The Palestinians’ Great Return March is exactly what is needed to move the Arab-Israeli conflict forward. Following the tradition of Gandhi’s Great March in South Africa, the march launches a nonviolent movement focused on the right of return. This protracted conflict has escalated dramatically during the past year. More and more experts speak of conflict management over resolution. The call to move Israel’s capital to Jerusalem, coupled with the Great March, is forcing international attention back to a conflict that continues to destabilize the region.
With four civil wars raging across the Middle East and North Africa – Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen – the Arab-Israeli conflict has been deprioritized. Besides the flow of Palestinian refugees, the Middle East witnessed two of the largest mass movements of populations since 1948, with the humanitarian situations in Iraq and Syria becoming catastrophic. The international community is struggling to respond. This is all happening at a time when governments are questioning bilateral aid to the Palestinians, meanwhile humanitarian organizations are being called into question on their role in subsidizing the occupation. Donor fatigue continues to plague the region.
Yet these circumstances do not change the fact that the West Bank and Gaza have had a large influx of population. According to a February report from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 1.9 million Palestinians living in Gaza alone, with 1.3 million of them classified as refugees. That is about twice the size of the District of Columbia, with more than three times the district’s population. Gaza’s refugee population has overwhelmed the infrastructure and resources to the point where the area is often referred to as the world’s largest open air prison. An Israeli NGO, B’Tselem, has forewarned the Israeli government that ignoring these circumstances would lead to protests, and the military would be responsible for a worsening of the situation.
The cost to the international community – in particular the United States – is too high to ignore. Many Western policymakers are striving to stop the influx of refugees to the West. The international community fully depends on Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and to a lesser extent Egypt to absorb the Iraqi and Syrian refugee crisis. This goes beyond humanitarianism and to the very core of the fight against violent extremism. These countries have been able to do their part, but an escalation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could destabilize the few countries in the region that remain somewhat stable.
The Importance of Nonviolent Resistance
And now the saving grace amid turmoil: the re-emergence of nonviolent tactics. As emphasized in its press release, the Coordination Committee for the Great Return March is committed to nonviolence and has organized the march as a peaceful event – calling on women, children, and the elderly to join. The goal is intra-Palestinian unity, and all political parties that endorsed the march were required to endorse its nonviolent nature. Notably, official spokespeople for both Fatah and Hamas, the two largest Palestinian political factions, made the pledge to nonviolence.
Some members of Israeli civil society also made the same commitment to nonviolence years ago and support the inclusion of the Palestinian right of return as part of a “just” peace agreement. The pledge centers on the crucial point that has made all other agreements simply ink on paper for the Palestinians: the right of return. From the Madrid to Oslo agreements, the insistence on avoiding the right of return has crippled any progress in the peace process, with devastating results for the region’s perspective on peacebuilding. Focusing on the most difficult question in the conflict, under a pledge of nonviolence, brings an opportunity to end the stalemate.
Palestinian civil society is stepping out from under any political umbrella by creating a resistance based on the crucial principle of nonviolence. This is an opportunity for the West, which has labeled most Palestinian political movements as terrorist groups, forcing young people to view themselves in that same light. Instead of turning toward Hamas or Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, for whom support is declining in Palestine, Palestinians are turning to the old platform of nonviolence to seek justice.
The Need for Support
Ignoring the opportunity the march brings would create a moral hazard for the international community. The last two decades have shown that desperate youths turn toward extremism and militarism when unheard. Palestinian civil society is acknowledging the cycle of violence and offering a different model. And they are not alone. Israeli civil groups – such as Combatants for Peace and Gisha: Center for the Legal Protection of Freedom of Movement – are issuing the same call. The diaspora tried to do the same through the BDS movement, whose No. 1 principle is nonviolence, calling for economic and social divestment over armed resistance. But the opposition to BDS in the West has only led to the strengthening of those who push for violent resistance. The crushing of nonviolent responses to the occupation will only feed extremism, as history shows.
A positive response to nonviolent tactics could lead to a return to the peace talks. Political maneuvering has nearly destroyed any hope for peace. A grassroots nonviolent movement not led by any political party provides a spark of possibility.
The question remains: Can we move past the old political models of the Arab-Israeli paradigm to seize the opportunity presented? The march gives the United States a real chance to acknowledge and encourage the reintroduction of nonviolence as the primary tool to further the Palestinian cause. It could show other civil society groups across the region that Washington will respond to nonviolence and maintain its zero-tolerance response to violent extremism. Moreover, the United States could continue its leading role in the peace talks and as a member of the Quartet, with a new momentum coming from the march.
Manal Omar is the founder of Across Red Lines. Over the last eight years, she served as the Associate Vice President of Middle East and Africa for the U.S. Institute of Peace. She has over twenty years working for international organizations including the World Bank, Oxfam-GB, and Women for Women International. She is an inaugural fellow for Foreign Policy Interrupted and is a 2016 Truman National Security Fellow in Washington, D.C. @ManalOmar