Most Israeli analyses I have read and heard since the Gaza ceasefire took hold last week (including this one by my Bloomberg View colleague Daniel Gordis) reflect a mood of concern and despondency. Israelis worry that their proven military might has not been able to make them safe. They warn that in Gaza, Lebanon, Sinai and Syria, Islamist militants now surround their vulnerable nation. And they acknowledge that in the last five wars with Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel has not been able to subdue, eradicate or disarm its foes.
My visit to Jordan this week has convinced me that Israelis shouldn’t worry so much about their military capabilities, because their technological prowess and advantages remain significant. Instead, thoughtful and honest Israelis who want a secure Jewish-majority state should wake up to the cascading political movements sweeping citizens across the Arab world — citizens, not governments — all of which are aimed at holding Israel accountable in available political and legal forums for its alleged crimes.
Professional associations in Jordan, which serve as proxies for independent political parties, have been deeply involved in aiding Gaza. They’ve sent hundreds of tons of medical supplies and several teams of engineers to assist in reconstruction, and attended a regional conference in Istanbul last weekend focused on Gaza’s rehabilitation.
Their most significant new endeavor, however, may be a two-pronged initiative by the Jordan Bar Association. The group and half a dozen other Arab national bar associations have united behind the Arab Lawyers Union’s push to prosecute Israeli officials in available international bodies, including the International Criminal Court. More interestingly, they’re also exploring how Jordanian law might be used to prosecute Israeli officials or institutions. The idea is to apply universal jurisdiction clauses in Jordanian courts in cases where a Jordanian national has been killed, injured or suffered other damages in Gaza.
This kind of grassroots political action by ordinary citizens and politicized professionals could well achieve goals that incompetent or weak Arab government have failed to reach. These groups can mobilize large numbers of their fellow Arab citizens, link up with similar popular movements across the world, and channel these domestic and global forces to pressure Israel through court cases, boycotts and the like.
Just as Hezbollah and Hamas have fought Israel to repeated ceasefires, more and more Arab citizens now want to join what they see as a widespread — and peaceful — Arab resistance effort against Israeli occupation, sieges, arrests, annexations, collective punishments, assassinations and other actions.
So far, global efforts to sanction or boycott Israel — European grocers refusing to import Israeli produce grown on occupied or confiscated Palestinian land, or British theaters canceling shows by Israeli troupes — have only been able to exact a symbolic price. If such efforts expand, though, they could hurt Israel more concretely. The inability of an Israeli freighter to dock in several ports on the west coast of the U.S. this month, due to the combined efforts of pro-Palestinian demonstrators and some U.S. dock workers, could be a harbinger of the future.
Israelis should be deeply concerned about what I encountered in Amman this week, during discussions with activists, colleagues and friends. They all asked the same question: Why are Arab government and international organizations not holding Israel accountable for its actions in Gaza? In the next breath, they often continued: If official bodies will remain docile, then Arab popular and professional organizations must take the lead.
The Amman Chamber of Commerce has asked merchants to avoid shipping their imports or exports via Israel. Public rallies in support of Gaza have taken place regularly around the country in the past six weeks — not only among Muslim Brotherhood supporters or Palestinians from refugee camps, but also in town whose populations are mostly indigenous Transjordanians, like Kerak, Tafileh and Irbid.
The coming months should clarify if mass citizen activism anchored in the international rule of law can become a truly powerful weapon for Arabs or not. This is an adversary that Israel cannot bomb, expel, colonize, imprison or occupy — which is why well-meaning Israelis should pursue an equitable political resolution to this conflict while there’s still time.
Rami G. Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.