The Current Case for Palestinian Nonviolent Direct Action

by William J. Thomson, Ph.D.
01 January 2000
Based on widespread and lengthy interactions with parties on both sides of the conflict in Israel/Palestine, I am convinced that massive, confrontational, nonviolent direct action (NVDA) is the optimal, and perhaps the only method that will lead to a just and equitable resolution. This is an extraordinarily controversial view, within both the Palestinian and Israeli publics, because each side has been conditioned to believe that violence will ultimately lead to victory, despite almost a century of data disproving that belief. Particularly for the Palestinians, violence is a high-risk alternative. It stands a significant chance of providing a “justification” for even greater violence or possibly a population transfer by the Israeli government, and it is clear that the current government of Israel would be quite capable of such actions.

For many years, the Israeli government (perhaps fearing the power of NVDA) has taken extreme measures to make sure that such actions do not take widespread root among Palestinians, including recent deportations and refusal-of-entry of nonviolent activists. This, in itself, should capture the attention of Palestinian strategists.

What is nonviolent direct action?
Gene Sharp, perhaps the best-known current NVDA theorist, describes NVDA as a technique for applying power in a conflict without the use of physical violence. It produces change in three possible ways: 1) by conversion, in which an opponent comes around to positively accepting the point of view of the actionists; 2) by accommodation, in which an opponent chooses to grant demands without changing their viewpoint; and 3) by nonviolent coercion, in which change is achieved against the opponent's will and without his agreement, as when the sources of the opponent’s power are so undercut by NVDA that he no longer has control. Central to each of these approaches, however, is the concept of NVDA as an active and confrontational force, or as Gandhi put it, "Nonviolence is the greatest and most active force in the world. One cannot be passively nonviolent."

What are the advantages of nonviolent direct action?
Sharp, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. have described several advantages of NVDA. First, NVDA works as a force for empowering people, and it contributes to the diffusion of power throughout society. The choice of violent or nonviolent action may also have significant effects on the type of leadership likely to arise in the movement, and to carry over into the post-struggle society. Violence tends to result in a more brutal, less democratic leadership than does NVDA. The opponent tends to be more limited in the means of repression that they may use against NVDA than against violent action, since it is very difficult (though not impossible) to use violence against someone who refuses to use violence in return. Individuals who are trained in violence expect, and are prepared for, a violent response.

Refusing to respond as expected changes the psychological "playing field" and creates conditions in which creative NVDA can prevail. Also, NVDA tends to win more sympathy and support, both within the camp of the opponent and with third parties. NVDA causes the violence of the opponent's repression to be exposed in the worst possible light, which in turn leads to shifts in opinion and consequent shifts in power relationships favorable to the nonviolent group. This concept is crucial, as I cannot see how the Palestinians can prevail without the weight of world opinion on their side. Also, violent confrontation sends a very strong psychological invitation to respond in kind. Finally, NVDA allows for a reasonable exit strategy. As Gandhi said, "We will win our freedom and our captors in the process."

What is the current status of nonviolent direct action in Palestine?
There are many strengths and advantages that Palestinians bring to this conflict. Palestinians are creative, ingenious and resourceful people, hardened by decades of oppression, and they are facing an adversary whose policies are fundamentally unjust and flawed, and whose only realistic option for maintaining injustice is the use of physical force (the "iron fist"). Israeli society is divided and open to persuasion by Palestinian NVDA. Most Israelis and American Jews have a core belief in humanity and justice that I believe could be brought to bear by Palestinians directly and actively seeking out suffering at the hands of the more militant Israeli elements. Certain groups in Palestinian society, both militant and otherwise, are well organized, courageous and disciplined, and with a commitment to NVDA could present a powerful counterpoint to violent Israeli actions. There is a rich history of NVDA within Palestine, and many Palestinians have wide experience in nonviolent strategy and tactics (e.g., the International Solidarity Movement, organized and led by Palestinians).

In a situation determined by violence, the party with greater violence at its disposal will prevail. That party is, of course, Israel. In a situation determined by nonviolence, the party with greater nonviolence at its disposal will prevail. NVDA can defeat violent force; history is filled with such examples. I would submit that NVDA is the best, and perhaps the only way in which the Palestinian people can achieve their destiny.

- William J. “Bill” Thomson, Ph.D. teaches clinical psychology and nonviolence/violence at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He has also been an anti-war and nonviolence activist since the Vietnam War era.
- This article is part of a series of views on “Nonviolence” published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
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Other articles in this edition

Abu Mazen, the Policy of Betting on Rationality by Hazem Saghiyeh
Internal Palestinian Dialogue: The Non-Violence Strategy by Tawfiq Abu Bakr
One story of nonviolence by Mubarak Awad
Non violence in the Islamic context by Mohammed Abu-Nimer
Ordinary Palestinians Fight for Their Freedom by Lucy Nusseibeh
The Time Has Come for the Mandela Alternative by Samir Rantisi
Nonviolence and art: Life emerging from the rubble by Mohammad Daraghmeh