Wednesday, July 25

Pros and cons of Western Palestinian solidarity

Sympathetic Westerners should avoid insisting on their own solutions, 
and let Palestinians lead instead.
Some observers have ignored nonviolent Palestinian resistance tactics, including recent hunger strikes [Reuters]

The posture of solidarity with the struggle of "the other" is more complex than it might 
appear at first glance. It seems a simple act to join with others in opposing severe injustice 
and cruelty, especially when its reality is experienced and witnessed first-hand, as I have for
 several decades in relation to the Palestinian struggle.

I was initially led to understand the Palestinian (counter-) narrative by friends 
while still a law student in the late 1950s. But my engagement was more in the 
spirit of resisting what Noam Chomsky would later teach us to call "indoctrination
 in a liberal society", a matter of understanding how the supposedly objective 
media messes with our mind in key areas of policy sensitivity. None has turned
 out in the West, especially in North America, to be more menacingly
 stage-managed than the presentation of Palestinians and their struggle,
 which merge with sinister forms of racial and religious profiling under 
the labels of "the Arab mind" and "Muslim extremism". The intended contrast 
to be embedded in Western political consciousness is between the bloodthirsty 
Arab/Palestinian/Muslim and the Western custodian of morality and human rights.

Perhaps for very personal reasons, I had since childhood taken the side of the less 
privileged in whatever domain the issue presented itself, whether in sports or family life 
or in relation to race and sexual identity, and professionally, in foreign policy. Despite
 being white and attracted sexually only to women, I found myself deeply moved by 
the ordeal in democratic America of African Americans, gays, and later, members of 
indigenous communities. I have sustained these affinities despite a long career that 
involved swimming upstream in the enclaves of the privileged as a longtime member 
of the Princeton University faculty.

Bearing witness
"The witness of
 unwelcome truths
 should always 
exhibit a posture 
of humility, not making judgments about 
the tactics of struggle 
employed by those
 fighting against 
In recent years, partly by chance, most of these
 energies of solidarity have been associated with 
the Palestinian struggle, which, in my case, has 
involved bearing witness to abuses endured by the
 Palestinian people living under occupation or in
 varying forms of exile, especially in my role as 
UN Special Rapporteur.

This is an unpaid position, and affords me a much higher degree of independence 
than is enjoyed by normal UN career civil servants or diplomats serving a particular 
government. Many of these individuals work with great dedication and take on dangerous 
assignments, but are expected to conform to institutional discipline that is exercised in 
a deadly hierarchical manner that often links the UN to the grand strategy and 
geopolitical priorities of a West-centric world order. This structure itself seems more 
and more out of step with the rise of the non-West in the last several decades. Just
 days ago, the Indian representative at the UN called for a restructuring of the 
Security Council to get rid of its anachronistic cast of characters that overvalues
 the West and undervalues the rest.

Bearing witness involves being truthful and as factually accurate as possible, regardless
 of what sort of consensus is operative in the corridors of power. In a biased media and a
 political climate that is orchestrated from above, the objectivity of bearing witness will
 itself be challenged as "biased" or "one-sided" whenever it ventures onto prohibited terrain. 
In actuality, the purpose of bearing witness is to challenge bias, not to perpetuate it, but in
 our Orwellian media world, it is bias that is too often presented as balanced, 
and truth-witnessing that is either ignored or derided.

The witness of unwelcome truths should always exhibit a posture of humility, not
making judgments about the tactics of struggle employed by those fighting against 
oppression, and not supplying the solutions for those whose destinies are directly and 
daily affected by a deep political struggle. To do otherwise is to pretend to be the purveyor
 of greater wisdom and morality than those enduring victimisation. In the Palestine/Israel
 conflict it is up to the parties, the peoples themselves and their authentic representatives,
 to find the path to a sustainable and just peace, although it seems permissible for 
outsiders to delineate the distribution of rights that follow from an application of international 
law and to question whether the respective peoples are being legitimately represented.

An independent narrative
These comments reflect my reading of a passionate and provocative essay by Linah 
Alsaafin entitled "How obsession with 'non-violence' harms the Palestinian cause",
 which was published online in Electronic Intifada on July 11, 2012. The burden of her
 excellent article is the insistence that it is for the Palestinians, and only the Palestinians, 
to decide on the forms and nature of their resistance. She writes with high credibility as a
 recent graduate of Birzeit University who was born in Cardiff, Wales and lived in England 
and the United States, as well as Palestine.

