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New Texts Out Now: Wendy Pearlman, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement

[Cover of Wendy Pearlman, [Cover of Wendy Pearlman, "Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement"

Wendy Pearlman, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?

Wendy Pearlman: I became captivated by Palestinian history and politics when I studied at Birzeit University in the West Bank from January to June 2000. Thereafter, I returned to Palestine nearly every chance I got. Three months into the second Intifada, I conducted interviews with about two dozen Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These were published in 2003 as the book Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada.

I undertook that project both to help myself understand the experiences of ordinary people and to bring their voices to a larger audience. When it was published, I gave book talks around the United States. I was surprised to find that the question and answer sessions repeatedly ended with the same query. People would tell me that they were moved by the personal stories of suffering under occupation, but they had trouble understanding why Palestinians carried out acts of violence against Israelis. I heard the same questions again and again: Don’t Palestinians see that suicide bombings undermine sympathy for their cause? Why don’t they use nonviolence instead? Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?

Some of these questions may have been disingenuous or even ill intentioned. Regardless, they raised a significant challenge that gave me pause. I knew from my study of history that Palestinians had used nonviolent as well as violent protest, but I lacked a convincing explanation of why they had done so to different extents at different times. My conversations in the West Bank and Gaza had shown me why people believed that protest was necessary and justified. Yet this did not explain why it took the forms it did.

By then I was in my third year of doctoral studies in political science, so I turned to academic explanations of social movements and rebellion. Influential studies attributed political violence to factors ranging from manipulative elites to religious fundamentalism to cold calculations of costs and benefits. Though these were often validated by cross-national statistical tests, they misrepresented or oversimplified what I had seen on the ground. Furthermore, they had more to say about how conflict escalates to bloodshed than the circumstances under which it remains unarmed.

So I made these questions the topic of my dissertation: Why do some self-determination movements use violent protest and others nonviolent protest? Why does a movement use different protest strategies at different points over time? I submitted my dissertation in 2007, and after many, many revisions, that manuscript became this book.


[Wendy Pearlman. Image via the author.]

J: What is the book’s thesis?

WP: My focus is the effect of a movement’s internal organizational structure on its protest strategy. I argue that paths to violence are multiple, but there is one prevailing path to nonviolent protest: a path that demands that a movement have or create internal cohesion. Nonviolent protest requires coordination and restraint, which only a cohesive movement can provide. When, by contrast, a movement is fragmented, factional competition generates new incentives for violence and authority structures are too weak to constrain escalation. The upshot is that internal cohesion increases the possibility that a movement will use nonviolent protest, while internal fragmentation increases the likelihood that protest will become violent.

The book demonstrates this argument over nearly one hundred years in the history of the Palestinian struggle, from the Balfour Declaration through the present. An additional chapter compares the Palestinian national movement to the South Africa anti-apartheid struggle and the Northern Ireland republican movement. I find that when the Palestinian movement used mass unarmed protest, such as during a general strike in the 1930s and the uprising of 1987, internal cohesion proved crucial. In those episodes, a legitimate leadership and grassroots institutional network helped people across social classes, religions, and regions participate in demonstrations, boycotts, and acts of noncooperation and disengagement.

When the movement lacked strong central leadership, institutions, or popular consensus, its organizational fragmentation contributed to the use of violent protest. Various forms of internal competition fed escalation in the armed revolt in the late 1930s, guerrilla warfare in the 1960s, and the militarized uprising beginning in the year 2000. At these junctures, weak authority structures invited the formation of militant splinter groups and obstructed efforts to reach ceasefires. Cracks in the self-determination struggle invited external actors to intervene and induce or coerce Palestinian parties to act in ways that furthered outsiders’ interests. Moreover, divisions left the movement without the institutional capacity to carry out nonviolent protest on a mass scale, even when popular support for such a strategy existed.

While the book focuses on the Palestinian movement, I do not at all wish to underestimate either fragmentation or the use of violence on the Israeli side of the conflict. Both are clearly worthy of research and analysis. Israel is certainly a part of my story insofar as its repression of the Palestinian struggle has typically provoked or worsened its internal divisions. Often this has been a consequence of a deliberate strategy of divide and conquer. I criticize those policies by showing that efforts to fragment Palestinians have the effect of precluding a national strategy of nonviolent protest, while intensifying the tendency of protest to take armed forms.

J: What particular issues and literatures does it address?

WP: On the one hand, this book is is a political history that offers an overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the evolution of Palestinian nationalism, with a particular focus on issues of organizational unity and strategy. On the other, it is a work of social science that asks why national movements do what they do. It thus undertakes to identify patterns applicable beyond Palestine.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

WP: My aim in terms of conflict theory is to challenge those who attribute political violence to culture, emotions, religion, or pure strategic rationality without also considering the structure of domestic political relationships from which such violence emerges.

