OVER the past 64 years, Palestinians have tried armed struggle; we have tried negotiations; and we have tried peace conferences. Yet all we have seen is more Israeli settlements, more loss of lives and resources, and the emergence of a horrifying system of segregation.
Khader Adnan, a Palestinian held in an Israeli prison, pursued a different path. Despite his alleged affiliation with the militant group Islamic Jihad, he waged a peaceful hunger strike to shake loose the consciences of people in Israel and around the world. Mr. Adnan chose to go unfed for more than nine weeks and came close to death. He endured for 66 days before ending his hunger strike on Tuesday in exchange for an Israeli agreement to release him as early as April 17.
Mr. Adnan has certainly achieved an individual victory. But it was also a broader triumph – unifying Palestinians and highlighting the power of nonviolent protest. Indeed, all Palestinians who seek an independent state and an end to the Israeli occupation would be wise to avoid violence and embrace the example of peaceful resistance.
Mr. Adnan was not alone in his plight. More than 300 Palestinians are currently held in “administrative detention.” No charges have been brought against them; they must contend with secret evidence; and they do not get their day in military court.
Britain’s practices in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s were not so different from Israel’s today – and they elicited a similarly rebellious spirit from the subjugated population. In 1981, Bobby Sands, an imprisoned member of the Irish Republican Army, died 66 days after beginning a hunger strike to protest Britain’s treatment of political prisoners. Mr. Sands was elected to Parliament during his strike; nine other hunger strikers died before the end of 1981; and their cases drew worldwide attention to the plight of Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland.
Just as Margaret Thatcher, then the British prime minister, unsympathetically dismissed Mr. Sands as a “convicted criminal,” Israeli officials have accused Mr. Adnan of being an active member of Islamic Jihad. But if this is the case, Israel should prove it in court.
Mr. Adnan’s actions over the past nine weeks demonstrated that he was willing to give his life – nonviolently and selflessly – to advance Palestinian freedom. Others must now show similar courage.
What is needed is a Palestinian version of the Arab revolutions that have swept the region: a mass movement demanding freedom, dignity, a just peace, real democracy and the right to self-determination. We must take the initiative, practice self-reliance and pursue a form of nonviolent struggle that we can sustain without depending on others to make decisions for us or in our place.
In the last several years, Palestinians have organized peaceful protests against the concrete and wire “separation barrier” that pens us into what are best described as bantustans. We have sought to mobilize popular resistance to this wall by following in the nonviolent traditions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi – and we remain determined to sustain peaceful protest even when violently attacked.
Using these techniques, we have already succeeded in pressuring the Israeli government to reroute the wall in villages like Jayyous and Bilin and helped hundreds of Palestinians get their land back from settlers or the Israeli Army.
Our movement is not intended to delegitimize Israel, as the Israeli government claims. It is, instead, a movement to delegitimize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which we believe is the last surviving apartheid system in the world. It is a movement that could free Palestinians from nearly 45 years of occupation and Israelis from being part of the last colonial-settler system of our time.
I remember the days when some political leaders of the largest Palestinian political parties, Al Fatah and Hamas, laughed at our nonviolent struggle, which they saw as soft and ineffective. But the turning point came in the summer of 2008, when we managed to break the Israeli naval siege of Gaza with small boats. Suddenly, I saw great respect in the eyes of the same leaders who had doubted the power of nonviolence but finally recognized its potential.
The power of nonviolence is that it gives Palestinians of all ages and walks of life the tools to challenge those subjugating us. And thousands of peace activists from around the world have joined our movement. In demonstrations in East Jerusalem, Silwan and Hebron we are also being joined by a new and younger Israeli peace movement that categorically rejects Israeli occupation.
Unfortunately, continuing Israeli settlement activity could soon lead us to the point of no return. Indeed, if we do not soon achieve a genuinely independent Palestinian state, we will be forced to press instead for a single democratic state with equal rights and responsibilities for both Palestinians and Israelis.
We are not sure how long it will take before our nonviolent struggle achieves its goal. But we are sure of one thing: it will succeed, and Palestinians will one day be free.
*Mustafa Barghouthi, a doctor and member of the Palestinian Parliament, is secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.