Is it time for a Palestinian Ministry of Nonviolence?
What would it take to elevate the role of nonviolence in the struggle for Palestinian justice? For Lucy Nusseibeh, forming a “ministry of nonviolence” would be an important step “to always keep the nonviolent options in the forefront of all Palestinian official actions.”
Nusseibeh is the founder and director of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND), which promotes “active nonviolence” among youth and adults throughout Palestine. The MEND Web site explains, “In light of the victory of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections, Palestinians risk more than ever being collectively dismissed as violent and impossible to talk with.” In the past few years, however, there has been a growing interest in alternatives to violence as many Palestinians “have specifically expressed their dissatisfaction with the cycle of violence.”
As Nusseibeh sees it, the Palestinian Ministry of Nonviolence would operate as a branch of the Palestinian National Authority. One of its main tasks would be to set up a National Nonviolence Youth Force, in which Palestinian youths could study nonviolence and undergo training in conflict resolution, studying the works of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Gene Sharp, and Paolo Freire. “There would also be a part involving anger management, dealing with frustration, [and] looking at fear, as it is very difficult living under occupation,” says Nusseibeh. “There would be role-playing having to do with encounters with violence, and exercises around language and the power of words in getting to the heart of conflict resolution and mediation.”
Nusseibeh, who has graduate degrees from Oxford and Harvard, is a mother of three grown sons and a young daughter. She would like to see these youths return to their communities as problem solvers, mentors, and moral influences on the Palestinian police and security forces. One role model is Hejazi Jaaberi, a MEND organizer in the West Bank city of Hebron, a security officer with the Palestinian Authority, and a man who believes in using nonviolent methods in engaging with prisoners.
Founded in 1998, MEND organizes nonviolence trainings and is involved in resistance activities such as anti-roadblock demonstrations, protests against the Israeli-built “separation barrier,” and festivals of Palestinian culture. Nusseibeh dedicates herself to devising practical ways in which a culture sundered by violence can be transformed into a culture of nonviolence.
Last September, on the International Day of Peace, MEND issued a statement that began: “Our region has suffered for over one hundred years, and we believe it is time to change the paradigm from one of conflict, fear, and violence, to one of peace, freedom, and security. We believe it is important to establish a government ministry with a clear mandate to make it possible to bring about this change.”
Not long ago, calling for such a ministry would have led to ridicule. Some might still find it ridiculous, especially in light of Israel’s disregard for any expression of Palestinian nonviolence, beginning with its expulsion of Mubarak Awad, the Palestinian Gandhian activist, during the first intifada in 1988 (over the objections of the Reagan administration). And there are Palestinian hard-core believers in armed struggle who cling to violence as the only path.
But these days, blood fatigue is strong on the West Bank. The Hamas vs. Fatah carnage is a big contributor to this fatigue. Some “might sneer,” Nusseibeh said, “but I doubt if they would sabotage a Ministry of Nonviolence.”
And people are playing close attention to the stubborn nonviolent resistance (sometimes marred by stone-throwing and the cursing of soldiers) to the wall at the West Bank village of Bil’in. There, the tall, open-mesh “separation barrier” constructed by the Israeli government has, together with the growth of Israeli settlements since the 1980s, separated villagers from half of their farmland. Every Friday for more than three years, Palestinians, together with Israeli activists and internationals, have marched to the wall, where Israeli soldiers routinely turn them back with stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets.
Some Palestinian Authority officials with whom Nusseibeh is in contact have expressed interest in the Ministry of Nonviolence proposal. At a conference held by MEND last year, Nabil Amr, an adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas, was vocal in his support for the idea.
Nusseibeh promises that her dialogue efforts will continue. She is hopeful that “Palestine will become the first country to have a Ministry of Nonviolence.”
Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based journalist. For more about MEND, visit www.mendonline.org.