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Globalising Nonviolence: The International Solidarity Movement

For discussing this article you can go to the corresponding page on the WRI Wiki

Since militarism, exploitation and oppression are globalised problems we need global resistance and global solidarity with each other in order to be able to construct new social relations. Within the organising committee of the War Resisters International conference Globalising Nonviolence we have discussed the problem of how to mobilise global nonviolent resistance which is guided by local needs and context, not becoming a new form of imperialism from outside where foreign (read Western) activists impose their solutions since they think they know better. The International Solidarity Movement has since its start shown the possibility and strength of an international nonviolent intervention in an armed conflict, but despite successes, there are also (always) problems. We asked Safaa Daoud, a student of peace and development at School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University, Sweden, to interview some ISM activists and reflect on the movement as an example of global nonviolent resistance. (Ed.)

By Safaa Daoud

Shortly after the outbreak of the second Intifada in Palestine, in the summer of 2001, nonviolence activists in the West Bank called for international support in the struggle against the Israeli occupation. At this time, the illegal occupation of Palestinian land showed no signs of retreat, it rather seemed to advance and intensify. The Intifada was a result of the Israeli occupation, the lack of power of the Palestinian authorities and the frustration over the world’s incapacity to solve the conflict. It was, and still is, a protest against the failure of the peace agreements signed in Oslo 1993. The first Intifada happened in the late 80s, and the resistance took the form of, all in all, a nonviolent strategy. But the general view of nonviolent resistance during the second Intifada is that it is ineffective and does not apply to Israeli politics. The violence of the occupation is fiercer this time and the pressure from the outside world on Israel to withdraw is weaker than ever before. The fact that the Palestinian people are unwilling to leave the land is the source of the general resistance today; to stay put, and not give in to the Israeli state force. If it is the will of the Israeli government to force the Palestinian people to withdraw then staying becomes the resistance.

Even though the current general view in Palestine is that nonviolence is ineffective and that it has shrunk into a small movement compared to the first Intifada, the direct nonviolence activism has survived throughout the years. This small nonviolence movement realised that as long as there isn’t a fully developed, mobilised and organised Palestinian nonviolence movement, help from the outside world would be needed in order to continue the work. At this point, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) was founded. The anticipated effect of having international activists taking part in the actions is that it will reduce the level of violence from the Israeli military. The idea is that for a country, dependent on legitimacy from the outside world, a citizen not directly involved in the conflict will hold immunity against injury or death. This means that it would be harder to use violence against a nonviolent demonstrator and a non-Palestinian citizen. But this assumption has been proven wrong. Two activists, American Rachel Coree and British Tom Hurndall, were killed by Israeli military in 2003. Many severe injuries and even more lighter injuries have occurred. Arrests and deportations of international activists are rather common. Even though this is the case, the general experience is that the participation of an international citizen in actions actually does lower the threat of violence from the Israeli military. Also there have been Israeli peace activists participating in actions with ISM. But even though they are directly involved in the conflit as Israeli citizens, the experience is that they receive pretty much the same treatment from the Israeli military as the international activists do.

The international laws of the UN state that a country under occupation has the right to defend itself with military force. ISM is in full agreement with these international laws and with the UN resolutions that demand Israel to withdraw its occupation. This accord with international laws is seen as the reason for ISM's existence. In this sense the ISM supports the Palestinians right to military resistance against Israeli military targets. However, ISM believes in the nonviolence part of the resistance. The nonviolence activist uses this method exclusively and perceives it as an effective and powerful tool against the occupation. ISM has not only survived since its foundation, but also been successful as an international movement working through nonviolence strategy. In this article I would like to present what ISM activists has pointed out to me in interviews on what they personnally think has made their work possible.

