Nonviolence in the Middle East: Obama’s Cairo Speech

Posted: June 8, 2009 in society
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I am not a terrorist

Obama, in his recent Cairo speech, called on the Palestinians to renounce armed struggle and instead embrace non-violence. Starhawk, a prominent voice in modern Wiccan spirituality, questions Obama’s credentials to make such call and lays bare the injustices and terror inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel. While I’m not sharing Starhawk’s overall rosy view of Obama, I feel she makes some good observations in this article.

By Starhawk

On Thursday, President Obama made his speech to the Arab world in Cairo, a speech that did what he does so well,  expressing contradictions and nuances in clear, simple poetic language that calls on everyone to be better than we are.  My first reaction, reading it, was “This speech makes us all safer, and does a better job of it than a thousand drone attacks or military forays.”  By so clearly expressing respect for Islam, and knowledge of its history and contributions, he drains extremist venom of its potency.

Obama also tackled head-on the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian problem:  Israel’s continued building of and support for illegal settlements.  I suspect many people are still unclear on the concept of ‘settlement’: the word creates an image of a stalwart, noble outpost in the wilderness.  In reality, settlements are more like gated suburbs plunked down in the midst of Palestinian territory, villages, farms and cities that have always been in Palestinian hands and that the Oslo agreements and the Road Map define as destined for a Palestinian state.

Settlements are created on land quite simply stolen—taken from Palestinian farmers and villagers with no compensation.  In order to protect the settlements, Israel maintains military control over vast reaches of the Palestinian territories, builds a separate set of roads Palestinians are banned from, that carve up an already tiny land base into miniscule islands, separated by a network of checkpoints that make daily life for ordinary Palestinians untenable.  Imagine if, in the U.S., everyone who lived in a suburb of Chicago or New York or San Francisco could only get into the center of the city by passing through a military checkpoint that might or might not be open each day, where lines might regularly back up for hours, where the soldiers might detain you on a whim or a breath of suspicion for hours or summarily place you in ‘administrative detention’ for months with no trial or appeal, where your land and home might be seized at any time by an occupying power.  And this is in the West Bank, where conditions are relatively good.  In Gaza, the Israeli’s have simply sealed the border, refused to allow in rebuilding supplies and many of the necessities of life, and turned the place into one giant, open-air prison.

It is in this context that Obama presses for a two-state solution. The positive alternative: one, democratic state in which all people have equal rights, regardless of religion, is so unacceptable to the current Israeli regime that they are attempting to make it illegal for anyone to suggest that Israel be anything but an explicitly Jewish state.  The less positive alternatives are simply genocide of one or another of the region’s peoples, a horrific outcome whether the ultimate victims are Palestinians or Israelis.

A two-state solution cannot succeed if Israel continues to eat away at Palestinian land.  It cannot succeed if the current settlements remain, with their network of exclusive roads, checkpoints and military control that make free movement impossible for Palestinians within their own territory.  Netanyahu has proclaimed his intention to continue building and expanding settlements.  If Obama’s speech signals a true commitment to reign him in, to use America’s enormous influence and power to constrain Israel’s destructive and ultimately self-destructive course, then we will have a slight hope of achieving some small measure of peace and justice in that region.

Obama also called on the Palestinians to renounce armed struggle and embrace nonviolence.  Now, I’m a passionate believer myself in nonviolence.  I share his assessment that a powerful, nonviolent movement could advance the cause of justice in a way that violence can never do.  However, there is something disingenuous about the man who is ordering troops into Afghanistan and drones to bomb Pakistan telling another people ‘Violence is a dead end.’  I credit Obama with a distaste for violence and a strong preference for diplomacy, and truly, I like the guy. I think he’s a great leader in a rotten time, and a brilliant man of real integrity.  But there’s no denying that, from the moment he took office, he’s had blood on his hands.  For the powerful to demand that the less powerful renounce violence, without making the same demands on themselves or on their allies, is simply to say: “I reserve the weapons of death for myself and my friends.”

I would have like Obama to urge nonviolence on all of us: Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians alike.  I would have liked him to at least acknowledge that
indeed, many Palestinians have chosen nonviolent means of struggle, that for years now, villages have resisted the confiscation of their land for Israel’s ‘security wall’ with peace camps, nonviolent demonstrations and civil resistance.  He might have also mentioned that some courageous Israeli supporters regularly cross the line to stand with them and share the risks, along with internationals from groups like the Christian Peacemaker Teams, the International Solidarity Movement, the International Women’s Peace Service and more.

On Friday, the day after Obama called on Palestinians to practice nonviolent means of struggle, the Israeli army fired on the weekly demonstration in Ni’ilin, a West Bank village protesting the wall.  Five people were shot with 22 caliber ammunition. Yousef Akil Srour, age 36, died from his wounds after being shot in the chest. Mohammed Mouslah Mousa, age 16, may be paralyzed.  Three others were wounded but will survive.  This is not an unusual response to the practice of nonviolence in Palestine—it is so common for Palestinians to lose their lives that it rarely even makes the news unless an international supporter is killed or wounded.

I’ve worked in that movement, I’ve trained Palestinians, Israelis and internationals in nonviolent resistance.  I’ve stood in those demonstrations.  There’s always a squirrely feeling in the pit of your stomach when you stand up against police and state power.  But when that power is unrestrained, when you know that live bullets may thud into your body, that attendance at the protest may cost you a limb or your brain functioning, your freedom or your life, well, let’s just say the squirrels run Nascar races in your gut and your knees literally shake.

That people do take that risk is a cause for wonder and celebration of the human spirit.  A few do so because they are Gandhi-like in their saintliness, but most are simply ordinary people who have come to believe that nonviolence is a more moral and a more effective means of struggle.   They take that risk because they have seen small successes and slight glimmers of hope.

Obama has the power to increase that hope—hope is his trademark, after all.

The civil rights struggle in the American South succeeded because the nonviolent resistance of Freedom Riders and marchers and sit-ins caught the attention of the world and outraged a larger public opinion. Laws were changed, and the pressure of the Federal government was brought to bear.

For nonviolent resistance to succeed in Palestine, it needs the United States to exert its influence to restrain Israel’s disproportionate response to protest and its military assaults on Palestinian populations, to stop its incursions into Palestinian Territory and to end the siege of Gaza. It needs the support of global outrage that cannot be silenced by shrill cries of ‘anti-semitism’ every time Israel’s policies are challenged.  Then we will also be able to silence the hoarse shouts of extremist propaganda, ground the rockets and still the hands of suicide bombers that menace Israel’s children, by bringing about a fair and just solution that can allow everyone in that region to live a life of dignity and freedom.   Ultimately, justice is the true counter to violence, for only on a foundation of justice can peace be built.


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