Israel, Palestine, and Terror

(This is content is a bit tangential to secularism issue, but it is not entirely unrelated, so I hope I’ll be forgiven for posting it here.)

Prof. Jerry Cohen’s chapter from my book Israel, Palestine, and Terror is available on-line here. I think it’s one of the strongest pieces in the book. My own contribution (three thousand words) is pasted in below.

Terror in Palestine: A Non-Violent Alternative?

Stephen Law

In this volume, the philosophers Ted Honderich and Tomis Kapitan argue that Palestinians have a moral right to use terrorism. Honderich’s and Kapitan’s arguments differ. For example, Honderich’s is rooted in his Principle of Humanity, while Kapitan develops a justification within something like the framework of ‘just war theory’. Nevertheless, both arguments conclude that Palestinian terrorism has been justified in at least some instances. And both rest on a key premise: that the Palestinians have had available to them no viable alternative to the use of terrorism. Honderich writes:

that the Palestinians’ only means to a viable state has been and may still be terrorism is something about which I myself have no doubt. Evidently it is a factual proposition in need of support. There is enough in the history of Palestine and Israel to lead me to think that the disinterested people who say the Palestinians had and have an alternative to terrorism are less moved by history and fact than by abhorrence for terrorism. The feeling cannot settle the question (Honderich 2008, xx).

Kapitan argues that non-violent methods are unlikely to end the existential threat he believes the Palestinian community faces. He says,

[t]he Palestinians have repeatedly used techniques of non-violence in combating the Israeli occupation… and have sought and received the help of like-minded Israelis, but to no avail. (Kapitan 2008, xx)

Here I raise a question mark over this denial that there is an effective, non-violent alternative to terror open to the Palestinian people.

What is non-violent resistance?

Most non-violent resistance falls under one of three broad headings:

Acts of protest and persuasion. These include vigils, public meetings, marches and demonstrations. Protesters may wear badges, put up posters, place flowers in guns.

Non-cooperation. Citizens may refuse to cooperate socially, politically and economically. They may boycott sporting events, refuse to pay taxes or carry identity cards. They may refuse to work, or, if they are in the armed forces, to fight.

No-violent intervention. This includes actions designed to frustrate the activities and institutions deemed to be unjust. They include sit-ins, occupations and blockades.

These are just a few illustrations. There is a huge range of non-violent techniques protestors can apply. For those interested, Gene Sharp, an academic and leading advocate of non-violence, has listed one hundred and ninety-eight non-violent techniques. (The list is available at

How does no-violent resistance work? There are two main mechanisms. First, non-violent resistance can frustrate the activities and institutions of the oppressor, making it difficult or even impossible for that oppression to continue.

Some proponents of non-violence, such as Sharp (1980), take as their starting point the idea that the political power of a state is derived from its subjects. If a people refuse to obey, its leaders are rendered powerless.

Certainly, massive, non-violent action can make a people ungovernable. When an incredulous British Brigadier asked Gandhi whether he expected the British simply to ‘walk out’ of India, Gandhi replied,

In the end, you will walk out. For you will come to realize that 100,000 British cannot control 500 million Indians if they choose not to obey.

There was, indeed, an inevitability about the success of India’s non-violent struggle. However, when those engaged in non-violent resistance form a less overwhelming majority, success is no longer guaranteed.

A second way in which non-violence can be effective is by changing attitudes. It can raise awareness and highlight injustice. It can also harness the power of shame.

Even when non-violent protest fails to shift the views of the oppressor, it may still succeed in persuading a wider audience that the protestor’s cause is just and that it should be supported. As a result of non-violent action by an oppressed people, international pressure may be brought to bear on their behalf.

Non-violence can work

Non-violence can work. We know that Gandhi and his followers succeeded in releasing India from the grip of the British by wholly non-violent means, and that Martin Luther King’s advocacy of non-violent protest was pivotal in establishing greater justice for black people in the U.S. Non-violence has been used with effect around the world, including in the former Eastern Bloc, in South Africa, and in the Philippines, where ‘people power’ toppled the Marcos dictatorship.

