There is a scene in the 1982 film Gandhi in which the Mahatma leads hundreds of protesters to a salt factory, lined up in ranks of ten, heads held high. Each row steps up to the gate only to be clubbed down by the guards, over and over again. As the women carry away the broken bodies, the American reporter Vince Walker phones in a report to his editors: "Whatever moral ascendancy the west held was lost here today. India is free. For she has taken all that steel and cruelty can give, and she has neither cringed nor retreated."
Where, one wonders, is the Palestinian Gandhi? The question is often posed by frustrated liberals, sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle for independence but repulsed by its attendant use of terror. The argument runs as follows: the Palestinians' armed struggle, in the form of suicide attacks inside Israeli cities and rocket attacks on Israeli border towns, has catastrophically failed. They find themselves isolated internationally and penned in domestically, between a network of Israeli fences and roadblocks.
Decades of violent resistance, from the PLO and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine through to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have failed to protect the lives or properties of the Palestinians, secure a Palestinian state or to prevent the spread of settlements. In the past week, the Israeli military announced that the number of Jewish settlers on the West Bank had risen above 300,000 for the first time.
So would a strategy of non-violent civil disobedience, modelled on the methods of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, succeed in delivering to the Palestinians a state of their own? The argument in favour of such a strategy, appealing to the conscience of one's oppressors as well as to the international community, is seductive - especially when framed in pragmatic and tactical terms.
Nonetheless, for me, the first and foremost argument in favour of a non-violent campaign is a moral one. No matter how brutal the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza may be, there can never be any justification for killing innocent Israeli civilians. Suicide bombings are an immoral and illegitimate response to an immoral and illegitimate occupation. To abandon the killing of civilians - indeed, to turn back from the dead end of violent resistance altogether - would offer a powerful moral challenge to the occupier.
But let's not get dewy-eyed. There are myriad reasons why the emergence of a Palestinian Gandhi would not automatically secure an end to the occupation, chief among them the long history of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in cracking down on non-violent Palestinian protests with as much ruthlessness as it does on violent protests. Before the outbreak of Palestinian suicide bombings in the second intifada, Israeli forces had already fired a million bullets at Palestinian demonstrators, according to army records. Then there is the multiplicity of militant Palestinian factions that would remain implacably opposed to any proposed campaign of civil disobedience. They would be unlikely to relinquish their arms or their right to resist the occupation by force.
There is, too, the argument that it is patronising and perhaps even racist to hold either the Palestinians or, for that matter, the Israelis to a pacifistic standard of behaviour demanded from no nation on earth. However, no two other nations on earth are locked in such a uniquely intractable conflict. I readily acknowledge that it is easy for me to urge a foreign people in a foreign land to risk their lives by resisting a violent occupier without recourse to violence in return. Will it be my skull crushed by an Israeli baton in the middle of a non-violent demo? No, it will not - but such crimes against the Palestinians are occurring already, so why compound them by defending or apologising for Palestinian crimes against
the Israelis? And how do Palestinian crimes strengthen the Palestinian struggle?
But let's turn the original question against itself: where is Israel's Gandhi? Why is non-violence demanded from only one party to the conflict, and that too the weaker party? The grotesque pretence that Palestinian violence is the one insurmountable obstacle to ending the conflict ignores the truth about Israeli aggression.
Israel's political landscape has long been dominated by hawks, not doves. In recent years, only one prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has not served as a senior officer in the IDF. Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak were all senior generals; even the current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, used to be a captain in the Israeli commandos and his deputy prime minister, Moshe Ya'alon, is the former IDF chief of staff. The Israeli leadership, dominated by ex-soldiers, has, like its Palestinian counterpart, always seen the deployment of force and the use of violence as necessary, if not sufficient, tools in the struggle to achieve primacy. But to guarantee long-term Israeli security this militaristic mindset has to change. The Jewish state is in dire need of a charismatic political leader who can renounce state-sponsored terror, reawaken the conscience of the Israeli public and understand, in the words of Winston Churchill, that to "jaw-jaw is better than to war-war".
But neither side has ever come even close to producing viable leaders committed to non-violence and able to articulate an authentically Gandhian vision for ending the conflict. On the Palestinian side, Yasser Arafat's approach can be summed up in his warning about having an olive branch in one hand but a gun in the other. On the Israeli side, Yitzhak Rabin, the joint architect of the Oslo Accords, will always be remembered by the Palestinians as the man who also ordered Israeli troops to "break the bones" of protesters during the first intifada.Those considered to be peacemakers fall hopelessly short of being a latter-day Gandhi or a Middle Eastern Martin Luther King. Waiting for such figures to emerge, even in the Holy Land, could be like waiting for Godot.
Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman. Read his Dissident Voice blog at: www.newstatesman.com/blogs