Michael Br√∂ning’s The Politics of Change in Palestine discusses the response of Palestinian political organisations to the challenge offered by US President Barak Obama in 2009. The book is clear and informative, but is lacking in alternatives that scrutinse Israel's role in the Middle East.
Michael Br√∂ning, The Politics of Change in Palestine: State Building and Non-Violent Resistance (Pluto 2011), 264pp.
Obama suggested that the only way to peace and recognition for Palestine was for the Palestinians themselves to take steps to show that they espoused non-violence and were capable of setting up state machinery acceptable to the Western democracies. The author discusses to what degree Hamas, Fatah and the PNA have moved towards the position Obama finds desirable. The book’s objective is ‘to highlight recent political changes in the Palestinian Territory’ and to ‘question previous perceptions of Palestinian aspirations and proposes a critical assessment of recent change’.
The ‘previous perceptions’ Br√∂ning discusses are those that hold Palestinians responsible for the failure to find an outcome to the Palestine/Israel conflict and which charge them with responsibility for violence, as Obama did. Br√∂ning explains that sympathy for Israel actually has grown in recent years in the US, while in Israel there have been racist debates in the Knesset and nearly half of Israeli school students do not believe that Palestinians should have equal rights. And yet, as Br√∂ning points out, resistance in Palestine was originally, and has been consistently, non-violent, from the general strikes and the Women’s March (1920s and 30s) to the first Intifada (1987-1993). This was ‘almost exclusively free from violence’ despite the ‘unrestrained’ Israeli response: beatings, shootings, killings, house demolitions, uprooting of trees, detention without trial, deportations, extended imprisonment.
Palestinians have resisted with strikes, funeral marches, tax boycotts, mass demonstrations, through raising banned Palestinian flags, organising hedge schoolrooms and the symbolic planting of trees. The Palestinians also resist by practising sumoud, or steadfastness, i.e., continuing one’s daily business whatever difficulties are placed in the way, such as long roundabout trips to work or school. Village committees have organised non-violent demonstrations against the Wall, supposedly built for protection for Israelis though on Palestinian land. There are the boycotts of Israeli goods, the refusal to work for Israeli companies based in Palestine and the academic and cultural boycott.
Yet, the Israelis have not espoused non-violence. Apart from the institutionalised violence of the occupation, there is the Gaza blockade which Br√∂ning describes as ‘the gravest human rights violation’. Demonstrations against the wall are ‘transformed into confrontations that can be dealt with militarily’ and regularly dispersed with tear gas, rubber bullets and chemical substances. The official reason for the Gaza blockade is to prevent Hamas re-arming. However, Br√∂ning explains that all relevant political institutions have embraced non-violent resistance as strategy. The anti-wall and anti-apartheid struggles which emerged from the grass-roots are encouraged by the leadership.
He devotes the first chapters of the book to detailing the changes which have taken place in Hamas and Fatah over the last few years, and transformed them from armed movements to political parties. Hamas, elected in 2006 in elections declared to be fair by international observers, now rules 35 percent of the Palestinian population and, as far as possible with the blockade of Gaza in place, has rebuilt the infrastructure. Hamas is committed to free elections, pluralism and free trade unions. No longer do Fatah or Hamas express anti-Semitic sentiments in official documents and there have been no rocket attacks recently. Fatah, now deeply rooted in Palestine with a new and younger leadership, turned to a search for a diplomatic solution as long ago as the 1970s, and was officially sanctioned by Obama in 2009.
Prime Minister Fayyad’s plan of 2009 sought to attain the basic requirements of the Oslo Accords. Despite the difficulty of state-building under Israeli occupation, particularly when West Bank Israeli settlements control 42 percent of the territory, the Palestinian National Authority has managed to build roads and houses, reliably connect energy to some areas and establish new health clinics, a blood bank and a drug rehabilitation centre, and has reformed the judiciary and public finance. Despite the very high overall poverty rate, the World Bank in June 2010 described the economic growth as ‘more efficient and effective than other countries in the region’. Fayyad wants a UN security council declaration of independence.
Br√∂ning asks how the Palestinian side would react to the continued absence of a Palestinian state despite all preconditions for statehood having been met. Netanyahu, supported, unsurprisingly, by Tony Blair, says Israel will not talk to ‘terrorists’ and called for the overthrow of Hamas. Yet, despite the blockade and the invasion of Gaza in 2008/9, Hamas has not been removed from power and 64 percent of Israelis favour talks with them. Br√∂ning points out that now Netanyahu is describing non-violent protest as ‘terrorism’. Already, some Palestinians say that violent struggle led to the withdrawal of Israeli forces and taking hostages got the political prisoners on the agenda.
This book is extremely well-written, clear, concise, informative and well-laid out. However, its parameters prevent analysis of the Israeli attitude; although Br√∂ning repeatedly states that Israeli public opinion is misinformed about the Palestinian attitude to violence, there is no discussion of why this might be. More importantly, it never seeks to discuss Israel’s role in the Middle East or why it is so strongly supported by the US. He is aware of the hypocrisy, lack of credibility or commitment to democracy shown by the Israelis and their supporters in the West, but does not offer any alternative.
What Br√∂ning’s remedy is, given the intransigence of the Israelis and the massive humanitarian injustice inflicted upon the Palestinians, he does not make clear: perhaps it is for the ‘international community’ (by which he means the diplomats and politicians) to bring pressure to bear upon the Israelis to be less intransigent. However when Br√∂ning wrote the book, late in 2010, he wondered how long it would be before there were changes in Syria and Egypt. Since then we have witnessed the biggest revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This appears to me to offer more potential and hope for Palestine than trusting to Western diplomats to negotiate a settlement which is highly unlikely to benefit the Palestinians.