Indeed, proponents of non-violence suggest the world has been shaped far more by non-violent action than most of us imagine. The non-violence proponent Walter Wink claims that

In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,000,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations … If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in our century (the Philippines, South Africa … the independence movement in India …) the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn’t work in the ‘real’ world.

Still, even if Wink is correct about the impressive track record of non-violent methods, there’s little doubt that such techniques can and do fail. The non-violent resistance of the Tibetans to Chinese occupation was met with devastating brutality, as were the non-violent protests in Tiananmen Square.

Factors impacting on the effectiveness of non-violent action

Common sense suggests factors likely to enhance the effectiveness of non-violent action include the following:

(1) Commitment on a massive scale. Where non-violent techniques are applied sporadically and half-heartedly, they are unlikely to succeed.
(2) A clearly stated aim. Widespread nonviolence is less likely to achieve an aim if that aim is amorphous. Actions that merely give protestors an opportunity to express their displeasure at the current situation are less likely to be effective than those that state, consistently and unambiguously, a desired alternative.
(3) Organization, strategy and leadership. Non-violent action undertaken on a massive scale may be more effective if governed by a consistent, overarching strategy to which all are committed. In addition, a charismatic and

inspiring figurehead can be a great asset to such a movement, particularly after it has inevitably experienced some initial frustration, when doubts about the non-violent strategy may otherwise begin to set in.
(4) A publicly avowed commitment to pursue exclusively non-violent methods. In the absence of such a commitment, the absence of violence may be viewed by the oppressor, and any wider audience, as a largely accidental, and perhaps temporary, feature of the struggle. An explicit, principled commitment to wholly non-violent means is likely to enhance the moral authority of protestors.

Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s movements strongly checked all four of these boxes.

Non-violence in the first intifada

Kapitan and Honderich maintain that the Palestinians have tried non-violent techniques and that they have largely failed.

Non-violence has certainly been tried. The first intifida began in 1987 as a spontaneous, grass roots uprising. It was triggered by an incident in which an Israeli trailer crashed into two Palestinian vans, killing four and injuring ten. There was suspicion among Palestinians that, far from being an accident, this was a deliberate, vengeful attack. At the funeral, hundreds demonstrated. Israeli soldiers shot another Palestinian youth dead. The intifada developed momentum, becoming a massive, popular uprising lasting until 1993. The first intifada was largely characterized by protest and civil disobedience, though there was some violence too (much of it non-lethal, e.g. throwing stones at tanks). Here I pick out three noteworthy episodes relating to non-violent action (my main source here is Holmes 1995).


Mubarrak Awad, a Christian Arab, born in Palestine and educated in the U.S., founded the Palestinian Centre for Non-Violence in Jerusalem in 1985. Awad advocated non-violent civil disobedience. His methods were embraced and recommended by the intifada leadership that emerged. Even before the intifada, the Israeli authorities perceived Awad to be a threat to their control of the occupied territories. As Holmes notes,

The Christian Science Monitor reported on 24 November 1987 that ‘Many Israelis concede that a Gandhi-style campaign by Palestinians in the occupied territories would have a devastating effect on Israel’s ability to control those areas.’ It quoted one Israeli as saying, ‘If the Palestinians all start doing what Awad proposes, the occupation will crumble in three days.’(Holmes 1995, 212-3)

Awad himself writes (with Kuttab):

The Israelis know how to fight against an armed antagonist, but have no understanding of how to deal with non-violent resistance. They expect, and need, the Palestinians to be either submissive or violent. A non-violent approach would neutralize much of Israel’s military might. (Kuttab and Awad)

After the beginning of the intifada, Israeli efforts to remove Awad intensified and he was deported in 1988.

