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.