Begin non-violent resistance, Mr Abbas

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 January, 2005, 12:00am

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is in a corner. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may have lifted the ban on further negotiations following the attack by Palestinian militants that killed six Israelis, but democratic legitimacy is obviously not, on its own, a strong enough tactic to win the ear of the militants, or the Israelis. Mr Abbas needs another string to his bow.

One is reminded of the argument of Martin Luther King Jnr when confronted by the outburst of black rage - the big city riots, the rise of black power and the birth of the gun-toting Black Panthers. Violence is not truly revolutionary, he used to argue, because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis that is followed by a sense of futility. It appears to be the case for Palestinians, as the intifada has clearly become counterproductive.

Chris Hedges, war correspondent of The New York Times, has made the case against violence better than anyone I know in his book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. 'War is an elixir', he writes, 'It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble ... [But] war is a drug. It is peddled by mythmakers.'

This is the conundrum that now confronts Mr Abbas. At least 20 per cent of his people think that violence is the antidote to lethargy. If they did not fight the Israelis, they would be convinced that their cause deserved to be defeated. In battle, they believe that they are living out their convictions right on the edge of the knife of life itself. If Mr Abbas thinks that he can lead by talk, he is mistaken. He is simply outflanked and out manoeuvred by the militants. He needs an alternative that would appeal to the energies of the militants and their desperate need to feel the juices and passion of resolve and sacrifice. Non-violence is connected in most people's minds with passivity and non-resistance. Yet if properly deployed and organised, it can be a very powerful weapon of defence and a very effective tool for rapid social change. We saw this last month with the impact of the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. We saw it with the power of the shipyard strikers in Poland, the trigger that led to the demise of Soviet communism.

Mr Abbas needs to give the young militants a focus for their energy. He needs to deploy them to surround Israeli patrols with unarmed crowds who, while refusing to move, also refuse to let the troops move. He needs to lead tens of thousands of strong young men and women armed only with pick axes to attempt to demolish the wall where it intrudes on Palestinian land, and to accept arrest rather than fight back. He needs to send thousands of people to occupy Israeli transit roads. And he needs to keep up these demonstrations, week after week, month after month.

If the Israeli army overreacts, the world will see the pictures. So, too, will the Israeli public. Israel is a democracy. It is a spiritual nation. Because of fear and because of historical experience, it has allowed its baser instincts too often to lead the way. But underneath there is another side - one that negotiated at Camp David and Taba, that produced the supreme court ruling on torture, that even today seeks justice rather than defeat for its opponent.

Mr Abbas both has to give his militants a cause and to appeal to these nobler Israeli ideals.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist