Brant Rosen looks every bit like a plain vanilla suburban Chicago rabbi. He doubles as a firebrand critic of Israel — and his congregation has stood by him through thick and thin.
Postscript to my last post: this morning members of our delegation were furiously texting each other with the horrible news that our dear friend Iyad Burnat, leader of the Popular Committee in Bil’in was shot during their weekly demonstration today.
According to reports on Bil’in’s Facebook page, Iyad and the other marchers were approaching the separation wall when the IDF opened fire with tear gas and coated steel bullets – two of which struck Iyad directly. Hearts sinking, we waited for a full report – much to our relief, we eventually learned that his injury was not life-threatening.
Just another reminder of the unbearably high stakes faced weekly by the Palestinian nonviolent activists in villages across the West Bank…
I’ve been home for a few days now and am sorting through a myriad of emotions and experiences from our delegation to the West Bank and Israel. I’m not sure I will do them all justice, but I know I promised some concluding thoughts, so here goes:
The essential mission of our delegation of American Jews and Palestinians was to show solidarity with the burgeoning Palestinian popular resistance movement to the Israeli occupation. We wanted to experience this movement first hand: to live in their homes, to meet with their rank and file as well as their leaders, to march together with them in their weekly demonstration.
In the end, we did all this and more. During the course of our short sojourn, we created new friendships and connections with fellow activists on the ground – and we also strengthened our relationships with one another all the more. I do believe this kind of joint Jewish/Palestinian delegation is a model that can and should be emulated. If the goal is a better future for Jews and Palestinians, I believe it makes eminent sense to travel toward it together.
One of the most important lessons we learned on our trip is that Palestinian resistance is a multifaceted phenomenon. Thanks to the images relentlessly portrayed by the mainstream media, too many in the West assume Palestinian resistance exclusively takes the form of armed resistance. But in fact we we discovered (and I hope my blog posts reflected) the Palestinian people have been resisting decades of injustice through a myriad of means: through cultural expression, through education, through familial ties, through remembrance and through nonviolent direction action, to name but a few.
This point was underlined powerfully by Palestinian academic and activist Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, with whom we met in Bethlehem. Dr. Qumsiyeh, who is well known in the Palestinian civil society world (and the author of the recent book, “Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment“) pointed out to us that in fact, Palestinian popular resistance long predated the establishment of the State of Israel. (One such example he cited was the Arab Palestinian Women’s Union, founded in Jerusalem in 1921, a proto-feminist group that protested against British support of the Zionist colonization of the Palestine – but also advocated for a myriad of women’s issues such as family planning, forced marriage, etc.)
I’ve long believed that the current incarnation of the Palestinian popular resistance is eminently worthy of our attention and support – and I was so grateful for this opportunity to experience it and write about it from within. Too often we hear the oft-repeated shibboleths: “the Palestinians want to push the Jews into the sea,” “Palestinians are terrorists” and “where are the Palestinian Ghandis?” I hope that my last several posts have helped you to understand the fallacies of knee-jerk comments such as these.
Where are the Palestinian Ghandis? We met them over and over again: in Bil’in, in Nabi Saleh, in Bethlehem, in Ramallah and so many places in between. Granted, this movement currently lacks a singular unifying leader – and on this issue, Dr. Qumsiyeh made an important point. He told us he once heard a presentation by a prominent biographer of MLK, who was asked if the American civil rights movement would have existed if Dr. King had never been born. The biographer had no doubt that it would have, pointing out that leaders do not create movements – but rather, it is movements that create leaders. We can only hope that sooner than later, this will be the case regarding the Palestinian popular resistance as well.
This is not to underestimate the daunting challenges facing this movement. A number of Palestinian activists spoke to us about their hope for a “Global Intifada” – a worldwide movement that might leverage a variety of tactics of nonviolent resistance in popular support of justice for the Palestinians. While this movement is indeed taking shape, Iyad Burnat, Bassem Tamimi and others made it clear to us that they have no illusions. Yes, the weekly demonstrations continue, but they still occur in only semi-coordinated fashion in isolated villages throughout the West Bank. Popular movement leaders are struggling in so many ways to maintain momentum and morale, given that the ongoing reality of these Palestinian communities remains so oppressive and so dire.
