Recently read a piece on Ynet describing the experience of IDF soldiers stationed in Bil’in – a Palestinian village which has been the site of a weekly demonstration for the past four years. I was particularly intruiged by the description of one soldier, who described the detail as “more terrifying for us than dealing with terrorists in Gaza inside a tank:”
In Gaza you spot a terrorist, fire a shell, and it’s over. Here you face citizens who hurl a stone or a Molotov cocktail, but your ability to respond is limited. It may appear that we are the ones using force here, but in reality that’s not the case, as we are subject to very difficult restrictions.
I completely understand the perspective of an individual soldier who is ordered to perform a incomprehensibly difficult duty such as this. But I understand that there is also more to understand – so much more. I certainly don’t begrudge the experience of individuals caught up in this bitter struggle. But I believe we do ourselves a huge disservice when we neglect – as this article did – the larger context in which this struggle occurs.
Some context: the Bil’in demonstration was born in response to Israel’s placement of its separation barrier in such a way that it now separates 60% of 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.
In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government to reroute the barrier, which it called “highly prejudicial” to the villagers of Bil’in. Though Israel’s Defense Ministry has said it will abide by the ruling, the fence has yet to be moved. Just last month, the state submitted a new proposal to the Court to redraw the route of the barrier. According this plan, however, only 700 of the original 1,700 dunams of farmland will be returned to the villagers of Bil’in.
The Bil’in demonstration is a non-violent direction action that began in January 2005 and has taken place every Friday since then (see clip above). Though Bil’in is a local initiative, it is an integral part of the larger Palestinian non-violence movement- a significant socio-political phenomenon that is chronically under reported by the Western media. Indeed, it is important to note that Palestinian non-violent action vastly predates Bil’in – this is a movement that coalesced in large part during the years of the First Intifada. (I highly recommend Mary Elizabeth King’s excellent book, “A Quiet Revolution” for more on this important history.)
It has been well reported that the Bil’in demonstrations have witnessed tragedy in recent months. Four Palestinians, including two children, have been killed in the area since last summer and dozens have been injured. Last month Bassem Abu Rahmeh, a Palestinian demonstrator, was killed by a tear gas canister that sliced through his chest. A month earlier, an American demonstrator named Tristan Anderson was critically injured in a similar demonstration in the nearby village of Ni’ilin.
As the YNet article attests, some Palestinian demonstrators have indeed become increasingly violent. In a sense, we are witnessing the classic spiral. As any student of non-violent activism knows, it is difficult to contain the frustration that invariably sets in when an action settles in for the long haul – particularly when there is so little progress along the way. This recent article from the Guardian illuminates the challenges the Bil’in protesters face in this regard – including the generational split in the villagers’ attitudes toward non-violence:
The Bil’in demonstration was always intended to be non-violent, although on Friday, as is often the case, there were half a dozen younger, angrier men lobbing stones at the soldiers with slingshots. The Israeli military, for its part, fires teargas, stun grenades, rubber-coated bullets and sometimes live ammunition at the crowd.
There have long been Palestinian advocates of non-violence, but they were drowned out by the militancy of the second intifada, the uprising that began in late 2000 and erupted into waves of appalling suicide bombings.
Eyad Burnat, 36, has spent long hours in discussions with the young men of Bil’in, a small village of fewer than 2,000, convincing them of the merits of “civil grassroots resistance”.
“Of course it gets more difficult when someone is killed,” said Burnat, who heads the demonstration. “But we’ve faced these problems in the past. We’ve had more than 60 people arrested and still they go back to non-violence. We’ve made a strategic decision.”
Some, like the moderate Palestinian MP Mustafa Barghouti, hope this might be the start of a broader movement throughout Palestinian society. “It is a spark that is spreading,” he said in Bil’in. “It gives an alternative to the useless negotiations and to those who say only violence can help.”
But it is not so much that all the young men of the village are converted to the peaceful cause, rather that they respect and follow their elders. “I personally don’t believe in non-violent resistance,” said Nayef al-Khatib, 21, an accountancy student. “They’ve taken our land by force so we should take it back from them by force.”
As always, perspective is everything. The Ynet article did a fine job of documenting the perspective of scared, frustrated young soldiers who find themselves in an impossible position. But there there are other equally valid and compelling perspectives we cannot ignore: the perspective of the farmers whose access to their own lands and livelihood have been taken from them; the perspective of villagers seeking justice in an inherently unjust situation; the perspective of non-violent activists trying to rise about the frustration and rage that inevitably surface during the course of their struggle.
As for us Jews, I only hope we can go beyond our narrow perspective of Palestinians as nothing more than violent terrorists who want nothing more than to wipe Jews off the face of the map. Is that a step we might be willing to take?