By Leila Richards
October 1, 2016
“You won’t read about this in your newspapers,” said Palestinian activist Iyad Burnat as he showed film clips of encounters between Israeli soldiers and villagers engaged in nonviolent demonstrations in the West Bank village of Bil’in. For eleven years Mr. Burnat has helped coordinate weekly demonstrations against the Israeli occupation and the separation wall that deprived the village of 60 % of its farmland–an experience recorded by his brother Emad in the 2011 documentary “Five Broken Cameras.”
In 2004 the Israeli government undertook construction of a wall separating Israel from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The wall, 90% of which is built on West Bank land, is more than twice the length of the “Green Line” forming Israel’s 1967 border. Thousands of olive trees were uprooted and hundreds of acres of Palestinian land were seized in the process.
Mr. Burnat helped organize a “Popular Committee” in Bil’in to protest. Every Friday villagers gather for a Unity March to the wall. They’re met by Israeli soldiers and border police, who respond with rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas, sound grenades, “skunk water,” and sometimes live ammunition. From a distance a few teenagers hurl stones from slingshots (he calls them the “Davids” confronting Goliath). But they’re aware that even though their stones hit no soldiers they risk a prison sentence of up to 20 years for their actions; Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has declared Palestinian stone-throwing “an act of terrorism.” (More than a dozen nearby villages carry out similar demonstrations. He describes them, and their attendant casualties, in his book “Bil’in and the Nonviolent Resistance.”)
The film “Five Broken Cameras” captures the creativity and humor of these demonstrators, as well as the dangers they face. Every demonstration has a different theme, often employing costumes and props–a Gaza “peace boat,” a mock settlement, a metal cage with demonstrators locked inside–to drive home a political message. The fact that the demonstrations have attracted growing international participation over the years–Israeli peace activists, visiting church groups, even embassy officials–affords villagers a measure of protection, but the toll has been high: 150 arrests, 1300 injuries, and two deaths, including a young man shot in the chest with a tear gas canister at close range (tear gas, Mr. Burnat reminds us, manufactured not far from Pittsburgh).
In July 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled in an advisory opinion that the separation wall violated international law and should be dismantled–a decision ignored by the Israeli government. But with the assistance of Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, Bil’in villagers challenged the route of the wall in the courts. In 2007 the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the wall through Bil’in served no security function and should be rerouted. It took four years for the Israeli military to comply–and the decision returned only half of their land. The rest has been used for settlement construction.
Mr. Burnat is only 43, but his hair is turning gray. His entire life has been spent under occupation. He has been arrested 15 times, and has broken bones from beatings. His oldest son was shot with live ammunition directly in front of him and is crippled with a nerve injury. When an audience member remarked that he had a “right to be exhausted,” he replied, “I have to do this for my children.” He intends to continue protesting until the separation wall is dismantled. And he’s confident that, with the support of the international community, he’ll eventually prevail.
Mr. Burnat regards the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the occupation as a legitimate tool of resistance, citing the precedents of boycotts employed by the US civil rights movement, South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, and the Palestinian boycott of Israeli products during the first intifada. The BDS movement, launched by Palestinian civil society organizations in 2005, is grounded in international human rights and UN resolutions. Its rapid growth has no doubt been helped by the current policies of the Netanyahu government, which has virtually shut down all effective avenues of protest against the occupation. Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon has advocated the annexation of the West Bank, and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan characterizes Palestinian hunger strikes as a “new type of suicide terrorist attack.” Israel’s allies in this country, and our elected officials, remain silent. Should we acquiesce?
“I swore never to be silent whenever, wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation,” said Elie Wiesel in accepting the Nobel Prize. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Leila Richards is a retired public health physician who worked in the West Bank in 2004 as a volunteer through the World Council of Churches.