Palestinian women’s attitudes towards violent and nonviolent resistance

As demonstrated above, nonviolent resistance tends to attract greater numbers of diverse participants as a result of lower overall physical, moral, and informational barriers. Thus, nonviolent resistance actions in Palestine should theoretically attract higher numbers of women than violent resistance actions. However, in addition to appearing more accessible, in order to attract participants nonviolent resistance must also be regarded as effective and appropriate.

Overall, interviews demonstrated that women who participated in resistance actions possessed sophisticated understandings of violence and nonviolence that reflected a variety of strategic and principled considerations, rather than an explicitly expressed preference for one form of action over the other. This, again, demonstrates the reductionism of arguments that state that Palestinians do not distinguish between violence and nonviolence. While this may be true of some individuals, it is certainly not true of all, and neither does it adequately reflect the nature of these views. Various opinion polls signal the complexity of Palestinian attitudes on the issue. For example, a 2013 survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research found that 60 per cent of Palestinians supported nonviolent and unarmed resistance, and 35 per cent supported a return to an armed intifada™ These figures do not appear to change drastically when men and women are measured separately and when the question instead asks for the most effective means of ending occupation (with a poll conducted in 2014 showing 45 per cent of men selecting armed resistance compared with 39 per cent of women).107 However, a more distinct picture emerges when the categories of resistance are disaggregated. For example, Norman’s survey of attitudes among Palestinian youth, conducted in 2007, found that in terms of what was considered violent resistance, 55.5 per cent of respondents support stone throwing against Israeli soldiers and 66 per cent support armed resistance against Israeli soldiers; but much lower numbers supported rocket attacks on civilians in Israel (22.3 per cent) and suicide bomb attacks on civilians (19.3 per cent).108 Thus, stated support for violent or nonviolent resistance varies markedly between different actions and also depending on the target of the action.

These broad trends were replicated in my interviews. While a small number of women stated that they were categorically opposed to violent resistance (although it should be noted here that this categorisation excludes stone throwing, which, as flagged above, most interviewees did not consider violence), the majority of interviewees did not wish to rule out support for the use of certain forms of violence in certain circumstances and against certain targets. As one interviewee explained:

It’s hard to see your people being killed and still think that violence is wrong. It’s not easy to see your cousins and your friends killed in front of you by soldiers who are just doing that because they hate you without you doing anything. I don’t believe in killing civilians, but those soldiers who know exactly what they are doing and are just sitting there with their weapons and killing people, yeah I do believe that those people have to be killed.109

Aside from one interviewee who openly expressed support for suicide attacks on civilians within Israel, the majority of women interviewed held broadly similar views to the one quoted above, in that their support for violence was limited to military targets and predicated on the basis of the right to resist the far greater violence of occupation. As Norman notes, ‘the oft-cited Palestinian “preference” for violence is more accurately an affirmation of support for violence when used for self-defense or defense of one’s land’.110

Where interviewees demonstrated a higher degree of variation was on the question of which form of resistance was preferable from a strategic standpoint. While strategic effectiveness formed the most common basis upon which resistance actions were judged, a number of different conclusions emerged from it. One argument was that Israel acted with impunity and therefore would only change its policies and practices when made to feel directly threatened. This, some believed, was brought about more effectively by violent acts than nonviolent ones. Abeer, a young activist, stated,

The Israelis used to get very scared [by violent attacks], and when they got scared, they wouldn’t invade [the West Bank] very much. [...] But now they are not scared at all; the numbers of attacks have decreased a lot. They’re not afraid and they’re building and doing things. When we carry out these attacks, we cause them to be fearful and they don’t enter [the OPT] as much.111

Another interviewee, Yasmine, also believed that the failure of peace efforts validated the idea that a successful resistance campaign in Palestine would, by necessity, need to include violent aspects:

You said that there needs to be a revolution but that you don't want it to involve killing. How do you imagine it happening?

