The Magazine

The Missing Mahatma

Searching for a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King in the West Bank.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By GERSHOM GORENBERG
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They marched southward from Ramallah one windy morning in March 2012. Sheikh Nasser a-Din al-Masri led them--a slim man with a short black beard that half-hid a puckered scar on his neck. They filled the road to Jerusalem, a long procession of men, women, and children wearing white robes to show they were on a pilgrimage and that they had no pockets in which to hide weapons. They carried their flat bread in clear plastic bags for the same reason. A Reuters reporter said they numbered 20,000. They chanted as they walked.

When the sheikh saw the Israeli troops massed across the road in the distance, he turned and spoke into a megaphone. "Remember the two brothers, the sons of Adam," he said, and then quoted the Koran. "One said, 'I will surely kill you.' The other answered, 'If you stretch out your hand to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against you to slay you. For I fear Allah, the Lord of the worlds.' "

The river of marchers streamed forward. From the troops came the voice of another megaphone, proclaiming "Halt!" in Arabic and Hebrew. Al-Masri answered, "We come in peace to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque, as is our sacred right." Soldiers lifted their guns.

The sound of the first volley was dull thuds. Tear gas canisters fell on the asphalt. The wind scattered the white plumes. Gasping, the marchers kept advancing. Again came thuds, and rubber bullets showered the marchers. The sheikh groaned, put his hands on his shoulder, and kept walking. "Halt! Halt!" roared the Israeli megaphone.

Afterward, an army inquiry panel would examine whether anyone had actually given orders to switch ammunition. With the first sharp cracks of live fire, a red splotch appeared low on the sheikh's robe; he grimaced and kneeled. People near him fell. A boy crumpled on the road. Screaming mixed with the chanting. The Reuters woman was shouting, pouring words into her cell phone. The guns stopped. No one could understand what the Israeli commander was yelling at his men. A marcher carrying medical gear in a clear plastic bag rushed up to al-Masri; another hurried to the boy.

Lying on the road, the sheikh whispered to a follower, who spoke through the megaphone. "We will fast here," he said, "until we are allowed to go on. We will testify to our faith." People tossed their bags of bread to the roadside and sat down.

Prostrate, pale, al-Masri spoke to television crews. He told about his studies at Al-Azhar University, his years in Hamas preaching armed jihad, and the bullet that grazed his neck when Israeli special forces arrested him. He talked about the Path of Adam's Son, the book by Syrian dissident Jawdat Said that he'd read in prison and that converted him to nonviolent struggle, about his release in a prisoner exchange two years before, and about the swelling support for his new movement.

The number of journalists grew almost as quickly as the number of soldiers. Provided a laptop from the Palestinian neighborhood next to the road, a young marcher began a blog whose address showed up in agency reports. On Israel Radio's midday talk show, the deputy defense minister explained in his ex-general's staccato bass that if the march went forward, suicide bombers could enter the crowd and slip into Jerusalem. A left-wing Knesset member, a former commando, warned soldiers that any order to fire on a peaceful demonstration "carried a black flag of illegality" and, under a 50-year-old Israeli precedent, would not constitute a defense in a court martial. A right-wing Knesset member denounced him as a traitor willing to cede Jerusalem. Al-Masri, whispering on the air in Hebrew he'd learned in prison, demanded free access to Al-Aqsa as the first step toward Palestinian independence alongside Israel.

An Israeli army medical team operated on the sheikh's leg under the night sky. The following afternoon, the U.S. president phoned the Israeli prime minister. Unnamed sources said they discussed the legacy of Martin Luther King. Israeli news broadcasts again began with footage of al-Masri, while breathless anchors reported on demands in the European Parliament and liberal American churches for an economic boycott of Israel.

The throng on the road was joined by the Palestinian prime minister and six ministers, who arrived from Ramallah wearing hastily sewn pocketless robes and bent to kiss al-Masri on his stretcher. He insisted that seven Hamas politicians, who had been living underground for fear of arrest, be summoned to join them to show that non-violent jihad belonged to the entire Palestinian people. Meanwhile, hunger quieted the chanting on the road. More television crews arrived directly from the airport.

Early on the third morning, a Friday, the Israeli cabinet met. Afterward, the brigade commander got orders to let the march proceed. Trucks arrived with food. Al-Masri's followers lifted him onto a stretcher. At Qalandiya checkpoint, where the road passed through the Israeli security wall around Jerusalem, soldiers stood aside, watching the procession pour into the city. It reached Al-Aqsa in time for the sheikh to speak at noon prayers. News websites reported that the Israeli prime minister would address his nation before Sabbath began at sundown, amid rumors he would offer to meet the wounded sheikh to begin negotiations.

To sit in my study in Jerusalem and to imagine recording this chronology as a historian is to be filled with the wild hope that fantasy can bring and with the pain of knowing it is fantasy.

The landscape is a real one. I know Qalandiya checkpoint, with its loudspeakers, turnstiles, and X-ray conveyor belts that impose the grimy feeling on every Palestinian hoping to cross through the chink in the wall around Jerusalem that he is a ticking bomb, because with some historical cause, Israelis see Palestinians as walking bombs until proven otherwise.

The verses quoted by al-Masri are authentic. They appear in the fifth sura of the Koran. Jawdat Said is also real, as is his untranslated Arabic treatise on nonviolence. But Sheikh Nasser a-Din al-Masri exists only as the stand-in for a question: Why is there no Palestinian Gandhi, no Palestinian Martin Luther King?

Through violence--from airplane hijackings to suicide bombings and rocket fire--Palestinians have failed to reach political independence. They have not stopped the spread of Israeli settlements or ended the occupation of the West Bank. Instead, they find themselves penned between Israel's fences and its roadblocks. In 2007 the vaunted "armed struggle" of Palestinian organizations turned into fratricide in the streets of Gaza, as Hamas seized control. Rather than ending Israel's siege of the Strip, Palestinian rocket fire sparked the Israeli onslaught of last winter, in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed and Gaza was left in ruins.

So why not adopt the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience, the methods of Gandhi? That question has been asked for years, by moderate Israelis and by Westerners with sympathy for both sides. It comes packed with assumptions. It implies that Israelis accept a civilian death toll like that in Gaza only when they believe it is the unavoidable price of self-defense. It presumes that Israel remains a society whose citizens would not long allow their government to use deadly force against masses of nonviolent demonstrators. And it suggests that if Palestinians succeeded in shedding the image of terrorists and appeared internationally as saints, they would succeed in bringing unbearable Western pressure against Israel.

But even if patronizing, the question remains valid: Sainthood can work. Britain abandoned India; Montgomery's buses were desegregated.

As an Israeli, to imagine Nasser a-Din al-Masri is disturbing for another reason: This is a fantasy of a political savior who comes from the adversary's side because one's own has no answers. Israeli politics has become a junkyard of broken ideologies. The outgoing government of Ehud Olmert succeeded neither in negotiating peace nor in bringing quiet to the Gazan border with military force. Meanwhile, settlement construction continued, deepening Israel's entanglement in the West Bank. In February's election, a majority of Israelis voted for parties that offered no expectation of an end to the conflict. We have failed to manufacture hope. Let the Palestinians do it.

