Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Terror, nonviolence, and Israel

A few years ago, during grad school I tried to write a paper on the concept of “Nonviolent terrorism”. The scope of the project quickly revealed itself to be far beyond the requirements of the class that I was writing it for, and instead I limited the focus of the paper to the performative aspects of self-immolation. (part one of that paper can be found here, part two and three are forthcoming)

The idea of nonviolent terrorism is one that is largely symbolic – actions that induce fear, chaos, and psychological trauma without causing physical harm to people or infrastructure. Bomb threats are probably the most common form of nonviolent terrorism, but other examples can be found – white powder in envelopes, firecrackers tossed into a tense crowd, psychological warfare through pranks. These things wear on the public psyche until it is like a tightly wound spring or a spooked horse unsure which way to jump - ready to protect itself from a threat whose likelihood cannot be clearly determined and whose severity cannot be calculated.

Nonviolent terrorism seeks to mimic the effects of a terrorist act without utilizing the destructive methods of terrorism. Nonviolent terrorism, however, does not exist seperate from terrorism – in fact, the success of an act of nonviolent terrorism is contingent on it being temporarily indistinguishable from a real act of terrorism. The act draws its potency from the real potential for violent terrorism. Threatening to poison a city’s drinking water can be an act of nonviolent terrorism. Threatening to destroy a city with the death ray from your moon base is something altogether different.

Nonviolent terrorism operates on the premise that the thing you fear hasn’t happened yet, but it might...

Israel is currently undergoing a wave of non-violent terrorism.

Let me be clear – I am not referring to the fear that more Gravads and Katushas will rain in from the Gaza strip, or the fear that a collapsing Lebanese government will become the puppet of Hezbollah, or the fear that the Muslim brotherhood will seize the reins of the fledgling Egyptian political scene and nullify the Israel/Egypt peace treaties.

All of these things are real fears, but none of these are the real fear.

The real fear comes from what we saw in Egypt. Less than a month ago millions of people filled the streets of Egypt, and in the face of police brutality and government force they stood their ground. Certainly there were acts of violence by the Egyptian protesters – clashes between hired baltagi and a public who was unwilling to be driven back, there was rock throwing and car burning in defiance of riot police, and there were a few nights where protesters in Tahrir square were pelted with firebombs and fought back with stones. But overall, it was a largely nonviolent movement, and therein lies the seeds of terror.

Certainly, when it comes to Egypt’s future some Israelis are hopeful and others are suspicious. But underneath it all there is a creeping and un-addressable gnawing fear that transcends concerns regarding the Egyptian people.

It is a fear that something like what we saw in Tahrir square could take place in Israel.

Every action by Hamas, or by the Palestinian Authority, or by the Palestinians themselves whether singly or in groups now brings with it the second-guessing - "Will this be the Mohamed Bouazizi moment?", "Is this the next Khaled Said?", "Could this be the thing that triggers it?"

As I said before, these things wear on the public psyche until it is like a tightly wound spring or a spooked horse unsure which way to jump - ready to protect itself from a threat whose likelihood cannot be clearly determined and whose severity cannot be calculated.

What would happen if 100,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel (AKA “Israeli Arabs”) showed up on Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem demanding an end to the settlements?

What would happen if thousands of Gazan Palestinians marched from Gaza City and the refugee camps to the Erez and Karni crossings demanding passage to their estranged families in East Jerusalem and the West Bank?

What if the Muslim and Christian residents of Ramallah walked en masse to Ma’ale Adumim to protests the progressive loss of what little land they have left?

Most importantly, what if they did it with their hands empty of anything except for their camera phones?

How could Israel respond? And how long could large-scale human action in Israel stay nonviolent - either on the part of the Israelis or the Palestinians?

Because lurking behind the spectacle of Egypt is the specter of Libya: a population who no longer fear for their own lives facing down a military willing to use deadly force.

There is true terror.


  1. Thanks for an insightful essay, Isaac. I cannot agree with your idea that things like bomb threats or sending white powder in envelopes are "nonviolent terrorism," although I'm not sure what to call it. Nonviolence, as I see it, seeks to absorb violence and pain into oneself as a sort of redemptive act for the whole people. Certainly the nonviolence advocated by Gandhi, King, and Bonhoeffer (less so by Mandela, but still visible even there), would never countenance such actions since they involve genuine pain inflicted on the psyche. I think, myself - or at least I hope - that if Israelis were confronted with a genuinely nonviolent Palestinian movement that refused to attack but also refused to move, they might very well experience a change of heart. Hope springs eternal in the human breast! :-)

  2. Just a followup to this, Loren. Just today I saw two people refer to the passengers on the second Gaza flotilla as terrorists.

    Nonviolent terrorists. Hmmm?