I also seek to challenge ways that media and common discourse talk about Palestinian society. Over the decades, there is too often an assumption that the Palestinian leadership does or should be able to “control its people,” or that it can press a button and have millions of Palestinians carry out violence or nonviolent protest as it prefers. That is the assumption underlying the question “why there is no Palestinian Gandhi?” or the criticism, at various junctures, that Palestinian resistance took armed forms because Yasir Arafat “chose terror.” To some degree, those comments reflect Orientalist ideas about Arab patriarchy: that there is one big guy who dictates the show and an entire nation follows. I try to show that Palestinians have real domestic politics and that we need to study its organizational contours as we study domestic politics anywhere in the world. Launching nonviolent protest is not simply a matter of leadership. Nor is violence attributable only to culture or calculations. Rather, a movement’s very organizational structure mediates the strategies that it uses. These relationships are at work in other national movements no less than in the Palestinian one.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

WP: In the next year I have articles coming out in a few academic journals, namely Security Studies, Studies in Comparative International Development, and Journal of Conflict Resolution. These build upon my research on Palestinian politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Otherwise, I’m branching out to new topics. I have an ongoing project on how emigration from Lebanon shapes access to and struggles over power within Lebanon. It examines international outmigration from the 1860s until today, traces its role in social mobility and influence in the country left behind, and identifies its implications for politics. It’s been fun to take on new questions and it is a great excuse to spend time in Beirut!

I’m also working on a few pieces related to the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, because I just can’t tear myself away from the news. I teach and research on social movements, so I’ve wanted to explore what insight social movement theory can offer about the revolts, as well as how they can challenge or improve social movement theory. While Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement focuses on the organizational aspects of mobilization, my research on the current uprisings explores the role of emotions. I’ve usually been pretty skeptical about emotions as a factor explaining political action. But the intensity of feelings that these uprisings have brought to the fore—the overcoming of fear, the indignation at regime abuses, the euphoria of defeating autocrats, and even the post-revolutionary disappointments—has inspired me to take emotions seriously. I’m excited to see where that research will lead. 

Excerpt from Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement

Competition between Fateh’s young guard and old guard contributed to both camps’ adoption of positions that fueled the uprising. Aspirants’ desire to challenge the establishment reinforced their motivation to rally crowds against Oslo. The establishment’s need to weather this challenge motivated it to allow protest rather than suppress it. Fragmentation in the Palestinian movement thus generated incentives that propelled escalation from above and from below. It also weakened constraints on that escalation. Given Fateh’s loose organizational structure, members needed neither formal authorization nor majority approval before acting on their own vision of confrontation with Israel. A Fateh activist explained:

You can’t speak of anything in Fateh called “strategy.” Fateh is a situation more than it is an organization where members meet to discuss details and take decisions….Fateh is based on initiatives and orientations. A strong, active person or few people can decide that they want to gather a group. They decide that they want to confront the occupation, and then they do so. Or another group of people can issue a declaration that they want to talk with Israel and then go ahead and meet with members of the Knesset [the Israeli parliament]….When the institutional dimension is missing, individuals come to play a large role. What the Fateh movement gives you is legitimacy to take an initiative.

Fateh’s organizational structure gave members opportunities to spearhead protest. However, it did not give them tools to contain protest within nonviolent bounds. As Israeli troops shot demonstrators, shocked Palestinians called for self-defense and revenge. PA police officers, themselves members of society, experienced this hardening public mood. Their action in response was mediated by the conflicting political imperatives that governed the security forces as an apparatus. The 1996 tunnel riots had demonstrated that officers were caught in the contradictions of Oslo no less than was the PA leadership. A Fateh leader explained:

The basic role of the Palestinian police was to prevent people from starting confrontations. But they were not able to prevent large crowds from gathering. Demonstrators would face the Israeli army and security force officers stood behind the demonstrators.

If Israel had reacted with tear gas, no one would think of shooting. But the army started opening fire. The police were trapped between the order to stop people from gathering and what was happening on the ground in front of them. People started pressuring them to do something. They would say, “Why are you just standing there?” These police officers found themselves in a real moral dilemma.

Palestinians’ use of weapons began when security force officers shot from their side of checkpoints at Israeli soldiers on the other side. Israeli investigators found that PA officers neither initiated fire nor withheld it when Israel fired. Palestinian casualties quickly mounted, and impromptu armed cells emerged …

[Excerpted from Wendy Pearlman, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement. © Wendy Pearlman 2011. Excerpted by permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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