Since the foundation of ISM, estimations tell us that about 300 Swedish citizens have travelled to the occupied territories. Some have travelled several times. Maria, one contact person for the Swedish ISM tells me: “The international activists are the tools that make the struggle possible to perform as the Palestinians want it”. It is a method of resistance that can mean acting as protection through following children being harassed on their way to school or guarding Palestinian homes at risk of being demolished. From my understanding, ISM has two overlapping goals. First is to demonstrate to the world the violations of human rights that the occupation implies. This is partly realized through weekly demonstrations. There are also campaigns held every summer and widespread demonstrations are made throughout the occupied territories. Furthermore, activists report their witnesses and experiences of the occupation to their home countries. A contact person forwards the information to media. Written reports are also continuously sent back to home countries and some activists write articles for newspapers. In a way they are acting as an eye to the outside world. This is crucial considering the isolation that the Palestinian people are living in. Another goal is to fill the need of protection that the Palestinian people lack in many ways. The activist goes where there is a need to be filled. This can mean protecting a Palestinian farmer from harassment that make her or him unable to work, or setting up a vigil outside Palestinian houses that are under the risk of having family members arrested, only to name a few of the actions. Lately, the building of the Separation Wall has been in focus. International ISM activists can be needed in negotiations at the gates to make it easier for Palestinian people to pass through.

ISM is a movement in the sense that it has no record over its members. People join the movement and travel to Palestine as individuals, and not as members of an organisation.

The flexibility of joining is one of the positive things prone with ISM being a movement.

People, who want to join, book their own ticket and stand for the travelling and living expenses during their stay. When joining the movement, the member can be active in the home country, go to the occupied territories or, by all means, do both. If the decision is to go to the occupied territories, compulsory procedures will prepare for the time spent there. The preparation contains  a two days-training in how ISM perceives nonviolence, what is to be expected from the Israeli military, background and history of the occupation, and further ahead in time, how to deal with difficult emotional experiences during the stay. Another point that makes it easy to collaborate is concerned with the ideological position of the participant. ISM is not connected to any political parties or religious believes. The demands of participating are simplified to agreeing on the most basic grounds for achieving the cause. In this case, the demands are that a participant should be in alliance with the UN resolutions and to nonviolence. Hence, in this sense, the ISM is of interest and welcomes those, no matter gender, age or nationality, prepared to accept these conditions. In addition, the occupation is not only a territorial matter fought on specific grounds. It is in no less degree fought in the home countries of the international activists and needs to be battled there too. This implies collaborating with other solidarity organisations to pressure the politics of their governments and to campaign for boycott of merchandise and trade strongly connected to sustaining the occupation. One example is to demonstrate outside travelling agencies that sell vacation trips to occupied territories.

When it comes to the question of decision-making, ISM has no leadership. It is organised through local groups founded by those active in the movement. All decisions are taken in consensus. This makes it optional for participants to join the actions, as it is important that they feel comfortable in taking part in what has been planned. However, there have been examples of activists feeling obliged to contribute. Simply because there come periods when there is a shortage of activists. Nonetheless, the consensus way of decision-making has been of great importance for ISM. However, the international activists are in Palestine due to a call from Palestinian activists. They go to the occupied territories, knowing that they do so only to fill a need that the Palestinian activists know more about than someone coming from the outside. So the decisions that are to be done rely very much on the knowledge of the fellow Palestinian activists, talks to the people living in the area where actions are to be made and the local authorities. This leads us to another condition stated by ISM, which also can be seen as an additional reason behind its achievements. For someone coming from the outside, joining the struggle, means joining it as it is set by those living within the conflict. This becomes even more important as actions can alter consequences in form of response from the Israeli military on local communities where they are taking place. The movement has tried to avoid situations where the received help is on the conditions of the one helping. Palestinian nonviolence activists called for the start of the movement and have since then been the ones stating the core conditions for how particular actions in the struggle is done. In this way, the ISM is trying to deal with the post-colonial trap; the “westerner” helping the “other“. This makes the practical work, on the occupied territories, easier for ISM, as the international participators receive a high level of acceptance from the Palestinian people.