One potential answer to the mystery of the missing Gandhi is that the presumptions about Israel and the West are self-delusion. That answer says that Israel is ready to use overwhelming force against civilians, even when rockets are not being launched from their midst. It says that Israelis are not the civilized Englishmen of the Raj, that Israeli brutality is the father of Palestinian fury, and that in an age of wide belief in the "conflict of civilizations," the West is mostly willing to avert its eyes when Muslims or Arabs are the victims.

On the face of it, this answer suffers an obvious flaw: The British did not face Indian resistance as if engaged in a cricket match. The Amritsar Massacre of 1919, in which British troops opened fire on a gathering of thousands of peaceful Indians, killing and wounding hundreds, did not convince Gandhi to steal weapons and take to the hills. Rather, it deepened his commitment to satyagraha, non-violent action.

An alternative answer is that the problem is Islam. Palestinian society, says this hypothesis, is 98 percent Muslim, and Islam sanctifies jihad. After Hamas's introduction of suicide attacks to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--and after 9/11--the hypothesis demands attention. Its own glaring flaw is that Islam has no monopoly on terrorism or holy war. But perhaps a religion whose founder was a warrior has prevented the emergence of an enemy of violence. Perhaps it has no room for the shahid, the martyr, who is willing to die without blowing himself up in a café or bus.

To find why a figure is absent from history is intrinsically more difficult than explaining why he is present. The search cannot yield the certain resolution of a detective novel. Nonetheless, I went looking for the missing Mahatma.

Some say the Palestinian Gandhi was here and is now gone. His name is Mubarak Awad. In the mid-1980s, he had an office in downtown East Jerusalem, near the American Colony Hotel.

He was--so says American scholar and civil disobedience-advocate Mary King--the uniquely influential midwife of a nonviolent revolt, King's rather startling description of the first Intifada. Awad's name occurs exactly once, within parentheses, in Palestinian scholar Yezid Sayigh's massive, authoritative history of the Palestinian national movement--Armed Struggle and the Search for State (1997)--in a sentence on the PLO's "hostile disregard for strategies of nonviolent resistance." Awad, says Israeli political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, was a missed chance, an alternative feared by and foiled by both Israel and the Palestinians. This much is certain: In June 1988, six months into the first Intifada, Mubarak Awad was bundled onto a TWA plane at Ben-Gurion Airport by Israeli guards and deported to the United States.

To meet him, I flew to Washington, D.C., where he teaches in American University's Peace and Conflict Resolution program and heads an organization called Nonviolence International. He is tall and heavyset. His thick curls--black in old news photos--have turned silver. He speaks softly, slowly, meandering through his past with a maddening unconcern for details or chronology, distracted in mid-story to admire a bird flitting past. He appears to have as much influence on today's Palestinian politics as a distant star has on earthly tides.

He was born in Jerusalem to a Christian Arab family that lived just outside the Old City walls. In 1948, when he was four, their neighborhood became a pivot of the Israeli-Jordanian struggle for the Holy City. His mother was a nurse. His father stubbornly refused to follow other families fleeing the battlefield and was shot dead by an unknown gunman while bringing the wounded to his wife's care. "We buried him in the house." He didn't want to leave, and "so he stayed forever," Awad says. Only afterward did the widow take her children into the Jordanian-ruled Old City.

Awad's childhood home was left in the no-man's land between Jordanian and Israeli lines. Though his mother was alive, the family broke up. Awad spent his youth in orphanages and in the home of Katy Antonius, widow of George Antonius, a Lebanese-born Christian who wrote the Arab Awakening (1938), the manifesto of Arab nationalism. Awad's mother remained an intense religious influence. "Many times, when you go and visit her, she'll kneel with you and pray. .  .  . I'll go to see her, want to be with her and talk, and she'll read the Bible," says Awad, who speaks of the past largely in present tense. His mother also taught him "that the one who killed your dad left a widow and seven kids. So don't ever carry a gun and kill anyone." In high school, when Jordanian soldiers came to train the students to march with guns, he refused to join in. As a punishment, he says, he was tied up with a gun in his hand, "and they had everybody spit on me."

After high school, Awad's life began to zigzag between Jerusalem and America. He received a scholarship to a whites-only Christian college in Tennessee. Unable to reconcile Christianity and segregation, he returned home. In 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem, it gave the city's Arabs the ambiguous legal status of permanent residents--roughly akin to green card holders in the United States. Awad, then the director of a Mennonite orphanage school, received an Israeli identity card. At the orphanage, in the Christian town of Beit Jalla near Bethlehem, Awad says he "allowed [his wards] to protest anything and everything" about Israel's occupation. When Israeli authorities jailed him, the Mennonites negotiated a deal: Free him, and we'll take him out of the country. Awad returned to the United States for studies at a Mennonite school in Pennsylvania.

By the time he returned to Jerusalem more than a decade later, he had a U.S. passport and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He set up a center to teach counseling skills to Palestinian educators and, in the fall of 1983, placed newspaper ads for a three-day workshop at the East Jerusalem YWCA on "how to get rid of occupation." A Westernized exile come home, influenced by Christian pacifists, he bore a passing resemblance to the man who led India to independence. In Awad's description, though, his ideas at the time were shaped more by humanist psychologist Carl Rogers than by Gandhi.

He expected 50 people; 400 showed up--many of them angry supporters of Fatah and the other Palestinian organizations that made up the PLO, who wanted to know "who sent you, by whose authority" to oppose occupation. At the YWCA, Awad says, "I opened my big mouth and said we are under occupation because we choose to be under occupation" just as, he says, a beaten wife has the choice to stay or leave.

A more sympathetic listener was Nafez Assaily, a Jerusalem schoolteacher, who was already upsetting friends by advocating nonviolent resistance, influenced by his study of Islamic mysticism and Buddhism and by the 1982 film Gandhi. An Awad supporter ever since, Assaily nonetheless recounts that Awad's Arabic was poor and, when he spoke of the need for a nonviolent movement, he mistakenly used the Arabic for "organization"--a word which meant only the Organization, the PLO. "People thought he wanted to replace the PLO," Assaily says.

Awad had become a foreigner in his own land, and in that land it was taboo for a Palestinian to propose resistance outside the PLO. The Israeli authorities were equally intransigent. They said they would close the YWCA if it allowed him to stay. With much smaller numbers, Awad continued his workshop the next day at the Friends' School in Ramallah, which then received its own warning not to host him.

Still, word spread. Hisham Sharabi, a Palestinian historian at Georgetown University, invited Awad to Washington for a small conclave of intellectuals including political scientist Gene Sharp, a theorist of nonviolent revolution. At their encouragement, Awad traveled to India to learn about Gandhi. Back in Jerusalem, he opened the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence. He published an Arabic catalogue of Sharp's tactics for resistance--marches, boycotts, tax strikes, fasting--and a translation of a biography of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the most prominent Muslim supporter of Gandhi and of pacifism in the Indian independence struggle. Awad drove through the West Bank countryside, parking at the center of villages, sleeping in his van, setting up placards describing Gandhi, talking to whoever walked by.

