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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Palestinians must take control of their struggle through non-violent resistance

Days after Donald Trump's Jerusalem decision, the region has, mercifully, yet to fold into chaos, writes Rashmee Roshan Lall

Protesters photographed in Jakarta, Indonesia on Sunday, where hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in sympathy for Palestinians following Donald Trump's aggressive move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Dita Alangkara / AFP
Protesters photographed in Jakarta, Indonesia on Sunday, where hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in sympathy for Palestinians following Donald Trump's aggressive move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Dita Alangkara / AFP

From its lowest point, the Palestinian cause can rise to its greatest heights. Consider the immediate response to US president Donald Trump’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Three “days of rage” were announced, the Palestinian Authority gravely expressed disappointment and Hamas called for another intifada. There were some clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops, but largely, the Palestinians have appeared to be preparing for the long war rather than waging small, briefly satisfying skirmishes.

They have, thus far, been helped in this moderate course by the wider Arab and Muslim world. This has been the case even in Tunis, where the Palestinian issue has a lot of supporters (the PLO was based there for nearly a decade from 1982 in the dark years when it was considered a terrorist organisation). On Friday, 24 hours after Mr Trump’s announcement from Washington, I watched as extraordinary security measures were employed around the US embassy in the Tunisian capital, while protesters had their noisy say some considerable distance away.

Thus far – and those two words are worth repeating over and over – everyone’s worst fears have not come true. The world has not yet descended into the “ring of fire” that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan predicted as the outcome of Mr Trump’s high-handed decision to willfully ignore international law, multiple United Nations resolutions and the principle of natural justice.

Of course it’s early days yet, but thus far, Palestinian leaders (other than Hamas) have adopted a sober tone that mixes honest regret with measured horror at the massive blow so cruelly struck at them by Mr Trump. Thus far, that “Arab street” – so beloved of western commentators and policy wonks – has not lived up to its billing. Thus far, Arabs have not responded to Mr Trump’s outrageous provocation as an unthinking people who will burn down the neighbourhood without stopping to think that their own house is in it.

To date, the US administration has not managed to provoke Arab and Muslim violence in a way that would justify more extreme domestic security measures. In other words, Mr Trump cannot use the fallout from his Jerusalem announcement as a political tool to further demonise and marginalise Arabs and Muslims.

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Some say the relatively muted response to Mr Trump’s cataclysmic announcement is because the Palestinian issue has slipped in importance, especially in the Arab world. There’s a lot of talk about various Arab leaders having other things on their minds and other deals to cut. It’s true the region has many more and very different things – caution and conflicts – to worry about than in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Palestinian issue was at the top of the agenda.

There is regional caution after the Arab Spring uprisings, with governments keen not to encourage discontent. And there is conflict in parts of the region.

The wider Muslim world too is increasingly seen as a house divided and consequently, unable to provide coherence and unity on the Palestinian issue.

So, this much is true. Arabs and Muslims can no longer be defined by the Palestinian problem. There are other preoccupations, not least managing change in a networked world.

This is all to the good. The Palestinians’ plight should not be just an Arab or a Muslim issue. It should be a world issue. One that mobilises people and governments all over the world in the fight against injustice. Mr Trump’s Jerusalem decision must be opposed around the world because it makes a mockery of international order in the 21st century by legitimising the annexation of a territory seized in war. Ukraine would object. So might other countries right the way round the world if National Geographic is correct that “there are more than 150 disputes under way that involve territory, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Pacific region, but also in Europe and the Americas”.

It wasn’t that long ago, just in 1980, that the UN passed Resolution 478 deeming Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its “complete and united” capital to be in violation of international law and urging member states to withdraw diplomatic missions from the city.

Now, Mr Trump has internationalised the Palestinian issue in an unexpected way. He has united the UN Security Council against the United States and will hopefully trigger a whole new international movement that actively campaigns for justice for the Palestinians and thereby, for the rule of law.

Right now, there is but one right course for Palestinians. Hundreds of Mohandas Gandhis, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther Kings must emerge, rising up to lead non-violent resistance to a system that seeks to crush them. They must stand and sit on principle, demanding justice from the oppressor. Palestinians must take control of their struggle, setting its non-violent terms.