More occupations…but new soft power?

Palestinian activists are refusing to be silenced over the issue of settlement, and have again erected new structures for an occupation of their own, this time in the city of Bethlemen  (for background see previous post, Terra Expello). You can read about it over at Ma’an news agency (a great resource), because the point I want to make here is more historical.

On Sunday, Israeli journalist and author Amos Harel published a piece in Haaretz newspaper entitled ‘Palestinians discover the strength of soft power‘. I think that there is much to be said on the merits of ‘soft power’, especially in a conflict that ostensibly seems to be overwritten with precisely its opposite, but framing the protest over settlement as a discovery of soft power elides the fact that Palestinians have been using this method for a long time and in a variety of ways.Harel is Haaretz’s celebrated military correspondant and defence analyst, and his byline captures the essence of the piece:

“The Palestinians built a new tent city Friday, a tactic likely to win them much more sympathy than clashing with the IDF at the border or committing clear acts of terror”

This is a typically neo-colonial and patronizing narrative that pretends that all Palestinians are always violent…until now. Finally, they have realised the errors of their ways and have started to use peaceful methods, or so the story goes. Maybe there won’t be a Third Intifada after all (in-fact Harel doesn’t think there will be: see here). Such narratives normalize Palestinians as violent, and raise the spectre of what might be called Intifada iconography: molotov yielding Palestinians, mobs throwing rocks, self-detonating bodies. And yes this happened: less so in the first Intifada (1987-1993) but certainly in the second (2000-c2005). But this does not mean that Palestinians haven’t also used peaceful, softer means of engagement. The first Intifada was largely organized around mass civil disobedience movements, for example, though it quickly became violent on both sides.


Palestinian children take part in a rally in front of the Red Cross headquarters in Gaza City marking Palestinian Prisoners Day, 17 Apr 2012 (Photo: Reuters)
Palestinian children take part in a rally in front of the Red Cross headquarters in Gaza City marking Palestinian Prisoners Day, 17 Apr 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

Harel’s conception of legitimate action for Palestinians excludes any form of violence: if they are to win sympathy (though it is not clear whose sympathy), they should use non-violent action. The problems with this are manifold. First, I wonder if Harel would say the same about the IDF soliders with which these Palestinians “clash”; are they too prohibited from using violence? Because the IDF might also garner more sympathy if it exercised a little more soft power, rather than the brutal and brutalizing power which it has become so good at. Readers unfamiliar with, or who disagree with this point about IDF misconduct are encouraged to read the extensive documentation of evidence collected by Israeli group Breaking the Silence.

Second, and perhaps more important: Harel’s characterisation of soft power as a new discovery for the Palestinians is historically inaccurate. The term soft power was coined by Joseph S. Nye in his book Bound To Lead, and he saw soft power as a form of non-coercive power, a mode of benevolent  ‘making your enemy want what you want’ approach to international politics. Nye was wrong, I think, to draw such a sharp distinction between soft and hard power and to normatively load them so that ‘soft’ is better and always preferable to ‘hard’. But if the recent Palestinian protest can be seen as a form of soft power, then so should many of their former actions. Here’s just three:

1. The peaceful protests in Bil’lin (the place where the film Five Broken Cameras is set) that have been using this method since 2005.

2. Similarly, and not unrelated to the protests in Bil’in, the Palestinians in 2005 appealed to the International Court of Justice arguing that the construction of the Separation Barrier – The Wall – was illegal. The 2005 ICJ Advisory Opinion proved them right (you can read the full text and opinions here). We shouldn’t forget that the U.S. called the Palestinian to the ICJ “unhelpful”, begging the question: unhelpful for whom? And it wasn’t just international law, but also Israel’s domestic and highest court that the Palestinians appealed to. In 2005 Israel’s Supreme Court ruled the construction route of the wall illegal and ordered the government to re-route it (H.C.J. 7957/04: text here). True, it was Israeli lawyers and organisations that brought the case to the Supreme Court, and little wonder why: Palestinians have no standing (legal speak for no right to petition in a given jurisdiction). But, and crucially, it was – and normally always is – Palestinians and Palestinian NGO’s who bring such issues to the Israeli groups so that they may represent them. For those interested in knowing more about the legal system in Israel and the Occupied Territories I recommend the work of Sociologist Lisa Hajjar and her wonderful book ‘Courting Conflict’. She documents the many attempts of Palestinians to use the courts, and to exercise their non-violent power through the court system but the odds are stacked against them, and Harel seems to have forgotten this.

3. At the end of 2012 Palestine made a bid in the U.N. for statehood, or at least partial recognition at the U.N. (see previous post, Where is Palestine?). Was this not a demonstration of soft-power also? Of course, it depends exactly on our definition of soft power, but if the UN bid wasn’t a classic example, then I fail to understand how the recent protests could be counted as such.

This list is woefully incomplete, and I’d like to assemble some kind of reading list around this, not least because the history of Palestinian soft-power is central to countenancing the violent iconographies within which Palestinian resistance is so often identified. In the meantime, any suggestions and additions to the list would be most welcome: do comment below!

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