Is it “Nonviolence” When Stones are Thrown?

Can a demonstration be truly “nonviolent” if there is stone-throwing involved?  I’ve heard many claim that the growing Palestinian nonviolence movement is no such thing by pointing to the presence of stone-throwing youths at many demonstrations.

This assertion was even made by the liberal NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who filed several reports on his recent trip to Israel/Palestine. Here is his description of his experience at one of the weekly nonviolent demonstrations in Bi’lin:

Most of the marchers were Palestinians, but some were also Israeli Jews and foreigners who support the Palestinian cause. They chanted slogans and waved placards as photographers snapped photos. At first the mood was festive and peaceful, and you could glimpse the potential of this approach.

But then a group of Palestinian youths began to throw rocks at Israeli troops. That’s the biggest challenge: many Palestinians define “nonviolence” to include stone-throwing.

Soon after, the Israeli forces fired volleys of tear gas at us, and then charged. The protesters fled, some throwing rocks backward as they ran. It’s a far cry from the heroism of Gandhi’s followers, who refused even to raise their arms to ward off blows as they were clubbed.

Does stone-throwing – which is invariably carried out by angry, frustrated youths – necessarily nullify the nonviolent nature of these demonstrations? For Kristof, who sets the bar at highly principled Ghandian nonviolent resistance, clearly the answer is yes. But according to nonviolence experts, it may not quite be that simple.

In this regard, I highly recommend a trenchant and extremely thorough reasearch paper entitled “The Road to Nonviolent Coexistence in Palestine/Israel” written by Michael N. Nagler, PhD., Tal Palter-Palman, and Matthew A. Taylor of UC Berkeley’s Peace and Conflict Studies program.  Among other things, they point out that the role of stone throwing has been discussed and debated by Palestinians as far back as the First Intifada in 1988:

Stone throwing was one of the more controversial aspects of the Intifada, mainly practiced by Palestinian youths age 10-20 (called the shabab). Some Palestinians have argued that stone throwing is more an act of defiance than an intention to injure (the literal meaning of himsa, violence), saying that stones (in most cases) cannot hurt well-equipped helmeted soldiers. The shabab resort to stone throwing to protest the presence of the army on their lands. For Palestinian youngsters suffering from a deep feeling of humiliation and hopelessness, this simple yet concrete act of resistance is often a way to survive psychologically, by reclaiming a feeling of empowerment in an otherwise forlorn and depressive environment. Accordingly, different scholars note that stone throwing falls into a gray area between violence and nonviolence. Dr. Abu-Nimer of American University refers to it as nonlethal force or unarmed resistance.

However it is described, and whatever the motives of the youth who engage in the activity, unfortunately it does have a real potential to injure. For instance, during the time we visited the Holy Land in the summer of 2005, one Israeli soldier reportedly lost use of an eye due to a stone. Even if such incidents are rare, the media tends to focus on them, leading to misconstrual of the movement by the ‘reference publics.’

On the other hand, a well-known right-wing Israeli military spokesperson and veteran of the first Intifada recently stated at a public event that he had respect for the kids who threw stones at him, because he understood that they were not out to hurt him, but simply send a message: get off our lands. (He directly contrasted that with the violence of the second Intifada.) In assessing the effect of stone throwing, we can recognize that those who are the targets are likely to perceive the act in different ways: this is a difficulty with all symbolic acts.

Here’s Nagler, Palter-Palman, and Taylor’s description of the Bi’lin demonstrations (note the contrast with Kristof’s more simplistic portrayal):

Bil’in’s demonstrations have taken place every Friday for the past two years and represent a complex mix of principled (Gandhian) nonviolence, strategic nonviolence a la Gene Sharpe, and at times stone throwing. The shabab at times throws stones while standing behind the peaceful demonstrators — usually of the older generation, who tend to disapprove of the stoning. This debate takes place during rallies and everyday life. After one of the weekly demonstrations in July of 2005, for example, a long, meaningful and very-much-needed discussion took place between Israelis, Palestinians, and international activists about stone throwing in particular and nonviolence in general. Some of the activists argued — correctly, in our view — that stone throwing provokes the army to use tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and live ammunition. Additionally, they stated that the violent conclusion of each demonstration is the only part that gets media coverage, and draws public attention away from any meaningful discussion about the issue of the wall. In conclusion, although the village council affirmed a desire to stop stone throwing, they simultaneously justified and understood the youths’ need to release their anger through throwing stones.