An old man came asking for help in getting back several acres of his village's land, fenced off by the neighboring Israeli settlement of Tekoa, east of Bethlehem. Awad recalls, "He said, 'You told us that if we are not afraid, anything is possible.' I said, 'Oh my God, did I say that?' " Awad thought of himself as an educator. For someone to act on what he said terrified him. Still, he agreed to lead the villagers in taking down the fence, if they agreed not to bring guns or throw stones and not to run away even if shot at or arrested.

By one account, 300 people showed up, confronting armed settlers. "We refused to run. We turned numb. We were hugging each other," Awad says, recalling the strange ecstasy of the moment. The military governor arrived--and allowed the Palestinians to remove the fence.

The victory made Awad an activist. At other villages, he led Palestinians and Israeli peace activists in planting olive saplings on disputed land. The tactic was aimed at Israeli sensitivities, since planting trees is a Zionist ritual. Yet he did not ignite a mass movement. At Qatannah, near Ramallah, settlers uprooted the saplings. Awad has a video of a documentary about him from the time that shows his younger self standing in the field near Qatannah, speaking to his forces. His voice is halting, not impassioned; he could be describing agricultural techniques.

"Mubarak Awad was not charismatic. .  .  . It limited him," says Mustafa Abu Sway, a scholar of Islam at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, who attended talks at Awad's center. His influence, Abu Sway says, "was highly intellectual. I don't think it was a popular movement as yet." Among many Palestinians, Awad remained suspect. "We were accused [of being] CIA agents. Others were kinder. They accused us [of being] Jordanian agents," says Assaily.

Lucy Nusseibeh--the British-born wife of Palestinian philosopher and aristocrat Sari Nusseibeh--invited Awad to speak at Birzeit University, a hothouse of youthful nationalists, where she and her husband then taught. The invitation "caused a lot of consternation among the faculty and students," says Sari Nusseibeh. "At the time, to put forward the image of yourself as a nonviolent person was not kosher .  .  . in the Palestinian community. You had to put yourself forward as a guy with a gun, with 10 guns hanging around your waist and shoulders .  .  . or keep silent."

Awad, perhaps, lacked charisma precisely because he was an outsider seeking acceptance--Americanized, Christian, not a PLO man--and hesitant to speak what he felt. In a 1984 essay published in a Palestinian journal in English, he presented nonviolence as a purely utilitarian choice--"the most effective method" for Palestinians to obstruct "Judaiza-tion" of the occupied territories. "This does not .  .  . constitute a rejection of the concept of armed struggle," he wrote.

"If you push me, [the reason] I use nonviolence is because of my Christian faith, and honoring my mother," Awad says today. "So why should .  .  . a Muslim follow this Christian believer? I couldn't convince you openly." He would have preferred, he says, to have passed the role of leader to someone else, a prominent Muslim, "and he would be able to be the Gandhi of the Palestinians." He met with the "heads of all the sheikhs," the top Muslim religious figures, at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, he says, he even went to Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious center of Sunni Islam, "to convince them to pick one Palestinian" to head his movement. He was rejected, he argues, not because of theology, but because of "the fear at that time of Arafat." No one was willing to challenge the PLO. In a mid-1980s television interview, Awad suggested that creating a nonviolent movement would take 10 or 15 years.

In very different ways, neither Israel nor the Palestinians gave him that time.

In 1987, Awad asked the Israeli interior ministry to replace his tattered, 20-year-old ID card. His request was rejected. By living abroad for 13 years and taking U.S. citizenship, the ministry told him, he had forfeited his status as permanent resident of Israel. Meanwhile, the tourist visa in his U.S. passport expired. That November, he was ordered to leave the country.

The residency ruling was a technicality. Asked about the expulsion, the hardline Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir referred reporters to "the security services." Israeli peace activists protested that Shamir's government was eager to get rid of someone who shattered the image of Palestinian nationalist as terrorist. It's equally possible that the government regarded any effort to end Israeli rule of the West Bank and Gaza as seditious, whether violent or not. Perhaps because of official American protests, it was another six months before Awad was arrested. A legal team including top Israeli lawyers prepared his unsuccessful supreme court appeal. His expulsion drew sharp, brief media attention, like the sudden light of a photographer's flash.

Jailing him would have pushed him together with potential converts to his cause. Deported, Awad was simply gone. In the meantime, his long march had already been cut short by the outbreak of the Intifada, the Shaking Off.

The detonator was a traffic accident: On December 8, 1987, an Israeli army truck hit two vans carrying Palestinians from the Gaza Strip refugee camp of Jabalya, killing four people. In Gaza's camps, rumors spread that the collision was revenge for the murder of an Israeli. Thousands took to the streets. In Jabalya, angry mourners pelted the camp's Israeli army outpost with stones. The next day, soldiers answered with bullets, killing a 17-year-old boy. The confrontations spread to the West Bank. As the dialogue of rocks and Molotov cocktails with bullets continued, the Palestinian death count rose.

Out of rage rather than Awad's teachings, at least one of his goals was being achieved. Palestinians' "paralyzing fear" of Israeli authority "was shattered by the children in the streets .  .  . they defiantly confronted the occupation .  .  . neutralizing its overwhelming military power by clearly showing that they were ready to die," wrote attorney Jonathan Kuttab, Awad's cousin and supporter, in the spring of 1988.

Some of the fury turned inward. Two months into the uprising, in the West Bank town of Qabatiya, a crowd surrounded the home of a known collaborator with the Israeli security services. He fired his Israeli-supplied Uzi, killing a four-year-old child. The mob dragged him from his house, strangled him, and hung his body from an electric pole. By the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, about 1,000 Palestinians had been murdered as suspected collaborators by their compatriots, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group--almost as many as were killed by Israeli forces in the same period.

The first Intifada, wrote Mary King at the start of her 2007 book, A Quiet Revolution, was "a landslide of primarily nonviolent Palestinian resistance." Only media coverage of previous Palestinian terrorism prevented recognition that "nonviolent strategies of opposition to military occupation characterized the Intifada for more than two years," King argues. One might suspect King of being a Westerner applying a politically correct syllogism: Good guys do not engage in bloodshed; as those living under occupation, the Palestinians are the good guys; ergo, their uprising was nonviolent.

Rather, she has accepted the insider's view. Among Palestinian intellectuals and activists, portraying the first Intifada as nonviolent is reflexive, as obvious as any sharp personal memory. "It depended on popular resistance," says Abdul Munim Wahdan, a 35-year-old Fatah functionary. "The problem was the exaggerated Israeli response." I met Wahdan in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank. In the local political vocabulary, popular resistance means actions of the whole populace, civil disobedience. It is used as a synonym for nonviolence and as the antonym of armed struggle, conducted by the few. Wahdan, who had just completed his master's degree in regional studies, wore tan slacks and a blue polo shirt and spoke academese. He looked and sounded like a future think-tank staffer. In 1989, when he was a ninth-grader, he was arrested for stone throwing, he told me. The Israeli army sealed his family's house, and he spent the next five years in prison, where he studied for and passed the difficult exams for a local high school diploma.

