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Occupation magazine - Activism

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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

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 Bilin 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

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