My two cents? I believe that the Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement has deep historical roots – and that its current growth is significant and undeniable. I also believe it is all too easy to dismiss its significance by pointing to the presence of frustrated stone-throwing youths at demonstrations.

Yes, as Kristof points out it will be a “challenge” for Palestinian popular movement leaders to reign in the stone-throwers. But the challenge is just as equally Israel’s to understand that no matter how it tries, it will never break Palestinian resistance through the means of brutal military force.

12 thoughts on “Is it “Nonviolence” When Stones are Thrown?

  1. knittnkitten

    I have to say stone throwing is not nonviolence and by using the term “non violent protest” they are themselves invoking Ghandi to an extent and thus being disingenuous in their representation. Yes, I have been at protests that have turned violent or attracted a violent element. However if your protests becomes violent on a regular basis you shouldn’t present yourselves as non violent. Further, the use of slings by Palestinian youth can and have appeared to caused death, so it’s not simply a case of kids throwing small pebbles at someone. I mention this as it used to confuse the heck out of me why kids were getting shot over what I mistakenly perceived to be pebble tossing at the time.
    Much though I believe in Palestinian’s rights to a homeland, I also think that they need to be honest with the West when they represent what is going on it may be cultural, but to me at least it is not non violent to throw things at others.

    1. David

      Gandhi did not invent or define nonviolence. Please don’t put words in the mouths of 20-year-old Palestinians by claiming they’re channeling Gandhi.

      1. knittnkitten

        If the movement is representing itself as nonviolent then it is attaching itself to an egregore which is associated with Ghandi. And it should be noted that he was referenced by name in the above post.
        That they throw stones is not the issue but to claim that they are nonviolent is disingenuous.

  2. Miriam

    Brant, I couldn’t agree with you more on this post. When I read Kristof’s piece, I was surprised how simplistic he made the Israeli/Palestinian narrative. Indeed, there is a long history of stone throwing in Palestine, and it would have behooved Kristof to mention this as well as what the stones often are thrown at – tanks driven by the people who have the power and privilege. I was the most upset, though, by Kristof’s ideas on how the Palestinians should behave, by planting women in the streets as a nonviolent protest. What Kristof is missing is twofold: first, he misses the complexity of stone throwing that you mention, and the fact that there is a long history of Palestinian nonviolent movements; and second, we don’t need another white person in a position of power instructing indigenous people of color on how they should behave. Instead, we need to look at why they do things and what we do to contribute to that. Thanks, Brant, for helping us to see the deeper complexities and thanks for your suggested readings on this issue – something that sadly, Kristof didn’t do.

    1. David

      Throwing a stone rarely harms an Israeli soldier, although it certainly does a job on the windshields of their jeeps and armed personnel carriers. Instead, rock throwing is a form of obligatory resistance to the occupation. Much of the time, the IDF does retreat.

      If it is not OK for Palestinians to drive out the IDF from their towns or refugee camps, why aren’t we also having a debate about the right of people to use force against burglars or home invaders throughout America?

      Non-violence is just a tactic. It is not a holy commandment. The fact that the level of counter-violence by Palestinians is minimal (and I include the Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza) says something about their own reticence to use it and their own character.

      1. Richard Kahn

        Whether or not it is “OK for Palestinians to drive out the IDF from their towns or refugee camps,” the fact remains that throwing rocks is violent. You may be believe that the violence is justified, but calling it non-violent is just not convincing. The history of Palestinian protesters throwing rocks is also irrelevant regarding its status as violent. The contrary argument is about as convincing as settlers arguing that throwing rocks is permitted on Shabbat because of pikuach nefesh.

    2. David

      Richard, I did not write that throwing rocks was non-violent. I wrote: “Non-violence is just a tactic. It is not a holy commandment.”

      To be clearer, like any tactic non-violence may not always be justified. There is nothing absolute in either Jewish or Muslim holy books about fastidiously observing non-violence.

      This whole discussion is really about people projecting their own moral notions of what is within bounds on other people, in this case Palestinians. The rabbis who advised the IDF to show no mercy in Gaza were probably absent from the meeting at which the same non-violence proponents set rules for them too.

      I do think, however, that most moral people observe certain limits. From what I understand of Muslims, this is central to their faith. Cracking a guy’s windshield is one thing; killing him is another. Maybe we’re quibbling over degrees of violence, or maybe we’re discussing moral restraint. In any case, non-violence is not necessarily the gold standard.

