Bring the Turtles to Ramallah

One of the main reasons that the 1999 protests in Seattle gained such notoriety and sympathy was the surprise of seeing a seemingly disorganized group of ageing unionists and often strange-looking young people use a massive nonviolent protest to challenge and even transform the policies of the world's most powerful institutions. The success of Seattle served as a wake-up call to couch-potato activists everywhere that cynicism and political apathy were not the only options for those opposed to the status quo.

Today, the situation in the occupied territories is ripe for the same kind of action.

For years a small group of Palestinian, Israeli, and international peace activists (the Christian Peacemaker Teams, the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, the International Solidarity Committee, Bustan Shalom, Haluzay Shalom, Rabbis for Human Rights, to name a few) have been using creative, nonviolent activism to inspire Palestinian society to transform its struggle against Israeli occupation into a large-scale, nonviolent civil protest. Such a movement could more successfully push the army -- and more importantly, the Israeli and international publics -- to face up to the brutal injustice and reality of 35 years of what even the New York Times's Thomas Friedman now admits has been "colonial occupation." Indeed, it's no surprise that the previous Israeli assault on Palestinian cities, in February, came just as Palestinian leaders, intellectuals and activists were urging their public to move toward massive nonviolent civil disobedience. It's no surprise that this past weekend Israel declared much of the West Bank a closed military zone after groups of peace activists marched, loud and proud, in front of Israeli tanks to protect Palestinian civilians and leaders alike.

These actions demonstrate that there is little the Israeli Government fears more than the type of large-scale nonviolent protest so many of us have long urged Palestinians to follow in place of violent resistance. And in fact Israel has a sad history of arresting, deporting and even shooting Palestinian and foreign peace activists (not to mention journalists), which is a major reason why today there is no infrastructure within Palestinian society for a Gandhi/King inspired program of civil disobedience. Yet at least in part because not enough Israelis and international activists have been willing literally -- figuratively isn't worth much -- to stand side by side with Palestinians against the occupation, most Palestinians have concluded that they are ultimately alone, and that the only way to win their freedom is to make Israelis suffer more. The moral and strategic flaws in this calculus have never been clearer.

So I would argue to the tens of thousands of globe-trotting globalization protesters that you have been missing a much more pressing case of globalization. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intimately tied to the militarization of the Middle East. Militarization is at the heart of the inability of the countries of the region (who are both the least democratic and largest per capita arms purchasers in the world) to engage successfully the forces of economic and cultural globalization.

In fact, the entire Oslo process was premised on securing Israel a leading position in the new globalized order. On the strategic level, the mis-named "labor" elite, led by Shimon Peres, saw peace with Palestinians as the necessary and sufficient condition for a high-tech, low-wage Israel assuming its natural place as the cultural and economic "engine of the new Middle East" (not surprisingly, Arab commentators immediately jumped on this rhetoric and continue to use it as a justification for opposing "normalization" of relations between Israel and Arab states, fearing that the Arab world can neither compete with Israel nor fend off the further "invasion" of the Western culture it represented).

More specific to the Oslo framework for "peace" with Palestinians, the rarely mentioned economic section of the accords represented a textbook case of neo-liberal neo-colonialism, with Israel retaining the power to dictate the details of what industries/export policies Palestinians could pursue and maintaining whatever Palestinian "state" would emerge as a captive open market for Israeli goods (many of which are produced by cheap labor in Jordan and Egypt). Ultimately, one can even see that the intensification of religious nationalism among politically and economically marginalized communities in Israel/Palestine has helped doom the so-called peace process. Middle Eastern ("Mizrahi") Jews, who have long faced discrimination by the European Jewish elite, are among the leading Israeli "opponents" of peace (in large part because they realized the peace and prosperity that Peres and Co. envisioned would do little for them). Muslims both inside Israel and in the occupied territories have seen economic opportunities and standards of living fall and poverty rise during a decade of peace-making and become increasingly radicalized. That poverty has come in response to the neo-liberal economic policies of successive Israeli governments since 1977, when Israel joined Margaret Thatcher's England as the first countries to try out the Milton Friedman school of economic shock therapy that Ronald Reagan would bring home to roost a few years later.

Indeed, the situation in Palestine/Israel has long constituted a much more immediate and clear threat to peace, justice and autonomous development than the complex and contradictory programs of the IMF and World Bank. And while the two thousand Israeli and Palestinian activists who faced off against Israeli troops are an encouraging sign, they will not succeed in defeating the violence without massive international support and solidarity. Unfortunately, in over two years of urging and arguing with leaders of the globalization protest movements I have consistently been frustrated in attempts both to bring in Arabs and Muslims into the international dialog, and to turn our attention to the pressing need for their intervention in the Middle East.

I've faced off against riot police in Prague and bulldozers in the West Bank; and I can tell my fellow activists that the need for your courage, ingenuity and enthusiasm is far more immediate and will have far greater effect in Ramallah and Beit Jala than anywhere else. So bring on the samba bands, puppeteers and turtle people; let's turn Ramallah into Seattle! As the situation grows ever more dire, nothing short of a massive influx of activists ready to put their bodies on the line will challenge the terror of tanks and suicide bombers alike, and create the space in which Israeli and Palestinian activists, presently cowed into silence by blood-soaked populations, can challenge and inspire their peoples toward a future of peace and reconciliation.

If you want more information about plans to organize solidarity trips to Palestine/Israel, or even better, help organize them, email or visit

Mark LeVine is Assistant Professor of History at UC Irvine and author of the forthcoming Overthrowing Geography, Re-Imagining Identities: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine (University of California Press). He has been published in numerous scholarly and journalistic venues, including Le Monde, Tikkun, the Christian Science Monitor,,, the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, the Journal of Palestine Studies, and the Mediterranean Studies Journal.


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