And it is an oppression we saw for ourselves quite literally on a daily basis. It is difficult to do justice to the stifling atmosphere in these West Bank communities that are struggling so hard to live a semblance of normalcy amid the separation wall, the checkpoints, the ever-growing settlements, the night raids and the tear gas. As we saw for ourselves, their very steadfastness represents their purest form of resistance. As it is written in various points along the separation wall: “To Exist is to Resist.”
I want to thank my colleagues and on this delegation, who have become dear friends all the more. My love and respect to Shafic Budron, Dima Budron, Rich Cahan, Aaron Cahan, Estee Chandler, Lisa Kosowski, Lynn Pollack, Emman Randazzo, Isobel Randazzo, Kalman Resnick. Stay tuned for their guest posts yet to come. Although I will let their words speak for themselves, I think I can safely say we are united in our conviction that this was only the beginning of a much, much longer journey.
To be continued…
Early in the planning of our delegation, two of our Palestinian-American members, Shafic Budron and his daughter Dima, invited our group to visit to the homes of their family members in the Upper Galilee of Israel. Shafic and his immediate family are dear friends to many of members of the delegation – and of course we graciously accepted their invitation. I think I can safely say this visit was one of the most eagerly anticipated part of our itinerary.
Like many Palestinian families, Shafic’s family was devastated by the Nakba. While many of his family members became internally displaced – and eventually became Palestinian citizens of Israel, others became refugees. Shafic himself was born after the Nakba and grew up in the infamous Shatilla refugee camp south of Beirut, Lebanon.
Shafic’s personal story is a harrowing one, but he eventually made his way to the US, where he became an American citizen, a successful businessman and a prominent member of the Palestinian community in the Chicago area. Shafic and his family are among the most genuine, open-hearted people I know – indeed his friendship with so many Jewish members of our delegation was a major inspiration for this remarkable trip.
Most of Wednesday was a travel day as we drove north through the Jordan Valley toward the Upper Galilee. When we arrived at our destination in the village of Al-Bi’na, we were literally swarmed by joyous family members, who quickly and graciously welcomed the members of our delegation. Shafic’s uncle Hasan (his father’s youngest and only surviving brother) introduced us to his many children and grandchildren and extended family members as we sat in a circle for a cursory “get to know each other” session. Then we sat down to a sumptuous lunch (above), where we continued to get to know each other some more. By the end of the meal, we felt as if we had become adopted members of the family.
After a visit to the former village of Al-Ghabsiyah (see my earlier post), we went to Shafic’s cousin Dr. Abed’s home in the nearby village of Al-Jedaidah for a dinner that lasted well into the wee hours of the evening. Tired but exhilarated, we were eventually put up in family members’ homes for the night.
This was clearly an emotional visit for the entire family, not least for Shafic and Dima themselves. The Budrons have, quite understandably, experienced a myriad of emotions on this trip and during our Galilee sojourn in particular. This was, in fact, Dima’s very first trip to Israel/Palestine. While she has visited her father’s family several times in Lebanon, she has never visited her homeland until now. She tells me she has heard stories about her ancestral home from her parents and grandparents for years – and is overwhelmed to finally make the visit now as a young woman.
It has been a profound and emotional visit for our entire American Palestinian/Jewish delegation as well. As of now, the trip has officially wound down. Several members are already returning home and I am preparing to depart today. There’s so much more to say, so many more experiences to describe. I’ll do my best to share as many of them as I can after I return.
In my next and final post, I’ll offer some concluding thoughts – and I have put out an open invitation to our members to share their thoughts with you as well. Suffice to say for now this has been a sacred journey – one that has strengthened our relationships with one another and our solidarity with those who devote their lives every day toward a just peace in Israel/Palestine.
