September 1, 2016
By Michael Drohan

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Iyad Burnat speaking to TMC members. Photo by Joyce Rothermel

During the weekend of July 31 to August 1, Pittsburgh was host to a Palestinian activist named Iyad Burnat, his wife Tasaheel and their young son. Iyad comes from the village of Bil’in in the West Bank, situated right on the green line border and wall between Israel and the West Bank. It is approximately 25 kilometers from Jerusalem but it may as well be thousands of miles away because access to the city is nearly impossible because of check-points, permits and Jewish-only roads. The tragedy of Bil’in is that the separation wall took 2,200 dunams* of Palestinian land belonging to the poor villagers, uprooted 1,000 or more olive trees which were thousands of years old and separated the villagers from their livelihood. Israeli settlers have moved into the confiscated lands.

In response to this situation, Iyad and the other villagers have organized non-violent protests and marches every Friday in the village. The protests are joined by Israelis and internationals of all religions and backgrounds. These protests have been going on since 2005, during which time the protestors have met with all kinds of violence and brutality from the Israeli army and the settler community. Tear gas is liberally used to disperse the protestors, the kicker being that the tear gas canisters are manufactured here in Jamestown, Pa. The protests, however, have paid off in that part of the wall has been removed as a result of the protests. In addition, the non-violent strategy has moved to many other villages suffering from similar situations.

In his presentations, Iyad insisted that the US was part of the occupation; if you like, we are the enablers in so many ways. The US gives $3 billion annually to Israel in military aid, which is used to purchase Caterpillar bulldozers, tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and other military hardware used against the villagers. Iyad’s advice to us was that we convince our government to stop this aid and use it for civil purposes here in the US such as education and infrastructure. “You need the money more,” he said.

In response to a question posed to Iyad about his choice of non-violent resistance to the occupation and confiscation of lands, he replied in enigmatic words “non-violence chose me, I did not choose non-violence.” Through their strategy/tactic of non-violence, the villagers have succeeded in recovering 1,200 dunams of their ancestral land. Over the 11 years of their struggle, 40 people have lost their lives and many more people have been injured. Much of the story of their heroic battle has been recorded in the video “Five Broken Cameras,” a film made by Iyad’s brother Emad Burnat.

Iyad was asked about the bigger picture and political situation. He maintained that the time for a two-state solution has passed. The West Bank Palestinian community has been split up into disparate cantons where passage from one to the other is all but impossible, divided by settler roads and settler communities. Consequently, there is no contiguous territory out of which to form a state. It would, therefore, seem to be just rhetoric when one speaks of two states, which is continued as the facts on the ground make it more and more impossible. In the meantime, the villagers of Bil’in and many other villages in Palestine continue the struggle. Iyad estimated that the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement here in the US and elsewhere in the West is extremely important. It is one of the few ways we here in the US have of exerting influence on the situation in Bil’in and the rest of Palestine.

*Note: 1 dunam = approximately 0.25 acre

Michael Drohan is a member of the Editorial Collective and the Board of the Merton Center.