Non-violent resistance: A Case study from the Occupied Palestinian Territories

By Sam Tomlin

‘The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it…’

‘I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ”We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”’ – Rev Dr. Martin Luther King

The history of non-violent resistance to oppression and injustice is a long one. As a Christian, the greatest expression of this, in my opinion, was of course Jesus himself, living under a brutal Roman occupation and speaking clearly of love for one’s enemy and the turning of the other cheek (which, as we will see, is not simply a passive resignation to oppression). There are surely many further examples long before Jesus’ time.

In recent times, Dr King, in the American civil rights movement, is perhaps the highest profile exponent of this philosophy or attitude, but there are almost endless examples of contemporary activists who peacefully risk their lives for justice and peace. His life and the quotes above, illustrate that there is a viable alternative, which not only exposes the myth of redemptive violence, but also seeks to win the oppressor back into relationship as a part of the justice for the wrong done.

In my recent visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (on an international observation tour) I saw many examples of creative, non-violent resistance to the injustice of the Israeli occupation where the scenes described by Dr King are a daily reality for thousands of Palestinians. This not only encouraged me about the validity and effectiveness of the approach, but also served to continue to challenge the popular (and ignorant) notion that ‘most Palestinians are terrorists’.

One of the first examples of this came at an ‘educational and environmental farm’ called the Tent of Nations, in the rural area just outside Bethlehem. The farm is set within a fence-gated entrance, to protect it from attacks by Israeli settlers living nearby – their settlements being  illegal under international law. As we approach, we are forced to leave our coach a few hundred yards away due to enormous boulders blocking the road, a frequent tactic of local settlers to restrict Palestinian movement between villages. Walking through the olive tree plantations (which are also often attacked and destroyed by settlers), we have time to explore the almost self-sustaining farm and education centre, in which the colourful graffiti prove that peace and love did not die at the end of the 60’s.

The Palestinian land-owner named Daher tells us, in an equally decorated cave cut into the rock, that the 100 acres have belonged to his family for decades. His grandfather bought the land in 1916, sleeping in the caves and working on the land by day. In 1991 the Israeli government declared the whole area to be ‘Israeli state land’ – despite Daher’s family having all the original land registration papers from the time of the Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli control of the West Bank. In 2005 the Israeli Supreme Court told the family they could begin to register their land with the Israeli authorities, a process which is still ongoing and has cost them around $150,000.

Boulders are often put in roads like this to restrict access to and from Palestinian villages

The family have applied for numerous extension permits (almost always granted to Israeli settlements) at a cost of $1,500 a pop, and each time the answer has been no. Two years ago, the authorities issued a demolition order. Daher was told that the buildings were built without a permit. When he asked what would happen to some of the Israeli settlements which were built in violation even of Israeli law, he was told it was none of his business. ‘Justice is difficult to get here, but we are a people who believe in justice, so we will keep fighting’, explains Daher resolutely but with a overwhelming air of gentleness.

As well as experiencing violent attempts to rid him of the land, Daher has been offered a blank cheque by the government with a free pass to almost any other country in the world (including the USA). Every time the answer has been: ‘The land is our mother, and our mother is not for sale!’

The farm is on a hill, surrounded by another five, each with a formidable Israeli settlement on top, commanding the majority of the natural resources, including water, vital for the farm. Daher’s family have always been Christian, and the words of Jesus are as pertinent today for Daher as when originally spoken: ‘Blessed are the peace-makers, not the peace-talkers’. Settler violence is a common occurrence; the water tank and olive trees (a holy tree for the Palestinians) are frequently attacked. (When 250 trees were destroyed 10 years ago, ‘European Jews for Just Peace in Palestine’ sponsored the Tent of Nations, enabling them to buy a further 250 trees to replant.)

The motto of the Tent of Nations is ‘We refuse to be enemies’, and spending time with Daher brings to life the inspirational history of non-violent resistance I have often read about but never really experienced. Non-violence, though, does not mean a passive turning of the other cheek. As one of my favourite theologians, Walter Wink, asserted, Jesus’ words ensure that when we are hit, we are to turn the cheek so we can still look at our oppressor in the eye so they can still see your humanity so it will be harder for them to hurt you. When someone sues you for your coat and drags you before the court, expose the sickness of their greed by giving them all the clothes off your back. Nothing will surprise and challenge oppression as much as this – a creative resolution not to be brought down to their level of violence.

This Wink calls the ‘third way’, which is neither submission nor assault, neither fight nor flight: ‘evil can be opposed without being mirrored… oppressors can be resisted without being emulated… enemies can be neutralised without being destroyed.’

It is this interpretation of Jesus’ words that Daher holds close to his heart. Through reconciliation (bringing international and local youth from various cultures together to break down barriers), work-camp (e.g. working on the farm), vocational training (training local youth in skills), women’s empowerment, and general education programmes, the family and those who work/volunteer there live out the values they hold deeply.

There is also an emphasis in learning by doing (the end has to be reflected in the means). ‘Refusing to be enemies means seeing the humanity in even your oppressor because we believe they were made in the image of God. With peace, we have to start with our own lives. What can we achieve with violence but more violence?’ Violence on any side is to be condemned, however unjust the situation.

It is of course difficult to measure success in such a context, at least in the hard sense of the word. But the fact that the family are still on the land, and many people (such as myself) have come to learn and be inspired, is surely a cause for celebration. Former settlers have also come to help with the work and to take a lead in the reconciliation process.

The cave in which Daher’s family used to sleep

Just before we leave, we are told that life is about to get even more difficult when the Israeli separation barrier will cut the Tent of Nations off from Bethlehem, on which it relies for resources. The response will be an ever greater show of peace, and another assertion that, ‘when we have the chance to meet other people as human beings, then reconciliation can start.’

Many will call the approach of Daher and the Tent of Nations hopeless idealism, especially when transposed from the realm of the personal to that of the state. There will always be situations that seem to provide a strong argument for the use of reactive violence: the current Syrian crisis might be a good example. The purpose of this article is not a full defence or even exploration of moral pacifism, especially at a national level. Nor is it a call to abandon the vital necessity of confronting the brutality of the Israeli occupation through political means. It is, however, to acknowledge a challenge from a Palestinian to see the humanity not only in those who oppress us, but also in those with whom we vehemently disagree, in religion, politics or any other walk of life. What would the world look like if became the norm as opposed to the exception? The first option, replacing the myth of redemptive violence?

The Tent of Nations is always keen to accept visitors either for a day or for longer to simply observe what is going on, learning about the history of the land or to help with the work in the various activities. Please see here for more information:

  1. Sarah said:

    fantastic article. Thank you for sharing your experience Sam. Very inspiring read.

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