Jonathan Brun

The Failing Struggle of Palestinian Human Rights Groups

The ongoing massacre in Gaza marks an unprecedented chapter in Palestine’s tragic history. With over 11,000 civilians brutally killed, half of whom are innocent children, and tens of thousands left physically and emotionally scarred, there’s no comparable violence in Palestine’s past. The closest parallels lie in the horrific massacres of Rwandans in the ’90s, the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the Indonesians under Suharto – hardly humanity’s proudest moments. Though the current Gazan death toll hasn’t reached the hundreds of thousands, as a percentage of the population, it rivals the scale of those atrocities.

Despite this staggering loss of life, Palestinian human rights groups have, regrettably, failed to shift the political landscape, and no state has taken meaningful action to aid the Gazans facing death. Why? After 75 years of conflict, it’s time to ask what’s going wrong. Massive protests, sit-ins, blockades, and media campaigns by these groups have yielded next to nothing.

Having collaborated with some of these groups for the past 15 years, my primary observation is their profound lack of understanding of how political change occurs. They seem oblivious to power structures, influence dynamics, and the intricacies of lobbying. Their view of politics is overly simplistic, fixated on government officials, while they disregard the influential corporations, non-profits, pro-Israel lobby groups, and individuals shaping governmental decisions. Despite advocating for training and research into societal power structures, many Palestinian human rights groups claim to be too occupied with petitions, emails, meetings, and protests. The remarkable failure to recognize that 75 years of effort has fallen short is baffling.

The core issue lies in the human rights groups’ reliance on tools and communication tactics that preach to the choir, missing the mark with the broader audience. In contrast, pro-Israel groups have adeptly engaged across society, working within existing structures to shape a narrative that aligns with mainstream voters and party donors. It’s like the two groups are playing tennis, but the Palestinian human rights groups find themselves on a different court, continually hitting the ball against an impenetrable brick wall. The brick wall may return the ball, but victory against it is impossible.

The primary challenge faced by Palestinian groups is that pro-Israel advocates have successfully shaped a narrative convincing the public that there’s no alternative to the current situation. Politicians and mainstream voters often side with Israel, believing it has a right to defend itself, justifying Israeli aggression – even when it goes too far. This narrative is deeply embedded in Western societies’ power structures. Non-Western societies often view the conflict as not their problem or feel powerless due to the American influence. Until Palestinian human rights groups offer a narrative positioned as a credible alternative to violence, they are destined to fail.

Numerous examples demonstrate alternatives to violence. One crucial mistake made by non-violent advocates is the use of the term “non-violence,” which often conveys pacifism or subjugation. Gene Sharp, years ago, highlighted that given the choice between subjugation and violent resistance, people will choose violence. No population will indefinitely surrender their right to dignity and independence. However, alternatives to violent confrontation exist. The terminology is critical, and I prefer the term “counterviolence.” It implies action and fighting, yet rejects violence as the solution. Numerous examples, from Gandhi and King to the Maori in New Zealand and Mandela, demonstrate the effectiveness of counterviolence. Even the Indian response to the terrorist attacks by Pakistani groups underscores this (link).

To advocates of Palestinian human rights groups, I wish you the best. But more importantly, take the time to understand how politics truly works. Yelling, screaming, email campaigns, and protests are futile unless they disrupt the existing power structure. Ask yourselves: Are your actions challenging the power structure of the society you operate in?

Published on November 18, 2023