Why do Palestinians use violence and terrorism instead of nonviolent resistance?

Largely as a result of mainstream news coverage of events in the Middle East, many Americans believe that most Palestinians support terrorism against Israeli civilians as the preferred method of resistance to the occupation. Some people even argue that Palestinians have used terrorism and violence against Israelis simply because they hate all Jews.  It is a fact that over one thousand Israeli civilians have died as a result of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks since the beginning of the conflict (most of them during the Second Intifada between 2000-2005*), but violence and terrorism is far from the whole story. 

Some radical Palestinian militant groups still support violence and terrorism as a method of resistance, which they justify as one of the only methods available to an otherwise militarily unequipped people against Israel’s powerful military that has killed many Palestinian civilians.  A few of these militant groups have continued to fire occasional rockets into southern Israel from Gaza despite a Hamas-imposed cease fire that took effect after Israel’s war against Gaza in 2008-2009 (Operation Cast Lead).  Though very few Israeli civilians have died as a result of these rockets, these indiscriminate attacks that endanger Israeli civilians have been widely and repeatedly condemned by a variety of sources, including international human rights organizations and the Goldstone Report.

Palestinian militants first employed suicide bombing as a terrorist tactic in the 1990s, and most Israeli civilian deaths due to suicide bombers occurred during the Second Intifada—between 2000 and 2005.  Though no suicide bombings against Israeli civilians have been carried out since 2006, and most Palestinians condemn terrorism and support nonviolent resistance as a preferable strategy, supporters of Israeli policy continue to repeat the stereotype of the Palestinian suicide bomber to justify many of Israel’s oppressive policies.

However, despite this small percentage of Palestinians who have committed violent terrorist attacks, since the late 1980s, most Palestinian leaders have publicly renounced terrorism against Israeli civilians, and most Palestinians have been using nonviolent resistance since the beginning of the conflict and especially after the occupation in 1967, though this is typically not widely reported in American news media. 

Though it is commonly described as a violent uprising, the First Intifada that began in 1987 was predominately a nonviolent movement, in which Palestinians engaged in a variety of nonviolent tactics, including strikes, boycotts, tax refusal, nonviolent demonstrations, and many other forms of creative nonviolent resistance to the occupation. 

There is some debate about whether throwing rocks at heavily armed tanks and soldiers is more of a symbolic or violent act, yet it has rarely caused serious injury to its military targets.  Even though some young Palestinians continue to throw stones at Israeli military forces, most Palestinians who participate in demonstrations or other forms of civil disobedience do so nonviolently--without throwing stones.  In response to rock-throwing and other solely nonviolent methods of resistance, Israel has often imprisoned and otherwise severely punished Palestinians for participating.  Hundreds of Palestinians are in jail today for attending nonviolent demonstrations or for throwing rocks, and they sometimes serve months or even years in prison for such offenses.

Even though most Palestinians personally support nonviolent resistance, especially in recent years, many of them believe that Palestinians, like other oppressed people throughout the world, have a “right to resist” military occupation with armed force against the occupying military. Though it is disputed, there is some basis in international law for this right, and in similar circumstances in other places, people who have used armed resistance to fight against an oppressive military force in order to secure freedom and self-determination have often been supported by the international community as legitimate “freedom fighters”, as in the case of US support for pro-democracy Libyans resisting Gaddafi.

It is also important to remember that Palestinians are not the only ones who have used terrorism as a tactic in this conflict.  Before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent legitimation of the Haganah as Israel’s state military force (the IDF), militant Jewish resistance groups, including the Irgun (Etzel), Lehi, and the Stern Gang carried out terrorist attacks against Palestinian and British civilians during the British Mandate period as well as during the war in 1947-48, killing dozens of British and hundreds of Palestinians civilians.  One of the most infamous Israeli terrorists is Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers and wounded 150 in a Hebron mosque in 1994.  Radical Jewish Israeli settlers continue to routinely attack and sometimes kill Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, and one radical settler was recently arrested for terrorist attacks against Palestinians and Israeli leftists.  Because incidents like these are not as heavily covered in the American news media, people tend to associate terrorism only with Palestinians.