More thoughts to come…
Our trip is winding down, but I’m going to try and slip in a few more posts before I head stateside…
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Palestinian resistance takes many different forms. On Thursday, we received a profound tutorial in cultural resistance courtesy of the educational and theatre training center, Alrowwad.
Alrowwad (in Arabic: “Pioneers for Life”) is located in the Aida refugee camp adjacent to Bethlehem and refers to its mission as “Beautiful Resistance.” As their vision statement eloquently articulates:
(We seek to create) an empowered Palestinian Society on educational and artistic level, free of violence, respectful of human rights and values, (with special focus on children and women) based on the spirit of social entrepreneurship and innovation in self-expression and respect of human values.
We spent the afternoon with Alrowwad’s founder and director, the inspiring and visionary Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour (below), who gave us a tour of the center and the Aida refugee camp itself. Abdelfattah was born and raised in Aida, but went to Paris to study Biological and Medical Engineering at Nord University. While in France, he also nurtured a passion for theater and painting and he quickly became involved in the educational/cultural life of Paris. He told us that he could easily have “married a French woman” and lived a comfortable life in France, but he eventually felt compelled to return to Aida and utilize his cultural training in his home community.
Abdelfattah established Alrowwad in 1998, and it very quickly became an anchor in the Aida community. It has also become a model of cultural resistance for Palestinian society at large. Their concept of “Beautiful Resistance” uses culture as a therapeutic method to encourage and promote creativity and non-violence, and to teach peace and respect for others.
Abdelfattah and Alrowwad has now introduced a future generation of Palestinian youth to this a new method of self-expression and resistance. They believe their work increases the spirit of collaboration between children as well as their sense of belonging in the community. Their hope is that given the chance to be creative and to set their own priorities, children can provide a bridge for a democratic and independent Palestinian society — to build a better future even amidst a dire present.
In many ways, touring Alrowwad reminded me the Jenin Freedom Theatre, which I visited with my congregational delegation in 2010. Adelfattah told me that his center does indeed collaborate with the Freedom Theatre, as well as other similar Palestinian cultural projects throughout the West Bank. Adelfattah also travels abroad to promote his work – and this spring will be directing a performance of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in North Carolina! Just another reminder that there is an extensive and powerful grassroots movement of Palestinian cultural resistance that is relatively unknown to the West, but is eminently worthy of our support.
During our tour of Aida (above), Abdelfattah gave us a glimpse of the life of his community – explaining its history and illuminating life amidst the ever-present reality of military incursions, night raids, etc. At one point, our group actually witnessed this reality up close: near the gate to the camp, several IDF soldiers shot tear gas at some children who were a few meters in front of us. (We did not witness the incident that precipitated this violence.) Though we were not in the immediate vicinity of the tear gas clouds, it carried toward us downwind – and though it was only a vestige of the gas, several of us experienced its powerful, lingering sense of burning in our eyes and throats. (I can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to sustain a direct hit.)
We continued our way down the streets of Aida, along the separation wall that butts up directly against Bethlehem. As we walked, a women called to Adelfattah from a third story window and invited us up for tea. We sat together on the roof of her home, sipping our tea and looking out over the wall toward the wide open spaces that led toward greater Jerusalem. Our hostess told us that she and Aida owes their very lives to Abdelfattah and it was an honor to have us in her home.
Please join us in supporting the work of Alrowwad through Friends of Alrowward USA. Our delegation can personally attest to the power of their “Beautiful Resistance.”
Earlier in the week, our Bil’in host Iyad Burnat told us that a neighboring village, Al-Ma’sara, was celebrating the 7th anniversary of its popular resistance against the occupation – and was inviting other village communities involved in the movement to march join them for their weekly Friday demonstration. Although our original plan was to march in the weekly demonstration in Bil’in, this turned out to be a rare opportunity to see the wider movement in action. So on Friday, our delegation traveled with Iyad to show solidarity with the people of Al-Ma’asra.
