The Power of Passive Resistance

Passive resistance may very well be more effective than terrorism

Looking back over the history of modern terrorism, one of the most notable aspects is that is almost always fails to achieve its objectives.1 In fact, terrorism used by itself has only ever been effective in a strict anti-colonial context. In colonies throughout the world, terrorism was sometimes capable of raising the costs of occupation enough to reduce the benefits to the point where the colonial power decided staying wasn't worth it. Other groups have sought to emulate these successes in other contexts and have failed miserably. Examples include the IRA, RAF, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and just about any other group you can think of.

None of these groups are anti-colonial. The IRA viewed Northern Ireland in a colonial context, but it was wrong: The majority of the Northern Irish viewed themselves as British and wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. This was a case of majority rule. Colonies consist of a minority ruling over a majority from far away. The Northern Irish were represented in the UK Parliament and the majority of the population wished things to stay that way. The IRA failed in the end because it failed to understand that Northern Ireland was not a British colony.

Palestinian terror groups have made the same mistake. Israel is not a colony; it is a nation-state ruled by the state's citizen residents. Demanding Palestinian control of Israel is demanding that Israelis agree to destroy their own state. That's something they will never agree to, and that should be obvious to anyone.

But what about the Occupied Territories? These do resemble colonies: They're controlled from afar and the majority of those in the territories is not represented and does not agree with the occupation. Some Palestinian groups have been using terrorism for decades to try to end the occupation, but they haven't really been successful. Why?

Two reasons. One: their goals have been total, including the destruction of Israel. This has made it difficult for any Israeli government to negotiate with them because the very existence of these groups is seen as a threat to the survival of Israel itself. Two: they are using terrorism, which is violent and robs them of support and sympathy in many people's eyes.

One could argue that Hamas has actually achieved success in Gaza: The occupation there has ended and Hamas controls the Strip. Imagine if the groups used only passive resistance, however. Passive resistance is also only likely to work in an anti-colonial context, but that means it would be appropriate to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Terror groups suffer two problems stemming from their use of terror: They scare people enough to cause voters and governments to desire to wipe them out rather than negotiate, and they lack legitimacy. Civil disobedience would, like terrorism, make continued occupation of the territories more difficult, raising its cost. Refraining from violence, however, would also remove one of the benefits of the occupation: security. One reason for the continued occupation at the moment is that every time Israel pulls out (as with autonomy agreements implemented during the '90s or the withdrawal from Gaza), violence against Israelis increases. If this were not an issue, one significant incentive for the occupation would be removed. Finally, with passive resistance, no one would question the morals or objectives of Palestinians peacefully protesting and practicing civil disobedience. The actions would attain a level of legitimacy and sympathy that terrorist actions cannot.

I haven't done the necessary work on passive resistance to make solid claims about its comparative effectiveness, but I bet that the Palestinians would have their own state by now if they had opted for civil disobedience instead of terrorism. Terrorism is not the "only option," chosen out of desperation, as many groups pretend. There are others, and they may be more effective. There is one nagging problem, however: Passive resistance more obviously stands no chance of turning Israel into Palestine and would require all groups, even extreme ones, to give up that goal. So we're back where we started, because that is a core issue. Still, food for thought.

1. For an excellent book on this, see: Peter R. Neumann, and M.L.R. Smith, The Strategy of Terrorism: How It Works, and Why It Fails, Contemporary Terrorism Studies, London: Routledge, 2008.


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