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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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.