Al-Ma’asra is located in the Southern Bethlehem area, with a population of approximately 950 residents, 50 of whom are between the ages of 6 and 18. Like many villages in this location – near Israel’s coveted Gush Etzion settlement region – the construction of the separation wall is cutting off Al-Ma’asra from accessing more than half of their land and the main water supply.
About 90% of the houses in Al-Ma’asra are located in Area C – a region in which Israel is rapidly demolishing houses and moving out its Palestinian residents. (I’ve written extensively about this issue here, among other places). Like Bil’in, Nabi Saleh and so many other villages, Al-Ma’asra has turned to popular resistance – including weekly nonviolence demonstrations – to protest the theft of their land and devastation of their livelihood. And like these other villages, they have been subject to the Israeli military’s devastating use of tear gas, sound bombs, coated steel bullets etc. Since the beginning of their demonstrations, more than 30 of their inhabitants have been arrested.
After we arrived in Al-Ma’asra, we received a briefing/update from Mohammed Brijeh (above, later at the rally), after which we joined the growing ranks of villagers, Israeli solidarity activists and internationals who were quickly pouring into the village’s main street. Then at 12:00 pm we gathered together and began marching. The street was filled with approximately 300 individuals: young and old, representing a myriad of nationalities and ethnicities. But it was clearly the people of Al-Ma’asra who were leading the way: leading us in chants, singing songs and waving to their neighbors,
After 15 minutes or so, we noticed a long line of Israeli soldiers in riot gear, standing in formation across the street, blocking our way to the wall. The crowd pressed up close against the soldiers and standoff commenced. When the villagers were told they were denied passage, Mahmoud stepped forward and starting chastising the soldiers in English. Careful not to use any physical violence or overly incendiary rhetoric, he asked the soldiers why they were not allowed the right to live and assemble freely in their own village.
He explained to them they could oppress them all the wanted, but that one day, like all oppressed people, they would be free. Pointing to their extensive riot gear, their bullet-proof vests, their M-16s, their helmets, he told them that none of this expensive equipment would ever bring them peace – then pointing to his head, he said “it’s not what you wear, it’s what’s in here that you need to change.”
Perhaps the most powerful moment for me came when he said to one soldier, “What would your mother think – would she want you to bully the people of this village, to oppress them, to take their land away from them? Shame on you!” The chant spread quickly through the crowd: “Shame on you! Shame on you!”
About 20 minutes or so into the standoff, there was a roll call of participants, a myriad of countries were called out with the obligatory hometown cheers. (Among those represented: the US, Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, France, Spain, and more). A succession of speakers then got up on a raised area to the right of the soldiers to give speeches. They introduced Iyad, and he offered greetings (below) from their brothers and sisters in Bil’in.
After Iyad spoke, one of our delegation participants, Estee Chandler, called out “We have a rabbi here!” Then one of the organizers shouted, “We have a rabbi here! Let’s here from the rabbi!” And before I could even think about what I might possibly say, I got up and started to address the crowd (below).
I told them that the Torah teaches us – as all spiritual traditions do – that God stands with the oppressed and demands that we do the same. Thus, I said, this demonstration was a sacred act for all of us – a mitzvah. And that it was all the more sacred because it contained such a diversity of nationalities and religions. I told them we were honored to stand together with our Palestinian brothers and sisters who were struggling for justice and dignity and that we would take this message back with us when we returned home to the US.
After the speakers, something of a waiting game began. The demonstrators sat down in the street in front of the solders, singing and chanting as the soldiers were obviously conferring on their next move. Eventually, the commander told us we have 5 minutes to disperse before they opened fire on us. Little by little, the crowd got up and walked back down the street. Some of the younger villagers went to another main street where we later could see some kind of skirmish in the distance.
In the end, all the demonstrators dispersed; I felt a myriad of emotions at that moment. I had no doubt that the decision to disperse came from the organizers, who understandably wanted to avoid violence in the streets. Still, I admit it felt galling that in the eyes of the IDF, this was a just another “successful” job of unruly crowd control . On the other hand, the message of solidarity and defiance had been delivered – as it had been every week for the previous seven years in Al-Ma’asra and would for many more years to come. And in so doing, new relationships were created, new coalitions built – and the movement was that much stronger for having come together that day.
