The Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are in a pitiable state, thanks largely to their internal leaders and outside benefactors. They would be much better off without these leaders and benefactors; what the Palestinians really need is a King.
Or a Gandhi. Or a Mandela.
Almost as soon as a 72-hour cease-fire expired early Friday, dozens of rockets from Gaza fell on southern Israel - most harmlessly, though two Israelis were initially reported wounded. Within hours, a 10-year-old Palestinian boy in Gaza was dead, killed in an Israeli retaliatory strike that reportedly targeted a mosque. If true, that report is consistent with the pattern of Gaza militants using religious and civil facilities as cover for their weaponry.
That little boy was just the latest in a very long line of victims of the Palestinian “resistance,” which has harmed far more Palestinians than Israelis. It has been 66 years since the partition of Palestine created the state of Israel and a flood of displaced Arabs, and it has been 47 years since Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt during the Six-Day War. The last open conflict between Israel and a neighboring state was the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which was followed a few years later by a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Since then the battle with Israel has been waged not openly by governments, but by irregulars that claimed to speak for the Palestinian people, but which have always served as proxies for other regional actors - notably Iran, since its 1979 revolution. Whether they acted under the banner of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas, Islamic Jihad or various splinter groups (not to mention Lebanon-based Hezbollah), these “resistance” fighters have accomplished nothing useful for the Palestinians as a group, despite decades of violence. For themselves, however, they have built a resistance industry that employs thousands of relatives and cronies, labels and targets opponents as collaborators, and is prepared to suffer thousands of Palestinian deaths in order to grab one Israeli hostage who can be swapped to get fellow militants out of Israeli prisons.
Palestinian armed resistance is a political and practical dead end. Israel is not going to disappear, and there is no prospect that Palestinians can win their own state, or even just gain a better life for themselves, by force of arms. Palestinian rockets result in the deaths of far more Palestinians than Israelis. The foreign powers that supply and pay for those rockets know this, and while they pose as friends of the people living under Israeli rule, they enable this slaughter for their own cynical purposes.
If India had sought independence from Britain by guerrilla warfare, there is a good chance Indians would still lack their own government today. Instead, Mohandas K. Gandhi, known as Mahatma, organized a long campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. The British, exhausted by their struggle with the Nazis and lacking the moral grounds to enforce colonialism on the subcontinent, withdrew in 1947. This does not mean newly independent India was a peaceful place; sectarian violence raged, and Pakistan was carved out as a Muslim state to avoid minority status among India’s dominant Hindus. Gandhi himself was assassinated. But he was correct that the fastest way to Indian independence was to avoid violence.
The American civil rights movement succeeded, too, because Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders eschewed violence even when they were its victims. There were others who disagreed, but African-Americans rallied behind King, Medgar Evers and other leaders, some of whom became martyrs just as Gandhi had.
Nelson Mandela had a revolutionary past, and his African National Congress maintained an armed wing even during his long imprisonment on South Africa’s Robben Island. But the world did not rally to the anti-apartheid cause until it became a largely nonviolent protest movement, against which the Pretoria government’s claims of terrorism rang increasingly hollow (except for the terror that security forces themselves inflicted on protest leaders). Pressure on the white government built steadily through the 1970s and ‘80s, until Mandela’s release heralded the peaceful end of apartheid.
Armed resistance against an overwhelmingly superior occupying force may be valiant and heroic, but it is seldom successful. The Hungarians learned this in their uprising against the Soviets in 1956. It is true that armed struggles do sometimes succeed, as in Vietnam from the 1940s through the ‘70s, or in Cuba’s revolution in 1959. But do most Palestinians really want to fight for decades, only to live under the sorts of governments that took power in Hanoi and Havana?
Or would they choose - if given the choice - the sort of leadership we saw in the 1970s and ‘80s from Lech Walesa, who led the shipyard strike in Gdansk, Poland, that set in motion the events that brought down the Iron Curtain? Or Vaclav Havel, whose membership in the Charter 77 human rights group also contributed to that end, and led him peacefully to the presidency of Czechoslovakia?
In the face of Palestinian violence, the Israelis have pretty much a free hand to defend themselves as they see fit. The world may bemoan the carnage, but it will do little to stop it. The past four decades have been more than enough to demonstrate this.
But in the face of peaceful Palestinian protest and nonviolent resistance, Israel’s legal and moral position as an occupying force would become untenable. Not quickly, not all at once and certainly not in the eyes of those Israelis who believe they have a God-given right to all of Palestine. Yet it would be enough, over time, for the world to rally behind Palestinians in the way it rallied behind black South Africans. Absent Palestinian violence, Israel would be forced into the same sort of political corner that doomed the apartheid regime. Enough Israelis realize this to ensure that there would be provocations, from settlement-building to armed assaults, aimed at drawing a violent response from those claiming to practice nonviolence.
That’s where a King comes in. It takes a powerful leader to convince followers to accept pain in furtherance of a just cause. It takes a calm, reasonable voice, like the one Mandela mastered while in prison, to convince former enemies that they really can live with you. It takes courage and self-sacrifice to stand defenseless against those of your own people who are prepared to turn their guns on you.
The Palestinians have never had that sort of leader. Until they do, they can only suffer as they await a King.