New Heroes for Old

In the mid-1980s, Birzeit University instructor Lucy Nusseibeh did something highly unconventional: She invited Mubarak Awad, a proponent of nonviolent struggle against the Israeli occupation, to speak at her West Bank institution. The invitation roiled both students and faculty, as Nusseibeh’s husband, Palestinian philosopher-aristocrat Sari Nusseibeh, told me years later: “At the time, to put forward the image of yourself as a nonviolent person was not kosher . . . in the Palestinian community. You had to put yourself forward as a guy with a gun, with ten guns hanging around your waist and shoulders . . . or keep silent.”

While devouring news from Tunis and Tahrir Square, I recalled that conversation. I was watching not only the demise of dictators but perhaps also a decisive cultural change: the triumph of a new image of the Arab hero over the old one. There’s no official announcement of a shift in myths, no election results or inauguration. One can only be sure after time passes. But if the nonviolent revolutionary has indeed taken the place of the failed fida’i, the guerrilla, as the avatar of Arab courage, the impact could be immense—in the Palestinian-Israeli arena, as well as in the rest of the Middle East.

Awad was a protégé of Gene Sharp, the American strategist of nonviolence who would inspire the Egyptian organizers of this winter’s revolution. Awad published an Arabic edition of Sharp’s handbook of tactics and added a few of his own, such as planting trees on Palestinian-owned land to prevent Israeli settlement on it. In 1988, Israel deported him to the United States. This was an overreaction. Despite some revisionist accounts of his career and influence, Awad had gained limited traction among Palestinians. The first Palestinian intifada, which broke out a few months before his expulsion, included tactics such as tax strikes. But its heroes were “the children of the stones,” who hurled rocks and sometimes Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops. The uprising gave birth to Hamas as an Islamicist group promoting “armed struggle”—and to a wave of internecine murders of Palestinians suspected of collaboration with Israel.

A barrier created by history blocked Sharp and Awad’s message. The Nakba—the “catastrophe” of 1948—was the overwhelming event of Palestinian memory. It left Palestinians homeless, powerless, and voiceless. As Palestinian scholar Yezid Sayigh recounts in Armed Struggle and the Search for State (1998), his monumental history of the Palestinian national movement, from the 1960s onward, the “resistance movements” gave Palestinians a political voice and a surrogate for a state. Their models were anticolonial movements elsewhere, especially Algeria. The central group, Fatah, cribbed ideology from Frantz Fanon, the Algerian revolutionary who anointed “absolute violence” as the only means of liberation. “Armed struggle” was inspiring as a slogan, blood-soaked as a reality, and, in the long run, ineffectual at liberating Palestinian territory. Yet especially after the defeat of Arab armies in 1967, the Palestinian fida’i was a trans- Arab hero.

In recent years, Palestinians activists trying to resuscitate nonviolent resistance have wrestled with that legacy. I once listened to Awad disciple Nafez Assaily lecture in a West Bank town. The Israeli army, he said, “is well trained to confront armed people, not unarmed people.” Yet Assaily stressed he was not condemning the use of arms in principle. Afterward, he explained, “If I say I am against armed struggle, it means I am not a good Palestinian.” Similarly, the West Bank village of Bil’in has gained renown for weekly protests against the Israeli security fence being constructed through local farmland. The organizers are committed to nonviolence but are unable to keep young protesters from using slingshots to spark clashes with Israeli troops.

Tahrir Square provides a new vision of defiance. Large numbers of unarmed people risking their lives together defeated the Mubarak regime. Sharp’s idea that nonviolence makes it more difficult for a repressive regime to clamp down on opposition reportedly provided the inspiration—and it worked. Moreover, the young Egyptian organizers created a new, Web-based movement rather than depending on old organizations. They used January 25, previously a commemoration of anticolonial struggle, as the start for a campaign against a national despot. Out went the guerrilla with his AK-47 and ossified slogans; in came the fearless citizen demanding democracy.

It’s too early to know how that might change Palestinian politics. The potential is great. Young people inspired by Egypt could work outside both Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement and Hamas, institutions bankrupt of achievements. Palestinian activists could mount a nonviolent challenge to Israel’s overall control of the West Bank and its settlement policy. And they could deny the right-wing Israeli government’s claims of legitimacy in pursuing a forceful crackdown on dissent in the West Bank or in claiming that a two-state solution threatens Israeli security. They could break the impasse. Anyone want to be a hero?

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967–1977 (Holt, 2007).