“Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement” – A Conversation with Wendy Pearlman

Wendy Pearlman is the Crown Junior Chair in Middle East Studies and assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University. She discussed her new book, “Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement.”


She framed her talk around the question that many observers often ask: where is the “Palestinian Gandhi?” She sought to investigate why non-violent and violent strategies have been used at different points in time. To do so, Pearlman first examined common held perceptions regarding the use of violence: that movements use the protest strategies most effective for their aims (strategic rationality), that cultural explanations can account for violence if some movements are more drawn to violence or non-violence because certain cultural beliefs (i.e. the “cult of martyrdom”), and lastly that interaction with the other side and its repression, in this case Israel, affects their use of one strategy over another.

While she attested that these theories offered insight, they also fell short because they portrayed movements as seemingly unitary actors; as machines that acted on the basis of strategic rationality or culture, or like a billiard ball that’s pushed by pressures from external actors. She asserted that this ignored the complications and dynamics internal to movements.

Looking at these internal dynamics, she sought to discover how the degree of internal unity or fragmentation determined the decision to use a violent or nonviolent strategy. Pearlman described how nonviolent protest requires coordination among members, and collective restraint. According to her research, she found that only cohesive movements can do this well. On the other hand, fragmentation increases the likelihood of violent protest, particularly when factions use violence as a way of competing against each other.
Greater fragmentation weakens constraints on escalation and increases the opportunities for external intervention and proxy groups, opening up more channels for violence. Hence, her book’s argument is that fragmentation increases the chances of violent protest.

She calls this approach the “organizational mediation theory of protest,” namely the link of cohesion and fragmentation to violent or nonviolent protest. She stated that if a movement is not cohesive, it is very difficult to organize nonviolent protests. However, she mentioned that cohesion is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the use of nonviolent protest. For measuring cohesion in reference to the Palestinian national movement, Pearlman utilized a variety of qualitative measures.

Pearlman devoted the remainder of the talk to a discussion of different points in the history of the Palestinian national movement. She began with an overview of the strategic choices of the movement during the British mandate period. At this time, as Jewish immigration increased and the formations of institutionalization took root, the more Palestinians escalated operations and violence. Overwhelming opposition to Zionism was a point of unity, yet fragmentation was rampant between powerful families, tribal leaders, and many other facets of the community. However, Pearlman highlighted the 1936 General Strike as a good example of cohesion leading to an organized nonviolent movement. Palestinians came together with a common goal of pressuring the British to change their policies by creating dozens of committees and organizing boycotts and demonstrations.

After six months of the strike, exhaustion set in and the strike was ended. The subsequent period of fragmentation led to the second state of the Arab rebellion, which was overwhelmingly armed and violent. This began when the British arrested and deported middle-ranking leaders, causing local committees to fall apart and eroding unity. A subsequent Palestinian civil war, in her view, destroyed the movement and the disarray set the stage for the war to come in 1948.

Pearlman then turned to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Palestinian guerilla movements that formed outside and near Israel’s borders merged into the PLO in 1969. According to her analysis, this period offered a degree of cohesion and fragmentation. In terms of cohesion, the PLO offered for the first time some semblance of governmental leadership. They formed executive councils and a parliament that met periodically, and most importantly created a forum for decision-making.

However, at the same time there was also fragmentation. Different factions retained their autonomy under this umbrella, and it was only the least common denominators among these groups that held the movement together. There were growing rivalries between groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Fatah, and more rampant attacks and plane hijackings, while conversely Yasser Arafat sought a diplomatic solution and inclusion in international diplomacy. Nonviolent protest at this time was sparse, and fragmentation shaped the rise of violent protest in its stead.

Pearlman next looked at the first intifada. Based in the Palestinian Territories, it was much more rooted in a defined and organized society than when the PLO was frequently on the move. The time was fertile for the development of this largely non-violent uprising. There was a rich infrastructure of civil society and organizations in the territories (women’s groups, community projects, etc.), and the PLO developed above ground factions by sponsoring different groups. In the mid to late 1980s, Pearlman found that nearly every Palestinian family had someone involved in one of these groups, demonstrating the breadth and scope of civil society at this time. A large part of this cohesion was rooted in the collective belief that the PLO was the leadership body and becoming the voice of the Palestinian people. Pearlman described an “ethic of activist nationalism” that spread across the territories, building upon overwhelming support for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.This cohesion helped contain opposition, namely Hamas, whose beginnings were during this period. The potential of violence was contained by a degree of popular opinion and popular unity; that had groups like Hamas turned to violence, they would have paid a price in terms of popularity. This nonviolent movement was complemented by the efforts of the PLO in diplomatic initiatives from Tunisia shifting from protest to diplomacy.

Lastly, Pearlman looked at the rise of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and new forms of fragmenting dynamics in the Palestinian national movement. The rich civil society began to break down as community measures were transferred from a grassroots level to a reliance on the newly formed government. However, the PA had weak institutions, and despite efforts to create a state, power still remained concentrated in the hands of Arafat.

Pearlman asserted that the Oslo process hinged on the expectation that it would work by bringing about statehood. When it seemed that this would not be a reality, there was a lack of clarity among Palestinians as to where to go next. The foundations toward the end of the 1990s were, in Pearlman’s analysis, simply not there to make a cohesive nonviolent uprising, but they were there for competition. Hence, 2000 saw the start of the second intifada and a largely armed uprising. The uprising was indicative of fragmentation, without a unified voice, leadership, or strong organizational structure to bring factions together to craft a unified policy. In contrast to the first intifada, Palestinian public opinion was split on the goal and factional competition resulted in a turn to violence.

Pearlman ended her talk with a question: where to go from here? Taking into account the Palestinian case study, she proposed that counterinsurgency policies based on divide and conquer might have unintended consequences. The degree that groups are fragmented can preclude the use of nonviolent protest by undermining the organizational foundations. She explained that cohesion can be in the interests of both the group struggling and the one seeking concessions. However, when external parties make incentives for one party to avoid reconciling with the other, as has been the case with Fatah and Hamas, the chances for sustained nonviolent protest are hindered. She emphasized that policy makers should avoid thwarting moves to cohesion because ultimately a strong and unified Palestinian national movement is in the interests of both Palestinians and Israelis.

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