The Palestinian resistance: A legitimate
right and a moral duty
The overwhelming and ongoing atrocities have left most Palestinians with little space or peace of mind to ponder and intellectualize over the moral question of our resistance; most of the time our reactions to events are instinctive and emotional. Those few who still consider the moral, political and strategic aspects of the Palestinian struggle may find themselves at an impasse due to all the contradicting factors: the lack of choices and the cruelty of war that hurts the conscience and boggles the mind.
In assessing the Palestinians’ resistance, one must take into consideration the troubled context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The occupation of Palestine started with an ideology that denied the very existence of the Palestinian people and pursued a colonial agenda asserting divine claims to acquire the “land without people.” It was due to symbolic significance, the strategy of “protracted people’s war” adopted by the Palestinian resistance in order to gain recognition as a national group, thus defying the colonial agenda that Palestinians resorted to hijacking in the 1970s.
Still today, Palestinians have no State or conventional army. We are subjected to curfews, expulsions, home demolitions, legalized torture, and a wide variety of human rights violations. There is a glaring contrast between the level of official responsibility and the systematic nature and intensity of the violence exchanged between Palestinian individuals and the State of Israel. The media has attributed our search for freedom to “terrorism” thus making the Palestinian the international prototype for the terrorist. This impression has shaped Western public consciousness and resulted in an international bias that tends to convey instances of violence against Palestinian civilians in neutral language, reducing Palestinian losses to mere statistics, while using emotional language and visuals to describe Israeli losses. This disfigurement of the Palestinian resistance has clouded all reasonable dialogue encounters. Many of our efforts to defy the arbitrary rules of the occupation are arbitrarily called “terrorism,” and we are always expected to be apologetic and condemning to the Palestinian resistance, despite the lack of agreement on a definition of terrorism and the fact that the right to self-determination by armed struggle is considered permissible under Article 51 of the United Nation’s Charter concerning self-defense.
Why is the word terrorism usually applied to individuals or groups who use homemade bombs but not to States that use nuclear weapons and internationally prohibited arms to ensure popular submission? Israel, the United States and Britain should top the list of terrorism-exporting States for their use of armed attacks against non-combatants in Palestine, Iraq, Sudan and other parts of the world. But “terrorism” is a political term that the Imperialist colonizer supremacists use to discredit their opponents, like the Afrikaners and the Nazis named the Black and French freedom fighters respectively.
There is also a trend among those who oppose our resistance to use the word Jihad as a synonym for terrorism and apply it to the Palestinian case. In doing so, they reduce the value of Jihad to mere death. Jihad is a rich concept. Struggling within one’s self to do good deeds, standing against injustice, being patient in times of hardship are a few meanings of Jihad. Jihad isn’t about offensive violence against God’s creatures; it is about not fearing death in defending the rights of God’s creations. But violence can be a human’s defence mechanism. When a woman reacts violently when exposed to rape, then this is a form of Jihad.
Jihad is an Islamic value and not all Palestinian fighters are Muslims. The reason why young, sincere altruistic Palestinians bomb themselves is a secret that goes with them as they die. We can only guess why they do it. Maybe it is the ideology of revenge growing in the greenhouse of oppression, the occupation, or their profound protest against profound injustice; they can’t be equal to Israelis in life; they try to be in death. Those who have lived in inhuman conditions all their lives are, unfortunately, capable of doing inhuman things. What is left for the thousands in Rafah who, now, have no ceiling under which to sleep except for their resistance mentality? It’s not Islam; it is human nature. Religious, secular and agnostic Palestinian men and women did it. Our women bombers do not die in the expectation of 70 virgins waiting for them in heaven.
One other element that needs to be taken into consideration when looking at the Palestinian resistance is the gloomy history of peace talks and lack of international support. The negotiations with Israel have given us nothing but promises of autonomy over our impoverishment, implementing what is acceptable to the mighty and treating facts established illegally as the basis for a lasting settlement. The most glaring piece missing in this peace process was an honest peace broker. The United Nations has been unable to take steps to ensure the implementation of Palestinian rights. The world has offered not a single remedy for the numerous wounds Palestinians have suffered; the American veto in the Security Council has been used repeatedly against the broad consensus calling for an international monitoring presence in the West Bank and Gaza. The relentless denial of Palestinian rights without an effective verbal or actual international response has left us acutely aware that self-help is our only hope.