As with every piece of Israeli-Palestinian history, there are two stories of the uprising. What actually happened bursts the seams of both stories. The Intifada included the fury and something quieter, though just as determined.

By mid-January, 1988, leaflets began appearing regularly, signed by a clandestine Unified National Command (UNC). They designated days for demonstrations and strikes and confronting troops, and which hours shops could be open. In March, the UNC ordered Palestinians who worked for Israel as policemen and tax officials to quit, and shopkeepers to stop collecting sales tax. Nearly all the Palestinian police quit. Tax revenues in the occupied territories dropped 40 percent.

The idea, as described by Sari Nusseibeh, was to end Israeli rule simply by ceasing to obey it, and by building a network of Palestinian committees that would govern instead. Involving everyone, unforgettably altering daily life, this was, in fact, a "popular" rebellion--tired as that term today sounds in English. It stood in singular contrast to the PLO's armed attacks from across the borders. Yet the United Command represented supporters of the various organizations that made up the PLO. Nusseibeh participated in the UNC as a Fatah representative. By fax, the UNC coordinated its steps with PLO headquarters in Tunis, which "almost immediately" seized the reins of the uprising, says Yezid Sayigh.

The content of each leaflet was negotiated between the groups in the UNC--"between those factions that wished to go to armed revolution .  .  . and those in Fatah who wanted to maintain this as a civil disobedience campaign," says Nusseibeh. An insider reading the leaflets could see the tension between violent and nonviolent instructions, he says, while an Israeli would see only "Molotov cocktails and knives." Nusseibeh, urbane, silver-haired, now president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, reflects for a moment. "It may be more complicated. Maybe I'm hallucinating, maybe you'll find different narratives .  .  . even on the Fatah side." The revolution, that is, would be remembered as nonviolent to those who wanted it that way.

Let us be precise with terms. The uprising was unarmed, if arms refers to guns and not to gasoline-filled bottles. The leaders of the uprising were "opposed in principle" to using firearms and explosives, says Yaakov Perry, who was deputy chief of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, at the start of the Intifada and became head of the agency soon after. The uprising's leaders deliberately sought to turn weakness into political strength, knowing that "in the international arena, Israel could not deal with the picture of the boy holding a rock facing a tank," Perry says. This is close to Gandhian logic, but only close, unless one imagines Gandhi urging followers both to go on strike and to master the slingshot. Unarmed did not mean nonviolent.

From Mubarak Awad's perspective, the uprising came too early. What he had sought to do required "the head and the heart," he says. He had convinced too few people to believe in their hearts. Jonathan Kuttab, who says that on Christian grounds he rejects violence even in self-defense, nonetheless speaks of stone throwing in a tone that wavers between acknowledging historical fact and taking reluctant pride: "It happened in every town, every village, every street. Yes .  .  . a stone can injure. But when they were rocks thrown at a tank, or a fortified army vehicle, and in fact when enough rocks are thrown that the jeep has to back up and withdraw .  .  . it was an act of defiance, of empowerment, of symbolism." The hunger for that symbol is a clue to why there has not yet been a Gandhi in Nablus.

So is the Israeli response to the Intifada--a mix of embarrassment and rage. Troops armed with tanks and M-16s were unfit to deal with crowds made up largely of children. In January 1988, the Israel Defense Forces issued truncheons to the soldiers being sent in ever greater numbers to the occupied territories. Clubs were riot-control equipment, a means of restoring order without bullets. Yet Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin's public statement that the Intifada would be crushed with "force, might, and beatings" suggested that his actual purpose was to restore the psychological status quo ante: Israeli strength, Palestinian submission.

Along with the riot clubs, the army tried rubber bullets, intended as a way of shooting without killing (used incorrectly, they sometimes did kill). Thousands of Palestinians were jailed. Beit Sahour, a prosperous town south of Jerusalem, became the symbol of the tax strike. In the autumn of 1989, soldiers sealed the town for six weeks as Israeli tax collectors went door to door, seizing household appliances and merchandise. Elias Rishmawi, whose pharmacy in the town was emptied, remembers bitterly that adopting the slogan "no taxation without representation" did not bring American support. The United States vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the Beit Sahour operation. In the Knesset, describing the operation, Yitzhak Rabin said, "We will teach them a lesson .  .  . we will not allow this kind of civil disobedience."

Yet inside the government, says Perry, Rabin insisted that the Intifada was "a popular, national uprising. With military means .  .  . we can turn down the flame, but we can't put it out." The uprising pushed Rabin, and much of Israel, to recognize the Palestinians as a nation. It led to the Oslo Accord, an agreement that, in retrospect, enshrined equal measures of distrust and hope.

As the response to the uprising showed, one of the deepest fissures in Israeli society is in its attitude toward using violence. "Traditional Jewish communities did not use force. .  .  . That belonged to the other, the gentile, the non-Jewish authorities," says Haifa University historian Motti Golani, author of a book on Israeli attitudes toward force and war. The ideal Jew, he says, was a scholar, not a military hero.

The cracks in that belief can be dated, perhaps, to a 1903 poem, "City of the Killings," by Hayim Nahman Bialik, later regarded as Israel's national poet. Bialik wrote his raging epic after investigating a pogrom in the city of Kishinev, then part of Russia, in which mobs killed nearly 50 Jews. The subject of his wrath is the impotence of his people. In one passage (here in British poet Atar Hadari's stark translation) Bialik describes the gang rape of Jewish women, while,

under this bench and behind that barrel
lay husbands, fiancés, brothers, peeping out of holes
at the flutter of holy bodies under the flesh of donkeys .  .  .
they lay in their shame and saw--and didn't move and didn't budge.

The "descendants of the Maccabees, the great grandchildren of lions," he wrote, hid in "the out house, the pig pen, and the other places smeared with s--." God can't explain the deaths, and martyrdom is a farce.

Golani argues that until the 1930s, the Zionist community in Palestine still largely regarded military force as a solution of last resort. That attitude remained dominant even as the community organized for self-defense. But the antithetical view already existed. It equated passivity with shame, and power with pride.

Two events shifted the balance, making the new view the mainstream. The first was the Holocaust. It gave Jews the feeling, Golani says, that "I am the ultimate victim, [so] I can't be the aggressor." Whatever Jews did, it was in self-defense. Immediately after came Israel's victory in the 1948 war of independence. Using military power now appeared effective as well as morally correct. Henceforth, one's Israeliness "was measured by one's ability to fight," Golani says. An Israeli, that is, was the opposite of a Jew. The ideal Israelis were fighters, and the national martyrs were fallen soldiers.