During our standoff in the street with the IDF, it occurred to me that this was precisely the same circumstance that occurred on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965. The demand for justice was the same, the solidarity was the same, the message of nonviolence was the same, as was the show of force by a brutal and overmiltarized gauntlet. Though that particular standoff ended violently, I was all too mindful that, in a sense, there is a reenactment of Bloody Sunday every week in villages throughout the West Bank.
PS: Upon our return, we learned to our dismay that the village of Bil’in was tear-gassed during their demonstration that day. We were told that several canisters actually landed near Iyad’s house and at one point most of the village was shrouded in choking white smoke.
This is life on the front lines of the Palestinian popular resistance – just a small sample of the regular crimes committed against a people who are literally choking on an unjust and illegal occupation.
There are many forms of resistance to oppression. One is memory itself.
On Tuesday our delegation visited the village of Lifta, a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that was depopulated of its residents by Jewish militias early in 1948. Our tour was led by Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot, an Israeli organization that educates Israelis about the Nakba, actively advocating for the Palestinian Right of Return. It’s truly one of the bravest, most important Israeli organizations I know.
Zochrot’s tours of destroyed Palestinian villages are an critical aspect of their educational work. They are, of course, not your typical tours – in most cases they do not show you what is, but rather what is no more. Most Palestinian villages destroyed during the Nakba were razed to the ground, leaving little behind but the shell of a building or the occasional foundations of homes. Zochrot keeps the culture life of these communities alive through their tours, underscoring the profound enormity – and collective tragedy – of what was lost.
Lifta is somewhat unique among these villages in that it is the only Nakba-era village that still remains largely intact. In its day it was a fairly well-to-do community, with a population of 2,550.
In the years leading up to the 1948, the village fell under attack by Jewish militias in the area. On the December 28, 1947 six people were gunned down in the village coffeehouse, by members of two Jewish militias, the Stern Gang and the Irgun. In late January or early February, the militias attacked and seized the neighboring village of Qaluba and then invaded Lifta from the West. They occupied Lifta’s new town and the remaining residents took refuge in the old town in the valley. The village was cut-off from the west and anyone trying to leave was killed. The villagers resisted but were defeated after several hours of fighting.
By the time the entire village was occupied, most of the people had already left Lifta and fled into the West Bank, the rest were taken by truck and dumped in East Jerusalem. By February 1948, Lifta had been completely depopulated. It’s not completely clear why the Jewish forces did not raze Lifta to the ground as it had so many other villages. For a time it allowed newly-immigrated Yemenite Jews to occupy the houses, but when the homes proved uninhabitable, they were eventually abandoned
Lifta was the object of some controversy when the Jerusalem municipality announced plans to redevelop the area as a luxury area for Israelis. The plans were dropped after an outcry from former residents and progressive Israeli activists. In the meantime, the remnants of this remains, a testament to the legacy of a rich communal life that was lost during the Nakba.
I can see why Lifta is such a popular spot for Israeli tourists – the town ls nestled in a long valley, with homes and buildings built into either side. The mosque and the Muktar’s house are still in decent condition, testifying to what clearly once was a beautiful, desirable town. At the bottom of the valley is a natural spring that still attracts swimmers, particularly ultra-orthodox who attribute spiritual significance to it. As Eitan showed us the area, the swimmers glared at us as if we were interloping in their own “sacred territory.” They clearly had no comprehension of the actual profanity that had occurred here in 1948.
On Wednesday evening, we visited another Nakba site: El Ghabsiya, located in the upper Galilee (where were visiting members of delegation members Shafic and and Dima Budron’s family – more on this later). Our tour of El Ghabsiya was led by Muhammad Kaial of the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced Persons in Israel, and Daoud Bader, an original survivor of the original village.