I want to tell you something. After a long long [history of] trying to have peace, after [a long history of] planning and trying to have some kind of peace, what is taken in violence comes back in violence. But I’m just saying that in Egypt and Syria it’s extreme. In Syria there are no people now. Most of the people have been killed. So I think that there will be violence in order to have a revolution. No peaceful revolution [will succeed] because no one will listen, that’s for sure. But, not violent to the extreme. Not where all the nation is killed. Not where people in their homes are taken and killed. As in, there is a limit.112

However, Jumana argued that the adage cited by Yasmine - i.e. ‘What was taken by force can only be restored by force’ (popularised by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser following the Six Day War in 1967) -was no longer a reasonable principle to invoke in the Palestinian case given the asymmetry of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly in the current period:

In the past I would have said that what has been taken by force will not come back except by force. But now with the whole situation in the region, I think Palestinians are much weaker. I prefer now to struggle through popular activism, through innovative kinds of struggle.113

Andaleeb, a popular resistance activist, followed a similar line of reasoning. While she had a strategic preference for popular resistance, she qualified that this preference pertained specifically to the current period, and was liable to change:

The things that worked in the ‘70s wouldn’t have worked in the First Intifada, and the things that worked in the First Intifada wouldn’t have worked in the Second Intifada. So every period has its own strategy, and we won’t succeed if we stick to the same strategy. We need to be innovative, so that Israel can’t predict what we’re going to do. When we stick to one path they’ll be able to think for us and will always stop us. It will be very easy for them to stop us. But if we keep adjusting and doing something different every once in a while, it’s possible that after this stage of popular resistance, after five or six years, that we’ll say, ‘Now this period requires armed struggle’ [...] However, [with that said], the current situation requires popular resistance, not armed struggle.114

Tahani, a former activist, echoed the above perspectives, but also affirmed the utility of distinguishing between violent and nonviolent actions:

Do you think it’s important at this stage to distinguish between violent or nonviolent forms of struggle?

I think it’s really important. Look at what happened in Syria because of violence and the armed revolution. It’s really bad. It’s destroyed everything. So we in Palestine can’t afford this armed struggle. I think it’s important that we don’t stop the struggle, but we have to use demonstrations, strikes, boycotts - we have to do all of this, not just on the Palestinian level, but also on the world level.115

Yet another viewpoint expressed by women who were interviewed was that no particular type of resistance was, by virtue of itself, superior to another. Rather, as a number of interviewees emphasised, the key issues for them were (a) whether actions were being undertaken on the popular level, (b) whether they were being undertaken in an organised and strategic manner, and (c) how legitimate (i.e. committed and authentic)116 they were. One woman, for example, argued, ‘I mean, honestly, I’m not totally against violent resistance, but I know that nowadays it’s not doing anything. [...] And the other problem is that even nonviolent resistance we’re not using well’.117 While another stated that the only viable form of Palestinian resistance was a movement ‘that comes from the people. The people are made up of many different groups and each person has their own mode of expression. That means we need to use every single form of resistance. I won’t tell you that it must be one way or another’.118 This view and the considerable flexibility demonstrated in the attitudes discussed indicate that preferences can shift in response to action frames that demonstrate the strategic efficacy and relevance of certain action repertoires. In other words, the women I interviewed did not appear to be ideologically attached to any one form of resistance, but instead seemed open to changing their preferences according to the situation and the perceived effectiveness of the action. Furthermore, the high degree of variation in women’s views indicated that no one action frame had yet proved particularly successful in winning their support.

The range of viewpoints described above again challenges the notion that Palestinians do not distinguish between violent and nonviolent forms of resistance. It also challenges the contention that ‘Palestinians who make use of the nonviolence/violence dichotomy are entrapped within the hegemonic discourse’.119 Such claims not only attempt to construct a simplistic sense of what ‘authentic’ Palestinian discourse is, they also fail to acknowledge Palestinian agency in negotiating the meaning of terms and the manner in which they are used. As noted, Palestinian women who referenced violence and nonviolence (explicitly or otherwise) frequently did so while (a) affirming the legitimacy of both forms of resistance against occupation and (b) rejecting the categorisation of stone throwing as violence. An additional example of this was provided by Mai, who explained why she saw other forms of resistance as potentially having more impact than ‘throwing stones at a wall’:

[...] that is why I want nonviolence. Because violence is ineffective. Or - I don't want to call it violence - this way of resistance isn’t effective. At the end of the day, I will lose.120 [emphasis added]

Thus, women were able to use these terms at the same time as they contested their hegemonic significations. This is not to deny the fact that violence and nonviolence are often (and in many cases rightly) viewed by Palestinians as loaded terms. Rather, it is to warn against the dangers of shutting down whole areas of discussion and debate within the study and practice of Palestinian resistance through their delegitimisation.

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