The Gun That Booms Silently | Pranay Sharma Non-violent means win rights for Palestinian prisoners. Itâ€™s the streetsâ€™ weapon of choice. Prison Prowess Under the Israeli-Palestinian prison deal, prisoners in Israeli jails will have the right to meet their families in prison Israeli authorities will have to end prisonersâ€™ â€˜illegal detentionâ€™ beyond six months, unless there is fresh evidence against them Prisoners would be given access to books and other reading material and allowed to watch television Prisoners wonâ€™t be thrown into solitary confinement In exchange, Palestinian prisoners have promised to give up violence and terrorism It took Israeli authorities several weeks to take charismatic Palestinian leader Marwan Barghoutiâ€™s warning seriously. Serving five life-sentences in the solitary cell of an Israeli prison, Barghouti, the most prominent Fatah leader among the inmates, urged his supporters and fellow prisoners in March end to stop all negotiation and cooperation with the Israelis for not making any attempt to end their illegal â€˜occupationâ€™. It may be stretching oneâ€™s imagination to suggest that like the protagonist in Lage Raho Munnabhai, Barghouti, a key figure of Palestineâ€™s â€˜second Intifadaâ€™, too had a vision of â€˜Bapuâ€™ and changed tack after hearing of the Mahatma extolling the virtues of passive resistance. Since some Palestinian prisoners were already on a hunger strike, refusing food, medicine or water unless their illegal detention was ended, it is likely that Barghouti found this to be the most effective tool. Finally, it was his clarion call that led over 2,000 Palestinian prisoners lodged in various Israeli jails to embark on a fast and bring it to a successful ending on May 14 by forcing the jail authorities to accede to most of their demands. The deal struck between the Palestinians and the Israelis will now allow the Palestinians to meet their families while in prison and will force the authorities to end their â€˜illegal detentionâ€™ beyond six months, unless there is fresh evidence against them. More importantly, it also brings a stop to them being put in solitary confinement. In return, the Palestinians had to assure the Israelis that they will give up violence and not to indulge in acts of terrorism in future. Is this the triumph of â€˜Gandhigiriâ€™ in West Asia, a violence-prone region, which, for the outside world, brings forth images of Palestinian stone-throwers engaged in an â€˜asymmetrical warâ€™ with Israeli soldiers atop armoured vehicles in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank? â€œThere is no denying that, directly or indirectly, Palestinian leaders are drawing inspiration from Gandhiâ€™s passive resistance and his success in throwing out the British from India, to achieve their goal,â€ Shlomo Ben Ami, former Israeli foreign minister, and vice president of Spainâ€™s Toledo International Centre for Peace, told Outlook. This is not to say that West Asian leaders are discovering Mahatma Gandhi or his philosophy of non-violence now. Leading political figures in Egypt, Palestine and Israel, including Ben-Gurion, one of the founders of modern Israel and its first prime minister, was greatly moved by Gandhian passive resistance and its use against colonialism. In the bedroom of Ben-Gurionâ€™s â€˜desert homeâ€™ at Kibbutz Sede Boker in Israel, a portrait of Gandhiji still adorns the wall. â€œGandhiâ€™s methods were widely admired in Palestine (and in Egypt) in the late â€™20s and early â€™30s, although the failure of such methods led the Palestinians in 1936-39 to launch an armed rebellion against the British, which was bloodily repressed,â€ says Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab Studies in the department of history of Columbia University. Even later, there were phases when Palestinian leaders decided to adopt peaceful methods to carry on their struggle, particularly after 1967, when the Arabs suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Israelis, and later in 1973, when they won a partial victory in the Yom Kippur war. But, with Arab leaders beset with internal problems and challenges, Palestinians realised they would have to find ways to champion their own cause, and could not rely on others. Short spells of peace were always broken by longer spells of violence as negotiations between Palestinians and Israel failed to reach a lasting solution acceptable to both sides despite efforts by the US. â€œThe atrocities of Israel on the Palestinians have got very little publicity in the West-dominated media,â€ says former Indian diplomat Talmiz Ahmad, who has served as Indiaâ€™s ambassador to several countries in the Gulf and West Asia. So what made the Israelis, who are known to take a tough line, especially under its hardline prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to adopt such a conciliatory approach in dealing with the Palestinian prisoners? It is interesting to note that the peace deal between the Palestinian prisoners and the Shen Bet, the Israeli agency tasked with internal security, took place less than 24 hours before Al Naqbaâ€”the day of â€˜catastropheâ€™ traditionally observed by Palestinians for the past six decades to mark the loss of their land to the Israel state. Reports suggest that this year it was observed more peacefully than earlier years, though there were protest rallies and demonstrations and occasional incidents of stone-throwing in Gaza and West Bank. The Israelis must have factored it into their thinking that if the deteriorating health of some of the prisoners resulted in deaths; it could well trigger large-scale violence, even birth the â€˜third Intifadaâ€™. With a neighbourhood on the boil for the past few years and the Arab Spring forcing regime changes, particularly that of long-time ally, Hosni Mubarrak, the Netanyahu government was in no mood to take chances. â€œGiven the sensitive and unified nature of the prison movement, the Israeli authorities must have thought that it would not be wise for them to allow the situation to explode,â€ says Ben-Ami. Experts say that even among Palestinians, there are now major shifts in tactics as there is a growing acceptance of the post-9/11 world, the realisation that there are few takers for acts of terrorism. This has persuaded the new Palestinian leadership to embark on a diplomatic campaign to restart the stalled peace process. And itâ€™s not isolated. Even the Hamas is making serious efforts to stop attacks against Israelis from territories under their control. â€œI think the shift towards non-violent civil disobedience in the prison system is emblematic of a larger shift in the tactics being used by Palestinians to resist Israeli occupation,â€ Leila Hilal, co-director of the Washington-based New America Foundationâ€™s Middle East Task Force, told Outlook. According to her, for some time now many Palestinian leaders are convinced of the inefficacy of violence; they have realised that the trend for non-violence has become an increasingly popular tool at the civil society level. This not only challenges the Israeli occupation from a rights-based perspective and helps in shifting world public sympathy to the long-held Palestinian position, but also carves out alternative domestic political space for the much-criticised Palestinian Authority government apparatus. â€œIn other words, it is a way to doubly challenge a status quo at home and abroad which has produced precious little in the 20 years since the initiation of the Oslo process,â€ Hilal adds. If Gandhian values take deep roots in West Asia, are we likely to see its spread to others parts of the Arab world? â€œNon-violent protest is the preferred method for dealing with the tyrannies that still dominate most of the Arab world,â€ says Khalidi. But he is quick to point out that in many cases protesters have allowed themselves to be drawn into violent responses by the â€œferocious repressive violence of the Arab regimesâ€. As a politically convulsive West Asia attempts to break the political status quo, it remains to be seen whether it will be won through passive resistance or a series of lingering, bloody showdowns.