Beit Sahour

The town of Beit Sahour, a small, largely Christian town of about 12,000, became an early symbol of early, non-violent resistance to the occupation. It began to organize itself so as to be less reliant on Israel. An agricultural committee was created and every home developed its own vegetable garden. As Holmes notes, (1995, 213) Jud Issac, a professor and former chairman of the biology department at Bethlehem University, was jailed without charge for five months for encouraging the planting of the gardens. These ‘intifada gardens’, and the boycotting of Israeli produce, was followed by the refusal of many inhabitants to pay taxes (intifada leaders had insisted ‘no taxation without representation’). The Israeli military imposed a curfew on the town, blocked food shipments, cut telephone lines and eventually seized property from 350 inhabitants to auction off in Tel Aviv. The inhabitants still refused to pay their taxes. The Israeli blockade was lifted after six weeks, shortly before 120 members of The American Friends of Beit Sahour were scheduled to arrive to show their solidarity. In 1990, the town was awarded the annual Danish Peace Foundation prize for its commitment to non-violent methods of resistance

The ship of return

In 1988 the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) organized a ‘ship of return’. A vessel was purchased to take 130 Palestinian leaders expelled by Israel, along with journalists, peace activists, jurists and politicians, from Cyprus to Israel. The ship never left Cyprus. It was mined while still in harbour. The three Palestinians who had organized this non-violent action were assassinated. While Israel denied responsibility, its transport minister warned that, were another ‘ship of return’ organized, it would meet the same fate.

Further examples

Palestinians, and supporters of the Palestinian people, have engaged, and continue to engage, in non-violent resistance on a daily basis. A few more examples will give a flavour.

Palestinians adopted, and operated in accordance with, their own time zone, one hour different from Israel’s. Palestinians reported that Israeli soldiers would ask them the time, and, if Palestinian time was given, would then smash the Palestinians’ watches.

Activists in the Grassroots International protection for the Palestinians People (GIPP) have, at their own expense, made visits to the occupied territories, planting olive trees, attending lectures and demonstrating. In Ramallah, an entirely peaceful demonstration involving thousands of Palestinians and 400 foreign GIPP delegates was fired on with tear gas, sound bombs, and rubber-coated steel bullets.

Other foreign activists have received still rougher treatment. In 2003, 23 year old Rachel Corrie, a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, was run over by an Israeli soldier and his commander in a nine ton Caterpillar bulldozer while she stood – unarmed, and highly visible in an orange fluorescent jacket – protecting the home of a Palestinian physician slated for demolition by the Israeli army.

We should remember, too, that the Palestinians have also received support from Jews both in and outside of Israel. After the beginning of the first intifada, thirty Israeli-based organizations protested against the violent repression of the uprising. There were public rallies and acts of civil disobedience by Jews in Israel. By June 1988 more than 500 Israeli military reservists had signed a petition refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

Given that non-violent action has always been part and parcel of Palestinian resistance, given this non-violent resistance has often been dealt with brutally (as illustrated above), and given that no viable Palestinian state has been forthcoming, are we justified in concluding that non-violent methods are unlikely to achieve that aim?

Some reasons why non-violence may have failed, but might still work

I’m not sure we are justified. After all, both Honderich and Kapitan believe violent methods – including terrorism – may well work. Yet violence has also repeatedly been tried, with little success (I don’t deny that, like non-violence, it has had some limited success). Given the rather poor track record of both violent and non-violent methods, why conclude that while non-violence is unlikely to work, violence probably will?

In fact, given what has already been said regarding the effectiveness of non-violent action, there are a number of possible explanations available for why non-violence has not worked up till now, but might yet work in future. Here a

re a few.

1. Violence

First, while Palestinians have engaged in a great deal of non-violent action, it has always been accompanied by violence. During the first intifada, while 1100 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers, 160 Israelis also died. Violence and sensational images of violence are typically of far more interest to news media than is non-violence. For this and other reasons, Palestinian violence has succeeded in largely obliterating from the minds of Americans – a key audience – any awareness of the non-violent action that has taken place. In the minds of many U.S. citizens, the word ‘intifada’ conjures up an image of a masked youth wielding a slingshot or Molotov cocktail, or more recently, wearing an explosive vest. Palestinian violence also allows Israel to view itself, and present itself to the outside world, as the victim, not the oppressor. As a result, Palestinian violence has neutralized much of the effectiveness of their non-violent action.

2. Lack of a consistent, clearly-stated aim

Second, Palestinian non-violent action has not been accompanied by an agreed, clear, consistently-stated aim or strategy. What, exactly, do the Palestinian people want? A state, yes. But on what territory, precisely? And under what conditions? In the absence of a clear and consistent answer, the answer ‘The destruction of the state of Israel’ is likely to be supplied for them (by both Arabs and Jews). At which point their cause is doomed.