The story of El Ghabsiya, like Lifta, is an example of how the Nakba is not only a historical event of the past, but an injustice and a struggle that occurs even in our very day. In March 1948, fearful that uncertainty in Palestine’s future could endanger the people of the village, prominent members of El Ghabsiya made an agreement with Jewish militia leaders. In exchange for his cooperation, the militia promised not to invade the village. (At that time, the population of the village numbered about 700 people.)
The agreement was not to be honored. In May 1948, Jewish militias surrounded and entered the village. Families living near entrance to the village greeted the soldiers with coffee; in return father and his son were taken out into the nearby woods – Daoud told us that they have never been heard from to this day. When the soldiers entered El Ghabsiya, a community leader named Daoud Zainl climbed to the roof of the mosque and raised a white flag. The militia ignored his act of surrender, opened fire, and killed him on the spot. In all, eleven Palestinians were killed during the attack on El Ghabsiya and the subsequent expulsion of its residents, despite the fact that there was no local resistance.
The inhabitants of the village escaped to surrounding villages, becoming “internally displaced refugees.” Unlike other internally displaced Palestinians, the people of El Ghabsiya were allowed to return to their homes less than twelves months later – but two years later, on August 2, 1951, then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared the village a “closed military zone” and the villagers were again forced to leave their homes.
The people of El Ghabsiya fought for their right of return all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court and on November 1951, the court ruled that they did indeed have the legal right of return to their village. Armed with this ruling, the villages gathered and headed back to their homes – and were met by Israel military forces the blocked their way and refused to recognize the decision of the court. In succeeding years, government bulldozers destroyed all of the houses in the village – the only building left standing was the village mosque.
For the next forty five years, the Israeli Land Authority allowed the mosque to sit in disrepair and desecration, used as a stable for horses and other animals. Finally, in 1995 residents and descendents of residents of El Ghabsiya initiated a clean-up project and began weekly attempts to pray at their mosque. In response, the Israeli Land Authority sealed the windows and doors and ringed the mosque with barbed wire.
Still, the people of El Ghabsiya have not given up. Most live in villages near their ancestral village and they still make regular attempts to gather to pray at their mosque. Above you can see the sign villagers have placed in front of the mosque: “I will not remain a refugee – we will return.” (You can also see that the sign has been vandalized, sadly enough, with a Jewish star.)
After hearing this story, our group toured the mosque and gathered in the courtyard. On of our members Kalman Resnick said that as a member of the Jewish community and a man whose own family fled persecution, he felt shame at hearing this story of dispossession, that continues to this day. I then led the Jewish members of our delegation in the recitation of Kaddish for those who were killed on this site in 1948. In return, Daoud, the original resident of the village, emotionally expressed his appreciation for our presence and our solidarity – a profoundly moving moment for us all.
After our visit, our group discussed ways we might help support the people of El Ghabsiya in their quest for justice – and their simple desire to pray in their ancestral mosque. More info on this effort will be forthcoming.
We’ve just returned from our Friday demonstration. It was, quite simply, an indescribable experience - I’ll do my best to describe it in my next post…
On Monday morning our group traveled to the nearby village of Nabi Saleh, another prominent community in the Palestinian nonviolence resistance movement. You may have heard recently about Nabi Saleh from this New York Times Magazine cover story by Ben Ehrenreich last March. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it – I believe it is by far the most thoughtful consideration of this movement by the mainstream media.
Although this was my first time in Nabi Saleh, I met Bassem Tamimi, one of its most prominent leaders briefly in Ramallah on our congregational trip to the West Bank in 2010. That’s me above with Bassem, his cousin Abu Hussam Tamimi and nephew Mohammed Tamimi.
Our group spent several hours in Abu Hussam’s home learning about the history of Nabi Saleh and its place in the greater popular movement. Bassem explained to us that unlike other villages, Nabi Saleh’s protest is not directed toward the separation wall, but rather the confiscation of the village’s lands and the takeover of its spring by the nearby Israeli settlement Halamish.
