“Arab Spring” in Palestine? or just a meadow of astroturf?

This optimistic article in Al-Jazeera sees recent marches on the Israeli border in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Golan as a possible turning point in the Palestinian statehood movement. If Palestine can replace desperate (and ineffective) guerrilla warfare with peaceful, non-violent protests, it can presumably seize the high ground and join the rest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings as a legitimate popular movement in the eyes of the international community:

Fadi Quran, one of the youth movement’s senior figures, defined success by progress….

Before the event, the movement had convened seminars to educate youths on strategies of non-violent resistance, as well as providing advice on how to cope with police brutality. The efforts will intensify toward future actions, but the traditional resistance of burning tires and throwing stones will not change overnight.

“We need to give the world a picture of non-violent Palestinian resistance,” Quran said.

This is an excellent strategy. The United States, in particular, needs a wake-up call. The middle-left in America tends to see Israel and Palestine as locked in a “cycle of violence” in which both sides are more-or-less equally guilty, while the middle right is seduced by the choice of tactics into seeing Israel as the fundamentally more legitimate actor, since by definition for the (mainstream) right, state violence is legitimate while terrorism is not. (The far left and the far right have, to my mind, hysterical and unhelpful narratives of victimization for their respective mascots.) The more thoroughly the Palestinian cause is dissociated from violence, especially violence against civilians, the more effectively the predominating narratives can be disrupted, and the more forcefully those who are serious about peace, justice, and equal statehood can press their case. As Andrew Exum writes on Abu Muqawwama:

Israel has been kidding itself if it had imagined itself immune from the non-violent, peaceful protests that have been sweeping the Arabic-speaking world…. What happens when the Palestinians in the West Bank start demanding statehood not through violence but through peaceful protests? How will Israel respond? One option they do not have is to bury their heads in the sand and pretend like the call for Palestinian statehood will go away.

On the other hand, there’s reason to treat representations of the situation in Palestine with skepticism. Some people, of course, are more eager in their skepticism than others. E.g., The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, who suspects that Bashar Al-Assad is orchestrating protests as a Wag The Dog-style distraction:

Consider: These borders, in particular the Syria-Israel border, have seldom, if ever, seen demonstrations like this. The Syria-Israel border is a notably quiet place; Hafez al-Assad, the late dictator, and his son, Bashar, the current dictator, have kept the border quiet for decades. But now there is widespread revolt in Syria, which threatens not only the Syrian regime, but its ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. So far, Bashar’s security forces have slaughtered almost a thousand Syrian citizens. So what would you do if you were a cynical Syrian dictator, or a cynical ally of the cynical Syrian dictator? Change the subject. To what, you might ask? Well, Israel, of course….

Syria is one of the least-free nations on the planet. Demonstrations are not allowed to take place unless the government orders them to take place. Such is the situation on the Golan Heights today. Iran, too, needs a diversion, both for its Syrian client, and for itself. Of course it has a self-interest in igniting anti-Israel fervor.

Of course, Goldberg’s analysis contains the seeds of its own destruction: if there is “widespread revolt in Syria,” it’s not hard to imagine that this weekend’s protests against Israel were spontaneous and organized at the grass roots. And if Assad welcomes the distraction of these border protests, it’s not hard to imagine him declining to punish the protesters, even though he’s cracking down on protesters against his own regime.

In other words, the fact that this benefits Assad does not mean that he “ordered” it to happen.

Goldberg quotes Exum as saying, “The clashes today are the best of news for Bashar al-Asad, and only the Lord knows how many brave Syrians will now be gunned down or thrown into prison in Homs, Douma, Hama, Baniyas, etc. while everyone’s eyes are on the Lebanese, Syrian and Gazan borders with Israel.” But he leaves out Exum’s more nuanced analysis a paragraph later:

If you’re a Palestinian marking the Nakba on the border with Israel right now, that’s all fine and well, but you should be aware of those actors for whom this distraction is most welcome and who have every interest in using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and your own suffering for their own cynical purposes right now. If you’re Lebanese, meanwhile, and you’re watching Hizballah mobilize, ask yourself this: is Hizballah mobilizing to protect Lebanon and its people or because escalation benefits Hizballah’s allies in Damascus?

In other words, the problem is that there are multiple actors, some genuine, some probably less so, and even if all the participants in these protests were genuine, the timing still benefits Assad as he struggles to maintain his grip on dictatorship.

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2 Responses to “Arab Spring” in Palestine? or just a meadow of astroturf?

  1. Nathan says:

    This isn’t quite directly on topic, but…

    I’m all for the spread of democracy, but I wonder if most people aren’t forgetting that once all of these countries get rid of their respective despots, they’ll be able to freely and democratically choose to be our worst fucking nightmares. (Not predicting, just acknowledging possibilities.)

  2. thehandsomecamel says:

    Well, it’s certainly a possibility. If I had to guess, I’d predict that: Tunisia won’t give much of a shit about America one way or the other, and the feeling will be mutual; Egypt will have a love-hate relationship with us, screwing us sometimes and working with us other times; Syria may not actually get its freedom; Palestine will never be our friend, but will take aid from us (possibly funneled through other countries); Libya, even post-Qaddafi, will be factionalized, and we will only have supported one of the factions.

    Somebody please bookmark this and remind me how wrong I was in a decade.

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