3. Lack of organization and strategy

Third, while organizational structures have emerged, non-violent resistance is not nearly as well-organized as it might be. Awad and Kuttab believe that the lack of organization is at least in part down to a lack of sufficient commitment to non-violence on the Palestinian side:

There continues to be great interest in non-violence. What is lacking is an overall strategy and commitment to do it on a massive scale (Kuttab and Awad)

Moreover, those key, well-respected and charismatic Palestinian figureheads – the Palestinian Gandhis, if you like – who might have kept Palestinians on the non-violent path have been removed. Stephan writes that by 1990, Palestinian commitment to non-violent resistance was crumbling. Why? Because

Israel’s policy of arresting, detaining, and deporting… moderate Palestinian leaders effectively removed those Palestinians whose presence and leadership were needed to maintain nonviolent discipline. (Stephan 2006, 69)

4. Lack of explicit commitment to non-violence

Fourth, Palestinians have rarely explicitly committed themselves to non-violent methods. As a result, to the extent that it is even noticed at all, non-violence is widely perceived to be a merely accidental feature of their resistance. This has further eroded its effectiveness.

So yes, non-violent action has not proved particularly effective in Palestine. But there are several plausible explanations why. Were a different approach adopted – an approach combining a total absence of violence, a massive, well-organized commitment to non-violent action, an explicit renunciation of violence, and a clear, consistently stated aim – it might, perhaps, prove more effective.


Let’s now return to the question: is there, and has there been, a non-violent alternative open to the Palestinians? I am not entirely confident I know the answer. I am fairly confident, however, that an affirmative answer has not yet been ruled out. It seems to me that, at the very least, one premise of Honderich’s and Kapitan’s arguments – that non-violent methods cannot, or are unlikely to, work here – requires more support (certainly, more support than they provide in their contributions to this volume).

But, to be fair to Honderich and Kapitan, perhaps we need to distinguish two questions. Here’s the first. If the Palestinian people were, collectively, to engage in such non-violent action, would they succeed?

I suspect the answer to this question is – quite possibly.

But a second question is also relevant. Perhaps Honderich and Kapitan might concede that such a wholly non-violent movement could well be effective, yet still consistently argue that the individual Palestinian may yet be justified in resorting to violence and terror.

Here’s that second question. How likely is it, now, that any such wholly non-violent mass movement could actually form, given the ever-worsening political situation, the growing levels of hatred, fear and distrust among Palestinians, the manner in which their non-violent protest has been received in the past, and so on?

Suppose the answer to this question is: very unlikely indeed. While such a mass-action might succeed, it’s utterly unrealistic to expect it ever to happen.

The suggestion, then, might be this: that an individual Palestinian might justifiably conclude that, given that the Palestinian people are collectively now highly unlikely ever to engage in such action, they, as an individual, are morally within their rights to join the ranks of the violent, violence now being the only viable and effective alternative.

The upshot of such an argument might even be the seemingly paradoxical conclusion that while the Palestinian people are not collectively justified in resorting to violence or even terror (there being a viable alternative open to them collectively), they are individually.

Whether this suggestion might be developed and made to work is not a question I’ll pursue here (though I very much have my doubts).


Holmes, R. (1995) ‘Non-Violence and the Intifada’. In Bove, L. and Kaplan L. (eds.) From The Eye of The Storm. Amsterdam – Atlanta: Rodopi. 209-222.

Honderich, T. (2008), ‘Terrorisms in Palestine’. This volume.

Kapitan, T. (2008), ‘Terror’. This volume.

Kuttab, J. and Awad, M. (undated) ‘Non-violent Resistance in Palestine: Pursuing Alternative Strategies’. Available at .

Sharp, G. (1980), Politics of Non-violent Action. Boston, Mass.: P. Sargent.

Stephan, M. (2006), ‘Fighting for Statehood: The Role of Civilian-Based Resistance in the East Timorese, Palestinian, and Kosovo Albanian Self-Determination Movements’. Forum vol 30:2. 57-79. Available at PDF/Fletcher_Forum_MStephan.pdf.