For decades, it’s been a refrain among moderates in Israel and the West: Where is the Palestinian Gandhi, King, or Mandela? Why is there no Montgomery-style bus boycott in Ramallah, no hunger strike in Bethlehem? The question could soon become passé. Ever since the violent second intifada subsided, a small but growing number of Palestinian residents have explicitly renounced armed struggle and turned to nonviolent civil disobedience. As Israel continues to reckon with the fallout from the clash between soldiers and activists on a humanitarian flotilla en route to Gaza, the movement—known to some as the White Intifada, or “uprising without blood”—may soon get its biggest boost yet: a place on the silver screen.
A new documentary called Budrus, directed by Brazilian filmmaker Julia Bacha, chronicles the rise of these protests, offering a sympathetic portrait of Palestinian dissidents at odds with images of suicide bombers and other violent extremists. “We wanted to start changing the conversation from ‘If only the Palestinians used nonviolence’ to ‘What happens when Palestinians do use nonviolence?’” says Bacha. The movie won’t officially be released until October, but it’s already attracting attention, having won eight awards at international film festivals. Though the film makes clear the limitations of nonviolent protests, activists are nevertheless looking to hold screenings in dozens of Palestinian villages in an effort to mobilize popular support beyond the thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis who have participated.
Budrus takes its name from a West Bank village where, in 2003, residents began a series of unarmed demonstrations against the security fence, which appropriated a considerable amount of Palestinian land. Led by Ayed Morrar, a community organizer who spent more than five years in an Israeli jail, the protests—coupled with an Israeli court ruling—eventually pushed the Jewish state to redirect the barrier and left most of the town’s border intact.
Running just over 80 minutes, the documentary offers extensive footage of the protests filmed by Israeli and international peace activists. Viewers are privy to scene after scene of unarmed protesters being whacked with cudgels and attacked with tear gas. They see Palestinians holding signs and chanting slogans like “We can do it” and “Yes to peace, no to the fence.” As bulldozers dig up Palestinian olive trees, the village’s main source of income, the protesters are cast in a heroic light. The real villain, however, is the occupation, not the individual Israelis, whom the movie at times manages deftly to humanize. “It’s a natural right of all countries in the world to protect the safety of their citizens,” Morrar says in the film. “However, Israel is trying to build a wall on its neighbor’s land.”
Nonviolent, civil disobedience is not new to the Palestinian territories. It has been used, historians say, in various forms and with mixed results from the early 1920s through the second intifada. But what makes the Palestinian peaceniks of Budrus different is that they explicitly define their movement in opposition to violence, condemning even stone--throwing, long a symbol of Palestinian resistance. Also unique: women in Budrus asked to march at the front of the protests, as did Israeli and international peace activists. All, analysts say, complicated the efforts of the Israeli security forces, which resorted to using force against unarmed women, foreign activists, and Israeli civilians. In the years since the wall was pushed back in Budrus, nonviolent protests have spread to dozens of other villages in the territories. Though only a small number of the roughly 2.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank are involved, participation has continued to increase, albeit slowly, and many of those involved—including the Israelis—have also been boycotting products from Jewish settlements. Though initially lukewarm, popular support among Palestinians has grown to such a level that elected officials from across the Palestinian political spectrum have been forced to embrace the idea, at least nominally. At a recent screening of Budrus in Ramallah, Bacha says, security officials for the Palestinian Authority at first refused to allow members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the building. That prompted Morrar, a member of Fatah who has often been at odds with his own party, to threaten a walkout. In the end, the PA acquiesced. Roughly 800 people watched the film. “I may be the most ardent critic of the ideology of Hamas,” Morrar says to the camera during the movie. “But they are ... able to sabotage the movement if they reject it.”
Despite these glints of promise, the film also reveals the movement’s stark limitations. At one point, after the border police surround Budrus and issue a curfew, women begin to hurl stones at Israelis. “Part of the challenge is explaining what nonviolent resistance means” on the West Bank, says Bacha. In other towns, that discipline has been even harder to maintain, and the peace marches have not always proved as successful as in Budrus. Despite years of protests and an Israeli court ruling to the contrary, the separation barrier in Bilin still cuts through Palestinian territory.
A recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicates that a majority of Palestinians do not want a return to armed struggle and continue to support nonviolence. Yet a majority also seem unconvinced that peaceful measures will work. Meanwhile, among Israelis, who continue to lean rightward, analysts say the movement is largely removed from the public eye, and skepticism remains about its viability. “I can’t see this sweeping the West Bank like a prairie fire,” says Benny Morris, a historian at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
Organizers remain undeterred. In the same way that popular images of Palestinians under siege managed to create international sympathy during the first intifada, leaders of the movement think Budrus can work in their favor as well. “Israelis won’t throw us into the sea, and we won’t throw them into the desert,” says Issam Aruri, a Palestinian human-rights worker from Ramallah. “Sooner or later we’ll reach this conclusion.”
A few days after a screening of Budrus in Wallajeh, a small village bordering Jerusalem, roughly 60 protesters—a mix of Palestinians, Israelis, and foreign activists—gather at a site where the fence is under construction. “Please do not throw stones,” organizers say in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. Within minutes, a jeep arrives and Israeli security guards in dark sunglasses jump out and ask the demonstrators to leave. No one moves. Soon, the Israeli border police appear, spraying the crowd with tear gas and yanking them by the hair. “No fists! I said no fists!” an Israeli commander yells, but a small child sitting in his father’s lap is struck in the head. Within a half hour, the activists are gone. Some have been arrested; most have been moved up a nearby hill. Under a hot sun, it is hard to tell who is more exhausted: the soldiers protecting the fence or the protesters inveighing against it.