International law gives a people fighting an illegal occupation the right to use “all necessary means at their disposal” to end their occupation, and the occupied “are entitled to seek and receive support” (I quote here several United Nations resolutions). Armed resistance was used in the American Revolution, the Afghan resistance against Russia, the French resistance against the Nazis, and even in the Nazi concentration camps, or more famously in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Palestinian resistance must be appreciated as arising out of a similar oppressive background. It varies from case to case in its degree of violence and in many cases is mainly non-violent—from the people resiliently continuing to live, study, pray and plant crops in occupied land despite all the odds to, in a few cases, active resistance and the use of violence. This violent resistance can be defensive (and to my mind morally acceptable), such as the resistance of the fighters of Jenin refugee camp as Israeli death machines approached, or in the form of unacceptable offensive acts, such as the bombing of Israelis celebrating a Passover meal. In all these cases, it is individuals, non-State actors, who choose their form of resistance; the choices they make should not colour the entire nation. And, as we have seen, both peaceful and violent resistance is met with profound State violence from the democratic and free Israeli side. The death of American activist Rachel Corrie is evidence of that.
Some people wonder, “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” We have our Gandhis in prison, deported or in graves. What we don’t have are the billion Indians. This is not an industrial colonization; the Israelis are practicing ethnic cleansing to make room for Jewish immigrants. In 1938, Gandhi questioned the very foundational logic of political Zionism. “My sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the Bible and in the tenacity with which the Jews have hankered after their return to Palestine. Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood?”
Gandhi clearly rejected the idea of a Jewish State in the Promised Land by pointing out that the “Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract.”
Violent resistance arises from an inhuman military occupation, one that levies punishment without fairness, denies the possibility of livelihood and diverts the prospects of a promising future. The Palestinian people have not gone to another people’s homeland to kill or dispossess. Our ambition is not to blow ourselves up in order to terrify others. We are asking for what all other people have and deserve—a decent life in a homeland.
What is most troubling about the critiques of our resistance is that they seem to care little about our suffering, the withholding of what we once possessed, and the violation of our most basic rights. Our murder leaves those critics cold. Our peaceful, everyday struggle to have a decent life leaves no impression on them. There is outrage and condemnation for all of us when some of us follow their inner instinct of retaliation and revenge. Israeli security is deemed more important than our livelihood; Israeli children are believed to be more human than ours; Israeli pain more inflammatory than ours. They dismiss us as terrorists, enemies of human life and civilization when we rebel against the inhuman conditions they wish upon us. And so I emphasize, it is not for their sake that we must revisit our resistance, but because we care about Palestinian morality and morale.
In terms of international law and by the virtue of experience of many other nations, the right of a people suffering from colonial oppression to take up arms in its struggle for independence is sanctioned. Why is it different in the Palestinian case? Isn’t international law supposed to be universal and abstract?
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the most commonly recited fundamental human rights. It seems fitting that the right to life would be mentioned first. Without the right to remain alive, to be safe from attack, to defend oneself against attack, the other rights become meaningless. And equally fundamental is exercising the right of self-defense.
We are, no doubt, facing a brutal occupation with bare chests and empty arms. I believe in dialogue in the Israeli-Palestinian encounter, but negotiations should never be the only option; it goes hand in hand with the resistance to the occupation. The Israelis are talking to us while building a wall that will increase the suffocation of more Palestinian rights. Why should we give up the right to resistance and remain in the realm of the absurd?
To live under oppression and submit to injustice is incompatible with psychological health. Resistance is a right, a duty and a remedy for the oppressed. If not as a strategic, pragmatic option, we should resist as an exercise of our human dignity. Our resistance should have its rules and regulations; it should be stretched, augmented, catalyzed and endorsed by the various classes of our people.
Using force in resistance must always be in defense and the last resort in all cases. It is important, however, to distinguish between the permissible and impermissible targets and to design limits for the use of arms.
The history of our resistance must be explored and assessed from the perspectives of law, morality, experience and politics, taking timing and context into account and with sensitivity for human rights, international law and widely shared norms of behaviour. Palestinians need to be creative in providing effective peaceful alternatives for resistance that can invite the progressives of the world to join our struggle. The strength of the Palestinian plight lies in its moral, humanitarian characteristics; we should find moral, humanitarian means to protect that strength.
*Samah Jabr is a physician and a life-long resident of Jerusalem.