In addition to this conflict, terrorism against civilians and armed attacks against military targets are tactics that have been employed by many resistance groups around the world for hundreds of years, so it is in no way unique to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Unfortunately, the instances of resistance movements using violence as part of their struggle for freedom and equality have been much more common than the very few examples that have relied primarily on nonviolent resistance.  Some examples of resistance movements that incorporated violence include Irish Catholics, Algerians, Basques in Spain, Vietnamese against the U.S., Sudanese in Darfur, Chechens, and many many others throughout history--including both the American Indians and the American colonists who fought against British rule.  Even liberation movements that we popularly associate with nonviolence have included factions that engaged in violence.  For example, before Nelson Mandela unequivocally renounced violence in the early 1990s, in earlier years, some members of the ANC engaged in acts of violence and terror (and the ANC was once classified as a terrorist group).  Though both Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi condemned all violence, there were some violent elements in each liberation struggle.  And, just because some people in a resistance movement use violence, that does not therefore negate that people’s legitimate rights and grievances.

Palestinians who do support armed resistance against Israeli military, like those in other armed resistance movements, often argue that it is hypocritical for people to demand complete nonviolence from those resisting their oppression while condoning the use of violent military actions by the much stronger oppressor that often kill civilians.

Regardless of whether it is directed at civilians or military targets, the use of violence as a form of resistance to the occupation has been losing support amongst Palestinians during and since the Second Intifada.  Today, though most Palestinians still support a “right to resist” through armed struggle in principle (though not against civilians), they increasingly believe that nonviolent resistance is the most moral, ethical, and effective method.  Weekly nonviolent demonstrations against the Separation Barrier in the West Bank continue in several villages throughout the West Bank.  Aside from a few more radical, militant groups, most Palestinians and their leaders support this nonviolent popular struggle and renounce terrorism.

  1. Op-ed by Moustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian National Initiative about nonviolent protest:

  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/22/opinion/peaceful-protest-can-free-palestine.html

  3. Palestinian-American professor and activist, Steven Salaita on Palestinian nonviolence:

  4. http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/09/memo-from-the-wretched-enough-about-nonviolence/

  5. Palestinian professor Mazin Qumsiyeh on Palestinian nonviolence:

  6. http://www.ameu.org/printer.asp?iid=291&aid=621

  7. An article from the New York Review of Books on Palestinian nonviolent protest in the West Bank:

  8. http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2010/jun/14/unarmed-protest-new-palestinian-approach/

  9. A brief history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance:

  10. http://www.palestinemonitor.org/spip/spip.php?article1081

  11. Another short piece about the history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance from HLT:

  12. http://www.holylandtrust.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=462&Itemid=307

  13. A scholarly article about nonviolent popular resistance as a way to resolve the conflict:

  14. http://www.princeton.edu/~jpia/pdf2003/Ch%209%20People-Stephan-JPIA%202003.pdf

  15. Statement from the 3rd Bil’in Conference on Grassroots Nonviolent Resistance:

  16. http://www.ramallahquakers.org/pdfs/bilin%20conference%202008.pdf

  17. On the legality of the Palestinian “right to resist”:

  18. http://www.diakonia.se/sa/node.asp?node=1132

  19. Human Rights Watch condemns Hamas war crimes in Gaza:

  20. http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=217298

  21.          Here is one Palestinian militant who wrote about when violence is legitimate as a method of

  22.          resistance:

  23. http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A51887-2002Jan15

  24. This interview with the leader of Hamas after they won the 2006 election includes Hamas’ position regarding methods of resistance and other issues:

  25. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/24/AR2006022402317_4.html

  26. Article about international and Palestinian resistance to the Israeli blockade of Gaza from an organizer in the Free Gaza movement:

  27. http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=214971

  28. An analysis of factors that lead to suicide attacks:

  29. http://www.ecaar.org/Newsletter/Nov04/saleh.htm

  30. For more information on Jewish terrorism and violence:

  31. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irgun

  32. http://www.btselem.org/english/Settler_violence/Index.asp

*Though exact figures on Palestinian civilian deaths are somewhat disputed, at least 4 times as many Palestinian civilians as Israelis died in that same period.