Yet the Jewish distaste for violence persisted, locked in a strange embrace with the belief in force. In a 1978 book, Tin Soldiers on Jerusalem Beach, Israeli psychologist Amia Lieblich described a young Israeli man in a group therapy session. He talks about a recurring dream of being with his parents, before his own birth, in their home in Poland, as German soldiers pound the door. "The knocking is the most frightening sound I have ever heard. You have to kick the door with your nailed boots and rap it with the butt of your gun to get the right blend. .  .  . When I was on a patrol searching for Arab terrorists in an Arab village, I was the one to knock like that on doors." In the dream, he says, "Outside the door I am a man .  .  . I have a rifle and lots of ammunition. I am with my unit, we are together. We are the victors," wearing Gestapo uniforms. He is horrified both by being strong and being the victim. If the whole country could have been put on the couch, it might have spoken like this.

The Palestinian uprising that began in 1987 exposed the contradiction. Palestinians were challenging Israeli power. And as political scientist Ezrahi puts it, "Israelis see themselves as ontological victims," under attack simply because they are Jews. There was enough Palestinian violence to arouse that fear: Molotov cocktails thrown at Israeli cars, civilians stabbed in Israeli cities. Even boys hurling stones at soldiers could elicit opposite feelings: The imbalance of power was terribly disturbing, but the fury in the boys' faces said they wanted Jews dead.

The IDF answered with force--less than it would use against an army, more than could be justified practically or ethically against civilians. Footage of soldiers beating Palestinians violated Israeli's faith in their "purity of arms," the Jewish army's code of moral restraint. The uprising undermined Israeli trust in military power--even as the Israeli crackdown undermined Palestinian hopes for "popular resistance."

The uprising was a missed chance. It was not a Gandhian revolt, but it hinted at what a nonviolent Palestinian strategy could, and might yet, achieve, if followed strictly. News photos of demonstrators refusing to lift their hands against soldiers' blows could have aroused "the moral sensibilities of post-Holocaust Jews," as Ezrahi puts it. That is, they had the potential to arouse horror among Jews of being the victimizer rather than the victim.

Tactics speak more strongly than negotiating positions, as the return to arms after Oslo showed. A bomb in a Tel Aviv disco told Israelis that Palestinians want them eradicated. The rocket fire from Gaza is heard the same way. Pure nonviolence could tell Israelis that Palestinians are willing to live next to them. It just might exert what Sari Nusseibeh has called "gravitational pull" toward reconciliation.

That said, absolute nonviolence is a terribly unfair standard to demand of those on the other side--the weaker side--of a conflict, even if it has a potential of being politically effective. And here lies another problem: The promise of mere political effectiveness may be too little to convince people to march unarmed toward troops or to fast unto death or simply to put down their stones. Both -Gandhi and King based themselves on spiritual doctrines. Understandably so: To stand before someone and say, "You can kill me, but it is more important to me to overcome my desire to strike you than to overcome you," is arguably to make one's spiritual purity the ultimate goal, even more important than stopping an injustice. For this reason, both Gandhi and King were radical even within their own traditions. Is that kind of radicalism imaginable in Islam?

Sheikh Yazid Khader's deep, oratorical voice rolls from a speakerphone lying on a table in a Ramallah café, as if from a mosque loudspeaker. It's early evening. The café is known as a Fatah hangout; I'd come earlier to meet a Fatah legislator. Khader, a spokesman for Hamas in the West Bank, feared arrest by the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and was unwilling to meet face-to-face.

"The Palestinian people put out their hands for peace," he says. "But in exchange the Israelis have only appropriated land and built settlements .  .  . and have built the wall. This enemy is trying to ban us from breathing. How can we face this occupation with flowers?" The only solution, he says, is "violent resistance, which we call jihad." Those who criticize the "militarizing" of the second Intifada (meaning, in local argot, the use of terror attacks) "do not understand our religion."

Asked about the prohibition in Islamic law on attacking noncombatants, he answers, "When Palestinians can come back to their lands and villages, we will have no problems with Israelis or Jews." It's a soundbite of rigid nationalism, offered in place of reasoning. Asked if the Islamic ban on suicide applies to "martyrdom operations," meaning suicide bombings, Khader again skirts the law to talk about the need develop new "modes of resistance." As for the internecine Palestinian fighting, he says jihad is aimed at Zionists alone. But "traitors, collaborators, and conspirators who help the occupation" must be punished.

"That man is stupid," comes a loud voice from the next table as the sheikh hangs up. "Just stupid." The speaker is a groomed, gray-haired man with a laptop who turns out to be Salah Soubani, an official in the Palestinian Authority's education ministry. He looks surprised at his own outburst. "I agree with that man, the sheikh, about what Israel does in Palestine, but we have to think," he says, because Israel wants Palestinians to abandon their country. The second Intifada produced just that result, he argues, pointing to the report he is reviewing on his computer. It shows that first-grade enrollment in Palestinian schools dropped over 8 percent between 2000 and 2006. In Soubani's reading that means families emigrating. (Another possible reading is parents keeping children home in violent times.)

The sheikh "doesn't represent all Palestinians," Soubani insists, then shifts his argument. "There is no tolerance in our culture. .  .  . A Gandhi--in our culture there is no room. Muslim culture says that if you injure my eye, I injure your eye," he says, "We need a revolution in our culture."

The scene is an unrehearsed set piece: Westernized technocrat versus hardline Islamic cleric. They agree on Israel's transgressions, disagree on how to respond--and agree, strikingly, that Islam is the obstacle to the emergence of a Palestinian Gandhi. Khader's movement, Hamas, was born during the first Intifada. It called for an Islamic state, but also for uncompromising Palestinian nationalism. Khader, speaking the movement's slogans, is the voice of the public, politicized Islam of our day and not only in the West Bank and Gaza.

But is that the same as the religion itself? When I first met Mubarak Awad's disciple Nafez Assaily, he held up his hand, with his thumb and forefinger together, his other fingers extended, and showed me that together they spelled "Allah" in Arabic. "His name is in our hands," said Assaily, who now quietly runs an educational center on nonviolence in Hebron, a city known among Palestinians for its arch-conservative Islamic ambience. "I teach children to see Allah in everyone, even in those who are fighting you," Assaily said. "It doesn't mean you have to give up, but you must resist nonviolently, [so as] not to hurt Allah in that human being." Perhaps Assaily is unorthodox; certainly he lacks the foot soldiers that Hamas has enlisted.

One must be balanced, says Gilles Kepel, which means neither "to be essentialist .  .  . and say Islam equals violence" nor to say that "Islam is perfectly flexible." Kepel, author of the War for Muslim Minds, is chairman of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and a world expert on politicized Islam. To step out of the tangle of Israel and Palestine in my search for the missing -Gandhi, to listen to distance-accented analysis, I had traveled to Paris to meet Kepel and his protégé, Bernard Rougier, author of the book Everyday Jihad.

