The violence of non-violent protest

In Middle East on June 16, 2010 at 3:00 PM

When the six boats of the Freedom Flotilla set off from Turkey bound for Gaza’s shores their objective was clear, to lift Israel’s three-year long blockade of the Strip. Their modus operandi seemed to be to use whatever means necessary to get there or more to create the publicity required to increase public awareness and influence change. They were wholly successful in their latter objective.

But make no mistake, the violence that occurred on the Mavi Mara served the interests of these activists to no end. And no matter whose side you are on, if the violence was planned or not, if it was an Israeli raid on a ship filled with terrorists or if it was an Israeli attack on unarmed peace protesters there is no doubt that the bloody aftermath only and solely served the cause of the Gaza-bound flotilla. And due to the international uproar over protester deaths, Israel has been forced to change its stance on the blockade, with an easing of restrictions due to be voted on in Israel’s Parliament this week.

But it begs the question of the protesters of whether it was really worth it? Is it really worth activists dying in order to prove a point? That whilst they may have effected change through self-professed ‘martyrdom’, could not have the same result have been reached through continued non-violent protest and not through provocation? Would not have the protester’s message been stronger had they been carried off the Mavi Mara silent and peaceful, as with passengers on other boats in the flotilla?

Over the long weekend, I also saw a film at the Sydney Film FestivalBudrus. Budrus is the story of Palestinian activists in a small border town in the West Bank, Palestinian Territories who try to use non-violent protest to change the route of the Israeli separation barrier, which was to confiscate part of the the town’s land. Again the protesters start by using means of non-violent protest, civil disobedience and organized sabotage. But when change does not occur immediately, it is only when the protests start to get violent against the will of organizers, with stones thrown and tear gas and rubber bullets shot back in response, does the real progress occur. Resulting in the fence being re-routed to a more acceptable pathway closer to the Green Line.

What is most worrying is that violent protest seems to work. Violent protest gets people hurt and killed, which gets attention. Violent protest gets arm-chair activists involved. ‘How dare they’ to the ‘bad’ guy governments and ‘I want to be just like you’ to the ‘good guy’ protesters. How can we speak of peaceful outcomes of final status agreements, when all that works to get there is violence? On what basis can a peace agreement be forged, when there is blood on the ground? Instead of reconciliation we have revenge and recriminations.

I would argue, that instead of lifting up arms, stones and guns, the power of non-violent protest, is in its non-violence. Capitulating to meeting a well-equipped army with force will only get more protesters hurt and does absolutely nothing to advance peace talks. And whilst the activists of the Mavi Mara may have won this battle, they have done nothing to win the war. And the war is not picking a side and hoping they will beat out the other. The real war is getting these two parties to agree to disagree, to live as peaceful neighbors and not as combatants. Once the peace activists realize that peace is the actual objective, maybe then, and only then will their protests be worthwhile.


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