To Fight.

“The question ignores the long history of Palestinian attempts to seek justice through non-violent means, and the equally long history of official Israeli violence in suppressing these attempts.”

One the one hand, this book is a valuable resource for anyone wanting to understand the myriad of ways in which some Palestinians and Israelis are trying to bring about a just and peaceful resolution to Israel’s 60-year military occupation of Palestine.

Through encounters with peace activists, Riordon presents a mosaic of non-violent practice.

This ranges from the Jenin refugee camp-based Freedom Theatre’s “cultural intifada” to the young “shministim” who refuse to serve in the Israeli army; from the economic justice of Palestinian fair trade organisations that sell olive oil in Europe and North America, to archaeologists and historians trying to oppose Judaeocentric versions of the past presented by Israeli state institutions or settler groups.

The interviews and accounts of Riordon’s travels with his subjects are beautifully presented.

Riordon, an oral historian, does not try to speak for his interviewees, but allows their individual tales to illustrate his key themes.

These include the route each person takes into activism, the toll it takes on them and the ever-present question of hope and despair.

This is a poignant thread that runs throughout the book. In a meeting with Israeli leftist Meir Margolit, Riordon notes: “On Meir’s desk I noticed the agenda for a conference that he ... will attend next week in Spain.

“What is the focus? ‘The same as usual’, he replies, ‘prospects for peace in the Middle East. We could do it in two minutes – no prospects. Thank you, goodbye.’”

But from Aed Yaghi, a doctor in Gaza, in a telephone interview interspersed with the “Hello? Can you hear me?” refrain of Gaza’s besieged telephone networks, we hear: “No I don’t [despair].

“We don’t have time, there is too much to be done.”

Riordon’s focus on his interviewees is a plus, allowing diverse political and personal views to reach the reader.

Despite the slightly naive feeling to the book’s first chapters, in which it feels like we may simply be accompanying Riordon on a whistle-stop trip round the “usual suspects” of West Bank solidarity tours, this breadth of experience and views allows for sensitive issues to be explored.

Discussion of “peace” initiatives is often dominated by uncritical accounts of groups that “bring together” Palestinians and Israelis for “dialogue”.

The discussion ignores the deep-seated power inequality between occupied and occupier, between those who forego life’s luxuries or career advancement for their beliefs, and those who may rot in jail or be killed for them.

Australia itself has seen these debates recently. “Soft Zionist” organisations brought a cross-community Israeli-Palestinian AFL team to Sydney in August ― a move branded “peace-washing” by local Palestine solidarity groups.

In contrast, a young Israeli activist from Anarchists Against the Wall tells Riordon: “We Israelis have got into the habit of feeling it’s natural for us to lead ...

“But the struggle for Palestinian liberation should be led by Palestinians, and Israelis in the resistance movement need to be conscious of this at every level.”

The skirting of discussions about power does, however, come through in the absence of any discussion of why we are talking about peace work.

The Israeli activists may have lived through the fear of suicide bombings and have been raised (as several describe) with a morbid fear of “Arabs” who want to “push the Jews into the sea”.

They may also have transcended those views, unlike many in their society.

But they are still citizens of a country which has one of the world’s most powerful military machines.

Peace work, for them, must necessarily entail challenging their own state’s armed might.

For the Palestinian interviewees, however, the right to armed resistance to occupation is one enshrined in international law.

More debate on the moral, tactical, strategic or personal reasons why Palestinians choose the route of “peace work” would have been welcomed.

There are other drawbacks to Riordon’s approach.

Individual interviews are a good way to present accessible information on a selection of issues, as represented by people whose daily life is spent tackling them, but it only allows for only limited context.

Given that much of the information is at a fairly introductory level, it might have made sense to give more historical depth.

For instance, Riordon’s brief mention of “the long history of Palestinian attempts to seek justice through non-violent means” could have been expanded.

If the intended reader is fairly new to the issues, perhaps it would be important to know that the First Intifada (launched in 1987) was a largely unarmed uprising. It consisted largely of strikes, protests and civil disobedience.

Maybe an interview with an activist involved in a key moment like Beit Sahour’s tax strike would have been illuminating?

This issue of the choice of interviewees is also a difficult one.

The volume begins and ends with Palestinian examples ― the Freedom Theatre and Project Hope to start with, and the international boycott campaign and “Friday demonstrations” against the Separation Wall at Bil’in at the end.

But most of the cases in between are Israeli organisations and activists (granted, a few of these are Palestinian citizens of Israel).

Perhaps for very valid security reasons, the interviews with Palestinians include less biographical detail than many of those with Israeli activists. This means there is less personal feel to our encounter with Palestine subjects.

The overall effect of this is that the book feels skewed towards the Israeli peace movement. This impression is reinforced by the personal and organisational links drawn between different Israeli activists.

This gives a sense that there is a coherent bloc of people working for “peace” from Israel, while the Palestinian image is much more fragmented.

Given the propensity of the Western media to portray Palestinian resistance as inherently violent, it is precisely this awareness, of Palestinian non-violent practice which needs emphasising.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.