One of the internal problems that ISM experiences are found in the method of consensus, as there is a difficulty of making sure that all have spoken and taken part in the decision-making. This is a big problem especially when looking at it from a gender perspective. Male leading roles often arise early on in the work. ISM has tried to take this into consideration. Trainings, recently set up in Jerusalem, highlight the question of gender structures that exist within the movement. Furthermore, the number of people coming to join ISM in Palestine cannot be predicted and that has also been expressed as a problem. The flexibility of joining the movement is therefore not only positive as it was mentioned before. Obviously, there have been different kinds of external problems that make the work of ISM difficult. Except for expected confrontations with the Israeli military, there are obstacles such as roadblocks and checkpoints that make the coordination of activists problematic. There is also a great need for activists on the occupied territories. But there is insecurity when crossing the Israeli border, whether to get through or not. Even though it is legal to be part of the movement, one can easily be sent back to the home country by border police due to the participation.

The legitimacy of ISM is another important aspect that has been pointed out to me in talks to ISM-activists. In order to survive, the legitimacy in the countries where the movement exists is vital. This can be understood when looking at it from a broader perspective. After the events of 9/11, the American discourse of world politics involves the dichotomy of “Either you’re with us, or against us”. This has led to anti-terrorism laws that made it possible to proclaim organisations and movements as terrorist and illegal without public evidence or trials. Even though ISM is critical of US and European politics, these unjust laws have not yet affected it. Another point of legitimacy must be recognised as ISM: s nonviolence strategy many times must involve civil disobedience. Though civil disobedience has been necessary for ISM, it seems not to have affected the movement’s legitimacy throughout the years. The Geneva Convention makes the occupation illegal and stands in this conflict in favour of the Palestinian authorities. But international forces are not there to uphold the law and do not seem to be in the near future. What is the weight of international law in this matter; if a government does not seem to respect it and the rest of the world do little to uphold it? What then is the weight of the laws in the same country that does not respect international law? This, as I believe, is one of the reasons why ISM has sustained its legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Civilians are taking matters in their own hands and act upon what is stated in international law and the resolutions of the UN. This has meant per automatic breaking the laws of the occupation.

ISM reflects some of the different dimensions of the age of globalisation. In terms of the globalisation of a struggle, the ISM is an example of how that can be done. The role of information technology is crucial to communication and information spreading. That is essential in order to make an international movement work at all. The recognition of the impact of international politics is another dimension. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a battle that involves more than two nations seen from a global perspective. US and European politics affect the conflict constantly and so hold a responsibility in its outcome. Furthermore, a pressure from the rest of the international community is needed. This is acknowledged by ISM activists that identify themselves with each other in the frustration they feel over their governments’ responsibility in the conflict.

As it appears to me, the reason behind why the nonviolent Palestinian struggle was taken to the international level was because the violations of human rights saw no territorial limitations. The International Solidarity Movement is one example of several movements that saw an issue that applied to people across national borders. The recognition of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as being something more than a conflict concerning only territory, gathered thousands of solidarity and peace activists around the world. The ISM activist sees through borders and barriers in the matter of human rights and international justice. No borders in the matter of crossing a country and few barriers in defying its laws. A serious consequence is that people’s lives will be at risk, and that is taken into consideration. But, the prospect of people living under a seemingly never-ending occupation is taken additionally into the very same consideration.


Information based on interviews and the help of Shora Esmailian, Lo Bjerregaard and Maria Genberg active in Swedish ISM. The interviews are done between March and April 2006 in Gothenburg, Sweden. Further information based on an interview with George Rishmawi for Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement between people done in November 2005 through a phone call.
Aladin, Laurieann and Stohlman, Nancy (ed.) Live from Palestine-International and Palestinian direct action against the Israeli occupation. 2003. Cambridge: South End Press

For discussing this article you can go to the corresponding page on the WRI Wiki.

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