Originally, Kepel stresses, Islam was a minor overtone in Palestinian nationalism, which began as "a variation on an anti-imperialist theme." The slogan "Palestine will win!" belonged to the same lexicon as "Vietnam will win!" Until the late 1980s, Palestinian Islamicists stayed out of politics--indeed, were "coopted by the Israeli state as a counter fire against the PLO." Only then did Hamas emerge, "using Islamic language and painting violence in Islamic terms." Politics was transmuted into theology; Palestine and armed resistance became sacred, absolute values.

The process had begun earlier, elsewhere. Ali Shariati, one of the intellectual fathers of the Iranian revolution, produced a Farsi version of the Wretched of the Earth--Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon's 1961 treatise on decolonialization, which anointed "absolute violence" as the means of ending colonial rule--soon after its publication. "When Fanon spoke of the 'oppressed' versus the 'oppressor,' " Kepel explains, Shariati "would translate it into Islamic parlance--mustad'afin [the disinherited], a Koranic term, and mustakbirin, 'arrogant,' which is also Koranic." Ayatollah Khomeini wove these old-new terms into his speeches. In the French original, Fanon's book bore a breathless preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote that "The rebel's weapon is proof of his humanity." Rendered in Islamic parlance, Fanon inspired a new set of rebels.

Religion, says Rougier, "is a box where you can find all sorts of tools to legitimize your strategy." From there, a process begins. "If you commit a violent action, your act creates a precedent. A precedent crystallizes as a rule and may inspire other people. .  .  . It belongs now to the tradition of Islam." Terrorism has been elevated to ritual, a testimony to faith.

But not every tool is available in a particular religion, Kepel suggests. In India, Gandhi behaved as a sadhu, a Hindu ascetic "who sacrifices all of his worldly passions for the supreme goal," Kepel asserts. "His political grammar was new, the vocabulary he used was old." Islam, he implies, lacks an equivalent model for nonviolent self-sacrifice.

No, Islamic scholar Mustafa Abu Sway tells me when I return to Jerusalem. The model is in the Koran itself. It is the son of Adam, who knows his brother will kill him, and says, "It is not for me to stretch my hand against you to slay you." The Koran adds those words to the biblical account of the world's first murder. But it leaves out the names Cain and Abel, speaking only of "the sons of Adam," which is also Arabic for human beings. The story thereby becomes a parable, timeless and universal, for choosing death over self-defense.

On the basis of that passage, Abu Sway explains, Syrian philosopher Jawdat Said wrote his treatise on non-violent political reform, the Path of Adam's Son, published in 1966. Said, now 78, was educated at Al-Azhar University. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was jailed repeatedly in Syria and dismissed from a series of teaching posts. In a rare essay published in English, Said explained the meaning of Abel's statement as "I will not make my death validate killing." Had Abel responded with violence, he would have legitimated it. Instead, by refusing to defend himself, Abel makes killing "vile even in [Cain's] eyes." Such is the effect of pacifism in our world, Said argued: "For while soldiers conceive of success in combat as heroic .  .  . the killing of those who do not defend themselves is seen as a grisly murder." This, surely, is Gandhi's "political grammar" expressed in Islamic vocabulary.

Abu Sway adduces a second model for spiritual resistance, and a more surprising one. It is the prophet Muhammad himself, who "practiced nonviolence in Mecca. In fact, not only nonviolence, he was passive." For the first 13 years of Muhammad's prophetic career, "he endured the most severe persecution, he and his followers," without responding. In Abu Sway's telling, only when Muhammad finally fled to Medina, at the age of 53, did he become a warrior: an unwilling one, defending himself against the Meccans who pursued him. Reilluminated this way--the Mecca years in the brightly lit foreground, the Medina years of conflict in shadows, the conquests veiled in black--the prophet's life is still not quite a paradigm of absolute pacifism. Self-defense is permitted, but only as a final resort for the long-suffering. Armed jihad is an allowance, not an ideal.

In an online essay written around the time that the second Intifada erupted in 2000, Abu Sway went a step further. Early Muslim armies, he explained, were warned not to harm women, children, or the elderly. "Within its own historical context," he wrote, this was a "sublime standard." But once technological advances in weaponry made it impossible to avoid killing civilians, "I believe that war in itself could not be justified anymore." It is a classic gambit for a change within a tradition whose founding text is presumed perfect and unchanging: The prophet was not wrong to wage war, but circumstances make it impossible to do so today. As for fighting occupation, Abu Sway concludes, "Mahatma -Gandhi proved that it is possible to gain independence through nonviolence."

It does not matter terribly if historians, not to mention the proponents of armed jihad, might fault Abu Sway's biography of Muhammad--for leaving out the prophet's battles with the Jewish tribes of Medina, for instance. Religious traditions come blessed with contradiction. The Hebrew Bible declares in the Book of Isaiah that "in the days to come .  .  . they will beat their swords into plowshares." In the Book of Joel it proclaims, "Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears." For the individual believer, there is an "essential" Islam, Judaism, or Christianity constructed by taking one part of the tradition as obvious truth, interpreting others in its light. Seen from the outside, a religion is only a set of possibilities.

Abu Sway is mainstream enough to have lectured weekly for three years at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but he is also clearly in the minority. He was introduced to the idea of the Meccan Muhammad in the 1980s, he tells me, at a lecture at Mubarak Awad's Palestinian Center for the Study of Non-violence by Iraqi-born, London-based writer Khalid Kishtainy, a longtime advocate of "jihad in which no blood is shed, no children are killed." Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Gandhi's ally in India, also cited the tradition of the prophet in Mecca as his model for ending British rule. In a village in the hills south of Bethlehem, an earnest young Muslim schoolteacher involved in organizing protests against construction of the Israeli security fence tells me that "our prophet engaged in nonviolence in the early years of his prophecy." If the idea is in the toolbox of Islam, Sheikh Yazid Khader's tools appear to get more use.

The reason for Palestinian violence, Abu Sway argues, "is contextual, not textual." The text is Islam, the context is occupation. "There is no equality between oppressors and oppressed, occupiers and occupied," he has written. "Violence is linear with a specific historical beginning." In simpler words, he is asserting that Israel has oppressed -Palestinians and bears responsibility for the bloodshed. The argument allows Abu Sway to reject violence while maintaining his Palestinian allegiance, but it is too pat. Israeli-Palestinian history is a tangle, not a line, with guilt enough for both sides. And context includes ideas. In the context of British India and Gandhi's leadership, Khan made Islam a faith of nonviolence. The context of the Palestinian struggle for independence is adulation of armed revolution. To go back a step further, the context is the refugees who populate Ghassan Kanafani's stories.

Kanafani, a pioneer of Palestinian literature, was killed along with his niece when his car exploded in Beirut in 1972. The bombing is usually attributed to the Mossad. In his day job, Kanafani was the spokesman of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Among the competing Palestinian organizations, the PFLP had taken the lead in "external operations," meaning airplane hijackings and other acts of international terrorism. A few weeks before his death, the PFLP took responsibility for sending three members of the Japanese Red Army into Israel's Lod Airport, where they killed 26 people.

