Last week, the American press bestowed a dubious title on the 50 or so Western demonstrators who marched into Yasser Arafat’s besieged Ramallah compound to volunteer their services as human shields. The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and a host of other media outlets described them as “peace activists.”
“We are staying here, and the Israeli Army should know that if it opens fire, it will also open fire on Europeans,” one of Arafat’s houseguests told the New York Times.
What did these demonstrators do to deserve the peace imprimatur? And where, exactly, did they come from?
For starters, from the anti-globalization movement, which, post-9/11, has increasingly focused on the Palestinian cause to rally its troops. In fact, among those leading the demonstration was José Bové, the head of the French Farmer’s Confederation,who became the darling of anti-globalists after smashing a McDonald’s storefront in southern France in 1999. The links between anti-globalization and anti-Zionism might not be immediately clear, especially since anti-globalists’ suspicions of supra-national institutions have not prevented them from insisting on international monitors in the Occupied Territories.
Last June, when Bové led his first nonviolent protest against Israeli aggression—a march on a Bethlehem checkpoint—he claimed he was motivated by agrarian solidarity. “I’m a farmer, and these [Palestinian] people are farmers too. So I am fighting with them to help them protect their land,” he told reporters. But his isn’t an especially convincing explanation. After all, Bové didn’t visit beleaguered Israeli farmers in the Golan. The answer probably has much more to do with anti-Americanism, a reflexive sympathy for indigenous underdogs, and the historical ties between anti-Semitism and the desire to protect locals from the impositions of the cosmopolitan elite.
The other major component of demonstrators was made up of those associated with the Palestinians’ fledgling nonviolent resistance movement and was organized by Western Palestinian solidarity groups, human-rights organizations, and Palestine-based NGOs. For instance, one large contingent, including several Americans, came from the International Solidarity Movement, a recently formed organization affiliated with the non-governmental Palestinian Center for Rapprochement, based near Bethlehem. ISM’s best-known member is co-founder Adam Shapiro, the New Yorker upon whom the media lavished its attention during and after the demo. In TV interviews he defended Arafat and suggested that Israel’s “terrorist government” was borrowing tactics from the Nazis.
Last August, ISM brought together a few dozen international Palestinian sympathizers, trained them in nonviolent resistance, and organized a march on a Bethlehem checkpoint. After Israel attacked Palestinian forces in the Occupied Territories, ISM directed members to place themselves where the fighting was the heaviest—in sight of the TV cameras—in hopes of deterring the Israelis.
Which brings us back to the question: Why are these men and women described as peace activists, as opposed to “Pro-Palestinian” activists (to his credit, a term employed by the New York Times’ James Bennet)? After all, every player in the Mideast conflict claims to be operating with a vision toward peace, just one that accords with his or her own, specific, parochial interests. Why don’t Israeli border police preventing the infiltration of Palestinian suicide bombers deserve to be called peace activists as well?
The obvious answer seems to be the activists’ nonviolent tactics. But it’s important to distinguish between two motivations for nonviolence: as an end in itself (think: the Quakers), or as a strategic means to an end. Most of the demonstrators in Ramallah seem to place themselves in the later category. They consider nonviolent protest the best—but not the only—way to end Israeli occupation, and so they offer only tepid repudiations of suicide bombings. As International Solidarity’s Web site declares: “We recognize the Palestinian right to resist Israeli violence and occupation via armed struggle, yet we believe that nonviolence can be a powerful weapon in fighting oppression.” And the Independent Media Center, a leading network of anti-globalist Web sites, recently referred to Palestinian militants killed by Israeli troops as “martyrs.” Not exactly satyagraha.
Writing in the Chicago Tribune last week, Northwestern University law professor Steve Lubet suggested that if peace were really the protestors’ aim, they’d be dining in Jerusalem cafes and acting as human shields against Palestinian suicide attacks as well. That probably won’t happen any time soon, considering the activists’ political partiality. So, besides abolishing the term, the only other solution is to extend it. Let’s call the Israelis who put their lives on the line by visiting Netanya hotels and Tel Aviv discos, in the interest of living normal lives, peace activists, too.