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.