The relative success of armed resistance to the Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip has led many people to believe that all other forms of resistance are futile. Some go so far as to believe that "real" resistance fighters work underground and avoid media coverage because they are too busy developing weapons and digging tunnels; one missile, they claim arrogantly, is worth more than thousands of words.
Such an approach is leading us towards a militaristic society. It has stopped creative aspects of the struggle intended to put pressure on the occupiers and frozen all efforts in a small box representing military preparations. This in turn has created a negative attitude amongst the people, since the very nature of underground armed struggle makes it an elitist activity conducted in secrecy. Being out of the public eye means being out of the public consciousness as people concentrate on their daily lives over and above the resistance struggle. When there is no ongoing military activity with the enemy, national concerns cease to be a priority for the general public.
From a moral point of view, the absence of open clashes with the Israelis and few presentations of the true nature of the struggle in the media have a negative impact on the psychology of the fighters as well. They lose sight of the struggle against injustice and start to feel that they are fighting for fighting's sake only. The great companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him), Khaled Ibn Al-Waleed (may Allah be pleased with him) noticed this psychological fact when he held the Qur'an and cried, saying: "We have been too busy with Jihad to read the Qur'an." The deep meaning of this is that militarism necessarily leads to a reduction of humanitarian concerns, and when we're talking about a just cause such as the Palestinians' we are not concerned with a professional fighter but rather a fighter who is first and foremost a human being.
Many may say that fighters are in no need of a moral boost and that they see all that is necessary to provoke them into action. However, daily reports about the Israelis' violations against Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinians they are holding prisoner, and the news of the killings and destruction, all become "the norm" over time. That is why action is essential to keep fighters on a high state of alert, so that they are strengthened in their conviction that they are fighting for a just cause against a brutal enemy involved in a colonial occupation project.
This moral dimension achieved by popular resistance is important in order for us to win our media battle at the international level, and to gain more supporters from all over the world who will in turn put pressure on decision-makers in their own countries. Limiting resistance to armed clashes alone makes people think that the confrontation is between two equal armies. In such a scenario, even if we win, it will be a military victory that has no humanitarian or moral dimension, and Israel will then have the right to use all the military power it has in order to "respond". A standalone military victory does not give moral legitimacy unless we can convince people that we have a moral cause and that we are facing a rogue state. Impressing upon the world that this is the case can only be achieved through cumulative popular resistance methods that use the media, popular, legal and economic means in order to tighten the grip on our enemy and score points for our cause.
Popular resistance has the advantage of being able to create more positivity in people because it gets larger groups involved and keeps the cause in the eye of the media. This not only annoys the Israelis but also demolishes the myth that they are fighting an existential war against a well-armed enemy. Israel has the power to face us on the battlefield and win, but it can't defeat the Palestinians on the moral level as the Israeli narrative is weak on legality and justice.
With sporadic fighting, a lot of time is wasted in between violent acts which popular resistance can fill. The militarisation of the conflict has changed the nature of the conflict; it has gone from being a daily intifada which drained the occupation authorities' stability, kept them on military alert and created an abnormal political, social and economic situation, to being a series of short, sharp escalations of violence. The lengthy periods of relative calm give the Israelis time to regroup and spend the time Judaising Jerusalem and building more illegal settlements. They also try to convince the world that this is the norm and thus encourage tourism.
In the meantime, the ongoing programme of creative public and media-friendly activities such as the weekly demonstrations at Bil'in and Ni'lin deprives Israel of the benefits of calm on the military front. It is pushed to go through a long and ultimately draining battle in which Palestinians have the upper hand as they are rooted in their land and continue to hold on to their rights, based on a stronger moral cause.
Armed resistance has certain restrictions of which popular resistance is free; the latter is not subject to truce agreements with the occupation, and since it is composed of decentralised activities, neither Israel nor the Egyptian mediator can hold a known Palestinian faction accountable, especially because any youth group can take the lead and be creative in this field. Firing one missile during periods of relative calm is enough to give the Israelis an excuse to close crossings and to bomb the Gaza Strip, but it will find it difficult to deal with popular resistance which does not constitute any crime or a violation according to prevailing humanitarian norms no matter what the political context is. It is difficult for Israel to justify the closure of crossings by peaceful demonstrations and activities, no matter how irritating those activities are. As for rumours claiming that peaceful demonstrations are calls for "free deaths", they actually benefit the occupation; the real aim behind shooting at protesters and causing injuries intentionally is to stifle Palestinian awareness of the importance of peaceful protest and nip the idea in the bud before it becomes strong and develops into a real threat. Had these methods not been bothersome, the Israelis wouldn't try to stop them.
My defence of popular resistance does not mean that I adopt fully the demonstrations that take place every Friday in the east of Gaza. I am not in favour of young people getting so close to the border fence and putting themselves in harm's way, because the aim – at this stage at least- is to strengthen these activities and to gather media attention and achieve well-known goals. Ultimately, we need to attract more local, regional and international support for the cause. My concerns are thus very different to those held by people who say that we should be passive until the next armed confrontation.
With all of its military might, including nuclear weapons, Israel knows that it is no substitute for the legitimacy afforded by international support. If that is understood by the side with military superiority, then what about those Palestinians who think that armed resistance is an adequate substitute for a popular struggle which mobilises humanitarian and legal solidarity?
The most that armed resistance can hope to achieve for Palestinians is some degree of deterrence, as well as some political gains. However, if we talk about a long term struggle that aims to achieve national goals, then this can only be won by an integrated process that includes grassroots, media, political and economic efforts. We are in more need than Israel to turn the media battle to our advantage and that cannot be done through military means alone; it needs a popular characteristic for our resistance against the occupation.
There is a simple image of the popular resistance which says that protesters face Israeli missiles and bullets with flowers; this has contributed to the apparent inability for such resistance to become truly popular among the general Palestinian population, but the real picture is bigger than this. The effect of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on the Israeli government is a case in point. It is popular and simple yet sophisticated and is a cause of real concern to the Israelis.
The struggle for freedom has to take place on many levels and success is not measured in the ability to shed blood. It is seen in the ability of the tactics used to create internal and international consciousness of the justness of the Palestinian cause. Armed resistance has a role, of course it does, but it has to be part of a package of resistance strategies which can work within Palestine and beyond in order to achieve the desired results.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.