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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June, 2010, Pages 40-42

Special Report

Mazin Qumsiyeh on the History and Practice Of Nonviolent Palestinian Resistance

By Jane Adas

Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh (l) and “American Radical” Norman Finkelstein. (Staff photos J. Adas)

AT 1:30 in the morning of March 2, shortly after Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh left for a speaking tour in the U.S., the Israeli army invaded his village of Beit Sahour, surrounded his house—terrorizing his family—and issued a warrant for his arrest because of his participation in nonviolent civil resistance against Israel's settlement activities encroaching the Bethlehem area. On March 10, although he was returning to Palestine that night to face possible arrest and detention, Qumsiyeh spoke to a small audience at Rutgers University, patiently answering questions for two and a half hours. He then invited the students who had come to defend Israel to join him for tea to continue the discussion.

Two years ago—after living in the United States for 29 years and becoming a U.S. citizen—Qumsiyeh left his position as a professor of genetics at Yale University and returned to Beit Sahour to teach at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities in Palestine. There he has continued his advocacy of human rights, and is now president of the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochment. Qumsiyeh told his Rutgers audience that, despite the fact that Israeli shelling has destroyed some 300 homes in the village, he is lucky Beit Sahour still stands—because 70 percent of the world's 10 to 11 million Palestinians have been displaced to make room for Israel. Beit Sahour is only six miles from the Old City of Jerusalem, yet Qumsiyeh is not allowed to go there, even with a U.S. passport. Israel's separation wall cannot be about "security," he insists, because there are Palestinians and Israelis on both sides. For instance, there is no wall between Qumsiyeh's home and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's house in Nakdim—which, like all Israeli settlements, is in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 446 of 1979 and the Geneva Conventions.

Qumsiyeh has just completed a book entitled Hope and Empowerment: A History of Popular Resistance in Palestine. In researching the book, he discovered that the first popular resistance against Zionist settlement was in 1880. There was no violent resistance at all until the 1920s, after British authorities took to shooting at unarmed demonstrators, something the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire had never done. Qumsiyeh thus concluded that the British taught violence to Palestinians. Even today Palestinian nonviolent resistance is ignored by Western media, which Qumsiyeh feels is a shame because it is a win-win way forward for everyone.

In response to a student's argument that there were few Palestinians in Palestine until the Zionists settled there and made the place attractive, Qumsiyeh noted that when Balfour made his declaration in 1917, the population density of Palestine was greater than it is in the U.S. today. Another demanded to know Qumsiyeh's solution—one or two states. He replied that he has no opinion on that. His peace plan is simple: implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He then pulled a well-worn copy of it from his pocket, saying, "This was, after all, written by a Jew."

"American Radical" Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein has not seen the documentary "American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein," and probably never will. This reporter saw it twice, at the New York Anthology Film Archives on Feb. 10 and at Alwan for the Arts on March 9. At both screenings, when Finkelstein walked in at the end of the film, he received spontaneous standing ovations.

In the film we learn that Finkelstein, the son of survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and Nazi concentration camps, took his fierce commitment to justice and alleviating human suffering from his mother, who opposed all violence and war. Explains a childhood friend now living in Israel: "His mother took the lessons of the Holocaust in a different direction than most of us." Finkelstein's first involvement in the Middle East came with Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when he demonstrated daily outside the Israeli Consulate in New York. In the mid-1980s, while studying the history of Zionism at Princeton University, he came across Joan Peters' best selling From Time Immemorial, a demographic study that concluded there were hardly any Palestinians in Palestine prior to Zionist settlement. Finkelstein worked up a critique exposing Peters' spurious scholarship and sent it to 15 people. Only Noam Chomsky responded, but Peters' thesis is now thoroughly discredited. Thus was born Finkelstein's personal, political, and scholarly commitment to justice for Palestinians.

This also led to Finkelstein's branding as a controversial extremist, which attracted the attention of documentary filmmakers David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier. They began filming for "American Radical" in 1998, accumulating 300 hours of footage. When asked why he agreed to participate, Finkelstein said his first thought was "what would Chomsky do?" and then concluded that any reservations would come across as vanity. To guard against that, Finkelstein said, he keeps in his mind's eye those who humble him, above all his close friend Musa Abu Hashhash, a Palestinian field researcher in the Hebron District for B'Tselem. Abu Hashhash spends his life investigating Israeli violence against Palestinians. He has frequently been jailed, and his wife and children are traumatized. Finkelstein describes him as "a great, great human being." The feeling is mutual, as Abu Hashhash describes on camera—but only to Rossier. When Finkelstein and Rossier traveled to Palestine to film Finkelstein with his Palestinian friends, Israel refused to allow him entry and banned him from returning for 10 years.

Finkelstein said he has changed the way he conducts himself over the 12 years of filming, chiefly because the Gaza assault has been a turning point. Therefore, he explained, he is careful in what he says and how he says it, because there is a mainstream audience out there ready to listen. Israelis, he asserted, think the problem with their deadly 2008-09 attack is that "Cast Lead" was a bad name for the operation; they have no concept that the world is appalled because what Israelis did in Gaza is appalling. We have, Finkelstein concluded, two mighty weapons: truth and justice. We only have to learn how to wield them properly.