Unable to visit Kanafani, I revisit his best-known work, the novella Men in the Sun. The story, published in 1963, tells of three Palestinian refugees trying to reach Kuwait to find work. They are men of small hopes: to build a shack to live in, to buy a couple of olive saplings, to send money home to a mother in a refugee camp. A smuggler named Abul Khaizuran agrees to take them across the border from Basra, in Iraq, into Kuwait inside the tank of his water truck. Abul Khaizuran fought the Jews in 1948; unknown to his passengers, he quite literally lost his manhood in battle.

At the border post, an official delays Abul Khaizuran endlessly, ribbing him about a dancer with whom he supposedly spends his nights in Basra. Inside the tank, his three passengers wait in unbearable heat, and silently die. Afterward Abul Khaizuran dumps their bodies in the desert, shouting, "Why didn't you knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn't you say anything? Why?" In its controlled prose, Kanafani's story has much the same message as Bialik's raging "City of the Killings": Passivity turns victimhood into shame.

In 1972, the year of Kanafani's death, his novella was made into a film, with a change in the ending: Now the three men pound against the walls of the tanker. True, they still die, but they struggle loudly against their fate. The original dénouement, Kanafani's translator wrote, "would have appeared glaringly incongruous" after the establishment of the "resistance movements"--Fatah, PFLP, and the other armed Palestinian groups that seized the world's attention in the late 1960s.

The story, and the change in ending, allude to much of what drove Kanafani and his comrades in arms. "At last you have found the way to make our voice heard in all the world," said new recruits joining the Black September Organization in 1971, according to a member of the group quoted in Yezid Sayigh's Armed Struggle and the Search for State. Those few words could be the epigraph to Sayigh's study.

In Sayigh's description, the impact of the Nakba--the "Catastrophe" of 1948--was not only that over half the Palestinian population became landless in the personal sense. As a national community, the Palestinians were stateless and voiceless. They lived under Israeli, Jordanian, Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian rule. The Arab states, no less than Israel, were interested in treating them as refugees, not as an independent political force. A Palestinian government formed in the Gaza Strip in 1948 was boycotted by Arab governments, who did not want to loose a force for instability.

From then on, Sayigh argues, Palestinian politics was defined by the effort to build a virtual state, an organization that would speak for Palestinians and make them an autonomous actor in world affairs even before it undid the Catastrophe and took back their land. The means to accomplish all this was "armed struggle"--creating the resistance movements and attacking Israel. Armed struggle galvanized the support of Palestinians themselves and transformed the PLO into a state without territory. It forced the Arabs and the world to accept the PLO as "the sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinians, even if it failed miserably at liberating Palestinian territory.

"Sometimes these [things] don't appear as choices. It's not as if someone said armed struggle is instrumentally useful. .  .  . It was obvious. It was maybe what young men do," Sayigh carefully explains when we meet in person, in his office at the Department of War Studies at King's College in London. Sayigh, now 54, grew up in Beirut, but left after the Israeli invasion in 1982. He is thin and tall, his gray hair and beard so trimmed they seem only like nuances, his slacks pressed, his shirt white, his English exact: a man who aspires to precision as he studies chaotic events. In the late 1950s and the 1960s, he stresses, "If you were a young man and you wanted to act against what you saw as occupation, the most obvious thing to do was to look at what other Third World peoples were doing." It was the time of "the Algerian war of independence .  .  . Vietnam, Cuba, the Bay of Pigs. This was the world."

Frantz Fanon provided inspiration, with his promise that "violence unifies the people" and that it "frees the native from his inferiority complex" and "restores self-respect." In one of its first pamphlets, Fatah published much of the Wretched of the Earth in translation. From the Cuban revolution, Fatah took the idea of military action as propaganda. It sought "a spectacular operation that would arrest the attention of the Israelis, Palestinians, Arab regimes and world public opinion," as one leader of the movement later wrote.

At the end of 1964, Fatah began launching raids into Israel. After the Arab defeat in June 1967, Fatah "field commander" Yasser Arafat slipped into the West Bank. The inspiration was now Mao. With Israel directly ruling a large Palestinian population, Fatah's guerrillas "would move among the people as a fish swims in the sea," spark an insurrection, liberate areas of the West Bank, and declare the founding of a Palestinian entity. The grandiose dream fizzled; Israel quickly arrested hundreds of Fatah activists, and Arafat escaped to Jordan.

Afterward, Fatah and other groups stepped up attacks from across the border, sometimes clashing with Israeli soldiers, often targeting civilians. The turning point was March 1968, when the Israeli army launched a major operation against the town and refugee camp of Karameh in Jordan, where Fatah was based. The Jordanian army and the Palestinians put up a stiff fight, and the battle was a costly Israeli victory. For Fatah, the triumph was that it stood, fought, and drew blood. Thousands of young Palestinian men signed up for the resistance groups. Arafat exploited the "victory" to become head of the PLO.

Suddenly, pride replaced the stain of refugeehood. To be Palestinian meant being a fidai, a guerrilla, the new hero of an Arab world starved for heroes after the defeat of 1967. Fatah radio, wrote Sayigh, played songs with lines such as "the Palestinian people is a revolution, take my blood O revolution and give me victories." In a new ritual, posters appeared on the streets showing each shahid, or martyr, who fell--the religious term borrowed for nationalist purposes.

Militarily, the PLO was a failure. Jordan's King Hussein drove the organization out of its base in his country in 1970. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and forced the PLO into a further exile in Tunis. This record only makes its symbolic successes more remarkable. By October 1974, the Arab League appointed the PLO to represent the Palestinians diplomatically. Two weeks later Arafat spoke before the U.N. General Assembly, treated as a head of state. He declared that diplomacy was an "enhancement" of armed struggle--an explanation to his constituency of why he should use diplomacy at all.

By the time Mubarak Awad began preaching non-violence in the 1980s, Sayigh says, the idea that the PLO alone spoke for Palestinians was "established truth." And even if few Palestinians in the occupied territories had ever tried to participate in armed struggle, the myth held sway. Awad was challenging the very basics of Palestinian identity. When he suggested that he was only rejecting violence tactically, not in principle, he diluted his own message without gaining support.

Afterward, when the first Intifada erupted, the pro-PLO leadership grasped the advantage of spurning guns. But it could only go so far. The "children of the stones" filled the role of Palestinians as fighters, rebels against their fate. The need for a symbol of defiance outweighed any advantage that a Gandhian strategy could provide.

Even so, by first moderating its tactics and then by accepting the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alone, the PLO opened up space for a competitor. Hamas entered the political arena as the heir of armed struggle and of the Palestinian claim to the entire land. The movement, a sympathetic Palestinian scholar wrote at the time, was "transforming Islam .  .  . into a liberation theology." The key word in that sentence is "transform." After the Oslo agreement--and the 1994 massacre carried out by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron--Hamas embraced suicide bombings as the means of sabotaging diplomacy. To do so, it had to alter its religious understanding of the ban on suicide, so that blowing oneself up in a crowd of civilians became martyrdom.