She persuasively insists that for sympathetic observers and allies to worship at 
the altar of Palestinian non-violence is to cede to the West the authority to determine 
what are acceptable and unacceptable forms of Palestinian struggle. This is 
grotesquely hypocritical considering the degree to which Western militarism is 
violently unleashed around the planet to maintain structures of oppression and 
exploitation, more benignly described as "national interests". In effect, the 
culturally sanctioned political morality of the West is indicative of an opportunistically
 split personality: nonviolence for your struggle, violence for ours. Well-meaning 
liberals, by broadcasting such an insidious message, are not to be welcomed 
as true allies.
"In effect, Alsaafin is 
telling us that
 deferring to Western
 canons of struggle is
 currently dooming 
Palestinians to apathy 
and despair."

In this connection, I acknowledge my own carelessness in taking positive note of this shift in Palestinian tactics in the direction of nonviolent forms of resistance, being unwittingly paternalistic, if not complicit with an unhealthy "tyranny of the stranger". It is certainly not the case that Alsaafin is necessarily advocating Palestinian violence. Rather, she is contending that unless the Palestinians realise that they 
must mobilise their own masses to shape their own destiny, which leads
 her to lament because it is not yet happening, nothing will change, and the
 occupiers and oppressors will continue to dominate the Palestinian scene.
 In effect, Alsaafin is telling us that deferring to Western canons of struggle is 
currently dooming Palestinians to apathy and despair.

I find most of what Alsaafin has to say to be persuasive, illuminating, and instructive,
 although I feel she neglects to take note of the courage and mobilising impact of the 
prison hunger strikes that have ignited the imagination of many Palestinians in recent 
months. Also, to some extent, my highlighting of nonviolence was never intended as an
 input into the Palestinian discourse or as favourable commentary, but seeks to challenge
 and expose the untrustworthiness of Western liberals who have for years been lecturing 
the Palestinians to abandon violence for the sake of effectiveness, arguing that a supposedly 
democratic and morally sensitive society such as they allege exists in Israel would be 
responsive to a nonviolent challenge by the Palestinians, and this would in turn lead to 
a more reasonable and fair negotiating approach by the Israelis out of which a just peace 
could emerge.  

Western watchdogs
 Palestinian prisoner 
remains on hunger strike
As should have been understood by the harsh Israeli responses to both intifadas, Israel turns a blind eye to Palestinian nonviolence, or even does its best to provoke Palestinian violence in order to have some justification for its own. And the usually noisy liberal pontificators such as Thomas Friedman and
 Nicholas Kristof go into hiding whenever creative Palestinian resistance does use 
nonviolent tactics. These crown princes of liberal internationalism were both silent 
throughout the unfolding of the long hunger strikes. These were remarkable examples
 of nonviolent dedication that bear comparison with Gandhi’s challenges hurled at the
 British Empire or the later efforts of the IRA to awaken London to the horrors of prison 
conditions in Northern Ireland, and certainly were newsworthy.

At the same time, there are some universal values at stake that Alsaafin does not pause 
to acknowledge. Two of these truths are intertwined in bewildering complexity: no outsider
 has the moral authority or political legitimacy to tell those enduring severe oppression
 how to behave; no act of violence, whatever the motivation, that is directed against an
 innocent child or civilian bystander is morally acceptable or legally permissible, even if it seems politically useful. Terrorism is terrorism whether the acts are performed by the oppressor or the oppressed, and for humanity to move towards any kind of collective emancipation, such universal principles must be affirmed as valid, and respected by militants.

Also absent from the article is any effort to situate the Palestinian struggle in a historical 
and geographic context. There are tactical realities in some situations of conflict that may 
make those who act in solidarity a vital part of the struggle that participate on the basis
 of their own political calculus. The Vietnamese recognised the importance of an
 autonomous Western peace movement in weakening the will of the American political
 establishment to continue with the Vietnam War. The global anti-apartheid campaign 
turned the tide in South Africa, and allowed the internal forces led by the African
 National Congress to prevail in their long struggle against settler colonial rule and
 racism. We all need to remember that each struggle has its own originality that is 
historically, politically, and culturally conditioned, and the Palestinian struggle is no

As Alsaafin powerfully reminds those of us who attempt to act in solidarity, 
while she is addressing a related message to the Palestinians, it is for the 
Palestinians to exert leadership and find inspiration, and for the rest of us 
to step to one side. We must be humble for our sake as well as theirs. They
 must be assertive, and then our solidarity might make a welcome 
contribution rather than unintentionally administering a mild depressant.   

Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur 
on Palestinian human rights.

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