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Analysis: Nonviolent community action can produce results

May 17, 2012 2:48 P.M. (Updated: May 17, 2012 2:48 P.M.)
By: Daoud Kuttab
This week, two totally different cases saw real progress towards resolution due to persistence, a focus on achievable results and the use of nonviolent means.

Palestinian prisoners and supporters of their just and reasonable requests in Palestine, the Arab world and the international community saw a successful resolution to their demands. The end of administrative detentions was the aim when Adnan Khader and Hana Shalabi began the protests with a pair of hunger strikes followed by Thaer Halahla and Bilal Diab.

This was followed by 1,600 prisoners demanding the end of solitary confinement, permission for family visits, especially for Gazan families denied such visits since 2007, and an agreement to allow prisoners to follow up educational pursuits. Thousands of prisoners refrained from eating for over 28 days while the administrative detainees went into their third month of a dangerous hunger strike.

The selfless action of the prisoners touched people around the world who began numerous campaigns on social media and in front of UN agencies, and other forms of protests. In Amman, 15 young people, including two women, started their own hunger strike in a tent outside the Professional Associations Complex.

They were especially supportive of over two dozen Jordanians in Israeli prisons, including Abdullah Barghouthi. The image of these supporters wearing light brown outfits resembling the prisoners uniforms went viral on line as they exchanged their own pictures with a faceless, brown-wearing sketch.

Government officials in Jordan, Egypt, the US and the EU, as well as the secretary general of the UN, were forced to take a stand and pressure the Israelis to accept the demands and use international standards for incarceration. The end was an Egyptian government-brokered deal that responded to most demands by Palestinian prisoners.

In another incident, Jordanian media professionals decided to investigate the status of persons with disabilities at privately-run centers.

Radio Al Balad's investigation unit and the Arab world's investigative journalism network ARIJ cooperated for over a year to look into the case.

Because the media have little access to these centers, and due to the lack of serious monitoring, Al Balad's journalist Hanan Khandakji was dispatched to do undercover reporting. She volunteered at a few centers, and over a 12-month period was able to collect damning evidence of verbal, physical and sexual abuse.

Attempts to get government officials to better scrutinize the center failed to produce results. Before publishing the report, the BBC Arabic TV station was approached and agreed to film a documentary based on the evidence collected. The two sides agreed to broadcast/publish the investigation simultaneously, along with Al Ghad newspaper.

The combined local and international video-based media coverage produced quick results. The king made an unannounced visit to Ibn Khaldoun and Al Razi centers, both owned by a single entrepreneur.

After the visit, and based on the initial media evidence, the king instructed the prime minister to quickly and comprehensively investigate the charges, turn over to the judiciary those guilty of wrongdoing and provide him with results within two weeks.

Families of children with disabilities warmly welcomed the king's intervention and will be awaiting the results of the special committee. In both the prisoner protests and the media investigation a clear trend can be identified.

Injustice is recognized, clear attainable goals are identified, comprehensive plans are assembled, hard work is invested over a long period and the public is involved.

All this is done without violence, with strong determination and active effort and follow up. While many choose the shortcut of violence or revolution to effect changes, it is clear that although nonviolent and society civil-based activities take longer, they can produce impressive and tangible results.

In the two above cases, actions and results cannot be expected based on a one-off activity or a faza (communal knee jerk emotional outburst); they require long-term, focused and comprehensive plans.

Community leadership development, institutional capacity building, financial and administrative support are all important ingredients that must be included for results to be comprehensive and long lasting.

Daoud Kuttab is a journalist and former professor of journalism at Princeton University.
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