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Why Isn’t There a Palestinian Gandhi? Ask the Israeli Protester the IDF Just Shot

The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem recently released a video of an Israeli solider shooting a rubber bullet into an Israeli protester at short range. The incident took place during a demonstration against the separation wall in the Palestinian village … Read More

By / May 29, 2008

The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem recently released a video of an Israeli solider shooting a rubber bullet into an Israeli protester at short range. The incident took place during a demonstration against the separation wall in the Palestinian village of Bil'in. The army has said that it is investigating the incident, yet added that since Bil'in has experienced past clashes between protesters and the IDF, "security forces were ordered to employ crowd dispersal means on the demonstrators."

The injured activist, Eran Cohen, an 18 year-old from Tel-Aviv, has stated that he was there to protest the incarceration of a friend. In the video, Cohen is seen wearing a backpack and screaming in the direction of the soldiers in Hebrew. According to Cohen: "I yelled 'enough with the violence' at them, and then a soldier turned around and fired a rubber bullet into my leg. I was evacuated to Assaf Harofeh Medical Center, where I was examined and operated on to extract the bullet. I was given pain killers and released home." Cohen says he plans on returning and continuing to protest what he sees as the injustice suffered by the Palestinians in Bil'in. "The village’s residents suffer more bullet hits than I have. Compared to what they are going through, my case is nothing."

While it is unknown whether the solider was following orders when he discharged a bullet into Cohen's body, the video captures a very transparent violation of official army regulations. According to the IDF's code of conduct, military action can only be taken against military targets, the use of force must be proportional, and when appropriate, soldiers must provide the wounded with medical care. Moreover, IDF regulations state that rubber bullets must be fired from a distance no closer than 40 meters. As the video shows, Cohen, who did not in any way pose a threat to the soldiers, was standing at a distance of no more than ten meters from the solider who shot him.

Being a solider in the territories is an extremely stressful experience, one you can never fully understand until you lace up those boots . But the response of the solider and his platoon seems inexcusable to me. It is not only that the solider shot the protestor — notice that there is no verbal or gunfire warning (at least not on the recording) — but also the way he did it: with the same ease that one swats away a pesky mosquito.

Moreover, his platoon seems to be totally uninterested. They just keep on walking without even turning their heads. (Eventually Cohen was helped by other protesters). Such indifference is a telling and alarming sign of what soldiers in the occupied territories have become accustomed to. One is left to wonder: If Israeli protesters have it this bad, what do their Palestinian counterpart have to deal with?

People have often argued that if only the Palestinians were to use the method of Gandhi and King, then this whole crises would be over and done with. Paul Wolfowitz, for example, said, "If the Palestinians adopt the ways of Gandhi, they could, in fact, make an enormous change very quickly. I believe the power of individuals demonstrating peacefully is enormous." While I sympathize with the idea of non-violent resistance, when applied to Palestine such thinking tends to ignore or minimize the historical record and the reality on the ground.

The historical record of non-violence in Palestine is discouraging to say the least. The closest that the Palestinians have come to a Gandhi has been Mubarak Awad, the charismatic leader who stressed non-violent non-cooperation with the Israeli occupation. Israel's response to Awad was to expel him from the country in 1988 — a decision that in hindsight was a tragic mistake. The first Intifada, which had the very real potential of being a non-violent uprising, lacked the leadership necessary to mobilize large-scale civil disobedience. After that, the script has pretty much remained the same, with no one of note seriously considering relinquishing the sanctity and logic of armed conflict for the alternative of non-violent resistance. Understandingly, many people have come to the conclusion that it is not in the DNA of either people to respond to conflict in a non-violent manner

When you see videos like Cohen's, videos that are in accord with the testimony of many eyewitness on the ground, you began to wonder if the likes of Gandhi or King would have stood a chance in the occupied territories in the first place. As the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh once said, if Gandhi was resisting the French instead of the British he would have given up non-violence within a week – presumably because he would be dead. Surely if the IDF’s de facto position (in contrast to its de jure regulations) is to shoot peaceful protestors, Gandhi and King would have had a very tough time getting their movements off the ground. Moreover, a serious Palestinian effort at civil disobedience will most certainly experience vigorous and violent opposition among Palestinians as well. No members of Hamas and other militant groups will allow their power to be challenged without a fight. And as we have seen in the past, Hamas and their ilk has no difficulty gunning down and eliminating opposition.

Finally, the "Gandhi in Palestine" theory also ignores the reality that the Israeli heart, like an egg in boiling water, has become hardened. It's not that the Israeli people are lacking in compassion. It's just that the situation has created more than one wall dividing us from the Palestinians. The only reason we pay attention to this video is because it captures an Israeli solider shooting a fellow Israeli. Were this a Palestinian, we would not have cared. Indeed, it would take a great deal of exposure to lucid raw injustice to weaken our Dershowitzian Super-Egos — those voices inside our heads that have been fine-tuned to explain away and assuage our guilt.

Civil disobedience can only function against a semi-civilized opposition, an opposition that is governed by rule of law, decency, and proportional restraint. Israel needs to figure out if that description represents her.

In order to do so, Israelis must answer a number questions: As long as we occupy, what kind of occupiers are we? Are we an occupation that talks like the British but acts like the French? Or should we aspire to treat those under our control the way we would want to be treated if the situation was reversed? Oh wait, if we did that, would we even be there in the first place?

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