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An evening in Bil’in: Some “implications” of non-violent, popular resistance
The Separation Wall running through Bil'in.Photo: AFSC / Lucy Duncan
Iyad Burnat speaking in front of the Separation WallPhoto: AFSC / Lucy Duncan
“If you've come here to help me, you're wasting your time. But if you've come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” ― Australian Aboriginal Elder Lilla Watson
Bil’in is a traditional Palestinian farming village in the West Bank of about 1,000 acres that is home to 1,900 people. When I first entered the village on our recent delegation to the region I was struck by two things.
The first was the disconcerting contrast between the beautifully rocky natural landscape of the village and the ominous presence of the giant man-made Separation Wall and militarized Israeli defense Force (IDF) towers that break up significant parts of this same landscape, now littered with rubber/lead bullets and empty tear gas canisters.
The other thing that stood out to me was the sense of unity and togetherness I saw among Bil’in villagers that are out taking care of their remaining land, engaging in the painstaking process of rebuilding their homes together, or resisting the occupation of Palestinian territory
Since 2005, a group of Bi’lin residents (called The “Popular Committee”) have been leading other residents & farmers and Israeli & international activists in weekly non-violent demonstrations to protest the consistent destruction of their land, olive trees, and way of life.
They do this in the face of constant tear gas attacks (not to mention night raids) from soldiers. The success of Bil’in ’s Popular Committee organizers in getting the Israeli Supreme Court to move the wall back (the only such victory against this injustice) has led other affected villages to form Popular Committees and engage in creative non-violent protests to secure their basic human rights under occupation.
(Read this interview for more on Bil'in)
On a moonlit May evening at the house of protest activist Iyad Burnat, nine AFSC colleagues and I broke bread with some Popular Committee leaders from Bi’lin and neighboring villages. These leaders have been at the forefront of building greater local and international support for challenging the on-going oppression and destruction wrought on their lands under the Israeli occupation.
I asked our new friends how they came to decide that non-violent direct action was the correct approach to securing the broader human rights that Palestinians have been struggling for since 1948. I won’t soon forget the answer that Bassem Tamimi, of Nabi Saleh, gave.
Bassem suggested that they have employed these tactics because they have proven to be effective; both internationally, and locally.
He also suggested that these tactics, as opposed to the well-documented violent resistance of the 2nd intifada, have two elements that open the door for more “popular resistance” against the occupation.
First, he noted that this method of resistance serves as a powerful symbol that Palestinians will never submit to occupation, even in the face of the fourth most powerful military in the world.
He also noted that these means had the effect of “implicating” the rest of the world by highlighting that this is not a war being fought between two nations. It is actually a major human rights struggle in which a more powerful group (with international backing) is directly oppressing a people who wish to live freely.
I was stirred by the notion of the “implications” of non-violent resistance to injustice, and there are two interrelated tasks I see emanating from these implications.
First, as a person of faith who has experienced oppression in different forms in the U.S., I knew that I could never forget the oppression and resistance that I saw there; or just view it as some disconnected issue half a world away happening to people I should feel sorry for. In particular, I was struck by the analysis of many who suggested that the Israeli government wants to take “the land without the people.”
I saw many connections between this approach and the devastating effects of what is tidily called “gentrification” in my community at home.
I also could not help but notice the way in which many young Palestinians were denied the right to a quality education or protection from harassment by the occupying Israeli forces. Looking into the eyes of these young people I felt as though I could see the same mix of youthful optimism and terror that I see on the faces of hundreds of youth I have worked with in oppressive, militarized communities in the U.S.
These connections, and innumerable others, helped me to see how much these seemingly disparate issues are actually wrapped up in a centuries-old global system of oppression and colonization that continues to shape the world we live in. I feel that becoming aware of these connections is a first step toward moving from sympathy to empathy; and, ultimately, to a sense of solidarity that is the beginning of principled “allyship” with any group suffering from insufferable conditions that you yourself are not confronted with every day.
Bassem also reminded us that Palestinians didn’t need our tears (the nearly daily tear gas attacks have caused them to shed plenty of their own)-- they need action. In this way, those of good will must find ways to move from the inertia of guilt for their relative privileges, to a place of action. In my mind’s eye, I began to envision what Bassem called a “global intifada” in which peace-seekers and lovers of justice around the world can find their place in a popular struggle, living out their principles through action.
This visioning helped me move away from any facile notions of what I can “do” grounded in my own often imperious desire to “help,” to a realization that the best course of action I can take is to listen carefully to what folks on the ground there are saying will be helpful to their cause (including joining the international call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against companies profiting from the Israeli occupation); and then reflect on what I can do to heed this call.
Bil'in and other sites of naked injustice and oppression are nearly impossible to forget once you have seen them up close. I will continue to wrestle with the implications of this visit for a long time and feel, as in the words of Paul in 1st Corinthians, that I can still only see them through “a glass, darkly.”
In the meantime, I will continue to seek discernment about how I can channel this inspiration into contemplative action that helps bring about a change in me so that I may work more effectively with others to try and change the world. I will also continue to be boundlessly thankful to my new friends in Bil'in that “implicated” me in their righteous cause.