What Palestinians could have learnt from Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi’s message of non-violence is lost as both sides are overcome with rage and passion
Friends have been asking me why I have not written on the Hamas-Israel bloodbath. I reply that I have little new to say on a conflict more than 75 years old that looks like it might continue for another century.
It is easy to assign blame to both sides. It is equally easy to give a long, horrifying history of the terrible oppression of both sides through the ages. I sometimes say, a la Shakespeare, “A plague on both your houses.” I have found myself defending Palestinians when talking to Jews, and defending Israelis when talking to Muslims. Both sides are full of passion and rage, unmindful of their own transgressions.
Hamas is accused, rightly, of terrorism in its attack on an Israeli musical festival, killing women and children. Israel has killed far more women and children in its bombing of Gaza. More to the point. Jewish leaders galore were guilty of terrorist activity when Britain ruled the region till 1948. They blew up railways and bridges, blew up the British civilian headquarters in the King David Hotel, and assassinated former British Secretary of State for the Colonies Lord Moyne and UN mediator Count Bernadotte.
The most vicious killers were the Stern Gang and Irgun, yet their leaders like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir went on to become prime ministers of Israel. History is written by the winners.
Today, Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to decapitate Hamas. But even if he kills current Hamas leaders, new ones will rise, yearning for revenge. Mahatma Gandhi once said that if you seek an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, you will end up with a blind and toothless people.
The peacemakers are weary and sidelined. The hawks dominate. Anwar El-Sadat, who negotiated Egypt’s peace accord with Israel in 1979, was assassinated by his own people for being too pro-Israel. Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin, who negotiated the 1993 Oslo accord for moving toward a two-state solution, was assassinated by his own people for being too pro-Palestinian. This is reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi being assassinated by a Hindu for being too pro-Muslim.


One reason why the Gandhian strategy was so difficult to follow was that it assumed a hidden reservoir of goodwill on the other side that could be uncovered.

In this column, let me focus on just one issue. Whatever the merits of the Palestinian side, it has lost out by its attraction to violence and refusal to use Gandhian tactics of peaceful non-cooperation.

Now, what Gandhiji preached was unique in history. Never before had a side won by filling the jails with non-violent protesters. Indian Communists accused Gandhiji of being a British collaborator, impeding the revolutionary path which they thought was the only possible one to freedom. They — and others across the world — were flabbergasted when Gandhian non-violence worked.

One reason why the Gandhian strategy was so difficult to follow was that it assumed a hidden reservoir of goodwill on the other side that could be uncovered. This concept was inconvenient, indeed incomprehensible, for Palestinian revolutionaries who painted the other side as totally Satanic.

The notion that glorious victories are won by the sword was deeply ingrained in the Islamic psyche. Non-violence or turning the other cheek was seen as a Christian aberration. Martin Luther King adopted Gandhianism. His people had been enslaved and oppressed for centuries by whites. Yet he insisted on non-violence. He taught his people how to resist white oppression without succumbing to the temptation to retaliate with force, and how to win over the other side. Like Gandhiji, he was assassinated. But his victory remains.

Nelson Mandela, another disciple of Gandhiji, was sentenced to hard labour by white South Africans. His wife, Winnie, was very non-Gandhian. She was notorious for “necklacing” informers — killing them by putting burning tyres round their necks.

Apartheid ended not through black revolution but when western pressure and sanctions persuaded President FW de Klerk to accept black majority rule, and he found in Mandela a non-violent black leader who could be trusted not to exact revenge on whites. The Gandhian path triumphed.

Why did Palestinians never follow the Gandhian path, which had proven historical success? It was tailor-made for those without guns facing those who had guns. Tushar Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma, made several trips to Palestine to persuade the Arabs to follow the Gandhian line, to fill Israeli jails with so many peaceful protesters that the jails and jailers would lose all moral force. He failed.

Every society has its own cultural history. Islamic society has a long history of victory by the sword. The cry of jihad, or holy war, rings loud and raises patriotic passion in those seeking an end to Israeli humiliation. From the inception of Israel, many Arabs swore to drive Israelis to the sea, not caring that this would be another Holocaust. Had they followed the Gandhian path, they might have had a Palestinian nation today.

This article was originally published by The Times of India on October 28, 2023.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top