Female Israeli Soldiers Break the Silence

Dana Golan of Breaking the Silence. (Staff photos J. Adas)

DANA Golan, now executive director of Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shtika in Hebrew), served in Hebron in 2001-02 with the education corps of the Border Guards. There she was tasked with helping the commander teach his soldiers values and purity of arms. The first lesson she learned was "don't squeal about the small stuff," such as soldiers' routine looting of Palestinian shops and homes. When she tried to report the thefts to her company commander, he shrugged it off with, "This is life in Hebron."

On Feb. 19 at New York University's Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, Golan led a discussion entitled "Breaking the Silence: Female Veterans of the Israeli Occupation Forces Speak Out." In 2004 six Israeli combat soldiers, troubled by what they had experienced while serving in Hebron, pooled their personal photographs for an exhibition in Tel Aviv and then in Jerusalem. Thousands saw the exhibit. Most visitors found the photos shocking and hard to believe, but those who had served in the territories identified strongly with them. The six then used their discharge money to establish Breaking the Silence with the purpose of creating a public discourse to prod Israelis to ask themselves, "Do we really want our kids to do what we have done?" Although all Israelis, except for Palestinian citizens and some Orthodox Jews, are required to join the military, Golan explained that fewer than 10 percent of them serve in the occupied territories. The rest have no idea what occupation feels like in real life.

The organization so far has collected testimonies from 650 male veterans and, for the first time, 50 women, including Golan. All had served in the occupied territories and were from different units stationed in different places. The only common thread, Golan said, is they feel that "things are going wrong." She described her first night in Hebron when, walking on the street in her uniform, she felt so strong, even without a weapon. When she saw elderly Palestinians detained for hours, she felt that Israeli lives are more valuable than theirs.

The turning point came when she was allowed to go on a weapons search, she recalled. With soldiers and secret service personnel, she entered a Palestinian home at 2 a.m. in the Palestinian sector of Hebron. For everybody else—including the Palestinian family—it was routine. The Palestinians gathered silently while the soldiers trashed the house looking for weapons. Golan naively asked, "Will we help them clean up?" With the Palestinian mother watching her, Golan for the first time felt ashamed to wear her uniform. She thought how she would feel if people entered her house in the middle of the night, humiliated her father, and walked around the house as if it were theirs. Golan described it as a "shaking moment"—one she did not talk about for two and a half years.

In response to a comment from the audience that the occupation makes victims of soldiers, too, Golan agreed that the occupation is damaging Israeli society, "eating it from the inside," but cautioned against the Israeli tendency to view themselves as victims, which therefore justifies anything. It is the Palestinians, she insisted, who are the victims.

Robert Pastor on the U.S., Hamas, and Middle East Peace

Prof. Robert Pastor. (Staff photos J. Adas)

The first principle of conflict resolution—and one U.S. policy has failed to observe—Prof. Robert Pastor told his audience at Columbia University's Middle East Institute on March 1, is to talk to both sides. When we only look at them from afar and interpret events according to prejudices, he elaborated, we can miss much. Once when the professor of international relations at American University and senior adviser to the Carter Center was observing elections in the south of Lebanon, he asked his female translator why Hezbollah was so popular. Her answer would startle most Americans who rely on the mainstream media: "because they stand more for human rights than any other group, and because Hezbollah college types are hotter."

Pastor himself is not guilty of violating that first principle; he has talked to all sides. In the Israeli towns of Sderot and Ashkelon, for example, he saw how traumatic for residents the rockets fired from Gaza are, even if they rarely hit anything. In Gaza last July, when Israel allowed him in for the first time after nixing four previous requests, he understood what it is like to be in a prison, he said.

Pastor has met with Hamas leaders in Damascus for the past 15 years. Most of them, he noted, have advanced degrees, are not fanatic, and send their children to secular schools. They have agreed to accept a final status arrangement, whether one or two states, so long as it is approved by a majority of the Palestinian population—even if Hamas is not in agreement with it. Senior Hamas leader Khaled Meshal told Pastor that Hamas is pragmatic and would use nonviolence if it would work. Pastor pointed out that Hamas had already stopped using suicide bombers in 2005 and was able to stop the rockets into southern Israel during the cease-fire which preceded Israel's "Operation Cast Lead." When Pastor asked about the Hamas Charter, Meshal replied that it is a piece of history and no longer relevant, but cannot be changed for internal reasons.

Pastor surmised that those who quote the charter rather than more recent Hamas statements use it as an excuse to ignore Hamas. This seems to be the approach of the Quartet (the U.S., EU, U.N. and Russia) in dealing with Hamas, as evidenced by its setting pre-conditions—recognize Israel, renounce violence, abide by previous agreements—in full knowledge, according to Pastor, that Hamas could do none of the three. The international community, he added, has exacerbated the already deep Fatah/Hamas split, giving Israel the excuse of having no negotiating partner.

If Israel's aim is to crush Hamas, Proctor said, its strategy is not working. At the end of Cast Lead, Hamas re-asserted command and control in Gaza, and polls show its support rising in the West Bank. Hamas, he concluded, has real support and roots in society, and should therefore be dealt with seriously. Proctor was encouraged by "the dog that did not bark" when he spoke with Meshal after the assassination in Dubai of Hamas leader Mahmoud Mabhouh. Meshal did not mention retaliation. Instead he said, "Hamas is consulting with international lawyers."

Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.