The protest movement in Nabi Saleh began when Bassem and other village members met with and learned from leaders of similar demonstrations in Budrus and Bil’in. Rejecting the violent resistance of suicide bombers in the Second Intifada, they consciously sought a return to the approach of the First Intifada – a nonviolent popular grassroots resistance that evolved into a coordinated mass movement. The village leaders of Nabi Saleh studied the work of Ghandi, King and Mandela – knowing at the same time that the Palestinian nonviolent movement had its own unique context and would have to have its own unique characteristics as well.
Nabi Saleh launched its first demonstration on December 9, 2009 – the anniversary of the First Intifada – and since that time, it has been an critical link the chain of the Palestinian popular resistance. Like Bil’in and other villages that hold weekly demonstrations, their protests have been met with visceral force from the Israeli military. Protesters have been regularly met with tear gas, shot with coated steel bullets and sound grenades and sprayed with skunk water. These “crowd-dispersal” weapons invariably cause painful, often grievous, physical distress – and almost all of these armaments are manufactured in the US.
Bassem and the other leaders of the Nabi Saleh resistance have suffered profoundly for their efforts. Bassem has been arrested twelve times by the Israeli military – at one point spending more than three years in administration detention without trial. His most recent arrest took place on March 2011 and led to a year-long prison term. He was released one year later. Tragically, like other villages Nabi Saleh now has its own martyrs: Mustafa Tamimi was killed when he was shot in the face with a tear gas canister at point blank range in December 2011. And on November 2012, Rushdi Tamimi was killed after being shot in the head while protesting the Israel’s military attacks on Gaza in November 2012.
When I asked Bassem about the status of the Palestinian popular movement, he responded that while it is still growing, and despite the ongoing weekly demonstrations of ten to fifteen villages every week and the proliferation of popular committees, they are still far from the “Third Global Intifada” that he and other Palestinian nonviolence are advocating. Bassem and his fellow leaders seek nothing less than a worldwide movement that seeks to leverage the power of nonviolent resistance – including Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – to eventually shift this unjust balance of power. Still it is clear that they these leaders are settling in for the long haul. And the fact that Israel reacts so strongly and violently to these efforts that it takes such a prospect very seriously indeed.
During our visit, enjoyed a sumptuous lunch graciously served to us by the Tamimi family. They also showed us several YouTube videos of significant Nabi Saleh demonstrations over the past few years. Our consensus favorite was the video, below, of Bassem’s thirteen year old daughter Ahed and her young friends confronting the Israeli military after the arrest of her mother, Neriman. By the end of the video, this little amazing girl was, quite simply, our hero. Please watch and see for yourself (Ahed is the little blond girl with the red pants):
We were so thrilled to actually get to meet Ahed when she came home from school. Somehow, the quiet, shy girl we met seemed to bear little resemblance to the ferocious, courageous girl speaking her truth to overwhelming military power – yet another example of how the battle for justice is being waged by ordinary people and families who find themselves living in extraordinary times. (That’s her below, with delegation participants Estee Chandler (left) and Shafic Budron (right):
We’re actually meeting and spending time with many amazing children growing up in activist families during our stay here. I will be writing more about this subject – among many others – in upcoming posts. Please stay tuned.
Just finished my first full day with our delegation to Bil’in – I think I speak for all our participants when I say we are honored and thrilled to be here.
As I mentioned in my previous post, our group is made up of Chicago-area Jews and Palestinians, with one participant from Los Angeles. We are longtime friends and fellow activists for a just peace in Palestine and we organized this trip to show solidarity with the Palestinian nonviolence resistance movement on the West Bank. While individual members of the delegation have different personal opinions on the politics of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and might differ on how a solution should politically be achieved, we are united in the conviction that full equality and civil rights should be enjoyed by all the people – Jews and Palestinians alike.