      1. Richard Kahn

        Then I apologize to you, David, but I think that Rabbi Brant and others on this forum are trying to argue that throwing rocks is nonviolent. I think that is ridiculous.

  3. Stewart Mills

    See Gene Sharp’s (1973) list of 198 methods of Nonviolent Action

    Rock throwing does not fall within this list of Nonviolence.

    That said the act of rock throwing as an actual sign of resistance or a symbolic sign of resistance is not necessarily immoral or illegal. Certainly such a practice is rejected by the tradition of Gandhi or King. Such acts would seen to be a form of violence which would be counter-productive to the cause for civil and political liberation.

    Having said this I recall at university seeing a rubber bullet scar in the leg of a black South African friend. As a youth he and his friend would throw rocks at South African police as they patrolled his neighbourhood. They would do this for fun as hey would go to school. Is this act of throwing rocks immoral? Is it unjustified? I certainly can empathise with a rock throwing youth. But are there other options? That might be more advantageous for a positive future for all.

    I still agree with King and Gandhi that ultimately nonviolence struggle is the key. That is not to forget the dangers and inevitable tragedies that will result from nonviolence struggle (to the participants). Neither nonviolence or violent struggle are immune from deaths. In nonviolence struggle we have the seen the death of Rachel Corrie and the countless Palestinians who already have been killed by a similar example.

    As Brant says the Palestinian example of nonviolence is a historic one. The classic example was the Arab Strike in 1936. Although this turned to violence. The initial tactic of nonviolence was used to raise Palestinian grievances with British policy in Palestine.

    Nonviolence quotations

  4. Ross

    An article on the same topic by Josh Mitnick appeared in the April 28, 2010 Christian Science Monitor:

    A couple differences between Mitnick’s and Kristof’s perspective:

    Mitnick doesn’t claim as Kristof does that “many Palestinians define nonviolence to include stone-throwing” instead he says that those who throw stones do so because they are not convinced that nonviolence will work.

    Further he has an explanation of the coexistence of nonviolent demonstrators and stone throwers at the same demonstration stated by a leader of the demonstration who advocates nonviolence: “Rather than risk alienating followers by denouncing armed resistance, or stone throwing explicitly, Khatib says he prefers persuasion.”

  5. Michael Levin

    Another response to Kristof:

    Ofer Nieman [“Ofer Neiman is an Israeli citizen who participates in Sheikh-Jarrah solidarity actions. He is a co-editor of the Occupation Magazine”], Note to Kristof: Palestinians don’t need Israeli tutelage with nonviolent protest, Mondoweiss, 7/9/10.

    Excerpt: “. . . inspirational non-violent Palestinian campaigns against Israel’s policies have been around for years, and these campaigns have been initiated and led by…Palestinians! . . . . Another inspiring Palestinian campaign was the May 1988 tax revolt in Beit Sahour, under the most American of slogans, “No Taxation without Representation”. The revolt, a courageous act of non-violent Resistance, was brutally crushed by Israel. Residents were beaten, detained without trial, households were raided and their content was confiscated (Israel’s way of collecting tax…). The goods, including children’s toys, were auctioned off in Israel. Israel’s Defense Minister at the time (his name, by the way, was Yitzhak Rabin) said that he would break the Beit Sahour tax revolt at all costs, even if it meant keeping the town under curfew for two months. . . . The Palestinians have no need for Israeli civil disobedience tutoring. They are in need of Israeli solidarity with their just struggle.”

  6. Shlomo

    Sorry to disagree with you, Brant… Throwing stones is a violent act, regardless of how protected the receiver of the stones is.
    Similarly, excusing the stone throwing with the (historic/present/constant/whatever) frustration and anger Palestinians feel, is like excusing rape with (historic) child molestation of the perpetrator, etc.
    It simply doesn’t justify anything!
    If you are claiming to protest something in a non-violent way, you are expected to behave accordingly, and anyone from the other side should feel confident and safe to approach you (for verbal communication, or any other non-violent reason) completely unarmed and unprotected, which is not the case if you are hurling stones/rocks at him/her!!
    I understand that you believe that the conflict is completely unbalanced, but trying to balance it by twisting reality, and justifying what should not be justified, is totally wrong and can cause more harm than good to both sides!!!


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