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The unbearable nonviolence of Bil`in

Adam Keller
Sept. 19, 2009
To appear in The Other Israel, October issue

A few days ago, on the night of September 16, Bil`in non-violence leader Mohammed Khatib was woken up by the urgent news that soldiers were raiding the home of his fellow activist Abdullah Abu-Rahme. They failed to find Abu-Rahme at home, but were searching the house with great savagery, damaging property and intimidating Abu-Rahme`s wife and children. Khatib, as member of the Bil`in Popular Committee, hurried to the spot demanding to talk to the officer in charge.

As Khatib on the following morning told the Israeli Y-net News, the result was highly unpleasant: `The nightmare began, all of the soldiers in the apartment began to beat me with everything possible – hands, rifles, feet. They kicked me in the head, the face, the stomach. It lasted for twenty minutes. I lifted my face and saw someone who had interrogated me in the past. I told him: `Why did you do this to me? I only wanted to speak to the officer. He said: `If you don`t call your friend and bring him here we will do what we did to Abu-Rahma` (the activist shot to death in March)``. In the end, the soldiers left without having captured Abu-Rahme, making dire threats as they went.

The army`s escalation should be understood in the framework of the increasing brutalization since the Gaza War, inherited and expanded by the new government.

For several years, nobody had been killed in the Bil`in demonstrations (though many were wounded, sometimes severely). But in March this year, Bassem Abu Rahme - veteran Bil`in organizer and the personal friend of many Israeli activists - was shot dead by a tear gas canister, shot from such a close range that it became a highly lethal missile. This coincided with intensive efforts to stop the weekly processions, with soldiers sometimes invading the village in order to stop the procession before it could even begin.

This was not particularly successful, and the army - in cooperation with the Shabak (Israeli Security Service) - shifted the bulk of their attack from confronting the mass of demonstrators during the day to tackling them individually at their homes in late-night raids.

Two Bil`in youngsters who were nabbed and subjected to weeks of very intensive interrogation - isolated from the outside world and forbidden to see a lawyer - were in the end induced to sign full `confessions` in which virtually everybody involved in the weekly demonstrations was implicated. A large number of teens were mentioned by name as `stone-throwers` while the older organizers, in particular all members of the Bil`in Popular Committee, were implicated as `inciting to stone-throwing`.

Armed with this incriminating list, the army and Shabak intensified their nightly man-hunt, raiding the village virtually every night. Some of the detentions were foiled by Israeli and international activists staying the night in threatened housed, their presence causing consternation among soldiers who had counted on having no outsider witnesses present. However, in a considerable number of cases the hunters did manage to pounch, grab `suspects` ranging from boys to fathers of families and haul them off to face prolonged detention.

Muhammed Khatib was targeted among the first. In a raid on the night of August 3, he was arrested along with six other Palestinian activists (and one American). But to the military prosecutor`s great embarrassment, Khatib was able to prove conclusively that he had been abroad - on a speaking tour of Canada - on the date when, according to the `confession` in the army`s possession, he had supposedly `called upon village youths to throw stones at the soldiers`.

The exit stamps in his passport left the Military Court - where due process is far from the norm where Palestinian defendants are concerned - with no choice but to set him free on August 17. To the authorities greater consternation, immediately upon Khatib`s release he was asked by `The Nation` to write an article, which he duly did - getting an increased American hearing for `Palestine`s Peaceful Struggle.`
Meanwhile, a second drama unfolded - that of the sixteen years old Hamaza Burnat. Already for months, Burnat was aware that his name featured on the list of `wanted stone-throwers`. Soldiers raided his family home again and again, but found that he had developed the habit of sleeping elsewhere.

Thereupon, they shifted to putting increasing pressure on the boy`s family. The intensity of late-night raids increased, and the family was told that the harassment would continue until their son gave himself in. The identity card of the boy`s father, Sheikh Suleiman Burnat was confiscated, as were those of several other family members - effectively confining them to the village limits since a Palestinian travelling without an I.D. is liable to be arrested by any soldier he encounters. Moreover, a senior Shabak operative came several times to `visit` the family home, telling them that if their son gave himself up he would not be harmed, but if soldiers happened to capture him otherwise he might get beaten up or shot `accidentally`.

Finally, the months-long campaign of intimidation has done its work. This week Hamaza Burnat, accompanied by his father and other family members, turned himself in at the gate of the Ofer Detention Camp outside Ramallah. The family was assured by the Shabak that he would get `No more than four months or so` - an unofficial promise they have placed their hope in.

Bil`in - once just one Palestinian village among many - pays a heavy price for having become a household name because of its persistent non-violent struggle against the `Separation Fence`. Already for five years, the people of Bil`in hold their weekly protest marches from the village center to the Fence, accompanied by Israeli and international supporters - marches which almost invariably end with volleys of tear gas by the Israeli soldiers - sometimes also the shooting of live bullets. (In army communiques, the shooting is always `in reaction to Palestinian stone throwing`; in at least one proven case, the army sent undercover soldiers, dressed as Palestinians, to mix with the demonstrators, throw stones and provide the necessary pretext).

None other than South African Bishop Desmond Tutu visited Bil`in, fully endorsing its struggle: `Just as a simple man named Gandhi led the successful non-violent struggle in India and simple people such as Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela led the struggle for civil rights in the United States, simple people here in Bil’in are leading a non-violent struggle that will bring them their freedom. The South Africa experience proves that injustice can be dismantled.”
And, the Bishop had not come to Bil`in alone, but in company with former US President Jimmy Carter and assorted other international VIP`s. Nobel Prize Laureate Mairead Maguire of North Ireland had, on one of her visits to Bil`in, the doubtful honor of being personally treated to a large dose of Israeli tear gas.

So far, however, numerous expressions of support and sympathy have failed to produce a tangible result on the ground. The 2004 ruling of the International Court at the Hague, declaring the construction of the Fence inside Palestinian territory to be a violation of International Law, had no effect in Bil`in (other than for a time increasing the villagers` morale). The Government of Israel simply refused to abide with the International Court`s ruling, its lawyers coming up with a considerable body of sophisticated legal sophistry to justify this.

Nor was there a change on the ground when in mid-2007 Israel`s own Supreme Court, ruled on the specific case of the Bil`in villagers, represented by Adv. Michael Sfard. The court ruled that the government could build a fence in order to safeguard settlements which had already been built, but not to erect a fence designed to secure possession of unbuilt land earmarked for further extension of a settlement. Which meant that the Bil`in villagers could get back at least the part of their land which the settlers had not yet built on.

The court failed, however, set an alternate route for the fence, but asked the army to draw one up and submit it to them. The army presented a route which was virtually identical to the original one. Adv. Sfard protested that it was tantamount to contempt of court; the judges agreed and told the army to try again; the army, after a long dragging of feet, presented a bit more reasonable map... All this took years, far away from the eye of the Israeli or Palestinian public.

While being so energetic about raiding and arresting Bil`in villagers, the army is far more lethargic about implementing at long last the Supreme Court ruling with regard to the same village. `This year we don`t have the budget and manpower resources to move the fence to the new route in this sector. We might do it sometime in 2010` was the most to which military representatives were willing to commit themselves.

For ongoing updates about the Bil`in situation:

Iyad Burnat- Head of the Bilin Popular Committee Email-