When the Oslo process collapsed, both Israel and the Palestinians reflexively reverted to force. The day after Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000, Israeli police used live fire against Palestinian rioters at the site, killing four people. The new Intifada was born. Despite some revisionist accounts, Palestinians used firearms virtually from the start. By the third night, Palestinian gunmen "were shooting from outside my apartment in Ramallah," recalls Sayigh, who was then living in the West Bank town as a consultant to Palestinian negotiators. Hamas took the lead in suicide attacks inside Israel. By 2002 the Fatah-linked, loosely organized Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade had followed suit. "When the Al-Aqsa Brigades started engaging in the Hamas mode .  .  . of suicide attacks, it embarrassed the Palestinian Authority" in the diplomatic realm, says Palestinian Legislative Council member Nasser Juma'a. But "on the popular level, the Palestinian street accepted these measures."

Juma'a, 42, is a former leader of the Al-Aqsa Brigades in Nablus who now represents Fatah in the Palestinian legislature. Meeting me in Ramallah, he spoke just above a whisper, as if still concerned that the walls might listen. Juma'a says he opposed attacks inside Israel, because "they served Israeli extreme policies." It was not the only argument he lost. When Israeli troops swept into Nablus in 2002, he said, "Our fighters decided to take the Old City of Nablus as our base. I argued that this would be lethal to us." The Israeli goal, he told his fellows, was "to kill or arrest us. .  .  . We should not put ourselves in cages. The Old City is like a cage." But everyone else wanted to stay, so Juma'a did as well. "They did not want to escape confrontation or hide or disappear." In Juma'a's account, "a hundred men were killed in two days." Listening, I thought of Kanafani's story: For Juma'a's comrades, pounding the walls was worth even more than escape.

Neither Palestinians nor Israelis are unusual for using deadly weapons to achieve political goals, or for making warriors into heroes. What may make Palestinians and Israelis stand out is the overwhelming place of victimhood in their national memories. In very different ways, the experience of powerlessness made picking up the gun a goal for both--an end, not just a means.

Yet even by the coldest calculations of realpolitik, the use of force has led to a dead end. Israel suppressed the second Intifada, but remains entangled in the West Bank. When Ariel Sharon decided to leave Gaza, he insisted on doing so unilaterally, as an act of Israeli will, rather than taking the opportunity to renew peace negotiations. Sharon marketed the pullout domestically as “disengagement,” making it a military operation: One disengages from the enemy in war. As critics on the right and left had warned in advance, Hamas took credit for driving Israel out by armed struggle. Despite all the military power Israel used in last winter’s campaign, it was unable to stop the rocket fire from the Strip.

Still, the Palestinians face a breakdown at least as deep. The armed uprising left them impoverished, without freedom of movement. The Palestinian Authority, the first fragile step toward sovereignty, was shattered. After 2000, says Sayigh, the use of guns dismantled exactly what it once created—“a shared idea of what it is to be a Palestinian” and any institutions that embodied that identity.

“The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those .  .  . that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs,” Jared Diamond wrote in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond was speaking of ecological catastrophes, but his thesis fits the Palestinian political collapse. Even to conduct negotiations successfully with Israel, the Palestinians need a means other than arms to create pressure and “gravitational pull.” If once-sacred values have failed, the time seems ripe for a heresy. Perhaps, at last, there could be the opening for nonviolence. 

Here and there in the West Bank are people who want to seize that opening. If wider change eventually comes, they may be counted as its harbingers. In Hebron, Nafez Assaily runs a library on wheels, which lends children’s books on Gandhi and Martin Luther King. One morning I watch him lecture in the small town of Idna. Eighteen housewives and college students have shown up. Assaily explains that the people whom Palestinians see as “freedom fighters, international opinion sees as terrorists.” The Israeli army, he says, “is well trained to confront armed people, not unarmed people.” Yet Assaily makes it clear that he is not condemning the use of arms. When Arafat spoke at the U.N., he held a gun in one hand, an olive branch in the other, Assaily recalls, adding, “Neither hand cancels the other.” Afterward he explains his hedging to me, “If I say I am against armed struggle, it means I am not a good Palestinian.”

On a Friday afternoon at the village of Artas, south of Bethlehem, I watch Sami Awad lead 150 protesters toward the security fence being built around the settlement of Efrat. The plan is to hold a sit-in in one of the village’s orchards recently uprooted to make way for the fence. Sami, the nephew of Mubarak Awad, has been preaching his uncle’s message for several years around Bethlehem. On the dirt road to the orchard, a line of paramilitary border police with plastic riot shields blocks the march. The protestors push against the shields, scuffle, and fail to break through. They sit on the road, backs to the police in a gesture intended as defiance, then walk home. The impassioned call to keep pushing, or to fast to the death on the road, or in some other way capture the media’s attention is missing. The protests continue ritually each Friday. 

Other villages have tried similar protests against the fence, aiming for nonviolence, hewing with less than success to that ideal. Until now, a mass movement dedicated to a Palestinian version of satyagraha has not arisen in answer to political despair. It has not seized the mainstream, turning a terror attack or rocket firing into a violation of political consensus.

What is lacking, Mustafa Abu Sway tells me, is a “charismatic leader,” the figure who pulls crowds after him. (He is not nominating himself.) The great-man theory of history has been maligned, but he is right. Historical processes create opportunities, but it matters who seizes them. Segregation was ready to crack in 1955, but if Martin Luther King had previously accepted an academic position teaching theology rather than a pulpit in Montgomery, nonviolence might never have been part of the civil rights movement. King was a preacher and a preacher’s son, an aristocrat of an intensely religious society. Taylor Branch, in his vast biography, Parting the Waters, notes that when King was a divinity student, “his peers so admired his preaching technique that they packed the chapel” when he gave the student sermon. The brilliance of the individual cannot be explained by the blind processes of history. Rather, it shapes them.

At the end of a search for a missing man, I can imagine him. Earlier in his life, he would have believed in armed struggle. He would have acted on that belief and served time in an Israeli jail—so that he fit the myth before he sought to change it and so that his own life embodies what he asks of his followers. Ideally, he would belong to a prominent clan—perhaps the Husseinis of Jerusalem or the al-Masris of Nablus. He would be committed to nonviolence as a moral principle and would say so rather than describing it only as an effective means. Without the commitment, sticking to the tactic is hard. And for a leader to speak with the passion that makes people follow, he needs to say what he really believes. He would be a gifted orator and organizer. Knowing that the audience for his public drama included Israelis, he would threaten their preconceptions by showing he could keep Palestinians from threatening their lives. 

The first Israeli reaction to his acts of defiance could well be massive force. Yet if he stuck absolutely to nonviolent means, he could awaken a political storm in Israel. Today’s radical Islamicists would attack him, but Islam itself could provide the language to move people. His greatest challenge would be to redefine what it means to be a Palestinian. In a time of despair, like the current time, that might be possible.

I can imagine Sheikh Nasser a-Din al-Masri. The position is open. So far, no one has appeared to fill it.  

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (Times Books), and a senior correspondent for the American Prospect. He blogs at southjerusalem.com.