Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

May 18, 2010

Nonviolence: a feasible strategy?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.” But can nonviolence be the answer to the contentious issue of occupation in the West Bank?

Over the past few months, a grassroots boycott of settlement-produced goods has gripped Palestinians in the West Bank.  The boycott has recently become more organized, with volunteers (mostly students) campaigning door-to-door, distributing brochures, and burning settlement-products.  So far, the boycott of over one thousand products has resulted in the destruction of $5 million worth of settlement products.  It is estimated that $200 million worth of settlement goods are sold in the West Bank each year, which is a small portion of to Israel’s $200 billion GDP.  Although the economic effects of the boycott have been relatively minimal, it is the social and political effects that are crucial.

The boycott is encouraged under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, with President Abbas emphasizing the need to deprive settlements of a lifeline, which reflects his recent legislation.  Last month, Abbas signed a law that bans the sale of settlement products in the West Banks and prohibits Palestinians from working in settlements.  Violators face up to $14,000 in fines and prison time.  The PA is also proposing a fund to help create new jobs for the estimated 20,000 Palestinians working in the settlements.  Indeed, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has said they will “continue to do more.”

The participation of Palestinians in the boycott under the PA has serious and potentially destructive political implications.  As Palestinians are beginning to identify with the PA, which legitimizes the party, Israel may begin to feel threatened.  The intended effect of the boycott, which is to increase leverage over Israel, may backfire if Israel retaliates with economic sanctions or punishes the PA in subsequent interactions.  The boycott also has the potential to threaten the social cohesion of the area and the lives of Palestinians both within the West Bank and in Israel proper.  Questions may be raised about the loyalty of Palestinians in Israel and whether or not the boycott will be extending into to a full-blown boycott of Israeli goods.  It is also unclear what effect the boycott will have on the negotiations.  Israel may not want to participate in the peace process if it views the boycott of goods as synonymous with a boycott of Israel or a rejection of Israeli concessions on settlement building.

While this nonviolent effort may substantially hurt the settlements in the West Bank and convince the Israeli’s to come to the negotiating table, it also has the potential to produce a strong backlash that could halt negotiations and hurt the Palestinians and only time will tell whether this nonviolent strategy will be successful.



  1. The BDS movement started long before the PA got involved. It was called for by the broad majority of Palestinian civil society in 2005. The PA is late to the party, but they probably feel they have to get involved if they hope to retain any legitimacy.

    In any event, yes the Palestinians will pay a cost for the boycott, but any resistance has a cost. It is not up to us in the West to condescend and tell them we know what’s best for them. They’ve made their call, and we simply have to decide if we will heed it or not.

    Comment by Chris Lawrence — May 18, 2010 @ 2:07 pm | Reply

  2. Martin Luther King Jr. never, to my knowledge, put a time frame on getting results from non-violence. So there may be plenty more suffering on the part of Palestinians before the issue is decided in the only place where it can be – the United States. As long as the funds and support continue pouring into Israel that rely on the ignorance of the average American about what is happening in the occupied territories, there will be no significant change. It could not be any clearer that since not long after 1967, we’ve been witnesses to a deliberate process of land appropriation under cover of lots of talk. Most amazing is that Israelis can believe it will result in a larger Israel and virtual invisibility for the Palestinians.

    There is plenty of evidence that things are changing for the better, but the Palestinians had better be prepared to continue to exhibit steadfastness. As part of one country with the Jews or citizens of their own separate state, their time is coming. The ugliness of the current situation becomes more widely known by the day. The world, as well as many Jews and Israelis are disgusted with it. The hypocrisy of the United States as it trumpets democracy while supporting blatant violations of civil rights will, just as it did in the time of MLK Jr., inevitably cause change. The best thing that can be done is to publicize what is going on with words, photos and videos through all available channels and with visits to the United States for the purpose of public presentations by Palestinians (or the continual news that they are not allowed to come).

    Comment by Clif Brown — May 18, 2010 @ 6:00 pm | Reply

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