Our “home base” for the trip is Bil’in; our host is Iyad Burnat, a prominent leader in this movement. Iyad serves as the head of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall, which has led weekly demonstrations against Israel’s separation barrier for the past nine years and has been one of the leading communities in the Palestinian popular resistance. I’ve written a great deal about Bil’in over the years and I’ve closely followed the news out of this small but mighty West Bank village. And like many, I was transfixed by the Oscar nominated documentary, “5 Broken Cameras,” directed by Iyad’s brother Emad, which movingly documented Bil’in’s ongoing struggle.
Our hosts here have been gracious and wonderful – Iyad (in the orange shirt, top pic) and his wife Tasaheel (in the blue hijab) and his cousin Mustafa and his wife Sabrin have joyfully welcomed us into their homes and their families. This is clearly much more than a chance to learn about a movement – it is an opportunity to share in a way of life, to forge new relationships, to make dear new friends.
In our introductory tour, Iyad explained that Bil’in was one of the early West Bank villages to organize regular nonviolent demonstrations against the wall that was cutting the village off from a significant portion of agricultural land in order to create a buffer around the nearby settlement of Mod’in Ilit. Bil’in’s efforts have borne fruit – in September 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the wall should be moved back 500 meters. The ruling was finally carried out by the military on June 2011, which restored 1,100 dunams of farmland back to the village (almost half of their of their originally confiscated land.)
And yet the struggle continues: the wall continues to choke off the people of Bil’in from their livelihood and the occupation continues to take a major toll on the life of the village. Our group will be participating the demonstration at the wall at Bil’in’s weekly demonstration this Friday – at which time similar demonstrations will take place in villages across the West Bank. This act of solidarity will be, without question, the most important aspect of our itinerary.
One of the newest additions to the village is a new garden dedicated to the memory of Bassem (“Pheel”) Abu Rachme, a much beloved and very charismatic leader in Bil’in who was killed in 2009 when a tear gas canister struck him in the torso. His killing was captured on camera in “5 Broken Cameras” in one particularly heart-rending moment.
Last month, the IDF officially announced it was closing the investigation into his death. According to a report in +972:
The military prosecution claims it was unable to determine the identity of the Israeli soldiers and border policemen involved or whether open-fire regulations were breached. This, despite the fact that as B’Tselem and Yesh Din pointed out in a joint press release condemning the decision, three video segments filmed during the demonstration show that Abu Rahmeh was situated to the east of the barrier, did not act violently and did not endanger the soldiers in any way…
Late last year, a soldier who served in the same unit that killed Abu Rahme gave testimony about the incident to Breaking the Silence. “…(T)his one time, one of the soldiers simply aimed at someone directly, and [the tear gas canister] hit his chest and he got killed. .. The guy who shot him … was kind of pleased with the whole thing, he had an X on his launcher,” the former soldier continued. An X on a weapon indicates a “kill.”
Bassem’s memorial garden (above) lies in the land that was recently reclaimed from the relocation of the wall. The myriad of small black planters are made of tear gas canisters. Please read the long tribute from the plaque at the garden, below, to get a sense of this man who will always occupy a dear place in the hearts of the villagers of Bil’in.
In my next post I’ll write about our memorable visit to Nabi Saleh, another prominent village involved in the Palestinian nonviolent resistance. Back soon.
My next several posts will come from the West Bank, where I will be traveling as part of a group of Chicago-area Jews and Palestinians to learn from and show solidarity with Palestinians who are engaged in nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Our delegation will be hosted in the village of Bil’in, where, for the past several years, residents have been protesting the construction of the Separation Wall that has separated the village from its farming land – land that Israel is using to expand its settlement of Modi’in Illit, which lies immediately to the west. (You may recall the story of Bil’in is the subject of the great documentary, “5 Broken Cameras.”)
Our group will also be traveling to sites throughout the West Bank and Israel to visit with leaders of the Palestinian nonviolent movement and Israelis who show solidarity with them. I am thrilled to be taking this trip together with dear friends who I have long known though our activism for a just peace in Israel and Palestine.
I will blog as much as I can about my experiences from the ground and upon my return. Please stay tuned!