Nonviolent resistance in the Holy Land

Women in Black hold vigil in Jerusalem protesting Israeli occupation. Photo by Kelly Boyce.

By Kelly Boyce

JERUSALEM – On a recent sunny spring afternoon, Judy Blanc, 82, stood with several other elderly Israeli women, their white hair contrasting with their black t-shirts, at a busy Jerusalem intersection holding a large black banner that said, “End the Occupation” in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Blanc stood firmly next to the banner, a sweet but resolute smile on her face. Suddenly a car careened past, honking loudly and making an obscene gesture in Blanc’s direction.

“That’s nothing,” Blanc said with a little laugh. “Last week, a car went by, the driver wearing a kippah, and said ‘F— you!’” Despite the hassles from passing cars, Blanc and the others in her group, known as the Women in Black, hold vigil every Friday at the intersection, which is just a block from the residence of the Israeli Prime Minister. It is their own testament to nonviolent resistance as a way of ending Israeli occupation of Arab lands captured in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

In a region riddled with violence and an urge to settle the score as opposed to forgive and make peace, there are still many people and groups who advocate for nonviolence. Some, like the Women in Black, are based in Israel, while others, such as Holy Land Trust, a nonprofit organization committed to nonviolent principles, are based in the Palestinian territories.

Yet in the past two months, violence has occupied the headlines after a relatively peaceful lull of nearly three years: a Jewish family, the Fogel family, was murdered in the Israeli settlement of Itamar; rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel; a bus bombing in Jerusalem killed one person; Israeli air strikes killed Gaza workers. How, in this atmosphere of bloodshed and turbulence, do advocacy groups maintain their dedication to peaceful resistance?

These efforts at nonviolence have not been unique to Israel and Palestine. The whole region of the Middle East and northern Africa have recently witnessed what began as nonviolent democratic uprisings. Although protests in Syria and Libya have been met with violence, and both sides now are using violence, nonviolent protests were successful in forcing regime change in Tunisia and Egypt.

In Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, such nonviolent groups are often infused with religion. In Bethlehem, the Arab Educational Institute (AEI), affiliated with Pax Christi International, has many programs for youth and women that teach Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Respect for other religions is taught, especially among the youth, with many programs bringing Arab Muslim youths and Christian youths together. AEI’s co-founder and general director, Fuad Giacaman, describes the center’s focus on youth empowerment as a way to build future leaders. “A readiness to change, that’s how we look at leadership,” Giacaman said in an interview. As part of the center’s weekly discussions with young people, “we read them stories about forgiveness, peace building, conflict resolution,” he added. “Living in the Holy Land, it’s not a dialogue, it’s a dialogue of life.”

Sami Awad, a Christian and executive director of Holy Land Trust, also based in Bethlehem, approaches nonviolence on many different levels, including a pragmatic fashion. “Strategically, we cannot compete with the Israeli military,” Awad said when the Covering Religion group visited his offices in Israel. When he meets with leaders of Hamas and Fatah, he said he challenges them with this statement: “Convince me that violence will work.”

Further, Awad, a Christian, believes that empathy is part of nonviolent resistance as well. Recognizing that Jews, who are now Palestinian occupiers, have suffered centuries of persecution and most recently the Holocaust, Awad wants to take nonviolent resistance to an even higher level of active compassion. “How can Palestinians be the healing force to the Jews?” he suggested.

Awad argues that nonviolent resistance is the most effective form of resistance in the long run because both sides ultimately benefit. “Engaging in nonviolence liberates the oppressor and the oppressed from oppression,” Awad said.

Similarly, many others believe that ending the occupation is good for both Israel and Palestine. “The most problem is the occupation; people want freedom,” said Nidal Haj Afaneh, 40, a Muslim who lives in Jerusalem but is earning a degree in Business Administration at Tel Aviv University. “If Israel ended the occupation and there were two states, Israel would be more happy.”

Yahav Zohar, who works with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), said that his organization engages with Christian churches and Palestinians in nonviolent activities, including participating in the weekly Sheikh Jarrah protests, which protest settlement building in east Jerusalem. Zohar said a sustainable solution could take many forms, but “the ultimate goal is to end the occupation.”

Yet not everyone is convinced that nonviolent resistance can bring about tangible results, such as an end to occupation. Saleh Shokeh, a member of the Bethlehem municipal government who belongs to the Hamas party, told our group, “I refuse any kind of violence if we are living in peace, but we have the right to defend ourselves.” He also questioned the talks Fatah has been conducting with Israel. “They have been talking for 20 years and they are still talking,” Shokeh said.

Sami Yagmmer, a Muslim who sells pictures outside the gate of the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, said, “We need to live, the Christians, Arabs and Israelis, all together, no fighting,” but he felt the ongoing occupation was preventing such progress. “[Israel] want[s] to empty Jerusalem from the Arab Muslims,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any changes. Only when Jesus comes will there be peace.”

Others believe peace is possible, but will not take place immediately. Dr. Khaled Mzayen, 34, who was born as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon and currently works as a physician in Bahrain, believes that Palestinian violence is a response to the occupation, but that even if occupation ends, peace will still take time. “They should be patient, as for peace to be established, needs five years without action and reaction,” Mzayen said. “When Palestinian find a way to dream and to have hope in this life, the radicals will not have a way to their mind.”

The Rev. Jamal Khader, Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Bethlehem University, the only Catholic Christian university in the Holy Land, continues to advocate for nonviolent resistance. “We still believe in nonviolence; not all Palestinians are convinced that it may work,” he said. “It is not easy to convince the occupied to be nonviolent when he/she sees violence against him/her every day.” However, Khader believes that nonviolence is more powerful on a macro level. “In order for nonviolence to succeed, we need the solidarity of the world,” he said. “We have the example of South Africa.”

South Africa, in fact, helped inspire the Women in Black vigil. Black Sash was a movement of women in South Africa who demonstrated against apartheid, and Women in Black formed in Israel in 1988 motivated in part by Black Sash. The “Women in Black” in Jerusalem began their vigil to show their own desire for the end of Israel’s occupation over the Palestinian territories. This vigil led to the larger Women in Black model, which is today a global network uniting women to nonviolently stand against war and violence.

The 82-year-old Blanc has been a part of the Women in Black Jerusalem vigil since it first began 23 years ago. “It’s clear the violence that was taking place was a result of the fact that Israel was occupying the people,” Blanc said. These women are mostly elderly, having been keeping vigil for nearly a quarter of a century, and most are involved in other nonviolent resistance organizations.

Blanc still believes in nonviolent resistance. “About all I can say honestly is that I feel violence is a failure,” she said. But she eagerly points to “a new generation” in both Israeli and Palestinian society. She calls these youths “’anarchistic’ in the sense that they’re reinventing democracy for themselves.”

In the meantime, she and the other Women in Black continue their vigils every Friday, holding their signs and wearing their black t-shirts, serving as a visible reminder of the women’s desire for nonviolent resistance. “Jewish people in mourning don’t necessarily wear black, but it’s a symbol known around the world,” Blanc said. “We’re reminding people that we are in mourning for peace.”

Leave a Reply