by Maia HallwardNovember 15, 2017
Stories of armed violence dominate the media and textbook discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some actors on both sides of the Green Line argue that the others only understand the language of violence and thus they must use violence to be heard.
Indeed, the dramatic armed hijackings by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s and 1980s were one way of gaining visibility for their cause on the world stage. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s “break their bones” policy during the first intifada and the Israeli Dahiya doctrine (as evidenced in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008 and 2014) that applies “disproportionate force” are likewise messages signaling Israeli power. However, these uses of violence have often targeted civilians and led to tit-for-tat violence that has brought neither Israelis nor Palestinians any closer to a sustainable and just resolution to their national and territorial conflict.
Having lived among both Palestinians and Israelis, I have experienced first-hand that ordinary people on both sides of the Green Line want very similar things for themselves and their families—to live their lives without worry for the death of a loved one; to be able to travel freely; to pursue their education and a career. My research is fundamentally shaped by the assumption that there are better ways to resolve conflict—and achieve these common livelihood goals—than armed violence.
Those who support the use of violence often claim the weak “need” it to offset the power of the strong, that they have no choice given their circumstances, or that it is a “natural’ response to their experiences living in situations of violence and oppression. One of the fundamental premises of civil resistance, however, is that nonviolent actions can be a “force more powerful” that even the “weakest” can use to combat those assumed physically stronger. Further, the juxtaposition of unarmed civil resistance with armed force can backfire on those using violence to clamp down on nonviolent protesters.
I was drawn to the study of nonviolent movements in Israel/Palestine as a result of a configuration of events during the first year of my doctoral studies. After three years working in the Middle East—during which time the second intifada erupted and I experienced first-hand the intensified violence—I moved to Washington, D.C. in August 2001.
Within weeks, the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center paralyzed the city, and my Iranian-American professor and I were the only ones to show up for class on September 11, 2001—since our experience was that life continued when such attacks occurred if one was not directly affected.
As the year went on and the drums of war intensified across the Middle East, my dissertation focus turned to the voices of those who continued to struggle nonviolently for “peace” in the midst of intensified violence.
Initially, my research focused on why and how certain nonviolent groups—often unheard of in the mainstream media—were able to struggle for peace and against oppression in times when mainstream peace movements had largely collapsed. What I found in the course of my research was that these nonviolently mobilized groups:
- were highly democratic and grassroots;
- intentionally worked to address internal and external divides and power imbalances within the group and the broader society through both disruptive and constructive nonviolent actions;
- did not use the term “peace” to define their work, largely due to the way such terms were delegitimized by the official political, and often deeply flawed, processes. They may have also avoided the term because it is often associated with a utopian and passive ideal not deemed suitable for resolving deeply entrenched conflicts.
As I’ve continued my work in the field of civil resistance, I’ve come full circle to realize that the dominant narrative about power—that it is derived from violence or the threat of violence—only benefits those who have the means to effectively wage violent conflict—in other words, rarely the oppressed masses.
The study of civil resistance teaches us that power is not a single-source, one-dimensional phenomenon. For example, power can be derived from civil disobedience, a form of human agency that is available to all, regardless of our background or current conditions. Civil resistance provides a means for making one’s voice heard through methods of nonviolent action (of which nearly 200 have been documented, and many more in a forthcoming ICNC monograph), and can be used to actively raise awareness among—and then put pressure on—those who benefit from the system to recognize the injustices they are perpetuating.
One does not need to look far to find oppressive social, political, and economic systems, or the symptoms of such structural violence. A more comprehensive understanding of power and power dynamics in conflicts is therefore not only critical for the study of civil resistance, it’s critical for successfully engaging in effective nonviolent activism. And although our understanding of how civil resistance works has advanced in major ways over the past few decades, there are still many aspects of this phenomenon that remain to be fully grasped by scholars, activists, and the general public more broadly.
I am grateful to be part of this growing community of knowledge that is of persisting relevance in our world—especially because studying, speaking and writing about civil resistance, in my view, is one way to help break the cycle of misconception about the relative utility of violence—a view that does little to advance long-lasting peace and justice.
 Yaakov Katz. “The Dahiya Doctrine: Fighting Dirty or a Knock-Out Punch”. Jerusalem Post, January 28, 2010. http://www.jpost.com/Features/Front-Lines/The-Dahiya-Doctrine-Fighting-dirty-or-a-knock-out-punch; Rashid Khalidi (2014) “The Dahiya Doctrine, Proportionality, and War Crimes”, Journal of Palestine Studies (44), p. 5, http://www.palestine-studies.org/jps/fulltext/186668
 See, for example, Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth (2008). “Why Civil Resistance Works”. International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1 pp. 7–44.
 Maia Carter Hallward (2011). Struggling for a Just Peace: Israeli and Palestinian Activism in the Second Intifada. Gainesville, University of Florida Press.
Maia Carter Hallward, Ph.D., is a Professor of Middle East Politics in the School of Conflict Management, Peacebuilding and Development at Kennesaw State University and Executive Editor of the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development. She has published four books and over a dozen peer-reviewed articles on peacebuilding and activism.Read More